What happened to Ben-Gurion’s Oasis in the Desert?

After reading Mark Levine’s response to Jon Voigt’s open letter, I had to write about why many people like think as Jon Voigt does, and how political trends in Israel make his views rather quaint.

Sunset in the Negev
Sunset in the Negev

A desert in bloom

There is a lot to admire in the words, and many of the deeds, of Israeli leaders in the early years. Mapai/Labor were in charge and the kibbutz movement was ascendant. Ben-Gurion’s oft-quoted dream of making the “Negev desert bloom” is what people are thinking of when they see Israel as a project to create an oasis in the desert. The residual goodwill from that period are part of the reason an earlier generation sees the whole period with rose colored glasses and that is where Voigt is coming from (and Woody Allen as well).

Ben-Gurion’s powerful image of the desert oasis suggested a barren, sparsely populated land. This is part of the reason so many people still believe that all of Palestine was populated by nomadic tribes prior to 1948. This may have been true about the Negev Bedouin, but even they alone were over a 100,000 in 1948. In comparison, the entire Jewish population in then Palestine was around 600,000.

Of course, the West Bank is not the Negev, and neither was much of the coast with its heavily populated Palestinian villages and towns. They were both parts of a thriving Mediterranean culture that had traded with and influenced the entire area for millenia. In Palestine, there was a mixed community of Muslims and Christians, along with some Jews who had lived side by side for centuries. In 1948, that community was torn asunder in what they call the Nakba. Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by the Jewish militia, or fled in fear. Many of their villages were razed to the ground. It was this that moved Golda Meir to say, after a visit to Arab Haifa in 1948:

It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]‘.

To come back to the desert though. The Negev Bedouin had a way of life which deserves respect. They had lived and survived on that unforgiving land for centuries. After 1948, they were forced into settlements, and thousands expelled into Jordan or Egypt. This has diminished their culture (not to mention dispossessed them of their lands). So even that ostensibly inoffensive project is more questionable than many claim. In some ways, the treatment of the Bedouin parallels our own country’s treatment of the Native American tribes living on the Great Plains.

“I have heard you intend to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don’t want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when we settle down we grow pale and die. A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.” — Satanta, Kiowa Chief 

A one-sided Partition

Palestine_Map_2007_(Settlements)In 1948, the Allied Powers attempted to atone for their inability to prevent the holocaust and their own abject failure to take in Jewish refugees during WW-2. They did this by handing over Palestinian lands via the UN to the Jewish population of Palestine. Land that was not theirs to give.

No Western country had accepted Jewish refugees in large numbers prior to and even during the war. Hitler had said in 1938 that he would aid emigration of Jews to other countries. None except the Dominican Republic took him up on the offer and a potential opportunity was lost. With a cynic’s glasses, the partition of Palestine and support for Zionism can be seen as an attempt by the Allied powers to avoid dealing with vast numbers of refugees and survivors by placing them in Palestine.

Prior to the 1948 partition, the Jewish population owned 6% to 9% of the total arable land and formed about 30% of the total population of Palestine. The partition plan granted over 50% of Palestine to a Jewish state. The Jewish leadership accepted the proposal, after all it was a lot more than they had in hand. The far-right, under Menachem Begin did not. Begin said:

The partition of the Homeland is illegal. It will never be recognized. The signature by institutions and individuals of the partition agreement is invalid. It will not bind the Jewish people. Jerusalem was and will forever be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever.

Palestinians did not accept the partition plan. They put forward two reasons. The first was their right to self-determination and a desire to set up their own institutions after the British mandate over Palestine ended. They did not believe their right to self-determination could be surrendered to the UN and Allied Powers. The second is rather clear, a large portion of their land was being given away to the Jewish state. Palestinians Christians and Muslims owned over 90% of the land, now they would end up with less than half. Why would any people acquiesce to such terms except under threat of force? That threat, and actual force was soon deployed by the nascent Israeli Defense Forces and other Jewish militia. The Palestinians had not formed militia and were quickly overrun.

Even Ben-Gurion dreamed of Jewish dominion over all of Palestine. He’s quoted as saying:

“A partial Jewish State is not the end, but only the beginning. … I am certain that we well not be prevented from settling in the other parts of the country, either by mutual agreements with our Arab neighbors or by some other means..”

And of his differences with the far-right:

“The debate has not been for or against the indivisibility of Eretz Israel. No Zionist can forgo the smallest portion of Eretz Israel. The Debate was over which of two routes would lead quicker to the common goal.”

As Muslim and Christian Palestinians were 70% of Palestine’s population, any government in undivided Palestine would have led to a state with a significant Jewish minority. That could be remedied with an influx of Jewish refugees, but a majority Palestinian state was unlikely to accept vast numbers of Jewish refugees. The aftermath of WW-2 was a rather dangerous time. The Iron curtain began to descend and the Ottoman and British empires disintegrated definitively. In the Middle-East, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel itself coveted Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine.

It is difficult to fault the Jewish survivors of the holocaust for thinking true security for the Jewish people would come only once they had a land of their own. Lest we forget, even the US was not a particularly welcoming environment for Jewish communities and individuals in the 1940s. Jews in the US endured discrimination into the 80s and in some places that is true even today1.

Bloody Beginnings

The Irgun militia, led by Menachim Begin, was responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel which killed 91, including 28 British citizens2. They were labelled a terrorist organization by Great Britian and the Jewish Authority in Palestine. The Irgun were also responsible for the massacre of perhaps 300 Palestinians in Deir Yassin, an episode that spread panic throughout the Palestinian population. In comparison, there were just over 800 fatalities from Palestinian suicide bombings in the 1990s and 2000s. Though the broader Israeli militia condemned the massacres,  they did not hesitate to take advantage of the panic, and created quite a bit of it on their own by distributing printed warnings, expelling Palestinian Muslims and Christians, killing many individuals and razing numerous homes. Palestinian homes were reassigned to Jewish residents.

The nascent Israeli state did handle the most radical elements of the far-right with firmness. When push came to shove, Ben-Gurion had the IDF fire on Begin’s Irgun militia. Admittedly, this  was to keep them from landing a ship full of heavy armaments, and to prevent them from creating an “army within an army”. Throughout the rest of his life, Ben-Gurion did his utmost to marginalize Begin and his radicalism.

Even if you disagree with their methods and ends, what the first generation of (somewhat secular and left-leaning) Israeli leaders were able to achieve is truly astounding. From a population that had been persecuted across the length and breadth of Europe and had lost six million of their number to Nazi murder, they built a nation3. We may fault them for sowing and then taking advantage of panic among the Palestinian population. We may also admit they had no just claim to the Palestinian lands they took by force and decree, but we must recognize the achievement and give a little credence to their rationale.

Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu are at the opposite political spectrum from David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir or Chaim Weizmann and the early Israeli leadership in the Mapai/Labor party. The party Begin founded, Likud, is far-right, whereas the original leadership were all left of center with backgrounds in the Labor movement. They were not, however, the left. The left blamed Mapai/Labor for rejecting the idea of a single Parliament for all of mandate Palestine with equal rights for everyone.

A Change of Guard

Shrinking PalestineThe 1977 election was a dramatic shift right-ward for Israel which had till then been governed by a string of Labor-allied parties. Likud came to power in 1977, with Begin as Prime Minister. The same Begin who had been named a terrorist by Israel 30 years earlier.

Likud’s charter claims the Jordan river as the permanent eastern border of Israel. Since the West Bank is under occupation, it is also the de-facto border. Likud’s party platform in 1999 had this to say about a two-state solution:

“The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river. The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.”

This statement advocates creating Palestinian “Bantustans” along the lines of those in apartheid-era South Africa. It envisages separate but unequal laws like those in the pre-Civil Rights American South. And this policy is the reality on the ground today.

Palestinians live within borders demarcated by Israel. Their movement in and out of the country, between their own towns and between Gaza and the West Bank is controlled by the Israeli military who impose arbitrary rules. Palestinians in the West Bank live out their lives in a militarized police state, subject to arrest at any time without charge, surrounded by ever-expanding Jewish settlements built on their land. In Gaza, they live on a walled-in reservation. Everything and everyone  going in or out passes through the border crossings that Israel controls (unless they use tunnels).

The “solution” envisaged in Likud’s party platform is the Palestinian condition today. No wonder Likud has no interest in peace, only “quiet” that maintains the status quo.

Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

By 1977, Israel had held the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza for 10 years. Settlement building had begun almost immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967. The same pattern established in 1948 was repeated. Palestinians who fled the fighting were not permitted to return and numerous villages and homes were razed.

Since 1967, Israel has effectively controlled Gaza, the West Bank and all aspects of Palestinian lives while paying lip-service to the “two state peace process”. As Mark Levine points out, the war of ’67 began with a “pre-emptive” attack by Israel and ended with Israel holding the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. When Begin came to power, he initiated a policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, particularly those with historic Biblical significance. That meant the West Bank. Or Judea and Samaria as the religious-minded base would call it. The settlements and the settler movement have continued to play an enormous role in Israeli policy ever since. They are in complete violation of international law, and official US policy.

Large numbers of ordinary Israelis recognized their government had moved in a direction they did not entirely approve of. Hundreds of thousands protested in Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war. The This war was initiated by Menachem Begin and created lasting instability for the region and for Israel. The war is remembered for the intense Israeli bombing of Beirut which left many thousands of civilians dead (Reagan called it “a holocaust”). It is also justly remembered for the massacre at Sabra/Shatilla,  in which perhaps as many as 3,000 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli-allied Lebanese Christian militia while Ariel Sharon’s forces guarded the exits to their refugee camp.

An Israeli investigation found Sharon personally responsible for the massacre at Sabra/Shatila and he was forced to resign his post of Defense Minister. It’s remarkable that Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister, less than 20 years later. But Begin had set the precedent as had Yitzhak Shamir (who had been part of another rogue militia, the Stern Gang or Lehi). By the time Ariel Sharon ran for high office, much of Israel’s electorate was willing to ignore the odd massacre of Palestinians in a candidate’s past. When we hear about how much Israeli blood Palestinian leaders may have on their hands, we should perhaps remember this.

The ’82 Lebanese war should also be remembered for another event. The birth of Hezbollah. Hezbollah didn’t exist till after Sabra/Shatilla, they were formed by the same motivation that led to the creation of the IDF. Lebanese Shia concluded that no one else would protect them.

Begin had always opposed the division of Palestine. He wanted an undivided Israel, a view that is shared by the far-right religious messianic camp within the Israeli population. Likud’s platform since the 90s has opposed a two state solution unless Palestinians defer security and other matters to Israel. You would not be wrong if you said Likud is committed to the destruction of an independent Palestine. Likud’s platform is a continuation of Begin’s dream of an undivided Israel from the Jordan to the sea, slightly modified to accommodate the inconvenient presence of 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by placing them in walled enclaves that are tightly controlled by Israel.

Likud’s preferred solution would be to have these 4.5 million Palestinians removed from Israel, but failing that their aim is that Palestinians live in as small an area as possible, hemmed in by Jewish settlements. If you think this is preposterous, perhaps you should take a look at statements made by senior members of the Likud leadership. When we look at actual Israeli actions and their results, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion. So both in word and deed, successive Likud governments have been working to implement this plan every year they have held the reins of the Israeli state and the fate of the Palestinians in their hands.

Gaza in 2014 (or 2008, 2009, 2012)

The Likud government’s views towards Palestinians, their rights and their lives has been painfully apparent during the ongoing bombing of Gaza. Three civilians have been killed by rockets in Israel (one of them was Thai). Meanwhile over 2,100 have perished in Gaza as of mid-August.  Over 400 of the 2,100 were children, including babies a few weeks or months old. Estimates suggest maybe 200 or 400 of those killed may have been fighting for Hamas.

Under Likud leadership, the Israeli Defense Forces have bombed numerous homes, killing entire families, at least 200 children have died in their homes as a direct result of these bombings.

