Thursday, October 30, 2014

On the Other Hand…

In my post yesterday I commented—as have many others—that the real “political coward” is Obama, not Netanyahu.  In this morning’s Haaretz, the indispensable (and amazingly courageous) Gideon Levy writes that the real political coward is Obama, who by abandoning the Palestinians and continuing all forms of support to Israel is going against his real views, whereas Netanyahu is at least acting according to his real views. 


The problem with the argument that Obama is a political coward—which at one level, as illustrated in my post yesterday, I obviously share—is that it doesn't address the other other level, which creates a terrible dilemma: it isn't Obama that would suffer political consequences if he exercised real pressure on Israel, but the rest of us.  Meaning that as long as a large majority of the American Jewish community will not support serious U.S. pressures on Israel, the electoral consequences of defying that community--i.e. losing Jewish money and votes--could be an even stronger Republican majority in Congress, for that matter even in a close Presidential election.   And that's not an Obama disaster, it's our disaster.


The dilemma cannot be resolved without a major change in the views of the American Jewish community, which is why I have always regarded that community as the most important audience for critical analyses of Israeli policies. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Obama’s Political Courage

In a current Atlantic article, Jeffrey Goldberg writes about “the current crisis in US-Israeli relations.”  Leading U.S. officials told Goldberg that they consider Netanyahu to be “chickenshit,” repeatedly caving into the extreme Israeli right, including officials in his cabinet.  As well, in an earlier Goldberg interview with Obama, the president said that Netanyahu "lacks political courage." 

By contrast, Obama has shown great political courage: ignoring the Israel Lobby, Congress, the Jewish vote, and the probable electoral consequences, he has used his full powers, including open threats to end all U.S. political, diplomatic, economic, and military support of Israel unless it ends the occupation and allows the creation of a viable Palestinian state. 


As anyone with any understanding of the realities knows, such steps are the only way to end Israeli intransigence, do justice to the Palestinians, reduce the Islamic terrorist threat to the U.S., and save Israel from itself.  Kudos to Obama for understanding this, acting on that understanding, and courageously disregarding the U.S domestic politics of the issue. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Has the New York Times Editorial Board Finally Decided To Tell the Truth About the I-P Conflict? No.

A New York Times editorial this morning, “Having to Rebuild Gaza, Again,” begins promisingly, reciting the destructiveness of the Israeli attack on Gaza and then asking what’s the point of rebuilding Gaza through international contributions “just so it can be destroyed in the next war?”

Even more promisingly, the editorial continues: “Even during times of relative peace, Gazans have endured soul-crushing deprivation” as a result of the Israeli and Egyptian “draconic blockade.” While the goal of the blockade is to “squeeze Hamas,” the editorial concedes, “innocent people have paid a much bigger price.”

Surely the Times is about to argue that Israel must end the blockade, end the overall occupation and repression of the Palestinian people, and agree to a two-state settlement? But no: the word “occupation” does not appear and the emphasis in the rest of the editorial is on what Abbas must do: “work much harder to assert leadership in Gaza and present himself to the Palestinians there as a credible political alternative to Hamas” as well as end corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

To be sure, the editorial does conclude that the “only long-term answer to a destructive militant group like Hamas is to empower moderates and give Palestinians hope of a constructive future…[leading to] a comprehensive peace settlement and an independent state.” But as for why this has not yet occurred, the editorial says only that the previous negotiations for such a settlement “collapsed and show no sign of reviving.”

As to which side is responsible for the “collapse,” the editorial is silent. Similarly, as to which side is responsible for the destruction of Gaza, and for the likelihood of it being repeated in “the next war,” the editorial is also silent. It would appear these are simply acts of nature.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Democracies Get the Governments They Deserve-- Alexis de Tocqueville

Two days ago 43 members of the Israeli army’s military intelligence unit (Unit 8200), mainly staffed by what are considered to be the “elite” of Israeli military recruits, signed an open letter to Netanyahu and military leaders, saying they would refuse to continue to serve. The “intelligence” they collected, they charged, was not only for genuine security purposes but was directed against ordinary Palestinian civilians, especially to coerce them into collaborating with the occupation. As a Haaretz editorial summed up the letter, the information the unit was collecting was used “for political persecution, to recruit informers and to extort them by various means, including exploiting the sexual orientation, illnesses and distress of innocent Palestinians.”

Since these practices obviously reflect high Israeli policy, one might expect that the leaders of the government and the military would seek to deflect the charges with standard government lies—for example, by saying that the charges would be “investigated,” even though of course they wouldn’t be. Not Netanyahu, however: as has been the case throughout his entire career, ordinary lies are not sufficient. What he said was that the charges were “baseless slander,” directed at “the most moral army in the world.” There’s a well-known psychological term for such lies: “psychopathic.” Alternatively, when other governments in other times told those kind of lies, they were known as “The Big Lie Technique.” Draw your own comparisons.

To be sure, Netanyahu was not alone. As a Haaretz editorial put it: “A near wall-to-wall coalition, from the Labor Party to the extreme right, vied over which could condemn its signatories more harshly.” A former head of Unit 8200 said that they should be investigated “in the interrogation rooms of the Shin Bet security service or the investigations unit of the Military Police.” Given the well-known “interrogation” methods of Israel, he was essentially saying they should be tortured.

As for how Israeli society as a whole has reacted, the great Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy wrote the following: "The radio and television stations rocked with laughter. The commentators vied with each other for adjectives: 'scandalous,' 'negligible,' 'spoiled brats' and, worst of all, 'politicos' and 'lefties' No one came to the defense of a group of people who, until Thursday, were a source of pride."

    The Israeli government and military aside, then, evidently very few Israelis are interested in the grave charges of the Unit 8200 dissidents.  Per de Tocqueville: in the Israeli democracy (such as it is) the people have the government they deserve.

Monday, September 8, 2014

On the Uses of Provocative Analogies

 

Soon after Israel’s sweeping victory in the 1967 war with Egypt and Syria, it became clear that rather than returning the territory it conquered, Israel intended to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and much of the Golan Heights. Foreseeing where occupation might lead, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of Israel’s most prominent and acclaimed public intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists—and an Orthodox Jew---warned that if the occupation and the repression that enforced it continued, Israel would be in danger of succumbing to “Judeo-Nazism.”

How has that prediction turned out? Until recently it has been unthinkable in Israel to suggest comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians-- at least in writing. With the latest attacks on Gaza, however, the criminality of the Israel occupation has become so extreme that among some Israeli dissidents that barrier is starting to break down: although usually couched in very careful language, allusions to Nazi Germany are unmistakable.

Most remarkably, last month 327 Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors published an anything but allusive letter in the New York Times that clearly compares the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. Here are the key excerpts.

As Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of the Nazi genocide we unequivocally condemn the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine. ….Genocide begins with the silence of the world.

We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch. In Israel, politicians and pundits ….have called openly for genocide of Palestinians and right-wing Israelis are adopting Neo-Nazi insignia…..We are disgusted and outraged by….Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.

We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. We call for an immediate end to the siege against and blockade of Gaza. We call for the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. “Never again” must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE.

Although exceptionally powerful and moving—and as immune from the charge that it is “anti-Semitic” as it is possible to imagine—the question still remains: is it accurate? Has Leibowitz’s famous prediction come true? Not quite: things are really bad, but not that bad.

Even though a good deal of what Leibowitz feared and predicted has either already occurred or is well on the road to occurring, the term Nazism is still much too strong. On the other hand, it is increasingly common for Leibowitz’s successors today—the Israeli philosophers, academicians, journalists, writers and even ordinary citizens who despair of their country—to use the term “fascism” to describe the dominant trends in Israel.

Fascism is not the same as Nazism which represents, on a scale of 1-100, absolute evil. Israel, of course, doesn’t come close, obviously not in its internal policies—though its claim to be a true democracy is increasingly in question. Even its policies towards the Palestinians are not comparable to Nazism, for they are obviously not “genocidal” or anywhere near it. After all, even after the Nakba—the violent expulsion from Israel/Palestine, accompanied by a number of massacres, of some 750,000 Arabs in 1948--hundreds of thousands of other Arabs were allowed to remain in Israel.

Of course, since 1948 this Israeli Arab minority has faced economic, social, and political discrimination--but nothing remotely on the order of what European Jews faced under Nazi Germany. And even when Israel repeatedly attacks Gaza (or, earlier, the West Bank), its intentions are clearly not to wipe out the Palestinian people—which it certainly has the technological capability of doing. It is sufficient for Israel’s purposes merely to impose great suffering on the Palestinians, so as to deter or crush any resistance to Israel’s ongoing colonization of Jerusalem and the West Bank and the continuing repression not just of Hamas but of the Gazan people as a whole.

Consider the full range of the Israeli repression of Gaza in the last ten years, even in addition to the two massive military attacks--“Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09 and the recent “Operation Protective Edge”-- that killed several thousand Palestinian civilians (including hundreds of women and children) and wreaked enormous damage to the economy, civil infrastructures, and even thousands of private homes and apartment houses in Gaza. Beyond that are the years of assassinations of Palestinian activists and periodic attacks on Gazan government institutions, transportation and communications networks, roads and bridges, electrical generation plants and power lines, industrial facilities, fuel depots, sewage plants, water storage tanks, and various food production systems, including farmlands, orchards, greenhouses, and fishing boats.

