Monday, December 21, 2009

Who knows why and what for America chose Obama?

My title line sounds better in Hebrew, in which it's a takeoff of a kids' song that asks, "Who knows why and what for the zebra wears pyjamas?" But let me not get off track before I begin.

I went to an event sponsored by Democrats Abroad-Israel earlier this month. Panelists, including veteran Ha'aretz journalist Akiva Eldar, spoke about the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the age of Obama. (This is a hot topic in Washington as well, and Eldar took it up again in his paper.) Panelists and audience members offered various explanations for why Israelis are not enamored of the current President. The range was wide, including:
  • Obama doesn't support Israel's fundamental right to exist, and so Israelis should be uncomfortable. (I disagree with this one.)
  • There is a strong streak of racism in Israel, which is being encouraged by right-wing American groups suspicious of Obama's black and Muslim parentage. (Unfortunately, I think there's a fair amount of truth in this one.)
  • Obama is trying to be an "honest broker" in the Middle East conflict, a term which is a dirty word in Israel and which conflicts with America's commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative military edge over its adversaries. (Eldar put this forward and elaborated on the inherent contradiction between the two American roles. I think he's got a good point.)
  • Most Israelis are not really ready for the difficult compromises that a peace agreement will require, and any world leader trying to push or lead the way through the endgame of the peace process will be disliked. (This is my theory.)
For all that, Obama's closing words in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (yeah, I know, I raised an eyebrow, too) show me why Israelis--so often accused of fighting unneccessary wars--should admire the man:
We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sweet Potatoes for Peace

On Friday night, I had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. Then, on Saturday, I had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.

Thanksgiving seems to be the holiday that American immigrants to Israel hang on to most strongly, just as it’s a holiday that immigrants to America adopt so readily, tweaking it to their own culinary traditions but joining in with the turkey (usually), the story, and the arts and crafts projects that the kids bring home from elementary school.

A few years ago I had a Shabbat Thanksgiving dinner that was one of the most memorable evenings I’ve hosted, if I do say so myself. We had Muslims and Christians who had never been to a Shabbat dinner; Palestinians and Israelis who had never been to a Thanksgiving meal; and American-Jewish immigrants to Israel who had strong feelings about both.

The thing that everyone took to immediately was the generosity of spirit. It was pot-luck, and people put in the most amazing effort to creating their favorite stuffing, sweet potato, cranberry, or other traditional dishes, or making innovative contributions that fit right in, like the British-Israeli vegetarian who made a fried tofu dish that outshined the turkey. Friends lent tables and helped me carry them up two flights of stairs. By arranging them in a Z, I got more than 20 guests into my bachelor(ette?) apartment.

We blessed the food, told the story of Thanksgiving, and sang psalms and folk songs. For one evening, I felt that the coexistence and conflict resolution on which I spend so much of my professional energy was achieved in my own home. For many of the guests, it was a unique opportunity to break bread with people from backgrounds different from their own. People definitely came out of their comfort zones, whether it meant venturing into a Jerusalem neighborhood that was not their own or taking part in an unfamiliar ritual.

I believe in these kinds of encounters. I have seen and felt personally the transformative effect of face-to-face meetings. While I think they are necessary, I do not believe they are sufficient for creating change. It's easy to coexist for an evening, but real conflict resolution means tackling substantive problems and systemic inequities as well as making time and space for difficult conversations. I have become wary of the many programs that claim to be making peace in the region through various kinds of meetings, ranging from strawberries for peace to mountain-climbing for peace to, yes, basketweaving for peace.

I am pleased that the conflict resolution field has made it past its adolescent growth spurt of the 1990s and is now maturing to the point where funders and practitioners alike are thinking carefully about how to define success and measure results. I hope I have a chance to help advance this process.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Haveil Havalim #244: No Protektzia Necessary

I've been remiss in failing to mention that Haveil Havalim is up at A Mother in Israel.

I got a mention, as well as a warm welcome and a cameo appearance as a newbie in the Jewish blogosphere.

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs — a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It’s hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack. The term ‘Haveil Havalim,’ which means “Vanity of Vanities,” is from Qoheleth, (Ecclesiastes) which was written by King Solomon. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other ‘excesses’ and realized that it was nothing but ‘hevel,’ or in English, ‘vanity.’

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Holocaust Education: Subliminal, Bibi, and my Baby

My father recently sent me a link to a video that is being distributed to Israeli teens. Grammy award winning Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari and Israeli rap/hip-hop star Kobi "Subliminal" Shimoni have used their talents to produce and perform a video about the Holocaust that is designed to reach young people who may be complacent about the Holocaust and unable to grasp its meaning, particularly as there are fewer survivors alive to give first-person testimonies.

It is a bit shocking, quite different than the Holocaust education I got at Hebrew school in New Jersey, and very powerful.

