Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Shop till you drop

Now elevated to the status of ‘the premier global Jewish advocacy organization’, on 1 December the American Jewish Committee unveiled its latest strategy in the campaign to defeat global anti-Semitism.

“Our collective response to the haters of Israel is to shop,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris, who led a large group to Ricky’s, a store in New York’s Union Square…“Chanukah, when we celebrate our freedom as Jews, is the perfect time to show our support for Israel by purchasing Israeli products,” said Harris.  “We need to speak out and act. Shopping for Israel is the right thing to do."

In an aside attempting to ridicule the BDS campaign, Harris quipped, 

By the way, I can't help but wonder if the anti-Israel boycotters, for consistency's sake, also ensure before using their computers and cell phones, or seeking life-saving medical care, that there are no Israeli products or innovations involved.

What doesn’t appear to have penetrated is that BDS is not just a moral gesture.  With the supine International Community powerless to redress the injustice of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the territories it seized by force in June 1967, Palestinian civil society groups have called on supporters to inflict economic and other kinds of pressure on Israel.  It doesn’t matter what wonderful inventions Israelis have come up with.  What matters is what kinds of actions we consider will have the greatest economic impact at the time and what kinds of forces we can mobilize in support of the campaign, along with other tactical issues. 

Reducing the campaign to a question of some imagined moral consistency evidences incomprehension of what it’s all about.  To be fair, I suspect that it is beyond Harris’s capacity to understand solidarity, at least outside the tribe.

Stick to what you’re good at, David, and shop till you drop.

Informed consent

Yesterday I received invitations to sign two online petitions supporting Julian Assange.

One, from the Australian group, GetUp!, addresses Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder and aims to publish the petition in a full page advert in the NY Times with 75,000 signatories.  Quoting Thomas Jefferson, ‘information is the currency of democracy’, signatories appeal for due process,

If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law.

The other, from, with well over half a million signatures so far, calls on some unspecified ‘you’

to respect democratic principles and laws of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. If WikiLeaks and the journalists it works with have violated any laws they should be pursued in the courts with due process.

I beg to differ.  Much as I support the work Wikileaks and Assange have been doing, due process is not the issue.  If, indeed, they have broken any laws, I applaud their civil disobedience and call for the law’s repeal.

As I understand it, if the US indicts Assange, it is likely to be under the terms of the Espionage Act (1917), which casts quite a wide net, drawing in anyone who 'copies, takes, makes, or...receives or obtains...any sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, document, writing or note of anything connected with the national defence'.  Furthermore, under s. 5, 'Whoever harbours or conceals any person who he knows, or has reasonable grounds to believe or suspect, has committed, or is about to commit, an offence under this title' is subject to lesser penalties.  The principal issues are probably whether Assange had 'intent or reason to believe that the to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation' and whether the leaked information was ‘connected with the national defence’.  I think it is likely that Assange can mount a persuasive defence on the grounds that his intent was not to injure the US or advantage a foreign nation, but rather to inform the public or the like.  But I’m not optimistic that a judge or a jury of his peers would find such a defence convincing. 

As Jefferson and others have observed, an uninformed electorate cannot exercise even the parody we call ‘democracy’ meaningfully.  Some of Assange’s supporters seem tolerant of the state’s need to keep secrets from other states and even from its real adversary — the people it rules.  There is a tension between their need for secrecy and our need for full information, at least if they intend to maintain the pretence that they rule over us with our informed consent. 

In a system purporting to represent the governed, there is, I think, an implied right to the information the government bases its decisions on, made explicit in the right to freedom of expression.  It’s frightening that the governed are prepared to countenance such transparent infringements of their most treasured and fundamental rights as the Espionage Act and the even more draconian 1918 amendment, known as the Sedition Act, which makes it a crime to

wilfully cause... or incite... insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct... the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag... or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States, or any language intended to bring the form of government... or the Constitution... or the military or naval forces... or the flag... of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute...

Now that Assange is at the mercy of The Criminal Justice System, he is certainly entitled to due process and we need to defend that entitlement.  But to couch the petition in those terms seems to me to miss the point and to elevate compliance with The Law into a matter of principle.  Any law with the capacity to criminalise the work that Wikileaks is doing demonstrates that The Law is not our friend and what we need to support is that work, whether legal or not.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

I pledge allegiance...

While I’ve been dithering, it’s faded from the headlines.  But it was quite the controversial topic way back in October.

On 10 October, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill by 22 votes to 8 changing the wording of the loyalty oath non Jews seeking Israeli citizenship must take.

The Nationality Law of 1952 provides mechanisms for obtaining Israeli nationality by ‘return’, residence, birth, or naturalization.  The residence provisions only apply to those resident prior to the promulgation of the law.  Only children of Israeli nationals are entitled to nationality by birth — children born in Israel to non Israeli parents apparently have no claim to Israeli nationality.  Jews immigrating under the Law of return are entitled to Israeli nationality under the ‘return’ provisions.

So it seems that the proposal would simply amend paragraph 5(c) of the Nationality Law — the section concerning acquiring Israeli nationality by naturalisation, that is, by non Jews — which provides: 

(5)(c)   Prior to the grant of nationality, the applicant shall make the following declaration: "I declare that I will be a loyal national of the State of Israel."

to read something along the lines of ‘…"I declare that I will be a loyal national of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel."

By nightfall, reports the Jerusalem Post, 150 were demonstrating at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. ‘One of the organizers of the demonstration, Sefi Rachlevsky, said that the protest was held to express their “great anger towards a terrible action taken by a country we love.’

The same day, Ha’aretz’s Gideon Levy wrote, ‘Remember this day. It's the day Israel changes its character… From now on, we will be living in a new, officially approved, ethnocratic, theocratic, nationalistic and racist country.’ 
JStreet immediately called ‘on the government of Israel to pull back from this proposal which runs counter not just to the values enshrined in the country’s Declaration of Independence, but puts at risk the very democratic nature of the state itself.’