In addition to these military attacks, Israel has imposed an economic blockade or siege on Gazan trade and commerce. Although the blockade has eased somewhat since 2010, Israel continues to prevent Gaza from exporting its goods and products to other countries, severely restricts Palestinian drinking and agricultural water, places substantial restrictions on the use of electrical power (mostly imported from Israel), and often prevents farmers from reaching their lands and orchards and fishermen from fully plying their trade.

Finally, even in the West Bank, where nearly all violent Palestinian resistance has ended, the Palestinian people continue to be occupied, to suffer grave economic damage from that occupation, and in a variety of ways to be humiliated, reminded on a daily basis of their powerlessness. Even nonviolent resistance is either ignored or violently crushed by Israel, increasingly by deadly force.

Given these undeniable facts, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that while far short of Nazism, Israel is well on its way to fascism and to be widely regarded as an international outcast, indeed a criminal one. And it is not just the behavior of the Israeli state that is criminal, for the actions of the state are wholeheartedly supported by a large majority of the Israeli Jewish population—indeed, far more Israelis demand even greater Israeli violence and repression than deplore it.

In this light, if we compare Israel’s behavior to the Palestinians, not to the full range of Nazism but to Nazi Germany’s occupation of European countries, is it really the case that the comparisons or analogies are outrageous? One way to approach this question is to reexamine the question of what constitutes legitimate self-defense.

After both Cast Lead and Protective Edge, even strong critics of the scale of those Israeli attacks have typically argued that “of course, Israel has the right to defend itself” from Hamas rocket attacks, but its response has been “excessive” or “disproportionate.” That criticism is far too weak: aggressor states have no “right of self defense” when it is their criminality that has provoked violent resistance—and that holds true even if their response is somehow “proportionate.” In any case, throughout its history Israel has engaged in massively and deliberately “disproportionate” attacks on Arab (and not merely Palestinian) civilians, their homes, their businesses, their economy, and their civil infrastructures.

Consequently, some analogies are appropriate. For example, suppose the French resistance to the German occupation in the 1940s, lacking any other effective means, had sent rockets into Berlin, resulting in German “retaliation” that killed hundreds or thousands of French civilians. Would the Germans have been acting in “self-defense,” although—regrettably—in a “disproportionate” manner?

To be sure, comparing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians with Nazi Germany’s occupation of Europe is risky, for it will surely be seen, even by many critics of Israel, as “counterproductive,” resulting in an outraged rejection of all legitimate criticisms of Israeli behavior. And it is also the case that less provocative analogies can make the same point: for example, suppose Hungarian groups, lacking any other means of resisting the Soviet invasion of 1956, had fired rockets into Moscow: would the Soviets then have had the right of massive retaliation in the name of “self-defense?” The problem with the hypothetical Soviet-Hungarian analogy, however, is that it doesn’t have the same impact as the Nazi-French Resistance one, and would therefore be less likely to result in a productive shock of recognition in Israel and among its friends. After all, even the most severe criticism of Israel can hardly be counterproductive, in light of the fact that nothing else has proven to be productive. That is not to deny that any even limited or hypothetical analogies to Nazi Germany are risky. Nonetheless, because Israel has gone so far down the road to fascism (not Nazism), the risks must be run-- desperate times require desperate measures.

A final observation. Handwringing and ineffectual critics of the massive Israeli military attacks on Gaza five years ago and again last month ask: but how else can Israel respond to Hamas terrorism? It is a sign of the ignorance and poverty of discourse in this country concerning Israel’s behavior that this question even is asked. It ought not to be necessary to spell out the obvious, but evidently it is: end the occupation, end the repression, let the Palestinians have their own state. But what if Palestinian attacks continue, which in those circumstances could no longer be considered as resistance? Then--and only then-- Israel would have a true right of self-defense.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Rudoren Responds

As requested by some, here are Rudoren's responses to my chastisement, in their entirety (she has given me permission to publish her emails to me, or I would not do so):

Rudoren:

It looks like you did not read the whole story.  Every sentence can't say every thing. That one was about israeli Jews' aspirations

Palestinian yearning for end to occupation was a few down (original draft has them side by side but structure changed)

Slater:

I read the whole story.  You are referring to this sentence:  "Gaza residents, and the broader Palestinian public, yearn, primarily, for freedom from Israeli restrictions on the crowded coastal territory (and in the West Bank) and the establishment of a sovereign Palestine."
It is hard for me to believe that you really think the term "Israeli restrictions" is an adequate description of the reality of 47 years Israeli occupation, extensive repression, blockades, deliberate impoverishment, assassinations, repeated military attacks, including on civilians and the economy and societal institutions, and so an, ad nauseum.
I thought in the beginning you might be a significant improvement over the egregious Ethan Bronner, but except for some  apparently heartfelt descriptions of the effects of the recent attacks on Palestinians, you have repeatedly failed in your responsibilities to tell the truth about Israeli policies.  That includes your recent story in which you reported as if it was a proven fact that it is Hamas that was responsible for the ongoing conflict.  I wrote about this on my blog: 
http://www.jeromeslater.com/2014/08/jodi-rudoren-loves-winner.html

For shame.

Rudoren:

That, and then the whole discussion of Abbas initiative. Etc. 

 

I'll not take this any further--she needs to hear from others.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Jodi Rudoren Incapable of Learning ANYTHING?

Here is an email I just sent to Jodi Rudoren of the NY Times:

 
In your news story today, "50 Days of War Leave Israelis and Palestinians Only More Entrenched," you wrote:   "The vast majority of Israeli Jews want, most of all, to feel safe, physically, and to secure the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy." 


No mention of the fact that Israel occupies and represses the Palestinians, and that this might have something to do with Palestinian attacks that make Israelis feel unsafe.


No mention of the fact that the Palestinians, who by orders of magnitude are far more threatened than the Israelis, no doubt also want to feel safe and have a democracy of their own.


No mention of the fact that the Israeli Palestinians--let alone the residents of the occupied territories to whom Israel has no intention of granting democracy--have a problem with the concept of a "Jewish democracy."


No mention of the fact that even democracy for the Jews--if they are "leftists," of course--is increasingly threatened.


In short,  That one sentence is either breathtakingly stupid, or a piece of shameless Hasbara worthy of Netanyahu himself. 

1944: "The vast majority of Germans want, most of all, to feel safe."
Jerome Slater

Friday, August 22, 2014

Jodi Rudoren Loves a Winner

On July 20, Gideon Levy of Haaretz—if current trends continue, Levy may be the last sane man in Israel—published an oped entitled “What Does Hamas Really Want?” He wrote:

“Last week 10 conditions were published in the name of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for a 10-year cease-fire. Hamas and Islamic Jihad demand freedom for Gaza. Is there a more understandable and just demand? Read the list of demands and judge honestly whether there is one unjust demand among them: withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops and allowing farmers to work their land up to the fence; release of all prisoners from the Gilad Shalit swap who have been rearrested; an end to the siege and opening of the crossings; opening of a port and airport under UN management; expansion of the fishing zone; international supervision of the Rafah crossing; an Israeli pledge to a 10-year cease-fire and closure of Gaza’s air space to Israeli aircraft; permits to Gaza residents to visit Jerusalem and pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque; and an Israeli pledge not to interfere in internal Palestinian politics such as the unity government; opening Gaza’s industrial zone.”

In the second lead story in this morning’s New York Times, “Israel Kills 3 Top Hamas Leaders As the Latest Fighting Turns Its Way,” Jodi Rudoren begins:

“Hamas is the party that keeps extending this summer’s bloody battle in the Gaza Strip, repeatedly breaking temporary truces and vowing to endlessly fire rockets into Israel until its demands are met. But the latest round of fighting appears to have given Israel the upper hand in a conflict that has already outlasted all expectations and is increasingly becoming a war of attrition.”

Rudoren then interviews three prominent former Israeli officials, beginning with Michael Oren, a shameless propagandist for Netanyahu, an “historian” whose writing and public statements are invariably thoroughly disingenuous. Rudoren quotes him:

“There’s a longstanding conventional wisdom that Israel doesn’t do well in wars of attrition,” said Michael B. Oren, an Israeli historian and a former ambassador to the United States. “That overlooks a broader historical view that Israel’s entire existence has been a war of attrition, and we’ve won that war.”

Later in the story Rudoren interviews two other pillars of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment:

“These [the assassinated Hamas leaders] are senior people,” said Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli brigadier general and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “People in Gaza know exactly who they are, people in Israel know exactly who they are. In our bilateral context, it resonates strongly.”

“Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence [said]….We’re now going to a war of attrition that was a threat of Hamas. Israel basically turned it upside down and said, ‘You want attrition? You are welcome. …Our firepower and our intelligence and our capability to sustain more days is much bigger than yours.’ This is the strategy.”

“There are growing calls for a more aggressive ground invasion," Rudoren continues, "which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted, and intense opposition to the idea of making concessions in a cease-fire agreement that might seem to reward Hamas.”

Rudoren apparently did not interview any Israeli opponents of “Operation Protective Edge.”

.......

 

I have tried to imagine how Jodi Rudoren would have covered the French Resistance attacks on the Nazi German occupiers of Paris in June 1940. I’m assuming that after France surrendered and Paris was occupied, the primary reason that there wasn’t a “peace,” of sorts, is that the Resistance didn’t give up, “demanding” the end of the occupation.

