Why Merav Michaeli Is Upbeat About the Israeli Left

 Photograph via flickr
Photograph via flickr

Merav Michaeli, the Israeli journalist and women’s rights activist-turned-Knesset member for the Labor Party, is a sign of hope for a progressive future in Israel. Last Tuesday, she tried to convince an exclusive crowd of worried Jewish leftists gathered in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that there was hope for the upcoming elections and for the future of a democratic Israel. The talk was sponsored by the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, and also included journalists, professors, high-ranking members of the New Israel Fund and Encounter, along with representatives from Hillel, Habonim Dror, and others. What followed was a passionate, sometimes heated, and surprisingly optimistic discussion of the future of the Jewish State and the role American Jews can play.

*The first question asked was about the nationality bill, the controversial proposed law to officially declare Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This question proved an easy one—since there is no Knesset, there will be no nationality bill. When there is a new Knesset, its makeup will likely be so different that it won’t even be proposed again.

*On the coming elections slated for March 17: Though the mood in the room suggested I was not alone in hearing virtually nothing but terrifying predictions of a rout by the right and another term for Netanyahu, if not a first term for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, she was hopeful. For the first time in a long time, she said, there was actually a good chance a center-left coalition headed by her Labor Party will take power, meaning Labor leader Isaac Herzog and not Bibi Netanyahu would be Prime Minister. “The feeling towards Netanyahu right now, there is so much grudge and hatred, people are sick of him. His approval ratings are very, very low,” she said.

To capitalize on this, Labor is busy forming a center-left bloc of parties that will include the recently-fired former justice minister Tzipi Livni and former defense secretary and chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to give Herzog an additional vote of confidence among the public. Though the political climate in Israel is notoriously quick to change, polls show that if the election were held today, this coalition would win the majority of votes. The goal, she said, is to create, “One address for people who want to restore a more democratic Israel, one that works towards narrowing gaps in society.”

Read more at The Jewish Daily Forward

The Moral Siege

The militarization of Jewish supremacism in Israel

Bills posted for a Rabbi Meir Kahane memorial rally. Photograph: Yossi Gurvitz
Bills posted for a Rabbi Meir Kahane memorial rally. Photograph: Yossi Gurvitz

By Assaf Sharon in the Boston Review

Addressing Israel’s offensive in Gaza, John Kerry said: “Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization.” Living in Israel, I found the secretary’s comment baffling. In my city, Jerusalem, the sirens have sounded only three times. Tel Aviv and its vicinity has had it worse, with three dozen sirens or so over the last month. Yet daily routine has not been greatly affected. In the south, near the Gaza strip, things are different. With numerous rockets daily, life in some Israeli towns and villages has become what happens between one rush to the shelter to the next. This is certainly not acceptable, but it is not a siege either. In Jewish history, the archetypical siege is the Roman siege of Jerusalem, described by the first-century historian, Josephus, thus: “Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring unspeakable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life.” In Zionist history, the paradigm comes from 1948, when Jerusalem was once again stricken with hunger and want of basic supplies. Here is how one mother described it in a letter to her son who was fighting in the north: “Whoever doesn’t have food simply goes hungry. There’s no gas for cooking, people gather wood and cook in the street. Other than bread, (and this too only 200 grams per person daily) there’s almost nothing to buy…. Water is delivered in a carriage with an allowance of 1.5 cans per person for a week (can=eighteen liters), which is precious little. And as there is no fuel for cars, the water must be brought (from great distance) from wells.” Today, this description is more suitable to Gaza than to Israel.

