Archive for January, 2011

What I dislike about Israel

Despite being a rabid Zionist, I will occasionally admit to some of the things I strongly dislike about Israel.  They’re things that most people who have spent time here complain about: the rudeness (what Israelis charitably call “directness,” but which is more often just bad manners); the bureaucracy and Israel’s high ranking as #30 on the corruption perceptions index, after Slovenia, Cyprus, and the United Arab Emirates; the hazardous driving (you’re far more likely to be killed in a car accident here than in a terror attack); what I call “the pakeed mentality,” i.e. the outcome of any conversation with a clerk depending on the power needs of the clerk that day; the shortsightedness of the government, e.g. the fact that the Kinneret is so low is because plans to build desalination plants were on the table during a rainy winter, so the government scrapped them; the shocking comments big-mouthed pundits make in public, such as a former editor of HaAretz saying “Israel wants to be raped,” or the latest nugget from a Labor MK saying that it’s only a matter of time before the Left will be put in work camps (duh, that’s what “labor” means; otherwise they should be called the Leisure party).

But perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is the wishy-washiness of the Israeli government regarding Yehuda and Shomron (aka Yosh, aka the West Bank).  Israel won it in a war fair and square, Jordan doesn’t want it back, and the Palestinians refuse to accept any peace offer made by Israel.  I’m not sure I have a solution to the Arab population living here, but I do have a solution to the land question: annex and build.  Not everyone likes to hear that, but what’s the alternative?  Leave it in escrow for another 60 years, waiting for the leopards Arabs to change their spots attitude toward Israel?  Lotsa luck.  In the meantime, the struggle for the land continues, with both Arabs and the government destroying Jewish planting on state land, Arabs claiming and squatting on land that doesn’t belong to them, and building where they wish.  Arab towns under PA control can grow and expand at will.  Jewish towns, on the other hand, are subjected to a 10-month building freeze, after which building permits are allowed to run out and are not replenished.  That’s right; thanks to Ehud Barak (as Minister of Defense, he is officially in charge of Yosh) and his worry about attracting “negative attention” to Israel, there is a de facto housing freeze in Efrat, Maaleh Adumim, and other towns in Yosh.  The government has continued the freeze on the quiet, with the result that housing prices and rents have shot up, there is no ulpan for new immigrants in the Gush because not enough could afford the ridiculous housing prices to come here, tenants’ houses are being sold out from under them for ridiculous prices, and people have nowhere to live.  All this, and Israel isn’t even getting credit for it in the international press!

I was pushed over the edge, from irritation to utter disgust, watching this video of a young family being evicted from their home in Tekoa, with the wife having just given birth and the husband a disabled IDF veteran.

I could handle all this—I really could—if something were going right.  But it’s not.  Except for a few haredi areas in Jerusalem and Beitar Illit, there is almost no new housing going up throughout Israel (and much of the housing that is going up in Jerusalem is luxury apartments for foreigners who come once or twice a year).  Jonathan Pollard is still in prison, the PA still refuses direct talks, we are as far from peace as we’ve ever been, and we still get bludgeoned in the world press every time we move a muscle.

Like anyone who lives here, though, I’ve learned to compartmentalize, to allow myself to think about those things for only a few minutes a day, then move on.  Because the greatest thing to happen, despite all that shtus, is that we are here, and hold out hope for better days.  And most of the time, that is enough.

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My family had just moved to southern Georgia (a few miles north of the Florida border), when I entered junior high school.  If junior high wasn’t bad enough in itself, I was in a new state, new school, with kids who had been together since pre-first (that’s Southern for kindergarten).  Add to that the fact that I was a Yankee, had a Jewish father, and no fashion sense.  It was about as dooming a combination as anyone could muster to be—and stay—an outsider.  We didn’t play golf or tennis, didn’t join the country club or go to any of their churches, and didn’t hunt quail or duck.  Had my father not been a doctor (a breed worshiped in that part of the world), we would have been lost for sure.  As it was, I walked into seventh grade having no idea it was the most infamous viper’s nest the school had seen, maybe ever.  The kids in the class had somehow managed to be dominated, manipulated, and terrorized since pre-first by a homely, freckled, conniving girl named Ivey, who dictated who was “in” and who was “out.”  I gave her a wide berth that year, saying as little as possible to her and her inner circle, and sticking closely to the only girl in the class who would talk to me (who, incidentally, was the only girl from a state north of where I was from—Alaska).  Then, somehow something must have happened over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and when we came back after the summer, Ivey had been dethroned as Queen Bee.  What transpired at church, or the country club, or whatever gentrified haunts these people had for themselves, I never found out.  All I knew was that I was no longer considered an outsider to be shunned.  (Until my family gave up living in the South as a Lost Cause in itself and prepared to move to California.  Then I was right back where I started.  But that’s another story.)