So, in my imagined past this how Rudoren might have covered the ongoing battle in a lead New York Times news story dated August 22, 1940, “Germany Kills 3 Top Resistance Leaders As the Latest Fighting Turns Its Way.”

The story begins: “The Resistance is the party that keeps extending this summer’s bloody battle in Paris, repeatedly breaking temporary truces and vowing to endlessly attack Nazi Germany until its demands are met. But the latest round of fighting appears to have given Germany the upper hand in a conflict that has already outlasted all expectations and is increasingly becoming a war of attrition.”

“There’s a longstanding conventional wisdom that Germany doesn’t do well in wars of attrition,” said Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of Germany. “That overlooks a broader historical view that Germany’s entire existence has been a war of attrition, and we’ve won that war.”

“These [Jean Moulin and other Resistance leaders killed by Germany] are senior people,” said Alfred Yodl, a leading German general: “People in France know exactly who they are, people in Germany know exactly who they are. In our bilateral context, it resonates strongly.”

“Reinhard Heydrich, a high official in German military intelligence said….We’re now going to a war of attrition that was a threat of the Resistance: Germany basically turned it upside down and said, ‘You want attrition? You are welcome. …Our firepower and our intelligence and our capability to sustain more days is much bigger than yours.’ This is the strategy.

“There are growing calls for a more aggressive ground invasion," Rudoren continued,  "which Chancellor Adolph Hitler has resisted, and intense opposition to the idea of making concessions in a cease-fire agreement that might seem to reward the Resistance.”

......

 

Stepping back into the present:  For many years I have resisted drawing parallels between Nazi Germany's occupation and repression of European countries and Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians.  Lately, however, more and more Israeli and American critics (like, for example, Henry Siegman) have started to do so; and it is likely that such comparisons will increasingly be made. It ought to be blindingly obvious that anyone calling attention to some parallels are hardly suggesting that Israel is equivalent to Nazi Germany--only idiots would think that. 

So, to make the obvious explicit, Israel is not Nazi Germany, and murder is not genocide.  What a relief!   That there should be any parallels between the Israeli and German occupations, however, is staggering, and proof of the moral collapse of Israel.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Correction

A terrible error in this passage in my Walzer essay, below:

"Judging from the news reports on the recent Israeli attack, it is true that Hamas did launch rockets against Israel and fought against the invading Israeli army from crowded residential neighborhoods, thereby leaving Israel no choice but to bomb and shell them, causing thousands of civilian casualties."

As written, it says the opposite of what I meant.  In my original draft I said "supposedly" leaving Israel no choice--and somehow the crucial qualifier got lost.  Judging from the news reports on the recent Israeli attack, it is true that Hamas did launch rockets against Israel and fought against the invading Israeli army from crowded residential neighborhoods, thereby leaving Israel no choice but to bomb and shell them, causing thousands of civilian casualties.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Walzer Problem

For many years there have been a number of prominent American Jewish public figures, academicians, or organizational leaders who have essentially functioned as propagandists for Israeli policy in its conflict with the Palestinians: the names that immediately come to mind are Abe Foxman, Marty Peretz, and Alan Dershowitz.  However, sensible people who lack expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but who are increasingly uneasy about Israel’s policies and behavior are likely to discount those hasbarists and their like.
For two reasons, however, that is not the case when it comes to Michael Walzer. First, by almost universal acclaim, he is the preeminent just war moral philosopher of the last half-century, a scholar and teacher at Princeton, Harvard, and for over thirty years a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies, perhaps America’s most distinguished and prestigious academic institution, whose members have included such intellectual and moral giants as Albert Einstein and George Kennan. Secondly, Walzer’s extensive writings on the Arab-Israel conflict are by no means uncritical of Israeli policies, particularly, the settlements, the occupation, and the Israeli refusal to accept a two-state political settlement.
Consequently, Walzer has far more credibility than the propagandists--except, that is, for specialists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have become increasingly alarmed by Walzer’s analytical and moral failings when it comes to that issue. The Walzer problem is extremely important, precisely because of his stature and apparent moderation.  Thus, among America’s elites and liberal Zionists (as Walzer himself is usually categorized), he almost certainly has done far more damage than the propagandists to public understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just to take one example, Walzer is on the Board of Directors of Americans for Peace Now, which could just as well be called the Liberal Zionists of America; it is unimaginable that APN would ask Dershowitz, Peretz, or Foxman to be on the Board, let alone to be regularly invited to comment on recent events, including about Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza (to be discussed below).
In the July 30th issue of New Republic, Walzer writes about the latest and most destructive Israeli attack on Gaza, in an article entitled “Israel Must Do More to Limit Civilian Deaths.” Characteristically, as the title suggests, Walzer is critical of some Israeli policies, for he argues that Israel should have been working with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority instead of deliberately weakening them.  In addition, Walzer continues, while he is “a little uneasy” about criticizing Israel’s bombing policies, he thinks that it should have done more to limit Palestinian civilian casualties. In his APN discussion Walzer was even more cautious, saying that the attack did appear to create some ethical “dilemmas” but that he couldn’t “sit in Princeton New Jersey” and judge them.
Notwithstanding such mild and standard criticisms—practically by definition these days, all liberal Zionists are uneasy about those issues--the weight and clearly the intention of Walzer’s article is to defend Israel against the far more severe criticisms of its policies that are becoming increasingly common, particularly that it has repeatedly committed war crimes in Gaza, especially in the 2008-09 “Cast Lead” attacks and, probably even more so, in the recent “Operation Protective Edge” assault.
Walzer’s two main arguments are that the civilian casualties in Gaza are primarily the responsibility of Hamas’s policies rather than those of Israel, and that Israel is only exercising its right of self-defense against an organization with which it cannot negotiate because it is not interested in a compromise two-state settlement and "is religiously committed to the destruction of Israel."
Walzer develops the first of these arguments in the context of what he describes as “asymmetric wars,” meaning wars against insurgents who can blend in with the civilian population. In such wars, he writes, “the attacking forces [must] make positive efforts, including asking their own soldiers to take risks, in order to minimize the risks they impose on enemy civilians.” After laying out this general argument, Walzer then asks: “Is Israel fighting that kind of war?” His concern is that Israel’s warnings to Palestinian civilians of imminently impending attacks on residential areas were insufficient to meet his criterion.  As he forthrightly puts it:
"People don't leave, or not all of them leave; they are caring for elderly or sick parents; they can't bear to abandon a home of 30 years....they don't know where to go; or there isn't any safe place to go."
Nonetheless, the problem with Walzer's answer to his own question--is Israel fighting a just asymmetric war?--is that his criticisms fall far short of facing up to the realities of Israel's ways of warfare.  Even leaving aside the issue of whether Israel, in this war as well as in previous attacks on Gaza and southern Lebanon, actually intends or at least welcomes a certain level of “enemy” civilian casualties and general suffering—for the sake of “deterrence,” of course—there simply isn’t any doubt that it isn't fighting the kind of war that Walzer considers to be appropriate.
It has been obvious for a number of years that the Israeli army, far from asking its soldiers to take risks, uses massive firepower in civilian areas precisely in order to protect them from the casualties that would occur if they had to directly engage Hamas fighters. The evidence that this is the case is decisive. For example, according to a number of analyses, since the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, the IDF has adopted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which specifically calls for the use of heavy and “disproportionate” firepower to be employed against civilian infrastructures, both in order to subdue the enemy and to deter future wars.
Walzer would probably reply that no such written doctrine can be found in the official IDF code of conduct or rules of agreement. In 2008, however, Gadi Eisenkot, a senior Israeli General in charge of Israel’s northern regions, publicly stated that in the event of a new conflict with Hezbollah: “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases….This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” (emphasis added)
The Dahiya Doctrine was not meant to apply only to Lebanon but also to Gaza. For example, in February 2009, following the end of the “Cast Lead” attacks on Gaza, prime minister Ehud Olmert told a cabinet meeting that “the government’s position….is that if there is shooting at the residents of the south, there will be a harsh Israeli response that will be disproportionate.”[1] Of course that is precisely what has happened.
Shortly after the recent Israeli attack, Michael Sfard, perhaps Israel’s leading human rights lawyer, wrote that since the 2006 Lebanon War the IDF now officially holds that “when fighting in urban areas, we are entitled to treat the entire area as a legitimate target and bombard it via air strikes or artillery shelling—as long as we first warn all the residents of our intention to do so and give them time to leave. This is what Israel is doing, despite the evidence that warnings don’t work, there is no place for them to go, no safe corridors are provided. Israel is attacking the very places it tells them to flee—and these amount “to a declaration of war against the fundamental principles of the law of armed combat.”[2]
In addition to the Dahiya Doctrine, the recent fighting has revealed that the Israeli army also has incorporated a "Hannibal Doctrine" or “Procedure,” which requires that whenever an Israeli soldier is "kidnapped," the nearby Israeli forces must use massive force against surrounding areas, regardless of whether they are residential or not, in order to cut off the "escape routes" of the enemy forces--i.e. Hamas or Hezbollah--that have captured the soldier. During “Operation Protective Edge,” the Hannibal procedure was put into effect after the suspected capture of an IDF officer. A Haaretz editorial noted that it “resulted in massive firing” upon a residential area in Gaza, in which between 130 and 150 Palestinians, including many women and children, were killed.”[3]
In other words, far from instructing its troops to take risks to minimize civilian casualties, the Israeli military essentially tells its forces not to take such risks. There is much more evidence of such policies than I have included here. Anyone writing or talking about the issue should acquaint himself with this evidence, which can even be done while “sitting in Princeton New Jersey.”
Hamas and the problem of “Asymmetric Warfare.”
“Asymmetric war” is the term which for obvious reasons counterinsurgency theorists prefer over the traditional and more neutral one, “guerrilla warfare.” Thus, Walzer’s use of the term is revealing, for its clear implication is that Hamas (like other insurgents rising up against large state armies) not only has an advantage but perhaps an unfair advantage over the otherwise far superior Israeli military forces: “it can’t be the case that the insurgents, by hiding among civilians, make it impossible for the other side to fight against them,” Walzer writes.
Like other insurgents in the past, Walzer continues, Hamas employs a “human shields” strategy against Israel, meaning it hides its fighters and their weapons in homes, hospitals and schools, thereby ensuring that attacks on them will cause civilian casualties. In fact, he seems to be arguing that as in the case of other insurgents, Hamas actually welcomes Palestinian civilian casualties because of their propaganda value: “Hamas isn’t so much hiding behind them [the Gazan “human shields”] as deliberately exposing them to harm, which is one way of ‘winning’ in asymmetric warfare,” Walzer writes. Later he adds: “The more civilians they [the militarily superior power] kill…the better it is for insurgents…. it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause.” [4]
Judging from the news reports on the recent Israeli attack, it is true that Hamas did launch rockets against Israel and fought against the invading Israeli army from crowded residential neighborhoods, thereby leaving Israel no choice but to bomb and shell them, causing thousands of civilian casualties. It is instructive to note, however, that after the end of Cast Lead in 2009 extensive investigations by the Goldstone Commission and Human Rights Watch examined the “human shields” argument in great detail; both concluded that, despite some unavoidable mixing of combatants and civilians in Gaza’s densely populated cities, Hamas did not have a strategy of using civilians as human shields. Indeed, Human Rights Watch stated that Israel continued to bomb civilian targets even though the fighting had already ended and there were no longer Palestinian “human shields” at the sites. The conclusion of both organizations, as well as that of Amnesty International, was that the Israeli “wanton destruction” of civilian institutions amounted to war crimes.
To be sure, that doesn’t prove that Hamas did not deliberately employ a human shields strategy during the recent conflict; that remains to be examined in the investigations by human rights organizations that almost certainly will soon be undertaken. What is certain, however, is that it will continue to be the case that vastly outnumbered insurgents, rising up against far more powerful state armies, will try to avoid making themselves easy targets. In particular, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, so Hamas fighters and their weapons will inevitably be intermingled with the civilian population. To be sure, there are some open or lightly populated areas, but should Hamas be required to mass its forces and weapons there, thereby ensuring that it would take Israel about twenty minutes to destroy them from the air?
Uri Avnery, the legendary Israeli peace activist and former fighter for the Irgun—the Zionist terrorist organization—has recently observed that during the British occupation, the Jewish resistance organizations, facing both the British army and Palestinian forces, also hid its arms in schools, hospitals, and other civilian institutions. Indeed, Avnery could have added that when Zionist terrorist groups bombed Palestinian buses, movie houses, and other civilian targets they surely knew that the Palestinians would respond in kind (and, of course, vice-versa) but did so anyway, in effect accepting those consequences as the unavoidable cost of gaining national liberation and independence.
There is no reason to think that Hamas doesn’t make the same calculations. That may certainly demonstrate that Hamas—like the Irgun before it—is a ruthless organization that is prepared to accept a certain level of death and suffering among its own civilian population as an unavoidable cost of its resistance, but it hardly demonstrates that it welcomes it, as Walzer clearly implies, let alone deliberately invites it.
The Proportionality Issue
Walzer writes that “it can’t be the case that the insurgents, by hiding among civilians, make it impossible for the other side to fight against them. There has to be a just, or justifiable way of responding to indiscriminate rocket attacks.” He then goes on to argue that the “rule of proportionality” must govern such a response: “If you are aiming at military targets (rocket launchers, for example, and know that your attack will also cause civilian casualties (collateral damage), you must make sure that the number of dead or injured civilians is ‘not disproportionate’ to the value of the military target.” He continues that such calculations are “highly subjective;” nonetheless, without quite saying so directly, he clearly considers that the Israeli attack is violating the proportionality rule, and that therefore must make greater efforts, even if it increases the risks to its own soldiers, to avoid inflicting a “disproportionate” number of civilian casualties.
Despite its apparent balance and implied criticism of Israel’s behavior, Walzer’s discussion of the proportionality issue is quite misleading. First, if a military attack is on behalf of an unjust cause the rule of proportionality does not apply, since you are prohibited from attacking any target, military or otherwise, even if there is no “collateral damage” at all. This, of course, goes to the issue of whether this and all previous Israeli attacks on Gaza are truly necessary for self-defense, or whether, as I and others have contended (see link below) their deeper purpose is to crush resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Second, that issue aside, Israel is not just attacking military targets—proportionately or not—for as in almost all of its previous wars against the Palestinians (and other Arab states and peoples) it is striking undoubted civilian targets: the family homes of Hamas militants (with the families inside), power plants, civilian industries, water and sewage facilities, schools, hospitals, banks, mosques and office buildings.[5]
Consequently, Israel—as in the past-- has not only violated the principle of proportionality, it is in blatant violation—as in the past—of the even more fundamental and categorical just war and international legal principle, noncombatant immunity, which mandates that it is a war crime to deliberately attack civilian targets, even in a just cause, let alone an unjust one.
I’m not telling Walzer anything he doesn’t know—on the contrary, he wrote the book, or rather, the book on it.[6]

