Rethinking Israel

Today is Nakba Day, the day of “catastrophe.” Today is the day Palestinian refugees—some 7 million of them—remember their displacement from their land, caused by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and made worse by the subsequent Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, territories populated overwhelmingly by Palestinians and which are still under Israeli control today.

Not quite four years ago I wrote a piece (“We Are All Living In Israel“) that mostly defended the moral standing of the Israelis, even as they were prosecuting a bloody response to Hamas and the Palestinians at the time. I went back and read, several times, what I wrote. And based on the events of the last several days—culminating in that embarrassing and peace-killing ceremony celebrating Tr-mp and the move of our embassy to Jerusalem—I can say I would not write the same piece today.

It is important to understand that the context for my post in 2014 was the very real threat that Hamas and other extremist groups posed to Israeli civilians through the firing of imprecise rockets (almost 5,000 of them) and mortars (some 1,700) into Israel, many of them striking residential areas. In fact, as the BBC reported the following year, Amnesty International claimed that “Hamas rocket attacks amounted to war crimes.” The BBC article also noted:

Amnesty’s report also detailed other violations of international humanitarian law by Palestinian groups during the conflict, such as storing rockets and other munitions in civilian buildings, including UN schools, and cases where armed groups launched attacks or stored munitions very near locations where hundreds of civilians were sheltering.

Amnesty International, which had previously accused Israel’s government of killing Palestinian civilians and the unjustified destruction of property in Gaza, did not let the Israelis off the hook for their behavior in that 2014 conflict. It said some of the Israeli attacks in response to the shelling “also amounted to war crimes,” the BBC reported. But clearly most of the blame was placed on Hamas and the extremists on that side of the deadly exchange, with Amnesty saying,

The devastating impact of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians during the conflict is undeniable, but violations by one side in a conflict can never justify violations by their opponents.

Again, my original focus on defending Israel four years ago was on the relative morality involved. I wrote:

Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians. But in terms of a larger moral equivalency, there is no comparison between Israel and Hamas, or between Israel and other even more radical Muslim groups.

Today I’m afraid I don’t have the same certainty I had then.

Palestine Mourns Civilians Killed By Israel In GazaWith the approval of an uncompromising and unreasonable and increasingly uncivilized leader—Benjamin Netanyahu—Israeli troops killed almost 60 protesting Palestinians yesterday and wounded hundreds of others. Not much, if any, of the killing and maiming can be justified. Add to that the fact that there is widespread support for the embassy move among Jewish Israelis (Arab citizens are 20% of the population), an ill-timed move that can only mean that too many Israeli Jews have given up on a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and are willing to allow the Palestinians to languish interminably in what essentially are concentration camps in Gaza and the West Bank.

Further add that a whopping 59% of Israeli Jews have a favorable opinion of Tr-mp (he even has a 45-30 favorable mark among secular Jews there), and that, unbelievably, the mayor of Jerusalem is naming a parcel of land near the new embassy the “United States Square in honor of President Donald Tr-mp.” In a Facebook post, the mayor exclaimed: “Jerusalem returns the love to Tr-mp!” What does a sensible American say to that? Try this, written by Michelle Goldberg:

Tr-mp has empowered what’s worst in Israel, and as long as he is president, it may be that Israel can kill Palestinians, demolish their homes and appropriate their land with impunity. But some day, Tr-mp will be gone. With hope for a two-state solution nearly dead, current trends suggest that a Jewish minority will come to rule over a largely disenfranchised Muslim majority in all the land under Israel’s control. A rising generation of Americans may see an apartheid state with a Tr-mp Square in its capital and wonder why it’s supposed to be our friend.

Clearly, an apartheid state is not a moral state. Most of the defense of Israel up to this point has been that it is the region’s only thriving democracy, founded to welcome Jewish immigrants and exiles and, according to its declaration of independence, it had high hopes:

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Seven million Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are essentially prisoners, subject to Israeli military law. In Gaza, the living conditions are unacceptable. In the West Bank, Palestinians have watched Jewish settlers—who retain full rights as citizens—move into their territory, most of the settlements authorized and encouraged by Israeli’s right-wing government (which has been “emboldened by Tr-mp”).

It is obviously true that not all the fault for the protracted problems between Palestinians and Israelis belongs to the Israelis. Palestinian leaders have been wedded to the ridiculous and counter-productive notion that they will never recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state. Palestinian extremists have resorted to terrorism time and again, and are teaching each new generation that violence against Jews is their only option, Allah’s will.

But if the Israelis want to be the good guys, they have to be good. As the days pass, as they embrace, with violence, the actions of an American fool who happens to have the power to move an embassy, as they seem to be closing off each avenue for peace, they seem headed into a permanent apartheid state, one that simply cannot be defended on moral grounds.

President Obama Understands Morally Justifiable Power

I’ve said it a number of times: We are lucky to have President Obama in the White’s House.

Especially during these times, when part of the world is on fire, it is important that someone is in charge who doesn’t want to bring a large can of U.S.A gasoline to put out the flames.

obama and new york times iran interviewI can do no better than point you to Thomas Friedman’s column in The New York Times to understand why it is that we are so lucky. I suggest, strongly, that you read the entire piece or listen to the interview on which the column is based, most of it having to do with the recent framework agreement with Iran and the rather hostile reaction to it by right-wingers here, there, and everywhere.

