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If being Jewish means catastrophe to the other


Children were the irrepressible vanguard of the first intifada, December 1987. Photo from World Bulletin. It lasted from 1987 to  1993

Trust Me, I Was Once a First-Year Jewish Student Too

By Robert A. H. Cohen, Writing from the Edge,
September 09, 2017

This month a new generation of Jewish students will begin their first term at University. Here’s my advice to them.

Congratulations/Mazel tov!

You’re off to university. First time away from home. First time away from your synagogue community. Or perhaps you’ve had a year out after school and have been in Israel soaking up your Jewish heritage. Maybe you’ve been on a Jewish leadership trip organised by your youth movement or a Birthright tour. But now it’s back to reality and you’re about to discover what it means to have your ideas challenged, your prejudices pointed out and your Jewish identity undermined.

But don’t worry. This is all to the good. It’s exactly what you need. Trust me, I was once a first-year Jewish university student too.

Your baggage

You may realise this already, but the baggage you’re taking with you to university is considerably more than what’s in your rucksack. It’s been accumulating throughout your life, it’s the stuff that’s made you who you are. Now you have the opportunity to unpack it, examine it, and decide if it’s still useful for the journey ahead.

Union of Jewish Students’ stall in Freshers’ week, Manchester Metropolitan University. Any UJS group is likely to support ‘the 2-state solution’ while doing nothing to bring it about.

I’m talking about that sense of being Jewish, the way you relate to your family history, the Jewish community where you grew up, what you think about Israel. In short, your Jewish identity. In an age where identity politics have become so central to our culture your Jewish identity has become almost sacrosanct, untouchable, beyond criticism. But is that how it should be? I’ll come back to this at the end.

I realise my credentials for offering advice about Jewish university life are now pretty thin. It was 1985 when my parents drove me from our home in Bromley, South London, to Manchester University in the north of England, then the institution of choice for a large slice of young Jews who’d grown up in the capital.

Before I pass on the little wisdom I’ve accumulated, let me provide some personal history and reflect on an event that set me on a path to Palestinian solidarity and Zionist dissent.

Ill at ease

Before starting at Manchester I had just come back from a long trip to Israel, my first, and I was already struggling with what the Jewish State meant to me. I didn’t have the words to articulate it at the time but something about my experience in Israel had left me confused and ill at ease.

I’d spent time on both religious and secular kibbutzim and at a project in the northern Galilee town of Safed that aimed to inspire young diaspora Jews to become modern orthodox in their religious practice and firmly Zionist in their politics.

While I could relate easily to the Jews of my age I’d met from America, South Africa and Europe, I found Israelis themselves difficult to get along with. As for the idea that I had somehow returned to my ancestral home – that feeling never kicked in. It turned out to be easier to take the boy out of Bromley than Bromley out of the boy.

Back home in the UK, two of my new flat mates in our student hall of residence had no such angst, no such dilemmas.

Phil and Andy had returned from Jewish leadership programmes in Israel ready to take up positions in the student union and advocate on behalf of Israel whenever the need was required. I recall being slightly in awe of their self-confidence and their self-belief as leaders and as advocates. It would be a long time before I found my own voice on the issue of Jews, Judaism and Israel.

During my first two years I went along to the Wednesday lunchtime political debates in the recently re-named ‘Steve Biko’ student union building. And when Israel came up I voted the way the Jewish Society (J-Soc) advised. Phil and Andy were good at their job.

Intifada


Children run from Israeli soldiers, 1st Intifada. Photo by Coutausse.

Then in my final year at Manchester (exactly thirty years ago) my understanding of Israel began to take a decisive turn.

With my exams approaching I should have been getting down to some academic work. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J.S. Mill and Karl Marx were all demanding my serious attention. But instead I was using the university library to follow, and attempt to fathom, the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada.

The uprising that began in Gaza in December 1987 quickly spread to the West Bank. It was an uprising from the streets of occupied Palestine provoked by frustration and disillusionment and it was characterised by strikes. boycotts, civil disobedience and, most notably, children and young people throwing stones at armed Israeli soldiers. The Israeli response from on high (Yitzhak Rabin, then Defence Minister) was to “break their bones”.

The first Intifada was a modern day re-working of David and Goliath from the bible. In fact the tale of the future Jewish king slaying the Philistine giant with just a sling and a stone was my favourite bible story, the one I’d ask my father to read to me again and again. Maybe that’s why this stone throwing rebellion caught my imagination in the first place.