In some of these instances, IDF spokespeople have said they deliberately targeted a home due to the presence of a Hamas member. This was the case with a bombing that killed 6 members of the extended family of Henk Zanoli, a Dutch recipient of the “Righteous among the Nations” award for sheltering a Jewish boy from the Nazis. Mr. Zanoli returned the award after learning of the bombing.  A visitor to their home on that day is said to have been a Hamas fighter. There are other incidents, a militant’s home was bombed killing him and his two sons (12 and 15 yrs old), 25 members of an extended family killed in an bombing to assassinate one Hamas member visiting the home, a failed assassination attempt against the head of Hamas’ military wing that left his 7-month old son, his wife, a middle-aged woman and her two teenage boys dead.  There are many, many other such incidents.

Israeli spokespersons claim these are legitimate targets suggesting “it’s just like Osama Bin Laden“. It bears remembering that in the strike against Bin-Laden, his children and wives were left alive, even though two of his wives were shielding him (one of them was shot in the leg).

The IDF’s attacks are carried out using F-16s and missiles supplied by the US. Bombing the homes of combatants is illegal under the laws of war, especially when they are not engaged in combat and civilians are present. There is a good reason. If we apply that logic consistently, then every Israeli soldier or reservist’s home is a legitimate target at any time. Any workplace or public space an Israeli soldier or reservist is present in would be a legitimate target.

Apart from bombing homes with families inside, the IDF have bombed UN facilities designated as shelters and used artillery to shell entire areas of towns in Gaza. All of which contravenes Israel’s legal obligations, violates treaties it is party to, and opens it up to prosecution for war crimes.

This is being done to a people the state of Israel has a responsibility towards as an occupying power. A people who are living under the control of the Israeli state, in effective apartheid.

The price for land in the West Bank

West Bank Settlements

The West Bank has not been bombed, but the 47 year old occupation has other forms there that are no less harmful. Israel maintains two sets of laws in the West Bank, one that governs Israeli residents and one that governs Palestinians. In almost all cases, Israelis are privileged. We can make a comparison with the Jim Crow era in the American south. Palestinians are discriminated against in much the same way as African-Americans were. Rules are unevenly applied to satisfy the far-right’s demands for land. Palestinian legal and political institutions have no control over important civil and criminal matters.

All this is done in the service of acquiring and retaining Palestinian land. How do we know this, we can look at Israel’s actions:

  1. 27,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities do not grant construction permits to Palestinians.
  2. Palestinian families have routinely been evicted from their homes in Arab quarters of Jerusalem.  In some cases, it is claimed that the homes they occupy had Jewish owners who fled East Jerusalem after 1948.  Tellingly, there are many Israeli Jews living in East Jerusalem homes and on land that Arabs similarly fled in 1948 and 1967. None of them have ever been evicted in favor of the Arab owners.
  3. Israel provides its Jewish citizens with generous subsidies to move to the West Bank and has never halted or demolished an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank, even when they violate its own laws. Palestinians objecting to illegal construction on their lands are routinely arrested.
  4. Numerous unarmed Palestinian civilians have been shot and killed by IDF soldiers, many while protesting peacefully, including two 17 year olds in June. Investigations are often opened, and then closed quietly when the uproar has died down without any action4.
  5. Settlement sponsors have repeatedly forged documents and manipulated land records. None of them are ever prosecuted.
  6. Israeli troops will defend any illegal Jewish settlement, even if it is a couple of mobile trailers placed on Palestinian lands in the middle of the night.
  7. Finally, Israel’s government never misses an opportunity to demolish the home of a Palestinian criminal. But in the 47 years of occupation, and as many years of violence by settlers and Israeli soldiers, no Israeli home has been demolished, not even those of notorious terrorists like Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinians at prayer in 19945.

This list in itself is only scraping the surface of the ways in which the Israeli bureaucracy is being consistently used to dispossess Palestinians in the West Bank.

At first blush, Likud’s plans sounds deviously clever, a slow game of attrition to gain as much land as possible in an undivided Israel. You could even say it is what Ben-Gurion may have had at the back of his mind, and perhaps what every Zionist who landed in Palestine dreamed of.

There is actually no deep strategic thinking behind this. These are only short-sighted tactics, they omit the broader strategic picture and fail to account for the impact it has on Israel itself. The fact is that Palestinians are not going to leave their land willingly, even in fear. They’ve learned the lesson of the Nakba. What 40,000 lightly armed militia managed to do in 1948 could not be done by ten times that number of heavily armed soldiers.

It has an even worse impact on Israel itself.  In the final reckoning, colonization has always corrupted colonizers and that sadly is happening to Israel. The license given to settlers to trample on even the limited rights of Palestinians is destroying the rule of law in Israel. This is why you see things like protests at Jewish-Muslim weddings, chants of “death to Arabs” at demonstrations, and increasingly violence against Arab citizens and residents within Israel.

The far-right’s thirst for land in the West Bank has had a toxic effect on Israeli civil society.

Israeli tactics meant to  claim as much of the West Bank and Gaza as possible are a poisoned chalice. They are destroying Israeli democracy and will eventually result in Israel being branded a pariah state along the lines of apartheid South Africa. Quite apart from this consequence, the Israeli state’s policies towards the Palestinians are deeply unjust and in most cases illegal under International laws of occupation and treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

And what is gained from all this? The West Bank? Appeasement of the far right base which has deeply held religious view on the status of the West Bank, what they would call Judea and Samaria? Annexing the West Bank and Gaza without granting Palestinians equal rights would not be the action of a democratic nation that wishes to achieve true security.  True security for Israel can only come from a just peace with the Palestinians and subsequently with the countries around Israel-Palestine.

It only makes sense if Likud were not interested in maintaining a democratic state, at least in the manner we are accustomed. Incorporating the 3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank is delicately referred to as a “demographic problem” (and this does not begin to tackle the rights of the Palestinians who fled to Jordan or other countries and wish to return). If Israel were to grant Palestinians equal rights, the Jewish population would find itself holding a razor thin majority in a few years. If Gaza were annexed, the Jewish population would be a minority in short order.

It is also possible Likud does not wish to attain true security. You will often hear Israeli spokespeople talk about how the 1948 or 1967 borders are indefensible. The truth is, Israel will never have strategic depth in the manner that the US and Russia have. The river Jordan is 50 miles from Tel Aviv. Those 50 miles do not contain nearly as many defensive positions or mountain ranges to fall back on as there are between Moscow and Vladivostok or DC and Omaha.

The alternative is the status-quo. Israel maintains the fiction that the West Bank and Gaza are not part of Israel and remain independent. But neither territory has control of its borders and Israel limits the free movement of people and goods under security pretexts. Likud continues to permit more Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This scenario does not end well for the Israeli people either.

The Palestinians will continue to chafe against the unjust restrictions. As we are seeing already, the label of apartheid will be applied more often to Israeli policy. In the US, we will likely come to the realization that Likud’s policies are not unlike South African apartheid, or our own history of Jim Crow legislation. Eventually this will lead to a loss of support and sanctions.

Ben-Gurion’s dream

Needless to say, Benjamin Netanyahu is no David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir. And Ben-Gurion himself is not the mythical, peace-loving avuncular figure who looms large in the imagination of many. Ben-Gurion is justly remembered for stressing military action and his single-minded pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Recall that he said the partition of Palestine was just the beginning, a foot hold, and that Jews would eventually settle all of Palestine.

“…will not be prevented from settling in the other parts of the country, either by mutual agreements with our Arab neighbors or by some other means..”

It’s pretty clear that “other means” were used. Israel has fought four wars of aggression, most for territory. 1948 (conquered 70% of Palestine,  as opposed to 50% in the partition plan and under 10% held previously), 1957 (conquered Sinai and the Suez Canal with British and French forces), 1967 (a sneak attack/pre-emptive strike to conquer the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights).  The fourth war, the Lebanese war of 1982 was distinguished by the brutality of Israeli forces and their allies in both the bombings of Beirut and the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla6. Massacres of hundreds of civilians had been committed by the IDF in 1957 as well.

This history, the shift rightwards in Israeli politics and uninterrupted settlement building in the West Bank have gravely compromised any hope for a two state solution. No reasonable person can hope that Likud under its current leadership will work to achieve a just peace. How can then, when the coalition can’t or won’t remove a single mobile trailer illegally placed on a Palestinian farmer’s land under cover of night in the West Bank?

To outside observers, it increasingly looks like the Israeli state has lost control of the settler movement. The rule of law in the West Bank is virtually non-existent. In a sense, this was inevitable given the system of separate laws for Palestinians and Israelis (much like Jim Crow in the US south) and the fact that Israeli soldiers (often young conscripts) are enforcing these unequal laws.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank have become a law unto themselves. Their sympathizers in Israel’s government, bureaucratic and security apparatus assist them in circumventing Israel’s own laws and Israel’s obligations under international treaties. When an incident of settler violence or land-theft is deemed too blatant, an investigation is launched. Years later, it is silently closed without action.

IDF operating procedures in both Gaza and the West Bank  are increasingly running counter to the laws governing war and occupation. Israeli soldiers routinely shoot at unarmed civilians protesters, or civilians approaching their positions. Numerous investigations are opened, and then silently closed years later. Soldiers who force a 9 year old Palestinian boy, at gun-point, to open packages suspected of containing bombs are given suspended sentences and demoted a rank.

A democracy without the rule of law and protection for all humans under its control is just mob-rule. Impunity for violence against Palestinians, impunity for the theft of their lands, and state sponsored actions to destroy their property are an everyday occurrence. The consistent abrogation of Palestinian’s human rights has turned Israeli democracy into a form of mob-rule.

In Israel, the result is that large segments of Israeli society have de-humanized Palestinians. Internationally, there is increasing skepticism that the Israeli state’s goals are not entirely as presented. This is why you see literally thousands of posts on social media calling for the entire destruction of Gaza and its population. This is why the websites of human rights organizations have been attacked during the crisis, and the same organizations are denied access to Gaza. It is why the attitude of ordinary Israelis towards Palestinians in their midst has become coarser and coarser throughout the occupation.

Jim Crow on the Jordan

There are many affinities between the USA and Israel. In one sense, there is a parallel between the story of their founding. In each case, a determined group of founders escape religious persecution in Europe to found a nation. In both cases there is a myth that the land was lightly peopled when the truth cannot be more different. Each nation has been belligerent and wrested lands from neighbors using settlements and the security of its citizens as a pretext (the US from Mexico mostly). Both nations have persecuted the native population and attempted to place them in reservations and restrict their movements. Both nations imposed an unequal, discriminatory laws on a segment of their population.

In the end though, the discordance between the American idea that “all men are created equal”, and the reality of slavery became too much to bear and the Civil War came. When a 100 years after the Civil War, it was clear that the laws of the land were still not being applied equally to all, the just force of the Civil Rights movement helped correct that.

Israel and Israelis are at a similar cross-roads. If their nation is to stay true to the ideals of its founding, the ideals of the Jewish faith and the universal rights of humans, then Palestinians must have equal rights and the two communities must learn to live together in peace. There are many who recognize this and it is they we must support, not the voices that feed fear and hate.

 Footnotes:

 

1. This is part of the reason the Civil Rights movement resonated so strongly with the Jewish community. They had personal experience with discrimination, in both America and Europe. A strong commitment to social justice on the Jewish left was a significant factor as well.

2. Incidentally, Begin claimed that British authorities had been warned of the bombing ahead of time via a phone call. This is reminiscent of the current Israeli claims that phone calls to individuals legitimize later bombings of their homes.

3. Jewish communities in the rest of the Arab world migrated en-masse to Israel in large numbers after 1948. Many undoubtedly came to Israel due to fears similar to those that drove the Palestinians. But most had not been affected by Nazi horrors in the same way that European Jews were, and some went to Israel for the incentives offered to move.

4. Palestinians cannot legally own private firearms whereas Jewish settlers do. There have been numerous cases of Jewish settlers shooting unarmed Palestinians.

5. Two homes were demolished by the Israeli Army in August, they belonged to men suspected of participating in the murders of Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, the three teenagers kidnapped and shot dead in the West Bank in June. There is no word on whether the Israeli Army will also demolish the homes of the Israelis suspected of kidnapping 14-year old Mohammed Khdeir, bludgeoned him, poured gasoline over him and set him alight while alive.

