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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 3   16-30 June 2010

Israel’s Growing International Isolation
Chosen, but Not Special

By Michael Chabon

“GAZA Flotilla Drives Israel Into a Sea of Stupidity” declared the Israeli daily Haaretz on Monday, as though announcing the discovery of some hitherto unknown body of water. Citizens of other nations have long since resigned themselves, of course, to sailing those crowded waters, but for Israelis — and, indeed, for Jews everywhere — this felt like headline news.

Regardless of whether we chose in the end to condemn or to defend the botched raid on the Mavi Marmara, for Jews the first reaction was shock, confusion, as we tried to get our heads around what appeared to be an unprecedented display of blockheadedness. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic cast his startled regard back along the length of Jewish history looking for a parallel example of arrant stupidity and found, instead, what Jews around the world have long been accustomed to find in contemplating ourselves and that history: an inborn, half-legendary agility of intellect, amounting almost to a magical power.

“There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance,” Mr. Goldberg wrote. “Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a yiddishe kop, a ‘Jewish head,’ is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.”

This is nonsense, of course — nonsense to which, I hasten to assure Mr. Goldberg, I have always avidly subscribed. In the aggregate, Jews may or may not be smarter than other groups, but the evidence in favor of granting some kind of inherent or culturally determined supernatural abilities of seichel to the yiddishe kop certainly cannot be found in our history, which is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.

An honest assessment of Jewish history must conclude that even the collective act that might seem most tellingly to argue in favor of Jewish intelligence — our survival across millenniums in spite of constant hatred, war, persecution, intolerance and genocide — is ultimately just the same trick performed by our species as a whole (at least so far).

The presence of Jews among the not-yet-extinct peoples of the world can no more be credited to any kind of special trait or behavior than the Tasmanians or the Taino ought to be blamed for their own eradication. In the end human survival is a matter of luck — or destiny, if you prefer — of decisions taken in distant capitals in vanished eras that bore unforeseeable fruit 200 years on, of chaotically intersecting systems of weather, metaphysics and pandemic, of the failures and weaknesses and limitations of our would-be destroyers.

We construct the history of our wisdom only by burying our foolishness in the endnotes. To imagine a Chelm — the town inhabited, according to Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, entirely by fools — requires a presumption of general wisdom elsewhere, as the proper imagining of Heaven requires an earthly realm of sorrow.

As a Jewish child I was regularly instructed, both subtly and openly, that Jews, the people of Maimonides, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Meyer Lansky, were on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people. And, duly, I would look around the Passover table, say, at the members of my family, and remark on the presence of a number of highly intelligent, quick-witted, shrewd, well-educated people filled to bursting with information, explanations and opinions on a diverse range of topics. In my tractable and vainglorious eagerness to confirm the People of Einstein theory, my gaze would skip right over — God love them — any counterexamples present at that year’s Seder.

This is why, to a Jew, it always comes as a shock to encounter stupid Jews. Philip Roth derived a major theme of “Goodbye, Columbus” from the uncanny experience. The shock comes not because we have never encountered any stupid Jews before — Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people — but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor.

It was this endlessly repeated yet never remembered shock of encountering our own stupidity as a people — stupidity now enacted by the elite military arm of a nation whose history we have long written, in our accustomed way, by pushing to the endnotes all counterexamples to the myth of seichel — that one heard filtering through so much of the initial response among Jews to the raid on the Mavi Marmara.

This sense of widespread shock at Israel’s blockheadedness in the aftermath of the raid seemed not to be confined, in fact, to Jews. Even Israel’s sternest critics will concede that the Jewish state knows how to go about the business of survival in a hostile world with intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, flexibility and preternatural control over the levers of chance and diplomacy (not to mention the global economic system and the news media). Indeed anti-Semites and the enemies of Israel have often been found among the most devout believers in the myth of seichel, of a special — O.K., a diabolical — Jewish intelligence.

For we Jews are not, it turns out, entirely comfortable living with the consequences of this myth, as becomes clear from the squirming and throat-clearing that take place among us whenever some non-Jew pipes up with his own observations about how clever and smart we are in our yiddishe kops. These include people like the political scientist Charles Murray, author of an influential essay titled “Jewish Genius,” or Kevin B. MacDonald, a psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach who argues that Jews essentially undertook a centuries-long program of self-breeding, selecting for traits of intelligence, guile and skill at calculation, as a kind of evolutionary adaptation to the buffetings of history and exile.

