Israel, There and Here
by Katha Pollitt
The Nation Magazine, August 19/26, 2002
Refugee camp invasions. Suicide bombers. House demolitions.
Suicide bombers. Arrests of children, curfews, roadblocks, collective
punishments, dropping one-ton bombs on densely populated streets.
Only two years ago, a Syrian-American friend laid out for
me a vision for the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians,
she said, were modern, entrepreneurial people who valued education
and technology. She foresaw a kind of Middle Eastern co-prosperity
sphere that would gradually draw the two closer as their economies
meshed and bygones became bygones. That would have been a happy
ending, but what are its chances now?
The Sharon government seems bent on beating, bombing, demolishing,
humiliating and starving the West Bank and Gaza into submission,
while appropriating more and more land for settlers (forty-five
new settlements have gone up in the year and a half since Sharon's
election). Unemployment in the occupied territories stands at
75 percent. According to a report about to be released by USAID,
malnutrition among Palestinian children under 6 has risen from
7 percent to 30 percent over the past two years. In the current
issue of Tikkun', Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem,
the Israeli human rights organization, details the damage wrought
by the Israel Defense Forces in their siege of Jenin and other
West Bank areas this past spring: the flattening of whole streets
and the trashing and looting of homes, civic centers, Palestinian
Authority offices and those of numerous human rights organizations;
gross violations of human rights, including the use of civilians
as human shields; and denial of access to food, water and medical
care, resulting in the deaths of three children and an elderly
Is this what "defending Israel" necessarily involves?
So you might think from the hefty numbers who turn out for pro-Sharon
rallies in this country, like the 100,000 who gathered on the
Washington Mall in April. Not everyone agrees: Opposition to Sharon's
policies was a major theme of the 75,000-strong antiwar demonstration
on April 20; petitions and open letters opposing Sharon are flying
around the Internet, and new groups are forming by the minute-Not
in Our Name, Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, the Jewish
Alliance for Justice and Peace. But the big, well-organized and
well-connected Jewish American numbers are still on the side of
using military force to crush the Palestinians. I signed the open
letter organized by Alan Sokal and Bruce Robbins calling for the
evacuation of settlements and Palestinian self-determination and
felt I knew half the people on it. Nonetheless, there is enough
criticism, from enough quarters, to puncture the old accusations
(in which there was sometimes a grain of truth) that US critics
of Israeli policies are anti-Semites, "self-hating Jews"
or Third World-infatuated America-hating leftists. None of those
terms could conceivably describe the neoliberal (and Jewish) historian
Tony Judt, whose trenchant and bitter critique of recent developments
in The New York Review of Books ("The Road to Nowhere, April
11) did not stop short of describing Israel as a thoroughly militarized
colonial power. Nor is it easy to see recent New York Times coverage
in this light-although the paper is currently being bombarded
with mail and protests for its imaginary pro-Palestinian tilt,
and the Zionist women's group Hadassah has even called for a boycott
of the paper (just for three months, though, because you can't
ask too much of people).
What we need in the United States is the broadest, most open
discussion of what's going on, in search of some kind of realistic
solution to a crisis that's becoming less soluble by the day.
Every American is implicated in Israeli politics, because without
the $3 billion in aid we send each year, Israel could not exist
in anything like its present form. Perhaps Americans really do
want to subsidize Caterpillar bulldozers, Apache attack helicopters,
F-16 jets-but perhaps they would prefer that some of that money
go to relocate Jewish settlers, to integrate Israeli social institutions,
to rebuild the infrastructure of Palestinian civil society and
government, to strengthen the groups on both sides who are most
interested in bringing about the happy end my friend saw just
around the corner.
Unfortunately, people will have to do this work themselves.
Politicians are too frightened, and no wonder: In June, five-term
Democratic Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama lost his primary
race at least in part because the fiercely pro-Israel American
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supported his opponent.
On August 20 five-term Georgia Democratic Representative Cynthia
McKinney faces a tough primary, mostly due to organized opposition
to her criticism of Israel (she also suggested that George W.
Bush knew in advance about September 11, and after Mayor Guliani
rejected a $10 million gift for New York City from Saudi prince
Alwaleed bin Talal because he called for a reexamination of US
Middle East policy, she tactlessly suggested that he give the
money to black charities instead).
The problem is not so much that American Jews exercise the
proverbial "too much influence"; every ethnic group
in America organizes to affect US policy in the old country (think
of Cuban- Irish or, for that matter, African-Americans). Nor is
it wrong to inject national issues into a contest that locals
would prefer to be about other things. The problem is that the
other side-anti-Sharon, pro-peace, call it what you will-is weak
and unorganized. It doesn't have to be that way. One can be overwhelmed
with horror at suicide bombers, think Arafat is a corrupt and
preening tinpot dictator, believe that the real agenda of the
Islamists is to be the Taliban of the Middle East-all just and
appropriate sentiments-and still realize that the current path
of the Israeli government is a disaster in the making, if not