6. Osama Bin-Laden said the images of dead women and children from the bombing of Beirut had convinced many of his compatriots that attacks on Western civilians were justified.

 

Image Attribution

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

How Dr. Seuss taught me everything I need to know about Ferguson, Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

 

Tonight, I was putting my daughter to bed and reading her a book. I happened to pick up Horton Hears a Who! and it fit the news I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the persecution and murder of minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the bombing of homes and towns in Gaza that caused the deaths of four hundred and thirty children and at least a thousand adult civilians.

There’s no way to improve his words, so I’ll just turn it over to Dr. Seuss.

“I’ve never heard tell

Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.

So you know what I think?… Why I think that there must

Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!

Some sort of a creature of very small size,

Too small to be seen by an elephant’s eye

some poor little person who’s shaking with fear

That he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer!

I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all,

A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

 

I can’t let my very small persons get drowned!

I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.

“Should I put this speck down?…” Horton though with alarm.

“If I do, these small persons may come to great harm.

I can’t put it down. And I won’t! After all

A person’s a person. No matter how small.”

 

“… a family, for all that we know!

A family with children just starting to grow.

So, please,” Horton said, “as a favor to me,

Try not to disturb them. Just please let them be.”

 

All that late afternoon and far into the night

That black-bottomed bird flapped his wings in fast flight,

While Horton chased after, with groans, over stones

That tattered his toenails and battered his bones,

And begged, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who

Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!”

 

They beat him! They mauled him! They started to haul

Him into the cage! But he managed to call

To the mayor: “Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die

If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now and TRY!”

 

And that Yopp…

That one small, extra Yopp put it over!

Finally at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? …

They proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

 

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who! after a visit to post-war Japan that changed his mind on how the US should treat Japanese reconstruction.

I wish all our kids aspire to be Hortons when they get big and the lad who said Yopp while they are little.

Henk Zanoli 91, helped save a 12 year old child from the Nazis

Yad Vashem and the Israeli government gave him a “Righteous among the Nations” medal. And then Israeli forces went ahead and killed six members of his extended family in Gaza by bombing their home.

So he gave the medal back along with this heart-breaking letter explaining his reasons. He concludes by saying:

If your state would be willing and able to transform itself along the lines of that set out above and there would still be an interest at that time in granting an honor to my family for the actions of my mother during the second world war, be sure to contact me or my descendants.

For most, this would be the appropriate moment to reflect on whether Netanyahu and Likud are alienating Israel’s best friends. But that must be because you don’t have the mindset of our friends on the right and you’re not with us on everything, so you must be against us.

This is how various newspapers are covering the story:

The Economist does a really good job of summarizing the story:

HENK ZANOLI (pictured) is a 91-year-old retired Dutch lawyer whose personal history encapsulates the reasons why the Netherlands and Israel have had such friendly relations since the foundation of the Jewish state in the wake of the second world war. Mr Zanoli’s family was, as the Dutch put it, “right in the war”—i.e. members of the resistance. In 1943, Mr Zanoli escorted an 11-year-old Jewish boy from Amsterdam, Elchanan Pinto, back to the family home in the village of Eemnes, where he and his mother Johanna hid him for the rest of the war. (His father, Henk Senior, had already been sent to a concentration camp for his resistance activities; he would die at Mauthausen.) Mr Pinto subsequently emigrated to Israel. Three years ago, the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem awarded its “Righteous Among the Nations” medal, given to non-Jews who rescued Jews from the Nazis, to Mr Zanoli and (posthumously) his mother.

On August 11th, Haaretz’s Amira Hass reports, Mr Zanoli sent Yad Vashem its medal back. Mr Zanoli’s great-niece, Angelique Eijpe, is a Dutch diplomat, deputy head of the country’s mission in Oman, and her husband, Ismail Zi’adah, is a Palestinian economist who was born in Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp. On July 20, the Zi’adah family house in al-Bureij was hit by an Israeli bomb, killing six members of the extended family, including the family matriarch, three of her sons, and a 12-year-old grandson. In an elegant and sorrowful letter to Israel’s ambassador in The Hague, Mr Zanoli explained that he could not in good conscience keep the Israeli medal.

Even the ultra-right-wing Settler Movement newspaper Arutz Sheva can’t spin this. This the best they can manage:

Zanoli apparently buys into the misnomer that Israel’s actions in Gaza violated international law, claiming that the operation has “already resulted in serious accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

It has not been confirmed, however, whether the deaths Zanoli’s relatives spoke of actually happened – as Hamas in Gaza has been shown again and again to falsify deaths for the media in order to win the “PR war” against Israel.

Of course, if you’re on the American right, this isn’t good enough.

There’s no need to pause and self-reflect. No reason to worry along with Zeev Sternhell that there is a collapse of Israeli democracy, and that the current atmosphere might mirror that of 1940s’ France. No reason to worry for Israeli democracy when senior members of the government openly call for apartheid and ethnically cleansing Gaza and the West Bank among other “solutions”.

There is definitely no need to recognize that the killing of over 400 children in three weeks or a 50 year occupation which tramples on Palestinian rights every day in ways big and small, which grants settlers impunity for stealing land and closes inquiries without actions years after soldiers have shoot children in the back might perhaps be losing Israel fast friends. No, of course not, that would be straying off message.

Here’s what Breitbart has to say:

He could have spoken out against Israeli policies, and his status as a Righteous Gentile would have given his criticism unique weight in Israel. Instead, he chose to return the award he received for saving a Jewish child.

The implication is that doing so was a mistake–that Israel’s latest crimes, in effect, justify Nazi murder.

Of course Zanoli says no such thing, he says it burns his conscience to accept an honor from the Israeli state when “The great-great-grandchildren of my mother have lost their grandmother, three uncles, an aunt and a cousin at the hands of the Israeli army.”

But there’s no way the Frank Luntz patented talking points, beloved of Dick Cheney and Benjamin Netanyahu alike, would permit straightforward human decency to go unmolested. Since outright character assassination would probably play poorly, Breitbart tries another tack, maybe Zanoli is just senile, or just plain naive.

Along with the medal, Zanoli wrote a letter to the embassy, accusing the State of Israel of “murder,” apparently rejecting any notion that the deaths were accidental, or that Hamas might be to blame for starting the war and waging war from civilian areas. He included several other strange claims, such as that the founding of Israel meant “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians and that Israel was “racist” for building a state “exclusively for Jews.”

I guess all 430 children and the dozens of homes bombed while families were sleeping or having dinner are all “accidents”, sad, but excusable. It’s all Hamas’ fault though they’ve managed to kill a grand total of two Israelis civilians (and one Thai citizen) while the IDF has killed over a 1,000 civilians and over 400 children. It’s their fault, they made us drop the bombs on the kids, on families having dinner, we had no choice but to make a half million people homeless.

But why talk about consequences of actions when it’s so much more gratifying to speculate, so Breitbart continues:

One is tempted to speculate about the influences to which Zanoli may have been exposed: the relentless anti-Israel bias of European media, perhaps–or, just as likely, the steady pressure of younger, Muslim members of his extended family who could not tolerate that their relative had once accepted an Israeli honor.

Regardless, Zanoli is wrong on the facts, and the fact that he would use the Holocaust to add weight to a hateful attack that denies the legitimacy of Israeli statehood is an insult to the victims of the Nazis, as well as to those who are suffering the constant terror of the Nazis’ would-be successors. If Zanoli had taken the time to study the Hamas charter, he would have found a hatred and madness equal to that of the Third Reich he once resisted.

In fact, Zanoli’s act sheds light on the sad state of mind of Europe and the Arab world, which can even poison the soul of a man such as he.

The fact-free, outrage machine of American right-wing nuts would rather question the motives, intelligence and good will of a ninety year old who lost his father and brother-in-law to Nazi execution and concentration camps, and whose family sheltered a Jewish child. They would rather insult his intelligence and good-will than admit Likud/Shas/Netanyahu’s policies, which are a continuation of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon might be wrong.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

That’s all.

A tale of two boys shot: St. Louis and Hebron

Michael Brown , 18 was killed Saturday, in St. Louis, apparently shot by a bullet from a police officer’s gun. The FBI will investigate this as a possible civil rights violation. It is front-page news across the country.

A few hours later, Khalil Al-Anati was killed in Hebron, apparently shot by a bullet from an Israeli soldier’s gun who may have been shooting into a crowd of protesters throwing stones. The Israeli military police is investigating. The story is buried in the inner pages of the newspapers that bother to cover it.

The human rights organization B’Tselem requested inquiries for over 300 killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces between 2000 and 2011. This has resulted in 9 indictments. The vast majority of military inquiries are closed years later with no action taken and no comment on why they were closed.

Thousands of children as young as 9 have been arrested and harshly interrogated, often for no reason other than a relative of theirs is wanted.

In St. Louis there have been vigils and protests, and the entire country is riveted. Everyone is wondering whether Michael’s only mistake was being born black.

In the West Bank, hundreds attended the funeral, but there is no major protest. Perhaps because this is the 17th shooting of an unarmed civilian in the West Bank this month. This month has been particularly difficult. On average Israeli soldiers kill only one or two unarmed civilians in the West Bank. A pace has been steady for years except for the years where protests are thick. Some are killed because they stray too close to a fence, around a settlement or border with Israel. Some are killed because young Israeli soldiers in armored Hum-vees panic and shoot into or around a crowd of Palestinian teenagers throwing stones.

Maybe the Palestinians have run out of rage, because four hundred and thirty children have been killed in Gaza over the past four weeks.

Khalil Al-Anati was 12 years old. His mistake was playing outside his house while an Israeli military convoy drove past and someone else threw stones at them. Just another “human shield” meant to be smashed to smithereens.

Perhaps his real mistake was being born Palestinian.

Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government?

Bombardment of Gaza

Sam Harris has a transcript of a podcast on his website titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel“. It’s thought-provoking and cogent, but in the end unpersuasive.

You should read or listen to Harris’s podcast in it’s entirety. What I’m going to do here is evaluate and examine many of Sam’s arguments and others you may have heard. Sam makes as good a case as you can possibly make for the Israeli government while hewing as close as possible to a secular, humanist point of view. I’ll quote liberally, but the podcast must be heard in it’s entirety for it’s full effect.

A note on philosophical inclinations towards justice. If you’re a utilitarian, the case is quite clear.  Israeli action has caused the deaths of close to 2,000 people in this latest attack on Gaza in summer 2014.  Most sources agree that 65-80% of these are civilians (the Israeli government claims over half were not civilians).  Over 400 children have been killed.  At the other end, Hamas has managed to kill over 60 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilian and one Thai civilian in addition to damaging some buildings and setting off sirens all across Israel generally disrupting everyone’s day. Israeli forces have destroyed key infrastructure in Gaza, leaving most of the population without water or power and around 500,000 without access to their homes, a great number of which have been destroyed.  In utilitarian terms, the case is clear, the democratically elected government of Israel is by far the worse offender and it’s actions are disproportionate. Even in terms of rocket strikes, the numbers are disproportionate.  Hamas has launched a little over 2,900 rockets, the IDF has struck over 3,800 targets, often multiple times.  In some ways, it feels like heavily armed US cavalry running down entire Native American villages because they’ve attacked a white settlement.

But I am not a utilitarian in the strict sense of the word, as I suspect few of us are. In my view, for an action to be above reproach, you must utilize just means to achieve just ends. It is impossible to argue the Israeli government’s means are completely just (in this instance or in past actions), and I would say the ends are not either. Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use rational beings as a means to an end. So you cannot kill 25 civilians to assassinate a single Hamas leader. Even if your goal of assassination is just.  [This in itself is questionable. Israel's government feels differently about assassinations when its own officials are targeted. Begin started the '82 Lebanese war over an assassination attempt (by a rogue faction of the PLO which was not in Lebanon).]

As Americans we understand all this is true, and we actually live these principles in some instances.  Bill Clinton recently said about Osama Bin Laden “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”  When Barack Obama finally had an opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, he sent 24 US commandos and support staff 200 miles from their base to do the job. They did not kill his two wives, who were shielding Osama Bin Laden when he was found.