On Tikun Olam, Richard Silverstein wrote, ‘If the [Supreme] Court does not reject the law then Israel is sliding down the slippery slope to a racialist state.’

Within two days, Ynet was reporting that the Anti Defamation League’s ‘National Director Abraham H. Foxman explained that "in the spirit of Israel’s founding principles of equality, we urge Israel’s government to adopt further modifications to the proposed amendment to the citizenship law so it will apply to all immigrants to Israel, including those entering under the Law of Return.’

By the end of the week, thousands were rallying against the bill.

Meretz MK Oron also condemned the loyalty oath bill, calling it racist and anti-democratic.

"This anti-democratic attack of legislation was meant to exclude the Arab population from the democratic game and to eternalize an ethnocentric right-wing regime in the government.’

‘…hundreds of Israeli public figures, including Shulamit Aloni, Zehava Galon, Yoram Kaniuk, Ran Cohen’ signed the ‘Declaration of Independence from Fascism’,

A state which forcibly invades the hallowed realm of the individual citizen's conscience, and which imposes punishment on those whose opinions and beliefs do not fit the authorities' opinions and the prescribed "character" of the state, stops being a democracy and embarks on becoming a fascist state.

Behind these stairs where we stand, the state of Israel was proclaimed. The state which increasingly takes Israel's place – a state which fills the country with a variety of racist legislation, promoted by the Knesset and the cabinet – is excluding itself from the family of democratic nations. Therefore we, citizens of the Israel envisaged in the Declaration of Independence, hereby declare that will not be citizens of a country purporting to be Israel and which violates its basic commitment to the principles of equality, civil liberty and sincere aspiration for peace – principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.

On 31 October, the International Jewish Anti-zionist Network (IJAN) released its response, pointing out that ‘The Zionist "Left" is distancing itself from this policy, but the proposed oath is entirely consistent with Israel's racist foundations and continued ethnic cleansing - all of which the Zionist "Left" has played a central role in perpetrating and whitewashing.’

And the next day, Gabriel Ash of Jews sans frontiers further excoriated the Zionist ‘left’,

…Not only is the Palestinian narrative erased and evaded, but the speakers appropriate it. They are the ones whose country has been stolen. Proclaiming that “grievance” serves precisely to appropriate another attack on the people whose country really was stolen… [The] "left" that defends the interests of the settlers and seeks to make the Palestinian national problem disappear is not part of the solution. It is part of the problem.

Tempting as it is to quote more extensively, I’ll leave it to you to follow the link

More likely in response to Foxman than to the Israeli ‘left’, Ha’aretz reported that on 18 October, ‘Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman…to prepare a new bill extending the loyalty oath, which is currently aimed at non-Jews, to include Jewish immigrants as well’, quoting the PM,

"There is broad approval among the Israeli public regarding the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel, and that is not incidental. The state of Israel was founded as the sovereign state of the Jewish people and as a democratic state in which all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike – enjoy equal rights. Any person wishing to become an Israeli citizen must recognize these two key principals."

The same day, the American Jewish Committee ‘welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to direct the Justice Ministry to prepare a bill that will oblige both Jews and non-Jews to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”’ To their credit, J Street’s response to Netanyahu’s suggestion was to ‘remain opposed to the proposal’, albeit ‘for the reasons enumerated in the statement above’ — it risks ‘the very democratic nature of the state’.

To require such an oath of olim would demand more complex drafting of the proposed amendment than the original proposal.  But that should be no impediment to justice and fairness.  AJC Executive Director David Harris

had been concerned about different standards for Jewish and non-Jewish prospective immigrants to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has wisely decided, in keeping with Israel’s long-established principles of democracy and equality before the law, that if Israel is going to institute an oath of allegiance, it must be applicable to all.

If nothing else, you’d expect one of Zionism’s shrillest defenders to be aware that ‘different standards for Jewish and non-Jewish prospective immigrants to Israel’ are absolutely fundamental to Israel’s existence and that goyim are not entitled to acquire nationality under the ‘return’ provisions. Accordingly, unlike Jews seeking nationality, they must meet residence and language tests, and pledge fealty, to qualify. Amending the wording of the oath does not change that.

As many have pointed out, there is a contradiction between Israel’s claim to be ‘the national expression of the self-determination of the Jewish people’ and to be democratic in any meaningful sense.  Privileging any ethnicity or religious group erodes the democratic rights of those not so privileged.  So under the new provision, the only non Jews who would be entitled to immigrate and become Israeli citizens are those who are either too distracted to notice that they are swearing allegiance to something that can’t possibly exist or too dishonest or cynical to care.  Extending the requirement to olim would then restrict Israeli nationality by ‘return’ only to Jews displaying those characteristics.

But I reckon there are deeper implications.

In the immortal words of the Declaration of Establishment of State of Israel, ‘The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew…’ [my emphasis] 

As I read it, the point is that all Jews purportedly possess a common heritage in Palestine and are therefore equally entitled to live there.  Also, because anti-Semitism is inevitable wherever Jews live outside of Israel, we need to have a refuge we know will accept us when we flee oppression in ‘The Diaspora’. 

Making citizenship for olim contingent on taking an oath (anathema, by the way, to observant Jews) or indeed on anything, seems to me to have one of two consequences.  Either not all Jews are equally entitled to access our heritage and seek refuge from persecution, or they are redefining Jew to include just the distracted and the cynical.

One way or the other, that seemed to me to undermine Israel’s whole raison d’ être. No longer would just any member of ‘the Jewish people’ enjoy an entitlement to our ‘historic homeland’ and to asylum when under threat.

