Saturday, September 14, 2013

What is and what isn’t remembered on Yom Kippur

Afternoon , Friday, 13 September 2013. The eve of Yom Kippur . In the street outside the sound of the last cars is diminishing to silence. In a few hours we would hear the happy cries of children racing their bicycles in the center of the road. This is the secular Israeli Yom Kippur which has nothing to do with any Jewish tradition and no parallel in any Jewish community outside this country.  It came about accidentally, due to an odd compromise . Secular and traditional Israelis were willing to accept the demand of their religious fellow citizens: “Can’t you give up your cars, for at least one day in the year?" and so, without anybody planning it, the State of Israel got what environmentalists in Europe and America dream of. A Day Without Cars in which the bikes reign supreme even on the intercity highways. The bikes , and the roller skates, and skate boards,  and baby strollers pushed by mothers and grandmothers and young couples, and the old women quietly walking their dogs in the middle of the road. There are cars to be seen traveling there - but only the tiny toy cars driven by the swinging legs of enthusiastic kids. The Rabbis greatly disliked all this, and have firmly stated again and again bicycle riding is also a desecration of the Holy Day, and roller skates too. But it was too late, the Israelis just refused to listen.

Today could have looked completely different. We might have woken up this morning to a ceaseless stream of the radio news flashes of American Tomahawk missiles raining down on targets in Syria , and an endless debate among experts about whether or not Assad will retaliate by firing missiles at Israel. Right now, our ears would have been straining to hear air raid sirens which might sound any second, and mothers would have sternly warned their children not to dare leave the house , and the little bikes would have remain forgotten in a corner. In such a  situation we would most likely have been, had George W. Bush still been in the White House.

But  President Obama did not really want to stage a military attack, and he deliberately left open the option of a diplomatic solution. While his Presidential visit to Russia looked like a Cold War style direct confrontation, Vladimir Putin was given the time to suggest a dignified way out and prevent the attack which  no one in America really wanted. The sigh of relief could be heard from the White House and Capitol Hill and the American public at large and in fact from most of the world. Only In Israel did ​​the government and many of the commentators voice disappointment and criticism of Obama for not properly fulfilling his duties as a the policeman of the world.

"If I’m not for myself - who will be for me?" said Netanyahu, citing the ancient Rabbi Hillel (some said he grossly misrepresented the intent of one of the greatest of all Jewish sages). So, is Netanyahu worried that one who didn’t bomb Damascus in punishment for the use of gas probably is also not going to send American planes to destroy the Iranian nuclear project ? And does  Netanyahu intend to take this task upon himself and the Israeli Air Force? Meanwhile, in the short term the Prime Minister is going to hold at the UN General Assembly a verbal duel with the new Iranian president. Rohani is going to make a big effort to show to the world a moderate and compromising face. Netanyahu will try to convince everybody that he is cheating, but it will be difficult. Where is Ahmadinejad when you need him?

Meanwhile , Syria has come down from the headlines and Iran has not yet gotten into them, and the media focuses on the traumatic war of 1973,  exactly forty years ago now. Old battle stories come up and get published again, and there are some new disclosures . For example, that on war's second day  Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was filled with panic, felt that all was lost and contemplated using non conventional weapons ( What kind of weapons, exactly? This the now published diaries of General Bar Lev do not specify). And on the last day of the war, after cease-fire had already been declared, Dayan sent troops to conquer the city of Suez, without sufficient planning and preparation, in order  to “gain a prestigious achievement”. A prestigious achievement there was not, and eighty soldiers did not come back alive from the ambush into which they rushed head-on. Moshe Dayan, who had gained unprecedented fame and admiration in six days of war in 1967, lost everything in the three weeks of 1973. Also after him there were Israeli generals who successfully entered politics , but thank God none of them gained so much enthusiastic and blind support as Dayan had between 1967 and 1973.

Very many articles and discussion and commentaries about the fortieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War . And very few articles on the other anniversary which fell on this very day, the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords. The twentieth anniversary of the moment when Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn and I was sitting here in this room at this table and writing an article entitled "Hope Reborn” .  

Hope was indeed reborn then. There was then an atmosphere of enthusiasm and euphoria among Israelis and Palestinians alike, peace seemed at hand and its opponents were marginalized . An atmosphere which melted away and disappeared long since, buried under a huge pile of disappointments and frustrations and accusations and counter-accusations . And very  much bloodshed - three bullets which were fired at a square in the heart of Tel Aviv on the night of November 4, 1995, and buses exploding in Israeli cities, and a rain of bombs falling on Gaza, and a lot of smaller incidents of bloodshed now remembered only by the families of the dead Israelis and the dead Palestinians. And on both sides people say the "Peace? That’s impossible, they don’t want peace." They, the Palestinians, say the Israelis. They, the Israelis, the Palestinians say .

It happened that exactly on this week, the Twentieth Anniversary of Oslo which  few bother to remember, I had two very similar conversations with two people who have never met each other, though I know both of them quite well.

