Sunday, July 27, 2014

Weimar Israel

So, last time, I explored the makings of Judeofascism in America: today I turn my sights towards Israel itself.

To many, perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the recent right-wing counter-protests against Gaza War demonstrations has been the counter-protestors' appropriation of the slogans and attire popular with European Neo-Nazi groups.

"How could Jews be Neo-Nazis," I can hear the Haaretz editorial writers cry.

Actually, though their are undoubtedly few Jews in Israel who would openly describe themselves as such (Neo-Nazis) it is safe to say that the brand of neo-Zionism, marked by unquestioning support for state militarism, that currently prevails in Israel frighteningly mirrors much of the radical nationalism that took root in interwar Weimar Germany.

Like in Weimar Germany, the militarization of the Israeli body politic-in the course of the Last Decade, arose from the ashes of a "failed peace:" namely the Oslo Peace Process.

As one may recall, Ehud Barak misleadingly labeled as "generous," a proposal for establishing a Palestinian State that barely incorporated three-quarters of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and that mandated continued Israeli military control of the Palestinian state's borders and airspace.

When Arafat understandably turned down the deal, Barak built on the lies to convince the Israeli public that Arafat demonstrated typical "Palestinian rejectionism."

In the mantra stating "Israel has no partner for peace," Israeli hawks found their excuse to justify egregious acts of state violence and repression against Palestinians.

Barak's proposal...still wielded by Likud apologists as bombs currently fall on Gaza bears striking similarities to the "stabbed in the back" deception that spurred the 1920s German right (i.e. that Socialists and Jews snatched defeat from the arms of victory)- a myth, incidentally, created by German army brass to deflect criticism for Germany's defeat away from themselves.

Moreover, the suicide bombings of the early 2000 and the international isolation that Israel received for its actions in the West Bank played into a right-wing Zionist narrative of Israel as the "Jew amongst nations," under attack by classical anti-semites in Europe, the Hague, etc.

Surprisingly to many, Israeli neo-Zionism mirrors the Weimar right-wing in its perception of perpetual victimhood, the need to counter isolation through resolute strength...

There's is often nothing more dangerous than a terrified animal it is said and in their callous justification of Israel's latest measures in Gaza as "self-defense," the vast majority of Israeli citizens confirm this.

At the present, of course, Israeli neo-Zionists (based, for instance, on the level of support for the current Gaza carnage) comprise a far wider swathe of society in Israel than the Nazis did in Weimar times (even in 1932, the latter could garnish no more than a third of support-taking advantage of other parties' fragmentation to rise) and enjoy the support of powerful figures in America.

With hooligans taking to the streets of Tel-Aviv with the tacit support of government officials and with Knesset members callign for collective punishment of Gazan Palestinian communities, the state of democracy in Israel-Palestine seems very bleak indeed.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The making of Young American Judeofascists

The latest round of fighting in Israel-Palestine compels me to think back-almost a decade-to when I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Second Intifada.

Though Israel did not feature largely on the formal educational curriculum at Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy (only a single weekly, 45-minute class in sixth grade dealt with the state of Israel), many of the students and faculty had family in the country. Many of the students and faculty also adhered to what could be best described as a traditional Zionist viewpoint on the Palestinian question. With constant tension in the region, the topic surfaced frequently in both prayer and in the classroom.

During morning davening, a prayer was dedicated to the state of Israel followed by the relaying of news on the latest Palestinian suicide bombing or attack. The classroom where our daily Hebrew lessons took place, a map on the wall depicted מדינת ישראל (“the state of Israel”) as covering the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterrainean Sea. In sixth grade, the majority of students in my class (myself included) missed two weeks of school in order to take part in an exchange program with the Magen School in Tel-Aviv. On our trip we traveled to Masada and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem but stayed away from Palestinian Arab locales within the West Bank or even Israel proper.

Sometimes in this environment, vicious or belittling rhetoric rose to the fore. My fifth-grade Hebrew teacher, for instance, dedicated half of the class time (this was late in 2002) to explaining why the “Jenin Massacre” was staged (with “actors”). But for the most part, I was not infused with racism so much as ignorance.

I learned that Israel was a normal, if not exemplary, nation bereft of any  military occupation let alone second class arab citizenry. Moreover, I was taught to embrace Israel-as a (exclusively) Jewish and Zionist state as an integral part of my Jewish identity, all the more so when it suffered from “attacks” supposedly motivated by sheer (“anti-semitic”) hatred,

Even when I attended Pressman, however, the Israeli tendency to resort to brute force (this was the time of the Second Intifada) often troubled me for its resemblance to the adventuristic militarism of the Bush administration (which my progressive parents had taught me to criticize). The summer after I graduated Pressman (going on to a public high school), I was exposed to the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in the “Second Lebanon War.” Reading from third-party sources about Israel’s conduct during this war and, later, during Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of defense, I gradually came to see that something was often wrong, if not wholly self-defeating, with Israel’s tendency to resort to force.

