Archive for the 'Rediscovering Israel' Category

Feb 26 2012

Rediscovering Israel. Retrospective by a Zionist

Israel Middle East politics Zionism Jewish fiction literature

Longtime readers may recall a series I wrote for a new website called Rediscovering Israel, around the time I went on a trip to the holy land around March of 2010.

I set up the site not only as a sort of online diary of my thoughts and observations while I was traveling, but also potentially as a go-to site for other North American travelers to Israel, including others on my tour. It got some decent traffic and one of the articles ended up as a feature in the National Post. But after an initial burst of activity, the site was neglected and never really took off.

Ultimately, I made the decision to shut it down (It’s still up as of today, but its days are numbered by whenever the webmaster gets around to putting the thing out of its misery). I’ve moved the articles over here; re-reading them, I was mostly struck by how current they still are:

We’re still talking about Israeli democracy, terrorism, borders, settlers, spies, religious identity, human rights, Middle East politics, prisoners, Jerusalem… well, I suppose we’ll be talking about these things forever. Probably just as well that I never wrote a final article wrapping up the articles into a nice package, though I often thought about doing just that. I suppose this retrospective is it. Continue Reading »

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Jun 23 2010

The Prisoner. Part 2

This is the second part of an essay exploring the tragedy of Israeli IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit, held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza, and the larger challenges of prisoner exchanges and redemption of captives

When I was growing up, I would occasionally read in a newspaper that the Soviet Union had granted an amnesty to several hundred or even thousands of prisoners. Occasionally, I noticed that other thuggish regimes around the world would do the same thing. This is still a fairly common practice – in 2009, the Tajik President announced an amnesty for half of his prison population.

Even at that early age, I knew this wasn’t how things were supposed to work. You commit a crime. You’re caught. The judge sentences you. You go to prison.

That’s how it works in societies that have rule of law. Even in societies that aren’t democratic, the rulers don’t want to see thieves, rapists and murderers let loose to commit more crimes.

Why were these weird regimes letting go of these prisoners, then? Well, I learned that in undemocratic societies, you can go to jail for things that aren’t really crimes in places like Canada. Their prisons are filled with all sorts of people who really shouldn’t be there.

You’re a journalist and write something scandalous (but true) about an apparatchik? You go to jail. Your wife has caught the amorous attention of the police chief? You go to jail. You say something bad about the Dear Leader on your private telephone to your friend? You and your friend both go to jail.

Of course, it costs money to run prisons and there are only so many prison cells. Besides, a short stint in a moldy dungeon is all that’s required to ensure that most people behave. So when an effective police state results in prisons so overcrowded that the guards are going to be overwhelmed, then it’s time to grant an amnesty for the masses. Long live the generous Dear Leader!

The corrupt prison system defecates its assimilated and cowed population so as to make room for the next batch of political opponents, homosexuals, ethnic minorities and other inconvenient types.

This is how most educated people view prison amnesties. This is why these sorts of mass prisoner releases don’t happen in places like Canada, where democracy and the rule of law are as strong as anywhere.

Now, back to the idea of trading Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners. Hamas takes as a starting negotiating position that this one soldier is worth 1000 Palestinian prisoners on a list, in addition to all female and young prisoners.

The Israeli response? “Let’s make a deal.” Not that deal, mind you. That’s too many prisoners. Besides, some of the people on the list have blood on their hands. This guy stabbed a toddler. This other guy was a bomb maker for suicide squads…

But these are mere negotiating ploys for a process that will take place behind closed doors. Long story short, the Israeli state is willing to make a deal involving large masses of Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier. There are recent precedents for this, like when Israelis traded 6,000 Arab POWs for four Israeli prisoners taken in the Six Day War, or when Lebanon received 4,500 Lebanese for six Israelis.

So now people from other countries like Canada start noticing this weird situation. They may not be aware of Jews’ tradition of “redemption”.

All they know is that Israel is preparing to let large numbers of Palestinian prisoners go free, negating a lawful process that supposedly provided justice to their victims. And they’ve seen these sort of mass releases before, typically by governments that rule by force and terror.

