Friday, 20 November 2009

Commenting on the recent channel 4 dispatches documentary on the Israel Lobby, Anshel Pfeffer writes:

Oborne used the classic follow-the-money tactic, but as he had to admit at the end of the program, he'd failed to discover any evidence of a conspiracy or illegality.

But the real problem with today's Israel lobby, in Britain and the United States, is not with its finances and their lack of transparency but with its entire mind-set. The basic fact is that by its actions, the lobby is now causing Israel more harm than good. That's the point Oborne almost totally missed. On every level - moral, political, diplomatic, economic, military and religious - this country is being rapidly corrupted and damaged by the continuing occupation of the West Bank. By granting blanket support to all policies of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power, and by branding critics of these policies as either self-hating Jews or anti-Semites, they're contributing to Israel's siege mentality and delaying the day when Israelis will finally realize that there's only one practical and ethical alternative.

So true.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Welcome to the blog!

What began as a series of notes on Facebook has now morphed into a blog. At the moment this blog seems like a fun thing to do: if it stops being fun, it will soon after also stop being. So... make this experience fun for me by writing lots of comments beneath my blogposts. That will be great. yeah.

Actually reading the Goldstone report

This is a note about the Goldstone report, which you can find here

For those who have different facebook friends to me, and so haven’t seen a flurry of articles, youtube links and the like, almost all of them slamming the report, I’ll explain what it is. Then I’ll explain why I think we need to take it seriously.

Richard Goldstone is a prominent South African judge with vast experience of investigating human rights abuses worldwide: including South Africa, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. He is Jewish; according to his daughter he is a Zionist; he is a trustee of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and by his own admission, has ‘supported Israel and the Jewish people all [his] life’.

He also authored a work that Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, claims is 'vitriol', and 'goes further than Ahmedinejad'. The work in question was the 575 page report of a UN commissioned investigation into violations of international law perpetrated during the Gaza conflict earlier this year. Goldstone led the investigation.

I’ve started reading his report. Are there problems with it? Probably. And sure – these should be discussed and acknowledged. For example, the mission’s remit was initially one-sided - it was only to examine Israeli violations of international law (not Hamas violations). According to NGO Moniter, the report therefore ‘erased Hamas culpability’. Reading the report myself, however, I don’t see evidence for that. In fact the report actually recognises the initial one-sidedness of their remit, and in para 11 states:

“the Mission determined that it was required to consider any actions by all parties that might have constituted violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law.”

In other words, they expanded the scope of their investigation specifically to address violations committed by Hamas. And they did exactly that. In para 35 they note evidence of Hamas military attacks from civilian areas; in para 36 they write:

“Palestinian armed groups, where they launched attacks close to civilian or protected buildings, unnecessarily exposed the civilian population to damage.”

They go on in section XXIV to address the issue of Hamas rocket attacks, noting the 8,000 rockets that have been launched since 2001. Para 1680 notes that two thirds of Sderot residents have had an acquaintance injured by the rocket fire, while half have had shrapnel fall on their homes. The report is unequivocal in its denunciation of the rocket attacks as violations of international law.

What is more, the report acknowledges Israel’s ‘significant efforts… to issue warnings’ to Gazan civilian before attacks. (Para 37) And it explains that Israel’s use of white phosphorous was not (contrary to popular imagination) proscribed by international law (‘reckless’ though it may have been).

So to suggest that the report is some kind of entirely one-sided, poisonous anti-semitic diatribe – as Oren and others would have you believe – is simply absurd.

Some pro-Israel commentators are frustrated with the reports failure to acknowledge Hamas’s alleged strategy of using human shields. There is an obvious reason that could explain such a failure: Israel completely refused to cooperate with the report, submitting no evidence to the mission. They even refused permission for Goldstone and his team to visit Sderot to see the damage there. It’s like the little child in school who refuses to explain to the teacher why he got into a fight (or fought in a way that violates international law or whatever) and then complains that the teacher overlooked his side of the story.