But on reflection, it transpires that whatever the framers of the Declaration might have intended in 1948, by 1950 the Law of return already empowered the Minister of Immigration (amended in 1954 to the Minister of the Interior) to deny an oleh’s visa if ‘satisfied that the applicant:

    (1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; or
    (2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State; or

The 1954 amendments extended the Minister’s power to exclude a third category of applicant — ‘a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare’.

So Israel has, virtually since inception, been the state not of ‘the Jewish people’ tout court, but only of those Jewish people who meet the Minister’s approval.  And in recent times, the Jewish state has demonstrated no reluctance to exclude unwanted Jews, even as visitors, when it deported Norman Finkelstein in May 2008, and refused entry to Noam Chomsky two years later. 

Since one of the principal tenets of Zionist ideology is that Israel is in fact the state of all the Jewish people and therefore any activity against Israel or Israeli actions, including criticism, constitutes ‘an activity directed against the Jewish people’, I can certainly understand why they might want to exclude critics.  And yet both Finkelstein and Chomsky are proponents of partitioning Palestine in accordance with The International Consensus, which I have argued implies support for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. So it’s not as if they actually challenge Israel’s fabled ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’.

If the Knesset enacts the legislation mandating a loyalty oath for Gentiles and the Supreme Court allows the law to stand, Israel remains a racist ethnocracy. If it requires the oath for all who seek Israeli nationality, it still remains a racist ethnocracy. And as for the Jews who can’t swear allegiance to a contradiction, we already know that Israel is not our country, anyway.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Load those questions!

Heading their 17 March press release '49% Say Israel Should Stop Building Settlements As Part of Peace Deal', Rasmussen reported last week on their 'National Survey of 1,000 Likely Voters Conducted March 15-16, 2010'.

At first I thought it was just a headline, but it turns out that what they actually asked was,

As part of a Middle Eastern peace agreement, should Israel be required to stop building new settlements in occupied Palestinian territory?

Leaving aside the little matter of the commonplace that an agreement between Israel and the PA, which is what they mean, applies to the entire Middle East, as the expression 'a Middle Eastern peace agreement' suggests, this is a curious way to frame the question.

All previous versions of the two state 'solution' have explicitly aimed to end the occupation of at least some of the territory that Israel seized in June 1967. Obviously Israel occupies all of Mandadory Palestine, but the likelihood that those drafting the question or those responding understood it that way is vanishingly small.

At least on the face of it, as I read it, the question assumes that the agreement will countenance continued occupation of 'Palestinian territory' – the West Bank and East Jerusalem, since the occupation of Gaza no longer involves building new settlements. So the question becomes not whether the occupation should end, or even whether existing settlements should be evacuated, but only whether new ones should be permitted as part of the envisaged peace agreement.

Taken at face value, it seems preposterous that anyone could imagine even the craven PA would agree to a 'peace' that entailed continuing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, much less an occupation with ongoing settlement expansion. But 29% of the respondents said they didn't think the agreement should require Israel to stop building and another 22% weren't sure. Even the 49% who thought construction should stop were prepared to accept continuing occupation.

On reflection, however, it's not as farfetched as all that. I'm not aware of any advocate of partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state who doesn't envisage some kind of 'land swap', which, as I've emphasised repeatedly, retroactively endorses Israel's cynical construction of facts on the ground for the past four decades and more.

In any case, I think it's clear that what Rasmussen meant and what respondents understood them to mean was whether whether Israel should be required to stop building new settlements as a condition for negotiations to proceed towards the Peace Agreement. So why should they stop building on the areas they plan to annex – in other words, continue to occupy?

It's a bit of a disappointment to learn that Rasmussen would field a survey with such shoddy question wording. I had somehow formed the impression that they were professionals.

In the same vein, they ask,

As part of a Middle Eastern peace agreement, should Palestinian leaders be required to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state?

It's worth noting that acknowlege is a 'factive' verb – one that assumes the truth of its object. So there is no question whether Israel possesses the 'right to exist as a Jewish state', just whether Palestinian leaders should be forced to admit it. It's bad enough when you find these semantic tricks in journalism, although it's common enough that you have to expect it, but to insinuate such a contentious assumption into a survey question like that is truly beyond the pale.

Again, as I've written before, to 'acknowlege' Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state implies endorsing the ethnic cleanisng that enabled Israel to establish a Jewish majority in the first place and relinquishing the refugees' right to return – hardly a strong foundation for a peace agreement. Even so, 75% of those polled agreed that Palestinian leaders should be required to make such an acknowlegement, and 20% weren't sure, even though it's obvious that any leader doing so would certainly not retain a position of leadership for long.

Rasmussen only tabulate the results of three other questions, although from the breakdowns they report in their press release it's clear they asked others. One of these revealed that 73% don't consider a 'lasting peace' within the next decade likely and 58% consider Israel a US ally, while a surprising 32% think it's 'somewhere in between' an ally and an enemy.

Like last year, it's once again thanks to Richard Silverstein that I learned of the latest J Street poll, conducted 17-19 March. A quick look suggests that this year Gerstein | Agne, J Street's pollster, has not lifted their game, asking many questions about the US national interest and such. The only thing that struck me as worthy of comment was the headline of their press release, which proclaims 'American Jews Continue to Support Obama Push for Two-State Solution...', when in fact, they didn't even ask about the two state 'solution' or any aspect of it. But I'll have a closer look in due course and post something if anything comes to light. For my analysis of last year's J Street poll, see 'Across the Potomac'. I also had occasion to compare last year's J Street results with those from the Anti Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee's polls in 'A feather in our cap'.

