Sunday, September 25, 2011


I was a boy when modern Israel declared itself an independent nation. I had seen newsreels of what our GIs found when they entered the concentration camps, and heard stories from returning GIs in the neighborhood that were passed down to us little kids through older siblings until I'm sure what we ended up with were distortions of whatever the original anecdotes were.

But in both instances what we saw and heard was horrible. It took a while for that to sink in in terms of the ethnic biases of the neighborhood. The main trouble was always between the "Italians" (which stood for both immigrants and their Italian-American offspring whether still little or grown) and the "Irish" (ditto for us).

The other ethnicities in the neighborhood were too few to rally much opposition. They either stayed out of it or sided with one of us as sort of honorary Italians or Irish. Those in the neighborhood who were Jewish or "Negro"—as they said then—got more or less a pass because they were so obviously "other" and yet as familiar in many ways as our own. [PS: And there certainly was a lot of anti-Semitism and racism in attitudes and talk, but there also was a lot of anti-Italianism and anti-Irishism etc. in similar ways depending on who was expressing the attitude.]

To connect our own Jewish friends with what happened under the Nazis didn't seem to happen until we were older, at least for me. By then THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and other books and movies (like GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT and EXODUS et. al.) had made the Jewish cause seem noble and righteous and worth fighting for, and it overwhelmed most WWII history, at least as it was expressed in the culture in ways that elevated being Jewish and the state of Israel to not just a kind of Gandhi-esque purity of purpose, but also a kind of David (as in David and Goliath) underdog warrior iconic stature.

I was aware that the homes and property of many Arab Palestinians had been confiscated, taken as kind of the spoils of war, but it somehow seemed justified for many years. Justified by the attacks on Israel by its Arab neighbors, or by what the Nazis had done, or by what it seemed the whole world had done at what [another one of those strange post-brain-op typos, I obviously meant "one"] time or another to Jews.

And the continued attacks on Israeli citizens continued to justify much of Israeli policies and actions and support for them...until Rabin was assassinated by a rightwing fundamentalist Jewish assassin and Sharon deliberately provoked the second Intifada by going into the Muslim holy site at the Mount and allowed the rightwing settlers to take over more and more Palestinian land which continued under every Israeli leader since, even when gestures were made to remove some settlers and settlements, more were allowed to go up.

And more recently the taking over of properties in East Jerusalem that have been in Arab families for generations and turning them over to urban Jewish settlers and developers. I have no sympathy for the Palestinian extremists, but also no sympathy for Israeli ones. But Abbas established a functioning West Bank that controlled extremism and showed a willingness to negotiate with Israel with only one precondition, that Israel stop taking Palestinian land by allowing its settlers to, settlers who mostly believe that Palestine should never be a separate state but instead should be incorporated into a greater Israel in which Arabs remain second-class citizens or leave.

It's very dangerous for politicians to speak about this without constantly referring to the present Israeli political perspective as the only one, even though there are as many Israelis against the settler policy as there are for it probably. But as in our own Congress at the moment, a vocal and influential rightwing minority has outsized influence and control of the Israeli political establishment and therefore its policies.

Abbas made a smart move, I think, in asking for UN recognition for Palestine, despite all the talking heads on TV taking a contrary view, because it forces Netanyahu's hand. He would lay it on Obama, a man he treated dismissively until this moment, by setting a trap for the president if he doesn't veto the request of the Palestinians. But no matter how bad Israel has been treated by its neighbors, it's hard to read stories about German and other European Jewish descendants of parents and grandparents who had homes and property confiscated by the Nazis and now want compensation, and not think of the parallel (at least in terms of homes and property) situation with Israel and many of its original Palestinian inhabitants and in more recent times on the West Bank.

Once again I should probably not post so late before going to bed because I'm not being as clear as my thoughts seemed to be when I sat down to write this, and I know I will get flack from even some friends. Especially since the media, I noticed, almost never mentions that Abbas has been willing to sit down and negotiate if a halt is made to new settlements, which doesn't seem like too much to ask for the chance of finally ending some of the volatility in the relationship between the Palestinians and Israelis.

In the past, Israel has often turned down the chance to negotiate with the most reasonable of the Arab Palestinians because of the more extremist ones [and vice versa, of course, the Palestinian leaders have missed many opportunities as well], but that has usually ended up creating even more extremists ones, the exact opposite of what Israeli leaders say they intend. Yes Hammas are bad guys, but their Gaza constituents aren't too happy with them either now that they see what Abbas has helped create in the West Bank. So to treat Abbas and his government like some sort of feudal vassal state [or easily humiliated defeated enemy] rather than an equal partner is, I believe, only creating more future problems.