What Does Hamas Want?
Is the present-day goal of Hamas still that of Israel’s destruction of Israel, or rather of fighting against the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza? Walzer has no doubts on the matter—he won’t even accord Hamas the dignity of calling it a resistance organization, only “resistance,” in quotes. Meaning what—that there is nothing Israel is doing to the Palestinians that would justify resistance, no quotation marks?
To be sure, even if Hamas is best seen as a true resistance movement, no quotation marks, the issue of its terrorism (attacks aimed at Israeli civilians) would still arise. However, a full moral analysis of the terrorism question would also have to deal with the fact that the Palestinians have no capacity to resist an illegal, unjust, and repressive occupation by other means, since they have zero chance of defeating the Israeli military forces, and Israel either ignores or crushes (sometimes with lethal force) all Palestinian nonviolent resistance.
According to Walzer, Hamas “is religiously committed to the destruction of Israel.” Interesting wording: most people sharing Walzer’s views say simply that Hamas “is committed to the destruction of Israel.” By adding the adjective “religiously,” perhaps Walzer intends to give himself plausible deniability that he is distorting the historical record, for it is true that the Hamas Charter is intensely religious and is committed to the destruction of Israel. The real issue, however, is whether in practice Hamas is still so committed, notwithstanding its religion and its original Charter. In any case, later on Walzer drops the qualification, if that’s what it is, for he flatly states that “Hamas has never deviated from its absolute opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.”
To put the case mildly, that is a remarkable distortion of the historical record, which includes increasing evidence that Hamas has for some time been gradually moving—in fact, no longer very gradually—towards a pragmatic, if reluctant acceptance of the realities of Israeli power and its implications for Hamas’ operational goals. In chronological order, here is a brief summary of the record (except as otherwise indicated, the full citations for all the statements below can be found in a 2012 article I wrote for the political science journal International Security.
*According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, in 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khalid Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, a few days later Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.[7]
*In the months before the January 2006 parliamentary elections in Gaza—free elections, which it won--Hamas downplayed its Charter and did not run on a platform calling for the destruction of Israel.[8] Shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan parliamentary elections, Hamas sent a message to president George Bush, offering Israel a truce for “many years,” in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied.
*In February 2006, Meshal said that Hamas would not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem.
*In May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah prisoners and issued the “Prisoner’s Declaration,” which went further than the earlier Hamas overtures. It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state “in all the lands occupied in 1967” and reserved the use of armed resistance only in those territories.
*In August 2006 Gazan prime minister Ismail Hanieh in effect accepted and incorporated the Prisoner’s Declaration into the Hamas position, especially its crucial distinction between the occupied territories and Israel within its 1967 borders, telling an American scholar: “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.” (emphasis added)
*In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was established; a Haaretz story noted that “this is the first time that a Hamas official has raised the possibility of full and official recognition of Israel in the future.” According to the story, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “shrugged off” Meshal’s statement.
*Throughout 2008, Hamas’s political positions continued to evolve. In particular, in April Meshal publicly reiterated that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Israel ignored the statement.
*In a May 2009 interview in the New York Times, Meshal said that Hamas should be judged on its current deeds and policies and that it was “not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago” in its Charter.[9]
*In December 2010 Hamas announced that it would honor any Palestinian referendum that approved a peace plan with Israel: “We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees,” said Haniyeh. “Hamas will respect the results [of a referendum],” he added, “regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles.” Zvi Bar’el, a leading Haaretz political analyst, noted: “Not a return of refugees, not the destruction of the State of Israel, no preconditions.”[10]
*In January 2012 Hamas announced that it was suspending all acts of terror in favor of “popular resistance” (i.e. nonviolent resistance); was joining in a unity government with the Palestinian Authority; would accept past deals between the PA or PLO and Israel, such as the Oslo agreements; would accept Mahmoud Abbas as the prime minister in that government, which would conduct negotiations with Israel; and would agree to a two-state solution if the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum.[11]
*In May 2012 Haaretz and the New York Times reported that Hamas was taking direct action in Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. Later that year top IDF officers said that Hamas had not participated in rocket attacks against Israel for over six months, and the military correspondents of Haaretz reported that since Cast Lead, Hamas “has almost completely refrained from firing rockets into Israel.”[12]
*In November 2012, the ceasefire ended when Israel initiated an eight-day round of exchanges of fire with Hamas. However, before Israel once again broke the ceasefire (as had been repeatedly the case in past ceasefires), Hamas had apparently been on the verge of a radical change in its policies towards Israel. The story was covered in a series of articles in Haaretz. Gershon Baskin--a prominent Israeli peace activist who had ties both to Hamas and the Israeli government and who had helped negotiate the earlier deal in which an Israeli prisoner of Hamas was released in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners of Israel-- had negotiated a draft agreement with Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari that provided for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas: that is, no longer a ten year, or even a thirty year truce, as Hamas had proposed in the past, but a permanent one.[13]
A few weeks later, Reuven Pedatzur, the military correspondent of Haaretz, confirmed Baskin’s account, writing that contacts between Baskin and Hamas had taken place “with the knowledge and consent of Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” and who was shown the draft agreement. Several hours later, though, Israel assassinated Jabari, “the man who had the power to make a deal with Israel,” wrote Pedatzur.[14]
In an oped column in the New York Times and subsequent interviews in Haaretz, Baskin said that senior officials who knew about Jabari’s agreement to end all military attacks on Israel but decided to proceed with the attack anyway had “made a strategic mistake which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides.” Pedatzur, however, did not buy the “strategic mistake” explanation and did not shrink from reaching the obvious conclusion: “The decision to kill Jabari shows that our decision makers decided a cease-fire would be undesirable for Israel at this time, and that attacking Hamas would be preferable.”
*After eight days of intense Israeli air attacks on Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to a new ceasefire, the central terms of which were that as long as Israel was not attacked, it would significantly ease the economic blockade--widely termed, even in Israel, as the “siege” of Gaza.[15] Throughout 2013, however, this agreement was violated by Israel, which not only continued most of the economic sanctions but repeatedly engaged in assassinations and armed attacks inside Gaza. By contrast, Hamas continued not only to observe the ceasefire but cracked down even harder on Islamic Jihad and other militants to prevent them from launching rocket or mortar attacks; as a result, in the first three months after the ceasefire was negotiated there was just one mortar attack from Gaza and throughout the rest of 2013 there were fewer attacks than in any year since 2003, the first year that such attacks had begun. Israeli intelligence was said to be satisfied with Hamas’s efforts to maintain the ceasefire.[16]
*In January 2014 Hamas and the PA government in the West Bank signed a new reconciliation agreement (the previous agreement of 2012 had broken down). Under its terms an interim unity government would be formed until new elections in six months time, but until then none of the cabinet level positions would be filled by Hamas officials. Even more importantly, Hamas agreed to the PA’s conditions that the Palestinian goal was a two-state settlement generally based on the 1967 lines, and that only nonviolent methods would be employed to reach it.[17]
A cautionary note: Despite the accumulating evidence, it cannot be denied that there have been inconsistencies in Hamas’s position and that on occasion—usually following a particularly destructive Israeli attack—its spokesmen have returned to their earlier militant and rejectionist rhetoric. Sometimes Hamas officials have said that they accept Israel as a “fact” but would “never recognize its legitimacy”—on other occasions, however, they have strongly implied that their formal position had no practical importance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas official makes a particularly conciliatory statement, but other officials then deny there had been any changes in its policies. Sometimes Hamas has continued to stress its commitment to the “right of return” of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a permanent settlement---but at other times it downplays the problem and generally indicates, like Abbas, that in the context of an overall settlement it will accept a symbolic resolution of the issue. And so on.
Despite the occasional mixed signals and contradictory rhetoric, there simply is no doubting the ongoing evolution of Hamas thinking, if for no other reason that, as Paul Pillar (the former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center) has recently put it, “Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so.”[18] In any case, in the final analysis, the only way to resolve the remaining (and steadily declining) ambiguities in Hamas’s position and test its willingness to reach a settlement is for Israel to enter into serious political negotiations with it, as several former directors and other high officials of Mossad and Shin Bet have been urging for a number of years.
Far from doing so, not only does Israel continue to refuse political negotiations with Hamas, but it continues its assassinations that have killed—or unsuccessfully tried to kill--most of the founders and leaders of Hamas and its main activists, right up to the present day. Pillar succinctly sums up what the evidence demonstrates: “Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas.”
Conclusion
For many years, Michael Walzer has been a significant obstacle to the possibility that the liberal American Jewish community—increasingly uneasy about Israel, but unsure what to believe—will realize that Israel is sliding into a moral, political, and perhaps, sooner or later, an existential catastrophe, which can only be arrested if it is forced to change its course as a result of the loss of its political, economic, and military support from the United States.
Although Walzer is justly acclaimed for his moral thought and other philosophical contributions, specialists and others knowledgeable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long been aware of his intellectual and moral failures on that issue. These failures are typically described as Walzer’s “blind spot,” but in my view the matter is considerably worse than that. Because of his stature and articulateness, he has had great credibility among liberal Zionists who are increasingly worried about the course that Israel is on but are unsure what to believe. But his credibility is unmerited: many of his arguments are sophistical and some of them—as in the case of his discussions of Hamas—are downright deceitful. Indeed, even his discussions of important purely factual matters cannot be relied upon, both because he misstates important facts and ignores others.
As in the past, Walzer’s latest work is entirely unequal to the reality of Israel’s criminal and self-destructive behavior.