In stark contrast, Israelis forces in the past month alone have bombed numerous homes over the past few weeks, killing hundreds of people, whole families and over a hundred children. In one instance, 17 civilian members of the Hamas police chief’s extended family were killed by a bomb targeting his aunt’s home while he was visiting it.  The demolition of homes, via bomb or bulldozer have been part of Israel’s strategy to bring “quiet” for quite some time.

A final note. This is written for an American audience. Here in the US, we get a rather bland view of Israel-Palestine relations, heavily tilted in favor of the Israeli right-wing (which has been in power for about 20 years now). If you’re reading this in Europe, you should probably stop, the pendulum has likely swung the other way in your media. If you’re in France, you should probably try to get your elected representatives to do their best to stop the mobs that are threatening Jews and destroying their property.

 

Jews and Muslims

The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims.  I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

That’s a quote from Sam’s podcast, you can assume any other quotes below are from the same podcast unless I say otherwise.

The relative numbers of Jews and Muslims is essentially irrelevant when discussing proportionality. It may be that Sam believes this is more relevant than their shared humanity because they identify with their faith strongly. Most people identify with their names quite strongly, and there are very few people named Subir, and a lot of people named Sam. Does that mean Sams are expendable or we should mourn their deaths less?  Does it means one dead Subir is equivalent to a hundred or a thousand dead Sams? If you can’t look at an innocent life as an innocent life, you’re probably giving in to tribal politics.

We should define a few terms at this point. I won’t often speak of Jews and Muslims in this essay. Mostly because “Jews” and “Muslims” do not have agency. We cannot ascribe intent to “Jews” or “Muslims”, we cannot evaluate their actions, because they are not capable of acting as groups. We can ascribe agency and evaluate the actions of individual Jews and individual Muslims, in which case we should refer to them by name. We can evaluate the actions of individual organizations, whether they are governments or political parties.

All we can say about “Jews” and “Muslims” is that they are people, and like all humans, they are capable of suffering. In a slightly different, but related context (the rights of slaves in the French West Indies), Jeremy Bentham asked:

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

So for the rest of this article, I’ll discuss the actions of:

  • successive Israeli governments, militias and armed forces (Likud, IDF, Irgun)
  • distinct Palestinian resistance movements (PLO, Fatah, Hamas)

though I might also discuss the suffering of Palestinian people, or the Israeli people. This has an added advantage, by being specific I avoid the charge that I’m being racist or bigoted. I will also spend much more time discussing Israeli actions that I will any Palestinian acts, for two reasons. The first is that I’m writing for an American audience, which hears a lot about Palestinian groups, terrorism, rocket launches and failures. The second is that the Israeli government is relatively free to act. It controls its borders, it enjoys sovereignty, and its actions have had immense impacts on Palestinians and the region. The Palestinians on the other hand have been constrained and are not a sovereign nation.

So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly agree with Sam that one must maintain some sense of proportionality here. Hamas is an organization that has done and continues to do reprehensible things.  It has engaged in suicide bombings, it has recruited children to serve as militants, it has targeted civilians, in numerous cases it has operated out of civilian facilities in complete contravention of international law and placed Palestinian civilians in great danger, often unknowingly.  Like most guerrilla operations, Hamas has perfected the art of blending into the population, but it has also callously discussed how the deaths of Palestinian civilians may further its cause on the international stage. It has conducted purges and extrajudicial killings of suspected informers, and it continues to direct unguided rockets and missiles in Israel’s direction, knowing there are civilian centers in their path. It’s founding documents are reprehensible and as Sam says, look forward to a genocide. It has expended Herculean efforts in building tunnels that we  can only imagine would be used for kidnappings and murders, certainly of IDF personnel, but also of civilians if it would further their cause. They are far more focused on fighting Israel than bettering the situation of the Palestinian people. From all accounts, having Hamas in power would be like stepping back a couple of centuries or more in time. I would not want them as neighbors and I would certainly not wish to live in a state governed by them. Yet, we must be wary of conflating Hamas with the general Palestinian population and nothing I’ve said here should preclude criticizing the actions and policies of the Israeli government. Even if we agree that reducing Hamas’ influence is a just end, we still need to be assured just means are employed to reach it.

A very standard response to any criticism of Israeli policy or sympathy for Palestinians  is “You must be an anti-semite” or “You are for Hamas”. I’m neither.

I’m quite optimistic. If people are left alone, the vast majority will choose to live peaceably with their neighbors. They are too busy with work, family, soap operas and the latest gaming console.  That’s pretty much universal.

For a more pessimistic view of the past and how wide the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis is, you could start here.

Much of this essay is an attempt to provide context for the conflict. But there is so much context here, for both sides, that some people have forgotten the difference between right and wrong.  I’ll try not to.

 

Human Shields

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.

“The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone.”  That’s a really strong statement.  Does Sam mean to say the 400 children who’ve died thus far as a direct result of the IDF bombs were “trying to kill everyone”? What about the people in the West Bank, the Palestinians who work with Israelis every day?

The claim that Hamas is using the Palestinian population as a human shield is everywhere, promoted quite actively by the Israeli government’s spokespeople. It’s part of the talking points developed by them. It is also dreadfully easy to dismantle, so easy that it almost makes one wonder why our journalists are being paid if they cannot challenge such statements.

Israeli troops are operating and living in civilian communities within Gaza and Israel has many military bases near populated areas. Israeli troops have used civilian structures (houses, stores, garden walls) as cover in every war they’ve fought in an urban environment. Even worse, Israeli soldiers have in past conflicts forced Palestinians to stay in a home while they take up sniper positions (which is the true definition of a human shield). Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields (or doing anything else to Palestinians for that matter) are rarely prosecuted. Except for one instance which resulted in demotions and suspended sentences. That was for officers who had forced a 9 year old Palestinian boy to open bags they suspected contained explosives. Strange how the Israeli government cannot see fit to punish it’s own soldiers for the war crime it rails about on the news. So it seems rather disingenuous when Israeli spokespersons are upset over Hamas firing from “near” schools and homes.

Senior IDF staff have said the IDF follows a strategy called the “Dahiya doctrine” when engaged in urban warfare. It involves destroying civilian infrastructure to cause suffering and lower support for the resistance. One cannot look at the bombings of power plants and other infrastructure in Gaza without wondering whether this is in fact what the IDF is doing. We can at least assume that the doctrine reduces the level of care IDF forces use when bombing a dense urban area. And we should not forget that this is being done to a population that the Israeli government has certain obligations towards, since they are an occupying powers. Gaza is still under occupation since Israel controls access and egress, even though there are normally no military forces within Gaza. It is in effective control of Gaza, even the Rafah crossing with Egypt is governed under an Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

The harsh, harsh truth is that Palestinian “human shields” don’t stop today’s IDF. So Sam’s argument doesn’t hold any water at all. For a “human shield” to work, the opposing force would have to demonstrate restraint. The Israeli forces do not appear to have done so consistently. For instance, in this conflict and the previous two, Israeli forces have targeted the homes of Hamas operatives, on multiple occasions killing entire families, or entire extended families having dinner. There are no apologies forthcoming for this, they think people in their homes are legitimate targets.

This line of reasoning is extremely problematic.  There’s a reason off-duty combatants are protected under the Geneva convention (to which Israel is a signatory and which cover armed occupations and resistance to them). There’s a reason their families are considered civilians. If they were not, every Israeli soldier’s home would be a legitimate target. The homes and settlements Israeli soldiers are billeted in would be legitimate targets.

Quite apart from their very questionable legality and purpose, most right-thinking Israelis should worry about the amount of cheer-leading in Israel for the strikes. No doubt the fear aroused by a steady stream of rockets and the sirens and evacuations that follow drive some of this sentiment. Yet, it’s not just nationalism or patriotism, there’s a strong current of actual racial hatred in the comments, especially from some younger people. And once again, this is not surprising, the occupation of Palestinian lands has been a long exercise in de-humanizing the Palestinians. The walls in Gaza and the West Bank are the final tool, out of sight, out of mind.

There are no Israeli journalists allowed in Gaza and they haven’t been for years.  There are few photos of Palestinian dead published in Israeli media, which is part of the reason why Netanyahu can get away with saying things like “Telegenically Dead Palestinians”. And then there are the ubiquitous references to Golda Meir saying “We wont forgive them for forcing us to kill their sons ” which is always conveniently misquoted as children instead of sons. These talking points attempt to absolve Israel of responsibility for the hundreds of dead children and a thousand adult civilians. There’s a far easier path to avoid that responsibility, don’t drop the bombs, no one is forcing you to kill children.

There’s yet another good option if, as Israel’s spokesmen claim, they care a great deal about Palestinian civilians, especially women and children. Just let them out of Gaza into Israel under the Iron Dome so Hamas can’t make them “telegenically dead”. They’d probably be glad to go back and rebuild the villages their parents and grand-parents were driven away from.

And if as Netanyahu claims, Hamas aims to provoke Israel into attacking Gaza and creating dead civilians to bolster its cause, why give them what they want.  If dead civilians bolster Hamas’ claims and further its political ends why oblige by indiscriminately shelling neighborhoods that you know have schools harboring refugees?

In the fullness of time, I expect people will look at this conflict like we look at Vietnam, or the US’s treatment of Native Americans, a great military machine doing it’s utmost to enforce its own terms on a weaker people.

Hamas is not a fringe group. Neither are the settler movement and Shas

But there is no way to look at the images coming out Gaza—especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel—and think that this is anything other than a monstrous evil. Insofar as the Israelis are the agents of this evil, it seems impossible to support them. And there is no question that the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation. This is where most critics of Israel appear to be stuck. They see these images, and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies. They see the occupation, and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. I would argue that this is a kind of moral illusion, borne of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as of a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it.[Note: I was not saying that the horror of slain children is a moral illusion; nor was I minimizing the suffering of the Palestinians under the occupation. I was claiming that Israel is not primarily to blame for all this suffering.]

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 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.]

Palestine_Map_2007_(Settlements)
Israel-Palestine Map

The claim that “Hamas is not a fringe group” is generally a rather naked attempt to paint all Palestinians as extremists. I’m going to challenge that further below, but first let’s talk about extremism in Israel. Ariel Sharon was not a fringe figure either. He was Prime Minister of Israel for five years after having served in various cabinets positions for years. And this is after he was held personally responsible for the murder of thousands at Sabra and Shatilla, by an Israeli investigation committee. Should we conclude that since Israelis elected someone who bore personal responsibility for a mass murder as their PM, they support mass murders?

Perhaps all we can say at this point is that it’s a bit self-serving to read every fervent Hamas statement as genocidal intent while conveniently glossing over the history of the Israeli leadership.

Let’s talk about Hamas’ charter as well, which you see referenced everywhere. I’m going to make some fine distinctions here, please don’t assume I approve of Hamas’ charter, the organization or their goals, I do not. I think Hamas is terrible for the Palestinian cause and many Hamas representatives are guilty of terrible crimes. However, in the interest of accuracy, I must say that unlike Sam’s assertion, this is not “the charter of their government in Gaza”. It is the foundational document of the group. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian election on a specific platform. If as Sam says, we should take their words very seriously, then we should take a serious look at their platform. It included renouncing suicide bombings, an offer of a long-term truce with the state of Israel within the 1967 borders, and Hamas explicitly dropped from their manifesto a call for the destruction of Israel. That’s the platform that led to their election victory.

It may well be that the Hamas leadership isn’t truly saying what they believe. Who knows what darkness dwells in the hearts of men. It may well be that Hamas did all those things for purely political purposes, i.e. to attract moderates. But if you admit this is the case, you cannot simultaneously use their victory to besmirch the intentions of the general Palestinian people.  They voted for a party that said it would give up suicide bombings and achieve a truce with Israel.  The worst you could accuse the Palestinian people is of harboring the sentiment that the Israeli occupation was run by heartless bastards and maybe they needed their own heartless bastards to represent them.  i.e. they wanted a hard-right government as well.

