Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Secret Trial in the "Only Democracy In the Middle East"

'Due to a gag order we cannot tell you what we know. Due to laziness, apathy and blind faith in the defense establishment we know nothing at all.' - Headline in Israeli Daily Maariv

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israel has been holding a journalist, Anat Kam, under secret house arrest since last December based on allegations that during her military service she leaked classified documents suggesting that the Israeli army violated laws dealing with targeted killings.

No Israeli newspaper or media outlet is allowed to report this, though apparently the Israeli daily Haaretz has gone to court to ask that the secrecy order be lifted. That too cannot be reported on in Israel.

This in the "only democracy in the Middle East."

The incident, about which the journalist is alleged to have leaked the documents, revolved around orders given by Israeli Gen. Yair Naveh, then the head if central command, that permitted open-fire procedures upon identification of any of three leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even if it were not apparent that they posed a threat. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff then and now, approved the targets, adding that troops were to withhold fire only if they were unable to identify "more than one" passenger in the targeted vehicle.

Both orders seemingly violate Israeli law which requires that militants be arrested, and that they can only be shot at if they resist arrest.

Read the JTA account here.

Passover 2010

I thought I would share a supplementary reading that I used at my Passover Seders.

* * *

Maaseh b’Rabbi Eliezer ...

The traditional Haggadah “interrupts” the story of the telling of the Exodus with this tale.

There is a story about five Rabbis: Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar son of Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon, who where reclining [at a Passover Seder] in Bnei Brak. And ther were discussing the story of the Exodus from Egypt all that night, until there students came and said to them: "The time has come for the morning Shma prayer."

Why is this story here?

What are the Rabbi’s talking about ALL NIGHT LONG?

On the one hand the story is inserted in the Haggadah to teach us that we should spend all night – or at least a significant amount of time – retelling the story of the Exodus and discussing its significance.

On the other hand it is here to make the story of the Exodus relevant to the period in which the haggadah was composed, and by extension to every period. It is well known that these five Rabbis were leaders of during the period leading up to the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. (A revolt, by the way, that resulted in one of the biggest disasters to befall the Jewish people.) Most modern commentary explicitly states that they are discussing the revolt against Rome, using the story of the redemption from Egypt as an inspiration and a template, and that their students reference to the Shema is a coded reference to ‘the Romans are coming’.

But is that so? And why these five particular Rabbis named in the story?

Rabbi Eliezer is the eldest of the group. He came from a very rich and very Hellenized family and went to study Torah over the objections of his father and siblings. He is often called Eliezer ben Hycanus. He was the head of the academy at Lydda (Lod.) He was conservative in his rulings or at least not enamoured of the new-fangled rulings of the Rabbinic majority after the destruction of the Temple. He was considered close to Beit Shammai, the opponent of Beit Hillel, the dominant and innovative branch of Rabbinic thought. Once in a bitter dispute about the ability to kasher a certain type of oven for Passover (he ruled that it was permissible and the majority ruled that its was not) he refused to yield to the majority opinion. He was temporarily excommunicated, and all Rabbis ordered that all the utensils that Rabbi Eliezer ever ruled kosher be smashed, all the food he ruled kosher be burned, and that all his students immediately stop studying with him. (Later they recanted somewhat, though he never regained his position on the Sanhedrein.) There are stories where he appears to have been sympathetic to the early Christians and in fact the Keraits, a Mongolian tribe of Nestorian Christians, recognise Eliezer ben Hurcanus as one of the Apostles along with Luke. He died before the revolt actually broke out, and his position on it is not recorded.

Rabbi Joshua, was also quite old by the time of this story. He was a prominent supporter of Beit Hillel and clashed often with Rabbi Eliezer. He was quite poor. His day job is alternately said to have been a tailor or a charcoal maker. He is known for having a kind and mild disposition. He opposed the inclusion of both the Book of Maccabees and the Book of Esther in the Bible. He also was fierce polemicists against the early Judeo Christians. He famously travelled to Rome (along with other Rabbis including a young Rabbi Akiva) to negotiate with the Emperor, and the Talmud has many tales of his disputations with Hadrian. He opposed revolt against Rome and the Midrash tells of how he once talked an angry Jewish mob against revolting by quoting the fable of the lion and the crane. He died shortly before the Bar Kochba revolt broke out, and the Talmud records the saying "Since Rabbi Joshua died, good counsel has ceased in Israel"

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is the youngest of the group. He was also very wealthy and traced his lineage back to Ezra the scribe. He is said to have been incredibly learned in Torah, and opposed the often fanciful and interpretive methods of his contemporary Rabbi Akivah. He held a middle position between the conservative and more innovative camps among the Mishna rabbis. He also travelled with Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akivah on their trip to Rome. Initially he supported the revolt against Rome, but when it was obvious that it was not going to succeeed he urged his followers to stop the fight.