                Endnotes

[1] “Israel Threatens 'Disproportionate' Response to Rockets,” New York Times, February 1,2009.
[2]Michael Sfard, “A ‘Targeted Assassination’ of International Law,” Haaretz, August 4, 2014
[3] Haaretz, “Investigate What Happened in Rafah,” August 5, 2014

[4] In a follow-up article a week after Walzer’s article, his New Republic colleague Leon Wieseltier quotes from a Hamas brigade’s combat manual that seems to say—the language, or at least the translation, is murky-- that Hamas should welcome Israeli attacks on civilians. Wieseltier does not provide a source, but even if he has correctly described the statement from a single Hamas unit, it would not offset the extensive evidence that Hamas wants to negotiate—at the least—a permanent ceasefire with Israel that would end the attacks. Wieseltier, “Israel and Gaza: A Just and Unjust War,” New Republic, August 6, 2014.
[5]Sara Roy of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the leading American expert on the effects of Israel’s repeated attacks on the Gazan people and their economy, describes these attacks in her oped, “Deprivation in Gaza Strip,” Boston Globe, July 19, 2014. As well, see the first page story by Jodi Rudorin and Fares Akram in the August 7th issue of the New York Times, “Conflict Leaves Industry in Ashes and Gaza Reeling From Economic Toll.”
[6]Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: BasicBooks, 1977)

[7] Zeev Schiff, “Ex-Mossad Chief: Hamas Offered 30-Year Ceasefire in 1997,” Haaretz, March 30, 2006.

[8] Menachem Klein, one of Israel’s leading experts on Hamas, wrote: “The differences between the past platform and the Islamic Charter do not represent an attempt at deception or the empty and unconsidered use of words. They are a product of a change and modification of lines of though as part of the process by which Hamas has become a political movement.” (quoted by Lorenzo Kamel, “Why do Palestinians in Gaza support Hamas?” Haaretz, August 5, 2014.

[9] Quoted in Fares Akram, “Hamas Says That Its Political Leader Does Not Plan to Seek Re-election,” New York Times, January 22, 2014.
[10]“Is Hamas Really Willing to Change?” Haaretz, Dec. 7, 2010
[11] Merav Michaeli, “Israel Is Missing Another Opportunity for Peace,” Haaretz, Jan. 2 2012
[12]Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Hamas' Change of Strategy: Rocket fire Directed at Israeli Military Targets,” Haaretz, June 20, 2012
[13] Baskin wrote an oped in the New York Times describing the event: “Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination,” November 17, 2014.
[14]Reuven Pedatzur, “Why Did Israel Kill Jabari?” Haaretz, December 4, 2012.