And if you claim Hamas doesn’t bring their true positions to the negotiating table or the public sphere, the same charge can easily be levied against the Israeli government as a whole. Successive Israeli administrations have continued building illegal settlements in the occupied territories while continuing to pay lip-service to a “peace process” that has now gone on for decades. It’s true that Hamas did not suggest they would have a final peaceful solution right away, they said that once the truce was in place, time itself would heal the wounds. This is not an entirely unreasonable position to have.

Hamas is no longer a fringe group, that is true.  But Israel has to take some responsibility for initially encouraging Islamist groups as a means of fomenting division within the Palestinian political movements and to limit the growth of the PLO.

If one wants to shine a light at Hamas, a similar light would have to be shined on Shas, which is also not a fringe group either. You would also have to look at the settler movement, many of whom venerate Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron.  You would have to ask why the Israeli government keeps supporting these settlements, keeps tipping the scales in favor of the settlers in every land dispute. You’d have to ask why the Israeli government has not managed to prosecute a single person for the so-called “Price Tag” attacks. Hate crimes and intimidation tactics that have involved the desecration of numerous churches and mosques, settler violence against Palestinians and the destruction of Palestinian property and farms. This is not “defense” this is colonial aggression supported by the state.

Even further, you would have to ask why the Likud government has allied with Shas repeatedly and why former Labor governments have done the same. Especially when their founder and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has repeatedly said things like “It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable” about Palestinians and Arabs in general. I will admit that Ovadia Yosef later apologized for this statementAbu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”  But why should we believe his retraction if we don’t believe the current Hamas leadership when they say they have withdrawn their call for the destruction of Israel. Shas is not a fringe group, they have 10% of the seats in the Knesset and in the past they have held more.

If we want to get so upset about Hamas’s charter and the hadith of the Gharqad tree, we should be similarly apoplectic when Shas’ founder says “The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world”. Perhaps the successive Israeli governments that have allied with Shas do not believe any of this, maybe it’s just that politics makes strange bedfellows. But why not give the Palestinian factions the same benefit of doubt when they create a unity government with Hamas?

As an aside, I do believe Shas has a legitimate grievance. Many of their members are sephardic Jews who left their homes in various middle-eastern countries in duress, often under similar conditions to the flight of the Palestinians from their homes in Israel. Shas has demanded that they be compensated for the loss of property. If you believe the Palestinians should be compensated for the loss of their property in ’48 and later, then the same must be done for the sephardic population.

In the recent past, it has become rather fashionable to point to a particular Islamic text and ascribe genocidal or “terrorist” intentions to it, and then use this to paint an entire people as genocidal terrorists.  What then should we make of the following (Sam Harris knows and acknowledges this, I put these quotes in anticipation of other objections):

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them,

When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them

They [Israel] utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword

Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Sounds pretty genocidal doesn’t it? They’re all quotes from the Old Testament. Should we conclude that these words do not have an impact on orthodox Jews who believe the Torah is a literal commandment and set of laws? If we accept Sam’s argument that most religious authorities in the Jewish world do not read these literally, we must also admit that apart from various fundamentalist Sunni schools, most Islamic scholars will likewise diminish the import of the various controversial Islamic texts.

In general, the vast majority of people in our world do not wake up each morning dreaming of genocide against any particular group. They are far too busy with their own lives. And most who have been aggrieved will find room in their hearts to forgive.

If we’re taking words literally though, what should we make of the words of Moshe Faeglin, who is deputy speaker of the Knesset and part of the Likud leadership. In an Op-Ed in Arutz Sheva on July 15, 2014, he writes:

Attack – Attack the entire ‘target bank’ throughout Gaza with the IDF’s maximum force (and not a tiny fraction of it) with all the conventional means at its disposal. All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’. It is enough that we are hitting exact targets and that we gave them advance warning.

Defense – Any place from which Israel or Israel’s forces were attacked will be immediately attacked with full force and no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’.

Conquer – After the IDF completes the “softening” of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.

A senior member of the Israeli government feels this is the “Solution” for Gaza. It matches the actual actions of the Israeli army quite well. Should we not suspect these ideas have seeped down the ladder and been adopted by troops on the ground in some form? If they haven’t, why does the Israeli government not investigate civilian deaths and allegations of disproportionate force.

This all in keeping with a rightward shift in Israeli politics that has been underway for decades, as immigration has increased from the former USSR and the Middle-East. You can reach your own conclusions about why.  But perhaps the “sleeping beauty thesis” has something to do with it. What’s the first thing that happens when the castle awakens? The cook boxed the kitchen boy’s ears. What’s the first thing that happened when the USSR broke up and various ethnic groups were free to re-kindle tribal rivalries?

Fear of what the Palestinians might do

There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatants in the most shocking ways possible. They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’ve massacred teenagers. They’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas. 

What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want.

There is no excuse for the suicide bombings that Hamas and other terrorist organizations with Palestinian roots have conducted. There was 1 suicide bombing in the 80s, 22 in the 90s, and 147 in the 00s.  There have been none since 2008 as Hamas disavowed suicide bombings in 2006 (other groups continued for a while). Some of these bombings were against IDF targets.  A total of about 800 people were killed (that’s equivalent to last week’s toll in Gaza), with 2003 and 2004 being the worst years. But Sam’s assertion that “the Palestinians in general” have a history of targeting innocents has to be challenged vigorously.  If the Palestinians in general acted on the murderous impulses Sam believes they mostly harbor, we would expect to see suicide bombings in their thousands and tens of thousands. That is simply not the case.

Now, what Sam might be saying is that a majority of Palestinians supported suicide bombings.  The support has dropped from 62% to 46% in the past year and continues to trend downwards. If we’re considering approval ratings, what does one make of the almost 90% approval among Israelis for bombings that have killed over 400 children thus far, and possibly thrice that number of adult civilians? That’s far more than were killed in suicide bombings over 20 years. And this death toll has been racked up in a couple of weeks. Perhaps they just don’t find death by drone and smart-bombs is not as shocking as a suicide bombing.

The real question as I see it, is not “What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted?” but rather “What would Israeli forces do to the Palestinians if roles were reversed?” i.e. if they were looking to conquer or regain land and statehood that were lost.

We can go back to a time when roles were reversed, in 1948, when the Israelis were fighting for territory. Israeli militia massacred over 200 villagers in Deir Yassin, including women and children. The Haganah did apologize for these actions, so maybe we want to ignore the Irgun and the Stern gang as “fringe/rogue elements” (Arab armies were guilty of killing civilians later in the war).  But what then do you make of the Khan Yunis and Rafah massacres of 1957, where almost 400 civilians were killed by IDF forces.  This happened in a war of aggression by Israel to take over the Sinai and the Suez canal, aided and abetted by France and the UK? Were those isolated incidents as well?  I bring this up because these massacres figure prominently in the psyche of Palestinians.  It is why Palestinians are skeptical of Israeli notices to leave their homes and flee. Their parents did just that, and their homes were razed to the ground and laws passed by Israel’s democratic institutions to ensure they could never return (the Nakba).

Green Line, Beirut 1982
Green Line, Beirut 1982

What should we make of the 1982 war in Lebanon, which the Israeli government initiated to put in place a Lebanese Christian president it felt would be sympathetic to its cause.  Menachem Begin, the Israeli PM, said at the time the war would deliver 40 years of Peace.  This sounds tragically ironic now for a variety of reasons. In general, we should be suspicious of politicians who claim war will deliver peace. But we should be particularly suspicious of Menachem Begin. Begin led the Irgun, during 1948 when they were responsible for a number of atrocities against Palestinian civilians (including Deir Yassin). Begin ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, which killed over 90 people, many of them British officials. Begin’s crew was also responsible for the kidnapping and murder of British soldiers. On his visit to the US in 1948, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and others called the party he led fascist, and the actions of the Irgun (which he had also led) as terrorism. Despite all this, the Israeli people chose him to be Prime Minister in 1977.

In 1982 Begin decided he would flush out a break-away faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon by invading the country and putting a sympathetic Christian leader in place. To achieve that end (a political end), the IDF shelled and bombed Beirut heavily, for ten weeks.  Beirut was largely destroyed, as were Tyre and Sidon. Possibly 10,000 people died in this war. It’s estimated 2,500 were under the age of 15.

Should we conclude the Israeli population supports terrorists (supposedly reformed ones) for high political office? That they condone such wars?

The story gets better. This was also the war in which Ariel Sharon’s forces (he was defense minister at the time) closed exits to a Palestinian refugee camp and let in Christian militia allied with Israel. They ended up murdering 3,000 civilians (mostly Shia Palestinians) in Sabra and Shatila. So there’s that.

And now for some irony. Hezbollah (the Shia militia that is Israel’s arch-nemesis and primary bogey-man) was founded directly after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. The Shia population decided they couldn’t trust anyone else to protect them (same conclusion the Israelis reached after WW-II). If you’re trying to understand Hezbollah’s animosity towards Israel, perhaps the 1982 Lebanese war has something to do with it.

Further irony. Al-Qaeda leaders said the images of women and children killed in the bombing of Beirut is what initially drove them to attack civilian targets in the West (including the September 11 bombings).

So there we have Menachem Begin’s “40 years of peace”.

When Sam says:

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things.

It would be more accurate to modify that sentence to read “in acquiring and defending its territory”. Which is an important distinction since we should acknowledge that every “terrible thing” the Israeli government has done is not purely for “defense”. And it’s important to discuss those “terrible things” to gain an understanding of the impact they’ve had on the Palestinians and their psyche.

To round out how Begin’s legacy lives on, it was his government that began building Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The party he founded in 1973 was called Likud, it holds power in Israel today and Netanyahu is their leader. In case you’re thinking Begin was an exception, and perhaps Sharon as well, what then do we make of Yitzhak Shamir, who led the Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) and was similarly complicit in atrocities on Palestinian civilians. He served as Prime Minister twice. So three out of twelve Israeli PMs have been directly responsible for some form of atrocity against Palestinians. That’s not “exceptional”. And we haven’t even discussed cabinet ministers yet. There is so much dirt to go around, on both sides, that none of the major players have clean hands.

Perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge the Palestinians too much their choice of heartless leaders who will use violent means to achieve their political ends. One could argue, Israel has had a head start on that.

We must not forget though, that there have also been men (and women) of good intent on both sides. People who have sought to achieve some semblance of a just peace.  And that should give us hope.

Coming back to the present, smaller scale. What do we make of near universal support for the occupation of the West Bank, where there have been 1-2 civilians killed by the IDF each month? Most of them either demonstrators or people who wandered too close to a fence or an Israeli outpost.  Should we conclude that the Israeli government with the full support of the people condones the routine killing of civilians?

What should we conclude when we see people cheering bombs dropping on Gaza, or chanting “Death to Arabs” and worse on a public street in Israel?  Are these all instances of “Israeli soldiers going berserk under pressure”? If they and the persistent settler violence are indeed acts at the fringes of Israeli society, why are virtually no IDF soldiers prosecuted or indicted and why do settler enjoy the same impunity? If we find suicide bombings shocking, why do we not find the routine killings of civilians with impunity in the occupied territories equally shocking, especially when they occur in greater numbers and kill more people? Are these the actions of a state utilizing just means?

Sam is quite wrong when he says “there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies”. Both parties have used terrorism in the past to achieve territorial gains or political advantage. They continue to use violence to further their ends. That is the moral equivalence. Israel just does it with far more sophistication, higher kill counts, and a bigger bureaucracy to back it all and provide some cover. That bureaucracy and the claim that Israeli forces do not target civilians should not distract us from the larger truth that both parties continue to pursue political ends through war or violence. Especially when dozens of Palestinian civilians are killed each year in the West Bank with impunity, and many more in Gaza out of carelessness.

None of this should be taken to mean I condone violence or terrorism.

Why should we believe Sam at all when he says “Jews” do not want to kill “Palestinians”? When there are over 5,000 civilians dead over the course of a decade what should we conclude?  Are they all “exceptional cases”? Should we consider stated intentions alone and ignore actions and consequences entirely?