I will only quote for now one stunningly important line from the beginning of the interview—that defines the real point of having morally justifiable power—and then the last paragraph:

“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk…at this point, the U.S.’s core interests in the region are not oil, are not territorial. … Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place. Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working. And if it’s working well, then we’ll do fine. And that’s going to be a big project, given what’s taken place, but I think this [Iran framework deal] is at least one place to start.”

Amen. And thank God, Allah, and/or the American people for Barack Obama.

Donkey Shame

Rather than boycott a controversial appearance by the Israeli prime minister, most Democrats plan to be there when Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a joint session of Congress on March 3.

If that’s not bad enough, Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democrats in order to, they said, “maintain Israel’s dialogue with both political parties in Congress.” Netanyahu said no thanks, amazingly claiming that to meet with Democratic senators “could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”

The truth is, of course, that there is no “misperception” of partisanship related to Netanyahu’s visit. It is clearly quite partisan. Speaker John Boehner invited him to speak so that he could dope-slap President Obama in front of Americans and undermine any potential deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons aspirations.

And if Netanyahu were to meet with Democratic senators, that would piss off his Republican benefactors in Congress, who sometimes have a hard time understanding that Israel is not our fifty-first state, or, like some Democrats, have a hard time telling the difference between Israeli interests and our own.

We all should keep in mind that if we fail to make a deal with Iran, if we fail to find a diplomatic way to keep them from developing nuclear weapons, that may quite likely mean war at some point. And a U.S. war against Iran seems to be what Netanyahu, and some Republican members of Congress, want for us and our future.

We now know that not only has Netanyahu been selectively leaking misleading details about our negotiations with Iran, but during his 2012 U.N. speech—the one in which he wielded a weird cartoon bomb drawing worthy of The Road Runner Show—Netanyahu misrepresented the truth about how close Iran is to making a nuclear bomb. He told the world then:

“By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move[d] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Except that top-secret documents leaked to the press show that Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, believed at that time that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium “to higher levels.” And because that is Netanyahu’s  home-controlled source of intelligence on the matter, he clearly knew what the intelligence assessment was and chose to mislead the world about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Worse than that, Netanyahu has played this game since 1992. Back then, twenty-three years ago, he said Iran was three to five years away from nuclear weaponry. And according to the Christian Science Monitor, Republicans also joined in the hysteria:

The same alarm bells were already ringing in Washington, where in early 1992 a task force of the House Republican Research Committee claimed that there was a “98 percent certainty that Iran already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two or three operational nuclear weapons.”

Thus it is that some people have been pushing us in the direction of war with Iran for some time now. And we should be able to count on Democrats in Congress having President Obama’s back when he is trying to avoid such an outcome by using diplomacy to find a solution to the potential problem of a nuclear armed Iran.

But we apparently can’t count on that, as it appears that most Democrats will legitimize Netanyahu’s untimely speech to Congress by showing up and listening to him. The right-wing prime minister is clearly trying to undermine President Obama’s foreign policy—a policy that thankfully includes the principle that war is the last resort—and Democrats shouldn’t help him do so.

However, on March 3, they will sit and listen and some will applaud, as Netanyahu essentially tells us why avoiding war with Iran is a bad idea.

“We Want War!” Say Republicans And, Sadly, A Few Democrats

It’s a strange world in which two Fox “News” hosts are more critical of Speaker John Boehner’s unseemly invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu than is President Obama’s Chief of Staff.

Last week, the Speaker, against protocol and against decency and against our national interests, invited the Israeli Prime Minister to soon address Congress about what both Boehner and Netanyahu see as a misguided attempt to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The Speaker never told the White House in advance, and Netanyahu, up for reelection at home, didn’t bother to notify the State Department that he would accept the invitation. Boehner and Netanyahu are essentially undermining the efforts of the Obama administration to keep us out of another war. For most Republicans, Israeli interests appear to be more important than our own.

Worse than that, a few Democrats are also trying to get us into an honest-to-goodness war. Last week, after Obama’s State of the Union address, in which the President clearly stated that he would veto any legislation designed to interfere with his delicate negotiations with Iran (Republicans and some Democrats want to pile on additional sanctions), Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said,

The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.

I want to remind you: that wasn’t said by a creepy, crazy-eyed Fox “News” host. It was uttered by a Democrat. In the U.S. Senate.

It isn’t clear to me exactly why that reckless statement would exit the lips of a Democrat, while President Obama and John Kerry are trying to bring a peaceful end to a crisis involving Iran, Israel, and nuclear weapons. But it is a foolish and dangerous statement that is made more foolish and dangerous by the fact that Republicans, who most certainly trust Netanyahu more than the President of the United States, are in charge of Congress and won’t hesitate to do all they can to get us involved in a hot war with Iran, all on the advice of the Israeli Prime Minister.

