Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nakba Is in the Eye of the Beholder by David Suissa

My column this week in Jewish Journal:

While the world media was buzzing on May 15 about the Arab demonstrations marking the “Nakba” (catastrophe) of 1948, I was listening to a commencement address by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at Pomona College in which he lamented, among other things, America’s inability to reduce its addiction to oil. At one point, Chu spoke eloquently about a future in which electric cars would be mass-produced, and how this might ignite an environmental revolution that could “save the planet.”

As he spoke, I thought of an article I had read on JPost that morning about an Israeli initiative to reduce global dependency on oil. The company Better Place unveiled the first electric car to be sold to the Israeli market — the Renault Fluence ZE. According to the report, “Israel will become, along with Denmark, the first country in which Better Place’s rechargeable, zero-emission vehicles will be sold commercially.”

I couldn’t help connecting the dots. On the one hand, there was the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation in 1948 as expressed by Arab demonstrators, and, on the other hand, there was a miracle country with the potential to help “save the planet.”

Which one is it, a catastrophe or a miracle?

It’s easy to cop out and say we must recognize everyone’s narrative. If the Palestinians see the birth of Israel and the subsequent displacement of Arabs as a “catastrophe,” well, then, as Gideon Levy of Haaretz proposes, even Jewish schools in Israel must mark Nakba Day. As Levy wrote, “On that day it would be possible to tell our pupils that next to us lives a nation for whom our day of joy is their day of disaster, for which we and they are to blame.”

Personally, I’m more aligned with Jeffrey Goldberg, who calls the Arab “disaster” of 1948 “largely self-inflicted because the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan for Palestine, attacked the just-born Jewish state and then managed to lose on the battlefield.”
In other words, the Arab definition of “catastrophe” is that they failed to destroy the Jewish state at its birth.

Regardless, though, of how one sees the Nakba, it’s clear that the Nakba mindset nurtures bitterness and resentment — elements that are hardly conducive to planting seeds of peace and reconciliation. How can an Arab student want to have a healthy and respectful relationship with his Jewish neighbors if he is encouraged to see that very Jewish presence as a mark of Arab failure — a mark of enduring Arab shame? And if he is encouraged to see this Jewish creation as something that must be corrected, or even reversed?

If you ask me, the real Nakba day for the Palestinians is the day Hamas created its official charter with hate-filled, anti-Semitic tracts like this one: “For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave, so much so that it will need all the loyal efforts we can wield, to be followed by further steps and reinforced by successive battalions from the multifarious Arab and Islamic world, until the enemies are defeated and Allah’s victory prevails.”

This Hamas “catastrophe” was made even more relevant recently with the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. As French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy lamented in The Huffington Post, prospects for peace have now “gone by the wayside with the rehabilitation of the only party concerned that is still proclaiming that ‘the fulfillment of the promise’ shall not come until ‘the Muslims’ have not only ‘combated’ but ‘killed’ all ‘the Jews.’ ”

The plain, ugly truth right now is that there is no peace on the horizon. But many of us, including presidents, pundits and peaceniks, cannot accept that truth, so we ignore inconvenient facts or just spin them into glimmers of false hope. As Saul Bellow once wrote, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” 

Beyond all this gloomy talk, perhaps the biggest disaster of all is the inability of the Arab world to see the Jewish state as anything but a cursed presence. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think peace has a chance when Arabs still see the birth of Israel as a Nakba. In fact, I dream of the day when more Arabs will see the birth of Israel as a Fursa (“opportunity”). That would be the day Israeli Arabs discovered a messy and imperfect Jewish democracy that allowed them the freedom to speak up, and gave them rights and opportunities they could find nowhere else in the Middle East.

I even have an idea for who could lead this little movement: George Kerra, the Arab Israeli judge who sentenced the former president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, to seven years in jail for sexual aggression against a former female aide.

Think about that. A Middle Eastern country that is hated and threatened by its neighbors, forced to constantly fight for its life, manages to create a civil society where no one is above the law and where anyone can become a judge. Oh, and a society that still finds time to work on things like an electric car that could “save the planet.”