I was reminded of all this social in-and-outness and slippery madness when reading Kathryn Stockett’s recently published novel, The Help.  Narrated from the point of view of three women—a wealthy young white woman who was raised by a black maid, and two other black maids—it tells the story of early 1960s, pre-integration Jackson, Mississippi.   Stockett, who was herself raised by a black maid, has bitten off a huge mouthful, attempting to represent three distinct women’s voices (two of them black women’s), and in my opinion, pulls it off in style.  Skeeter Phelan is a young white woman who lives at home with her parents, has just finished college at Ole Miss, attends weekly Junior League meetings with her high school friends (now married and having children), and dreams of being a journalist.  Aibileen is an unmarried maid in her 50s who has raised 17 white children during her career as a maid, and does all she can to give her latest charge the love, confidence, and colorblind compassion she sees missing in the child’s mother.  Minny is a 30-something mother of five, married to a drunkard, and has a reputation for a sharp tongue and fabulous cooking.  Together, these three women conspire to publish a book detailing the personal experiences of a dozen Jackson maids—good and bad—with their employers.  The stakes are high, and range from ostracism for Skeeter to firing, bludgeoning, and possible jail time for the maids if they’re successfully framed by vengeful employers.

For me one of the book’s chief strengths is the distinctiveness of each protagonist’s voice.  Each of the women is very much part of a system that is in place, throwing black and white women together in close intimacy, yet separating them through social conventions that contradict that intimacy.  When Miss Hilly, the Junior League president, author of a local initiative to install separate bathrooms for black servants, and Jackson’s own Ivey, confronts Skeeter for possessing a printed copy of Jim Crow “laws,” she says, “You know as well as I do, people won’t buy so much as a slice of pound cake from an organization that harbors racial integrationists!”  Skeeter replies, “Hilly … Just who is all that pound cake money being raised for, anyway?”  To which Hilly responds, with a roll of the eyes, “The Poor Starving Children of Africa?”  Skeeter’s moral clarity, despite being a product of the same society as Hilly, at times feels almost unbelievable.  Stockett carefully balances Skeeter’s desire to see change in her society by a very believable delicacy and awkwardness around the maids she meets with to take down their stories.

Perhaps surprising, since Stockett herself does not claim to possess any special knowledge of what it was like to be a black woman working as a maid in the early 1960s, are the true-sounding voices of Aibileen and Minny.  Aibileen’s is mature, sensitive, loving to the children she cares for.  She tells “secret stories” to her young charge, teaching her in subtle ways about the superficiality of skin color.  “I take the brown wrapping from my Piggly Wiggly grocery bag and wrap up a little something, like a piece a candy, inside.  Then I use the white paper from my Cole’s Drug Store bag and wrap another one just like it.  She take it real serious, the unwrapping, letting me tell the story bout how it ain’t the color a the wrapping that count, it’s what we is inside.”  Minny’s crankiness, though, was what won me over most.  Too smart for her own good, she has lost many a job through letting herself say what she thinks.  The greatest luxury for the reader is being allowed inside her head to hear her unbridled inner monologue.   “The thermometer by Miss Celia’s kitchen window sinks down from seventy-nine to sixty to fifty-five in less than an hour.  At last, a cold front’s moving in, bringing cool air from Canada or Chicago or somewhere.  I’m picking the lady peas for stones, thinking about how we’re breathing the same air those Chicago people breathed two days ago.  Wondering if, for no good reason I started thinking about Sears and Roebuck or Shake ’n Bake, would it be because some Illinoian had thought about it two days ago.  It gets my mind off my troubles for about five seconds.”  To Minny’s disgruntlement, her employer, Miss Celia, keeps her a secret, trying to make her husband think she herself is the woman behind the sparkling bathrooms, the fried pork chops and butter beans done just so, and the vacuumed stuffed grizzly bear.  However, Minny’s ultimatum that Celia tell her husband, Johnny, about having a maid is set for December.  “I walk into work with one thing on my mind.  Today is the first day of December and while the rest of the United States is dusting off their manger scenes and pulling out their old stinky stockings, I’ve got another man I’m waiting on.  And it’s not Santy Claus and it’s not the Baby Jesus.  It’s Mister Johnny Foote, Jr., who will learn that Minny Jackson is his maid on Christmas Eve.”

Stockett plants a few fascinating mysteries in the plot that slowly unfold, such as what happened to Constantine, the beloved black maid who raised Skeeter, why Minny’s boss lady lies in bed all day every day and refuses to get up, and what the Terrible Awful Thing was that Minny did to her former employer.  All is eventually revealed, and the ending is neither sunshiny perfect, nor as bleak as it might have been.  Although the publication of the maids’ accounts does come at a price, it was still satisfying for me to see Miss Hilly, who heretofore always thought herself invincible, also share in the outcome of the book’s publication.

Living in the South for a short time, I observed some of the strange, paradoxical relationships that existed there (at least around 1980), where whites entrusted the running of their homes and the care of their children to people they often considered helpless, naturally inferior, and destined for nothing but a life of servitude.  My private day school always proclaimed it was not a white school, but I could only imagine, seeing the harassment a white, Catholic girl with short, “Brillo-pad” hair got from our classmates, what would be in store for the first black student who tried to enroll.  I can still remember the look of shock on the faces of the kids in my 7th grade American history class (most of whom called black people “niggers”) when our teacher got up and told us a horrifying story of being taken by her white-robed daddy to a KKK meeting and announced, at the beginning of the chapter on the Civil War, that slavery was wrong.  Having taken abuse while working in the service industry for several summers, including being accused of stealing (something that overshadows every maid’s work), I had no trouble identifying with the maids in the novel.  Add to that the fact that with no one to protect them at the civic level—no black politicians or policemen—and the constant threat of “summary justice” by whites, in official or unofficial capacities, they weren’t much better off than the Jews in Nazi Germany.