And speaking of war and misguided Democrats, on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday Diane Feinstein essentially joined warmonger John McCain in calling for more “special operations” troops on the ground in, uh, Yemen. Yes, Yemen. She thinks we need “more than just advisers” there. That’s called panic, folks. Feinstein also hinted that more troops may be needed in other hot spots:

BOB SCHIEFFER: And then, to go back to the Middle East just quickly, do you envision we might have to put more ground troops — or have to put ground troops back into the Middle East?

FEINSTEIN: Well, this is one thing that I have tried to follow carefully, particularly with respect to Syria.

And I don’t see what we’re doing making a difference. So, I think we need to relook at this. And if we are going to tolerate Assad, as McCain said — and I tend to agree — looks like is the case, that’s a problem.

Let me remind you what “McCain said” just before Feinstein appeared on the program. He began by saying that President Obama and his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough “have lost touch with reality.” Then he got to the point of his gazillionth appearance on Sunday television:

MCCAIN: I agree with the director of British intelligence, MI5, who gave a speech last week saying that these young people mainly from other countries that are now in Iraq and Syria will — are a direct threat to the United States of America and Great Britain.

So there is no strategy. It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding. And we need more boots on the ground. I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means special forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.

And for them to say we expect them to do it on their own, they’re not doing it on their own. And they are losing.

In case you missed his point, he later reiterated:

In the Middle East, we have got to have boots on the ground.

Whenever you hear someone say that, you are hearing the tempered version of, “Let’s get this war party started!”

While we all should be concerned about what is happening in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the region, and while we all should acknowledge that Israel has reason to worry about an existential threat from Iran, we have to keep our wits about us and not panic and jump, boots first, into two more bleeping wars. Our air attacks on ISIL fighters are helping to keep them in check, whether right-wingers in Congress or war-hungry pundits blabbing on TV want to admit it. And it is unclear what will happen in Yemen, since the Shiite rebels—who apparently don’t want to take over the country—aren’t exactly al Qaeda supporters. In fact, we just killed three more al Qaeda terrorists with drone strikes in Yemen today. Yes. I said today, after all the panic on Sunday’s talk shows.

As a much more sober Fareed Zakaria pointed out on Sunday, we have to keep all of this in perspective. He showed this graphic, based on data from the Global Terrorism Database:

Fareed Zacharia and CNN graphic

Now, if that isn’t enough, look at this graphic, which I pulled from the Global Terrorism Database website:

global terrorism database

Those colored beams represent the number of terrorist attacks in 2013 and the relative deaths associated with them. Look at us and look at other places around the world. We should keep all of this in mind, even as we understand that we are not isolated from what is going on elsewhere. We do have to pay attention to what is happening around the world and do what we can to fight terrorism, Islamist or otherwise. But boots-on-the-ground warfare should be the last resort, not the first.

Thankfully, John McCain lost the election in 2008. Thankfully, Bob Menendez and Dianne Feinstein are in the Senate and not the White House. Thankfully, Republicans only control Congress and can only throw rhetorical rocks at President Obama. And, thankfully, we have a man at the helm who doesn’t tend to panic and get nervous and want to start putting American troops on the ground everywhere, when things start to look a little scary.

And, more important, President Obama understands that there is a big difference between American foreign policy and the foreign policy of a right-wing prime minister of Israel, who seems hell-bent on getting the United States involved in a war with Iran, before all the attempts at diplomacy have played out.

How To Feed The Monster In Gaza

Given how far out on a limb I went recently (here and here) to explain how there is no moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel’s general response to Hamas, I must present this lede from  The New York Times:

JABALIYA, Gaza Strip — An examination of an Israeli barrage that put a line of at least 10 shells through a United Nations school sheltering displaced Palestinians here last week suggests that Israeli troops paid little heed to warnings to safeguard such sites and may have unleashed weapons inappropriate for urban areas despite rising alarm over civilian deaths.

As the story relates, all the evidence points to Israeli troops using imprecise heavy artillery in a densely populated area. And the Times makes clear that Israel, so far, has not made a case that the heavy artillery used in this attack was justified because of “the enew york times photo and captionnemy’s insistence on operating near shelters and other humanitarian sites that endangers civilians.” Nor has the attack yet been justified by claiming Israeli troops were “under great or imminent risk” at the time they allegedly fired the heavy artillery.

What we know for sure is that the July 30th attack “killed 21 people at the school,” which is in a “crowded Jabaliya refugee camp.” We also know that:

Two shells slammed the roof of a second-story classroom filled with sleeping women and children, and one exploded in the school courtyard, where men were bowed in prayer among the eucalyptus trees.

The Israelis knew where this school was. A U.N. spokesman has said they were informed of its exact location 17 times. On the day of the attack, U.N. officials forwarded photographs of the munitions it found and details of the strike to Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration, which the Times describes as “the go-between for international organizations and the Israeli military.” The U.N. also has “a list of more than 3,000 potential witnesses, their identification numbers and contact information.” It seems past time for some detailed explanation, if not justification, from the Israelis. And while I will wait for the Israeli response, there seems to be no moral excuse for what happened, Hamas or no Hamas.

In fact, it is exactly these kinds of incidents that feed the Hamas monster.