But this time the Palestinian children were David and the Jewish soldiers were Goliath. It was an unsettling role reversal. After all, surely we had ‘written the book’ on what it meant to be the victims of oppressive power? How could this be happening?

Fathoming

You have to remember that in 1987 the internet, Facebook, Twitter and even email were still a long way off. To find out what was going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories I based myself in the first floor periodicals section of the John Rylands Student Library when I should have been one floor up in Politics & Philosophy.

On the shelves of the periodicals section there were current and back copies of the Guardian Weekly and the New York Review of Books, Commentary magazine and Foreign Affairs. I read articles by Americans and Israelis from the left and the right and in particular was hooked by the words of David Grossman and Amos Oz the two most well known Israeli liberal Zionists and opponents of the Israeli Occupation.

Until the first intifada I had little sense of the Palestinians as a community with a heritage and history as close to them as mine was to me. Now they were no longer just terrorists pursuing a militant cause I didn’t fully understand. My sense of unease about Israel that had begun during my first visit to the country was beginning to find its articulation. Here was a people suffering in the West Bank and Gaza because of what my people were doing.

Maybe if I’d walked up to the next floor Locke, Rousseau, Mill and Marx could have shed some light on the reasons for the Intifada too. Rights, liberty, freedom. Hadn’t I spent three years studying these things?

The first Intifada was for me the start of a long journey of reading, reflection and finally encounters and conversations with Palestinians that’s taken me to the place where I now stand.

The two-state fiction

So what’s changed between my leaving university and your arriving?

Well, for a while, the Palestinians were allowed to become a people rather than merely the creators of terror. But the ‘peace process’ that emerged directly from the first Intifada didn’t last long. Israel’s idea of Palestinian autonomy turned out to fall well short of rights, liberty and freedom. And all the time the Settlements expanded, the Jewish only roads grew longer and the checkpoints multiplied. The occupier continued to occupy.

Closer to home the Jewish leadership in the UK, including the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), adopted the two-state solution but then spent 25 years doing nothing to help bring it about.

There was never any serious public pressure on Israel from the Jewish community in Britain and never any attempt to prepare Jews here for the obvious compromises involved in making a Palestinian state, worthy of the name, a reality. Instead, our leaders, both religious and communal, did Israel’s bidding which became ever more right wing and intransigent as the years went by.

And where are we today?

When you get to your university you’ll see that UJS is keen to talk up its commitment to “peace” and “two-states for two peoples”. Through its campaign for “Bridges not Boycotts” it hopes to show itself as a liberal, compassionate defender of free speech. But in practice UJS behaves just like its elders in our Jewish leadership. It pursues tactics that define and constrict the parameters of acceptable student debate on Israel/Palestine; it dictates what antisemitism looks like; and attempts to ‘own’ the definition of modern Jewish identity by locking it into Zionism.

As for discussing one secular democratic state or some kind of federal constitution, no way folks. That’s all off limits. Because ultimately such thinking calls into question the privileged discrimination enjoyed by Jews in Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and indeed for you and me as Jews with the ‘Right of Return’.

calling  for “two-states”, when it’s  clear it will never happen, becomes no more than an excuse for ethical passivity

By parroting “two-states” UJS kicks every moral consideration down the road and into the long grass.

Why worry about today’s land and water theft? Why be concerned about the pauperisation of Palestinian farmers? Or arrests without charge. Or children in prisons. All will be resolved when the moon and the stars are finally aligned and the requirements of Jewish security are satisfied beyond all possible doubt. So that means sometime never.

The truth is that the longer we cling to the fiction of two-states and the belief that Zionism is not merely an ideology but a part of our faith and identity, the longer it will take to bring anything approaching peace with justice to the land.

Making the call for “two-states”, when it’s become clear it will never happen, becomes no more than an excuse for ethical passivity. It allows you to wrap yourself in a banner with with the words “peace/shalom” painted across it and feel secure in your denial of Jewish culpability in the on-going destruction of the Palestinian people.

I know this is tough to hear for young Jews when you’ve been schooled on the innate goodness of all things Israeli. But now is the moment to confront the reality of the Jewish relationship with the Palestinian people – our defining Jewish relationship for the last 70 years.

Advice

So if you’re a Jewish student starting university this month here’s my advice:

Don’t confuse “peace” and “two-states” for justice and equal rights.