[15] In his APN conference call, Walzer said that Israel couldn’t lift the siege by itself, because since the Egyptian military coup of July 2013, it had become a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege. He neglected to mention that it had been a unilateral Israeli siege in the previous six years. In any case, following the Netanyahu line, Walzer added that if Hamas had only invested in schools and housing, instead of tunnels and rockets, “Gaza might not look like an area that was under siege.” Anyway, he concluded, the siege must be ineffective, given the rockets and the tunnels.
[16] This account is based on Nathan Thrall, “Hamas’s Chances,” London Review of Books, August 21, 2014.
[17] For details on the agreement, see Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid, “Hamas, Fatah Sign Reconciliation Agreement,” Haaretz, April 23, 2014. For discussions emphasizing the significance of the agreement, see Thrall; Paul Pillar, “Dedication, Destruction and Hamas,” National Interest, August 2, 2014; and John Judis, “Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza? A Primer,” New Republic, July 25, 2014; and After reviewing the evidence, Judis concludes: “Hamas’s charter can’t be used as an excuse by Israel to prolong the occupation”
[18]Pillar, “Dedication, Destruction, and Hamas.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

A New Low for the New York Times

I’ve written a number of times (as have, increasingly, many others) about the multiple failures of the New York Times to inform its readers—the world, really, given the importance of the Times—of the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today’s lead editorial reaches a new low—well, there have been lots of lows. It’s a typical Times editorial on the issue, a wringing of the hands, blaming both sides equally for the current disaster.

Just as it has repeatedly done in past editorials, the Times does not so much as even mention Israel’s occupation and repression—an omission so misleading that it amounts to a kind of indirect lying. But beyond that, today’s editorial contains what can only be characterized as an outright lie. With no qualification, the editorial states that “Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction.” In fact, there is very strong evidence--its Charter and occasional rhetoric notwithstanding—that in practice Hamas would  accept any negotiated two-state settlement that has the support of the Palestinian people. In his indispensable article in the current New Republic, John Judis reviews some of that evidence, and there’s a lot more that has been accumulating for at least the last ten years.

The Times is entitled to argue that the evidence is not dispositive, I suppose, but it is assuredly not entitled to ignore it—especially on an issue that is critical not only to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but settling it.

During WWII the Times played down the increasing evidence of the Holocaust—later, it apologized, essentially admitting that it didn’t want to highlight what might have been seen as just a Jewish issue. Then, during the run-up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the Times ran prominent news stories that accepted the administration’s claims about Iraqi nuclear weapons—later, it again apologized.

Maybe one day the Times will also apologize—once again, far too late—for the way it has dealt with the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But I, for one, won’t forgive it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nicholas Kristof: How to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Anyone who regularly reads the New York Times surely understands that Nicholas Kristof must be one of the nicest persons in the world. His heart is always in the right place, his values and principles are of the highest, and his intentions are invariably beyond reproach. How come, then, so far as I can see nobody—at least nobody holding real power, anywhere—seems to pay any attention to him? Am I suggesting that his naivete makes much of what he writes irrelevant, a mere wringing of his hands?

Yes. His column in today’s Times, “Leading Through Great Loss,” is classic Kristof, I’m afraid—so ill-informed or naïve about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as to border on absurdity.

Here’s a few examples:

*“When militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality.” Proportionality is important, but it is not the main problem with Israel’s wars against the Palestinians. While it is a cliché that is repeated by just about everyone (including Obama) that “Of course Israel has a right to defend itself”—sometimes followed, as with Kristof, a “but,” and others with no qualifications at all—it reflects a profound misunderstanding of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general principles of the right of self defense. In short, if you are an aggressor, a repressor, an occupier, and your actions lead to desperate acts of resistance, you cannot avail yourself of any right of “self-defense.” Sure, if Israel ended the occupation and repression of the Palestinians but Hamas continued to attack it, then—and only then—it indeed would have the right of self-defense.

*Kristof describes the repeated violations of informal and even formal ceasefires between Hamas and Israel to a pattern of “mutual escalation,” or even more wrong-headedly, to “Hamas extremism and violence after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.” That is factually false, in several ways. The details are too complicated to go into here, but (1)there was no true Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza, and (2)even if there had been there was certainly no Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and (3) Israel has been far more the instigator of the periodic escalations than the innocent responder.

* Kristof writes: “It’s true that [a two-state peace agreement] is not achievable now, but the aim should be to take steps that make a peace deal possible in 10 years or 20 years….the mutual distrust is so great that it may take years to lay the groundwork, so let’s get started.”

Breathtaking. That’s what innocents have said for the last forty years or so, failing to recognize that the very purpose of Israeli policy is to maintain the occupation and prevent a genuine and fair two-state settlement. Hasn’t Kristof heard of this? Isn’t he aware that the more the Israeli government encourages further Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the more impossible becomes a two-state peace agreement?

Kristof’s general conclusion: “Aggression one side boomerangs and leads to aggression on the other.” It’s all symmetrical and “mutual,” there are no rights and wrongs, there are no painful facts.

Can’t we all just get along?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is the New York Times Finally Coming Clean on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Yes and No.

Seven years ago I published a long journal article describing the many ways in which the New York Times distorts and obfuscates the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  ("Muting the Alarm over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The New York Times versus Haaretz, 2000-06, International Security, Fall 2007)

Since then, I have continued to point out (mostly in this blog) the more egregious Times' distortions and obfuscations.  Lately, though, I've more or less stopped doing so, in part because in some ways the Times' coverage and opinion pieces on the conflict have improved--though not nearly enough--and in part because there is now a much more widespread recognition of the continued biases in Times' discussions of the conflict.

This morning's Times, at first glance, seems to have broken new ground in honest reporting--for its lead story is on the killing (by burning alive) of a Palestinian boy, in "revenge" for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.  It's an important story, and maybe a real breakthrough at the Times--though it is also well to bear in mind that even the Israeli right has condemned the unspeakable nature of the killing, and that no less than the mother of one of the Israeli kidnapped teenagers killed earlier this month has movingly expressed her outrage at the "revenge" killing.

In short, it didn't take much courage for the Times to lead with the story and, in effect, highlight the failures--euphemism--in Israeli society that are the context for the crime.

Still, I would have been more heartened by what seems to be a new Times willingness to deal with the realities of Israel's behavior, were it not for Roger Cohen's oped in the same issue.  Cohen, though no rightist on the issue, likes to be "balanced" and symmetrical, typically wringing his hands and blaming both sides, equally, for the ongoing conflict.

He does so again in today's column. I will address just one point.  Balancing his criticism of the Netanyahu government, Cohen also blames Abbas for his unwillingness "to make the painful decisions necessary to attaint a two-state peace," especially the relinquishing of the  Palestinian  "right of return."

Serious observers of the conflict know that this is not the case.  I have written in the past about the myth of Palestinian intransigence on this issue.  Since I have nothing new to add, I will simply quote myself:

"The evidence is overwhelming that in the context of a fair two-state settlement along the lines of the international consensus, Arafat, the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority have all been ready to settle for a symbolic resolution of the issue."

"In brief, as early as the 1980s, there were a number of signals from Arafat and the PLO that in the context of an overall two state settlement that included Israeli and international recognition of Palestinian or some other form of Muslim sovereignty and control over the al-Aksa mosque in the Old City, the PLO would agree to a compromise settlement of the refugee problem."

"Then, at the Taba negotiations at the end of 2000, according to Yossi Beilin, the leader of the Israeli negotiating team, 'almost full agreement was reached with respect to principles for resolving the problem.' (Path to Geneva, p. 247) Since then, the nature of these principles have become well-known: (1) some acknowledgment from Israel of its responsibility for the Palestinian expulsion or flight in 1948; (2) an unlimited right of the refugees and their families to return to the Palestinian state; (3)large-scale international economic compensation and assistance to the refugees, wherever they choose to settle; and (4) a token return of some families to Israel, subject to Israeli agreement."

"In 2008 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas engaged in secret negotiations over a possible two-state settlement, the general terms of which have now been widely reported. In particular, in early 2001 the British newspaper Guardian reported that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks documents—also known as “the Palestinian Papers”-- revealed that during the negotiations the PA leaders 'gave up the fight over refugees….Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families…could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement.'”

"Finally, in 2012 the twenty-two members of the Arab League unanimously reiterated the language of the 2007 peace plan, which does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” This carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would certainly not have received such support if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had objected."

To be sure, Cohen does allude to Abbas's true position, writing that he doesn't want to give up "the comforts of his position and the ambiguity of concessions not formalized."  But surely Cohen should understand that since Netanyahu has no intention of agreeing to end the Israeli occupation and allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Abbas cannot be blamed for not wanting to make a politically explosive concession and get nothing in return.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shlomo Avineri Speaks Out

Shlomo Avineri is a former Director of Israel’s Foreign Affairs ministry, a long-time professor at Hebrew University, and perhaps Israel’s most acclaimed political scientist—certainly the one who is most likely to be quoted in the New York Times. In the Israeli political spectrum, Avineri is usually described as a “centrist,” maybe even “center left.”

Given the state of Israeli political culture and discourse, that means he often can be found occupying a position half-way between obtuseness and rationality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-- on the one hand he favors a two-state settlement but on the other he has sometimes blamed the Palestinians, include Mahmoud Abbas, for the failure to reach such a settlement.

But the attack two days ago by six Israelis, who burned alive a sixteen year old Palestinian boy, evidently is another matter. “This is a wake-up call,” this morning’s Haaretz quoted Avineri: “a line has been crossed.” To be fair, lest this be considered a somehow inadequate response, or to suggest that until now Israel’s violence against Palestinians had fallen short of crossing the line, Avineri did add: “This is absolute evil.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

History vs "History."

