11 good reasons we’re all obsessed with Israel and Gaza…


A friend asked me what I thought of this piece in Tablet titled An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story in the World. It claims the media establishment is obsessed with Israel, suggests everyone hates the Jews, and that there are a lot of other stories we should be talking about and covering. I agree with the last.

This is a very long rebuttal to the article. The short explanation of the obsessive interest though, goes like this:

  1. Most people who buy newspapers and watch hard news are upper-middle class. Most gentiles in the UMS have friends who are Jewish, and rightly or wrongly that makes us interested. Few have Syrian or Egyptian or Iraqi or Irani friends (I do, some of them are even Jewish). Resources follow the interest of the audience, not vice-versa. The audience is interested, ergo the AP is interested. Matti’s editors told him to focus on Israel-Palestine because that’s the story that gets the clicks. When in doubt, follow the money.
  2. The Western audience is sadly not interested in tales of woe and suffering from the third-world (i.e. Asia, Africa, South America), except for brief moments when our conscience is pricked. We’ve got parochial interests, like all humans. And for whatever reason, Israel “feels closer” than the Congo or Chiapas. That’s also why we’re dumping buckets of ice-water on our heads and cutting checks to find a cure for a disease that afflicts a few thousand people a year. Meanwhile we continue on our merry lives oblivious to the 600,000 thousand a year dying of malaria and 700,000 of dysentry. They’re mostly kids, and both are easily preventable. We suck mightily. Mad props though to Bill Gates who cares about the right stuff when it comes to humanitarian causes.
  3. Most people know Wahabi clerics, ISIS, Al-Queda, Assad, Sisi or the al-Sauds don’t really care what we think about them (Hezbollah and Iran are not on this list, more about them later). The Israeli political establishment does, and it’s a two-way street. They give press conferences, they want the attention and get it. In any case there’s no debate about the others. Well, I did have one guy on my feed say “the Zionist media was misrepresenting ISIS”, but I took that to mean I’m not in an echo chamber.
  4. Some Americans are also upset about military aid to Israel and feel this makes the US complicit. In my view that’s a misunderstanding, the military aid to Israel and Egypt come as a package deal after the resolution of the Suez/Sinai crisis. It’s 4bn in payola to keep the Suez canal open for American trade vessels and the Fifth/Sixth fleets. It is difficult to stomach seeing US bombs dropped on civilians in Gaza, but all the Middle-Eastern countries have our bombs and planes and they use them, on their own people too.
  5. This is Israel-Palestine and once again, rightly or wrongly all three Middle-Eastern monotheist faiths consider the region and Jerusalem important. If everyone in the west were Buddhist or Hindu or Zoroastrian, we would be obsessed with Bengal/Bihar, Ayodhya/Hrishikesh or Iran/Turkey. But that is not the case, so we’re left with the obsession over Israel. Most people go to church every once in a while and hear stories that are set in that landscape. Their ears perk up when they hear the story in the news. Personally I think Cairo, Baghdad/Babylon, Istanbul/Constantinople and Tehran/Rey are as or more important historically and culturally. But I’m also agnostic.
  6. Some people look at Israel as the last bastion of European colonialism in Africa/Middle-East.
  7. There’s a huge discordance between the opposing views and their recollected histories of events. For what it’s worth, the “Israeli camp” hews to the account in Leon Uris’ Exodus. The “Palestinian camp” relates a different story, not as well known in the west, much of it corroborated by the New Historians (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim etc). People end up with very strong feelings about who’s telling “the truth”.
  8. We’ve all been hearing and talking about Israel/Palestine for about 75 years. There are some huge themes involved if you live in the West. WW-2, The Holocaust, The Middle-East, The Clash of Civilizations, etc. etc. etc. These themes and the length of the conflict spark interest. It keeps flaring up every few years and for the past seven US administrations, there’s been some sort of “peace effort”. We’re all told we should be interested in this.
  9. Many of us are shocked that a country that we consider a vibrant democracy has been running a brutal occupation for 50 years and is killing hundreds of children a few miles away seemingly without much debate and when the threat appears minimal. This is disproportional. We expect that from the Assads and Sisis of the world, we don’t expect it from Israeli leaders who claim to be democratic. Yes, the US has done these things and worse, there’s no excuse except they were in the past or far-away. And we elected a president who said he’d shut those wars down (though he’s kept the drones going). Also note when the US went in to get Osama, his wives and children were left alive.
  10. Israel currently has a PM (I hope this is temporary) who evokes very strong partisan reactions in the US because he’s closely aligned with the hard right and uses American idiom (supplied conveniently by the same consultants who came up with such gems as Gingrich’s “Contract with America”). Suffice it to say, Netanyahu pushes a lot of American buttons.
  11. But really it’s because everyone seems to have an opinion on Israel-Palestine and so Duty Calls:
What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!