Meanwhile, Zogby released their latest poll on the subject yesterday. I haven't managed to find the questions or a tabulation of the responses on their site, so I was forced to watch a video of John Zogby presenting the results to the New America Foundation. He claimed he'd selected the most interesting for his slideshow, but I can't say that anything piqued my curiosity. It seems that Republicans think the US should side with Israel, while Democrats think the US should be evenhanded. As if.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Friends like these


You might have thought that if it was anybody's job to look after Israel's occupation forces, it would have to be the Israeli taxpayer.  But it transpires that 
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) has assumed the responsibility of providing these soldiers with love and support in an effort to ease the burden they carry on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide...with the mission of providing and supporting social, educational, cultural, and recreational programs and facilities for the young men and women soldiers of Israel who defend the Jewish homeland...Providing financial aid to soldiers in need, granting academic scholarships to former combat soldiers, helping bereaved families, and sponsoring fun days for combat battalions are just some of our endeavors...reinforce the significant bond between the Jewish community in the United States, the soldiers of the IDF, and the State of Israel.
FIDF builds sports and cultural centres for the IOF all over Israel and, if I read the map correctly, in the West Bank, as well as providing mobile recreational facilities for those too busy humiliating Palestinians at remote checkpoints or bashing down doors in the middle of the night to get to one of the more permanent centres.

If IOF soldiers carry the burden of occupation and oppression 'on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide'  doesn't that constitute 'Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel', one of the ways 'in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel', according to the EU Monitoring Commission's 'Working definition'

Anyone who wants to contribute to this blatantly antisemitic project is in luck.  Next Tuesday, 9 March, FIDF is holding its National NY Gala in the Grand Ballroom of Manhattan's historic Waldorf-Astoria, where
More than 1,300 people will gather together to support Israel’s soldiers and the State of Israel. At the dinner, you will have the unique opportunity to hear from Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi Chief of the IDF General Staff and meet combat soldiers who fight on the frontlines to ensure the safety of the state of Israel.

For just US$180,000, you can book a table for ten, although only $179,678 of that will be tax deductible.  Or if you're too tightfisted to fork over a week's pay to defend Western Civilisation from the barbarian hordes at the gate, you can buy a seat for $1000.  I just can’t help wondering how much of contributions to Friends of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades or Friends of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or even Friends of the Canadian Land Force Command would be tax deductible?

Alternatively, you can join the protest march, assembling at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue at 5PM on the day - next Tuesday, 9 March.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Heil mein Führer

When I got home yesterday, I found this promotional message from Ha'aretz in my inbox. 

Headed 'Property Management – An Occupation In and Of Itself', at first I thought it must be a spoof, an impression further buttressed by the principal's unfortunate surname.  But it turns out that there really is a Dov Fuehrer at Firer Property Management, providing professional services to absentee landlords who 'own' stolen land.  On reflection, I surmise that 'An Occupation In and Of Itself' was just a curiously revealing variation on 'A profession in and of itself'. 
Meanwhile, Ha'aretz also alerted me to the opportunity to 'come home for Pesach' and enjoy a week of five star festivities at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel for just US$2240 per person, exclusive, I gather, of airfares.  Newsflash: I am home.

Saturday, 30 January 2010


Mark Elf of Jews sans frontières has been writing a lot about Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s documentary Defamation lately, attracting a fairly lively discussion.  Mark has written mainly about a short segment filmed at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s annual conference on Antisemitism featuring the English sociology lecturer and infamous Zionist apologist, David Hirsh, who Shamir filmed addressing the conference and in an animated altercation with the noxious Prof. Dina Porath, Head of The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University.  Hirsh came across as remarkably sensible in the excerpts that made the cut.  But he has since taken exception to the editing, linking to the full text of his talk.  And Shamir has responded.  The point that Hirsh makes is that one of the reasons for contemporary antisemitism is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an issue nobody else at the conference had mentioned. 

Some websites have restricted access to Defamation so it can only be viewed in the UK for a few weeks, but I believe this link will work for anyone and will not expire.

Shamir is a young Israeli filmmaker who says that as an Israeli, he had never experienced antisemitism and wanted to find out what it was all about.  He weaves two principal themes through his documentary: He follows the ADL’s thuggish Abe Foxman around as he tours the world bullying the mighty into taking his line on antisemitism.  And he accompanies a group of Israeli high school students on a pilgrimage to Poland they and their classmates carry out annually.  Inculcated from infancy with the idea that ‘everybody hates us’, more than 30,000 kids a year undergo special indoctrination to prepare them for the trip, where they will not be permitted to interact with locals at all, who they are instructed are dangerous to them, as evidenced by the secret service minders who accompany them at all times. 

Before discussing the film, let me just make a few points about antisemitism.  First of all, in my view, antisemitism is just a special case of racism.  It essentialises Jews as a race and discriminates against Jews on that basis.  There are historical reasons that it suited the ruling classes of mediaeval Europe to discriminate against Jews that I won’t go into now.  Suffice it to say that hatred of Jews and other attitudes that support discrimination derive from the discrimination both historically and conceptually, not the other way around.  Understood in this way, it is ironic that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) specifically excludes cases of actual discrimination in employment, housing, education, and the like from its Annual Audit of Anti-semitic Incidents.

ADL does not include cases of alleged employment discrimination in hiring, firing or promotion, unless the situation includes evidence of overt anti-Semitism...Such claims involve a different kind of anti-Semitic problem which, while hurtful to the complainant, are nevertheless distinct from overt expressions of anti-Jewish hostility.
In other words, in their view, expression of racist attitudes, even ‘Events which create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to Jews, including neo-Nazi and white supremacist events, rallies, and speeches’, which may not be explicitly antisemitic, are on the whole of greater significance than actual racist actions, with the exception of assaults, which do count.

When it comes to the relation between antisemitism and Israel, I happen to agree that ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’ is antisemitic.  In fact, I think that’s the only point in the EU Monitoring Commission’s ‘Working definition’ of anti-Semitism, which I’ve demonstrated itself holds ‘Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’, I do agree with.  By the same token, when Former Israeli PM Tzipi Livni harps repeatedly on Israel as ‘a homeland for the Jewish people’ and when we read that youth and relief organisations are saying, ‘As the representative of the Jewish people, the State of Israel is leading the relief effort’, it’s no big surprise when the uninformed take them at their word and blame the Jews Israel purports to represent for what Israel does in our name.  Nor does it help when nearly every Jewish organisation and individual Jew takes it for granted that Israel does represent them.