Another criticism has been that the report relied on reports from anti-Israel organizations. There’s a fallacy committed by such a criticism; just because an organization is anti-Israel, it doesn’t follow that their submissions are dishonest. But more importantly, reading the report, I’m struck by paragraph 24, where Goldstone explains that in any case, the Mission relied primarily and whenever possible on information gathered first hand. “information produced by others… was used primarily as corroboration.”

In any case, while there may be some shortcomings, the report needs to be taken seriously. Goldstone’s team examined over 10,000 pages of documentation and testimony, conducted 188 interviews; saw 1,200 photographs, and 30 videos. Okay, some of the evidence may have been suspect. But let’s remember the law of big numbers – there’s a large enough pool of evidence for any reasonable person to accept that it can’t all just be rejected. And the evidence is pretty disturbing. Just one example - it cites four examples of Israelis using Palestinian human shields. (para 55) Incidentally, this evidence was supported by testimonies from Israeli soldiers. The use of human shields is a war crime. And we can’t just sweep it under the floor under talk of ‘these things happen in war’. These things only happen when someone decides they should happen.

The report cites numerous examples of Israeli violations of international law. It identified a few instances in which civilians were targeted without an identifiable military objective. Now it may just be the case that Israel knew of something that the report’s creators did not. But if so, the Israeli government only has itself to blame for failing to cooperate with the Mission, and failing to identify for them the military objectives in those attacks.

More disturbingly, some violations of international law were explicitly advocated by senior Israeli politicians. For example, Eli Yishai, currently one of the four deputy Prime Ministers, Minister for internal affairs, and chairman of the Shas party, said:

“Even if they fire at an open area or into the sea, we must damage their infrastructures and destroy 100 houses. That's when it will end,”

This note is getting too long, so I’ll end here with a recommendation for people to actually read (at least) the executive summary of the report before they reject it out of hand. The one thing I will reject, though, is Ambassador Oren's grotesque suggestion that Goldstone 'goes further than Ahmedinejad'; as though a report exposing Israeli and Hamas violations of international law is somehow (a) of the same nature as Ahmedinejad's holocaust denial, and (b) is in fact worse than it. Oren writes that: "Recognizing the murder of six million Jews more than six decades ago is, in fact, vital for understanding the supreme dangers posed to six million Jews in Israel today by a nuclear Iran and by the Goldstone Report." And with this he does something even worse: he exploits the memory of the holocaust so as to discredit the findings of the Report.

Shimon Peres and the problem with stupid activists

Shimon Peres and the problem with stupid activists
Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 12:49am | Edit Note | Delete
If I lived in Tel-Aviv I would want to involve myself with anti-occupation politics. I would attend protests and demonstrations. I would write letters and sign petitions. I would visit the west bank with organizations such as 'Peace Now', to see what goes on there. If I lived in Tel-Aviv I would want to associate myself with the wider movement against the Israeli occupation.

But I live in Oxford, a city where – it seemed tonight, as I attended a talk by Israeli President Shimon Peres – that movement is dominated by activists who are happy to compare Shimon Peres to Adolf Hitler when they heckle, and what’s more, will be applauded for doing so by their supporters. I say this because when one of the evening's many hecklers was shushed by other audience members, she shouted, ‘if Hitler was talking you’d also be shouting’.

Now in principle I’m all for opposing the occupation from afar, here in Oxford. But I’m a Jew, the child of Israelis and the grandchild of holocaust survivors; there’s just no chance I'm ever going to feel comfortable working with the kind of activists I saw tonight; people willing to draw no moral distinction between Hitler and Peres. When someone fails to make such a distinction you have to worry about their capacity for making moral judgements at all.

What’s baffling is how these activists, who are so quick to attack Israel’s supporters for exploiting the memory of the holocaust for political gain, appear to have had no qualms about doing exactly the same themselves. If they can use (or misuse) the evocative power of the holocaust in order to add rhetorical value to their arguments, then it seems they’re willing to do so. They’re not really opposed to what has been called ‘the Holocaust industry’; they just want a piece of it.