While you’re here, do take a look at the White House petition to support a single, secular state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for all. That’s what I would like to see.

Now for the long form rebuttal: 

My personal take is that religion and politics don’t mix. That’s part of the reason I’m thankful I’ve only had two citizenships, both of secular democracies. I count myself very, very lucky. Unfortunately, most of the world is not and has not been. We need to fix that and advocate for secular democracy everywhere. And when I say democracy, I do not mean “majority rule”, I mean representative government with individual rights (some people call this protection of minorities, I think we’re all a minority of one so it’s self-preservation).

Palestinians are really just Arabs

Friedman writes:

“The conflict is more accurately described as “Israel-Arab,” or “Jewish-Arab”—that is, a conflict between the 6 million Jews of Israel and 300 million Arabs in surrounding countries. (Perhaps “Israel-Muslim” would be more accurate, to take into account the enmity of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey, and, more broadly, 1 billion Muslims worldwide.) This is the conflict that has been playing out in different forms for a century, before Israel existed, before Israel captured the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and before the term “Palestinian” was in use.”

I find this revoltingly offensive, racist and demeaning. That strong sentiment may be shocking. So I’ll repeat it. This is racist, demeaning, an outright lie and shame on Matti Friedman for saying it.

Everyone has a right to define their own identity and a right to self-determination. If the Palestinians want to be know as the Palestinians, we must respect that. Just as we respect the fact that Israelis want to be known as Israelis and Jews want to be known as Jews. What if I said there is no such thing as the “Jewish nation”. Judaism is a religion and the “Jewish nation” is a concoction of Zionists. Jews are actually European, or Yemeni or Iraqi or whatever. Or that Israel is an “invention”. Offended yet?

How do you think Palestinians feel when they hear this? Back in the 20s Ben-Gurion said Palestinian peasants were living examples of ancient Israelites. Then it became inconvenient to hold such views.

Some will say “it’s not the same” we have this book, and Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt. That’s funny, the same book talks about the people of Gaza as Philistines. That same book knows nothing about the peoples of the Americas, nothing about the Milky Way, nothing about gravity and nothing about Japan. It’s ignorance is legendary. Why should anyone give a flying hoot what it says.

What if, instead of calling it the Israeli-Arab, Jewish-Arab or Israel-Muslim conflict, we called it the European-Palestinian conflict? It sure as hell looks like a bunch of Europeans (the Brits) decided they wanted to meet the demands of another bunch of Europeans (Ashkenazi Jews) by giving them land that some brown people (the Palestinians) inconveniently lived on. Maybe they did it to make up for their own failure to save the Askenazi population from genocidal maniacs. Or maybe they were just sorry they’d refused to accept them as refugees when they had a chance to in the 30s and early 40s, before the Nazis really got going. Either way, it’s European history, what diid it have to do with the Palestinians.

Historically this canard “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” was trotted out by Israeli leaders whenever they wanted to de-legitimize the Palestinian aspirations for a state and suggest they should all just leave for other Arab countries. What if we switched milieu for a moment and tried this with South Africa. The Afrikaaners are the only significant white population in Africa. South African blacks had twenty other African countries they could go to. Why didn’t Zimbabwe, Kenya or wherever take them in? Sounds preposterous right? Well that’s exactly what this claim that Palestinians are Arabs and should just got to Jordan. Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq is.

Palestinians are from Haifa, Yaffa, Jerusalem, Behtlehem, Beersheba, Nazareth and 500 other villages that were systematically depopulated and destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948. They’re not “Arabs” and they don’t want to live “somewhere else” wherever that might be. Saying that is just as terrible as saying “Israel has no right to exist” and “The Jews should just go back to where they came from”.

There’s a personal story behind this. I got interested in Israel-Palestine because I knew people who had Russian-Jewish relatives and heard “there was no such thing as the Palestinians”, “it was an empty land”, “they’re Arabs, they should go live with other Arabs”. All of that just smelled wrong to me (partly because I’d taken a class with the absolutely amazing Frank Peters) and ended up reading Benny Morris to clarify the history.