But there is another siege haunting Israel today. This siege is internal rather than external, moral rather than physical. The murder of sixteen-year-old Muhhamad Abu-H’deir, burned alive by Jewish extremists on July 2, made headlines worldwide. But the context in which this crime was hatched receives less attention. The day before, as the three Israeli youths kidnapped and murdered three weeks earlier were being buried, hundreds of extremists gathered in Jerusalem under the banner “We want Revenge!” And their slogans clarified: “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Leftists.” As the mob marched to the city center, they pounded on store fronts, demanding Arab blood. A large group gathered outside McDonald’s shouting for its Arab employees to be brought out. Smaller groups roamed the streets looking for Arabs to abuse. A wave of racist violence has been washing the streets since then. Organized mobs of extremists have been marching through the streets of Jerusalem shouting racist slogans, calling, “Death to Arabs!” Like scenes taken from revolutionary films, they block cars and busses mid-street, checking whether there are Arabs inside. If found, they are assaulted verbally as well as physically. Many Palestinians refrain from traveling on the city’s light rail because it has become a regular venue for racist attacks.

Sadly, Jerusalem is not unique. An anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv was attacked by hundreds of right-wing hooligans led by a rapper going by the nickname “the shadow.” Some of them were wearing the “Good Night Left Side” T-shirts popular among white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe. A week later this violent scene recurred in Haifa, where right-wing hooligans assaulted an Arab deputy mayor and his son as they were approaching an anti-war demonstration. In Jerusalem’s old city, a mother and her two young children survived an attempted stabbing by Jewish extremists. Amir Shawiki and Ahmed Kasuani, twenty-year-old Jerusalemites, were less fortunate. Both were severely beaten by a Jewish mob simply because they were Arabs. Omar Diwani, a city bus driver in Jerusalem, was hospitalized after four young men assaulted him upon detecting his Arab accent. Dozens of similar attacks against Arabs and “lefties” have taken place recently in the streets, in cafes, in shopping centers, on busses and trains. Israel’s radical right is on the rise.

Jewish radicalism is not a new phenomenon. Its current incarnation traces back to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who, after forming the militant Jewish Defense League in the United States, emmigrated to Israel and founded the ultra-nationalist Kach party. Kahane advocated the forced eviction of all Palestinians residing west of the Jordan river, subordinating state law to Jewish religious law (Halakha), and revenge as punitive policy. Although strongly liberal on economic issues, his ethics were utterly collectivist: the moral agents were not individuals but nations. Any harm to a Jew was an affront to the nation, and revenge should be taken not necessarily on the perpetrator but on “the Arabs.” I vividly remember classmates of mine who, under his influence, would retaliate against random Palestinians following attacks on Israelis. Retaliation quickly morphed into preemption and then into naked aggression. In his short tenure in the Knesset, Kahane proposed outrageous legislation, such as revoking the citizenship of all non-Jews, or criminalizing sexual relations between Jews and Arabs. The core of his ideology was a militant form of Jewish supremacism, best expressed in the slogan frequently heard these days “a Jew is a soul, an Arab the son of a whore.” But with Kahane the medium was more significant than the message. Fusing populist rhetoric with strong-man authoritarianism, he appealed both to religious zealots and to underpriviledged Israelis. Playing on their resentment, he riled them against the “elites,” whom he portrayed simultaneously as all-powerful—controlling the media, the education system, and the courts—and as weak and degenerate. Weak in their treatment of the Arab enemy, and degenerate in their morality, which for him meant the loss of their Jewish fiber. His hostility toward Arabs, however, sometimes seemed second to his loathing of the left. These “fifth column” “destroyers of Israel,” as he biblically labeled them, were subject not only to derision but also to very thinly disguised threats.

Read more at the Boston Review

The Syrian Front: Waiting to Die in Aleppo

World News Forum

By Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel A typical street scene in Aleppo. The front lines in the city are no longer the scene of intense fighting, as the focus of the battle has moved elsewhere. But the city remains divided and death commonplace.

Driving through the outer districts of the city, a ghostly wasteland begins. The streets and the half-destroyed residential buildings are empty and the only sounds come from shredded metal signs moving in the wind — and the occasional thunder of distant artillery.