A Reader’s Response to “We Are All Living In Israel”

Related to my piece, “We Are All Living In Israel,” I received the following comment from a very bright and thoughtful reader of this blog:

Yikes and Wow! I have to call “horseshit” on you, Duane. Israel has not honored its commitment to allowing a Palestinian state. Ever. It continues to encroach on the ever-shrinking Palestinian territory. Much of the area in uninhabitable due to the devastation by Israeli bombing. More illegal Israeli settlements are being built in the West Bank with impunity for the right wing zealots who build them. The West doesn’t give a shit. Israel receives empty chidings, but nothing with teeth since Eisenhower. Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness. A plague on both their houses: Hamas and Likud. You surprise me, sir.

My response is lengthy, but this is a complicated subject:


Ah, my friend. You surprise me, too.

You wrote:

Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness.

What surprises me is your claim that I have given Israel a “free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit.” I guess I should begin by asking you to specifically cite a sentence or a paragraph that led you to make that claim. Obviously, since you have read other things I have written, you must know I would never offer a free pass to anyone to do such things. So, I am a bit perplexed as to how you could say such a thing, especially given the nature of the moral argument being made in this piece.

In any case, I will respond this way:

The question I asked was: Should the Israelis be losing the current PR war with Hamas? In other words, do they deserve to be condemned over and above Hamas for what has been happening? And the answer, at least to me, is they shouldn’t be. That’s not to say (and I mentioned this) that the Israelis are historically blameless in this context. If you read Harris’ piece, you will notice that he mentioned “war crimes” on the part of the Israelis. I didn’t go that far because a war crime charge would require a whole legal argument I didn’t want to take the time to make. But I did write this:

Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians.

I said all that because I wanted to make clear that the Israelis (Israeli leadership and those who call themselves settlers, to be precise) have often behaved badly and the Palestinian people have suffered because of that behavior. The problem is that this piece wasn’t about this or that bad behavior on the part of the Israelis in times past. Most of us know that they have done things that deserve condemnation (just like Americans and Europeans), which I have written about (especially regarding the settlement issue). But this piece was about whether the Israelis, compared to Hamas, deserved our “larger” moral condemnation for their response to recent missile attacks. For the reasons I stated, I don’t think so. Here is more explanation:

Most Jews in Israel don’t want to turn Gaza or the West Bank into a Jewish state (which is where the settlement issue comes in; some Jews, with right-wing Jewish leadership in charge, have been, borrowing your word, encroaching on Palestinian lands, a situation that must be rolled back before any real peace is possible; right now 500,000 “settlers” live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem). And there is no charter guiding Israeli officials that explicitly or implicitly states that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank belong to the Jews and all Arabs should be removed. In fact, the Israelis could have, if they had wanted, kept all the land and forced all of the Palestinians to leave (they did, after all, occupy Gaza for 38 years). But they didn’t for reasons that support my claim: they share the same values as most Westerners, even if, like us, they don’t always live up to them.

In fact, a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution (even if Netanyahu doesn’t or thinks one is “impossible”), although a disturbing number of them (maybe a fourth) would tolerate an apartheid state. Call that the Israeli Tea Party. The fact remains that most Israelis aren’t religious radicals that see Palestinians as targets for destruction, even if the oppression of Arabs in Palestinian territory is itself a gross injustice (and, practically speaking, stupid) and a continual source of problems. I could list several actions by the Israelis that deserve our stern judgment, but none of them have at their base an open disdain for Western values (again, even if they often fall short, as in the rush to settle as much Arab land as possible).

Now, look at Hamas, to which this comparison was made. You said the organization is “most certainly” disgusting. Then you move right on. I find people on your side do that a lot. They readily admit how awful Hamas is just before they begin a long list of Israeli atrocities. Usually the criticism is in the form of (as John Judis wrote) “There is no moral justification for Hamas firing rockets against Israeli cities, but…” They tend to ignore the depth of depravity, most of it buttressed by fundamentalist Islamic nonsense, that characterizes Hamas’ long-term strategy. Let’s begin with its charter or “covenant,” made “In the Name of the Most Merciful Allah.” In its preamble it says:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.

I could stop there and my moral point about Hamas would be made, in terms of any comparison with Israeli retaliation. The Jews have no such guiding document that uses obliteration of Arabs or Muslims as its main principle. Their response to Hamas is based on the principle of self defense, whatever you think of the proportionality of the response. But I won’t stop with the charter’s preamble. Look at Article Eight, defining the slogan of Hamas:

Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.

“Death for the sake of Allah” isn’t just a noble thing to these people. It is “the loftiest” of Hamas’ wishes. I find that disturbing and there is nothing comparable on the other side. Nothing. Absorbing this kind of thinking is what leads Hamas leaders to get women and children to die in Israeli strikes so as to bring condemnation on the Israelis from world players. That’s what Harris meant by the Jews being “brutalized” by the process, “largely due to the character of their enemies.” It isn’t a pretty thing to admit, but your enemies can drive you to some pretty questionable things, like attacking Hamas targets among civilians, which is part of Hamas’ strategy to win hearts and minds. But such Israeli actions, questionable as they might be, are not on the same moral plane as putting the women and children there to be killed in the first place, or encouraging them to get killed or blow themselves up in the name of Allah. That is what Harris (and I) are trying to say. Yes, the Israelis have done things that no nation should be proud of, but when you are living beside a group of people who officially will your national destruction, and who send suicide bombers into your cities to kill innocents, and who indiscriminately fire missiles at your citizens, then you have a right to respond. We can make moral judgments about the proportion of the response, but that judgment ought to include a thorough understanding of the nature of the enemy the Jews are facing.