Don’t mistake Jewish nationalism for Jewish self-determination.

Don’t wait for the Chief Rabbi or the Board of Deputies to ever say anything remotely ethical about the treatment of Palestinians by Israel.

Don’t wait for Trump, or May, or Macron or Trudeau to say or do anything useful about this.

Don’t wait for another massacre in Gaza.

And don’t take as long as I did to work things out.

Instead, take the opportunity of being away from home to hear other voices and other opinions. Allow yourself to listen with an open mind and an open heart to Palestinian experiences. Check out the history of 1948 especially the last thirty years of Israeli academic writing including the expulsion of the Palestinians from Safed which nobody mentioned while I was living there.

And don’t allow people to tell you you should feel scared or vulnerable if other students talk about boycotts and sanctions against Israel. If you took modern history at school you should be able to work out the difference between Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in the 1930s and a campaign for human rights in 2017. And if you hear things said that make you upset or confused or angry that doesn’t make it antisemitism.

Jewish identity has never been static and has always been questioned and challenged by Jews themselves in every age and every place where we have lived. Zionism itself is an example of just that tradition of challenging our own understanding of who we are and what our future should be.

You have the same right to challenge today’s received wisdom; to ask the difficult questions; and create a way to be proud of being Jewish that isn’t trapped in an ideology that’s long passed its sell-by date.

So be bold, be courageous and decide where you want to stand and who you want to stand with.

Finally, to return to the start, let me leave you this (exam) question to ponder:

What happens to your sacrosanct understanding of ‘being Jewish’ when it becomes another people’s catastrophe?

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Have a great first term.

Yours

Robert

 

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Sorry I Drowned

The world has catastrophically failed millions of people fleeing war, persecution, and despair. Calculating politics won out over moral and legal obligations to offer protection and assistance to those in need. Like a contagious disease, walls, fences, and restrictive border measures rampantly spread causing countless thousands of people to die on land or at sea.

This 7-minute animated film is inspired by a letter allegedly found on the body of someone who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea due to the prevailing cynical politics of our day.

While we may not know the truth behind who wrote the letter, we do know that what it depicts is real. This reality cannot continue.

DEEP DARK WEB

Mike Leigh slams Radiohead for ignoring Palestinians

Source : Mike Leigh slams Radiohead for ignoring Palestinians

We need to talk to Hamas

If we cared about peace we would be talking to Hamas

The west has a unique opportunity to help end the Gaza stalemate. But it suits us to turn a blind eye

In his house in the Gaza Strip last month, a senior Hamas minister was explaining to me that the movement needed to modernise its policies when the lights suddenly cut out, as they so often do under Israel’s siege of the territory. Ghazi Hamad’s disembodied voice rumbled on in the pitch black.

Shortly after that, Hamas, which governs Gaza, published what is effectively the first revision of its charter since it was founded 30 years ago. Most significantly, Hamas has for the first time put on paper its commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The movement, it said, was ready to discuss “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along 1967 lines”.

The policy reforms should have opened the prospect of an end to the west’s boycott of Hamas, in place since 2007, and hope too of an end to Israel’s economic blockade. Two million Gazans, mostly refugees, are today locked behind walls and fences and deprived of bare essentials – not least electricity, which is now cut to four hours a day or less. The International Red Cross warned this week that the electricity crisis was pushing Gaza to the point of “systemic collapse”.

But the international community is once again leaving Gaza in the dark about when its torment will end. Both the US and Britain have made clear they believe that nothing significant has altered in Hamas’s position. A Foreign Office spokesman said: “They must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements.”

True, what Hamas means by its new “General Principles and Policies Document” is still murky, particularly as it still holds out the possibility of a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine. And it has published the changes now as a strategic move to secure its own survival.

After 10 years of a crippling economic siege Hamas is struggling to govern. It desperately needs money – not least to pay for fuel – and it needs Egypt to open its crossing into the Sinai. In return, both Egypt and Arab paymasters demand that Hamas show moderation.

This squeeze on Hamas, however, gives the west a unique opportunity to end the stalemate over the boycott, especially as the movement is at present adhering to a ceasefire, and has gone a long way towards meeting international demands.

After 10 years of a crippling economic siege Hamas is struggling to govern. It desperately needs money – not least to pay for fuel – and it needs Egypt to open its crossing into the Sinai. In return, both Egypt and Arab paymasters demand that Hamas show moderation.