I likewise learned in the ensuing years about the suffering of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories through taking classes at my university with professor James Gelvin and reading articles and books by the likes of Edward Said, Richard Silverstein and Max Blumenthal.In my senior year, I conducted a thesis on Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, learning for the first time of the immense institutional discrimination that it suffered (and reaching the conclusion that an exclusively-defined “Jewish state” cannot be democratic).
Through it all I not only came to a more nuanced understanding of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but acquired sympathy for the national aspirations of a Palestinian people living in Occupation.

In this most recent fighting in Gaza, therefore, I no longer see Israel as a victim but as an aggressor, having invaded Gaza to “respond” to rocket fire that the Netanyahu government provoked through its harsh crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank in the proceeding weeks (in a not-so-carefully disguised attempt to “break” Hamas’ unity government with Fatah). This, of course, on the heels of Netanyahu’s obstinance towards Palestinians in negotiating an end to the Occupation.

And yet, almost all of my day school friends-still perceiving of Israel as a “normal” state, incapable of imposing an illiberal military regime on much of the land it controls- likely only have to hear an Israeli military spokesperson mention “Hamas” rocket fire on Israel in order to reflexively come to Israel’s defense. The Netanyahu government’s line, that Israel is only fighting for Israel’s “self-defense,” is carefully tailored to the neurons of those raised to perceive Israel as a righteous, beleaguered state. Even when Israel kills over 500 civilians in the process and gets no closer to “destroying” Hamas.

In the past week, I have heard old friends and close family comment that “Hamas is pure evil,” argue that Israel should reoccupy of the Gaza Strip and dismiss hundreds of civilian deaths as the collateral byproduct of Israel’s “self-defense.”

Such comments will surely be dismissed by many of pro-Palestinian friends as hasbara. But knowing where I was ten years ago, I understand that these statements are rooted not in propaganda but in unwitting misinformation spawned in day schools, shuls and Jewish summer camps.. Amidst the political volatility of Israel-Palestine, a false perception of victimhood combines with reflexive instincts of fear, safety and loyalty to demand the defense of even the most indefensible Israeli position.

I see this psychology at work not only in the Facebook posts of my friends but in the articles, books and interviews given by the likes of Thane Rosenbaum, an Ivy League-educated law professor who justified Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza by essentially belittling the Geneva Conventions-on the same grounds used by Osama Bin Laden.

Viciousness, brought out in some of the brightest and kindest people I know, inspired by fear of the “Jew-hating” Hamas. The justifying of unlawful brutality as a means of restoring “security” to Israel’s south. The unwavering acceptance of Israeli government talking points as the absolute truth (“Hamas provoked it”) despite massive evidence, this time, to the contrary: that Netanyahu.provoked the conflict to destroy the Palestinian unity government.

In all of these aspects, the political behavior of my reflexively pro-Israel friends in this latest conflict mirrors the sentiments traditionally categorized as fascism, what I call (owing to the adherents' espoused identity rather than inherent religious qualities) “Judeofascism.”  

I use the word “fascism” not as a moral judgment (as is so often the case) but as a political category, applicable to a certain breed of doctrinaire patriotism. For many, the word brings to mind a deranged cartoon dictator but rather I think of what Hannah Arendt’s “Little Eichmann’s,” ordinary people who-in the 1930s-would have fallen into lockstep with the authoritarian governance of Der Führer or Il Duce for saving national honor from defeat, personal fortune from the ruin of depression (or Bolshevism).  

The narrow-mindedness and trigger-like conformity that Judeofascism instills in many American Jews are merely symptoms of a toxic disease. In Israel itself, several stages ahead in its prognosis, legislation has been put forth to ban Palestinian politicians expressing dissenting views from the Knesset.

Fortunately, like any disease Fascism can be purged through education and ecposure to multiple perspectives on (this) issue?

Changing the reflexively “pro-Israel” mindset requires that community leaders (rabbis, Jewish educators, philanthropist) begin to tell the honest truth about Israel to their flock. It requires Palestine Solidarity activists to not simply speak against falsehoods or simplicities spewed by their apparent opponents but to speak to them, with the intention of educating.

On Facebook. for a momentary break, I see that an old high school friend has put up a quote from a Times of Israel article, threatening (in his post) to unfriend anyone who posts “anti-Israel messages.”

And then, I ask myself quietly: is it too late?  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Panama: journey into the abyss

The air-conditioning whirred as the bus bumped and swerved along a dirt and gravel pathway, snaking ever deeper into the rainforest of el Darien. Outside, pitch blackness prevailed owing to the thick vegetation and lack of habitation along the highway and yet each stone, rut or snake egg dotting the road could be perceived with a jitter or a thud. As if to distract from the frequent discomfort (and the searing tropical heat), the driver had not only turned up the air-conditioning to the highest notch but turned up the volume on the a loud, raunchy salsa music videos blaring from the television. Dancing and frolicking and screeen alongside the jittering and thumping... Every so often the bus would stop for a member of the nation's defence forces to board for an "inspection." THrough hushed tones of anxiety, it was overheard that we were "heading towards the border" and "drug smugglers," "illegal logging"... After each such stop (accompanied by a reprieve of light), the bus continued into darkness, jittering, salsa dancing, the air-conditioning whirring and now, every so often a piercing howl (from outside).... A sense of the surreal, near hallucinatory indulgence amidst the risk of danger prevailed.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Takeaways from the latest bloodbath in Gaza

1. Objectively speaking, this is not a "conflict" in any form whatsoever. It is a brutal counterinsurgency operation carried out by Israel's Likud government with the presumed intention of annihilating Hamas politically (whether it actually achieves this is a different story). Like any classic counterinsurgency/colonial war, the conflict pits a fully-equipped army against a ragtag lot of guerillas and civilians.