[PS: I added a few bracketed clarifications, I hope, this morning, and this caveat that I know this issue is much more complicated than a single blog post can address, but what has now happened at the UN with Abbas asking for recognition of Palestine is the issue I'm addressing and what I mention is relevant to the discussion, I believe.]


JIm said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
harryn said...

Michael -
I admire your courage to create a post that addresses these concerns and I believe it represents the facts clearly. If not, I would like to be made aware of other credible opinions.
Additionally, because the middle east and the policies adapted by their governments in such a volatile region impacts world politics, economics, and alliances, it's a problem that requires real debate, conversation, and solution.
Too often sensitivities of the past over-shadow a rational dialogue about present circumstances. We've seen it with the Italians, Irish, Catholics, Protestants, and African Americans, et al.
Like the old adage states: "Nothing changes if nothing changes" -and this dilemma has been making headlines my entire life.
I've often found that unwillingness to compromise veils less than honorable intentions.
In today's world it is difficult for me to understand how satisfactory negotiations can't be achieved - especially since there is so much at stake.
Unless of course, the status quo is acceptable by some standards.

Lally said...

Thanks for the support and your clarity Paul.

tpw said...

Dear M:
I think there's always been a feeling of shared interest with Israel in this country; I think Americans were also impressed by Israel's Spartan tendencies and its awesome military effectiveness. Like most Americans, I want to see Israel survive and thrive. Denying Israel's right to exist (a common policy in the Arab world) or firing rockets at Israeli territory (as Hamas has a habit of doing) are outrageous and objectionable. But also objectionable is Israel's clear indifference to a peace settlement with the Palestinians, along with its seeming indifference to the suffering and deprivation endured by ordinary Palestinians. We seem to be at a point in this country where criticism of the oppressive and bellicose policies of rightwing Israeli administrations is implicitly regarded as somehow anti-Semitic. That's got to change.

Lally said...

tpw well said. I've actually been called anti-Semitic in recent years when I bring up the seemingly self-defeating policies of the current Israeli government. It's hard to get past the emotional elements, as we know with the Irish-Brit debacle over the Northern counties in Ireland in the past. But at some point reason has to triumph, let's hope.

Robert G. Zuckerman said...

My Mom is what you'd call an ultra-Reform Jew - non-observant, not religious. My Dad, of blessed memory, was Orthodox. Somehow, they got together, had me, then split. My Mom remarried, as did my Dad. He married a religious woman. I didn't see my birth Dad until i was nearly sixteen. As my Mom and Step Dad were divorcing, I sought out my Father and went to live with him. I wanted to give it a try. I committed to living in the Orthodox community for my time there. Was tutored in reading Hebrew. Went to an all boys Orthodox high school. Observed Shabbos (Sabbath). There was something rich and beautiful about the traditions and devoutness. At the same time, I had trouble with what I felt to be hypocrisy of people who called themselves "the chosen people" and were so close to G-d, using the term "Schvartza" and looking down on anyone, including non-religious Jews, who wasn't one of their own. I honor where I came from and my ancestry, but in my life I have come to define my Judaism not by any degree of religious observance, but by being a good person, a good human being.

Robert G. Zuckerman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lally said...

Wow, I didn't know some of that part of your story Robert. What a fascinating life you've had, like so many we know. It probably helps explain your usually accepting and gentle nature as well, learning to bridge different worlds and seeing through the hypocrisy in them. The only comparable thing in my family, or clan, was an aunt who lived next door married to my father's youngest brother—she was Protestant, back when we were taught by the priests and nuns that if we put one foot in a Protestant church we'd be doomed to an eternity in hell! She took no guff but was a lot of fun and was the most caring of the clan in many ways, most "Christian" in that ideal way, and taught me that old hatreds and prejudices often do not hold up in the light of actual experience.

Robert G. Zuckerman said...

Michael reminds of several years back when two guys came to install or fix the cable tv in my apartment. They were Hispanic. We got to talking about life and I laid a couple of my favorite quotes on them and one of them asked me "Are you Christian?" and I said that I'm not religious but I support and take care of my family and help people out, speak with and empower students, etc. and he said "Yes, you're Christian."

harryn said...

Once again I'm surprised by the lack of discussion on the issue - as though everyone, except the Palestinians and the Israeli's are qualified to discuss issues so many of us are invested in ...

Robert G. Zuckerman said...

What we don't hear about on the news is how Palestinian and Israeli children go to summer camp together and don't want to part at the end, or about how an Israeli man donated an organ to a Palestinian woman in need...and I'm sure there are so many more stories like this - that need to be told, shouted, repeated.