You want to endorse calling the birth of that nation a catastrophe? Don’t count me in.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Seder for Broken Jews By David Suissa

A big fashion of recent times has been to rewrite or repackage the Passover haggadah to fit our individual tastes. If you're vegetarian, there is the "Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb"; if you're interested in Buddhism, there is the "JewBu Haggadah"; if your thing is spiritual traditions, there is "The Santa Cruz Haggadah: A Passover Haggadah, Coloring Book and Journal for Evolving Consciousness"; for all you social justice lovers, there is Arthur Waskow's "Freedom Seder"; and if you don't believe in God, don't worry, you can get "The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular, and Humanistic Jews."

There are literally hundreds of others, but you get the point- one of the modern freedoms we celebrate at Passover is the freedom to create our own haggadah. This is so wonderfully American-- a craving to inject our personal identities into everything.

It's as if Passover were a time to break down our collective Jewish identity into individual morsels of sub-identities that we can feel more comfortable with.

The Master Story of the Jews, then, becomes the Master Story of Me. I celebrate not the story of my people, but how I have adapted that story to fit my own story, my own modern identity.

What does this say about Jewish identity in the first place? Is it not enough to carry the day for so many American Jews-or is it too much?

Leon Wieseltier, in his book "Against Identity," writes, "I am always at a disadvantage toward my own tradition. I am not only quickened by my intimacy with what I have been given, I am also dulled by it. I lack the wakefulness of the stranger. I should conduct myself toward the tradition to which I have fallen heir like an actor who has played a scene poorly: I should go out and come in again."

Too many American Jews have gone out but have not come in again. They haven't come in because they see no reason to. For 364 days a year, they live out their chosen identities, identities that were chosen to carry few burdens or complications.

Then comes seder night, the night of their ancestors, when they come face-to-face with the ancient story of their people, and it feels a little weird -- a little too close for comfort. It may be hazy, mythical and distant, but it can't easily be dismissed. This is, after all, the story that nourished their bubbes and zaides going back many centuries.

It's a spiritual showdown: Who shall surrender? Shall I become the story, or shall the story become me? Shall I become my grandparents, or shall they become me?

It's not an easy call. As Wieseltier writes, "Identity thrives on facts: you are the child of this man and this woman, this neighborhood, this town, this nation, this faith, this country. But there is one fact to which identity is oblivious, and that is the fact of individuation: you are nobody else and nobody else is you."

Can this help explain the mysterious power of Jewish identity? We are a family with the seed of individuation: we are nobody else and nobody else is us.

And yet, in this great American nation that has smothered us with acceptance, Jewish identity has easily morphed into: we are everybody and everybody is us.

Ironically, Passover, the unique Jewish story, has fallen all over itself to dull its Jewish uniqueness. The rationale for this is proper and utterly predictable: by making it more universal, or more personally relevant, we assert that it becomes more Jewish. This truism is now a modern sacred cow.

But it's a truism that can take us very far from the womb, and it's one that doesn't get me in the kishkes. It's a little too perfect, a little too correct. Why can't Passover become a little more Jewish-Jewish? A time when we can look inward rather than outward; a time when we can assess how we are doing as a family; a time when we can recount our master story and use it to bring us closer together.

Next year, someone ought to create a Haggadah of Broken Jews. This one would celebrate the incredible variety of our people from across time and cultures and offer interpretations from as many different sources as possible. Thankfully, the haggadah is long enough to allow for a very diverse list of Jewish thinkers, ideas and traditions that would enrich the evening with the glow of peoplehood.

In addition to all the symbols of the evening, I would also add an empty chair.

This empty chair would be there to remind us of the Jew or Jews we don't talk to. As long as that chair stays there, empty, we will never forget that we are still a broken people, still working to fulfill the Passover ideal of uniting for a common destiny.

And for those of you who would prefer to express their fondness for Budhism, social justice or vegetarianism on seder night, hey, you have the rest of the year. Give one night for your people.