2. The fiercest battle being raged is not taking place but on the ground in Gaza but in public opinion forums abroad, between supporters of Israel and Palestine Solidarity Activists. (see here and here) It is not a battle between supporters of the fighting parties (Israel and Hamas) so much as between upholders of opposing narratives: Pro-palestine activists portraying the conflict as a wanton massacre by an Occupying power and pro-Israeli zionists, upholding the killing as mere "self-defense" by a besieged state.

3. Ultimately, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine supporters extend their arguments way back into history: Palestine solidarity activists emphasize the conflict's roots in the 1948 Nakba (and the very realization of the "Zionist Dream") while Jewish activists compare Hamas to previous waves of anti-semitism like Hamas and Hitler.

4. How involved are the Arab states in this conflict? Iran?
This latest round of fighting has been almost entirely focused on the fight between Israel and Palestine, largely to the exclusion of outside powers...
Thus, a new stage of the I-P conflict, has come into being, one centered on the root conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism to the exclusion of power politics. The deep-rooted, manichean tensions at stake make for a very difficult road ahead.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hillel and the Milstein affair: a catalyst for self-reflection

I am angry. I am mad. But I'm not in the least surprised to discover that the UCLA Hillel has been in cahoots with a bigoted real estate baron, Adam Milstein, who not only fears Islam but donates to organizations (like Aish HaTorah and Christians United for Israeli) that support Israel's brutal military rule and settlement-building in the Occupied West Bank. Not only that, but Milstein and UCLA Hillel seem to have cooperated to provide illicit, under-the-table funding for Bruins United political candidates, before the 2013 elections.

I always felt that Hillel was an uncomfortable place for Jews who did not toe the community line on Israel-Palestine. Whether it was being privy to conversations on Shabbat about the rise in "campus anti-semitism" (codeword for Palestine solidarity activism) or being bombarded with emails prior to student elections demanding that Jewish students "stand with the community" in supporting the Bruins United slate (whose opposition to divestment initiatives and other progressive causes seemed to conflict with the belief in social justice on which I had been raised), the Hillel community always offered a litmus test to which I could not genuinely comply.  The easiest thing to do was remain silent.

It was not just Israel-Palestine politics that got me off. Frequently, when I attended Shabbat dinners, I would receive glances followed by a question of "who do you know" or "what are you here for." Several times, the real intent leaked out: "you aren't fully Jewish...are you?" My Asiatic features apparently made me a suspect outsider, possibly a criminal: such "racial profiling" likely profiling likely bore a connection to many Hillel member's nationalistic or ethnic conceptions of Judaism. (i.e. Jewfroed, hairy, fair-skinned Ashkenazim with Yiddish- or Hebrew-sounding last names).

During my freshman and sophomore years, when I lived on campus, I attended Hillel only for religious services and Shabbat dinners, almost always sticking to a small circle of acquaintances from the UCLA J Street U chapter  (in which I was then involved). These friends all either graduated or drifted away from J Street at the end of sophomore year. I went once for Shabbat at the beginning of junior year only to become privy to an intolerable conversation about the "dangers" of BDS (at my table). Afterwards I only attended for High Holidays, when the scholarship and eloquence of Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller's sermons put aside my concerns with the community large.

The details coming out about Hillel's history of accepting of Milstein's endowments, in spite of the horrendous bigotry and fanaticism that Milstein has displayed, has made me come to see even Rabbi Chaim in a less favorable light. This, of course, follows on the stances Hillel took-with the open support of Rabbi Chaim and other high-ranking staff-that openly opposed last year's divestment resolution (by erroneously linking  it to a monolithic BDS movement purportedly aiming to "delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel) and that masqueraded Hillel's opposition to renewed Palestine Solidarity Activism (in which Jewish Bruin students have played a prominent role) as a "fight against anti-semitism."

Getting back to my main point, I love Judaism as a religion and cultural system but hate any groups or institutions that engage in close-mindedness, exclusion and/or (now, worse) chicanery. The latest Milstein affair, which sees Hillel's leadership  refusing to answer for the revelations of its deceptive, under-the-table activity violates the  portions of the Torah and the Talmud that condemn lying (indeed the Talmud claims that the lyer is among the three types of people whom God most despises). Furthermore Milstein's fear-mongering about "radical Islam" provides a prime example of what the Torah calls Lashon Hara (or slander), deemed sinful even if the accusations are "true." Jewish students of all backgrounds should be mad at Hillel for its pursuit of narrow-minded nationalism at the expense of Judaism's ethical teachings.