This squeeze on Hamas, however, gives the west a unique opportunity to end the stalemate over the boycott, especially as the movement is at present adhering to a ceasefire, and has gone a long way towards meeting international demands.

Obviously, the only rational response if we really cared about peace would be to start talking to Hamas and push it to moderate further. If we continue to reject its overtures it will have no incentive to offer more, and the rejectionists in Gaza will win.

It is significant that the Hamas paper was published soon after the election of a former military chief and hardliner, Yahya Sinwar, as the movement’s leader in Gaza. A prisoner in Israel for 22 years, and a fluent Hebrew speaker, who negotiated with Israel over the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, Sinwar could bring a new voice to the table. He would also have the clout internally to bring some of Hamas’s own critics on board. Hamas is being increasingly challenged by Salafi jihadists whose popularity is small but growing in Gaza, and who accuse Hamas of too much moderation.

The uncomfortable fact is that the west is only too happy to leave the people of Gaza inside their prison; it suits us to do so. We don’t care about blighted lives, or about whether the electricity is on six hours or four hours or if there is none at all. Our governments just want to leave Gaza blocked off from view so we don’t have to face up to the painfully difficult problems it poses – many of our own making, not least the boycott of Hamas.

It was after all the US, 10 years ago, that insisted on Palestinian elections, hoping the moderates of the PLO would win. Instead Hamas came to power on a wave of anger after the failure of flawed peace efforts. The west then took the view that in Palestine democracy counted for nothing, and as punishment the boycott began.

By accepting that Hamas has met at least some of the west’s conditions, we would be forced to consider talking to its representatives, clashing with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has no wish to change the status quo. Keeping Gaza boxed in while he extends his illegal settlements across the West Bank and Jerusalem, suits the Israeli prime minister just fine.

On the Gaza streets there is no expectation of any change, only predictions of a new war. After interviewing the Hamas minister I visited a Rafah girls’ school, speaking to a class of 17-year-old English students. Of the class, six had lost family members in the 2014 war. Their teacher had lost her husband and her father.

Yet here they were, bright-eyed, clutching English textbooks, and speaking of their ambitions to be doctors, social workers or journalists. The courage and resilience of the Gazan people is also hidden from view by the boycott and what they call the “apartheid wall”.

Before I left the school the girls put questions to me, including, “What does Britain know about us?” and “Why doesn’t Britain help us?” One offered her own answer: “I believe they think we live under a stone.”

Democracy Now on Trump bombing Assad

click on image

It took Trump two days to do what Obama never would

Rime Allaf

Syrian residents of Khan Sheikhun hold placards and pictures on April 7, 2017 during a protest condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town earlier this week that killed at least 86 people, among them 30 children, and left hundreds suffering symptoms including convulsions, vomiting or foaming at the mouth.
In the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, site of an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 4, residents still mourning their dead welcomed US strikes earlier today as a way to pressure Damascus. The strikes targeting a Syrian forces airfield, ordered by President Donald Trump, were the first direct US military action against Syria’s government since the conflict began six years ago. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour

Many Syrians would still be alive, safe and home today had there been a response to the Assad regime’s first massive chemical massacre in 2013
Everyone seems to have misread President Trump, or at least underestimated his capacity for decisive action, considering older statements to be proof of his positions.

Indeed, his tweets to Obama appealing that he abstain from striking Assad after the massive chemical massacre of 2013 were understood by most of us as a staunch position on the matter. But Trump was neither in power, nor even a politician then; inside the Oval Office, perspectives vary, information is precise, and the quality of advisors matters.

Whereas Obama was too arrogant to admit he was ever wrong, Trump’s own legendary ego nevertheless left room for what he described as flexibility, admitting that something changed his mind
For Syrians waiting for an end to the hell raining down on them, two elements positively distanced Trump from his predecessor. Whereas President Obama intended from day one for his legacy to be a nuclear deal with Iran, and intended to do – and more importantly not to do – everything it took to achieve it, President Trump doesn’t pretend to know yet what his own specific legacy will be, beyond generally making America great again. Apart from a solid opposition to the Iran deal, he has no claim to eventual fame in the tumultuous Middle East.

And whereas President Obama was too arrogant to admit he was ever wrong, even after his infamous red line inaction resulted in doubling the number of Syrian victims, unleashing a flood of refugees from Syria, and allowing the Islamic State (IS) to strengthen, Trump’s own legendary ego nevertheless left room for what he described as flexibility, admitting that something changed his mind. Whether it was really upon seeing new images of Syrian children choking to death, or whether purely upon consultation with his senior advisors, Trump did not hesitate to change course on Syria – even if it meant going back on his word.