Such claims, in mouths of gentiles, are a disturbing echo of the charges of the pogrom-stokers, the genocidalists, the Father Coughlins, who come to sharpen their knives against the same grindstone of generalization on which we Jews have long polished the magnifying lenses of our self-regard. The man who praises you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction.

This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled.

This is the ambiguity that cites the dispensation of God and history, of covenant and Holocaust, to lay claim to a special relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel, then protests when the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.

This is the ambiguity that proudly asserts the will and the obligation of Israel to be a light unto the nations, then points to the utterly evil, utterly bankrupt, utterly degraded, utterly stupid misdeeds of ship-sinking, sailor-massacring North Korea — North Korea! — in an attempt to give context to its own relatively less-evil, bankrupt, degraded and stupid behavior.

Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm. Now is the moment to acknowledge that the 62-year history of Israel, like the history of the Jewish people and of the human race, has been from the beginning a record of glory and fiasco, triumph and error, greatness and meanness, charity and crime.

The past two decades in particular have illustrated to Jews and to the world a painful premise, but one that was implicit in the Zionist idea from the beginning: If, in the words of the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people have a natural right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” then the inescapable codicil of this natural inheritance is that the Jewish people, “like all other nations,” are every bit as capable of barbarism and stupidity.

IF Israel was, as the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann put it, to “become as Jewish as England is English and America is American,” then, like England and America and every other modern polity, Israel must slog along through history, purblind and panicky, from its founding to its ultimate fate, prey at every moment to — and, God willing, on guard against — its rich, inglorious human heritage of blockheadedness.

After my initial shock at this fresh display of foolery by the Chelmites of Jerusalem had subsided, I felt an abstract pity for the wasted dead with their cargo of lumber and delusions, for the ill-equipped, poorly led soldiers who had killed them and, running true and clear like a subterranean stream, pity for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas the past four years, and his family. But I also felt a kind of grim relief, even resolve.

Let us shed our illusions, starting with ourselves, whoever we are and however august our inheritance of stupidity. Let us not forget the eternal hole in our human pocket. Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority, by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else. And let us not forgive ourselves — any more than we forgive Israel, or than Israel can forgive itself — for that terrible inconsistency.

Michael Chabon is the author of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”

(Source: International Herald Tribune, 6 June 2010)

Israel's siege mentality

THE lethal mishandling of Israel’s attack on a ship carrying humanitarian supplies that was trying to break the blockade of Gaza was bound to provoke outrage—and rightly so. The circumstances of the raid are murky and may well remain that way despite an inquiry. But the impression received yet again by the watching world is that Israel resorts to violence too readily. More worryingly for Israel, the episode is accelerating a slide towards its own isolation. Once admired as a plucky David facing down an array of Arab Goliaths, Israel is now seen as the clumsy bully on the block.

Israel’s desire to stop the flotilla reaching Gaza was understandable, given its determination to maintain the blockade. Yet the Israelis also had a responsibility to conduct the operation safely. The campaigners knew that either way they would win. If they had got through, it would have been a triumphant breaching of the blockade. If forcibly stopped, with their cargo of medical equipment and humanitarian aid, they would be portrayed as victims—even if some, as the Israelis contend, brought clubs, knives and poles. As it was, disastrous planning by Israel’s soldiers led to a needless loss of life.

For anyone who cares about Israel, this tragedy should be the starting point for deeper questions—about the blockade, about the Jewish state’s increasing loneliness and the route to peace. A policy of trying to imprison the Palestinians has left their jailer strangely besieged.

Related items

Israel and Gaza: How Israel plays into Hamas's hands Jun 3rd 2010

Losing friends, strengthening Hamas

The blockade of Gaza is cruel and has failed. The Gazans have suffered sorely but have not been starved into submission. Hamas has not been throttled and overthrown, as Israeli governments (and many others) have wished. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier taken hostage, has not been freed. Weapons and missiles can still be smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.

Just as bad, from Israel’s point of view, it helps feed antipathy towards Israel, not just in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but in Europe too. Israel once had warm relations with a ring of non-Arab countries in the vicinity, including Iran and Turkey. The deterioration of Israel’s relations with Turkey, whose citizens were among the nine dead, is depriving Israel of a rare Muslim ally and mediator. It is startling how, in its bungled effort to isolate Gaza, democratic Israel has come off worse than Hamas, which used to send suicide-bombers into restaurants.

