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.