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Debating Israel At Columbia

Went to see a lively debate at Columbia University on Israel featuring Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens, Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, along with author and political commentator, Peter Beinart. The motion under consideration was: “Are Israel’s Policies Justified in Light of the Security Issues it Faces?”

Beinart and Iblish argued that the policy of subsidizing and supporting the settlement enterprise is incongruent with Israel’s security concerns and detrimental to its future. Stephens and Boteach, on the other hand, argued (ignoring the motion) that the core of the problem is not the settlements but rather the culture of hatred and violence endemic to Palestinian society and supported by its leadership.

Beinart and Iblish responded by situating the problem of Palestinian cultural violence within the oppressive structure of the occupation (which Rabbi Boteach dismissed with air quotes). Stephens and Boteach remained focused on issues of values and culture, with Stephens arguing that as long as a future Palestinian state resemblances Iran more than Canada, the Palestinian people have forfeited the right to self-determination.

Unusual moment of the night: Philip Weiss brought the debate to an uncomfortable halt when he refused to abide by the no filming rule. This seemed to have irked Boteach who had his own camera crew in the audience. I’m sure we will read about this soon enough.

*Update: Here is Weiss’ post on the event

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God Hates Flags

Video 1: An incredible video providing a glance – rich with symbolism – into the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the occupation. A religious Jewish settler in Hebron (of Russian origin) attempts to scale the home of a Palestinian in an effort to take down a Palestinian flag anchored on the roof. Problem is that the settler gets caught in the barbed wire. The Palestinian confronts the intruder (at one point even trying to help him) and a debate ensues about who has rights over the land. Th Settler at first claims that he just came to talk (apparently confusing the roof for the front door) and then argues that the house actually belongs to him (the settler) because all the land belongs to him (i.e. belongs to the Jews). The Israeli solider that arrives on the scene demands that the Palestinian return to his home. The solider seems to be blaming the Palestinian for the provocation of the flag but (at least initially) has no words for the inept (Purim drunk?) criminal.

Video 2: The flag incident continues. Israeli Soldiers arrive to remove the Palestinian flag. The soldiers give the impression that they recognize the unjust action by externalizing responsibility (“I have orders”). They also say (in Hebrew) to their superiors that there is no point in using force with all these cameras around. One can read that cynically, but I see that as their way of convincing their superior to change course of action and manage this conflict by other means (i.e. through the courts, as first suggested by the Palestinians). It’s interesting that the Palestinians are willing to recognize the Israeli courts as the final authority on this subject (not sure why they would). Perhaps it’s just a way to get the soldiers to leave their homes – for the time being – without humiliating them in front of their children. Or maybe they actually trust the high court in Israel to rule in their favor.

To Serve or Not to Serve?

An intense and loud debate (in Hebrew) precipitated by a group of Israeli youngsters who have penned a letter refusing to serve in the IDF in protest to the occupation of Palestinian territories. The youth are represented by a (brave) young man who despite (initially) stating his case in a calm and articulate manner is verbally accosted by (most of) the program’s hosts in a way that would make Jerry Springer blush. As in many debates regarding Israel/Palestine, there is a negative correlation between volume and logic. It’s easy to celebrate the virtues of democracy, diversity and free speech when your core values/beliefs are not being challenged, it is quite another story, as this clip demonstrates, when they are.

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The True Face of BDS?

The BDS “id” unleashed? The new “Juden Raus”? Or just the inevitable “bad apples” in a growing social movement? The barrel or the apples? What say you?

Some Additional Thoughts on BDS

The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) seems to have reached a tipping point in which it can no longer be considered a marginal player. A growing number of prominent celebrates, artist, scientist, academic institutions, and business organizations have given their name to the cause. If this point wasn’t clear enough, US Secretary of State John Kerry recently warned that if Israel does not make significant progress in the latest round of peace talks, they can expect to face ever increasing calls for economic and cultural isolation (an idea echoed by Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister). Not liking the idea of a sword of damocles hanging over their side of the negotiation table, Israeli politicians and pundits fired back that Kerry’s words are unacceptable and exaggerated scare tactics.

My take: BDS is a logical product of frustration, failure, fatigue and fear (i like alliterations). A barren diplomatic process.. It’s not a historical coincidence that the movement officially emerged the same year as Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Both were based on the premise that there is no serious partner and that change can only come through unilateral actions. A type of Do-It-Yourself Conflict Resolution. Problem is that in an interdependent relationship, even in an asymmetrical conflict, you can’t cut the other person out of the equation and force a sustainable solution (tailored to your interests) upon them. It’s just not that easy. In the words Nelson Mandela “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Having said that, I think that BDS can have both a constructive and destructive impact on the conflict. From a two-state perspective, BDS can function as a gadfly that constantly bugs and occasionally bites. By calling for a radical solution to the conflict while at the same time picking up momentum, the movement could influence policymakers in Israel towards greater pragmatism and compromise (considering the alternative). This is the way Secretary Kerry was hoping to leverage the movement.