Most telling of all are the stirrings of disquiet in America, Israel’s most steadfast ally. Americans are still vastly more sympathetic to the Israelis than to the Palestinians. But a growing number, especially Democrats, including many liberal Jews, are getting queasier about what they see as America’s too robotic support for Israel, especially when its government is as hawkish as Binyamin Netanyahu’s. A gap in sympathy for Israel has widened between Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives still tend to back Israel through hell and the high seas. Barack Obama is more conscious that the Palestinians’ failure to get a state is helping to spread anti-American poison across the Muslim world, making it harder for him to deal with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. His generals have strenuously made that point. None other than the head of Israel’s Mossad, its foreign intelligence service, declared this week that America has begun to see Israel more as a burden than an asset.

That has led to the charge by hawkish American Republicans, as well as many Israelis, that Mr Obama is bent on betraying Israel. In fact, he is motivated by a harder-nosed appreciation of the pros and cons of America’s cosiness with Israel, and is thus all the keener to prod the Jewish state towards giving the Palestinians a fair deal. He has condemned the building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory more bluntly than his predecessors did, because he rightly thinks they make it harder to negotiate a peace deal. Mr Obama’s greater sternness towards Israel is for the general good—including Israel’s.

Harmony is not just a dream

Israel is caught in a vicious circle. The more its hawks think the outside world will always hate it, the more it tends to shoot opponents first and ask questions later, and the more it finds that the world is indeed full of enemies. Though Mr Netanyahu has reluctantly agreed to freeze settlement-building and is negotiating indirectly with Palestinians, he does not give the impression of being willing to give ground in the interests of peace.

Yet the prospect of a deal between Palestinians and Israelis still beckons. The contours of a two-state solution remain crystal-clear: an adjusted border, with Israel keeping some of the biggest settlements while Palestine gets equal swaps of land; Jerusalem shared as a capital, with special provisions for the holy places; and an admission by Palestinians that they cannot return to their old homes in what became Israel in 1948, with some theoretical right of return acknowledged by Israel and a small number of refugees let back without threatening the demographic preponderance of Jewish Israelis.

And what about Hamas, if Israel is to lift the siege of Gaza? How should Israel handle an authoritarian movement that refuses to recognise it and has in the past readily used terror? One answer is to ask the UN to oversee the flow of goods and people going in and out of Gaza. That is hardly a cure-all, but Hamas would become the world’s problem neighbour, not just Israel’s. The Arab world must do more, pressing Hamas to disavow violence, publicly pledge not to resume the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians and revoke its anti-Semitic charter. The West, led by Mr Obama, should call for Hamas to be drawn into negotiations, both with its rival Palestinians on the West Bank as well as with Israel, even if it does not immediately recognise the Jewish state. It is still the party the Palestinians elected in 2006 to represent all of them. None of this will be easy. But the present stalemate is bloodily leading nowhere.

Israel is a regional hub of science, business and culture. Despite its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the land it occupies, it remains a vibrant democracy. But its loneliness, partly self-inflicted, is making it a worse place, not just for the Palestinians but also for its own people. If only it can replenish its stock of idealism and common sense before it is too late.

The Economist

The Pressure on Israel to lift Gaza blockade

By Donald Macintyre

Israel's cabinet meets today under the heaviest international pressure yet – in the aftermath of its lethal naval commando assault on a pro-Palestinian flotilla a fortnight ago – to relax the three-year economic embargo on Gaza.

Western diplomats are hoping that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, will give the first indication this morning of a major rethink of Gaza policy, under which a wide range of civilian goods would be admitted to start reviving the paralysed commercial life of the besieged territory. The international Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, met Mr Netanyahu for the third time in eight days on Friday to press him to end the heavily restrictive list of "allowed" civilian goods and produce one for those that are to be banned instead, as a first step towards reviving commerce and allowing postwar reconstruction.

The seemingly technical change would have potentially far-reaching consequences since it would require Mr Netanyahu to agree the general authorisation of civilian imports to Gaza – including raw materials needed for manufacturing and subsequent exports – other than those agreed to pose a clear threat to Israel's security.

Today's Israeli cabinet meeting comes 24 hours ahead of a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers, three of whom, France's Bernard Kouchner, Italy's Franco Frattini, and Miguel Moratinos of Spain, also called publicly last week for a relaxation of the naval embargo and the reopening of the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel at Karni.

The embargo, imposed after Hamas seized full control of Gaza by force when its coalition with Fatah collapsed in June 2007, has precipitated the virtual collapse of Gaza's once productive private-sector manufacturing industry, decimated agricultural exports, confined the formerly vital fishing industry within a one-mile limit, left 80 per cent of Gazans dependent on food aid, and rendered pointless the vast bulk of the $7.5bn pledged by donor countries for reconstruction after Israel's 2008-2009 military offensive in the territory.