An important aspect of antisemitism is that it’s one of the few forms of racism that has its own special term.  Although it was in fact the antisemite Wilhelm Marr who coined the term, it has turned out to be very convenient for the ADL, the Community Security Trust (CST), and the rest of the antisemitism industry to be able to purport to combat antisemitism without having to pretend to oppose racism more generally.

Another point that I thought was implicit in the film is that Israel has a special interest in exaggerating the extent of antisemitism.  For one thing, it engenders a barricade mentality among Israelis, strongly evidenced in interviews with high school students and with Shamir’s own grandmother.  The Israeli educational system quite cynically exploits the real sorrow and indignation the concentration camp visits elicit from the students to inculcate serious racist attitudes.  One girl said she wanted to kill all the Nazis.  When Shamir pointed out that those responsible for the Holocaust were all dead, she responded that they had progeny.  It hadn’t really occurred to me that perhaps the preeminent targets for Hasbara are actually Israeli kids.

Perhaps more importantly, it mobilises Jews outside Israel – the so called ‘diaspora’ – to support Israel, right or wrong, as an ‘insurance policy’ against the inevitable coming wave of antisemitic violence.  Shamir films a sad, but hilarious, discussion among some members of Foxman’s entourage where they determine that their love for their own country is like love for a husband, but their love for Israel is like the love for a child.  In some cases, fear of antisemitism motivates foreign Jews to immigrate, as intended. 

It’s worth noting that although the Nazis killed millions of non Jews, Israel has appropriated the Holocaust to denote the judeocide alone.  Jews have been uniquely victimised.  It is antisemitic to suggest that anything else in human history was as uniquely horrible as the Shoah.  In fact, Foxman takes his Ukrainian interlocutor to task for intimating a similarity with the death of millions of Ukrainians.  The underlying assumption is that antisemitism lurks in the heart and liver of every non Jew and that it’s just a matter of time before the next Holocaust.  Shamir’s grandmother, who despises the canny, lazy, greedy non Israeli Jews, asks whether we’re just waiting for Hitler to come along. 

Finally, a bit off topic, you often hear it said that Israel is antisemitic because ‘Arabs are Semites too’.  There are two problems with this.  First, Marr coined the term specifically to denote discrimination against and hatred of Jews and it has never meant anything else, whatever problems anyone may have with that.   

More importantly, when they say, ‘Arabs are Semites too’, they effectively create a race of Semites, which would comprise Jews, Arabs, and the peoples who speak Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa.  There are people who hate Jews because we’re Jews and there are people who hate Arabs because they’re Arabs.  Perhaps there are even people who hate Amharic speakers because of that.  There are certainly people who hate both Jews and Arabs but I doubt there’s anyone anywhere who hates Jews and Arabs because they are Semites, per se – speakers of Semitic languages and their descendants.  Since race is not a meaningful biological category, we can only know that a race is a race because of the racism against its members.  And since there is no racism against Semites, as such, there is no race of Semites and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to try to appropriate the term antisemitism for a form of racism that doesn’t exist.

Returning to the point, I liked the film a lot.  It didn’t evidence very high production values, but I assume that the amateurish interview from behind the handheld camera technique was deliberate. 

There are revealing interviews with rabbis in Crown Heights and Kiev and members of Foxman’s delegation, as well as with the students.  The Crown Heights rabbi points out that it is not the same thing for a mugger to target Jews thinking they are soft targets as to target Jews because they hate Jews.  He also mentions that people like Foxman have a vested interest in exaggerating the threat and fomenting an atmosphere of panic because their jobs depend on it. 

Shamir also interviews both Jews and Blacks in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights district and attends a conference in Israel on antisemitism.  One of the Crown Heights Blacks strongly endorsed what he called ‘The elders of the protocols of Zion’ and his two mates agreed, although they clearly were not as familiar with it as the first guy was.  Even though he was aware that The protocols was a hoax, to all appearances, they really believe that there’s a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, a transparently antisemitic attitude, also articulated by a cabdriver at the very beginning of the film.  There may well be genuine cause for concern if such views are prevalent.  The fear and resentment those interviewees displayed could easily turn nasty.  But the question arises how they came by their opinions.  One reason may be that they haven’t had much social contact with the Jews in their neighbourhood, who are principally, if not exclusively, the notoriously insular Hasidim.

In one of Defamation’s highlights, Foxman may offer some additional insight.  In an in car interview, he confesses that his raison d’etre is actually to instil and cultivate the impression that Jews have great power and influence as a tool to bully his interlocutors to put on a song and dance about how they don’t believe Jews have inordinate power and influence.

To be honest, I didn’t think the interviews with Mearsheimer and Finkelstein contributed much.  Mearsheimer makes the undeniable point that it’s nearly impossible to prove a negative – that, for example, he is not an antisemite, ‘which is one reason that this charge is so effective’.  ‘My arguments are not in any way, shape, or form hostile to Jews or hostile to the state of Israel.  And in fact Steve Walt and I go to great lengths to make the case that we think The Lobby’s policies are not in Israel’s interests or in America’s interests.’  In protesting that he is not hostile to Israel and his concern for Israel’s interests as evidence that he is not an antisemite, of course, he demonstrates pretty conclusively that, if you agree that bracketing Jews with the state of Israel is antisemitic, he is in fact an antisemite.