Happy Jewish Passover.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Borrowing $188 million every hour. Quote from Mark Steyn-- National Review

"How do you 'invest in the future'? By borrowing $188 million every hour. That’s what the government of the United States is doing. It’s spending one-fifth of a billion dollars it doesn’t have every hour of every day of every week — all for your future!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bibi Needs a Plan, Fast

My column this week in Jewish Journal:

I had a lively debate with the founder of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, April 11 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, and as much as we disagreed sharply on many issues relative to Israel, there was one item on which we were in complete agreement: The Palestinians’ steady march toward unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September is a disaster-in-waiting for Israel.

We disagreed on what Israel should do: Ben-Ami thinks Israel should try to entice the Palestinians back to the peace table with another temporary settlement freeze, while I think the United States should pressure the Palestinians to come to the peace table without preconditions.

If that approach fails, however, Israel must do something, and do it fast.

Before Israel can figure out what that “something” is, it must admit to itself that it has lost the battle of the narrative. Right now, Israel is seen, almost universally, as the main obstacle to peace. You can cry foul all you want about this, but it won’t change the reality. From the moment two years ago that President Obama elevated the settlements as the main impediment to peace, the die was cast.

Israel has been scrambling ever since, but it’s been an impossible battle. No amount of clever diplomacy or lobbying could undo the lethal vise that Israel is in — not even last year’s partial settlement freeze.

Simply put, the Palestinians have hidden behind the United States’  initial demand for a settlement freeze to stay away from peace talks, while developing their enormous international support to do an end run around Israel and further isolate the Jewish state.

By repeating their U.S.-sponsored mantra — “We will not negotiate until Israel freezes all settlement activity” — the Palestinians have managed to camouflage the real obstacles to peace. To name just one, there is the obvious obstacle that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank and could still engage in peace talks, has absolutely no control over the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.

In fact, one of the absurd aspects of this peace process is that Israel is acting like the buyer when it should be acting like the seller. If peace is the “product,” then Israel owns it and should be selling it. Because it can control its army, it can deliver peace. Who can say with a straight face that the PA will be able to control its “army” (including Hamas) and hence be able to deliver peace?

Another obstacle is the fact that the PA has never prepared its people for a compromise on the sacred “right of return.” Sure, it may have made private statements to Ehud Olmert a couple of years ago suggesting flexibility on borders and Jerusalem, but the analyses that I have seen of the “Palestine Papers” suggest that they are far from compromise on the issue of the right of return. And that is a deal killer.

But it is the bright glare of the settlement issue that has created the perception that Israel is the major obstacle to peace. It may not be fair, but it is what it is.

What should Israel do now?

The first thing is not to expect the Palestinians to return anytime soon to the negotiating table. They won’t. They’ve got their eyes fixed on the U.N. and the world community, where they are treated like kings and never have to compromise. They want a lot more than what Israel could offer, and they think the U.N. will give it to them.

The second thing is to stop arguing. We’ve lost the argument. We can make cogent arguments until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t help.

The only way for Israel to regain the initiative is with real, dramatic action.

If I were Bibi, I would dust off a peace plan, call a press conference, and tell Abbas simply and clearly: “Sign here and the conflict is over.”

Which peace plan? The plan that’s got one of the world’s most credible names on it: The Clinton Parameters. Bibi might make a few security-related adjustments to reflect new realities, but the thrust of the plan should be unchanged.

Will Abbas sign it? Let me put it this way: The Jewish Journal will become the voice of right-wing fanatics before Abbas signs this peace plan. Why? Because he can’t. The Clinton plan is his nightmare. It forces him to compromise on too many things, including the right of return. It gives him a lot less than he has already rejected.

Compared to the Rolls-Royce he is about to be handed by the U.N., the Clinton plan is a Yugo that needs repairs. It’s dead on arrival.

Israel should present the plan not because it believes the PA will sign it, but because Israel desperately needs to present a credible alternative to the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N., a diplomatic disaster that Ehud Barak said would bring a “tsunami” of further pressure and isolation on the Jewish state.

If Palestinians say no to the Clinton plan, they then automatically become the “major obstacle” to peace.

