Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I Blog

I recently participated in a conference in Washington DC, on “The New Media and the Palestine Question: Blogging Out of Conflict,” sponsored by The Jerusalem Fund & The Palestine Center. 

There were two panels.  On the first, Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss and I spoke on the effects of blogging on the public debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; on the second panel Steve Walt and MJ Rosenberg discussed the effects of blogging on public policy.  You can view both panels in their entirety, here.

The following is the slightly amended and expanded text of my comments.

“The instructions to Adam and me were to provide a ten minute introduction about where and why we blog, what got us into it, why we blog about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and whether blogging should be considered activism or journalism, or both. I am not particularly comfortable in talking about myself, and I can see little reason why others should be interested in my personal story, but orders are orders, so I will briefly comply.

I began blogging last December. There are a growing number of excellent blogs that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as with U.S. policies towards Israel—especially, I may say, Mondoweiss—so it may well be asked what purpose a new one would have. My hope was that, as an academic who had been teaching and writing about this matter for over forty years, I could provide an historical perspective that complements both activism and journalism.

In particular, I think that there is a gap—and an unnecessary gap—between shorter daily comments that quickly react to recent events, and long articles written for professional journals. My hope is to bridge this gap, by writing shorter essays, principally in the 4000-5000 word range, based on research and scholarship—mine, or others—but aimed at general audiences, not written in academic prose, and reasonably closely tied to current events, instead of appearing two years later, if at all, in a professional journal. As an example, a couple of months after the publication of the Goldstone report, I wrote two fairly long analyses of it.

In addition, from time to time, when some especially outrageous event occurs, or a noxious rightwing article is published, or a typically misleading and half-truthy New York Times story appears, I am unable to resist commenting on it, in shorter pieces more typical of the blogging world.

The problem with my type of blog, of course, is that it doesn’t appear on any regular or predictable basis—unlike, say, Mondoweiss and Steve Walt, both of which I read every day-- so it will be difficult to gain a regular readership. However, there is a terrific feature of most blogging programs, including mine, which allows interested readers to sign up to be notified by email when a new blog appears. So you don’t have to check it every day.

So why do I blog on this particular issue? Over the course of my life, I’ve gone through three phases on Israel. Coming of age in New York City in the 1940s, immediately after the Holocaust, and with anti-Semitism still alive in America, I thought of myself as a fervent Zionist. I guess in a sense I still am something of a Zionist, although a lot less fervent, since I regarded the case for the creation of a Jewish state, if nothing else than as a refuge for persecuted Jews, as a compelling one—though not necessarily in Palestine, a land already populated by the Palestinian Arabs. 

How to resolve that moral dilemma is a complex matter that is beyond the scope of these brief comments.  However, in light of the history of the Jewish people, perhaps the most basic rationale of Zionism is still not to be dismissed, however much it has been betrayed by Israel.

From 1957-60 I served as the anti-submarine warfare officer on a U.S. destroyer. Some years later Egypt bought four submarines from the Soviet Union. Since I was still in my first phase as a fervent Zionist, I wrote to the Israeli Embassy and offered to serve as an anti-submarine warfare officer on an Israeli destroyer, in the event a new war broke out with Egypt before the Israelis could train their own people.

However, at about this same time my views began to change, as a result of three factors.  First, I began serious study of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as opposed to its mythology.  How anyone can continue to believe in this mythology, after at least twenty years of its decisive refutation, principally by Israeli historians and journalists, is beyond me.  Well, not really beyond me—among most Israelis and American Jews, sad to say, there is an invincible need not to know.

Second, it became apparent that soon after the 1967 War, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and then his successor Anwar Sadat, were seeking to end the conflict, but were being stonewalled by Israel. I felt like writing to Golda Meir and saying that if Israel blundered into an unnecessary war with Egypt—which, of course, it soon did—she should consider my offer as cancelled.