Why is this important to a Jerusalem Artichoke? I am skeptical of the role that the Holocaust plays in building Israeli identity, and even more so, Israeli foreign policy.

I believe that one of the key reasons for having a Jewish state is indeed to serve as a safe haven for our persecuted people, but this cannot be the only reason. If it is, we have no reason to aspire to a state that lives up to our ideals and values—we need not try to build an ocean liner but can be satisfied by cobbling together a lifeboat—and the moment our fear of persecution is lessened, our justification for having our own state dissolves.

It is important to remember that Zionism existed before the Holocaust—for 1900 years as a dream and for 60 years as a political movement. I was disturbed by President Obama’s statement in his (otherwise admirable) Cairo speech that

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Really? So U.S. support for Israel really is based on Holocaust guilt and not on strategic interests? That’s reassuring.

I was equally skeptical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech at the U.N. in which he waved memos on the Final Solution to prove that the Holocaust happened. He has been using the Holocaust rhetoric for years, and I believe that his apparent belief and aggressive marketing of the notion that Israel’s enemies are Hitlers extinguishes any possibility of rationally weighing the pros and cons of military action vs. diplomacy.

Closer to home, when my son reaches 11th grade, his class will probably go on a trip to Poland. According to Ha’aretz newspaper, Some 25,000 Israeli high school students participate annually in school delegations to Poland, where they visit the sites of former concentration camps and Jewish ghettos.

This is supposed to be a capstone event for Israeli education, and indeed some schools spend a great deal of time preparing the students for it, but for many of the kids, it is their first trip abroad, and they behave as one would expect teenagers to behave when let loose en masse away from home for the first time—with drinking, gambling, and violence.

Furthermore, making the Poland trip the main event of the year reinforces the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli identity, which as I said above, bothers me. A colleague told me her son is participating instead in something called Masa Yisraeli Mibereishit—roughly, Israeli Journey from the Beginning—in which students use a series of trips around Israel to examine their identities as individuals and as part of a group, a society, a people, and a state.

I don’t know yet what I’ll want my son to do, but I’ve got a while to think about it, since his first birthday is tomorrow (Happy birthday, sweet boy!)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Problem with Goldstone

I was all ready of be in favor of the Goldstone Report. I believe in transparency, and was pained by some of the accusations made against Israeli troops. I also believe Israel is too quick to dismiss the U.N and does itself a disservice by regularly crying discrimination.

Then I read the executive summary of the report. (It’s about 30 pages long; I have not yet tackled the full 575 pages.) I was appalled.

The first and most fundamental problem is the mandate of the investigation, which reads as follows: “to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.”

The highlighting is mine. This decision to allow the commission to investigate the context of the operations led to an overreach that cost the mission its credibility. In describing its methodology, the report says, among other things:

The Mission also analysed the historical context of the events that led to the military operations in Gaza between during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 and the links between these operations and overarching Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
As a result, the commission reviewed
  • The closure, or blockade, of Gaza (omitting, however, Egypt's role in keeping one of the entrances to the territory closed);
  • Israel's detention of Palestinian prisoners, noting that 700,000 have been detained since the beginning of the occupation, but failing to note that this is a 32-year time span;
  • Israel's settlement policy, noting that "if all the plans are realized, the number of settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory will be doubled." I disagree with the settlement policy, but this statement is far beyond the scope of the humanitarian and human rights law questions of the Gaza operation, and its inclusion, not to mention the breathlessly threatening tone, is prejudicial to Israel.
I do believe that, as Israeli Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog suggested, Israel should have cooperated with the Goldstone commission. Then it would have had a chance to fight the accusations on their substance as opposed to fighting a long battle over the process.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY)

One of the challenges of being an idea person is having to face up to the consequences of your ideas becoming real. In my first job of graduate school, I brought my newly printed Master’s of Law and Diplomacy to a Pentagon office staffed by Special Operations officers. These experienced SEALS and Rangers made it abundantly clear to me that whatever fuzzy, liberal change-the-world scheme my egghead friends and I might come up with, they were the guys who would have to carry it out. They proudly called themselves “the pointy end of the spear,” and they had no patience for Clinton administration folk who wondered what good it was having the best army in the world if you couldn’t use it. (As it turned out, this problem was not limited to liberals, and the Bush-era civilian leadership in the Pentagon became known as “chicken-hawks.”)

In the Middle East, while one’s personal stakes certainly shape one’s point of view, it is unlikely that a sudden confrontation with the reality of the situation will lead to a change of heart. Israeli kids facing army service, Palestinians who have to cross checkpoints, and evacuees from Gaza all are influenced by their ongoing experiences, but my friend Gila, who was seriously injured in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, seems to have kept her middle-of-the-road, cynical viewpoint, and left-wing activist Michael Lerner wrote a column in 1991 explaining why having his car pelted with stones by Palestinian youths did not change his views one bit.

