Archive for February, 2012

Why we talk past one another

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

By Vic Rosenthal

Yesterday I described some of my experiences at one of our community’s recurrent anti-Israel events. It got me thinking about the reasons that we seem to divide into groups according to political criteria, groups that talk past one another.

I mentioned that I went to an event sponsored by the local “Center for Nonviolence.” I would very much like to explain to them why I think that the policies they advocate, these basically honest people who would like to improve the world, would result in more violence, not less. But conversations like this are almost impossible. Why is this?

When I think back to my days as a philosophy student, one of the philosophers who made the most sense to me was Kant. Kant took very seriously the arguments of Hume and others that the ideas of space, time, causality, etc. — things that allow us to organize and understand our experience –  could not be found in our experience itself. But if this is so, how can we know that our systems of knowledge, including science, are reliable?

Kant’s answer (very oversimplified!) is that these “modes of perception” — space and time — and “categories of the understanding” — including causality — are built into humans, who then impose them on their otherwise chaotic perception of outside reality.

Something like this happens at a higher level, the level at which we assign political significance to events. So a person makes otherwise chaotic human behavior understandable by applying a priori categories and principles to it.

The classical Marxist, for example, uses the class struggle as a unifying principle. It enables him to understand and predict, he thinks, the behavior of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Today much of the Left holds a postcolonialist worldview, in which the behavior of nations and politicians is explained by relationships of colonial exploitation, present and future.

Such conceptual schemes have their utility, but they do not necessarily serve the truth, and can even invert reality when applied inappropriately. My readers are probably tired of hearing me talk ad nauseum about how  postcolonial theory inverts reality when applied to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The first reason that I have trouble talking to the people from the Center for Nonviolence (much as I would like to see a reduction of violence in the world) is that we apply different explanatory principles to the same events.

This is bad enough, but there’s more. When we read history and today’s news, we not only organize our experience according to a conceptual scheme, we fill in gaps. Things like the motivations of political actors are not always transparent, but they are of great importance in allowing us to predict their future behavior (and isn’t that what knowledge is all about?). So when we process information, we not only organize it, we add to it.

What comes out of this is a historical narrative. And narratives about the same events can diverge to the point of being complete opposites. The obvious example of this is the difference between the so-called Israeli and Arab narratives of the events of 1948, in which a real event — the displacement of some Arabs from what is now Israel — is interpreted in entirely different ways by emphasizing some facts and deemphasizing, even ignoring, others, by imputing motivations to the actors, and more.

Should we include the parallel displacement of Jews from the Arab world in our understanding? What were the motivations of the Arabs that fled? What did the Zionist leadership intend? What did the Arab leaders want? Which accounts are reliable and which not? The answers to these questions determine a historical narrative.

So we have different conceptual schemes and different historical narratives. And even that isn’t all: we live in parallel but different media universes. We visit different websites, watch different TV networks, read different newspapers and magazines, listen to different radio stations. Naturally, we choose the universe that best fits our conception of the way things are.

These three reasons are at least part of the explanation for the failures of communication between, for example, a Zionist like me and a member of the Center for Nonviolence.

Keep in mind that these differences do not imply that “everyone is equally right” or something similar. Kant thought that despite the fact that humans imposed categories on empirical reality, there was an empirical reality. Propositions can be true or false in a way which may not be entirely objective, but is nevertheless universal. Things are more complicated than they may look, but truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are meaningful concepts.

I’ve found that entering the media universe of my political opponents gives me a certain amount of power. I recommend it. But one needs to understand their conceptual schemes as well in order to communicate.

Unfortunately, only a few people have the patience to listen to the other side long enough to understand them.

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Ideas are one level, emotions another

Monday, February 13th, 2012
Terje Carlsson films on the Gaza beach

Terje Carlsson films on the Gaza beach

Did you know that it’s almost Israel Apartheid Week? It’s happening all around the world on slightly different dates in February and March. Although Fresno will not have an official event, we will be entertained by Historian of the Imagination (I invented the title) Ilan Pappé on February 23, thanks to our local university’s Middle East Studies program.