Third, in 1977 Foreign Affairs published George Ball’s famous article, “How to Save Israel In Spite of Herself.” It had a profound influence on me. These three factors impelled me into my Tough Love phase, hoping that truth-telling would eventually convince the Israelis, and the American Jewish community, that Israel was on the road to both a moral and security disaster, and needed to come to terms with the historical truth as the first step, actually the sine qua non, of saving itself.

But in the last few years—and this is hard to admit, let alone to say out loud—I no longer believe that Tough Love can work. I do not love Israel—as opposed, of course, to the many wonderful and courageous Israelis who still resist what their country has become.  Moreover, I no longer think Israel can be saved from itself—and certainly not if the American Jewish community, with its enormous influence on U.S. policies, continues to believe in the long-discredited mythologies.

In short, Israel is no longer on the road to a moral and security disaster, it is already there, and I see no realistic prospect that it can reverse course. It is hard to see how a two-state solution can be reached, and the one-state “solution” is no solution at all, but a fantasy which if somehow actually materialized, could well be even worse than the present situation.

So why bother to continue to write about it? Part of the reason is illustrated by this story. One day the governor was touring the state mental institution and he came across a man who was completely naked, except that he had on an elegant top hat and beautiful black dress shoes. “Why do you run around naked,” the governor asked? “What’s the difference,” the man responded, “no one ever comes to see me.” Then why the top hat and dress shoes, asked the governor?” “Somebody might,” was the response.

In that spirit, I now write in the forlorn hope that truth and justice might yet prevail, despite my deep pessimism. But equally or perhaps more so, I also now write in the spirit of “Not in my Name.” If you are a completely secular Jew, like me, it is hard to see what the point is of being Jewish if not to uphold the best values of western civilization.

Today that seems quaint, if not downright preposterous—but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when it was widely accepted—and not just by Jews--that the Jewish culture and tradition was one that was particularly committed to reason, truth, and justice. Consequently, when Israel was founded, and committed itself to be “A light unto the Nations,” it was widely believed that it might indeed fulfill this promise. 

No longer, needless to say. The appropriate response to what Israel has become is outrage. So maybe that’s the main reason why I continue to bang my head on the wall.

Finally, is this activism or journalism, or both? I don’t know, but as a lifelong academic, I prefer to think of it as scholarship in the best sense: the search for knowledge, reason, truth, and justice.

16 comments:

Richard Witty said...

You made a good impression. You were thoughtful articulate, assertive without being dismissive or offensive.

I enjoyed hearing you face to face.

Anonymous said...

Jerry: Why is "the one-state 'solution'...no solution at all, but a fantasy which if somehow actually materialized, could well be even worse than the present situation"? Another name for OSS is Democracy, as it's called in South Africa. Perhaps SA's Democracy has been devastated economically by the neoliberalism it has embraced, but I don't think that's the kind of disaster you have in mind. What DO you mean?

Sincerely, A Post-Zionist Jew-In-Law

Jerome Slater said...

Anonymous: Why "anonmyous? This is a perfectly reasonable and courteous comment, why not identify yourself?

It's a fantasy because there isn't the slightest chance that the Israelis will accept it, and they have the power to prevent it from occurring. Even if they did, they would continue to repress the Palestinians, and if the Palestinians resisted, you would have either minority tyranny or civil war. It's simply a non-starter: all the factors that prevent a two-state solution would be enormously exacerbated by a one-state solution.

By why try to figure out what would happen? It's never going to happen.

I'm sure you understand that I do not oppose the idea--far from it, it would be genuine democracy, as you say. But to focus on what would be an unachievable utopia (a one-state genuine democracy) can only lessen the already dim prospects for a non-utopian but good-enough solution, two states for two peoples.

Jim Donnellan said...

This one blew me away. I was just finishing up a slide presentation for local access TV here on the Cape. The conclusion will invoke selected lines from the folksong "blowin in the wind". I was looking for a way to address the American Jewish community and AIPAC by raising some questions. I would love to front those lines by quoting a good part of what you wrote, if that's alright by you. You have said what has been on my mind for a long time, and you have said it powerfully. It appears to me that the American Jewish community has taken leave of its once vaunted ability to analyze a problem from multiple points of view. It has chosen to be brain dead when it comes to Israel. Every time I have attended meetings in the wealthier synagogues, I have walked away shaking my head, trying to understand why anyone would believe such obvious falsehoods. Then, to hear the same mantras repeated by the likes of Michael Oren makes one feel like a visitor from another planet.