Now I see the conflict as an unresolved partition post WW-2 and in that sense it actually interests me immensely from a personal standpoint. India was also partitioned, in 1947, also by a retreating British empire. The Indian partition also created a massive refugee crisis and enormous carnage (including between 300,000 and a million deaths). It still reverberates today. The partition created a Sindhi diaspora, who lost their homeland. It destroyed a Punjabi-Sindhi culture where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived together for centuries (though not without strife). Their foods, songs, literature and the language were the same and still are, but the blasted religions weren’t. That’s why I’ve never been to Lahore though it is culturally speaking the most important Punjabi city. I laugh knowingly when Miko Peled talks about how he feels more at home with a Palestinian family than an American Jewish family because Israeli hospitality and food matches theirs.

Unlike the Indian partition though, there was no exchange of populations in Israel-Palestine inearly 1948. It was all one-sided, the Palestinians were expelled or left. The great Mizrahi immigration began in 1949 and it was meant to re-populate a land that had been intentionally depopulated.

Time isn’t Linear in Israel

Friedman writes:

“Since the mid 1990s, more than any other player, Hamas has destroyed the Israeli left, swayed moderate Israelis against territorial withdrawals, and buried the chances of a two-state compromise. That’s one accurate way to frame the story.”

It’s a two-way street. Jean-Pierre Filiu has an Op-Ed in the NY Times today where he points out that

“Then the Israeli military thought it best to let an Islamist network develop, to neutralize the nationalist camp in Gaza. This is how Sheikh Ahmed Yassin built a power base and eventually founded his movement, Hamas, to challenge the nationalist P.L.O.”

This is also an accurate way to frame the story and it happened in the 60s and 70s.

This is one of my pet peeves, a lot of people say completely incorrect things when it comes to the sequence of events. So for instance, we’ve talked about the fact that 1957 (Suez) was a war of aggression started by Israel (with British and French assistance). 1967 (Six-Day war) began with a “pre-emptive” attack by Israel against the Egypt airforce, then similar attacks on Jordan and Syria. Egypt had moved it’s army to the Sinai, but they did not fire first and most military historians agree it was a strategic blunder and the Egyptian army did not pose a threat (the Israeli air-force also fired on the USS Liberty, a US recon ship off the shore of Egypt). The West Bank and Gaza were annexed/occupied, completing the map of Eretz Israel. There’s actually some suspicion this was done without Israeli cabinet approval. 1982 was outright aggression by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon to install a puppet regime in Lebanon. 1948 is also interesting. The claim’s often made that Israeli forces were resisting Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces. They did invade, but after the British mandate expired on May 15, 1948. Prior to that, the Palestinians had fought with the Israelis (whose military forces outnumber the Palestinians 4 to 1). There’s a debate about whether a pre-planned ethnic cleansing operation ensued which left Israeli forces holding 80% of Palestine. Either way, it’s clear that Israeli forces were far more militarized than the Palestinians were. The Arab armies (which were also outmatched out-numbered by Israeli forces) attacked after this had happened.

I wish I were making this up, but it’s the sequence of events serious historians agree on. Time is linear. Future events cannot justify the past.

Hamas vs Likud

Before we tackle the “Hamas charter”, let’s talk about Likud a little bit. Likud was founded by terrorists. Except we don’t hear much about Menachim Begin (Irgun), Yitzhak Shamir (Lehi) and their bombings of bus stops, hotels and markets in the 30s and 40s. Their outfits also murdered captured British soldiers. So really, when a Likud politician complains about Hamas bombings or kidnappings, we should all do a double-take.

Today Likud has an army, controls all the territory it wants and is far more effective than Hamas at destruction.

We should remember that Likud and Hamas have the same genesis. Both were founded by terrorists.

Likud’s charter and party platform is firmly committed to the destruction of Palestine. Here’s what their party platform says about the West Bank:

The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.

Translation: “There will never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank”.

Friedman says Ehud Olmert was moderate. Hell anyone would be moderate when compared to Netanyahu. Here’s what Bibi said in November 1989:

Israel should have taken advantage of the suppression of demonstrations [at China’s Tiananmen Square], when the world’s attention was focused on what was happening in that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the Territories. However, to my regret, they did not support that policy that I proposed, and which I still propose should be implemented.