And they will start to ask uncomfortable questions. “If Israel is going to let all of these prisoners go in a deal, then why can’t they just go now? What was the real reason you were holding them? Is it simply because they are Palestinians and you want to terrorize them?

“Doesn’t that make Israel an Apartheid state? And if you’re arresting Palestinians as bargaining chips in the event that Israelis are taken hostage, doesn’t that mean that an Israeli prison cell and a makeshift Hamas dungeon in a basement have the exact same level of legitimacy?”

Of course, all of these questions can be answered in a way that provides reasonable legal and ethical cover for the Israeli state. You could go over the case records of Palestinian prisoners including the crimes they committed, one by one. You can point out that the policing arm of a sovereign state is very different from the sort of illegitimate terrorist raiders who indiscriminately snatched Shalit. You could point out that Israel allows visits by the Red Cross to prisoners, while Hamas has refused to honour this basic tenet of international law.

But these answers are complicated and they take time.

In the meantime, as a result of a laudable effort to get back a hostage from psychotic and genocidal extremists, Israel is the one coming out looking like a Stalinist thugocracy.

It’s horribly unfair. But that’s just how a prisoner trade looks, at a time when Israel is already in dire danger of becoming an international pariah state.

Israelis will continue to do what is in their own best interests, regardless of how if may look to outsiders. I get the feeling that in the end, Israelis will negotiate with their sworn enemies to win Shalit’s freedom. I know how bad it looks, but they’ll do it anyway. They can’t help it. In a sense, all Israelis are prisoners of conscience. 

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Jun 23 2010

The Prisoner. Part 1

Gilad Shalit is watching the World Cup. At least, that’s what his captors are telling the rest of the world.

No one can know for certain, but I guess the Hamas propaganda department thinks this will demonstrate the generous hospitality of their genocidal movement. It’s no Hilton, but you don’t get sports on satellite at a Budget 8 Motel.

It is four years since Shalit was snatched by a Palestinian hit squad through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel. It’s a long time – particularly spent in the company of Islamist fanatics known for using power drills and crowbars on their own people.

From the beginning, I felt a real horror at Shalit’s predicament. Not least because the images of him on television and newspapers in those first weeks in 2006 reminded me of another skinny Jew in army fatigues. I served as an army reservist with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles infantry many years ago. I could see in the lenses of Shalit’s glasses a reflection of my own self that might have been, had I ever been taken prisoner on some distant battlefield (Some of my colleagues in the battalion ended up serving in the former Yugoslavia as peacekeepers, risking their lives to stop Serbs, Bosnians and Croats from killing each other).

Redemption and Choosing the Lesser Evil
Despite my heartfelt sympathy for Shalit, I’ve never had much sympathy for the idea of a prisoner exchange to secure his release. How do you give in to terrorists’ demands without giving them an incentive to keep doing it?

I was surprised to find myself in opposition to a majority of Israeli society on this. Most seem to favor a negotiated release that will most likely involve trading hundreds, perhaps thousands of prisoners for Shalit’s freedom.

“Israelis are deeply divided on this,” my guide noted while looking at Shalit’s face on a billboard along the road. Our guide had served with the paratroopers in the 2008 war in Lebanon and knew quite well the danger of being captured by the other side. “It’s very painful for us. But Jews have a strong need deep in our souls to do whatever we can to redeem captives.”

This stems in no small part from the historical founding myth of a Jewish nation that itself arose out of captivity in Egypt. But it is also part of a Jewish tradition going back to the scholar Maimonides, who wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and collected the money to get them back.

And of course there is a practical military argument for going to extreme, even absurd lengths to get back captives: if soldiers fear they’ll be on their own if taken prisoner, they may refrain from moving too quickly into enemy territory.

But what about giving terrorists an incentive to kidnap more Israelis. “Look, it’s not like Hamas and the rest of them are ever going to stop trying to get us,” my guide says with a shrug. “They’ll keep trying no matter what. Not negotiating doesn’t keep us more or less safe. The IDF keeps us safe. Our own security measures keep us safe, and for the most part, they’re working.”

