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Michael Oren is one of my favorite writers. A great historian, he manages to compile long and complicated histories in a fairly simple, and easily digestible way. Despite it having sat on my shelf for a number of years, I finally read “Six Days of War,” fairly recently. It is a history textbook, inundated with dates and figures, yet at the same time, it is a true page turner.
In addition to his writing, Oren is a charismatic speaker, as well. I recently heard him speak about the strategic threats that Israel faces today. The first of these threats, of course, is Iran. One argument that is raised against an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is that states are rational actors, and Iran would not benefit, to say the least, from sending nuclear missiles at another nuclear state.
As Oren illustrated, the issue is deeper than that. Were Iran to nuclearize, it would be able to put the region under nuclear alert, at whim. This sort of toying with Israel would have far reaching repercussions. Apart from destroying the tourist industry, the results of the IDF being on constant high alert would cost the state enormous amounts of money, all the while affecting a near total cessation of market activity, leading to an even greater economic disaster. This, of course, in addition to the arms race that would be launched among Israel’s neighbors, most of whom are not particularly friendly to the Jewish state (This was outlined in article for The New Republic, which Oren co-wrote with Yossi Klein Halevi).
Still on the subject of military threats, Oren addressed the issue of missiles. As mentioned, Israel’s north has been hit hard by missiles, most recently during the summer of 2006, and Hamas can now reach major Israel cities, shooting from Gaza. One of the strongest strategic arguments against Israeli withdrawals, one that was made in 2005, is that territory ceded will serve as a base for missiles that will be launched at Israeli residential areas.
Oren, a proponent of unilateral withdrawals, said that Israel has systems to thwart such attacks, and upon deployment of these systems in the near future, Hamas’s use of short range missiles will be neutralized. He mentioned two systems that will work in tandem to combat the missile threat. First, the Iron Dome, set to be operational by 2010, detects an incoming missile and launches an anti-missile missile to intercept it. The second, based on the M61 Vulcan, destroys incoming projectiles by shooting a high number of rounds per second, eliminating them in mid-air. However, even if these systems are effective, it seems the government has acted in typical Israeli fashion, and woken up very late.
With regards to prospects for peace, Oren briefly promoted the idea of developing Palestinian industry and education, and bolstering their moderate leadership. Again, I am confounded. No, he did not mention Mahmoud Abbas or Fatah as these moderates, but this statement nonetheless confounds me. But to which moderates is he referring? Assuming there are moderate figures somewhere in the Palestinian leadership, what good is it to help them if they have no public support? Did the numerous gestures towards Abbas serve as a moderating influence on Palestinian society? As Robert Kaplan asks, do they even want to be in a position in which statehood would be a real possibility?
Demographics are becoming more important every day. Jews represent only slightly over 75% of Israeli citizens. Most of the remaining quarter, do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and Israel needs an overwhelming majority of Jews in order to maintain its status as the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Oren thinks that the shrinking birthrate of Arab-Israelis, alleviates cause for serious concern regarding Israeli citizens.
When looking at the entire populace between the river and the sea, Israel is approaching the day in which Jews will no longer be a majority. In order to address this problem and ensure a positive demographic balance within the area under Israeli control, Oren foresees a necessity for further Israel unilateral withdrawals from territory beyond the Green Line.
This does not add up. As he said, Israel deployed 55,000 security personnel in order to carry out the withdrawal from Gaza – the largest Israeli military operation since the Yom Kippur War. Within the framework of almost any future withdrawal plan, 80-100,000 Jews will need to leave their homes. Their homes, which are located in the heart of the Jewish ancestral homeland. As Oren himself acknowledged, in light of the difficulties encountered in Gaza, which will be compounded in any future similar action, any Israeli government is extremely unlikely to succeed in carrying out such a plan. Any unilateral withdrawal plan will probably be based on the route of the Security Fence, so unless Oren supports leaving large numbers of Israeli citizens in enemy territory, I am not sure what he is advocating.
All in all, though, Oren’s talk set a very optimistic tone. However, the limited question and answer period did not flesh out the logical gaps in the his illustration of Israel’s situation today. One issue he discussed which did inspire some confidence is water – largely due to the construction of a major desalination plant, Israel might finally be digging its way out of what is still a very dry hole.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sixty years ago an entire country was harnessed in order to mass produce murder. The world stood by as one third of the world’s Jews were slaughtered. Never Again. Never Forget.
Also, Haveil Havalim, the weekly collection of posts, is up with #213 hosted by The Real Shaliach.
Israel has been criticized endlessly, both internally and externally, for countless alleged crimes. A popular accusation is of collective punishment. I do not wish to examine the facts of the matter here, but to raise a general question about the legality of such acts, particularly as seen by the United Nations.