So now that we’ve clarified whom we’re talking about when we talk about Likud, we can move on to the Hamas’ charter. The Hamas charter says a lot of things, but what people usually quote is the hadith of the Gharqad tree. A hadith is something attributed to Mohammed, but not in the Koran. This particular hadith refers to an event that occurs at the end of time, i.e. it describes the apocalypse. It’s kind of like all the crazy stuff in Revelation. Standard analysis of the hadith agrees it is not a prescription. Here’s how it reads:

The False Messiah will emerge and I will have with me two bars, so when he sees me he will melt away like the melting of lead. Allah will destroy him until the stone and the tree say: O Muslim, underneath me is an unbeliever, so slay him. Thus, Allah will destroy them.

So Hamas needs to wait till stones and rocks begin to speak before trying their hand at bringing on the apocalypse. But of course, that is not how they use it.

But seriously, is this news? Some radical group mis-interpreting their religion to gather support for a genocidal campaign? The real news is that a freaking Buddhist monk has managed to do this in Mayanmar. Seriously, a Buddhist monk!! I shit you not, anything’s possible.

Here’s what the Koran has to say about the Jewish people:

Among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice. 

and about non-Muslims in general:

Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.

In 2006, when Hamas ran for elections, they ran on a platform that dropped the call for destruction of Israel and they said they would accept a long (50-100 year) truce. They also gave up suicide bombings. You may say they’re not to be believed. Maybe. But then why should be believe the Israeli government when it says it wants to make peace but has done nothing but build settlements for 47 years while running a brutal occupation? And when is Likud going to drop it’s eternal claim to the West Bank? And why are they leading us on with a “two-state peace process” when they have no intention of giving up any land?

Friedman also says the media isn’t reporting “Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters”. The media didn’t have to tell me this, and I suspect they don’t have to tell anyone else. Most of us already know Hamas are not angels who believe in free speech (just as we know there’s a reason Israel’s banned Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem from entering Gaza). We also know the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians, Chinese (and you can keep going) intimidate journalists. Every person in power wants to control the narrative and if they have the means they will use them. Hell that’s why Edward Snowden is living in Russia. Dog bites man is not news. Even if it’s “rabid dog bites man”, that gets buried on page 20. Basically, Hamas perfidy is not news. It would be news if Hamas had sounded reasonable. That’s what happened when they formed a unity government with Abbas and Likud’s fear of what that may lead to is what precipitated this particular crisis.

Palestinian and their destiny

Friedman says:

“Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.”

He’s certainly right that the two-state solution has been foisted on the Palestinians, and that we should examine this. What they’ve actually wanted (since the 20s) is a secular, democratic state in all of Palestine. This was Fatah’s position as well till some good old fashioned American arm-twisting was employed.

We should also examine Israel’s efforts here, and this strikes at the heart of Zionism because much of what Israeli leaders have been doing over the past 80 years or so is a concerted attempt to disenfranchise the Palestinians and frustrate their hopes to create a nation-state. It’s also mean to maintain a “Jewish majority” in the electorate.

One thing that is not discussed as often as it should is the manner in which the Israeli state has imprisoned or assassinated promising Palestinian leaders (including elected representatives). This goes for both leaders of non-violent movements and those who resist the occupation through arms.

Armed resistance is a right of occupied people. I know most of my Jewish friends are very upset when an Israeli soldier dies. I was struck personally by one of the deaths because it was of a young man whose family was from Bombay. But to be blunt, what the hell do you expect? This is part and parcel of an occupation. When you occupy a country, the people will resist. Whether they are Nez Perce, Kashmiri, Polish or Bostonians. That’s what people do when you try to impose a government on them that they don’t like, they resist. The price of oppression is that the oppressed strike back, and the tragedy is that the oppression makes the oppressor more brutal. That is what is happening to Israel and that is what is driving the rightward lurch in Israel.

Another aside, personally I feel like Indian culture (especially in Bombay and Cochin) has been diminished by the emigration of our Jewish population to Israel over the past decades. It’s truly unfortunate, especially for the Cochin community which had existed, peacefully, in India for two and a half millenia. Bombay’s Jews were largely from Baghdad, Iran and Afghanistan.

I don’t think any of us should be offended by Jewish settlers who believe quite strongly they want to live in Hebron because they think their ancestors lived them thousands of years ago. Good on them, they should go there and live in peace with their neighbors.

What we should be offended by is the manner in which the Israeli state installs them in Hebron and tramples on the rights of the Palestinians under the pretext of security for the settlers.

I definitely do not object to Palestinians who want to go back to Yaffa, or Bethlehem, or West Jerusalem. Good on them, they should go there and live in peace with their neighbors too.

When Palestinians say they are against the Israeli state existence, we must understand this is because it is the very Israeli state that is preventing them from realizing these dreams.