Russia misread

President Trump did in two days what his predecessor failed to do in six years: he showed clarity of purpose when the occasion called for direct action, an action whose consequences have yet to be determined.

When push came to shove, Russia was impotent and immobile
An abundance of commentators had warned repeatedly that eventual US attacks against the Assad regime would bring great catastrophe, including direct conflict with Russia, a complication of the war, and more Syrian civilian deaths, a matter supposedly of great concern to the suddenly vocal “Hands Off Syria” crowd which remained silent when Russian bombs tore Syrians to shreds.

But if this doomsday scenario has not materialised, it is possibly because it is Russia which misread Trump and his advisors the most.

For all the experts waxing poetic about President Putin’s chess master qualities and his alleged cunning, Russia was left with no option but to stand aside while the US carried out its punitive strike on Assad’s assets. Usually well-spoken and calm Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, could only give a disjointed, moot statement suspending cooperation with the US in Syrian airspace.

And Russia’s strange, rather lame sudden recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Thursday took even Netanyahu by surprise. When push came to shove, Russia was impotent and immobile; the presence of a smiling Chinese President Xi at Trump’s dinner table when the strike was announced merely added to the humiliation.

Five factors to consider

None of this means that Russia remains without options next time, nor indeed that there may be a next time. But this week’s developments have exposed a number of factors which can’t be brushed aside again. They are on the table.

First, Assad’s blatant renewed use of chemical weapons demonstrates that Russia is either unable or unwilling – or both – to rein him in. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly stated: “Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility. Either Russia has been complicit or either Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

It is the presence of General McMaster, and that of General Mattis at the head of the Pentagon, which is likely to have shaped President Trump’s swift action
Second, the fact that the Assad regime did not hand over all of its chemical arsenal means that someone still has to rid him of it. According to National Security Advisor General HR McMaster, the US strike was targeted to avoid a storage unit that was stockpiling the nerve agent in order to protect civilians.

Third, in contrast to the Obama administration’s attempts to minimise the strike that never was, the Trump administration is neither shy nor apologetic about its actions: “This was not a small strike,” McMaster said.

Fourth, while the strike was a response to the specific use of chemicals, it is hard to envisage that the Trump administration will retreat from condemning, and possibly acting on mass killings by other means in Syria. Statements from various cabinet members have indicated a much stronger involvement that initially planned.

Finally, the surprise reshuffle in the National Security Council and the removal of Steve Bannon from it, days before the US took action against Assad, seems to have finally placed the right advisors at their rightful places, giving studied and measured assessments.

It is the presence of McMaster, and that of General James Mattis at the head of the Pentagon, which is likely to have shaped President Trump’s swift action. Both these senior military advisors happen to have remarkable acumen and experience in Middle East matters in particular; while their personal positions on Syria are not yet public, their history in the region implies an understanding that fighting IS while ignoring the Assad regime would be counterproductive, especially when Islamist extremists use Western inaction as rallying cries.

The right signals

In one fell swoop, President Trump’s strike on Assad has exposed the limits of Russian bravado and revived the notion of a coalition to change the status quo.

While he did not repeat the empty “Assad has to go” mantra, Trump’s address to the nation, calling “on all civilised nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria” seems to be a sign that the US is, finally, reclaiming a leadership position under the careful guidance of able and experienced military advisors.

Many Syrians would still be alive, safe and home today had there been a response to the Assad regime’s first massive chemical massacre in 2013. While Trump cannot undo the damage, his administration has now signalled it is both able and ready to solve the conflict.

– Rime Allaf is a Syrian-born writer and political analyst. She was an Associate Fellow at Chatham House from 2004 to 2012, in the Middle East and North Africa Programme. She has published numerous analyses and articles on the region, with Syria being the focus of her area of expertise, and continues to write, speak and advise on Syrian affairs. She is on the Board of Directors of The Day After, a renowned Syrian-led civil society organisation working to support a democratic transition in Syria, with grants from several Western institutes and governments. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Syrian Economic Forum, a think tank working on building a strong economy to support a free, pluralistic and independent state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

 

http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/it-took-trump-two-days-do-what-obama-never-would-1009440608

 

 

 

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