Perhaps Sam’s argument about the relative morality of Israel vs. Palestinians comes down to deciding between what “Hamas/Palestinians/Arabs” say they will do in theory (the genocidal intentions) against what Israeli forces end up doing in fact. The truth is, no one knows what an independent Palestinian people with their own state will do, we can only guess. The leader of Hamas recently said it wasn’t for him to recognize Israel or not, the Palestinian people will make that choice once they have a state and a government.  Who knows whether Hamas will play any political role in it at all?  I hope fervently it does not.

If we want to accept what people say at face value, we should note that Netanyahu said last week he will never accept a two-state solution.  This isn’t even news, though I suspect most Americans think it is.  We naively believe that peace in the Middle-East is just around the corner, if only we could get the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit and talk over another plate of hummus we’d have a deal. The plain fact is that Likud’s party platform for 1999 said they would not support a two-state solution with sovereignty for the Palestinians. They have not veered from that position. Maybe not in so many words, but is this not a call for the “destruction of Palestine”?

In effect, the freely elected Israeli government is advocating effective apartheid (limited rights for Palestinians) and Bantustans (racial enclaves or ghettos), in perpetuity.  They’re advocating an eternal military occupation where Palestinians are surrounded on all sides by Israeli checkpoints, where children are arbitrarily “arrested” by military forces and harshly interrogated, where IDF soldiers shoot civilians with impunity at the rate of one or two a month and there is no freedom of movement for either goods or people. Netanyahu sees no reason to change the “facts on the ground”. How would Israelis react if roles were reversed?

Now, is it possible that some Israeli soldiers go berserk under pressure and wind up shooting into crowds of rock-throwing children? Of course. You will always find some soldiers acting this way in the middle of a war. But we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.

But if we’re going to play hypotheticals, we should indeed ask how things would be if roles were reversed. If the Palestinian state were in the position of Israel and the Israeli people were living under the occupation, what means would they employ? We actually do know how that might play out because we have the very early history of Israel to go by. The Irgun, the Stern gang and Lehi all participated in massacres and bombings that claimed hundreds of civilian lives. These forces were absorbed into the IDF. Forces under the command of the Haganah forcibly removed Arabs from villages and destroyed their homes.  So the history of extremist factions within Israel and the IDF is not particularly pleasant either.  If Israel were occupied, it is not unreasonable to think that armed resistance and possibly terrorism would again be utilized by extremist factions..

What matters is not whether we believe the Israelis are “better” than the Palestinians. The right question to ask is whether or not a particular action is right.

Is bombing of civilians wrong? Is it more wrong if it is solely targeted at civilians? What if there is a military target mixed in with civilians? What is the soldiers are off-duty at a bus-stop? Is it wrong to repeatedly fire if you have no control over direction and know there are civilian targets within range?

Is it right to drop a bomb on the home of a combatant?  What if they are not fighting at the time, i.e off-duty?  What if they are at home with 25 other people, half of whom are children?  What if it is one off-duty target who is with his two sons?

All of these examples are of incidents that have happened. The first group are all examples of suicide bombings and rockets that various Palestinian factions have launched (Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs, Palestinian Islamic Jihad). The second is an example of targeted strikes Israeli forces have launched.  Neither party has claimed these were errors. They were intentional.

Let’s be clear, under International law, they are all wrong. Even if you broadcast warnings. Especially when children are victims.

I’ve kept the descriptions generic since I want you think about the question in the abstract, not whether the target was a Hamas fighter or an IDF soldier. Because the moral question isn’t really about them.  It’s about the people around them.

Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use a rational being as a means to an end.  Killing someone’s child, or their relatives as part of the action to eliminate them is immoral and should be criticized.

And finally, to come back to Sam’s justification for Israeli action. A threat is not justification for violence.  “Pre-emptive war” was wrong when advocated by Dick Cheney, and it remains wrong when advocated by Benjamin Netanyahu.

We should also examine the number killed.  Sam assures us that Israel uses restraint and avoids civilian casualties, that it is not needlessly killing Palestinian civilians. Do the numbers bear this out?

Over 5,000 Palestinians have died in the past 10 years as a direct consequence of the conflict, most of them civilians, including hundreds of children.  Just over 220 Israelis have perished, most of them soldiers. So the Israeli state has, over the course of the past 10 years, killed more Palestinian children than it has lost soldiers. Looking at it another way, 1 out of every 1,000 Palestinians living in the occupied territories has been killed. That would be the equivalent of 300,000 deaths in the US.

I think most people given that data would conclude that the Israeli government, is unwilling to sacrifice soldiers to minimize the killing of children.

 

A Jewish State

I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.

I quote that only because I agree with Sam Harris completely on this one.  I do not even know what a “Jewish state” means, or an “Islamic State” or a “Buddhist state” for that matter.  Perhaps it comes about once Netanyahu’s achieved his objective to amend the Israeli constitution and create “the nation state of one people only – the jews – and of no other people”.

It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’t “Jewish” in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “Muslim.” As my friend Jerry Coyne points out, Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens. Israel is not a theocracy, and one could easily argue that its Jewish identity is more cultural than religious. 

How then does one explain the continuing attempts, over decades to build settlements in the West Bank, to create an Israel from the sea to the river?  How do you square this claim with laws that discriminate against Arabs? How do you square it with evicting Palestinian families who were granted former Jewish homes after 1948, paired with a steadfast refusal to recognize any reciprocal Palestinian property rights? If Israel is not a theocracy, or is “less religious” than other countries, how do you square this with calls from members of the Likud leadership  that only Jews be recognized as citizens of Israel? If we are, as Sam repeatedly posits, to take every statement made by Hamas seriously, surely we should take every statement made by members of the Israeli government with the utmost seriousness as well.

And if we accept Israel’s claims that these lands are theirs, then Belgium can claim the Congo, and African colonization was just (we’re all from Africa). I don’t think people want to go there.  If instead, the question is where to draw the line, why is 3000 years ago so important.  Why not 75 years? Solely because that would place 95% of Israel in Palestinian hands?

Likud’s most recent pre-requisite for talks is that all parties recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”. What exactly is that supposed to mean? Does it means non-Jews aren’t welcome in Israel?  Or does it mean they are, but only up to a certain number. What happens if most of the Jews in Israel decide to convert to Buddhism?  Is the state then going to force them to convert back? What if the current Muslim and Christian population has a higher growth rate and Jews are about to become a minority?  Will the state force-sterilize them?  Will it force them to leave Israel?  Or will it give them three-fifths of a vote? Does a Jewish state mean it will be run along the lines of the Vatican?  Is it a theocracy?
Or maybe what you worship isn’t that important, as long as your family was Jewish and you’re not Arab.  But if that’s so, how is this any different than demands for a whites-only South Africa, or a white Mississippi.  Different place, same idea.
If someone were to suggest that the US be recognized as a “Christian state” or that its “Christian character” be preserved and protected, most people would have a conniption.  Why then should US policy be to help the current Israeli government make this a precondition. Why should peace talks be held up once again by the occupying power’s arbitrary demand to be “recognized” as something or the other?
This concept of a “Jewish state” is completely alien to US ideals and values.  A state that respects everyone’s rights is what we should be pushing for.

Better than Assad and ISIS

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.

This is a serious point. Not unlike the European wars between Protestants and Catholics, various factions within Islam have been warring for decades over territory, power and mind-share using sectarian sentiment as a wedge. In most cases, these distinctions are used by “leaders” to whip up sentiment and propel themselves to power and wealth. The people suffer under the yoke of their ambitions. This is a terrible thing and I wish for all these people the benefits of self-determination and peaceful democracy with full protections of minority rights.

The “better than Assad or ISIS” argument though needs to have the hypothetical question set up correctly. Israel is not facing an existential threat with Hamas today. To make a comparison with the Syrian conflict and the Alawite administration’s response, you would have to ask what level of Palestinian casualties would the Israeli government be willing to cause if it were facing an existential threat.  We know the current government thinks of a thousand deaths as “mowing the grass”. If Palestinian militias were rampaging through Tel Aviv, killing hundreds or thousands, or taking over large swaths of the occupied territories and Israel itself, I’d expect scorched earth policies in response. History, once again, can serve as a guide. The 1982 Lebanon war with the destruction of Beirut is pretty comparable, in terms of lives taken, to the bombing of Hama in 1981 by Hafez al-Assad.

Deir Yassin
Deir Yassin

Israel’s government today is fighting wars to consolidate territory and control an occupied population.  Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when they were trying to conquer territory, Israeli forces were pretty adept at massacres, in Deir Yassin, Khan Yunis, Rafah, etc.  Their actions then are the ones to compare with what ISIS is doing now. The IDF too, destroyed property and infrastructure, issued threats, effected random killings.  True, this has all happened before in many different places, not least in the US against Native Americans.  But that does not excuse this instance, nor does it oblige us to accept the Israeli government assertion that it is simply “defending its territory”.

Am I saying the Israeli government is “as bad as” Assad or ISIS. No, I’m not. Yet, when placed in similar positions, Israeli forces were not above using similar tactics. To their credit, the Israeli establishment subsequently expelled the most extreme elements (Lehi/Irgun), though all those people came back into public life later and founded Likud, which has had a very receptive welcome in modern Israel. We should evaluate very carefully the Israeli claim that everything they do is from a defensive stance since there are at least two wars of aggression in Israel’s history, the Suez crisis and the 1982 Lebanon war. Most would also argue the Six-Day war was pre-emptive since Israel moved against the Egyptian air-force without being attacked and did the same in Syria/Jordan. The Israeli government’s behavior towards the Palestinian people is also to be questioned vigorously, the historical record is quite clear that successive Israeli governments have done their utmost to stall the development of a Palestinian state, often through violent means and by encouraging warring factions in an attempt to divide and conquer.

Colonialism

Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we—the Americans, or Western Europeans—have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done.

The out-sized focus on Israel does seem unfair when as Sam says there are many, many other conflicts that are taking a far worse civilian toll (for instance, who remembers Sri Lankan Civil War of 2007)?  There are two things that set the Israel-Palestine conflict apart though. The first is that it has been going on for over 70 years, through cold and hot wars. The average person has heard about it multiple times in their life and can’t be faulted for being a bit curious about it.

The second is that Israel’s actions (settlements, military rule, arbitrary arrests, etc.) in the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) is seen by most of the world as a colonial enterprise. Much of the world has experience with European colonialism, most of it painful and that generates understandable empathy for the Palestinian cause. Rightly or wrongly, many look at Israel as yet another European colonial enterprise. Of course, within the Islamic world, there are associations made with the crusades as well.

Perhaps Israel’s only fault is that they started a colonial effort about 150 years too late, and precisely when most colonies were regaining independence from their European colonial powers.

If the Occupied Territories are not a colony, why then do we see the basic rights of Palestinians living there routinely trampled. Why are Palestinians arrested routinely without any opportunity to provide a legal defense? Why can they be detained for arbitrary periods? Why have 7,000 children been arrested by Israeli forces in the occupied territories over the past 15 years? Why have many of these children been harshly interrogated in complete violation of international norms? Why have Palestinian families been evicted from homes in Jerusalem that were owned by Jews prior to 1948 but not a single Palestinian-owned property in Israel has been returned? Why do Israeli forces protect settlers who are trespassing, encroaching or building on Palestinian land in the occupied territories? Why are Palestinians not free to move about in the West Bank, or in and out of Gaza? Why does the Israeli government, under a security pretext, make it so much harder to get goods in and out of the West Bank or Gaza for Palestinian businesses?

These are all methods used by colonial powers. We can only conclude that the Israeli government is a colonial power and via it’s settlement it intends to establish effective control over additional territory. Peoples with colonial experience, except apparently Americans (who have worn both hats) recognize this for what it is. There is no “security” or “defense” motive, it is simply a colonial power furthering it’s territorial and political ambitions under the guise of maintaining order.

On the one hand we have absolute hysteria over the fact that some flights to Israel were halted.  Meanwhile, the Palestinians have lived for decades under Israeli checkpoints at every entry and exit under the occupation. And then we’re expected to be upset that Israeli vacation plans were disrupted?