Again thank you. You brought a moment of sanity to an insane situation.

Anonymous said...

JS:

My previous anonymity was blognorance, not secretiveness. None of the (to me) cryptic Comment as "profiles" seems to apply. So I'll again choose "Anonymous" but sign my name in the body.

We already have a single state encompassing all of Palestine. As you yourself admit, the obstacles to re-partitioning into two states are overwhelming. A substantial part of Palestinian civil society now sees resistance to occupation not as a struggle for sovereignty but as a struggle for equal rights (the three principles underlying the BDS movement, for example). A small but growing (and disproportionately influential) cohort of post-Zionist older Jews (you, for example) and non-Zionist younger Jews (Emily Henocowitz, Anna Baltzer, etc.) agree. Does Zionist Israeli leadership really have the power to prevent democracy? and still remain the "start-up nation" utterly dependent on its deep economic integration itno a European Union that is becoming alarmingly disgusted with its behavior? I could see Israel's governing elite recognizing that continuation of the apartheid state is too costly economically. Unlike the Nationalists in South Africa, however, the Jewish elite wouldn't lose all their political power if they accede to democracy. Palestinian political leadership is woefully fragmented and weak (thanks mostly to Israeli policy), and no match even for the chaotic Israeli leadership. Even so, the repression that would be possible in an imperfect democracy would surely not be nearly as bad as what occurs routinely today. In any case, that seems to be the judgement of the Palestinian equal rights movement.

George P. Smith, the no-longer anonymous Post-Zionist Jew-in-law

Jerome Slater said...

George:

You make the case, but I remain dubious that either the Israelis or most Palestinians (even if you exclude Hamas and its supporters, which you can't) will support an equal-rights-within-one-state solution. Or that even if they did, it would work.

Roadie in Vancouver said...

A common thread I see among "leftist" Jews. I loved Israel, I became lukewarm to Israel, I practiced Tough Love with them, now I despise them and support those who wish them harm.

You classify the 7 million or so Israelis as similar to patients of a mental institution, none of them capable like you of knowing what they face and what they need to do. They are imbeciles, but you and a handful of other so-called Progressive Jews have all the answers. What could Barak and Netanyahu etc know better what Israel is facing and what it needs to do than Jerome Slater? The vast majority of Jews support Israel, but they must all be imbeciles too, right.

Jerome Slater said...

Good thinking, Roadie. It's a known fact that political leaders always know what's best for their people--that's why Hitler was so good for Germany and Stalin for the Soviet Union. Both of whom, incidentally, usually had majority support in their own countries.

Roadie in Vancouver said...

Kind of figured you would go that next step and compare Israeli leaders to Hitler and Stalin. Israelis don't know who are their leaders and what they are and aren't but you do.

Funny, you didn't respond to my note about you comparing Israelis to residents of a mental institution.

So typical of you so-called Progressive Jews, you know it all, the rest of us are blind followers of Hitler and Stalin types.

I am a proud Zionist who served in the Israeli Defence Forces and would do so again in a flash. Kapos like you and Richard Silverstein are to me just as bad as Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah

Jim Donnellan said...

Roadie,

I'm not sure what the source is of your anger. Are you suggesting that anyone who looks at the history of Israel and comes to different conclusions from yours is as bad as you deem Islamic jihad and Hezbollah to be?

And if that is the case, are you suggesting that they have misread the history; that is, that Israel has done nothing wrong and that it is the innocent victim of Arab hatred and intolerance?

Do I have that right?

Jerome Slater said...

Dear Readers:

I made a rookie mistake by responding to an incoherent and rageful commentator who is incapable of understanding or at least honestly stating the argument he thinks he is responding to. It's a mistake I won't make again, but I will indulge myself in one last observation: Astoundingly, Roadie thinks the point of my anecdote about the governor and the mental patient was to accuse Israelis of being insane. Will somebody be so kind as to explain it to him?

cogit8 said...