An insight into the plans being worked on by the Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – which has specifically mandated Mr Blair to conduct the negotiations with Mr Netanyahu – is contained in a draft of the paper authorised for circulation by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in the wake of the flotilla attack, and which describes the three-year-old blockade as "unacceptable and counterproductive". It adds that the blockade "hurts the people of Gaza, holds their future hostage, and undermines work to drive reconstruction, development and economic empowerment. At the same time, the blockade empowers Hamas through the tunnel economy and damages Israel's long-term security through its corrosive impact on a generation of young Palestinians."

The British draft, which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday, stresses that the new approach is "not about rewarding Hamas"; that the Quartet needs to restate its "wider position on Hamas and its concern about Hamas's role in Gaza" and repeats calls for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and other Gaza militants four years ago.

But although the working paper was drafted for last week's Quartet meeting, it summarises what it says was "already broad agreement" on a package of measures needed to ease the blockade, "including through earlier work by the UN and the Quartet representative [Mr Blair]". These include:

    * Urgent UN-led reconstruction. It says the blockade has prevented implementation of the UN's "comprehensive" plan for the most urgently needed building of schools, hospitals, sewerage water and other infrastructure;

    * Switching from the list of "allowed" to one of "permitted goods" – which it says is "the right way to protect both valid security measures and vital economic activity";

    * "Robust monitoring" of potential dual-use materials such as cement and piping, with the international community playing an important potential role;

    * The reopening of Karni, "the only crossing suited to the large volume of goods that need to start flowing", with a possible EU monitoring role such as that undertaken at Rafah before June 2007;

    * Starting seaborne delivery "via [the Israeli port of] Ashdod" to help kickstart both imports and exports;

    * A boost in funding for the UN refugee agency UNRWA, which is responsible for the education and health of almost 1 million of Gaza's 1.5m residents.

The negotiations on the embargo have overlapped with those – especially between Israel and the US – over what form of inquiry should be conducted into the commando raid which halted the flotilla and cost the lives of nine Turks in the fighting aboard the biggest of the boats, the passenger ferry Mavi Marmara. Israel, whose military chief of staff, Gabi Ashekenazi, has appointed Giora Eiland, a reserve general and former head of the national security agency, to head an internal inquiry into the naval operation, has indicated that it will also appoint a former high court judge to head a civilian inquiry. It is not expected that such an inquiry will take testimony from naval special forces personnel who took part in the raid.

While Western governments and Israel have denied any direct linkage between the two issues, diplomats have acknowledged that any expectation that Israel was prepared for a significant relaxation of the Gaza embargo would lessen pressure for a full international inquiry, of the sort proposed by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

The switch from an "allowed" to a "banned" list would be a major policy shift, since the latter would presumably only include goods deemed to put Israel's security at risk. That would reflect a change of purpose at the time of the original imposition of the embargo – reinforced by the Israeli cabinet's declaration of Gaza as a "hostile entity" – which had the much wider goal of crippling its economy.

Documents produced by the Israeli authorities at the time in the face of court challenges to the blockade specifically cited international conventions permitting "economic warfare" under certain circumstances. Mr Netanyahu, not then in office, could thus plausibly argue that he had no responsibility for the original decision.

When Israel relaxed the embargo last week to allow in a range of additional foods – from the previously banned coriander, jam, packaged hummus and biscuits – Gisha, the Israeli human rights organisation, pointed out that Israel was still not letting in raw materials like margarine and glucose that could be used for processed food manufacture in Gaza itself.

The same is true of a much wider range of raw materials – such as textile fabrics that up to 2007 were imported in large quantities by hundreds of small clothing firms. It is well nigh impossible to justify a ban on importing rolls of cloth on security grounds.

The switch from a "permitted" to a "banned" list is reportedly envisaged by Mr Blair as the first of three principles for a relaxation of the embargo. The second is that international aid agencies, in consultation with Israel, would have oversight for "dual use" goods which Israel fears could be seized by Hamas for military purposes. The model is the severely limited increase of building materials for sewage, hospital and housing projects in Gaza in the past few weeks, in which the UN has successfully acted as guarantor that the imports will not so be used, and which it wants expanded.

While some Europeans have been suggesting that the naval blockade could be lifted to allow ships to go to Gaza after international and/or Israeli inspection, Israel has so far been resistant to any transfer to Gaza other than by land.

The third is the reopening of land crossings – most notably the big cargo terminal at Karni – in which EU officials, and possibly in the longer term, units of President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard would assume responsibility for monitoring goods entering Gaza.

(Source: The Independent, 13 June 2010)

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