Can I continue to be a vocal advocate for a two-state solution if it means having a border in my backyard? Looking at maps, it seems challenging to slice the sliver of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean into even smaller slivers. Here in Abu Tor, it means wondering what would become of a particular traffic intersection and realizing that I couldn’t take the shortcut to visit my uncle. It also could mean having a border in my backyard.

The Geneva Initiative recently published a detailed set of annexes to the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace accord they hammered out in 2003. They examine the minutiae of implementing an agreement, including suggesting where and how the border should be drawn in the urban landscape of Jerusalem. One of their proposals puts the border maybe 50 yards away from my building.

I think I could live with it. The truth is that my neighborhood is known as a mixed neighborhood, but Jews and Arabs live in distinct parts of the neighborhood, and at least in my experience have little contact. I nod politely at the ladies and look warily at the young men as they walk up the hill from the original Arab village at the base of my street to the main thoroughfare at the top. For the most part, we don’t send our kids to the same schools or use the same public transportation. We probably shop in the same big supermarket but use different corner grocers. Putting in a border would have very little concrete impact on my life.

Would it have a symbolic impact? Would I develop a yearning for the land that I can see out my window if I were forbidden to go there? One of my favorite things about my home is its location at the beginning of the Sherover Promenade (the “Tayelet”), which offers winding paths bordered by fragrant rosemary and lavender and a green space in the middle of the city. Legend has it that the promenade runs along the ridge from which Abraham first spotted Mt. Moriah on his way to sacrifice Isaac. When I walk there at sunset, I too can look across to the Temple Mount. The sunlight slanting on the pale stones, the sounds of the muezzin rising from the valley between the ridge and the mount, and the mixed population strolling on the path make me feel that I am having the ultimate Jerusalem experience.

However, I have never gone down from the ridge into Arab neighborhood of Silwan in the valley. As long as I could still walk on the promenade and enjoy the view, I would not feel much of a loss. The Geneva Plan envisions an arrangement in which this would be possible. Luckily for me, the promenade would be on the Israeli side of the border, and the views would be carefully preserved. In a less ideal arrangement, the promenade might be taken over by a security fence and my view marred by barbed wire. My ability to feel the “Jerusalemness” that I love would depend heavily on the details of the agreement.

Would I feel less safe living on the border? Most likely. It’s one thing to theorize about how land is an irrelevant security asset in the age of surface-to-surface missiles. It’s quite another to live not only within missile range of the enemy, but within mortar range and sniper range. If war broke out, I might go stay with relatives, even at the risk of incurring the contempt of newscasters who would bemoan the weak wills of Jerusalemites.

The division of Jerusalem is still only an idea, but I am still ready to speak out for it, even in my backyard.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

About Me: A Jerusalem Artichoke is Neither a Jerusalemite Nor an Artichoke

I am in fact a Jerusalemite, and have been one for the last five years (excluding a small blip in which I lived near Tel Aviv). I live in the nominally mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor, about 50 yards away from the pre-1967 no-man’s land between Israel and Jordan. Under certain peace plans, this line would become the border between Israel and Palestine.

Before that, I lived and worked in Washington, DC. I have worked both in the military-industrial complex, as a policy analyst at the Pentagon, and in the peace biz, as a project manager and fundraiser for international and Israeli conflict resolution organizations.

I am a wife and mother. My husband grew up in Israel and served in an anti-terrorist and bomb-disposal unit in the police. My sweet, smiling baby son will probably do his compulsory army service 17 years from now.

Like a Jerusalem artichoke, I don’t quite fit any of my labels. Each label does, however, contribute to my worldview. Namely, I believe that:
  • A two-state solution is the only feasible outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Most people on both sides want peace, but they don’t want the peace that is being offered.
  • People-to-people contacts are necessary to secure a peace agreement, but they are not sufficient in the absence of official agreements between governments.
  • It’s natural for countries to want to pursue nuclear weapons. It is also natural for their enemies to want to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons. International agreements, rigorously enforced, are the best way to prevent proliferation.
  • I don’t always live up to my own ideals. As an Israeli-American, I’m glad that those two countries have nukes. As a resident of Abu Tor, I think I’ll be OK with a border in my back yard (see my next post), but I’m not sure. I’ll be very sad if Israel has to give up the majestic, protective Golan Heights. I know there is a great deal of injustice just outside my door, but I concentrate on what I can do at my day job, and then I go home and tickle the baby, watch House with my husband, or bake Dutch Process Cocoa Cookies or Rosemary-Orange Shortbread Cookies.
In this blog, I'll offer my opinion from my perch in Jerusalem. My opinion is, I believe, an informed one--informed not just by my years of schooling and my professional experience but by the knowledge that the future of Jerusalem is my future. I'll talk about the politics and the policy but will also toss in other aspects of life here, including the religious and educational landscape, and the occasional recipe.