But like anything else involving human beings, things are complicated.  Those who think that it is the natural order of things can read how unnatural, tense, demoralizing it is, with maids raped, beaten, threatened with termination for speaking to people of whom their employers disapprove, or cheated out of earned wages with no recourse.  And for those who think that the system of whites employing blacks to feed them, clean up after them, and raise their children is filled with unremitting evil, there are stories of deep love, of employers giving their maids paid leave to take care of family members maimed by white hooligans, of maids wearing colicky white babies for a year as they went about their duties (and getting chronic back trouble into the bargain), of an elderly maid who recalls “hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house.  Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died.  Each proclaimed their love as best friends.  Swore that death could not change this.  That color meant nothing.  The white woman’s grandson still pays Faye Belle’s rent.  When she’s feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen.”

Whether this employer-maid institution is what binds these Southern blacks and whites together, or what keeps them separate, is explored without necessarily being resolved.  The fact that most people are aware of the social barriers cannot be denied, but whether they are really there or not is another matter Stockett has Minny and Aibileen debate.

Complaining about Miss Celia, Minny complains, “She just don’t see em.  The lines.  Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.”

Aibileen responds, “I used to believe in em.  I don’t anymore.  They in our heads.  People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there.  But they ain’t.  … Some folks just made those up, long time ago.  And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.”

Minny asks, “So you saying they ain’t no line between the help and the boss either?”

Aibileen says, “They’s just positions, like on a checkerboard.  Who work for who don’t mean nothing.”

Minny says, “So I ain’t crossing no line if I tell Miss Celia the truth, that she ain’t good enough for Hilly?  … But wait, if I tell her Miss Hilly’s out a her league…then ain’t I saying they is a line?”

Aibileen answers, “All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

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When the Cap’n and I got married, I took about $40 of the cash people gave us and bought a Cuisinart ice cream maker.  I thought I’d get into making homemade ice cream, but really, with the availability of good ice cream (Breyer’s and J.P. Licks come to mind), I never got around to it.  When we made aliyah, and I was deciding which appliances I would bring and have to run on a transformer, the ice cream maker didn’t make the cut.

This turned out to be a mistake.  Yes, Israel has some lovely ice cream and gelato in the boutiques, but the stuff in the grocery store (with the exception of the high-priced Ben & Jerry’s) is pretty bad.  As in, doesn’t really taste like ice cream at all.  (There is one exception to this, Strauss’s three-chocolate ice cream, but that’s the only one.)  After we’d been here a couple of years, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and ordered an identical Cuisinart for my in-laws to bring with them last year.  It is a little temperamental on the transformer—sometimes it overheats, needs a 10-minute rest before it will run again, then poops out after just a few more minutes.  But it’s still worth it.  The first thing I did was make a good vanilla ice cream.  Then, when I had made a couple of successful batches of homemade toffee, I made toffee-vanilla.  That was good too.  And once I found peppermint flavoring in a Jerusalem grocery that carries lots of American products, I was set to make the Cap’n’s and my favorite: mint chocolate chip.  To cut a long story short, it was a rousing success.  Peach thinks it’s the best ice cream she’s ever had, ever.  Banana also waxed enthusiastic.  My in-laws inhaled it.  The Cap’n and I were transported.  (Beans didn’t like it, and asked if we had any three-chocolate instead.  But she was the exception.)  No more need to miss Breyer’s mint chocolate chip.  And because I’m such a giving person, here is the recipe for your very own.

1 cup whole milk, well chilled (Israeli 3% works fine here)

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 cups heavy cream, well chilled (I buy the 38% stuff here in Israel)

1 to 1 ½ teaspoons pure peppermint extract

125 grams (or more, to taste) fine quality bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks (I use the 60% cacao chips made by Carmit in Israel)

In a medium bowl, whisk milk and sugar together until sugar is dissolved, about 10 minutes.  (This is a good job to delegate to a kid.)  Stir in cream and peppermint extract.  Turn machine on and pour in mixture.  Let mix until thickened, 15 minutes or so, before adding chocolate.  Mix another 5 minutes, transfer to a plastic storage container, and put in freezer to finish freezing.

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At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s father says, “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”  Many will join me in observing that sometimes our “neighbors” are also our own family members.  What teenager doesn’t find himself embarrassed by his parents’ bizarre attire (think here of Dad’s plaid shorts and dark socks), probing questions in front of friends, or sharing embarrassing childhood memories or photos with the teen’s friends?