What such activists need to realize is that their abrasive, disruptive, holocaust-invoking shouts simply aren’t persuasive. They’re not convincing or impressive. They don’t leave listeners feeling intrigued, thinking ‘you know what, they seem reasonable, maybe they’ve got a point’. What they do is piss people off. They alienate left-wing, anti-occupation Jews, turning them off any desire to associate with anti-occupation groups in the UK. They leave us feeling like even if we wanted to we couldn’t talk with them, and maybe couldn’t even talk to them, but can only be shouted at by them.

The talk that Shimon Peres gave was measured and calm; honest about the costs of peace, truthful about the need for compromise. He acknowledged the mistake that was the establishment and expansion of the settlements, and was supportive of the Palestinians desire for Statehood. There was nothing racist in his talk’s content; nothing Islamophobic in his words. The contrast between the nature of his speech and the vitriolic shouts from protesters both within and outside the Sheldonian Theatre was startling.

With a career full of negotiation, discussion, and peace-making attempts behind him, Peres obviously had a lot to say, but one of his best lines was said in response to a heckler: ‘You have eyes and you have ears as well as a mouth’, he said, ‘sometimes you should give the mouth a rest’.

If they don't want to push left-wing Jews towards the right, those activists who heckled tonight would do well to listen.

Note: Having read the report on Ynet news, I appear to have misheard the protestor. She actually said: ‘If Hitler were here now, he would remain silent as you are silent and listen to Peres’ speech.” Still, the substance of my point remains.

One Caryl Churchill

Friday, February 20, 2009 at 12:19pm | Edit Note | Delete
One Caryl Churchill

Tell her the play’s anti-Semitic

Don’t tell her that

Tell her what she wants to hear

Tell her what she believes

Tell her they’re just trying to deflect criticism from Israel.

Tell her it’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel

Don’t tell her that nobody claimed it was

Tell her she can say this to create a straw man

Tell her she can say this when she's attacked for her play

Tell her it’s possible to criticise the actions of Israel without being anti-Semitic

No but tell her she failed to do so.

Don’t tell her that.

Tell her the play was brave

Tell her she said what others think but are too scared to say

Tell her she shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the "otherness" of Palestinians

Tell her that’s what Michael Billington said in the Guardian.

Don’t tell her that’s not problematic

Don’t tell her that’s not anti-Semitic

Don’t tell her that’s not her problem

Tell her it’s Billington’s.

Tell her I’m Jewish and I wasn’t “bred” that way.

Don’t tell her the play lacks nuance

Don’t tell her the play’s simplistic

Don’t tell her the obvious.

Tell her it portrays Israeli parents as inhuman triumphalists who care little about anything except their children’s feelings, and who teach them that Arabs are sub-human and must be hated

Don’t tell her you really can’t believe everything you see on television (or on stage)

Don’t tell her the UN school was never actually bombed but no one seems to care

Tell her that as a playwright she should know that the silences speak volumes

Don’t tell her she was silent about so much

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t frighten her.

No but tell her about another play.

Tell her about ‘Seven Palestinian Children’.

Tell her the play starts with the Naqba and ends with Hamas.

No but tell her this play is not an attack on anyone, it is a cry of grief

Tell her at the end a man stands and speaks of Jewish Children covered in blood and smiles

Tell her he quotes from the elders of the protocols of Zion

Tell her he says that Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Tell her he says he’s a suicide bomber

Tell her he says he wants to kill children

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t frighten her.

Tell her such a play would be grossly unfair

Tell her such a play would misrepresent Palestinians

Tell her such a play would be racist.

Tell her the Guardian’s critics would slam such a play.

No but tell her the Guardian’s critics applauded hers.

Tell her the Royal Court would never stage such a play

No but tell her the Royal Court proudly staged hers.

No but don’t tell her her play was anti-Semitic

Tell her it was criticism of Israel

Don’t tell her the two are not always mutually exclusive.

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t frighten her.