And I guess that is where we differ. I can’t get passed the explicit objective of Hamas and other radical Islamic groups and the immoral means they are willing to employ to achieve it. There is nothing morally comparable to it on the Israeli side. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told Charlie Rose the other day:

We are not fanatics. We are not fundamentalists. We do not actually fight the Jews because they are Jews, per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers.

The problem is that they are fanatics and fundamentalists. Their actions prove it. Their founding document proves it. And, as far as Hamas is concerned, the Jews have no rights at all to “occupy” any part of Palestine. In other words, just as Hamas’ charter states, an Israeli state is impossible to tolerate.

It took me a long time to come to the position I have. Over the years I have read thoughtful pieces on both sides of this moral debate and I admit that when I published this piece I knew it would provoke some to react the way you did. But I want everyone to understand that when we consider what is happening between Israel and Hamas, we are finally left with a “yes, but…” response to the position of both sides. I finally came down where I did because I imagined myself both in the shoes of an average Palestinian, living in a land literally choked off from the rest of the world, and an average Israeli citizen, living in a city that has sustained missile and suicide bomber attacks.

I think I can understand why some Palestinians might resort to violence in the face of the oppression they experience. But I can never understand why a group of people, fighting for a tiny slice of real estate, think that it is okay, in the name of Allah or any other “merciful” being, to kill innocents and have innocents killed to achieve a goal they will never—never ever—achieve. I would hope that, as a Palestinian, I would not only be smarter than that, but more moral than that.

So, as far as the moral case over the recent Israeli response is concerned, I come down on the side of the Israelis (at least as of early this morning; I am willing to admit things could get worse and my future opinion could change), even though, as an average Israeli citizen, I might understand that my government has not always comported itself well in relations with the Palestinians, and I might admit that actions like allowing Jews to settle in Arab lands is a roadblock to peace, as is the harshness of the blockade of Gaza. Because when I look at that Hamas charter and its calling for the obliteration of Israel, when I realize that these terrorists are truly willing to sacrifice innocents on both sides in the name of an Iron Age deity, I realize that it would be immoral not to act, immoral not to fight back, immoral not to defend the citizenry as if the very existence of the nation depended on it.

Because ultimately it does.


“We Are All Living In Israel”

“[The Israelis] have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely due to the character of their enemies.”

—Sam Harris, “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”

We have all seen the news reports featuring Israeli jets dropping bombs on sites in Hamas-controlled Gaza, sometimes killing civilians. And we have seen Hamas-fired rockets falling on sites in Israel. We’ve heard confusing reports of cease fires and no cease fires. We’ve seen the United Nations plead for peace. We’ve seen the United States gaza deathsdo its best to calm things down. Just today we saw a strike on a park in Gaza near a hospital. Ten people were killed, nine of them children. Both sides blame the other and both sides are making truce demands that neither side can abide.

So, because we Americans like to keep moral score, who is to blame for what we have seen and heard?

There are about 8 million people living in Israel today, about ten times more than when the nation was founded in 1948 as a homeland for Jews, including European Jews fleeing the ravages of persecution. Of that 8 million, 75% are Jews and 21% are Arabs. In 1947 the United Nations recommended a plan to divvy up territory in a way that would hopefully make everyone happy, but most Arab leaders—Arabs were actually in the majority at the time—rejected the offer, seeing the move as another attempt by Europeans to do what they were good at: colonize. The fighting soon began.

And it has continued.

After spending some time, years ago, studying Judaism, I discovered that most people who today identify themselves as Jews don’t do so, thank God, because of any specific religious claims related to the veracity of the Hebrew Bible. Most Jews who live in Israel (the only nation in the world with a Jewish majority) are either openly secular or what I call “flexible” in their adherence to Judaism. These two groups constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population and only a small minority (8% or so) are of the ultra-Orthodox variety we often think of when we think of outwardly observant, true-believing, extremist, sometimes radical, Jews. Because most people in Israel don’t have a religious ax to grind, they would gladly live peacefully alongside Arabs, most of them Muslim. Problem is that many Arab Muslims, with guns and rockets and a radical understanding of the Quran, don’t want to live peacefully with the Israelis.

One of the leading groups of Israeli-hating Arab Muslims is Hamas, a political and military organization that is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel and other Western nations. A child of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was founded in 1987 in order to do what other Arabs could not do: boot out the Jews and establish an Islamic state. To this end, Hamas, which won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament via a democratic election, has attacked both military and civilian targets in Israel, sometimes using suicide bombers. In the present fight, they have encouraged civilians in Gaza to challenge Israeli attacks “with their bare chests.” In other words, Hamas has no problem with civilians, including women and children, dying for its larger cause. Hamas leaders have stored rockets in schools and, according to the Israelis and other sources, placed missile batteries in residential neighborhoods. I will soon get back to this point.