Eastern Aleppo has been virtually abandoned, as have most residential districts located away from the front. Those left in the city prefer to crowd into housing right up against the battle lines, which have remained virtually static in the last two years. Paradoxically, people feel safest living within range of enemy tank and sniper fire. Such are the rules of Aleppo.

The reasons are pragmatic…

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Syria in Revolt

Understanding the Unthinkable War

By Sadik J. Al-Azm in the Boston Review

Burning Syria, Tammam Azam

The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”

I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.

After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. I was working in Damascus, where the trepidation was especially pronounced. The country, it seemed, was teetering on the edge of an abyss.

But life flowed routinely on the surface. Talking about the situation publicly was out of the question. Even hinting at it was dangerous. When someone did speak up, others quickly changed the subject. A conspiracy of silence was the order of the day.

This period marked a palpable deterioration in relations among Syrians. Sectarian lines hardened, undermining long-standing friendships, harmony among colleagues, and the daily interactions of citizens. Even our way of joking changed.

Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.

By 2009–2010, it was impossible to go about the day without repeatedly hearing from working people expressions such as, “All it needs is a match to ignite,” “It needs a spark to flare up,” and “All it needs is a fire-cracker to explode.”

More educated Syrians, particularly intellectuals, had their own favorite metaphors. Mine was a pressure cooker, where the heat is mounting and the safety valves have been destroyed. Yasine Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner and the most prominent underground commentator and critic on behalf of the revolution, as well as a fine writer of prison literature, warned that if the people did not quickly find a way of letting their “Syrianness” prevail, the country would be in for the worst. The cartoonist Ali Ferzat said in a 2007 Newsweek interview, “Either reform or le deluge.” In 2011 Ferzat was assaulted by regime thugs and left for dead on the side of the road, but he survived.

A prominent colleague and friend in the philosophy department emphasized the inevitability of a civil war because the worst had already happened: the antagonistic Sunni-Alawi divide in Syrian society is a fait accompli, he told me. War was preordained.

Others maintained that one thing could be said for the regime: it alone was holding Syrians back from massacring each other.

Had you asked me what would happen if the tsunami that started in Tunisia reached Syria, I would have answered: the Sunni of Hama would sharpen their knives and pour out into the neighboring Alawi villages to take revenge for the rape and destruction of their city by Assad’s storm troopers in 1982.

But sectarian slaughter did not come to pass. Instead, the unthinkable happened: a people’s revolution against the regime.

Read more at the Boston Review

Arab Nations Strike in Libya, Surprising U.S.

Islamist fighters in the Libya Dawn coalition guarded the main airport in Tripoli, Libya, after its capture on Sunday. Credit Mahmud Turkia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and ERIC SCHMITTAUG in The New York Times

CAIRO — Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.

The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between Washington and Cairo.

The strikes in Tripoli are another salvo in a power struggle defined by Arab autocrats battling Islamist movements seeking to overturn the old order. Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region — in the news media, in politics and diplomacy, and by arming local proxies — to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Read more at The New York Times

Syrian Regime Reneges on Surrender Terms to Homs Citizens; Hundreds of Syrian Civilians Missing

Credit: Syrian Network for Human Rights
As reported by the Syrian Network for Human Rights on Saturday, August 10, 2014, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reneged on its promises of amnesty to citizens of the besieged city of Homs, Syria, who voluntarily surrendered themselves to the regime forces under promises of amnesty. Of the 1000 to 1100 persons who surrendered, as estimated by the Syrian human rights monitoring group, 730 are now missing and unaccounted for by the Syrian regime.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, which began as peaceful protests for economic reforms, tens of thousands of Syrians have “disappeared.”