Tell them you'll use Jewish actors so it's all okay

Facebook and the conflict in Gaza

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 1:38pm

It’s bizarre. All over the Facebook pages of many of my friends, in their groups, in status updates and in the notes they’ve posted up, among the photos of late night escapades and embarrassing childhood snaps, is... the conflict in Gaza.

Take this facebook status for example:

“X thinks it ironic that the BBC is showing a film about the Jews being attacked in a ghetto while in real life the Jews are attacking a ghetto !! Funny old world.”

Hmmm. I fall under the category of ‘the Jews’ and (to the best of my knowledge) I’m not attacking any ghetto. Many Jews are indifferent to Israel, and, as for Israel itself, more than a fifth of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and its army includes many non-Jews, such as its Arab Druze soldiers. Simply put, Israel is not ‘the Jews’. It would be wrong to define ‘the Muslims’ by the actions of one Muslim state; why subsume the Jews and the Israeli army into one entity?

I also resent the subtle implication that there’s something wrong (‘ironic’) about showing a film about the holocaust while Israel is attacking Gaza. What happened in the holocaust and what’s going on in Gaza are two different things. The Jewish ghetto was not a hotbed for religious extremism, steered by a leadership that openly advocated the slaughter of another people’s civilians. There’s your difference between Gaza and the ghettoes. (For more info see the Hamas charter, article 7, and read

The analogy between Gaza and the Jewish ghettoes in Europe seems to me to be motivated chiefly by a desire to invoke the rhetorical power of the holocaust. After all, ghettos are defined (by the dictionary) as a part of a city where a minority group are forced to live; Gaza is not a City, so its description as a ‘ghetto’ – while I’m not saying it’s anti-Semitic – is certainly anti-semantic.

Turning back to Facebook, many of my more Zionist friends have focused on the number of Qassam rockets fired, ‘donating’ their status to Qassam count. ( Others have linked to an Aish sponsored video, called ‘15 seconds’, that highlights how short a time the residents of Sderot have to find shelter when Qassam rockets are headed their way.

I’ve been bothered by both.

When confronted with the gross disparity in numbers killed and weaponry available to each side of the conflict, the typical response you hear from Zionists – as was given, for example, by Israeli Ambassador Ron Prossor only last week at Limmud – is to dismiss the ‘numbers game’ as being an unhelpful distraction from the real issues. Prosser is right to stress that numbers, in terms of casualties incurred or weapons fired, are not the only morally relevant factors in a conflict. Intentions matter too, as do ‘long term’ considerations (i.e – numbers in the long term). But numbers retain their importance– and the fact that so many of Israel’s supporters have donated their status to ‘Qassam count’ suggests that actually, they agree.

What troubles me is that Israel supporters want it both ways. They want to stress the numbers of Qassam rockets fired, or the number of seconds those in Sderot have to find shelter before being hit by a rocket, while at the same time neglecting to acknowledge the undeniable fact that – if we are to play the numbers game – Israel’s has inflicted far more damage on Gaza than the other way around, and that Gazans have far less than 15 seconds to find shelter, since they have no missile warning system (as far as I can tell from searching through the internet). And for all the noise Israel makes about the rockets Hamas have launched into southern Israel prior to the conflict, the fact is that in the three years following the (disastrous) unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, only 11 Israeli civilians were killed by rocket attacks, while between 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.

And I know, I know – there’s no moral equivalence between the intentional killing of civilians (what Hamas does) and the unintentional collateral damage caused by Israel’s targeting of the military infrastructure of Hamas. But for the civilians themselves, killed or else condemned to live with fear, whether Israeli or Palestinian, the differing intentions of those on their opposing side are of no comfort. And the short of it is that in this conflict, many more Gazans are experiencing that suffering.

For all the fighting taking place by proxy on Facebook, in the form of status updates and groups etc, one group offers a glimmer of hope. It’s called ‘Arguing on Facebook is the only way to solve the Israel / Palestine problem’. Well, lets hope its not the only way...