To an extent, you can’t argue with that logic. The time when Israelis endured a suicide bombing or other outrage on a weekly basis is already a fading memory. Controversial measures like checkpoints and the infamous security “wall” may keep Palestinians and international human rights advocates in a perpetual frenzy, but bombs aren’t getting into discos and pizza parlors anymore.

I’m still not quite convinced. The problem of trading Shalit or any individual Israeli for hundreds of Palestinians is one of perception to outsiders.

I’m aware of the historical Jewish tradition of redemption. In that sense, it shows a generosity of spirit and perhaps even a higher ethical standard. But outsiders, most Canadians included, won’t see it that way.

In fact, any such lopsided trade would seem to provide evidence of Israel as a deeply unethical, unlawful rogue state. Let me explain

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Jun 22 2010

End of the Dream

Terry Glavin helps explain the sad end of the dream of global solidarity and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. An excerpt from The Mark:

“It’s over.”

You could hear the heartbreak in his voice. The shattered dreams of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, the lost opportunities for genuine global solidarity with that gallant cause – it was all there in Yossi Klein Halevi’s voice.

“It’s over. I’m reminded of that every day. I can see it from my front porch. The wall. You can’t get away from it. The wall reminds you that it’s over.”

“The wall” is what Jerusalemites call the especially grim and forbidding portion of Israel’s separation barrier that rings their city, which is otherwise mainly a complex of fences, motion sensors, trenches, and concertina wire that snakes its way around ancient Judea and Samaria, enclosing the West Bank. Israel built the barrier as a defence against the Palestinian suicide bombers who were obliterating hundreds of Israeli civilians during the final years of the 20th century. In Jerusalem, it’s an eight-metre-high concrete blight.

I met with Halevi in Jerusalem three weeks before the May 31 high-seas Mavi Marmara calamity. Nine dead at last count. A flotilla had set out from Turkey and Cyprus to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos intervened and things went badly. The hysteria billowed around the world, from the usual anti-Israel protesters carrying “Gaza Genocide” placards in cities across Canada to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan accusing Israel of a “bloody massacre.” But it is Halevi’s quiet voice, with its weary timbre, that I can still hear the loudest.

An Israeli journalist and author, Halevi came to prominence in the mid-1990s with a memoir that chronicled his break with Jewish extremism. In 2001, his At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, explored the brave idea that affectionate bonds of faith might be forged across the great monotheisms that meet at their ancient intersection of Jerusalem.

But just as Halevi was settling into the role of peace-camp activist and intellectual, al-Qaeda plunged two airliners into the World Trade Center in New York, the Euro-American left decided that Zionism was the most foul of all the plagues upon the world, and the peace process that began with the Oslo Accords, which had laid the groundwork for a free Palestine thriving alongside Israel, was in shards. The al-Aqsa intifada set off a cycle of suicide bombings, reprisals, and repression that left nearly 6,000 Palestinians and Israelis dead and a massive wall running through Jerusalem.

Nothing seemed to matter or make sense. Unilaterally evict all 9,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza for the sake of peace and the next thing you know Hamas has turned the place into a Khomeinist-sponsored crackpot statelet severed from the West Bank by a fratricidal civil war that has so far cost about 2,000 Palestinian lives. And there were still thousands of rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza every year. That’s what Israel’s mainstream doves had to show for themselves. That, and abandonment by their erstwhile counterparts in Europe and North America. “It was the total collapse of the Israeli left,” Halevi said.

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Jun 14 2010

Jerusalem Divided

There was a glum mood in the van as we set off from our hotel in downtown Jerusalem for a day of travel around the holy city. “You’ve heard the news?” asked our unusually chagrined travel guide. “What a screw-up. The politicians couldn’t at least wait a few days for Joe Biden to leave?”

Israel’s foreign ministry and press people were in full damage-control mode that morning. The blowout of USA-Israeli relations over the announcement of a new settlement project in East Jerusalem was on every TV screen, every radio show and (as I found out later, scanning my RSS feeds on my iPhone) seemingly every blog in the universe. A lowly bureaucrat in the Israeli civil service had announced approval for the Ramat Shlomo development project and now Israeli’s PM was getting hit over the head by a representative from Israel’s best friend, the USA, for sabotaging the “peace process.”