Read the full report at The Syrian Network for Human Rights

The movement that dare not speak its name in Israel

Vocal opposition to the war in Gaza can be hard to express in Israel, where campaigner Gideon Levy says people ‘leave their liberalism’ at the 1967 border

Thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against attacks on Gaza, 26 July 2014. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty

By Giles Fraser in The Guardian

Gideon Levy doesn’t want to meet in a coffee bar in Tel Aviv. He is fed up with being hassled in public and spat at, with people not willing to share the table next to him in restaurants. And now he is fed up with the constant presence of his bodyguards, not least because they too have started giving him a hard time about his political views. So he doesn’t go out much any more and we sit in the calm of his living room, a few hundred yards from the Yitzhak Rabin Centre. Rabin’s assassination by a rightwing Orthodox Jew in 1995 is itself a sobering reminder of the personal cost of peacemaking in Israel.

In his column in Haaretz, Levy has long since banged the drum for greater Israeli empathy towards the suffering of the Palestinians. He is a well-known commentator on the left, and one of the few prepared to stick his head above the parapet. Consequently, he is no stranger to opposition from the right. But this time it is different. Yariv Levin, coalition chairman of the Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset, recently called for him to be put on trial for treason – a crime which, during wartime, is punishable by death.

“It is time we stop regarding despicable phenomena like this with tolerance,” Levin said of Levy. Soon after that interview, Eldad Yaniv, a former political adviser to ex-prime minister Ehud Barack, wrote on his Facebook page: “The late Gideon Levy. Get used to it.”

Levy’s unpardonable crime is vocal opposition to the war and to the bombing of Gaza. According to recent polls, support for the military operation in Gaza among the Jewish Israeli public stands somewhere between 87% (Channel 10 News) and 95% (Israel Democracy Institute). Even those who are secretly against the war are cautious about voicing their opinion openly.

Read more at The Guardian

The next time you hear an American politician refer to Israel as a free and democratic society, please, stop and think. It isn’t true.

Women Victims of Unmet Western Promises in Islamic Countries

Credit: Photo via Irrationally Bound

By Marianna Karakoulaki

Israeli Parliament Deputy Speaker Calls For “Ethnic Cleansing” of Gaza

Moshe Feiglin

“A refreshingly open call for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from an Israeli deputy speaker”

By Katie Halper in The Raw Story

I’ve always said that I like my ethnic cleansers like my men: honest, direct, and with a plan. Sadly, like good men, honest and open ethnic cleansers are few and far between. As the Israeli government, and those who blindly defend it, claim that the attacks in Gaza are for self-defense, and self-defense alone, one man has the courage to admit that the real goal is to rid the area of Palestinians and populate it with Jews. And that man is Moshe Feiglin, Deputy speaker and member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Read more at The Raw Story

Israel’s Bloody Status Quo

By Michiel Coxcie, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Cornelis Floris, Cornelis Bos (circle of) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Roger Cohen in The New York Times

LONDON — Sheldon Adelson’s right-wing Israel Hayom, the biggest-selling newspaper in Israel, has called for Gaza to be “returned to the Stone Age.” During the last Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, in 2012, a government minister called for Gaza to be consigned “to the Middle Ages.” Before that, there was the Gaza War of 2008-2009, in which 1,166 Palestinians died and 13 Israelis, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The story goes on and on. There is no denouement. Gaza, a small place jammed with 1.8 million people, does not recess to the Stone, Iron, Middle or other Ages. It does not get flattened, as Ariel Sharon’s son once proposed. The death toll is overwhelmingly skewed against Palestinians. Hamas, with its militia and arsenal of rockets, continues to run Gaza. The dead die for nothing.

Israel could send Gaza back to whichever age it wishes. Its military advantage, its general dominance, over the Palestinians has never been greater since 1948. But it chooses otherwise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk of a ground invasion is empty. The last thing Israel wants, short of a cataclysm, is to go into Gaza and get stuck.

What Israel wants is the status quo (minus Hamas rockets). Israel is the Middle East’s status quo power par excellence. It seeks a calm Gaza under Hamas control, a divided Palestinian movement with Fatah running the West Bank, a vacuous “peace process” to run down the clock, and continued prosperity. Divide and rule. Hamas is useful to Israel as long as it is quiescent.

Read more at The New York Times