When lawyers make statements about the innocence of their clients sensible people know not to take them at face value, for the legal profession’s first duty is to try to prove that its clients are innocent, whether or not they are. So, to point to an obvious example, sensible and reasonably knowledgeable people know they must discount anything Allan Dershowitz says about Israel; after all, he’s a lawyer and Israel, in effect, is his client.

It’s very different with academic historians, however—or at least it’s supposed to be—for their first duty, their only duty really, is to ascertain historical truth, as best as they can. Thus, historians—perhaps I should say, “historians”— who ignore, distort, or simply baldly deny historical facts and evident truths (and some truths are evident) are guilty of donning the trappings of scholarship in an effort to lend credibility to their ideologies or policy preferences.

To be sure, ascertaining historical truth is hardly  always easy, for on many issues there are perfectly legitimate factual or interpretative differences among scholars. However, there are limits to such legitimate disagreements, especially in cases in which the facts are indisputable. Cliched as it has become, Daniel Moynihan’s famous statement is indispensable: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the historical cases in which the most basic truths are, or should be, incontestable. Despite the conflicting “narratives,” there is no symmetry: one sides’ narrative is overwhelmingly supported by the historical facts, and the other sides’ is largely mythology that is no longer accepted by serious scholars and observers.

One of the clearest examples concerns whether  Arab hatred of Israel and the Jews is primarily responsible for the repeated failures to end the Arab-Israeli conflict since since 1948.  In fact, there should be no dispute over this, for the historical record is irrefutable: the Arab states, individually and collectively, have repeatedly sought to make peace with Israel.

But not according to a June 24 article in the magazine Tablet,”Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There.” http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/176673/emotional-nakba   The author, Richard Landes, is a Harvard-educated associate professor in the Department of History at Boston University—all the right credentials. His argument, however, is another matter.

The “Arab political culture,” Landes writes, is driven by “honor/shame values…[and] tends to favor ascendancy through aggression.” That is why the Arab-Israeli conflict has been intractable, he says—in 1948 and continuing throughout the conflict the Arab states and the “Arab street” have maintained “that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.”

For this reason, Landes concludes, the Arabs will never agree to peace with Israel, even if Israel withdrew from all the occupied territories: “Attention to honor-shame culture... suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor, which means ‘all of Palestine, from the river to the sea.’”

The lack of correspondence of this argument with the clear historical truth is breathtaking. In fact, throughout the entire history of the conflict, all the relevant Arab states have repeatedly offered to settle their conflict with Israel, essentially in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from conquered and occupied Arab lands. I have written about this history in some detail (for one version, see my long blog essay of December 19, 2013, at http://www.jeromeslater.com/2013/12/unforgivable-ari-shavits-my-promised.html

In brief summary, at the 1949 Lausanne conference the main Arab states proposed a peace settlement to Israel, provided (1)that Israel agree to withdraw from the territories it conquered in the 1948 war and return to the borders established by the 1947 UN partition and (2)that it agree to the return of the Palestinian refugees who had fled the 1948 war or had been expelled by Israel.  Israel turned down the Arab proposal.

Nonetheless, what Lausanne (and other Arab offers) demonstrated was that regardless of their previous intransigence, the main Arab states were now willing to accept Israel and end the conflict.  Moreover, since the early 1970s, the Arab states have again repeatedly sought to settle the Israeli-Palestinian and overall Arab-Israeli conflicts, on terms that were both just and not merely entirely consistent with legitimate Israeli security needs, but in fact would have furthered them.

Though there have been other (but soluable) issues, in the last forty-four years the basic Arab terms for peace (and, in most cases, a full normalization of political and economic relations) have been that Israel withdraw not to the 1947 lines but only to the expanded Israel that followed the 1948 war, and agree to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Where, then, are the Arab demands--required by their "culture"--that Israel must be destroyed? On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that Israel could have reached a settlement with the main Arab states collectively in the summer of 1949, or bilaterally with Egypt in 1948 and again in the early 1970s (thus avoiding the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian War), with Syria in 1949 and again in the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia since 1981, and with Lebanon and Jordan since the onset of the conflict.

Moreover, since 2002 the entire Arab League has formally, unanimously and on repeated occasions proposed an entirely fair overall peace agreement with Israel. And, above all, the evidence is overwhelming that since the 1980s at the latest, Yasser Arafat and the mainstream Palestinian leadership have wanted to reach a two-state settlement with Israel, based on the international consensus of what such a settlement would entail. Indeed, the weight of the evidence suggests that even Hamas would, however reluctantly, agree to accept or at least not disrupt a two-state settlement.

None of this--the real history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not its mythology--can be found in the Landes article.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Wisdom of Anne-Marie Slaughter

I write in enthusiastic admiration for the courageous oped column by Anne-Marie Slaughter, in this morning’s NY Times. Defying the current mood in America as well as—maybe--in the far too cautious Obama administration, Slaughter calls for unilateral U.S. military intervention not only in Iraq but also in Syria. In this, she in effect echoes the brilliant question asked some 25 years ago by Madeleine Albright of Colin Powell, another skeptic—after Vietnam--about committing US troops to intervene in other country’s civil wars: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

How wise Albright proved to be, as Slaughter has clearly understood! Just consider how successful US military interventions in the last 15 years have proven to be: in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya we have routed autocracies, terrorists, and other opponents of the peaceful liberal world order we created and have led since 1945—and all in a relatively short time and with remarkably low economic, moral, and human costs to their peoples as well as to our own troops. And when we withdrew, we left behind peaceful and stable democracies.

What a tragedy it is for world order and for the peoples of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya—and maybe soon, Iran--that Anne-Marie Slaughter, is no longer Director of Policy Planning for the State Department.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jodi Rudoren on Shimon Peres, continued

Rudoren sent me an email, in response to my yesterday's email (below) to her:  "There is no doubt that in recent years Peres has been an outspoken advocate for peace. It has, however, been quite a long time since he was in a position to do anything about it -- as I wrote."

I responded: "How sad.  You seem utterly unaware that when he WAS in a position to do anything about it--not once, but many times--he repeatedly sabotaged genuine opportunities for peace.

Does not your position morally require you to first understand and then reveal the historical realities?    Judging from your response, you don't even pass the first test."

She responded this morning: "I am aware of the history. Also convinced this conversation not constructive, so not going to continue it."

Given the nature of my attack, I suppose I can scarcely blame her.  On the other hand, I am so thoroughly sick of the NY Times' unending,  uncomprehending, and unconscionable dishonesty on this issue, and its characteristic failure to ever address serious criticism,  I can't blame myself either.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jodi Rudoren on Shimon Peres

Two years ago I published in this blog an exchange of correspondence I had with Jodi Rudoren, as she was about to become the chief NY Times correspondent in Israel.

I've just sent another email to Rudoren, concerning her lead story in today's NY Times.  If she responds, I'll provide an update.  Here's what I wrote to her:

You may or may not remember that when you began your Israeli stint at the Times we exchanged several emails, which (with your permission) I published on my blog.  Based on those emails I thought there was some reason to hope that the Times would finally face the unmistakable facts and stop obscuring or bowdlerizing the truth about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


To some extent, this has happened--though not nearly sufficiently. You have certainly been an improvement over your egregious predecessor, Ethan Bronner.  But that is small praise.  As many others have noted, many of your stories have been misleading in one way or another, or attempt to strike a "balance"--"Israelis say this, Palestinians say that"--thereby concealing or obscuring objective truths. 

I write now to point out a particular offender: your description today of Shimon Peres as "an outspoken advocate of peace."  True, Peres has made a career out of appearing before unknowing and usually rapturous audiences and lugubriously intoning about his search for peace, but his actual behavior--that is, when he has had real power to do the right thing--is quite the contrary.

As you may know, Yitzhak Rabin detested Peres for his utter hypocrisy.  Many years ago when Rabin was thought to be the hawk and Peres the dove, Rabin's view was discounted--but of course he was absolutely correct.  Peres' true role is just what Hanan Ashrawi says, "to give a clean bill of health for public relations."  

True, you did quote her---but since you've just written, in your own voice and  as if it was an uncontestable fact, that Peres is an "outspoken advocate for peace," what she says will surely be discounted by most readers.  After all, what would you expect a mere Palestinian to say?


What you wrote is either knowingly false or deeply ignorant.  I don't know which is worse, but in either case the NY Times continues to betray its obligation to first ascertain and then write the truth about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Kerry Mission: An Exercise in Perfect Fatuity

Last September I had a couple of posts here pointing to John Kerry's absurd and self-contradictory rhetoric and incompetent as well as potentially dangerous policy recommendations about what to do about Syria, especially about its chemical weapons.

He has now trumped even that performance with his failed mission in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The exact details of Kerry's proposed solutions have not yet been made public (I'll have more to say about them if and when they are), but there have been enough leaks to make the main outlines clear.  They amount to the standard international consensus (or the 2000 Bill Clinton proposals) for a two-state settlement, which of course were once again rejected out of hand by the Netanyahu government, which knew it could do so with impunity, at least so far as the U.S. government was concerned. 

Several days ago, Nahum Barnea, probably Israel's most widely read political columnist, published an article on the failed negotiations, based on confidential interviews he had with one or more leading members of the Kerry team.  It makes for remarkable reading: ttp://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4515821,00.html

Barnea's account makes it overwhelmingly clear that nothing either the U.S. or the Palestinians could do would move Netanyahu. Barnea's source--widespread speculation is that it was Martin Indyk, Kerry's main advisor--summed up the various concessions made by Mahmoud Abbas:

"He agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to the border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley - NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over. He accepted the fact that in the Israeli perception, the Palestinians would never be trustworthy."