As for the Israelis, several of their attacks have seemed to be out of proportion to the injuries inflicted upon them. And they are certainly losing the PR war because of it. But should they? Let’s start with a point that Sam Harris makes (the bracketed “Note” is from Harris):

One of the most galling things for outside observers about the current war in Gaza is the disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. [Note: I was not suggesting that the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants are anything less than tragic. But if retaliating against Hamas is bound to get innocents killed, and the Israelis manage to protect their own civilians in the meantime, the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side is guaranteed to be disproportionate.]

Harris speaks of  “a kind of moral illusion,” when it comes to people blaming “Israel for killing and maiming babies” and “for making Gaza a prison camp.” He writes:

The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of the Palestinians. [Note: Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group.]

The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.

All of that “gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies,” Harris says, and in order “to see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.” Harris makes a point we often fail to consider, when we are thinking about this conflict:

 The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow.

Even given that Harris is certainly overstating the case, the point is that the Israelis, if they wanted to, could wipe out much of the Arab population not only in Gaza, but the West Bank too. They could cause unfathomable destruction and death, if they had the will to do so. But they don’t. And getting back to the point about the use of civilians, they don’t use women and children as cover, a point that Harris hammers home with ferocity in a passage I will quote at length:

The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.

Consider the moral difference between using human shields and being deterred by them. That is the difference we’re talking about. The Israelis and other Western powers are deterred, however imperfectly, by the Muslim use of human shields in these conflicts, as we should be. It is morally abhorrent to kill noncombatants if you can avoid it. It’s certainly abhorrent to shoot through the bodies of children to get at your adversary. But take a moment to reflect on how contemptible this behavior is. And understand how cynical it is. The Muslims are acting on the assumption—the knowledge, in fact—that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields. They consider the Jews the spawn of apes and pigs—and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants. [Note: The term “Muslims” in this paragraph means “Muslim combatants” of the sort that Western forces have encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The term “jihadists” would have been too narrow, but I was not suggesting that all Muslims support the use of human shields or are anti-Semitic, at war with the West, etc.]

Now imagine reversing the roles here. Imagine how fatuous—indeed comical it would be—for the Israelis to attempt to use human shields to deter the Palestinians. Some claim that they have already done this. There are reports that Israeli soldiers have occasionally put Palestinian civilians in front of them as they’ve advanced into dangerous areas. That’s not the use of human shields we’re talking about. It’s egregious behavior. No doubt it constitutes a war crime. But Imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields. Of course, that would be ridiculous. The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan. Reversing the roles here produces a grotesque Monty Python skit.

If you’re going to talk about the conflict in the Middle East, you have to acknowledge this difference. I don’t think there’s any ethical disparity to be found anywhere that is more shocking or consequential than this.

And the truth is, this isn’t even the worst that jihadists do. Hamas is practically a moderate organization, compared to other jihadist groups. There are Muslims who have blown themselves up in crowds of children—again, Muslim children—just to get at the American soldiers who were handing out candy to them. They have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the casualties—where they then blow up all the injured along with the doctors and nurses trying to save their lives.

Harris makes the additional point, one he has made in other contexts, that there is disproportionate outrage in the Muslim world and in liberal circles, when some offense, real or imagined, is committed against Islam or against a Muslim:

Every day that you could read about an Israeli rocket gone astray or Israeli soldiers beating up an innocent teenager, you could have read about ISIS in Iraq crucifying people on the side of the road, Christians and Muslims. Where is the outrage in the Muslim world and on the Left over these crimes? Where are the demonstrations, 10,000 or 100,000 deep, in the capitals of Europe against ISIS?  If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident, the entire Muslim world is inflamed. God forbid you burn a Koran, or write a novel vaguely critical of the faith. And yet Muslims can destroy their own societies—and seek to destroy the West—and you don’t hear a peep.

If you are familiar with Sam Harris’ writings, you have heard his criticism of the larger “Muslim world” before, as well as his frustration with those on the left who fail to take seriously the threat of radical Islamists. And set in the context of this present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he does seem to have a point. Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians. But in terms of a larger moral equivalency, there is no comparison between Israel and Hamas, or between Israel and other even more radical Muslim groups. As I said, most of Israeli society is not wedded to some Iron Age notion of religion. They don’t want to impose Judaism on the rest of the world. There is no correspondence between a nation mostly populated by secularists or flexible followers of a mild form of Judaism and a group of radicalized people who won’t quit until the land is Allah’s or until they, or their women and children, are dead.

Harris will have the last word:

What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.

This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.


Obama, Gog, Magog, And The Curse Of God

The Raw Story published an account of Louie Gohmert’s recent address to that teensy-weensy part of the nation who watches the “General Speeches” in the House of Representatives on C-SPAN. Gohmert, typically an earnest spokesman for GOP Jesus, was talking about the Obama administration’s latest moves in the Middle East when he said:

There are many who have been aware of Scripture, and it has often been a guide in our relations with Israel.