Finkelstein does not come out of the film looking very good, either.  This could be an artefact of Shamir’s editing.  He filmed the interview in at least four locations – on the boardwalk, presumably adjacent to his flat, in the loungeroom, in the kitchen, and in the stairwell.  When asked about the traditional complaint that Israel is ‘singled out for criticism’, Finkelstein responds somewhat unconvincingly, ‘Listen, I open the radio.  I hear nonstop about Sudan.  I hear nonstop about Tibet.  I hear nonstop about Darfur. I hear a lot.’  He does make the salient point, however, ‘The only place I hear excuses made for is Israel.’  But he goes on to undermine himself with the familiar claim, ‘We do have to remember that it’s the oldest occupation in the world.  I mean forty years really is enough’.  It never ceases to amaze me how intelligent and well informed people draw a line in the sand in June 1967, as if Zionist colonisation of Palestine didn’t go back a lot further than that.  In a 27 January article on the Electronic Intifada, Columbia University academic Joseph Massad attributes the reduction of Palestine to just the West Bank and Gaza, which seems to me to lie at the heart of this misconception, to Oslo.
...By transforming the PLO, which represented all Palestinians in the Diaspora and in Israel and the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, into the Palestinian Authority (PA) which could only hope to represent Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, constituting one third of the Palestinian people, the Oslo agreements engineered a major demographic reduction of the Palestinian people...

The insidious part of this process is how the PA, conscious of this transformation, continues to speak of the "Palestinian people," which had been reduced through the Oslo accords to those West Bank and Gaza Palestinians it now claims to represent.
(I strongly recommend, by the way, making a point of clicking the link to ‘How surrendering Palestinian rights became the language of "peace"’ and reading it in full.  Massad really gets some of the stuff I’ve been trying to hammer for years.) 

But beyond that, it always strikes me as a bit rich for an American to claim the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as ‘the oldest occupation in the world’, as if they weren’t even aware of the US occupation of such colonies as Puerto Rico, Guam, and ‘American’ Samoa, which goes back to the end of the Nineteenth Century.  When I point this out, a lot of people object that those aren’t exactly like the Israeli occupation, sometimes indicating particular differences.  And they’re right.  But once you redefine occupation to mean only an occupation exactly like the occupation of the West Bank, assertions that it’s the oldest become utterly vacuous. 

At another point, Finkelstein tells Shamir, ‘It’s the best thing that will ever happen to Israel if they get rid of these American Jews who are warmongers from Martha’s’s been a disaster for’s a curse.’  So it turns out that at least one of the things that concerns him, like Mearsheimer, is Israel’s interests.  Beyond that, he seems to be suggesting that Israel would be fine if it weren’t for these American Jews, as if warmongers like Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, whose work he is intimately familiar with and who he mentions in another part of the interview, needed any prodding.

Shamir attended a meeting with Foxman, Joel Levi, ‘NY Regional Director’, and Bob Wolfson, ‘ADL Regional Director’, about, Foxman says, ‘...what looks like a spike in um antisemitic and or manifestations.  Now New York seems to be at the centre, or at least getting the attention.  How do you see it?’  Levi responds, ‘There is a wave.  There’s no question about it.’  And Wolfson speculates that it may ‘be attached to the time of the year’ or ‘maybe attached to the Presidential election’, placing the filming prior to November 2008.

It transpires that the ADL headlined the 1 June 2009 press release for its own Annual Audit of Anti-semitic Incidents for 2008, ‘Anti-Semitic Incidents Decline for Fourth Straight Year in U.S., According to Annual ADL Audit’.  In 2008, the ADL recorded ‘1,352 incidents of vandalism, harassment and physical assaults against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions in 2008, representing a 7 percent decline from the 1,460 incidents reported in 2007’ and a 26% decline from the 2004 peak ‘when the League reported 1,821 incidents’. Of those 1,352 incidents, 37 were actual assaults, a category not reported in previous years.   Of course it wouldn’t be the first time that a prominent American Jewish organisation has contradicted its own findings.

It was interesting to learn that in the fortnight prior to Shamir’s visit to the ADL’s main office in Manhattan they had collected a grand total of five reports of antisemitic incidents: someone who thought they had detected antisemitic remarks on a website and another who believed they had perceived ‘antisemitic undertones’ in a newspaper article, as well as a teacher, another employee, and a nursing student who ‘had issues’ taking leave for Jewish holidays.  Another report was a letter from a woman to her congressperson alleging that she was utterly crushed to overhear a cop on duty guarding a big funeral telling someone on the phone that he wouldn’t be free until ‘after this Jewish shit’. 

What I got from Defamation  is that a lot of Jews, including Israeli Jews, exhibit a hysterical paranoia about antisemitism completely at odds with the actual danger.  According to the ADL Audit, the chance of an American Jew being the victim of an antisemitic assault are about 1 in 160,000.  Nevertheless, the latest American Jewish Committee Survey shows that 99% of American Jews thought antisemitism was a problem, 56% a ‘Very Serious problem’, and 45% said it was getting worse. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common enough kind of phenomenon.  Hundreds of millions are more worried about a terrorist attack than about driving down the shops even though they are thousands of times more likely to be killed or injured in a traffic accident than in a terrorist incident.

Shamir also makes it clear that there are organisations, ranging from the ADL to the State of Israel, that have a vested interest in provoking and exacerbating antisemitic attitudes, exaggerating antisemitic incidents, and aggravating the hysteria about them.

Unfortunately, he ends the film on the lame note, ‘Maybe it’s about time to live in the present and look to the future’.

Notwithstanding the useful insights and revealing admissions Defamation presents, ultimately, whatever Shamir’s intentions, it ends up as part of Israel’s rebranding exercise.  Shamir shows that at least some Israelis are talented and caring people.  He goes out of his way to challenge the received wisdom – the very foundation of Zionsim.  And the whole project was sponsored by the Israeli Council for Cinema, among others.  Clearly, Israel must be a true democracy that ‘shares our values’ even to tolerate, much less support, a film like Defamation.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Alistair Hulett dead at 57

Another one bites the dust.  