"He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. 'Israel won't be flooded with refugees,' he promised."

Since none of this moved Netanyahu, the U.S. government surrendered to him--Barnea's source admitted to him that “the last chapter of the American initiative was borderline pathetic.”  In fact, from start to finish the Kerry mission was pathetic—and not merely “borderline” so--and its collapse was not only perfectly predictable, it was widely predicted. Who didn’t know that there was no chance of moving Netanyahu and his government unless Kerry gave Israel an ultimatum: either end the occupation and agree to a two-state settlement or we cut off U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support? And who didn’t know that there was no chance of Obama—let alone Congress!—supporting such a course?

Well, it would appear that the Kerry mission didn't know it, at least judging from Barnea’s sources inside it.  In fact, it seems to have taken quite awhile for the U.S. delegation to come to an understanding even of the simplest realities, known to anyone who has followed the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Consider this remarkable admission by the U.S. official (should we laugh or cry?):

"The negotiations had to start with a decision to freeze settlement construction. We thought that we couldn't achieve that because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up. (emphasis added) We didn't realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government…There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort's failure, but...the primary sabotage came from the settlements."

You don’t say.

Yet, all this said it seems to me that liberal Zionists (like me) face an insoluable dilemma.  On the one hand, we still think that there was a good case for the establishment of a Jewish state and we still care about the future of Israel--not that it's easy to do so.  On the other hand, as American liberals we strongly support the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  The problem is that liberalism in the U.S., as in Israel, is under siege from the lunatic fringe and the know-nothings in both countries.

Given the power of the Israel lobby in the U.S., then, any serious U.S. pressures against Israel would likely backfire in our domestic politics and further strengthen the Republican party—especially if, as seems likely, it leads to large scale Jewish defections, votes, and money from the Democrats. In the worst and by no means implausible case, in the next few years it could result in full Republican control of Congress, the presidency, and Supreme Court appointments for a long time to come.

That's way too high a price to pay.  Not only that, even if the U.S. government made its continuing support of Israel conditional on its ending the occupation and accepting a two-state settlement, it is not obvious to me that Israel would bow to those pressures, thereby risking violent civil conflict and possibly even a revolt by the IDF, which is increasingly nationalistic, religious, and hardline.

In the final analysis then--as hard as it is to reach such a conclusion--I would counsel Obama as well as Hillary Clinton or whoever emerges as the next  Democratic presidential candidate to avoid a frontal challenge to Congress or the Israel lobby: we can't beat them, it might not work even if we could, and the probable costs are way too high.

In short, I painfully conclude, Obama and the Democrats should keep quiet and do nothing about Israel--to coin a phrase, the Israelis have made their beds, so let them lie in it.  At least--and it's not negligible--let's stop looking like  fools.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Simon Schama's Whitewash

As most readers will know, the British historian Simon Schama is one of the most acclaimed, visible, and popular contemporary historians. Before coming to the United States, he taught at Cambridge and Oxford, and since has held chaired professorships at Harvard and Columbia. He has written sixteen books, specializing on the French Revolution, Dutch history, British history, American history—and also on baseball and art; for awhile he was even the art critic for the New Yorker.

As well, Schama has written and starred in eleven popular TV documentaries on these subjects, on the BBC and PBS. This astonishing record leaves no doubt that Schama is a prolific and brilliant political and cultural historian, and a man of great personal charm and articulateness. He is also a man of vigorously stated strong emotions and strong opinions—that’s part of his charm, but the downside of it is that he can be something of a popularizer and an oversimplifier of complex and controversial issues.

And on contemporary Israel, Schama is something of a whitewasher.  I refer to the Story of the Jews, his current five part PBS documentary and soon to be a two volume book, in which his emotionalism, his strong but not necessarily persuasive beliefs and  opinions, and his tendency to oversimplify or, worse, ignore inconvenient facts, has created a serious problem--at least in the last program, where he takes on Zionism, the establishment of Israel, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.* (I don’t know enough about the history of the Jews from the pre-Christian era until the 20th century to know whether his ideological and political preferences distort his historical story telling, although I have the strong impression that modern Biblical scholars and archaeologists will challenge some of his conventional history.)

The fifth and last program begins with a discussion of the origins of Zionism, and makes the case that the history of the persecution of the Jews justified the creation of the state of Israel, an argument I agree with--but not with Schama's failure to even mention the problem created by creating that state in a land already the homeland of another people.

After that, the omissions and distortions steadily worsen, and while somewhat balanced by criticism of Israel, the total effect of the program is to perpetuate most of the myths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that serious historians have long discarded.

1948: After noting the UN partition resolution of 1947 that created a Jewish state in Palestine, the program shows a long except from David Ben-Gurion’s speech of May 14, in which he announced that “the Jews have come home from their exile.” Ben-Gurion, of course, does not mention that for the last two thousand years Palestine had been the homeland of the indigenous Arabs—and neither does Schama.

Schama then continues: “the Arabs rejected the UN plan, as they had rejected every previous partition plan, and sent armies in.” There is no explanation of why the Palestinians might have considered it to be unfair and unacceptable that powerful outside forces had dictated that their two-thousand year old homeland was to be divided up with the Jews.

Nor does Schama the historian mention the established fact that Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leaders “accepted” partition only as a tactical first step, to be jettisoned as soon as they were strong enough to go well beyond the boundaries of the partition plan--by whatever means necessary.

Concluding this discussion, Schama says that after the 1948 war “an armistice agreement allowed Israel to expand its boundaries” (emphasis added), language that seems designed to obscure the fact that the “agreement” simply reflected force majeure, or the fact of the Israeli conquest.

The Nakba. Schama does mention the Nakba, which he describes as “the displacement, sometimes violently, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from towns and villages,” some of whom “fled in fear,” some of whom went into exile because they were told to do so by Arab leaders, and some who “were driven out by force and terror.”

Even this apparently fair and forthright statement can be challenged as insufficient and partly misleading, but the real problem is what comes next, which is a substantially longer section on the departure of some 700,000 Jews from Muslim countries in the ensuing years.

Since this section is obviously intended to provide a moral balance to the Nakba, you know that it will begin with a “But.” And so it does: “But there are other memories and other catastrophes," as the Jews who “had lived for centuries” in the Muslim countries of the Middle East “discovered suddenly that their home was no longer their home.”

Note that there is no claim that the 1950s “exodus”—his word—of Middle Eastern Jews was primarily driven by violence or government expulsion. Nor is any note taken of the fact that Arab outrage at the Nakba might have had something to do with precipitating whatever anti-Semitism and violence did occur.

In any case, while it is undoubtedly true that many Jews left Arab countries because of outbreaks of anti-Semitism and violence, many others went to Israel because they preferred to live in a Jewish state. Indeed, many of these Jews--particularly from Iraq—left because Zionist and Israeli organizations worked hard to induce them to come to Israel.

The 1967 War. Schama’s portrayal here is pure Hasbara, long discredited. Accompanied by an ominous map with arrows depicting armies from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt converging on Israel from all directions, the Arab attack is portrayed as massive, unprovoked, and aimed at Israel’s very existence—all myths long discredited by serious historians. In fact Israel provoked the Syrian attack in a number of ways and initiated the attack on Egypt even though Nasser did not intend to start a war. Some years later Menachem Begin, no less, admitted that the 1967 War was not a necessary war forced on Israel but a “war of choice,” started by Israel even though its survival was not at stake.

The Separation Wall. Schama is disturbed by the Wall, but he initially portrays it solely as a response to Palestinian terror, rather than as an implementation of the overall Israeli strategy of incorporating within its new boundaries all the land it conquered in 1967. To be sure, Schama then does mention that the Wall extends deep into the West Bank in order to include leading Jewish settlements in the heart of the occupied territories, and he even concedes that it has “made life for the Palestinians a daily ordeal;” even so, the weight of his presentation is to portray the Wall as an anti-terrorism measure. Indeed, he concludes that because he is not an Israeli, he doesn’t have “the moral right to condemn” the Wall, because before it was built Palestinians were killing hundreds of Israelis, but since then very few.

Even more fundamentally, nowhere does Schama raise the question of whether Palestinian terrorism is a response to forty-seven years of Israeli occupation, repression, economic warfare, assassinations, daily hardships and humiliations, outright murders and, indeed, Jewish private and state terrorism directed against the Palestinians. His failure to do so is not merely revealing, it is disgraceful.

One has to assume that Schama the historian knows better--or maybe he doesn't, I don't know which is worse.  In any case, his failure to use his charm, his charisma, his erudition, his way with words, his unassailable standing, his vast popularity, and the golden opportunity to use his national television platform to educate the American public--above all, us Jews--about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unforgivable.

 

*Even before the Story of the Jews, it was apparent that Schama is something of an apologist for Israel. According to Wikipedia: “In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War. He characterised Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful in Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah. With regard to the bombing he said: "Of course the spectacle and suffering makes us grieve. Who wouldn't grieve? But it's not enough to do that. We've got to understand. You've even got to understand Israel's point of view."