JS, you wrote "It is hard to see how a two-state solution can be reached, and the one-state “solution” is no solution at all, but a fantasy which if somehow actually materialized, could well be even worse than the present situation."

If it quacks, acts, walks, and talks like a duck, then it is a duck. I would submit that the present situation is already one state, one very repressive state. As Daniel McGowan said: “Within the current borders controlled by Israel (including pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights) there is in fact a single state. It has one electrical grid, one water system, one currency, one major highway system, one postal service, and one external border. Goods and people entering this de facto state come through harbors, airports, and a restricted number of crossings. Bills of lading and passports are checked and stamped by officials of this single state.”

Would you refute this reasoning, and do you understand why non-Jews clearly see it this way?

Jerome Slater said...

Hi, cogit8:

I don't doubt that Israel is a repressive state--certainly for the Palestinians, and plenty of signs it has started to head in that direction vis-a-vis dissenting Israelis as well. And, of course, McGowan is mostly right about who has control of key institutions, borders, etc. But the one-state solution implies a fully democratic state, with equal rights, full citizenship, and so on for the Palestinians--and that the Israelis will never allow. Indeed, it is far from clear that most Palestinians would want that either--certainly not Hamas, and probably not Palestinian nationalists, who I doubt would be really willing to give up their dream of a full Palestinian state. And surely not if they expect--almost certainly rightly so--that they would be, at most, second-class "citizens" within a single Jewish-Palestinian state.

Finally, not only do I understand why non-Jews see the realities of the present situation, so do an increasing number of Jews.

Richard Witty said...

There is a path to a single state but it is frought with ironies for those that come to the view fundamentally from a dissenting approach.

1. Encourage mutual sympathy for the others' culture and lives
2. Development of cultural, academic, ecological, trade, legal relationships between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians AND their institutions
3. Adopt rule of law in a color-blind manner, applying primarily individual rights (civil/human rights, but also color-blind property rights, including to land)
4. Establishment of moderate non-nationalist political parties in Israel and Palestine.

The ONLY condition that a single state results in genuine consent of the governed is where civilist (non-nationalist) parties achieve a controlling super-majority of the electorate. (or those parties for whom their nationalism is secondary, that would consent to a civilist government).

That is the path. There are large constituencies in both Israel and Palestine that would endorse primarily and accept leadership of civilist approach. They include certainly those that come to this from human rights perspective, but also those that are fundamentally commercialist seeking the best talent and markets.

Even some ultra-religious understand and endorse the separation of church and state to the extent that they would regard a genuinely moral and legal civil government as preferable to a corrupt Jewish government.

The irony though to achieve the creation of civilist parties, is that it requires clarification or rejection of BDS, and the rejection of Palestinian solidarity approach.

Those are red flags that convey to Israel and Israelis that their proponents don't mean to endorse a civil society, but a Palestinian nationalist.

cogit8 said...

Jerome, you replied "But the one-state solution implies a fully democratic state, with equal rights, full citizenship, and so on for the Palestinians--and that the Israelis will never allow. Indeed, it is far from clear that most Palestinians would want that either--certainly not Hamas, and probably not Palestinian nationalists, who I doubt would be really willing to give up their dream of a full Palestinian state." OK, we then seem to have a disagreement over whether the words "one state" can be applied to the existing situation. I believe Israel was not careful and got what it wished for: full control of Palestine from the sea to the river. This to me is a de facto state, however flawed and covered with warts.
More and more people are coming around to the point of view that Israel is mistreating her captive Palestinian population and should give them basic civil-rights. This is a more enlightened view than the "us against them" view which most Jews agree with and support through orgs like AIPAC. I had hopes that President Obama would be able to change the debate to one based on "Basic Rights for Peace and Security". All he had to do was point out that if all the "settlements" are inside the State of Israel, then so are those millions of Palestinians.
I also think the world is getting very tired of Israel lashing out every few years and wrecking the neighborhood.

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