Date Added: 2005-11-17
Date Modified: 2010-07-17
Edge Left: Letters
David McReynolds was on the staff of the War Resisters League for many years, and, as the Socialist Party candidate in 1980 and 2000, the first openly gay person to run for the U.S. presidency. He lives with his cat Shaman (and misses Shiva who dies recently at 21) on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
26 February 2009
In response to Howard Jacobson on the issue of Gaza
My response to Howard Jacobson's "Let's see the 'criticism of Israel for what it really is", for me, is painfully long. But I've sent it to my Middle East list and, while not an "EdgeLeft" piece in format, those interested in my own position on this matter - or in a fair expression of a pro-Israeli view by a British Jew - may find it of interest.
I did a long pause before undertaking an answer. Donald Todd and I share a common belief in democratic socialism, though we are at odds on the Middle East. And this piece was of British origin and clearly goes to a number of you in Canada. I'm aware of the major cultural and political differences between British and American societies. One of the most important of these is that Great Britain has a much more significant Muslim population than the United States, while we have a much more significant Jewish population that Great Britain. That means our sensibilities may be quite different.
And, while I know who George Galloway is, and Ken Livingston, I do not follow their political positions closely.
It may well be that anti-Semitism is in the air in Britain - I don't know. I do know there is more covert anti-Semitism in the US than is generally recognized, but I don't think that is at the root of the hostile feelings many of us have toward Israel's government. (The US political situation on matters relating to Israel is also quite different from yours because we have a strong "Christian Zionist" movement among the more fundamentalist evangelicals - people who are, ironically, culturally anti-Semitic but because they are convinced that the Second Coming of the Lord requires the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, are entirely in support of Israel and its policies. Even though, one must add, the "Second Coming" would only lift the Christians to Heaven - by common agreement among the Christian Zionists, the Jews are lost souls. Contradictions thus abound).
I sensed, as I read through the eight pages of text, that Howard Jacobson may have been spending too much time reading hard-line Trotskyist material on Israel. A chill also goes up my spine, as one who was a child during World War II, and for whom the reality of the Holocaust (and the magnitude of it - not just the six million Jews but the six to eight million others murdered, and the horror of the war itself, which consumed twenty seven million Soviet citizens, millions of Germans, and left Europe in ruins) is so vivid in my own historical memory, when I hear young Trotskyists and other assorted ultra-Leftists talk about "the Zionists" as if the words Jewish and Zionist were interchangeable, or as if the words Israeli and Zionist were identical.
In fact Israel must be judged for what it is today, not for the circumstances which led to its creation. (Honesty on the part of the defenders of Israel would require them to admit that, until Hitler, Zionism was not a majority position with European Jews). The founders of Israel, no matter what scholars today may say of the origins of Zionism, and no matter how critical one may be of Zionism as the solution to anti-Semitism, were men and women of courage, of humane values shared for the most part with the European Left. As a student in the 1950's, when I was co-chair of a campus group called "Christians and Jews for Israel", we were all in favor of Israel, enchanted by discussions of the Kibbutz, by the new, democractic society being built in the midst of the reactionary monarchies left behind by French and British imperialism.
Those days are gone. Israel is not helpless. It is one of the most powerful military forces in the world. No Arab state, nor any combination of Arab states can hope to defeat it in war. It is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. It has won almost all the wars it has been in (and it has started about half of those wars). It also has, I report with no joy, a political system riddled with corruption.
It is within this framework that I must fundamentally challenge the approach of Howard Jacobson for what I believe it to be - one of the sorrier efforts trotted out by friends of Israel to defend what is truly indefensible.
I do not think the Palestinians are angelic. I do not approve of their rockets from Gaza into Israel. I am painfully aware of the hold of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. But I also know that when Hamas won a free election, Israel did not seek any accomodation with it, but hoped to displace it. (Just as, part of Israel's sad history, its secret police had, earlier in the game, supported Hamas in hopes it could divide the Palestinian community and undercut Arafat). I know that in the immediate period prior to the long-planned Israeli attack on Gaza, Hamas had offered Israel a long range cease fire which Israel rejected. I know - and Howard Jacobson surely knows - that Gaza was cut off, its points of entry and exit closed.
Where Jacobson is correct - and with him, other apologists for Israel - is in noting that the horrors of the Israeli attacks in Gaza are simply in the nature of modern war, and that nothing the Israelis did to Gaza yet approaches what British and American bombers did to the people of Germany. We should remember, in our anger at Israel, that it was our side which destroyed Dresden, which had no military value. Americans in particular should keep in mind the mindless totality of our air war against Japan, which culminated in the nuclear bombing of two cities - but which had already, weeks earlier, destroyed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians through fire bombings.
So yes, war is hell. And one might ask, if the British and Americans are entitled to inflict this on Germany and Japan, surely Israel is entitled to inflict a bit of this on the Palestinians. But is this really what the Israelis (and the pro-Israeli Jews in Britain and the US) want? Do they want to prove that Israel really is no different from any other country? And if that is what they want, and they have gone a very long way to proving it, why should anyone feel a moral concern over whether Israel survives or not? This is not an expression of anti-Semitism, but a revulsion against the point Israel has reached sixty years after its birth. It was not anti-German to oppose the Nazis. It was not anti-American to oppose the Vietnam War or the Iraq War. And it is not anti-Semitic to say that what Israel did in Gaza was indefensible, that it was a crime, and that charges should be brought.
Should others also be charged? Yes, surely Tony Blair and Bill Clinton for their authorizing the bombing of civilian targets during the Serbian tragedy. And yes, surely Tony Blair and George Bush for the attack on Iraq. Whether or not these men will be charged (alas, it is unlikely), Israel cannot expect, anymore than Serbia, to be exempt from the eye of justice.
I do not call the Israelis Nazis, but I do say that the attack on Gaza was utterly criminal. For Jacobson to quote a British military man for what he felt was the commendable restraint the Israeli military made in avoiding civilian casualties in Gaza is to make me sick. There was absolutely no way that the Israelis could attack an area so densely crowded with people that did not mean a significant number of those killed would be civilians.
Jacobson ultimately focuses his anger on a play by Caryl Churchill, a play I have not seen nor read, but which may be produced at a theatre across the street from me here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is a theatre which had earlier put the play about Rachel Corrie on its calendar and then had to remove it "due to community pressure". What community pressure? Not from those of us living here. But clearly from some of the larger funders in the Jewish community. (The play was later put on here in New York across town in the West Village). So the debate over Israel, and Gaza, and history, is not so easy to have here in the US, where Jimmy Carter is considered beyond the pale for his writing about Israel, where everyone in Congress is permitted to worry in public about a possible Iranian nuclear bomb and no one in Congress (or the White House) is permitted to even discuss whether or not Israel has such a bomb already.
There is more freedom of discussion, ironically, on all these matters in Israel than here in New York. Jacobson and I could more easily have a public debate on these issues in Tel Aviv than in Manhattan!
So no, Mr. Jacobson, your apologia for Israel is not good enough. The Palestinian people have lived through four decades of an oppressive and illegal Israeli Occupation. The recent elections have shifted the political spectrum further to the right in Israel. The hope for peace does not rest in your putting bandages on the patient, covering the corpses of the children so that no one will be offended, but on a much stronger US and British response to Israel's actions, including an arms embargo on Israel, which, alone, may cause the new Israeli government to realize that any hope for the long range survival of Israel rests much more in the real risks of peace than in an endless conflict where Israel wins all the battles, but will eventually lose the war.
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