Now, before you are tempted to laugh at that statement, before you smirk at the idea that an Iron Age book is America’s go-to manual for 21st-century international relations, be aware that there is more than a little truth in it. Consider the following, from The Guardian:

Bush, Gog and Magog

Just when you thought it couldn’t get crazier, a well-sourced story claims Bush invaded Iraq because of Bible prophecies

Apparently, George W. Bush (who lately has a Jews for Jesus problem), in order to get support from French President Jacques Chirac for the neo-conservatives’ arbitrary war against Saddam Hussein, told Chirac that “Gog and Magog” were busy doing in the Middle East, well, the things that God and Magog are supposed to be doing. What they were (and now are) supposed to be doing, according to many Bible-believing evangelicals and fundamentalists, has something to do with the End of the World.

When I was an evangelical Christian, I heard a lot about Gog and Magog, even though I didn’t really understand how anyone could derive such fanciful notions about them from a few obscure passages in the Bible. I like the way Wikipedia describes the prophetic duo:

They are sometimes individuals, sometimes peoples, and sometimes geographic regions. 

Hmm. That’s quite an elastic description, no?

In any case, it is more than scary that people in our government, people in high places, have taken such things seriously, but they have. And many, like Louis Gohmert, still do. He wasn’t finished with his C-SPAN speech:

Some of us believe that the Bible is accurate. Certainly, so many prophesies have been fulfilled, and if that is true, this administration, unless they can find a verse that accurately says that those who betray Israel will be blessed, then this country is being dug in a deeper hole by this administration and its betrayals of Israel’s trust and Israel’s friendship.

As a former member of the evangelical community, let me translate that for you:

If Barack Obama doesn’t start paying attention to the prophecies of the Old and New Testaments, then our country will be cursed by God.

Now, what form that curse will take is, like most things in the Bible, open to interpretation. Here are the options I spontaneously see:

†♥ God will send droughts to starve us to death.

†♥ God will send floods to drown us—uh, no, he tried that and promised not to do it again. My bad.

†♥ God will send a horrible plague our way, like the Tea Party.

†♥ God will force us to watch Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly have sex—with each other.

Okay, okay. That last one is a little too much. I admit it. But it beats the curses for disobedience you will actually find in Deuteronomy 28, among them:

†♥ The LORD will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly…YIKES!

†♥ The LORD will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation, with severe burning fever, with the sword, with scorching, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish. YIKES!

†♥ Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away. YIKES!

†♥ The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, with tumors, with the scab, and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed. YIKES!

†♥ The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart. YIKES!

†♥ Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all day long…YIKES!

†♥ The LORD will strike you in the knees and on the legs with severe boils which cannot be healed, and from the sole of your foot to the top of your head…YIKES!

†♥ You shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters whom the LORD your God has given you…YIKES!

Now, admit it, compared to all the real punishments God says he has in store for the disobedient, being forced to watch Limbaugh, Hannity, and O’Reilly do the nasty isn’t all that bad is it?

“This Campaign To Make Democracy Extinct”

One luxury of being fabulously wealthy is that you can throw your weight around and distort reality. You can sometimes bend it to conform to your own agenda.

This morning I heard a disturbing report on NPR that detailed the efforts of Sheldon Adelson, who made his billions in the casino bidness, to throw his weight around by launching “a free newspaper in Israel in 2007” that “has close ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The result of the American billionaire’s efforts is that other Hebrew newspapers, including ones not in the pockets of Adelson and Netanyahu, are struggling, since they cannot compete with a business willing to give its product away, charge advertisers much less than market rates, and thus operate at a considerable loss.

Adelson’s newspaper venture, called Israel Hayom, is obviously designed to quiet any opposition to right-wing thinking and, more important as a war with Iran looms in America’s future, right-wing actions.

Here’s how McClatchy reported on the issue:

The economic crisis that’s hit the newspaper industry in the United States and elsewhere is threatening some of Israel’s most influential publications and could soon leave the country with virtually no liberal-leaning printed newspapers…

Publishers say that competition with the Internet, as in the rest of the world, is one reason for their decline. But they say a far bigger influence has been the cost of competing with Israel Hayom, a free-distribution newspaper that American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson founded five years ago.

In Israel, the right-wing paper is known as “Bibi Press,” for its “often-fawning articles about Netanyahu.” The free paper is hurting all newspapers, not just left-leaning ones. The McClatchy article ends this way:

Popular Israeli columnist Ben Caspit wrote Friday in Maariv that outside forces were driving Israeli media outlets out of business.

“An enormous power, uncontrollable and unstoppable, arrives from outside and destroys the local forces one after another, like in a futuristic film. The local forces are us: Maariv, Haaretz, Channel 10, Globes, afterwards it’s Channel 2’s turn and in the end also Yediot Ahronot. No one of these has enough power to even tickle Sheldon Adelson,” he wrote.

“I think not so long from now we will all understand that we are in one boat. That they are taking over our country. That this is a war. . . . We need to unite and to explain to Bibi, so that he’ll understand, that he must not continue with this campaign to make democracy extinct.”

Noam Sheizaf of the web magazine +972, called attention to how Israel Hayom inserted itself into American politics. He published a story in July titled:

Romney uses Adelson’s free paper to criticize Obama

Sheizaf noted that during Romney’s visit to Israel this year, he violated the longstanding practice of not criticizing a sitting American administration while abroad. And he did so not in a left-leaning newspaper that interviewed him, but in Adelson’s rag.