But I can safely say that anything the Cap’n and I do later in life to embarrass our children (funny accents, bad grammar, or embarrassing malapropisms in Hebrew, for example) will be no more than payback for the kinds of things we have experienced from our children.  Samples of embarrassing public behavior that come to mind include an explosive bowel movement from one of our newborns at a solemn unveiling of a dear friend’s tombstone at the cemetery; loud singing by our children of a culturally offensive, Chinese-themed ditty in a Chinese restaurant; and loud querying of me in the Gush Junction Rami Levi supermarket, “Are those people over there Arabs?”  This excludes, of course, the outlandish, Cyndi Lauper-esque outfits and hair-dos the girls put together for school and Shabbat, about which I say nothing and don’t feel embarrassed, since one doesn’t learn to dress and groom oneself overnight, and I’d rather they leave the house looking ridiculous than have to get up half an hour earlier to micromanage their wardrobes and play hairdresser to them every day.  Peach often has a half-dozen ponytails in her hair, plus a dozen clips and assorted ribbons, and even after Banana has brushed her hair, she still looks like Beethoven in a wind tunnel.  I say nothing.

So I certainly hope I don’t have to hear what an embarrassment I am to my children in another eight years or so.  (The Cap’n, however, keeps a stash of dark socks to wear with his deck shoes and plaid shorts for when the girls are teens.)  If I do hear complaints, I will simply refer them to this post, and say, “Quid pro quo, my dear.”

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On a recent visit to Israel, my mother-in-law told me she would like to be a better advocate for Israel, but never took speech and debate in high school.

Neither did I (though I later found myself grading speeches and judging Lincoln-Douglas debates for high school kids).  And I’m not a lawyer, or a person who thinks on her feet very well.  (My snappy rejoinders take hours to percolate, long after my smug adversary has departed.)

But none of those things really matters in advocating for Israel.  What matters is knowing the facts, and where the flaws are in the rhetoric of Israel-bashers.  This doesn’t take skill, but it does take patience and a will to learn Israeli history, as well as following current events.  Some of the common accusations against Israel these days include the following:

  • Israel is an apartheid state.
  • The “occupation” of the West Bank is responsible for the poor quality of life of Palestinian Arabs.
  • If Israel would just give the Palestinians a state, peace would break out throughout the Middle East.
  • Hamas are just freedom fighters, using “rudimentary” weapons against Israel.
  • Israel is guilty of human rights violations.
  • The siege of Gaza has created a prison for the Palestinians, who are starving and suffering for lack of medicine, basic human needs, and building supplies.
  • The settler movement is responsible for the stalled negotiations between Israel and the PA.
  • Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad are moderate Palestinians and willing peace partners; it’s Bibi Netanyahu who is the problem.

Listening to these absurd (but typical) opinions about Israel, and holding them up against the facts as documented in history books and by responsible members of the press (not the ignorant cub reporters shipped here for a tour of Israel-bashing, Arab-adoring stories for the delectation and delight of an equally ignorant, “progressive” readership back home) should do the trick.  Here are some articles which address each of these prevalent anti-Israel notions and offer facts to rebut them.

Israel is an apartheid state. This was lent even more credence by the participation of South African Jew, Richard Goldstone, in the mock investigation of Israeli war crimes during Operation Cast Lead—it takes one to know one, people probably thought.  Many people have taken this inflammatory statement to task, a job which requires nothing simpler than thumbing through a dictionary for the definition and a one-day tour of Israel to rebut.  But for those too feeble to open a dictionary, or too cheap (or scared) to get on a plane to come here, this Q&A session between an Israeli journalist and Khaled Abu-Toameh should take care of it.

The “occupation” of the West Bank is responsible for the poor quality of life of Palestinian Arabs. For a real look at the causes of Palestinian misery (and living in the West Bank, I think that at least in this part of the country, the “misery” is more than a little exaggerated), check out some articles written by Mudar Zahran (covered in my blog here).  You may be surprised who is REALLY at the bottom of the poverty, statelessness, and decades-long refugee status of Palestinians in Israel, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

If Israel would just give the Palestinians a state, peace would break out throughout the Middle East. Again, this has been addressed by many commentators, who point out that most Palestinian Arabs envision a Middle East with no Israel at all (and a two-state solution would for them act as Stage 1 of a two-stage solution, where Stage 2 is to destroy Israel from without and within); that Arab hostility to Jews in this part of the world began almost 100 years ago, not in 1948; and that the true cause of instability and continued conflict involving Israel and the Arabs is the combination of Iran’s oil-financed sponsorship of terror organizations (Hizbollah and Hamas) and the West’s shoring up of weak leaders (i.e. Abbas and Fayyad) with no mandate, who are no readier to live in peace beside Israel than Hamas.  Former Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold, wrote an enlightening essay in response to The Economist‘s recent cover piece, encouraging US President Barack Obama to impose a “solution” on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.  Gold’s points about The Economist‘s argument, its misconception of the nature of the conflict, and the futility (and danger) of imposing a solution are concise, clear, and worth reading.  (So is everything else I’ve read by Gold.)