"These negotiations which the Americans began are not going anywhere" said G., owner of a small electrical appliances store in the center of Holon. "And if we get out of the Territories, what then? They will fire missiles at us, like after we left Gaza. Missiles on Tel Aviv, on Haifa, everywhere. Why give them a chance to do that? Peace? What peace? They will not honor any agreement , we have already seen what they are like." And N., a  Ramallah resident whose husband was involved in the First Intifada and who herself participated in many demonstrations against the occupation, told me :" What if there is an agreement ? Believe me, it will do nothing but make our situation worse. They will not give us a state with territorial contiguity. Not on your life! What could happen is that they will draw for us horrible borders, borders of strangulation. More checkpoints , more pressure, they will put us under siege as in Gaza. I don’t  want my girls to grow up in the same kind of horror as the children of Gaza ! Is that the agreement I am supposed to hope for? "

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed to Arab Foreign Ministers in Paris that the purpose of the negotiations is to reach a full agreement between Israel and the Palestinians within nine months. No partial agreement , nor an interim agreement , nor a "Palestinian state with provisional borders ," but a full, comprehensive peace agreement solving to mutual satisfaction all aspects of the conflict. To do that , he would have to pull a very big rabbit out of the hat...

Meanwhile, on September 13 - the Oslo anniversary - Israeli  troops escorted hundreds of settlers and Orthodox Jewish believers into the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus , in order to hold prayers at the holy site known as Joseph's Tomb . The entry of the settlers and the army into the refugee camp sparked off riots and clashes and stone throwing and shooting and several woundings. "The IDF is committed to the Freedom of Religious Worship ," said a military spokesman.  But Major Avi Ohayon, who commanded the escorting military force, revealed in an interview with the extreme-right newspaper "Makor Rishon" : "Jews have a deep spiritual experience here at the tomb of one of the Fathers of the Nation, and to the army this gives an opportunity to increase the military presence in Samaria. More than an entire battalion is involved in the accompaniment of the worshipers - regular troops , recon, reserve forces and intelligence. The more soldiers in this area, the better for the settlements’ security”.

Also this week the army closed the investigation regarding Bassem Abu Rahme, Bil'in resident who was killed in April 2009 when hit in the chest  by a tear gas canister during a demonstration against the Separation Fence. Three videos filmed during the demonstration proved that Abu Rahma had not used violence or endangered  the soldiers in any way , but they were not sufficient to identify any soldier who could be held responsible for his death and or stand trial for it.

Not so the case of Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner, who had hit a demonstrator from Denmark with his rifle butt and for whose guilt the footage from the event left no doubt. But he did get a plea bargain. He will do two months of community service, will not be promoted any further and retire from the army in a year and a half. Rightists made a loud outcry about this trial and claimed that this was “an abject surrender to Anarchists” and that it may deter officers from fulfilling their duties .

And then some good news from the courts - the verdict rendered in the libel suit filed by the movement “Im Tirzu” (“If You Will It”) movement. Members of this movement waged a widespread public campaign against the Human Rights groups and against theaters and cultural institutions and against anyone who they considered as not being sufficiently Zionist or Israeli patriotic. They demanded of the  universities in Israel to impose a Zionist and Israeli Patriotic control on the curriculum and lectures in the various faculties, especially in the Humanities, and to fire professors judged by them as to be non-Zionist or non-Patriotic or helping Israel's enemies. When the Hebrew Wikipedia defined “Im Tirzu” as  a right-wing organization, the organization so defined threatened to file a libel suit against the Wikipedia editors. And when eight young people organized a Facebook group called " If You Will It, a Fascist movement is here", the movement to whose name a reference was made did file for libel. After protracted and complicated proceedings, the court rejected seven of the eight libel charges, determining that there indeed existed certain parallels between the ideology and activities of “Im Tirzu” and those of Fascist movements . Only one charge was accepted by the judge, who ruled that no correlation was found between “Im Tirzu” and the Nazi race theory, and therefore asserting such was indeed libelous. One should not go too far.

Another good surprise: a hearing was concluded over an  incident which took place in the midst of the "Cast Lead” bombings in the  Gaza Strip. Specifically, on the early morning  hours of January 2, 2009,  beginning at 6:34 am, near the entrance to the Air Force base at Sde Dov in north Tel Aviv. As the indictment noted, "There was a gathering of nearly 20 young people there, including the defendants , [who came] to express protest at the IDF operation in Gaza. Most of them were dressed in white robes stained red and wearing masks on their faces, some carrying signs condemning the operation. Most participants lay down on the road or threw at soldiers standing at the gate flyers with the headline ‘War Crimes’.” According to the police, even if the whole thing lasted just a few minutes, but people "carried signs, on which were written harsh statements about the conduct of the IDF in Gaza, and wore provocative outfits designed to convey the message that the IDF was committing an improper massacre (sic) in Gaza and in this way they tried to inspire others to respond in ways which could have led to disturbing the peace”. Therefore, the police was justified in immediately arresting all of them, keeping them for several days in detention and prosecuting them. The Court, however, ruled otherwise this week, dismissing all charges and finding all defendants completely innocent.

A bit of encouragement towards protesting the next war…