In the end, the key moral question we need to consider is whether an occupation and denial of rights that have impacted two generations is just.  With every passing year, the charge of apartheid rings more and more true.  The Israelis have had decades to reach a just peace with the Palestinians and they haven’t. Every settlement, every checkpoint, every act of rudeness or ill will by an IDF soldier makes the prospect even more remote.

 

Of Means and Ends and the Mediterranean

We know what Hamas is fighting for, they say it’s the liberation of the land of Palestine. They want to liberate Israel from the Israelis, by any means necessary. Their popularity is built on a reputation for not compromising. It should be clear that I in no way sympathize with Hamas, their ends are insanity and the means they have employed in the recent past despicable.

What is the end of the Israeli action? It’s clear the current Israeli administration does not want Palestinian independence (the two state solution) unless the Palestinian territories continue to be tightly controlled by Israel. Successive Israeli governments have worked to build settlements in the West Bank. Is their goal to liberate as much of Palestine from the Palestinians as they can while keeping fatalities to a thousand or so every other year?

The Israeli government claims everything it does is from a security pretext, but in truth that cannot be the case. Hamas’ rocket attacks cause virtually no loss of life in Israel, in numerical terms it’s equivalent to a bad traffic accident.  I’ve heard them described as a nuisance, and reports that the Iron Dome missiles create more wreckage and consternation than the ones they’re taking down. I agree that the government of Israel has a responsibility to stop them, but is this the only way?  Hamas’s tunnels are also a concern, but can they not be destroyed without making half the population of Gaza homeless and destroying thousands of homes and apartment buildings?

The Palestinian and Israeli people also have to ask themselves another question about their sacred texts.  The Bible/Torah and the Koran/Hadith are both religious and political texts.  If you don’t see that upon reading them, you are intentionally blind. Allowing these texts to influence your political institutions has a cost. You end up with the politics of the 7th century or the earlier. Eventually, you will end up with a society from the same era.

This brings me to an important note on Palestine. Most people will instantly connect Palestine with the rest of the Middle-East, think Arab, think Saudi Arabia, think women in abayas. Palestine though, is partly a Mediterranean nation. As such, it has been exposed to travelers and people from every part of Southern Europe and Northern Africa. For centuries. Lest we forget, for a long time it was a Roman colony.

Why should this matter? It matters because like the other Mediterranean states in the Middle-East (Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt), Palestine is a plural, multi-cultural society. Even prior to the arrival of European Jewish immigrants in the 1800s, it had a Christian population and a Jewish population (around 10%). This matters because it has influenced Palestinian culture, which was largely secular. It is misleading to suggest that Palestinian society cannot live with a secular government or leadership. In fact, the PLO was explicitly secular and it was Israeli policy to support Islamist elements as a counter-weight to the PLO that have led to the rise of Hamas and their ilk (though the steady radicalization of the surrounding region hasn’t hurt).

 

Constructive Criticism

The roots of this particular conflict run deep. They are at least 150 years old, when many Eastern-European Jews, fleeing pogroms in Europe, came to Palestine as part of the original Zionist movement. That migration began before the Nazis killed 6 million Jews (and probably 10 million other civilians) in a genocide unmatched in scale and brutality by anything in recorded history. After and during the holocaust, it picked up steam.

The world empathized with the victims of the holocaust, which is why the UN carved Israel out of Palestine, by giving away land that was not truly theirs to give. I do not agree at all with people who say Israel should not exist and the Israelis should return to Europe. Many Israelis have lived their lives in this land and they know no other. We have to recognize that. The Israelis have a claim to this land, that much is true. But ameliorating the suffering Jewish peoples have endured cannot come on the backs of the Palestinian people. That too is true.

There is so much pain and blame to pass around that you can spend your whole life tallying it up. And many have. Spending years and lives in recrimination and vengeance. It isn’t worth it. The only thing that matters is what happens next.

As I see it, the Palestinian and Israeli people can choose between having two states, one state, three states or no state.  Two states is what a peace “process” that has gone nowhere for 70 years (since the mid 1940s) claims is the best option. Three states would likely be unacceptable to Palestinians (Gaza and the West Bank permanently separated),  but may be what some Israeli factions think is achievable. No state is what happens if one of the other nations on the periphery absorbs Israel-Palestine. One state is effectively what you have today, with two regions that have some autonomy but no sovereignty or control over their borders.

Increasingly to me, it looks like the logic and “facts on the ground” are driving matters towards the one state option. And here’s a rough road-map for a one state option.

Without a referendum approved by the majority of Palestinians and Israelis this plan will not work. Any peace proposal requires the people to be on-board explicitly

  • Immediate steps
    • All newly born children to have Israel-Palestine citizenship.
    • Integrate primary schools.
    • Free and fair elections for local municipalities to include all residents.
    • Absorb all Palestinian militia into the IDF.
    • Integrate civil police forces.
    • Establish a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate both IDF excesses and settler violence.
    • A separate legislature for Palestine
    • Internal travel, study and work restrictions eased for those under 21 and over 65.
    • Control Immigration both Jewish and Palestinian, perhaps with long residency requirements.
  • In 5 years
    • All children under 18 years of age and all citizens over 65 gain Israel-Palestine citizenship.
    • Integrate middle and high schools.
    • Truth and reconciliation committee completes initial investigations.
    • Palestinian and Israeli lawmakers meet to revise basic laws.
    • All internal travel, work restrictions lifted on Palestinians and Israelis.  Anyone can go anywhere.
  • In 15 years
    • All residents transition to a Israel-Palestine citizenship.
  • In 18 years
    • First elections to a unified legislature.

What the Israeli and Palestinian people really need to ask themselves, is whether they want to end up like Zimbabwe, or South Africa. In Zimbabwe you have a freedom movement that continued to stick with the methods of armed struggle well after this became unnecessary. In South Africa, you have one that laid down its arms and negotiated a peace. South Africa is by no means a perfect society, but Israel-Palestine might have a much simpler re-unification since the Israeli occupation has possibly been less brutal and dehumanizing than South Africa’s was.

The biggest benefit a one-state solution offers is that it gives something to both the right and the left in each camp. Both extreme rights can claim they’ve gained their objective of a complete Israel and a complete Palestine.  Jewish settlers can (eventually) settle wherever they want.  Palestinian refugees can (eventually) return to their ancestral homes. The left and moderates too gain something, they have an opportunity to prove what they’ve been claiming all along, that the two societies can live together in peace.

A two-state solution is not in keeping with US values. The Palestinian resistance must lay down arms just as the ANC did in South Africa and Israel must grant Palestinians equal rights in one state. There’s a model for something similar in the region, Lebanon.  It’s not perfect, but then neither is a two-state solution. With two states, attitudes will inevitably harden on the right in both states and the “Jewish state” and the “Arab state” will be back at war in 20 or 30 years.

 

Footnote: Why I care

I look at the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government as part of a long line of unjust oppression, including the Jim Crow laws. American Jews endured discrimination for years in America, which is why so many participated in the Civil Rights movement and a number gave their lives.

If you accept my view that the treatment of Palestinians is an injustice, but think Israel should be given time to catch up, why not Saudi Arabia, they’re only a few decades further behind.

I am now an American, and the US is intimately involved, generally on the side of Israel. This has not always been the case, Eisenhower (who had to deal with the Suez Crisis) and George H.W. Bush (who was an oilman with close ties to the Saudis) had a far more circumspect view of Israeli motives and actions.

I’ve felt the sense of insecurity that comes from seeing your own city in flames. I understand the fear that comes from knowing your “people” are the target of someone else’s hate. It is true that no one except possibly the Tutsis have had as dreadful an experience as the Jews, but if not in degree, I can understand in principle the urge to respond overwhelmingly to every provocation. Yet, I despise, despise so-called leaders who will use violence to achieve political ends without exhausting all other means of redress. And yes, this includes war-mongering American politicians as well. If you believe in Hell, please pray that a special place is reserved for those who let war decimate the lives of so many people unknown to them.

In general, I feel the true moral question at the heart of every multi-cultural democracy is not what we would do for someone who is known to us or shares our ethnicity or religion. The true test of our morality is how we treat and what we will do for those we do not know.

I have never lived anywhere where I am not part of a minority. I’m part of a diaspora today. Living in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in one of the most diverse cities in the world. I made my own peace with being a minority a long time ago. I decided I would treat all people with the same degree of respect. In the final reckoning, we are all a minority of one.

Quoting Golda Meir

There’s a quote of Golda Meir’s doing the rounds in many discussions of the Israeli government’s war on Gaza.  It is regularly misquoted as:

we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their children.

Bob Schieffer used this in a ridiculous closing segment on Face the Nation, after allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to make a number of un-challenged statements about fact and motive.  Perhaps Bob Schieffer wanted to join the  rush (check any internet discussion board) to use it as a sanctimonious  justification for the many children killed in the bombing of Gaza or to validate the Israeli government’s assertion that it’s all actually Hamas’ fault (or even that of the Palestinians). It is of course, the Israeli Defense Forces who are dropping the bombs and shells on Gaza.

Of course, Bob Schieffer had the Golda Meir quote wrong. The correct quote is easy to find.  It’s on the last page of her autobiography and it’s right there on Wikiquote.  It goes like this:

When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

– Golda Meir at a Press conference in London (1969)

Sounds completely different doesn’t it?

This was said two years after Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel in what’s known as the Six-Day war.  The Six-Day war was itself 10 years after a coordinated attack by Israel, Britian and France to take the Suez canal from Egypt (known as the Suez crisis). The Suez Crisis itself happened 10 years after the Nakba, when Israeli forces frightened perhaps two or three hundred thousand Palestinians enough that they fled their homes, sometimes at gunpoint. The Israeli state then passed laws to limit their ability to return. The Nakba happened shortly after the Second World War in which 6 million Jews and possibly 10 million other civilians were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen in addition to many millions more being dispossessed of their homes and property. Since the 1880s, Jews had been migrating to Palestine to escape European pogroms, growing anti-semitism and the Nazis. So that’s some of the context.

To come back to Golda Meir and whether or not it is right to use this quote in the current conflict.  She was not talking about bombing the homes of Palestinians who oppose Israeli occupation from F-16s flying high above them.  She was not talking about killing whole families with young children.  She was not talking about children. She was talking about sons recruited for Arab armies.  She was lamenting a dreadful waste of young men sent by older men to die for their glory and tribute.

Golda Meir was an astute politician, and she lived in a time when people did not talk about killing children.  Or make up sanctimonious justifications for it.

Of course you can’t use the real quote to justify killing.  Unless you want to imply that you will never forgive the Arabs for forcing you to kill Hamas fighters.

The people who are misquoting Golda Meir should correct themselves, their poor research shouldn’t malign her.  Starting with Bob Schieffer whose program reaches millions and who have been poorly served by his error.

It’s also worth noting that Golda Meir said a lot of different things, some of them contradictory.  She was a human being, one who was changed and changed herself in response to events and experience, many of them tragic.  So, for instance, when it comes to quotes from Golda Meir, I think this one is unjustly ignored:

It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]‘.

– Gloda Meir on 6 May, 1948 after a visit to Arab Haifa.

This is the statement of a human being who saw something terrible and acknowledged it.  One who was attuned to the suffering of a people, even if they were not her own.

An easy way to figure out whether or not a statement about this conflict is true is to switch Israel for Palestine, Holocaust for Nakba and then see whether it elicits the same response from the same people.  If it doesn’t, they’ve just been responding to tribal instinct. It is intriguing that the Palestinians and the Israelis chose the same word, catastrophe,  Shoah, Nakba to describe their respective tragedies.

One of the most infuriating things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that each side has people who will deny history, deny the suffering of the other side to bolster their arguments.

So for instance, there are many Palestinians, and non-Palestinians who will deny the Holocaust, its severity, or the impact it has had on many, many generations of Jews. There’s actually an entire little cottage industry that weaves ridiculous conspiracy theories. Insane theories like:

  • The holocaust is a myth
  • The Holocaust was concocted to gain sympathy and take over Palestine

But it must also be said, and acknowledged, that there are many Israelis and non-Israelis who deny the Nakba, their state’s role in it, or the impact it has had, and continues to have, on Palestinians. They come up with ridiculous conspiracy theories as well. You hear things like:

  • There are no Palestinian refugees, they are undesirables from Egypt, Syria, Jordan whom those countries did not want
  • No Palestinians fled because of Israeli actions, any who left did because Arab armies told them to (difficult to reconcile with the multiple civilian massacres Israeli forces perpetrated in 1948).