Only a few short months ago, a UN representative characterized Israel’s policy with regards to the Gaza crossings as a “crime against humanity”, by “allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease.” Again, setting aside the issue of whether or not this is indeed what Israel has been doing, the greater question here is of whether or not such actions, in theory, are permissible.
There is no simple answer. Such a question necessarily leads to the examination of additional issues. To what extent is your populace a higher priority than the enemy? What is the goal of such acts? Is it an attainable goal? However, such questions have all been hashed and rehashed countless times (Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars is a good place to start).
A recent oped in the New York Times shed some light on this issue. Wayne Long, who served as the UN’s chief security officer in Somalia for an entire decade, wrote about the recent wave of piracy. A few of the examples from his experience dealing with kidnappers in Somalia, however, are extremely eye-opening. Using a fairly straightforward strategy, “United Nations assistance was withheld… until those hostages were released. In every case there was a release, and in no case were hostages harmed or ransom paid.” The problem with this is that it is precisely the same approach for which Israel is being blamed.
Long tells of a 1995 incident, in which an aid worker was taken hostage. In response, the UN humanitarian agencies operating in the area simply shut off the water supply for the capital, Mogadishu. Doing so directed the local population’s rage at the kidnappers, who took four days to release the hostage.
The piece continues with a few more similar stories, but the message is clear. The UN uses collective punishment in order to achieve their goals. They refuse to capitulate to terrorists. This was official UN policy, as undertaken in Somalia.
I’ll reiterate that I am deliberately ignoring the question of what Israel has actually been doing, or what it has done in the past. That is a separate issue altogether. Nevertheless, why does the UN decry Israel’s implemention of a policy that the UN has used in the past, and in the same breath, call it a crime? Why does it demand that Gazan terrorists not be treated the same way as Somalians?
A conversation of sorts, took place tonight between A.B. Yehoshua and Leon Wieseltier, at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Hearing him introduced as “A.B. Yehoshua” grated on my ears a bit. Even when reading his name in English, I always heard it in my head as “Aleph Bet Yehoshua.” I don’t think a Hebrew writer’s name should be anglicized, but that’s neither here nor there.
One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yehoshua has authored a good number of novels, including The Lover, a masterpiece I have recently had the pleasure of reading. Yehoshua, however, is perhaps just as famous in Israel as a political figure. He is not a player in the traditional sense, but a pundit of sorts, a champion of the Israeli left.
Speaking here a few years ago, Yehoshua caused an uproar in the Jewish world by (rightly) accusing diaspora Jews of “changing countries like changing jackets,” and saying it is common sense that “Jewish life in Israel is more total than anywhere outside Israel.” This time, trying to avoid a second controversy, much of the talk focused on literature. Nevertheless, Israeli literature is more than just ink on paper, and a variety of issues pertaining to Israel were addressed.
His father was a Near East scholar, and so Yehoshua said he grew up with Arabs and Arabic, and so the stranger was not all that strange to him. He says, therefore that guilt, over Jewish actions committed to Arabs, does not figure into his politics, and that he holds them responsible as he does his own people. Presuming that Israel’s interest is near and dear to him, I cannot but help ascribe his political views to extreme naivete. His support for the Geneva Initiative, whether or not it is a just solution, assumes the conflict is simply over land. And that instating Arab sovereignty over parts of the land will bring about a peaceful end to the conflict.
The author also put down the Arab reverence of land. He may be right that the Arab citizens of Israel would be better off in seeking industrial, and other, development (uttering what has practically become a magic word – “Hi-Tech”). Nevertheless, by ignoring the importance of land to many, in and of itself, he is just sticking his head in the sand. The Hebrew language, with an abundance of agricultural words, serves a testament to the importance of land in Jewish history. Perhaps if more Jews understood the importance of that small piece of earth, Israel would cease trying to be the political version of a luftmensch.
Still on the topic of Israeli-Arabs, he was right that while they may accept Israel’s existence as fact, they do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There is no easy solution, but that is precisely the problem. A very serious problem, that we will need to face sooner, rather than later.
Another interesting revelation was that Open Heart (The Return From India in Hebrew), written shortly after Oslo, was a break from politics. Politics were deliberately avoided, the misleading quiet of those years granted Yehoshua the liberty to leave that topic out of the story.
Yehoshua expressed some unease when discussing the next generation of Israeli writers, calling them the generation of the Six Day War, who are critical, perhaps overly so, of the state. While criticism and self-examination can be healthy, many of the writers of this generation lack a basic love for the homeland. There is no true struggle with the basics, he said, and their critique is beyond the general criticism. A certain level of patriotism and concern for the safety of the state is missing, alienation taking its place, along with questioning the necessity of Israel.