I know many people think this is not achievable. I had a twitter exchange with Sam Harris the other day:


Every religion has its extremists. Unfortunately, Islam’s are sitting on the world’s largest reserves of oil and use the proceeds to spread their views.

Judaism has them too. Ovadia Yosef is kind of the canary in the coal mine. There are religious leaders in Israel who want a theocracy, a la Iran. This is one of the things that bugs me about the demands to “recognize Israel as a Jewish state”. You cannot have a “Jewish state” that will still be a democracy with equal rights. The moment you establish a “Jewish state”, the very next question that will be asked is whether everyone is sufficiently Jewish. We know where that leads. Hell, we had our own version of that witch-hunt in the US, it was called the House Committee on Un-American Activities (or if you want actual witch-hunts, Selma).

Hezbollah and Iran

Quoting Friedman again:

Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas.

There’s some context here that I suspect you won’t get from Matti Friedman. First, you have to ask where Hezbollah came from.

In 1982, Menachem Begin (former terrorist bomber, now PM of Israel) thought it would be a good idea to install a Christian Phalangist ally in Lebanon. So Israel invaded, and among other things carpet bombed Beirut. Then, Ariel Sharon’s troops guarded the exits while their Phalangist allies ransacked the Sabra/Shatila refugee camps killing two or three thousand civilians.

This is when Hezbollah gets started, with generous funding from Iran. The Shia in Lebanon decided they could not trust anyone else to protect them so they formed their own militia. Voila, Hezbollah. None of us should buy the claim that Israel is a “victim” of Hezbollah when it played such a critical role in its creation.

Which brings me to Iran. Iran is what it is today at least partly because of US meddling during the Shah’s regime and due to support for Saddam’s regime during the Iran/Iraq war. Regardless of its current politics, Iran’s culture has not changed. Heck they still celebrate Nowruz, a Zoroastrian festival when the religion has not been practiced there for hundreds of years.  In general, the peasants may change their religion, but they don’t change their culture. That’s why Christians had to co-opt a pagan tradition and make it Christmas.

The comment about the Saudis is interesting since I have no idea why anyone would want to hold up that sorry kleptocracy as an example of support that validates your position. It’s also interesting for an analogy you can make between the House of Saud and Likud. The Sauds rule Saudi Arabia partly because they placate the Wahhabis by giving them some control internally and funding their madrasas in the rest of the Islamic world. They give the Wahhabis what they want. Likud holds power because it funds the settler movement and gives it what it wants, i.e. settlements in the West Bank. Both have been playing with fire. The Saudis are more dangerous to the world because their fire has a lot of tinder.

The way out

This has all been so negative. I have to tell you it’s not. There is a way forward. And the way is a single-state with a secular democracy that grants equal rights to all. That would be a true beacon of reason in the Middle-East, because Israel in its current form is surely not. If you disagree, please reconcile your views with the treatment of the Negev Bedouin.

The vast majority of Palestinians would actually be really good partners for a secular democracy. They’re clearly quite flexible since they’ve survived and thrived under Jewish, Christian and Islamic rulers. They are a Mediterranean people, with all that this implies. It’s sort of like coastal Turkey.

Anyway, that’s what I believe and there’s a White House petition you can sign if you think a single, secular state with equal rights for all is the right way to go.

I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from Shaul Judelmann, a settler in the West Bank who was profiled recently in Haaretz.  We’re all told these guys are the problem. They’re actually part of the solution and the reason we should hope. Shaul says:

“People here are almost all religious on the Jewish side. They are not peaceniks. The people here would not be chosen for Seeds of Peace. But it’s clear here that we live together – more clear here than almost anywhere else in Israel that we’re living together,”

“I’ve spent the last four years meeting Palestinians, hearing their side and learning how they see us. I realize, of course, that they hate us. They don’t believe that Israel is connected to the Jewish people. They think Israel is a colonial entity from the outside with no connection to this land. They construct a narrative of us just like we construct a narrative of them. For me it’s very important to bring people who are connected to this land to tell the story of what it means to be in the area of Bethlehem to Hebron for us. It has to be part of a dialogue.”

“When you only live among your own and only know your own narrative, you are naturally very suspicious of the other who is just an intruder and just a thorn in your side and something that doesn’t belong there. But when you open up your heart and you see the other, you begin to see the truth is complex – that my truth is true, but it’s a partial truth and there’s another truth that’s also partial and I have to learn to put them together and make the larger truth. I believe we can do that.”