For the record, the bloated billionaire is also throwing his bloatedness around here in other ways, notably:

Mr. Adelson has already contributed more money to defeat Mr. Obama than anyone: over $50 million has gone to the 2012 campaign, including $10 million to a “super PAC” backing Mr. Romney and $10 million to Crossroads GPS, which has run millions of dollars of advertisements against Mr. Obama.

Adelson has pledged to spend $100 million or more, and it remains to be seen whether he can buy enough votes for Mitt Romney to win and thereby represent the billionaire’s interests and help with his agenda. But we have seen enough already to make us realize that in an important way the election in November is about more than Obama and Romney.

It’s about whether rich folks can continue to openly get away with distorting reality.

It’s about whether the wealthy can bend the electorate’s will enough to keep advancing the exclusive interests of the moneyed class.

It is about whether Americans will continue to allow fat-cat bully-billionaires like Sheldon Adelson to push them around.

Romney’s Runes

The once-secret Romney tapes are a treasure of insight into Romney’s psyche and one needs to step back and look at what they have revealed so far:

♦ Romney has what should be an intolerably low opinion of half of America (no surprise there).

♦ Like his recent shameless exploitation of the murder of Americans in Libya, Romney seems willing to exploit a Jimmy Carter-like hostage crisis for political gain (no surprise there). And by the way: Jimmy Carter got those hostages released, not Ronald Reagan.

♦ He is resigned to doing virtually nothing to help bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, saying, “the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” Gee, thanks for that uplifting breath of American exceptionalism.

♦ His sarcasm regarding the immigration issue reveals his lack of empathy for and understanding of folks who come here and how hard most of them work:

I’d like to staple a green card to every Ph.D. in the world and say, “Come to America, we want you here.” Instead, we make it hard for people who get educated here or elsewhere to make this their home. Unless, of course, you have no skill or experience, in which case you’re welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of your life. [Audience laughs.] It’s very strange.

No, he’s very strange.

♦ Romney, who hasn’t hidden his disdain for labor unions, fielded a suggestion from a big-shot guest (Mittens called them “dignitaries”) at that big-money fundraiser that went like this:

…my recommendation would be clean house, immediately. The SEC, the CFEC are disaster areas.

ROMNEY: I wish they weren’t unionized, so we could go a lot deeper than you’re actually allowed to go. Yeah.

Yeah. All the union voters out there who can’t wait to pull the lever for Romney—and there are plenty of them—should rejoice at that sentiment.

♦ All that stuff we found out about Romney’s view of America and the world is bad enough, but other than the comments about the 47%, the most telling, and perhaps in terms of the country’s economic health, the most outrageous thing Romney said at that gathering of plump partisans, was the following, which I will set in its entire context:

Audience member: When the [unintelligible] in September, the markets are going to be looking—marginal tax rates going up, overheads going, fine, but sequestration under the debt ceiling deal—what do they call it?

Romney: Taxageddon?

Audience member: Yeah, they call it that. The Obamacare, taxes on dividends and capital gains—I mean, the markets are going to be speaking very wildly in October on all of those issues.

Romney: They’ll probably be looking at what the polls are saying. If it looks like I’m going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president’s going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy. It depends, of course, which markets you’re talking about, which types of commodities and so forth, but my own view is, if we win on November 6th there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back, and we’ll see—without actually doing anything—we’ll actually get a boost in the economy. If the president gets reelected, I don’t know what will happen. I can never predict what the markets will do. Sometimes it does the exact opposite of what I would have expected. But my own view is that if we get the—the “Taxageddon,” as they call it, January 1st, with this president, and with a Congress that can’t work together, it really is frightening, really frightening in my view.

The idea that the markets could respond any better if Romney gets elected than they have under Obama—they have been up, up, and away since March of 2009—is preposterous. But what is more preposterous is this claim Romney made:

…my own view is, if we win on November 6th there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back, and we’ll see—without actually doing anything—we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.

Now, that comment, if it happens to be true, is pregnant with irony. Romney’s whole case against Obama is that he is in over his head, that his policies have failed. Yet here Romney is saying that the simple act of a Romney victory will be enough to “see capital come back” and provide “a boost in the economy.” All “without actually doing anything.”

Without actually doing anything“! Since economies aren’t sustained by sorcery—notwithstanding Republicans’ insistence on the magic of supply-side economics—all that “capital” sitting on the sidelines* must actually be partisan capital, with a big fat “R” stamped on it. Which tells us that those holding onto that capital, who are refusing to invest it in American jobs and increased wages, are Republicans before they are Americans.

At least that is what Romney must believe.


* David Cay Johnson wrote in July:

IRS data suggests that, globally, U.S. nonfinancial companies hold at least three times more cash and other liquid assets than the Federal Reserve reports, idle money that could be creating jobs, funding dividends or even paying a stiff federal penalty tax for hoarding corporate cash.

The Fed’s latest Flow of Funds report showed that U.S. nonfinancial companies held $1.7 trillion in liquid assets at the end of March. But newly released IRS figures show that in 2009 these companies held $4.8 trillion in liquid assets, which equals $5.1 trillion in today’s dollars, triple the Fed figure.

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