Hamas just use “rudimentary” weapons against Israel. I saw a very disturbing YouTube video about pro-Arab activists on a US college campus demonstrating against a pro-Israel event, accusing Israel of atrocities, war crimes, and disproportionate force against Hamas in Operation Cast Lead.  One of the chief arguments made by these pro-Arab activists was that there is a gulf between the sophistication and precision of Israeli weaponry versus the “rudimentary weapons” of Hamas.  (Apparently, they think Hamas is using medieval catapults, sling shots, and water balloons, instead of storing up missile launchers capable of hitting Tel Aviv and beyond.)  With Iran’s help, Hamas has smuggled weaponry through the tunnels dug between Gaza and Sinai, and Hizbollah has been rearming, importing (through Syria or by sea) six times the firepower it had in the Second Lebanon War (2006).  Even the short-range mortars fired several times a day into Sderot and the Negev a few years ago were capable of serious property damage, maiming, and killing people.  The only reason more Israelis weren’t killed was because they were huddled in their bomb shelters several times a day.  Treppenwitz once compared Hamas’s firing of “rudimentary” weapons into Israel to a cantankerous neighbor who comes home drunk every night and shoots his gun at your house.  Just because he’s only put pock-marks in your siding or broken a few windows doesn’t mean he’s incapable of killing you if you happen to step in his line of fire.  A neighbor like that is a menace whether he’s an expert marksman or a violent alcoholic.

Israel is guilty of human rights and international law violations. This may sound compelling, but it’s awfully vague.  In over two years of solo blogging about Israel, not one reader has been able to tell me what human rights Israel has violated, or what international laws it has broken.  The closest anyone has come is to bring up the Fourth Geneva Convention which some interpret as forbidding Israel to settle the West Bank, but even that doesn’t hold water since Jordan does not recognize the West Bank as its own territory (nor, by the way, did the international community, even when Jordan occupied it from 1948 to 1967), and it was never at any time a sovereign Palestinian nation.  So allowing Israelis to build and live here doesn’t violate any law on Earth as far as anyone’s been able to show me.  In war, Israel makes every effort to avoid hurting civilians, even when fighting against a ruthless enemy that deliberately embeds itself in crowded civilians areas to 1) try to protect itself from harm from an Israel it knows will not attack it indiscriminately, and 2) create a situation where civilian casualties are likely to happen if Israel strikes at all, scoring it points in the international media, which will hold Israel—and not Hamas—responsible for their deaths.  Violations of military conduct are reported, taken seriously (even if they’re frivolous or highly unlikely), investigated, and punishment is meted out to guilty parties.  Accusations following Operation Cast Lead of unlawful use of white phosphorous (which I suspect most people had never heard of before, although it’s used by armies all over the world) were found to be groundless, and Israel in complete compliance with its internationally-recognized use.

The siege of Gaza has created a prison for the Palestinians, who are starving and suffering for lack of medicine, basic human needs, and building supplies. People who make this contention should get online and look at the pictures of the busy, well-stocked outdoor markets in Gaza City, the new shopping mall there, and reports by people who have been there (NOT on Hamas-guided tours) and hear what they have to say about it.  Between the truckloads of food, medical supplies, toys, clothing, and other necessary goods that Israel allows through the Erez Border Crossing (try finding another country that supplies their sworn enemies like THAT), Gazan Arabs are far from starving.  Building supplies are also allowed through the crossing, as long as they have an actual building site as a destination, rather than a Hamas munitions plant.  There is little doubt that life could be better for Gazan Arabs, and that they are not as free as Israelis are.  But that is the fault of their government, a fanatically Muslim, terrorist organization dedicated to keeping themselves in power, to their mission of destroying Israel (unrealistic though it may be), and NOT to making a better life for the people they rule over.  No one can justify blaming Israel for that.

The settlements are responsible for the stalled negotiations between Israel and the PA. Oh, that it were so simple.  Or even true.  But the truth is that the PA is unwilling to make the slightest concessions in order to further negotiations.  They refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland that it is (i.e. that it’s here now and always will be), to relinquish their imagined “rights” to return to Israel (for refugees and their descendants), or to stop incitement against Israel in schools, mosques, and the PA-controlled  media.  But because the Arabs have chosen to ignore Security Council Resolution 242 (which states that Israel is entitled to safe, secure borders, NOT NECESSARILY those which existed on June 4, 1967) and everyone else seems to have forgotten it, the settlers can conveniently be blamed for standing in the way of instant, everlasting peace in the region (and, indeed, the world, if you follow Obama’s, The Economist‘s, and the Left’s logic).  The fact that the region’s Arabs refused to acknowledge any rights of the Jews to live here before 1948, made constant war on them between 1948 and 1967, and only a month ago published a “study” claiming that there has never been a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, belies any culpability of settlements to the continued lack of resolution.  Even a 10-month building freeze, accepted by Netanyahu (against the wishes of his electorate), failed to bring the Arabs to the negotiating table until the ninth month, from which they bolted the minute the freeze ended.  I found Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz’s in-depth interview with Beni Begin on this and a dozen other matters to be engrossing reading.  (I’m still scratching my head, wondering how it is that any politician anywhere is as honest, forthright, intelligent, and—apparently—clean as Begin.)

Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad are moderate Palestinians and willing peace partners; it’s Bibi Netanyahu who is the problem. Mahmoud Abbas’s term as President of the PA ended almost two years ago.  Why is he still in power?  Because he knows that if he holds elections, he’ll lose.  He was Arafat’s Number Two, but lacks Arafat’s star quality, and is no improvement over him where commitment to peace with Israel is concerned.  A moderate?  His doctoral thesis, written at a Moscow university, is a Holocaust-denying diatribe.  Fayyad, on the other hand, seems to have charmed many in the West, as well as some of my more credulous friends here in Israel.  He may show signs of promise in his efforts to create a viable economy in the West Bank, but he’s still not moderate enough to be willing to commit himself to a two-states-for-two-peoples solution.  Netanyahu, on the other hand, has expressed a willingness to consider a two-state solution, as long as one of those states is reserved for the Jews.  What is problematic about that?  Many of Netanyahu’s supporters think that is untenable, others think it is a betrayal of their trust and a chillul Hashem, and others think it’s all that is realistically possible to discuss nowadays.  And the truth is, Netanyahu is probably safe discussing such a solution since, like Barak and Olmert before him, he knows that no matter how generous an offer of land, water rights, etc. he offers the Arabs, they’ll always say no.  Because it all goes back to their inability to envision a Middle East that includes Israel.  And as long as that stays constant, Netanyahu can promise them the moon without being responsible for the outcome.

Those are some answers to the most commonly-bandied accusations against Israel.  But as they say, the best defense is a good offense.  So rather than limiting Israel advocacy to answering outrageous accusations and lies, the best advocacy includes turning the tables on Israel’s enemies and asking THEM some tough questions in response.  Here are a few to file away for use:

  • If the Arabs want peace so badly, why do they continue to incite hatred and jihad against Israel in their schools, mosques, and media?
  • If the Arabs want peace so badly, why have they turned down two offers of peace which included nearly 100% of the land they requested, East Jerusalem, and safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank?
  • When you talk about Middle East peace, what concessions do you demand from the Arabs?
  • Abbas and Fayyad refuse to recognize Israel as the eternal Jewish homeland, or indeed, any Jewish connection to the land of Israel.  Why do you think the PA are real peace partners?
  • Israel is a country with freedom of religion, freedom of the press, women have equal rights, and where gays and lesbians are not only accepted, but have been allowed to serve in the military for years.  Are those important to you?  Then why do you support the Palestinian Authority, which has none of those things?
  • A former president of Israel was recently convicted of rape.  While it’s a source of outrage, shame, disappointment, and heated discussion in Israel, it also shows that no one in Israel is above the law, and that women’s rights will be defended at the highest levels of government against the most powerful men in the country.  Do you see the same social and legal culture in Arab states?
  • As a liberal and progressive person, women’s rights are important to you.  Would you support the rights of men to deny women the right to divorce an abusive husband, the right to live free from the threat of honor killings (by men of women) or female genital mutilation?  Then why do you champion the cause of the Palestinian Authority?
  • As a liberal and progressive person, would you support a regime in which the government controls the press, denies its citizens the right to practice their religion or criticize the government, calls for the death penalty to anyone who sells property to Jews, and carries out summary killings (i.e. murders without trial)?  Then why do you champion the cause of the Palestinian Authority?
  • If the settlements are the main obstacle to peace, then why wasn’t there peace before 1967 (i.e. before there were settlements), when Israel gained control of Gaza and the West Bank?  Or before that, when the Arabs were offered a state of their own in 1948?
  • At the Khartoum Conference (September 1, 1967), the Arab nations that met after the Six Day War vowed not to recognize Israel, negotiate with Israel, or make peace with Israel.  This is effectively the policy still in place with the Palestinian Authority.  Why should Israel be expected to give land to people who hold fast to this policy?
  • When Israel uprooted settlements, unilaterally withdrew, and gave land (Gaza) to Palestinian Arabs with no concessions on the Arab side, that land was taken over by Hamas terrorists who fired thousands of missiles and mortars into Israel in the ensuing three years, damaging buildings and kibbutzim, killing and maiming Israeli citizens, and resulted in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity for over four-and-a-half years, and has been denied visits from the International Red Cross or any other contact with the outside world.  Why should Israel be expected to do that again with the West Bank?

I could go on, but instead I’ll just alert you to an article by David Harris, Executive Director of the AJC, entitled “How Can You Defend Israel?” and post the following video, which is an amusing primer on confronting progressive thinkers who target Israel.

My point in this post is that there are no secrets to Israel advocacy, beyond knowing something and being able to ask questions back.  Perhaps the job of hasbara (explanation) should rest less on the shoulders of Israel’s defenders, and more on those of the people who attack it.

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What the Western media misses

I’ve long been a fan of Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu-Toameh.  Unlike many journalists who cover Israel, he lives here, is Arab, Muslim, and an Israeli citizen.  Most of his stories cover the inside politics of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.  He understands Arab culture better than most journalists (and certainly most Westerners), and has worked for both the Arab Palestinian press and the Israeli press.  He currently writes for the Jerusalem Post, where his fluent English (yet another of his many strengths) allows the English-speaking world to read and benefit from his work and his unique insights.

The following is a report written by someone who attended a talk by him back in November.  I found it on the Efrat chat list, though several other bloggers have posted it on their websites as well.

