Thursday 4 October 2007

Israel Shouldn’t Get a Free Pass: Real Debate Is Not Anti-Semetic

By Jonathan Tasini - Playboy magazine. It's very unusual to see mainstream publications run articles like this. Let's hope more start doing it.

Why can’t American Jews, particularly liberal Jews, think straight about Israel? American Jews can easily condemn the war in and occupation of Iraq, as well as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the violations of civil rights there. Yet the same passion for peace, justice and human rights is muted when it comes to talking about unpleasant activities in the Israeli government. American Jews and many politicians who pander for Jewish votes are hurting Israel and the cause of peace by refusing to have an honest debate about our country’s historically one-sided position vis-a-vis Israel and the Middle East conflict. An honest debate is underway within Israel itself, but in the US it’s impossible to be critical of Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic or worse.

Before I dive further into this, I should establish my bona fides for making this argument, which itself says alot about the terrain. I am a Jew. My father was born in what was then Palestine and fought in Israel’s war of independence. My father’s cousin was killed in that war. I lived in Israel for seven years, including the period of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. A cousin of mine was killed in that war, leaving behind a widow and two children. My step-grandfather, an ikd nab wgi was no threat to anyone was killed by a Palestinian who took an axe to his head while he was sitting quietly on a park bench. His murder was revenge for the massacre of dozens of peaceful Muslims the day before, slaughtered by an ultra-nationalist Israeli soldier as they knelt in prayer.

I care about Israel as I care about our country, but I wish to speak the truth about it. In 2006, when I ran in the New York Democratic primary for Senator because of incumbent Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq war, my campaign coincided with Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, a move triggered by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. While campaigning I said that Israel had committed acts that violated the Geneva Conventions and international standards. Within an hour reporters from all four New York daily papers called me, alerted to my comments by my opponent’s operatives. Betraying their bias, the reporters had no idea my position would not be considered novel or radical in Israel where the country’s conduct in the war was a topic of hot debate. Indeed, the reporters need only have consulted Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

Referring to last summer’s Lebanon bombing, B Tselem’s website states, “International humanitarian law…requires that the combating sides direct their attacks only against specific military objectives, take cautionary measures to prevent injury to civilians and refrain from disproportionate attacks, ie., attacks directed against legitimate targets but that are likely to cause excessive harm to civilians. Over the past week Israel has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians in its attacks against targets in Lebanon. There is a concern that at least some of them were disproportionate attacks, which constitute war crimes”.

Here are some other inconvenient truths. Israel is holding 10,000 Palestinians in administrative detention where, according to B’Tselem, they are exposed to “moderate pressure”, a euphuism for torture. And while six Israeli soldiers and 17 civilians died last year, the Israeli military killed 660 Palestinians, roughly half of them innocent bystanders. So why is there such a lack of debate in the US?

Jews and non-Jews who can easily tell foreigners that being American is not the same as supporting the American government are incapable of making the same argument in Israel’s case. Elected officials won’t say anything because of the political cost or at least the perceived threat from Jewish voters. And there is residue from the Cold War, when Israel was seen as the region’s bulwark against the Soviet Union. Among Jews there is a reflexive “Israel right or wrong” attitude that is deeply rooted in the memory of the Holocaust. My own family lost people in the Holocaust. But the Holocaust should not be used as a moral shield to suppress honest criticism of Israel.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some critics of Israel undercut their own positions by painting a caricature of the country. Israel is a democracy, and like all democracies it has its flaws Nut the open debate heard in Israel is rarely heard in the regions’s other countries, most of which are ruled by dictators or generals. Israel has a very free rambunctious press” can the same be said about Egypt or Syria? Israel’s attorney general recently went after the country’s president for sexual harassment. We can’t even get Congress, not to mention the attorney general, to investigate the president for lying about a war.

These facts make Israel’s conduct even more troubling. The country’s democratic principles and societal fabric are being undermined by its role as an occupier. People who refuse to criticize Israel because of friendship are no friends to Israel. A true friend would not have stood by and remained silent as Israel dropped thousands of cluster bombs in Lebanon, leaving a million unexploded bomblets-small devices the size of a light socket that are still killing and injuring civilians-littered throughout the southern part of the country. A true friend would have taken Israel’s leaders to the woodshed and said, “Responding to Hezbollah is one thing, but turning Lebanon into rubble and embittering a new generation toward the existence of your country is madness”. Instead, politicians like Joe Lieberman and Clinton actually encouraged the bombing by uttering vigorous endorsements of Israel’s right to defend itself. A friend of Israel would not try to fan fears y tarring as anti-Semitic people who are critical of U.S. Middle East policy. Criticism of Israel may be painful to American Jews, but it is high time anyone, Jew or non-Jew, were able to raise questions about our one-sided policy without fear of a McCarthy like smear. A friend would argue strenuously that Israel’s moral fiber and security are weakened every moment it allows the so-called separation barrier in the West Bank to stand, in violation of international law. Whether Jews like the comparison or not, Jimmy Carter is correct in his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid when he describes the control over Palestinian’s movements as similar to South Africa’s apartheid system.

As a Jew, I have always been proud of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which means roughly,”repairing the world.” I like to think it is hat brought so many Jews into the civil rights and labor movements in the 60’s and 70’s and in to the current antiwar movement. I feel great sorrow that Israel is an occupier of another people, and I believe Israel can never be whole or at peace until that occupation is ended in a just way. I also believe tikkun olam means we must never be silent.

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