It was embarrassing. Even those who were genetically defensive about bad press for Israel were pissed. On the eve of a USA-Israel summit, the Israelis had poked their best friend in the eye.

The timing was the worst part; most people presumed that if the American delegation had simply stopped in for some photo ops and backroom diplomacy and left, and the announcement about Ramat Shlomo had been made a week later, with Biden and his buddies safely ensconced in Washington, there would have been no story.

A rumor had it that the announcement was a accident by a bureaucrat. After all, the development proposal had been in the works for years, long before Biden had even come into the White House on the Obama ticket. And Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t be expected to know what was on tap for municipal zoning approvals any more than Canadian PM Stephen Harper might know about every new condo building going up in Ottawa. Still, it looked bad.

The spotlight was on Israel, now, and would be for months afterwards. The story making the rounds was that Israel was engaging in a sort of gradual, piecemeal ethnic cleansing (semantically putting Israelis in the same camp as Serbian soldiers who massacred their ethnic minorities in the 1990s) by building homes for Jews in East Jerusalem while holding up building permits for Palestinians in the same part of the city.

That morning, we drove past the area of the proposed settlement. As we looked on the green hillside, one salient fact came through: there were no buildings there. There was a Jewish neighborhood already adjacent to the spot. But the nearest Arab-Israeli neighborhood was way over on the other side of a valley. The new settlement was essentially an organic expansion of an existing community.

It’s worth noting here that there used to be more mixed neighborhoods in Jerusalem where Jewish and Arab Israelis mixed more or less as they would in any other diverse Western city – though this is much rarer now, since the days of the terror campaigns of the 1990s.

In any case, the view from the Israeli side and the Palestinian-international media perspective were pretty much irreconcilable. While many Israelis do criticize settlements in the West Bank, those same critics will put an asterisk next to East Jerusalem. “To us, it’s like dividing East Toronto and West Toronto – it’s still Toronto,” says our guide. “And it’s still Canada.”

This contrasts starkly with the view from outside Israel; that building in East Jerusalem compounds an illegal annexation. But this is where it gets tricky.

First of all, when Palestinians talk of East Jerusalem as their future capital, one should note that there isn’t really any historical precedent for that. And if you go by the argument that the Palestinians are only reclaiming their most historic religious sites located in East Jerusalem, then the Jewish Israeli claim is even stronger; after all, Muslims built the Al Aqsa mosque on top of the remains of the old Temple.

As well, there’s certainly no doubt about who built Jerusalem in the first place. Besides, if Palestinians (and the rest of the world) state that conquest does not confer legitimacy in the 21st century, then why apply an immoral standard to the conquest of this city in 638 AD?

The future status of a united or divided Jerusalem will be decided in part by history, but hopefully to a larger extent by modern standards of what successful cities look like.

What’s being demanded right now on the Palestinian side is essentially an ethnically homogenous Muslim capital free of Jews and other pesky minorities (while West Jerusalem and other majority-Jewish Israeli cities are expected to fully absorb a Palestinian demographic flood at some point in the future). This would probably require a completely separate municipal infrastructure, as East Jerusalem becomes a no-go zone for Jews.

A comparable situation in Canada would be if the Musqueam nation on Canada’s west coast essentially demanded a wholesale evacuation of all non-First Nations residents from the prime real estate in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver. As the Musqueam moved into the vacated houses, they would declare a restored national capital – in a territory that had never had anything of the sort. Except that in this ridiculous situation, the Jews of Jerusalem would actually have a stronger case to stay put, being an indigenous group alongside the Palestinians.

What is to become of this divided city? Municipal rezoning and development projects that are routine in any other city in the world will continue to annoy most Muslims, international media and human rights industry professionals. But transforming East Jerusalem into a Jew-free city state-let hardly seems an improvement. For now the Eternal City will simply plod along as the Indeterminate City.

Jerusalem Israel Palestine

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