Dave Rovics's obituary

Alistair Hulett has has died

Icon of Scottish folk music, international socialism, and Australian punk rock dead at 57

Today is my daughter Leila's fourth birthday, and while this occasion brings my thoughts back to the day she was born, the past 24 hours have otherwise been full of fairly devastating news.

If the left can admit to having icons, then two of them have just died. Yesterday it was the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing many stages around the US over many years. Much has been written about Zinn's death at the age of 87, and I think many more people will be discovering his groundbreaking work who may not have heard of him til now.

And then less than a full day later I heard the news that my dear friend, comrade and fellow musician Alistair Hulett died today. He was thirty years younger than Professor Zinn, 57 years old, give or take a year (I'm shit at remembering birthdays, but he was definitely still years shy of 60). Ally had an aggressive form of cancer in his liver, lungs and stomach.

I last saw Alistair last summer at his flat in Glasgow where he had lived with his wife Fatima for many years. (Fatima, a wonderful woman about whom Ally wrote his love song, “Militant Red.”) He seemed healthy and spry as usual, with plenty to say about the state of the world as always. He was working on a new song about a Scottish anarchist who had run the English radio broadcast for the Spanish Republic in the 1930's.

I first met Ally in 2005, at least that's what he said. I seem to recall meeting him earlier than that, but maybe it's just that I was already familiar with his music and had been to his home town of Glasgow many times before I actually met him. His reputation preceded him – in my mind he was already one of those enviably great guitarists who along with people like Dick Gaughan had done so much to breath new life into the Scottish folk music tradition. I had also already heard some of his own wonderful compositions, sung by him as well as by other artists.

In 2005 the Scottish left was well mobilized, organizing the people's response to the G8 meetings that were happening in the wooded countryside not far from Edinburgh. Alistair was involved both as an organizer and a musician, and we hung out in Edinburgh, in Glasgow, outside a detention center somewhere, and out by the G8 meetings in an opulent little town with an unpronounceable Scottish name.

I asked him then if he wanted to do a tour with me in the US. He took me up on that a year or so later and we traveled from Boston to Minneapolis over the course of two weeks or so, doing concerts along the way. Many people who came to our shows were already familiar with Alistair's music, while many were hearing it for the first time and were generally well impressed with his work as well as his congenial personality, despite the fact that many people reported to me discreetly that they couldn't understand a word he was saying.

Americans aren't so good with accents at the best of times, and to make matters worse Alistair was largely doing songs from his Red Clydeside CD, which is a themed recording all about the anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist rebellion that rocked Glasgow in 1917. Naturally the songs from that CD are also sung in a Glaswegian dialect which can only be understood by non-Scottish people in written form, if you take your time.

Alistair was determined to retaliate for my having organized a tour for us in the US, which he did three years later in a big way, organizing a five-week tour for us of Australia and New Zealand from late November 2008 until early January of last year.

Our tour began in Christchurch, New Zealand. This turned out to seem very fitting, since Christchurch is where Alistair moved as a teenager, along with his parents and his sister, in the mid-1960's. He resented having to leave Glasgow, which was at that time a major hotbed of the 1960's global cultural and political renaissance -- a renaissance which had decidedly not yet made its way to little Christchurch, New Zealand. Alistair described to me how the streets of this small city were filled with proper English ladies wearing white gloves when he moved there as a restless youth.

The folk scare came to Christchurch, though, as with so many other corners of the world at that time, and at the age of 17 Alistair was in the heart of it. Our tour of New Zealand included a whole bunch of great gigs, but it was also like a tour of the beginning of Alistair's varied musical career. All along the way on both the south and north islands I met people Alistair hadn't seen for years or sometimes decades. I cringed as someone gave us a bootleg recording of Alistair as a teenager, figuring wrongly that it would be a reminder of a musically unstable early period, but it turned out to be a fine recording, a vibrant but nuanced rendition of some old songs from the folk tradition.

After two weeks exploring the postcard-perfect New Zealand countryside, smelling a lot of sheep shit, and getting in a car accident while parked, we headed to Sydney. Upon arriving in Australia I discovered a whole other side to Alistair and his impact on the world. Though his Scottish accent never seemed to thin out much, he lived for 25 years in Sydney and was on the ground floor of the Australian punk rock scene, playing in towns and cities throughout Australia with his band, Roaring Jack. The band broke up decades ago but still has a loyal following throughout the country, as I discovered first-hand night after night. In contrast with the nuanced and often quite obscure stories told in the traditional ballads which Alistair rendered so well, Roaring Jack was a brash, in-your-face musical experience, championing the militant end of the Australian labor movement and leftwing causes generally, fueled by equal parts rage against injustice, love of humanity and alcohol.

Since the 90's Alistair has lived in his native Glasgow, while regularly touring elsewhere in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. He's played in various musical ensembles including most recently his band the Malkies, but mostly his work has been as a songwriter and solo performer, also recording and occasionally touring with the great fiddler of Fairport Convention fame, Dave Swarbrick. His more recent songs have run the gamut from a strictly local Glasgow song written to support a campaign to save a public swimming pool to the timelessly beautiful song recorded by June Tabor and others, “He Fades Away.”

“He Fades Away” is about an Australian miner dying young of asbestosis, from massive exposure to asbestos, a long-lasting, daily tragedy of massive proportions fueled by, well, greedy capitalists. It is surely more than a little ironic that Alistair was taken from us at such a young age by the industrial-world epidemic known as cancer, so much like the subject of his most well-known song.

The song is written from the perspective of the wife of a miner who is dying of asbestosis. The melody of the song is so beautiful that quoting the lyrics can't come close to doing it justice, and I won't do the song that injustice here – just go to the web and search for “He Fades Away,” it's right there in various forms.