Here in this conservative, agricultural region, we are treated to anti-Israel events on a regular basis, sometimes almost every week. Last week I attended a showing of the film “Israel vs. Israel,” presented at a local church by the Fresno Center for Nonviolence. The Swedish director, Terje Carlsson, was there to answer questions.

There was nothing exceptional about the film, which was about Israeli Jews who oppose the Jewish presence in the territories. I found one scene instructive, in which Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), one of the film’s heroes, was talking to an Arab who was describing vandalism allegedly committed by “settlers.” To everything the Arab said, in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, Ascherman responded “aiwa” (yes). “Aiwa. Aiwa. Aiwa.” Everything he said was simply taken as given, which is the way the foreign-funded anti-state NGOs like RHR respond to all Arab accusations.

What struck me was the way Carlsson (in the film and in person) simply took certain things for granted, and expected his audience to do so also. For example, he said several times “…settlements, all of which are illegal under international law.”

He was clearly impatient when this was questioned, as though nothing could be more obvious. Nevertheless, he was unable to answer when I asked him why the 1929 pogrom and the 1948-67 Jordanian occupation of Hevron somehow rendered the Jewish presence there ‘illegal’. Although he said he had been in Israel for 10 years on and off, making this and other propaganda films — because this is what it was, without even a pretense of ‘balance’ — and was aware that Jews had lived in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem prior to 1948, this question had not occurred to him, nor did he seem to think that the question of international law in this respect was in the slightest bit controversial.

Like many people who share his beliefs, Carlsson was not being dishonest and did not seem cynical. His absorption of the Arab narrative was total, and he considered what he was doing ‘journalism’, not propaganda.

The individuals responsible for the stream of anti-Israel events in town are also not necessarily dishonest or cynical. The folks at the Center for Nonviolence — who would never, ever allow themselves to support terrorism — believe that they are helping one people achieve self-determination, rather than contributing to campaign to put an end to the self-determination of another.

The function of Apartheid Week and similar events is to create the impression that Israel is not only violating “international law” — which often seems to be whatever the speaker wants it to be — but is doing so out of evil intent, viciously exploiting “the natives” as Pappé and others like to say, in every way, stealing their land and murdering them out of sheer colonialist arrogance. In the process, various crimes are simply invented, war crimes, murders, rapes, etc. Once you believe any of this, it’s possible and even satisfying to believe the rest of it.

Which, I think, is what is behind the campaign that goes on week in and week out, and not just during Apartheid Week. It is a process of accretion, and what is being accreted is a layer of hatred and disgust for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The false propositions about international law, historical fact, etc. that underlie it and provide a handle for ordinary, decent people like the members of the Center for Nonviolence, to join the campaign.

The objective of this campaign is to drive the Jews out of the Middle East, by any means necessary, including (especially) murder. It had been going on, somewhat unsuccessfully, since the beginning of the 20th century, but it received an boost after 1967 when it adopted the strategy of presenting the struggle against the Jews as a national liberation movement of an oppressed people, the ‘Palestinians’.

This struggle received more impetus later, when it was cast in terms of racism, particularly by the 2001 Durban Conference on Racism. So the members of the Center for Nonviolence, for example, can be enlisted in a profoundly racist cause — the removal of the Jews from their homeland — while they believe that they are fighting against racism! This, of course, is the theme of Apartheid Week.

Ideas are one level, emotions are another. Both are part of the campaign. When I attend an event like Carlsson’s film, I always listen carefully to the small talk beforehand. The deeply felt repugnance for Israeli Jews is evident, as anecdotes (invariably false) about Israeli crimes are shared. This may be part of the reason that it’s so hard to refute propaganda by presenting factual arguments.

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A credible threat could prevent war

Friday, February 10th, 2012

NBC News recently reported,

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

The group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, has long been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, accused of killing American servicemen and contractors in the 1970s and supporting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran before breaking with the Iranian mullahs in 1980…

“The relation is very intricate and close,” said Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, speaking of the MEK and Israel.  “They (Israelis) are paying … the Mujahedin. Some of their (MEK) agents … (are) providing Israel with information.  And they recruit and also manage logistical support.” … “This is an Israeli plot.  A dirty plot,” Larijani added angrily.

