Finding a Place in the Minefield, p. 2

Of course, by this point I'm not really arguing with Jay Michaelson anymore. As he says in his article, there is no reason to apologize for "Israeli settlement policies, human rights abuses, or discrimination against its Arab citizens." But as I said before, the arguments Jay raises in his article are well known to anyone who has had a Jewish education in America, and form the foundations of much of the Zionist argument. The problem is that injustice still needs to be addressed.

Many Leftists have jumped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent months, having no idea what they were getting into. They have tried to cast the issue in terms they understand, comparing Israel to South Africa, for example. But in reality, the Left is faced with a different set of facts, particularly in who it has chosen as its opponent. During the protests of U.S. policy in, say, El Salvador, or the anti-apartheid protests of the '80s, there was no organized opposition prepared to defend death squads or apartheid. With the Israel issue, though, I think the student Left especially has been surprised by the existence of the pro-Israel faction that is able to mobilize thousands to Washington and present a set of facts the Left is unfamiliar with. The reaction to these facts has led in some places (like San Francisco State University, which recently had a liberal Jewish peace rally attacked by an anti-Semitic mob) to a nasty mingling of well-meaning activists with anti-Semitic elements.

There is no reason to assume, however, as the Jewish community seems to (based on reporting in The Jewish Week and my own experiences), that the criticism of Israel that has risen in the last few months is anti-Semitic. Jay implies that it is when he asks why there is a "focus on Israel," when so many other countries commit far worse atrocities. This question implies that it is suspicious - and thus maybe anti-Semitic -- to criticize Israel, because that criticism omits criticism of, well, everything else. I wonder who Jay's point is directed at - there have always been Leftist constituencies that have focused activism on single issues. It's part of the nature of the Left. But more than that, this question seems to me to have an easy answer. Israel is by far the number one recipient of U.S. aid. It is natural for U.S. activists to focus on U.S. actions, because they are the ones we are responsible for. It is in our names that the United States government acts.

Do I deny that criticism of Israel can be motivated by anti-Semitism? Of course not. David Duke and other odious white supremacists have cynically adopted the Palestinian cause to propagandize against the Jews, in a similar way to the Arab elites. Does this change the fundamental facts on the ground, the moral claims of the Palestinian people to self-determination? The answer seems to be no again. But as can be seen from a recent New York magazine cover article, entitled "Crisis for American Jews," many American Jews, including the Leftist ones, react to the rise in anti-Semitism by bunkering down and defending Israel at all costs. I don't think this is either wise strategy or in accord with Leftist - or Jewish - values.

As I write this, on May 20th, 2002, the world is welcoming its newest nation - East Timor. The East Timorese have fought a 25-year struggle against Indonesian oppression, occupation, and murder, and after a brief period of UN administration, they are finally declaring independence. East Timor was an issue I learned about a few years ago from browsing Leftist websites, and I'm grateful to have had the knowledge of their struggle that the mainstream media didn't seem interested in providing. Now the Left, as well as American Jewry, faces an exploding crisis in the Middle East, about which there is no dearth of information, but on the contrary, a confusing morass of conflicting information. What's needed is, unfortunately, careful analysis of all the facts. A primary example: Camp David conference in 2000, when Barak supposedly offered Arafat Israel's "most generous offer ever," a two-state solution with East Jerusalem on the table. The standard story goes that Arafat walked out on this offer and launched the second Intifada, proving once and for all that the Palestinians can never accept the existence of Israel. U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who was present at the Camp David talks, has blamed Arafat for their collapse, adding that Arafat refused at Camp David to acknowledge basic Jewish claims like the sacredness of the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temple thousands of years ago. But at the same time, it has been asserted by the Palestinians and others that the Israeli offer broke up the Palestinian "state" into large sections separated and enclosed by Israeli territory, similar in this way to the "homeland" Bantustans of South Africa - something no Palestinian leader could have accepted. At the same time, Arafat seems to bear much blame for not presenting a counterproposal, and for rejecting Clinton's subsequent compromises, which were more generous (and contiguous) than the Israeli position.

The point, of course, is that the issue is complicated. Wow, you try to discuss issues in depth and you end up with the obvious. But complexity is something ideologues everywhere would do well to take note of, for the sake of our discourse and also our future.

Jay responds:

I agree with Sam that occupying three million people is wrong and must be ended. But replaced with what? Once Arafat rejected the Barak and Clinton offers, didn't offer any of his own, and ordered an organized and armed resistance, it became clear that there was no future in negotiations. Not because Barak's offer was so ideal, but because Arafat put nothing on the table at all, instead making maximalist claims and funding terrorists (including the PFLP, which this week carried out attacks in Netanya). So, there's no partner in Arafat's PA. Ending the occupation is essential, but if it means creating a terrorist state that wages constant war, it may have to wait. So, Sam admitting he has no solution is not enough. Just getting out would mean more civilian deaths. If the state of Israel itself - not the settlements, but the state - is justified, then surely it is justified in defending itself when there is no other alternative.

As for Sam's three rebuttals:

First, it is not academic, for a good Leftist, who is Goliath and who is David. Let's not bicker over the facts (except to note that, of course Israel's survival was threatened in 1967; everyone thought the brief Zionist experiment was about to be ended, swiftly, by huge Arab armies). Let's come up with an analogy: a black-owned company is favored over a white-owned one. Sam's argument is the standard Republican line: never mind who's David and who's Goliath, racism is racism. My point is that it matters who the underdog is, even if in a very local context he looks like the favorite.

Second, Sam wants to say that what the Arabs do has nothing to do with the Palestinians' right to self-determination. (His third point is only about the settlements, so I'll leave that out). This is only true if the "Palestinians" are different from the "Arabs." If not, then Israel's relative progressivism and non-militarism are important, because Israel is just a small carve-out from Arab land, just like Muslim Bosnia is a carve-out from Christian Yugoslavia. Though Bosnian Serbs and Palestinian Arabs may be caught in the crossfire, both are enclaves the Left should work hard to defend.

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April, 2002

What's your point? Samuel Hayim Brody
A WEF Protester Tells You Why He Bothers
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Faces of Death Thomas Vinciguerra
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February, 2002

Counterculture and Democracy Jay Michaelson
The best guarantor of democracy is a vibrant, oppositional counterculture.
January, 2002

Five Groups to be angry at after September 11 Jay Michaelson
Channel your rage at the people responsible for September 11 -- and I don't mean the cavemen in Afghanistan.
December, 2001

June 2002

jay's head