It is undoubtedly a privilege of someone like Alistair that he will be remembered passionately by people, young and old and on several continents, long after today – by friends, lovers, fellow activists, fellow musicians, and many times as many fans. And he will long be remembered also as one of the innumerable great people, including so many great musicians, who died too young.

On our last tour, so recently, he was meeting new friends and renewing old friendships every single day, so very full of life. Among the friendships he was renewing was that with his elderly parents, who came to our show in Brisbane, a couple hours from where they retired on the east coast of Australia. Though the exact causes of Alistair's illness will probably never be known, it seems to be a hallmark not just of war, but especially of the industrialized world's ever-worsening cancer epidemic, that so many parents have to see their children die so young.

David Rovics

Friday, 1 January 2010

A cup of sugar

Lubavitcher Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, bestselling author of The kosher sutra and father of nine, has a bee in his kippah

One Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, with the collusion of the US Department of State and the Englewood, New Jersey cops, ‘stealthily moved in and took up residence as my immediate next-door neighbor’.  His gripe against his new neighbour?  ‘Every time my kids hit a baseball a bit too far’, it goes ‘onto the lawn of a man who last week disgraced the U.N. Security Council by showing a gruesome slide show featuring images of mutilated Palestinians with Israeli soldiers as the culprits’.

Imagine the chutzpah of suggesting that Israeli soldiers could possibly be implicated in the mutilation of Palestinians.  Sure, they may have rained tons of ordinance all over the densely packed Gaza Strip for over three weeks, but they never intended to do anyone any harm any more than they did when they shelled the beach at Beit Lahia in June 2006, killing eight.

And if that weren’t enough to make any innocent neighbour see red, ‘His condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza made no mention of the thousands of Hamas rockets that have been fired without provocation at Israeli children’.

At the risk of repeating myself, everyone knows about ‘the thousands of Hamas rockets’.  Each one is lovingly documented – here, for instance, is a list of those launched in 2007, and Wikipedia has an entry for attacks each year.  Now a Qassam rocket has no guidance system.  You can point it in a general direction, but you can’t really aim it.  So when Rabbi Shmuley claims they have been fired at children, it is at best hyperbole.  Furthermore, it’s not entirely obvious that there was no provocation.  As far as I can tell, nobody has enumerated the missiles, shells, and other destructive projectiles Israel has lobbed into Gaza since 2001, the period over which armed Palestinian groups have launched some 8600 rockets, or for any part of that period.  Suffice it to say that whatever the number, it almost certainly dwarfs those fired back, and more importantly, has killed many more than 28 Palestinians.  And if that weren’t provocation enough, Israel has destroyed Gaza’s air and seaports, electric generation plants, water and sewerage treatment facilities, even the Rafah Zoo.  And then there’s the little matter of the siege.

So to assert that the rockets were ‘fired without provocation’ is just a baldfaced lie.  But it’s not just any old fabrication.  There’s a reason he, like so many others, can say it, and even believe it themselves.  Palestinians provoke, Israel retaliates.  They can’t tolerate Jews, so they attack ‘us’.  And ‘we’, Israel, have no option but to reluctantly go crazy, destroying everything in sight, lest they get the idea they can perpetrate another Holocaust.  There is never any context for a Palestinian attack, that’s just the way they are.  In short, it’s an unabashed racist conceit.

Disgracing the UN Security Council was not Mr Shalgham’s only crime.  He is the Ambassador to the UN of Libya and nobody could be expected ‘to borrow a cup of sugar from a man whose government murdered American servicemen while they danced at a disco’.  Now I once saw a documentary that asserted that the best British and Israeli intelligence blamed Syria and Iran for the April 1986 bombing of Berlin’s La Belle Discotheque, which killed two US servicemen, and there are other theories.  For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that Colonel Gaddafi really did order the bombing.  After all President Reagan assured us that the evidence that justified the retaliatory bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi was ‘direct’, ‘precise’, and ‘irrefutable’, and he wouldn’t lie.  You just can’t help but wonder how Rabbi Shmuley would react if the diplomats who moved in next door represented a government that murdered 34 US servicemen.

To add insult to injury, ‘they are the same Libyans who have shown our city undisguised contempt by refusing for over a quarter of a century to pay even a single dollar in taxes’.  Apparently the good Rebbe is unaware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provision that

The sending State and the head of the mission shall be exempt from all national, regional or municipal dues and taxes in respect of the premises of the mission, whether owned or leased...
The nature of the State Dept’s collusion is complying with Article 23(1)
In accordance with the VCDR, foreign governments are entitled to exemption from real estate taxes on residences that are owned by such governments and used for the purpose of housing the head of its diplomatic mission.
Again, you’re compelled speculate about Rabbi Shmuley’s views on the undisguised contempt shown by some other diplomatic missions that refuse to pay taxes.

The reason the rabbi is suffering this deplorable antisemitic attack is that, ‘Without sounding paranoid...Across the globe it’s open season on Israel and the Jews’.  But all is not lost.
We are a powerful global economic market and we must seriously consider boycotting the products of countries whose shameful behavior mistreats Jews. For example, the situation in Britain is out of control: There have been attempts to ban Israeli professors from academic conferences; a magistrate issued an arrest warrant against Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and the government issued an advisory allowing retailers to label products originating from the West Bank as being produced in Israeli settlements or by Palestinians. A serious conversation about whether or not to vacation in Britain or buy its products should now occur.
I won’t go over the arguments for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel or boycotting Israeli products or for universal jurisdiction.  What’s interesting, however, is that he goes on to castigate the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
Here in the United States we have had to contend with the Obama administration’s canard that Israeli settlements are a major obstacle to Middle East peace. And it’s more than a little disappointing that the Netanyahu government has endorsed this fraud by instituting a 10-month freeze on settlements, thereby unjustly identifying some of Israel’s most patriotic citizens as its most intransigent.
But curiously, he doesn’t recommend a serious conversation about whether or not to vacation in Israel or buy US products.