Michael Oren was in attendance in the audience, and asked about the prominent place of writers in the public discourse in Israel, often sought after by the press to comment on national affairs. Yehoshua was pessimistic regarding the future of the Israel public’s reliance of literary figures, but was also rather arrogant, saying that “they (the public) need our moral judgment.” I am not sure if this is more of a statement about the public or about Israel’s writers, but as mentioned in the talk, the Jewish nation has long turned to writers for leadership. Herzl was a playwright, and Yehoshua quipped that “perhaps, if he would [have been] more successful with his plays maybe we would have no Zionism [today].”
Of course, in light of the outrage directed at him last time he spoke in Washington, Yehoshua is most intriguing when sharing his thoughts on Israel-Diaspora relations. On the one hand, he said that Zionism succeeded “because the Zionists did not ask permission of the Jewish people.” On the other hand, his political bias showed when he reached out to American Jewish criticism of Israel, calling on American Jews to “be a partner in our discussion… [if you do not make aliyah] at least be a partner from the outside.”
On this last point he is wrong. He was wrong when he expressly said to the American Jewish community “you have legitimacy” to speak out. They do not. Every Jew can have this right, but this is not an absolute right – it must be realized. Until such time as diaspora Jews will decide their fortunes are truly with the Jewish people, at home, in Israel – criticism is a privilege they has not yet earned. Fighting for that right is not euphemism, and the experience of wearing an IDF uniform is what grants one the right to be heard.
Unfortunately, he went further, and when responding to a question about what he would ask Obama were they to meet, Yehoshua said he would ask for American assistance to solve Israel’s conflict with her neighbors. “We cannot do it ourselves today… you (Obama)must help us.”
When it did come to the topic of aliyah, his true political colors showed. He rightly complained that only a few thousand Jews move to Israel from American each year, but he continued, saying that they are only Haredim who move to settlements, in order to exploit Israel’s social security system. He is simply wrong. Haredim do not make up anywhere near the majority of American olim, nor do Haredim generally associate with Yehoshua’s loathed ‘settler movement.’ Yet it was Wieseltier, the product of an Orthodox education himself, who glibly added that only a few thousand Jews make aliyah - “the wrong Jews.”
Still, unlike Wieseltier, Yehoshua is an actual Zionist, and unfortunately that fact alone places him head and shoulders above most Jews. Yet Jewish sovereignty and independence should rely on no outside sources. Furthermore, if American Jews want to have a place at the table, that place is theirs and waiting for them – in Israel.
Spring has returned to the Atlantic seaboard. As usual, it has come too late for my taste. Weekends in April here mean something very different. Outdoor happy hours, beginning on Friday, merging seamlessly into sunny workless days. For yuppies in their mid-20s, an extension of college but without homework, really.
Weekends at home begin on Thursday nights. I have many memories of spending the first few hours of the weekend riding the bus in a dirty uniform, waking only to realize it is my stop. Then, scrambling to get off the bus, hoping nothing has been left behind, like a backpack… or a gun.
However, Israeli weekends in the warmer months are much more than that. Friday mornings, sitting outside a cafe on Rothschild, watching the world stroll by, one cannot help but feel relaxed. And the afternoons just feel different. It is a rush of preparation, but in some way, is still relaxing. No place is more chaotic, yet perfectly symbolizes a day of rest than the shuk in Jerusalem only a few short hours before Shabbat.
Sunny days on the East Coast are uplifting, but seem rather meager compared to the piercing rays of the eastern Mediterranean sun. The sensation of those rays is an enlivening one, albeit one that does not last very long when my feet are shackled in army boots. Yet, here, even on the sunniest of days, a sharp breeze can send shivers down my spine, somehow feeling more cold than refreshing.
The final day of the week, even in Israel’s capital of secular life is still a day of true rest. Where else do people sit on balconies, a warm breeze working its way from the west, eating Jahnun and Cholent at the same table? Nevertheless, I am rather far from that for now, and I don’t quite understand the obsession with shopping, and practically devoting a day to this ritual, on a weekly basis.
My familiarity with Tel Aviv’s Saturday nights is limited, but it is very different in Jerusalem from its western version. Despite, or perhaps because of, the day’s importance, with nightfall Jerusalem is transformed. The streets fill with weekend revelers, drinking as if on vacation.
Sundays are a sore point for most Israelis who hail from the western world. A day’s worth of freedom – lost. The feeling, late on a Saturday night, that the weekend is not yet over, is like winning a small jackpot, week after week.
One day soon, spring will again mean sipping an americano while forgetting about troubles everywhere for a few short minutes, but still missing Sundays. Hopefully, though, it will not mean falling asleep on a bus with a rifle between my legs, hoping to wake up in time and not miss my stop.