On the other hand, with its mantle of un-pragmatic righteousness and all-out ideological assault on Zionism, the BDS movement could also reinforce and multiply ultra-nationalistic and hawkish forces within Israeli society. These are people who perceive the world as innately hostile to the Jewish state and will do whatever it takes to protect their tribe. Such a prospect will make a two-state solution even less likely. Although these possible reactions are not mutually exclusive, in a political system like Israel the smart shekel is on the latter.

 

 

 

What Am I Reading?

Over at Ynet, Linda Gradstein writes that as the BDS movement is seemingly reaching a new threshold, Israel is considering hiring a PR firm to improve its tarnished image.

My take: I am reminded of a story about a police officer who sees a man down on all four looking for something on the street. When the officer asks the man if he lost something, the man replies, “Yes, my keys.” “You lost them here?” asks the officer. “No,” replies the man, with slurred speech, “I lost them in the alley, but the light is much better here.”

If we really want to take the problem of delegitimization seriously, we need to do more than just change the way we talk about Israel – more than Extreme Makeover Zionist Edition-. We need to venture into the dark alley where we originally lost our way. Otherwise, we are no different, and will have no better luck, than the drunken man in the story.

According to organizational psychologists, when there is a significant gap between what people expect and what they actually get, two types of learning can take place: single-loop and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning refers to efforts to reduce this gap by modifying the strategy originally employed – improving Hasbarah skills, for example. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, requires us to question the assumption, values and actions that brought us to this problem in the first place.

There are no shortcuts here. Double-loop learning means we need to radically transform our relationship with the Palestinians. This is not to say Israel deserves to be delegitimized, but when it chooses an overall course of action – yes, the occupation, blockade and settlements are choices – it significantly contributes to the problem.

What Am I Reading?

In this Sunday’s addition of the NYT Omar Barghouti argues that the burgeoning success of the BDS movement has exposed Israel for the racist, oppressive and irrational state that it is.

My take: While making a number of important points the article suffers from some serious shortcomings. The author makes light of the idea that the BDS movement presents a threat to the state of Israel. He does this by ignoring the fact that one of the central demands of the movement – a return of Palestinian refugees – would render the Jewish state unrecognizable. A radical change that for the majority of Jewish Israelis is very disturbing. It is for this reason that no less a critic of Israel as Norman Finkelstein has called the BDS movement a “cult” that exaggerates its success and deceptively seeks the “destruction of Israel”. 

But this oversight is symptomatic of a much larger problem. To know what scares your enemy – as Mr. Barghouti purports to do – you need empathy. The BDS position, with its human rights and justice discourse, tends to function at an abstract (often imaginary) level of cognition that lacks an ability (or will) to see the perspective, fears and needs of the other side. 

You cannot produce mass change by ignoring the masses you seek to change.

New Section: What Am I Reading?

 
 
An Israeli civic teacher has been accused of (and reprimanded for) making hyper-critical and derogatory remarks against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This has unleashed a debate over freedom of speech in the classroom and the state of Israeli democracy. Over at the Times Of Israel, Shimon Ohayon, Member of Knesset for the ultra-nationlist Yisrael Beytenu and professor for Bar-Ilan University, writes that politics has no place in the classroom and that “the teacher who dispenses their ideological or political worldview is failing their students and their chosen profession in a number of areas.” He goes on to explain that the job of the teacher is to:
 
Create intellectual space for the student to choose his or her own path, and arrive at their own conclusions on complex and frequently controversial matters such as politics, the relationship between a citizen and the state and the peace process. Their role should not extend beyond providing students the tools to make informed decisions for themselves.
 
My take: The problem with this argument is that the educational system in Israel is conservative and political by nature. This is expressed in the official curriculum of the state which seeks to inculcate the young with “proper” knowledge and skills. As Foucault reminds us: “Any system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourse, along wit the knowledge and power which they carry.” Moreover, in a divided society like Israel there is also an inevitable counter curricula that runs against the messages of the state (as in the present case). This creates a situation in which educators teach the official curriculum from above, but educate the counter curriculum from below (Yael Tamir, forthcoming). For example, Arab-Israeli civic educators teach of Israel as a Jewish state, but educate as a democracy; the orthodox teach Israel as a democracy but educate as a Jewish state. The students have no difficulty figuring out which position the teacher values. But the point is that no matter what, there is no escaping politics in the Israeli classroom.
 
 

 

 

When Identities Matter

Also published in Columbia University’s ICCCR blog.

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A great deal of our most difficult conflicts appear to be identity-based: Israeli vs. Palestinian, Democrat vs. Republican, Christian vs. Muslim, and so on. Identities are pitted against one another in a win-lose fashion. The intransigent nature of so-called identity conflict has understandably lead some to conclude that we must transcend our concerns over identity in order to resolve the deep conflicts that plague our societies. Yet research on identity and conflict resolution suggests that it’s premature to toss the baby out with the dirty bathwater. Continue reading

Nominate Orphaned Land to 2013 Nobel Peace Prize

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Here is my petition to nominate the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land to the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Orphaned Land has managed to create a reality of coexistence in the region that has escaped politicians and peacemakers alike. This petition is just step one in the process of nominating this band. It’s goal is to generate support and buzz. If you haven’t already signed it, please do and share with your online community. Let’s make history.