To be clear, the holocaust was an unimaginable thing.  I am not equating the Holocaust and the Nakba.  From an objective perspective, the Holocaust is of a different magnitude entirely.  Still, recognizing the Holocaust does not require denying the Nakba and it’s profound impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Yet, on both sides we have people who deny and diminish the suffering of their political opponents.  Many Palestinians deny possibly the worst genocidal attempt in humankind’s history.  Many Israelis deny their state’s role in creating the largest refugee population in the modern world.

It must also be said that there are many more on each side who acknowledge and empathize with the other’s suffering.

No conflict can truly be resolved unless each side publicly empathizes with the other. In this case, their suffering.  It is necessary to say: For my part in your suffering I ask forgiveness, and for that which is not my part I weep with you.  Necessary as it brings the two parties together. Necessary because you acknowledge there is nothing that can change the past, all you can do is empathize.  It costs nothing.  And it is a gift of empathy that helps each participant grow.

To get back to Golda Meir, who had this to say about Palestinian refugees later in life.

Any one who speaks in favor of bringing the Arab refugees back must also say how he expects to take the responsibility for it, if he is interested in the state of Israel. It is better that things are stated clearly and plainly: We shall not let this happen.

– Golda Meir in October 1961

The woman didn’t mince words.  That’s the statement of a Foreign Minister making plain her country’s policies. One who knows her country has fought a war of aggression (some would say 1948 and most would agree the Suez crisis in 1957), and wars of defense (1948 and the six-day war in 1967).

There’s another quote doing the rounds on the internet, it’s claimed Golda Meir said something like:

Now, when everyone knows what they did to us, we can do anything we want, and no one has the right to criticize us and tell us what to do.

and it’s sometimes rendered as:

After the holocaust, we Jews can do anything

I don’t know whether she ever said anything like that.  Most people read both statements as a justification for any action by the Israeli state. But there is another way to read the second. Perhaps she was saying that after surviving the Holocaust, her people were capable of doing anything. Even achieving a just peace with the Palestinians.

Since we’re quoting, I’ll leave the last word for Abraham Lincoln who had a rare ability.  In the midst of a terrible and bloody struggle, he could see how the world, in the fullness of time, would regard it.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” ….

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The fourth dimension isn’t time: Reality, iOS 7 and Google Glass

Most of us using computing devices have seen three interfaces to interact with computers:

  • Command Line Instructions: often cryptic, requiring expertise, prior knowledge of the task and perhaps even some programming experience.  Extremely efficient for many tasks, providing a useful shorthand.  In certain applications, a menu of commands might have been available.
  • Mouse-driven desktop: which gave us the still-familiar desktop computer with windows, object icons, pull-down menus and buttons. This is what many people still imagine when they think of computers.  It is an attempt to create a virtual world that mimics the real office environment. A 1970s office since the ubiquity of computers has long since relegated actual filing cabinets,files, folders, and indeed desktops to the junk yard.
  • Multi-touch: which is now ubiquitous on our phones and tablets, along with it’s own peculiar sensibility of swipes, pinches, apps and haptic feedback.

Some would say voice-driven commands are the fourth interface, but I would argue they are a throw-back to command line instructions and not an new revolutionary interface.

What strikes me is that all three of these interface revolutions were first successfully developed for the consumer marketplace by one company; Apple.  The Times today has a fascinating memoir about the development of the first iPhone prototypes and the initial demo. The fourth interface revolution is upon us, and much as the first three were, its early iterations have been mocked and derided.

By now you’ve gathered why the sub-title mentions Google Glass.  Augmented reality is indeed the fourth interface revolution for consumer computing devices. The ability to add context to the real world without requiring direction from the user is almost here. The building blocks have been with us for some time.  GPS enabled devices providing fine-grained location information, gyroscopes to provide direction and velocity, and object recognition algorithms to interpret visual context have been combined to tell a computer where and what you’re looking at.  Mobile data communication and access to the global internet in our pockets let us retrieve contextual information on where we are and what we’re looking for.  Lightweight, highly mobile displays and voice feedback allow information can be presented to us at the appropriate level of obtrusiveness.  Motion sensors (think Microsoft Kinect) let us interact with the machine.

Google Glass is a very early iteration of augmented reality. Google is probably best positioned to deliver high-quality contextual data to an augmented reality system. It’s right in line with their mission to organize the world’s data.  But they aren’t the best at designing interfaces, and that’s what will make or break augmented reality. They’ve mad ea product that excites first-adopters and leaves the average person cold. Google has built the Newton, not the Palm.

You’re probably all wondering what iOS7 has to do with this discussion. Well, there is a chance that Apple has one more trick up its sleeve.  Apple has learned something about mapping and contextualizing the physical world during the development of Apple maps, even if the product is less than perfect. Purely as conjecture, let’s say you were designing an augmented reality system, perhaps it takes the form of a visual display as in Robocop, or perhaps it’s a transparent tablet like the ones carried around by the scientists on Avatar.  You would want all the augmented information and objects to stand out from reality, in fact you would want the interface to look as machine-like as possible so as not to be confused with real objects.  This would require backing away from any skeumorphism and adopting a flat feel with unnatural colors.  Icons and controls would have to stand-out when the background is a real scene, for instance using a heads-up display.  iOS7 has this translucent feel, much as you would imagine an augmented reality interface to have. If Apple does have a augmented reality display in the works, perhaps one that relies on the iPhone to drive it, iOS 7′s design would be a good way to introduce users to the new feel this interface will have.

Whoever puts together a successful augmented reality product will open up an enormous market.  The industrial and military applications are obvious, what will be more valuable in the long run is the ability to give users information on places, people, products and services as they engage with them in the real world. Vendors can expect price comparing shoppers to become far more common. Restauranteurs can expect consumer reviews to pop up on heads-up displays as pedestrians walk past. Some things, like pulling up someone’s Facebook page inconspicuously on your heads-up display when you first meet them in a bar will be creepy at first, and then completely commonplace. The internet in your pocket is about to enter your peripheral vision, and stay there.

Turning our pockets into nodes on the global network

In an engaging review of the dramatic changes in the mobile telecommunications industry over the past decade (“Europe holds a losing hand in the high-stakes mobile game”, September 5), John Gapper identifies Linux as an also-ran in the mobile platform wars. This cannot be the case as Google’s Android is based on Linux and released under a similar open source licence.

Open-source, standards-based Unix operating systems (Apple’s iOS shares many of these traits) are the native environment for internet applications. The web is largely built on these efficient systems composed of building blocks that can be adapted for different purposes. From an engineer’s perspective, they were the path of least resistance for handsets when mobile networks were opened to internet connectivity, turning our pockets into nodes on the global network.

There is an even larger story here. The internet is based on open standards and protocols, and by its very nature it levels the playing field for systems built in collaborative environments outside of closed, commercial environments. Like Linux (which shares Nokia’s Finnish roots), many core internet development tools (Apache, Perl, PHP, Ruby, WordPress and so on) are developed by teams distributed all over the world. Network externalities, cost effectiveness and a generation of developers who have come of age in this environment propel the trend. This global collaboration makes it almost futile to evaluate trends in terms of national or continental champions.

Silicon Valley had become the destination of choice for much of this activity because it is the closest analogue in the physical world. California is a relatively new land of immigrants within a nation of immigrants. It is open, adaptable and welcoming of change, somewhat like the technology it creates. This is perhaps why companies housed there have best understood how to create value in this new environment for software tools and services.

Originally published as a Letter to the FT editor.

The case for FEMA and federal emergency management.

A Big Storm requires Big Government: The Times editorial page is a bit shrill, but they do have a point. The federal government does have a crucial co-ordination role to play when organizing the response to big natural disasters that can overwhelm local resources. I look at FEMA as a cheap insurance policy. For about 13 billion dollars, FEMA coordinates disaster relief, trains local emergency response units, and funds the upgrade of equipment and infrastructure. For lower income states and communities (most in the south), this can make all the difference in a disaster. This was abundantly clear when Katrina hit.

The tacit belief that all civilian agencies within the federal government are inherently incompetent is ridiculous. There are fine, talented people working for the federal government, and it isn’t clear to me that privatizing those services would improve quality. Anyone who’s worked in a large company knows there’s ample waste and bureaucracy to be found there as well.

Contracting services out, doesn’t seem to do much except support a small group of large federal contractors. Most of these are large firms who’ve had defense businesses for a long time. It’s ironic that the largest of these (Halliburton/Brown & Root) was so closely connected to LBJ, and of all the post-war Democratic presidents, his legacy is what the right in the US has been trying to reverse ever since. One of the unintended consequences of business getting involved in politics.

Road-Trips: The cure for partisanship in Congress.

Another week, another lament for bi-partisanship in Congress. Red states, Blue states, Senators from Citibank (variously Delaware or South Dakota), special interests, earmarks, gridlock. There is no end to opinion pieces decrying the extreme narrow-mindedness among our current crop of representatives and candidates. None suggest a meaningful remedy. On the budget and longer-term fiscal challenges, it seems most members of congress have decided they will represent their own narrow interests as vigorously as they can. A desire for fairness and the courage to ask for shared sacrifice, are hard to find, and yet these are the essential ingredients for the tough financial decisions our large and diverse nation will have to make. Most continue to hold out for a solution that inflicts no pain on their team, one where the other side bears all the costs. Yet in their heart of hearts, everyone knows solving our immense challenges will require some sacrifice within their own camps.

I’ve driven across the US a total of seven times. That’s coast-to-coast, usually in excess of 7,000 miles over the course of a summer, generally taking a different route each time. Six of those seven trips were with my parents and brother, on break from school. We drove across Europe once, and the length of India over one 5-month long summer. But, this country was the default option, partly because driving in the USA is so much easier, and no doubt because it was so beautiful. No part of it has every seemed a fly-over state to me.

The very day I arrived in the US to attend university full time, I felt at home, largely due to those trips. When I’d run into a fellow student from Nebraska, I knew the land they were raised on and could say that I too had experienced it. The last of those seven drives across the country was on a motorcycle, solo, the summer after my green card came in the mail (pictures are at www.asianbiker.com). Every spring, without fail, as the weather gets warmer, I think of road-trips, and what they do for my imagination.

Those trips, though the last of them was six years ago, gave me a far better perspective on the country than my many years in New York would suggest. When I hear of South Dakota politics, I don’t think of “Senators from Citibank”. I remember stop-light to stop-light races on motor-bikes and Ford Probes along 41st Street in Sioux Falls, bales of hay drying in the morning dew outside of Mitchell. I think of whether South Dakota’s representatives are trying to do the best they can for the people who sent them to Washington.

Here’s my suggestion to reduce some of the rancor and divide in congress over the budget. Have each congressman or congresswoman pair up with a colleague, someone from a different part of the country, and preferably from the other party. Over the August Congressional break, have them take a 2 week road-trip out to each other’s district as a family vacation. It’ll be an amazing experience for their families, as they see the immense breadth and great beauty of this country and its people anew. They can stop off at a national park, and marvel at the grand vision and great collective financial commitment required to create and maintain our parks and highway system. And see, rather than hear about the differing needs and views of their fellow-countrymen.

The hope is, they’ll come back in September with a different receptiveness to the other side’s argument. Not to mention a new-found appreciation for this great country and a sense of responsibility towards all its people. Perhaps they’ll regain the courage, vision and internal fortitude to ask the American people for shared sacrifice. They might even begin to see merit in the other side’s argument. And maybe, just maybe, they might work diligently to produce a road-map that tackles the immediate and longer-term budget issues facing our country while being fair to all. The reward would be knowing that they had done their part to ensure future generations could see the USA, in all its variety, and furthering in a small way, that elusive goal of creating a more perfect union.

Occassionaly, I want to share something with the world.