“Abu Toameh: What the Western Media Misses”
by Arsen Ostrovsky

A few days ago, I was fortunate to attend a talk by Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh in Jerusalem.  Toameh gave an incredibly wide-ranging talk about the peace process, the double standards rife in the West and the media when it comes to coverage of the Middle East, and his perspective as a Muslim Arab of Palestinian descent living in Israel.  (And you thought you had identity issues!)

Toameh has been working as a journalist for almost 30 years now, covering Palestinian affairs, focusing predominantly on the West Bank and Gaza, including for the Palestinian press under the PLO and for various international media outlets in the US and Europe.  He is currently at the Jerusalem Post writing on Palestinian issues.  Toameh is also an Israeli citizen living in Jerusalem.  In other words, he is aptly qualified to comment on the issues of his discussion.

However, if you expected Toameh to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon with the familiar cries that Israel is an un-democratic apartheid state responsible for all that is wrong, including the bubonic plague, or to have a single-minded focus on the occupation, you would have been sorely disappointed.   Instead, he spoke openly, courageously, and in his words, said it “as it is.”  Asked what he thought was the essence of the conflict, Toameh said it was not about money or even settlements, as many so-called pundits often imply, as a precursor to blaming Israel.  Rather, his answer was very simple: “This conflict is about Israel ‘s very existence in this part of the world.”

But before you jump to any conclusions, Toameh is not a card-carrying Zionist or, as somebody once asked him, “When did you get on the Israel lobby payroll?”  In his own words, “I’m not pro-Israel, I’m not pro-Palestinian, and I’m not pro-American.  But as a journalist, I’m pro the facts and pro the truth.”

Here are some of Toameh’s illuminating comments:

I asked Toameh how, as an Arab Muslim Israeli, he responds to accusations that Israel is an apartheid state.  His response: “Israel is not an apartheid state.  But there are problems and some discrimination with the Arab minority inside Israel.  If Israel were an apartheid state, I, for example, would not be allowed to work for a Jewish newspaper or live in a Jewish neighborhood or own a home.   The real apartheid is in Lebanon, where there is a law that bans Palestinians from working in over 50 professions.  Can you imagine if the Knesset passed a law banning Arabs from working even in one profession?  The real apartheid is also in many Arab and Muslim nations, like Kuwait , where my Palestinian uncle, who has been living there for 35 years, is banned from buying a house.  The law of Israel does not distinguish between a Jew and an Arab.”

As for the uniqueness of the Israeli media in the Middle East, Toameh added, “Israel is a free and open country with a democracy that respects the freedom of the media.  You can basically write any anti-Israel story and still walk in downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without having to worry about your safety.  Anyone can be a journalist in Israel.”

Toameh says he finds it ironic that as an Arab Muslim living in this part of the world, the only place he can express himself freely is in a Jewish newspaper, noting that, “We don’t have a free media in the Palestinian area, we didn’t have one when I was working there in the late 70’s and early 80’s, we didn’t have one when the PLO came here after the signing of the Oslo Accords, and we still don’t have one under Fatah and Hamas.”

But what about the media’s need for an anti-Israeli angle on stories?   Toameh says that when he tried to alert many of his foreign colleagues that Palestinians were dying because of an internal power struggle or gross corruption by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, their reflex response was, “Where’s the anti-Israel angle to the story?  Give us an anti-occupation story.  Make our lives much easier.  An Arab killing an Arab, that’s not a story for us.”

Toameh notes that the same foreign journalists would then ask him, “Are you on the payroll of the Israel lobby? Do they [the Jews] pay you to say these things against Arafat and the PLO?”  Toameh’s response to them: “What do the Jews have to do with this? I’m telling you what the Palestinians are saying about there being corruption in the Palestinian Authority.  I’m even telling you that the PA is saying that the PA is corrupt.”  “It is a sad reflection on the state of society, and in particular, the media industry, that not only are they not sufficiently concerned or outraged at the death of Arabs by Arabs (which coincidentally has claimed many more lives than the Israel-Palestinian conflict), but that they will only muster even an iota of concern if they can put in an ‘anti-Israel’ angle.”

On the proposed loyalty oath as well, Toameh offered a pragmatic response:  “I have no problem with it because it applies equally to both Jews and non-Jews alike.”

One of the biggest and most intractable sticking points has consistently been the Palestinian demand for a right of return, which Israel will not agree to because it would mean the death knell of Israel as a Jewish state.  However, Toameh offers a very simple and pragmatic three-stage solution, where the Palestinian refugees could
1. Go to the future Palestinian state;
2. Resettle elsewhere, including other Arab states; and
3. Be offered compensation.
Most tellingly though, and in a statement seldom ever heard from Arabs (or the West), Toameh then asked: “And what about Jewish refugees that were forced to flee Arab nations?” suggesting that the issue of Jewish refugees must also be part of any future solution.

Focusing on the problem from Arab dictatorships and their insistence on inciting their people against Israel , Toameh says that we have a problem in the West in failing to believe what people tell us.  “If Hamas say they want to destroy you, you have no reason not to believe them.  And if Ahmadinejad says he wants to destroy you, there’s no need to start analyzing what he means by that.  Stop fooling ourselves, and if anyone thinks that Hamas will ever recognize Israel ‘s right to exist, you’re also living in an illusion.  Take it from their mouth directly.  The PLO, however, is different – they will tell you one thing in English and then another in Arabic.”

