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.