Rabbi Akiva was a student of both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, but rejected their conservative approach to the Law and became a great innovator both in his interpretive methods and in his rulings. He had very poor and humble beginnings (some say was descended from Sisra a Biblical enemy of the Jews whose descendants later converted) but he rose to become the head of the Academy at Bnei Brak (where the meeting in our story takes place.) He was the teacher of virtually the entire next generation of leading Mishna rabbis, and hence his great influence and reputation. He was the most prominent supporter of the Bar Kochba revolt, having dubbed bar Kochba “The King, The Messiah”. He developed a theory glorifying and extolling the virtue of martyrdom. He urged his students to fight to the death. And most of them did. It is written that 30,000 [sic] of his students were killed by the Romans in the period between Passover and Shavuot. He himself was martyred for demonstratively teaching Torah in the public square after its teaching anywhere at all had been banned by the Romans. His last words, as he was being tortured to death were of thanks: thanks that he had been allowed to fulfil the commandment to “Love Your God With All Your Soul.”

Rabbi Tarfon was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. He came from a priestly family, and is said to have served in the Temple as a boy. He was militantly anti the Judeo-Christians going so far as to allow the burning of their scriptures. He famously disputed with Akivah over which is more important, deeds or learning. Akiva sided with learning, Tarfon with deeds. Though he lived through the period of the revolt, and survived it, it is unclear if he actively supported it. His most famous sayings are: "The day is short, the labour vast, the toilers are idle, and the Master’s call is urgent" - perhaps a pro revolt point of view - and "You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it" - perhaps an anti-revolt point of view.

Five very different Rabbis!

So we see, that while it is possible that the Rabbis in the story where indeed plotting the revolt, it is also possible they were still debating its merits. In any case the story brings together a very diverse collection of opinions, perhaps deliberately so, and has them discussing oppression, redemption, freedom, servitude, good and evil, in a period where these where central political concerns, but where the proper course of action was not at all clear. What is clear is that after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, Judaism accepted that Jewish sovereignty was not coming back anytime soon, and set about to build a religion and way of life that did not require it.

A Bit of Good News

According to a recent poll done by the Israeli Daily Maariv, American pressure on Israel may be having a positive effect.

56% of Israelis are now dissatisfied with the performance of Prime Minister Netanyahu - that the highest disaffection rate since he was elected.

48% feel Israel is more internationally isolated than it was a year ago.

And 46.2 5 of support a 2 state solution even if that includes a division of Jerusalem, the highest that number has been in a long while.

The Plague of Darkness

My favorite Israeli blogger, the Magnes Zionist published a depressing article, that sums up the mood of so many on the Israeli left.

Read it here.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why An Independent Investigation of Israeli Military Actions is Required

In case you hadn't heard about it - and why would you, there has been zero coverage in the mainstream media - the parents of Rachel Corrie are suing the Israeli government and army in Israeli civil court. Rachel Corrie was the American volunteer crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent it from demolishing a Palestinian home. This was in 1992. An Israeli military investigation ruled it an accident, and that was the end of that, as far as Israeli authorities were concerned. And as far as American consular officials were concerned too. They accepted the IDF's version of events with only minimal additional questioning.

However, evidence presented in the civil trial, currently occurring in Haifa, shows that the IDF's investigation was perfunctory and amateurish almost to the point of a deliberate cover-up. It was certainly negligent. The investigator assigned was a 20 year old regular army draftee with 3 months training as an investigator. He never visited the site of the death, and never looked at the bulldozer in question - or even a similar one. He just asked questions and wrote down the answers he was given.

You can read all about it at Rabbi Brian Walt's blog. It is eye opening, and confirms more than ever Judge Goldstone's demand for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes during last years Gaza war. If the police cannot be trusted to investigate themselves, a principal firmly established in most progressive jurisdictions, then an army certainly cannot be trusted to do so. And even more-so an army that has been in a non-stop state of war and occupation duty for 43 years.

Peace is NOT Like Falling in Love

Headline in today's Haaretz

Israel's U.S. envoy:'No one can force us to make peace'
Any outside attempt to impose a deal would be like 'forcing somebody to fall in love', says ambassador.

But people can - and should - stop you from beating your wife, ... or your neighbour's wife, ... or your neighbour themselves.