At the very least, this might shock them back to the negotiating table.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Early Kol Nidre for Goldstone by David Suissa

My column this week in Jewish Journal and Huffington Post:

Dear Mr. Goldstone:

You really screwed up. You screwed up so badly that Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic says you contributed, more than any other individual, to the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state.

The deliberate killing of innocent civilians is the equivalent of murder. As far as accusations go, that’s about as low as you can go. Your report accused Israel of a lot of things, but that accusation was the most lethal: targeting innocent civilians.

Now you write that you were wrong. Israel is not the war criminal she was made out to be. It was Hamas that targeted innocent civilians, not Israel. Well, like Goldberg says, “It is somewhat difficult to retract a blood libel, once it has been broadcast across the world.”

Remember, this was no ordinary blood libel. This was an official indictment bearing the stamp of approval of the closest thing we have to a global legislative body — the United Nations. Thanks to this stamp of approval, Israel’s enemies have feasted on Israel’s good name like vultures on a carcass.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the global campaign to delegitimize Israel, as well as the flourishing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that is turning Israel into a pariah state. Sadly, much of the ammunition for these movements has come from the Goldstone report — the same report you now have repudiated with a phrase that might go down in Jewish infamy: “Civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”

I wonder what went through your mind as you wrote those words: “Why did I rush to judgment? Should I have paid more attention to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli leaflets and phone calls that warned civilians, and to the preliminary Israel Defense Forces reports and other publicly available information that contradicted our conclusions? Should I have put Israel’s behavior in the proper context of defending its people after years of Hamas rockets? Should I have been more skeptical of sources I knew were unreliable?”

A friend told me over Shabbat that I should cut you some slack because you had the courage to eat your words in public after getting “new information.” That’s fine, but another friend told me a parable that made him somewhat less forgiving.

It’s the story of a man who goes to his rabbi to ask for forgiveness because he spread false rumors about him. The rabbi instructs him to take a feathered pillow and a knife, go to a nearby forest and slice open the pillow. When the man returned, the rabbi said to him, “Now go try to retrieve all those feathers.”

Now go try, Mr. Goldstone, to “retrieve” all the damage your report inflicted on Israel. Go to every television and radio station, to every newspaper and magazine, to every Web site and blogger, to every Jew and non-Jew on the planet who inhaled your dark accusations against Israel, and try to take those accusations back. Try telling them you didn’t mean it.

Surely you must have known that so many past accusations of Israeli “massacres” have been proved false (see Jenin). And as an international jurist who is familiar with the phenomenon of anti-Israel bias, surely you must have anticipated the vermin that would rain on the Jewish state if a Zionist jurist formally accused it of targeting innocent civilians.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve had more than a few sleepless nights since then. Why? Because I do believe there is a piece of your heart that loves Israel, that believes in Israel and that now cries for Israel because of the damage you have inflicted upon her.

While you can never undo that damage, there is still something you can undo: the report itself. Given your deep knowledge of international law, with all its arcane rules and procedures, if anyone can formally retract the report or officially amend it, it is you.

It won’t be easy. You will be going up against the many enemies of Israel, those who dream of turning the Jewish state into an illegal enterprise, those for whom the Goldstone report is the gift that keeps on giving — their little gold mine rich with never-ending ammunition against the hated Zionist entity. They won’t let you take away their gold mine that easily.

But I have confidence you can do it. I have seen how you can be dogged and relentless in front of intense opposition. I have seen how when you put your mind to something, nothing can stop you, not even your own people. I have seen you go the distance.

Now go the distance on this one, Mr. Goldstone. Make this your cause. Put the Goldstone report where it belongs, in the delete button of history. You can replace it, amend it, retract it or do whatever you feel will correct it. You will not undo the damage, but you might at least stanch some of the bleeding — not just in Israel’s name, but perhaps in yours, as well.

Kol Nidre is still six months away, but you don’t have to wait that long.

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Pale Fire, by David Foster Wallace

“dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,” namely the existential knowledge “that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back.”
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