On the subject of Arab dictatorship, Toameh says, “Arab dictators survive by constantly blaming the misery of their people on Jews and the West and never accepting responsibility for anything.  And by inciting against Israel and the West, you divert attention from problems at home.  Why?  Because you always need to make sure that your people are busy hating someone else.  If they’re not hating Israel and the West, they might wake up one day and come to you, and God forbid, demand reform and democracy.”  The crux of the message is, “If you keep inciting your people, then they ask, ‘Well, why are we then making peace with the Jews?  We should be killing them, as Hamas is saying.'”

So what does Toameh think about Mahmoud Abbas, the PA President?  “Abbas is corrupt, discredited, weak and does not have much power.  He is reliant on Israel , whose presence in the West Bank is ironically the only reason he has managed to stay in power.”  And if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders as demanded by Abbas and the PLO?  “Abbas will collapse and Hamas will take over the West Bank in less than a day.  If I were Israel , I would not give Abbas one inch of land in the West Bank – not for ideological reasons, but to avoid a situation where Hamas and others would take over the area.”

When we asked him how best to defeat the extremists, radicals and terrorists like Hamas and Hizbullah, Toameh answered, “The first and most important thing is you go to the Arab governments and tell them, “Stop the incitement that’s feeding these radicals and driving people into their hands.”  Sometimes there’s no difference between what is written about Israel and the Jews in the papers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia with what is written by Hamas.”

Noting again the billions of dollars in aid provided by the US and EU to various Arab dictatorships, Toameh says they should tell them, “Stop calling for my death with my money.”

I asked Toameh about what steps were needed to move forward.  According to him, the answer is “very simple” and involves the following steps:
1) The Palestinians must start investing money (provided to them mainly by the US and EU) for the welfare of their people instead of incitement.   Then dismantle all militias, establish a free press and democratic institutions, end the infighting, insist on good governance and speak with one voice so at least we know who we’re talking to.  And then, he suggests, they should go speak with Israel and see what it has to offer them.
2) Deal with the enemies of peace – if you weaken the enemies of peace, like Iran , Hizbullah, Hamas, the moderates will rise and start speaking out.  But as long as Iran is breathing down the neck and threatening, together with Hamas and Hizbullah, to kill anyone who makes concessions, no moderate Arab will ever dare sign an agreement with Israel.  Toameh says:
“I don’t even rule out military action against any of them because this is the only language these guys understand.  Talking to them and appeasing them is even more dangerous.”
3) “We can’t move forward when you don’t have a clear, strong, reliable and credible partner on the Palestinian side,” says Toameh.   According to him, “Abbas is not a partner.  He and Fayyad might be nice guys with good intentions – but they cannot deliver.  So the PA are not partners because they cannot deliver and Hamas are not partners because they don’t want to be partners.”

Addressing the issue of whether there was a clear and credible partner on the Israeli side, Toameh said, “I don’t care who is in government in Israel .  There is a partner.  And my partner is the Jewish people.  Why?  Because a majority of Jews have already accepted a two-state solution.  I see a majority of Jews who don’t care anymore about Gaza.  I see a majority of Jews who want to disengage from the Palestinians.  I see a majority of Jews over the last 15 years marching toward moderation and pragmatism.  I don’t know today of one Jewish mother that wants to send her son back to the streets of Ramallah or Gaza.  I don’t know of one Jew who wants to control the lives of the Palestinians and run their education and health system.  Sadly though, while the Jewish public has been marching towards pragmatism and realism and moderation, on the Arab side the message remains no, no and no.”

In an incredibly candid address, for me perhaps the most defining statement Toameh made was when I asked him: Would you rather continue living as a member of a minority in Israel or move to another Arab country?  Toameh’s response was simple, honest, and telling:  “Israel is a free and open democratic country.  I enjoy living here and I would rather live as a second-class citizen in Israel , even though I’m not, than a first-class citizen in any Arab country.”

In a world where it’s all too easy to turn a blind eye to courage, Khaled Abu Toameh is a welcome breath of fresh air: a man, deeply committed to peace, who is seen as a traitor by many and who bravely continues to put his own life on the line each day, Toameh perhaps says it best himself: “I’m not pro-Israel, I’m not pro-Palestinian and I’m not pro-American.   But as a journalist, I’m pro the facts and pro the truth.”

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I know this week has been the “something borrowed” week here at Shimshonit.  Once the dust has settled in my life, I vow to get back to some original content.  In the meantime, however, I have found lots of cool stuff I’m eager to share, including the following.

A friend posted this YouTube video of an original song by Reina Del Cid on Facebook.  After listening to some of her other songs, I think it’s typical of her thoughtful lyrics and edgy guitar chords, but sweeter and more vulnerable, better balanced (voice/guitar-wise) than most others, as well as being a more appealing video.  She’s honest, fresh-faced, brainy, and geek-lovely.  What a find.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

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