The Israeli government thinks that peace and justice are favours for it to grant if it is so moved. It takes no responsibility and feels no guilt to the Palestinians it has dispossessed and who it continued to treat as second class.

Monday, March 08, 2010

"There is a New Left In Town"

This is all over the Internet: the rousing speech given at Saturday nights anti-occupation demo at Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. But in case you haven't seen it elsewhere read on.
There is a new Left and it is a Left that is not satisfied with peace talks. It is a Left that fights!

There is a new Left that knows there are things you must fight against even when they are identified with the State and even when they enjoy the protection of the law!

There is a new Left that knows that this fight will not be won on paper but on the ground, in the hills, in the vineyards and in the olive groves. ...

This Left does not surrender to the police’s political repression, and does not care what they write about it in Maariv. There is a new Left in town!

This Left does not want to be loved, does not fantasize about town squares and does not bask in the memory of the 400,000. This Left is a partnership between Palestinians, who understand the occupation will not be defeated by missiles and bombs, and Israelis, who understand that the Palestinian struggle is their struggle.

The new Left joins hands with Palestinians in a cloud of tear gas at Bil’in and gets beaten up together with them by settlers at the South Hebron Mountain.

This Left stands by refugees and labor migrants in Tel Aviv and fights against the Wisconsin Plan.

The new Left is us — all of us! ...

We are all the new Left that is emerging in Israel and Palestine.

We are not fighting for a peace agreement. We are fighting for justice. But we believe that injustice is the main obstacle to peace.

All I can say, is "from her lips to Gods ears".

Read the full text of the speech at Coteret.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

5000 Rally For Justice In Jerusalem

Saturday night 5000 lefties rallied for a stop to - and reversal of - evictions of Palestineans from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and by extension in the Silwan and Mount of Olive neighborhoods.

Not only was it the largest anti-occupation demonstration in a long while, not only was it in Jerusalem where it cannot be hidden from the world by the military government, it was a mixed demonstration of Israeli Jews and Palestinians struggling side by side. Is this the sign of something bigger and more effective brewing? One can only hope.

You can read about the details at The Magnes Zionist, Coteret, or the Jerusalem Post.

For some background on why the Sheikh Jarrah evictions are particularly odious and dangerous you can read this article by Gideon Levy, or this piece from the Jerusalem Post, or this from Ir Amim (the most fact filled.)

It is also worth noting that the Sheikh Jarrah evictions are going on simultaneously with Israeli moves on the Palestinian neighborhoods of Silwan and the Mount of Olives. Together with Sheikh Jarrah these three neighborhood surround the Old City on the north, south and east.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Its Not About Peace

Below is an excerpt from very insightful essay was written by Israeli blogger and journalist Noam Sheizaf. It was published on his blog Promised Land.

One of the common mistakes done when discussing the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is in setting peace as the goal of the political process. It is not only wrong, but also counter-productive, and in the end, serves mainly those who which to maintain the current state of affairs. This is not to say that we shouldn’t wish to end all hostilities between the two sides, but rather that to do so, we must change the way this story has been framed since the beginning of the nineties.

First of all, we should be realistic. As we learned in Gaza, an Israeli withdrawal does not promise an end to the violence. Both sides still have conflicting interests which might lead to the use of military power, and in both sides there are elements that will try, at least in near future, to sabotage any agreement by violent means. It’s clear that the more good faith Israelis and Palestinians show today, the easier it will be to stabilize the region, but more than forty years of occupation will inevitably leave plenty of bitterness on the Palestinian side even after the last soldier leaves and the last settlement evacuated; the evacuation of settlements on the Israeli side bring its problems, and the huge socioeconomics gap between Jews and Arabs on such a small territory won’t help either. So we shouldn’t promise that public something that will be hard to deliver.

Even more important is the image created by all these talks about peace. for many people – and this is something I’ve noticed especially in the US – it seems as though there are two equal parties, almost two states, who are entering a diplomatic process to sort their on-going differences. But there is only one state here. Israel is negotiating – when there are negotiations – with the people who are under its own control, and for which it is refusing to grant civil rights.

In other words, talking about peace hides the real nature of the problem, which is the occupation. When we set peace as our goal, it means that the absence of peace – meaning the violence – was the problem. This is true for the Israeli side, but it’s only partly true for the Palestinians. Their main concern is the lack of civil and human rights. For them, the violence that they suffer is only the result of the initial problem, which is the occupation. By talking about peace and peace only, we are accepting the Israeli definition of the problem as well as its solution.


You should read the full essay at the Promised Land blog.