Two senior U.S. officials confirmed for NBC News  the MEK’s role in the assassinations, with one senior official saying, “All your inclinations are correct.” A third official would not confirm or deny the relationship, saying only, “It hasn’t been clearly confirmed yet.”  All the officials denied any U.S. involvement in the assassinations.

I’ve written about the MEK (also called PMOI) before. The State Department considers it a terrorist organization, and it certainly has a record of violent actions, including killing some Americans 30 years ago, when it supported Khomeini’s revolution. But Khomeini suppressed the MEK, and since then it has been focused on overthrowing the Iranian regime. The MEK says it has renounced violence, and the EU and the UK no longer list it as a terrorist group. But there is no doubt that it is prepared to use deadly force against the Iranian regime.

If in fact Israel is working with the MEK, it is unsurprising. You can’t blame Israel, threatened almost daily with annihilation by a country whose proxies have tens of thousands of missiles targeted at its population centers, and which is working as hard as it can to develop nuclear weapons (though the project brings ruin on its economy and impoverishes its own people).

The unnamed “senior US officials” are not without an agenda. Part of it is to deny US involvement so that any unpleasant local consequences of the conflict, like the inevitable rise in gasoline prices, can be blamed on Israel.

I would very much like to believe that the Obama Administration is taking part in covert actions against Iran, because the consequences for the US of Iran’s obtaining nuclear capability would be very serious. Iran’s power on the other oil-producing states would be greatly enhanced in proportion to a reduction in American influence. One can imagine how Iran could sponsor puppet regimes and subvert existing ones with a combination of nuclear threats and pressure from its proxies. The Middle East could become a collection of Iranian satrapies.

Iran already has missiles which can reach US installations and naval forces in the Middle East, and is developing much longer-range ones. There are also other ways of delivering nuclear weapons, such as in a container delivered to an American port. The regime’s public pronouncements have been consistently aggressive towards the US, “the great Satan,” and public events often include chants of “death to America.”

Nevertheless I believe that the US could stop the regime’s project without going to war. All that is required would be a credible threat of military action. After all, many analysts agree that Iran temporarily halted development in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, because they thought that they were next.

Unfortunately, we can’t make a credible threat. Although the US certainly has the capability to destroy the Iranian installations, more so than any other nation in the world, the administration does not have the will to do so, and the Iranian regime knows it. The statement “all options are on the table” is easy to make, but is belied by US attempts to pretend that Iran is only Israel’s problem — while at the same time pressuring Israel to not take action.

Paradoxically, the inability to make a credible threat today may lead to the necessity of actually using force later.

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New Israel Fund supports pro-BDS group

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
BDS Genève logo

BDS Genève logo

I’ve dumped on the New Israel Fund (NIF) before.

But there are still those who think it is a progressive organization that funds initiatives to make Israel more democratic, to improve the treatment of women and Arab citizens, to increase tolerance of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel, etc.

Some of its grantees are focused on these kinds of things, but it has another side which is not so progressive.

Let’s leave aside whether well-off American liberals really understand the differences between Israel and the US, whether the silly comparisons between Arabs and African-Americans make sense, and whether they have the slightest idea of what it is like to live under rocket bombardment or send their children to compulsory military service.

Leave aside as well this fundamental difference: the difference between a country founded to be either a ‘melting pot’ or a multicultural society (as you prefer), and one which is expressly defined as the state of the Jewish people.

Let’s just talk about whether a contribution to the NIF tends to promote the continued existence of Israel, or its replacement by another Arab Muslim state. That would not be ‘progressive’ at all.

The NIF has suffered a series of embarrassments in this regard:

The revelation that the majority of NGOs that contributed ‘documentation’ to the Goldstone report received funding from NIF

The ambiguity about whether NIF supports groups that call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel (see also here)

The support for the very anti-Israel Women for Peace coalition

The former NIF leader caught by Wikileaks saying that “the disappearance of the Jewish state would not be the tragedy that Israelis fear since it would become more democratic”

One of the NIF-funded organizations that has drawn a great deal of criticism is Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. I wrote previously,

In 2007, Adalah presented its version of a “Democratic Constitution” for Israel. In the introduction, Adalah begins by demanding that

The state of Israel must recognize, therefore, its responsibility for the injustices of the Nakba and the Occupation; recognize the right of return of the Palestinian refugees based on UN Resolution 194 [understood by Arabs as return of any ‘refugees’ who choose to do so — ed]; recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; and withdraw from all of the territories occupied in 1967.

They also present several options for providing the Arab minority with a veto over all decisions of the Knesset. There is lots more, but the adoption of this constitution would clearly mean the end of the Jewish state.

Adalah refers to Israel as an “apartheid state,” contributed to the Goldstone report (39 citations) and has assisted foreign states in pressing ‘lawfare’ complaints against Israeli officials (details here). Despite promises that it would not make grants to anti-Zionist groups, NIF has continued to fund Adalah.

Adalah styles itself as a “civil rights” group, but the effect of its anti-state activities is to damage, rather than improve, the critical relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Next week an Adalah official will speak  at an Israel Apartheid Week event organized by the Swiss “BDS Genève” group, on the topic “The policy of Apartheid in Israel: The new racist laws”.

This is not ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘pro-peace’ or pro-anything. It is simply part of the worldwide campaign to delegitimize and stigmatize Israel, in order to make it easier to force it to make dangerous concessions and to limit its right of self-defense. The objective of the BDS movement is no different than that of the Hamas rocket squads — the elimination of the Jewish state.

It is therefore remarkable — and infuriating — that it is being financed in part by donations from progressive Jews in the US who believe themselves to be pro-Israel.

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EU tough on Greece, soft on PA

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012
Just a small part of how the EU helps the Palestinians

Just a small part of how the EU helps the Palestinians

News item (WAFA is the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority):

JERUSALEM, February 7, 2012 (WAFA) – The European Union and Sweden Tuesday contributed €24.7 million to the payment of the January salaries and pensions of around 84,300 Palestinian civil servants and pensioners in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to an EU press release. The European Commission made €22.5 million contribution and Sweden made €2.2 million.

The European Commission’s contribution comes from the €155 million package of financial assistance to the recurrent expenditures of the Palestinian Authority committed for 2012, said the release.

The commitment of the EU to the Palestinian cause is remarkable, compared to the way it treats some of its own members. For example, it will be placing tough terms on proposed loans to Greece, forcing the Greeks to repay bondholders first, rather than (for example) government workers. And loans will be contingent on the Greeks laying off 15,000 public sector workers.

Yet the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has just (again) made an agreement with the terrorist Hamas, and which refuses to negotiate with Israel without preconditions, seems to be able to get whatever it asks for, without any demands being made on it. How hard would it be, for example, to insist that the PA enter serious negotiations with Israel before it gets paid?

Speaking of public sector workers, the PA is paying salaries to ’employees’ in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Either these workers are doing nothing, or they are working for Hamas. And did I mention that the PA pays stipends to prisoners in Israeli jails, including convicted murderers? This, or the rampant corruption of the PA, doesn’t seem to bother the EU.

But this direct aid is not all, by far, that Europe (and the rest of the world) do for the Palestinians. There is the $1.2 billion each year spent by UNRWA on ‘Palestinian refugees’, the only hereditary class of refugees in history, while their leadership and the Arab states refuse to resettle them or treat them like humans. The second largest contributor to UNRWA, after the US, is the EU.

We must not forget the millions of Euros provided every year to support extreme left-wing anti-state NGOs in Israel (see illustration at top), which keep them alive as a fifth column inside Israel, despite their lack of support from Israelis. And, while the EU seems to think a hands-off policy is the best way to help the Palestinians develop a democratic society, they take the opposite approach to Israel. One would think they believe that there’s a new Mandate, which includes countries like Norway and even the Vatican, to rule the land of Israel.

One wonders what they get out of this tremendously expensive enterprise.

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