Jim Sleeper: From Beit Shemesh, a Cry to American Jews

[Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University.]

I won't even try to improve on the exemplary posts here by MJ Rosenberg and Jo-Ann Mort on the Flotilla mess and the Gaza blockade, but since I'm in Israel right now (for another few days), I do want to recount two experiences and mention a recent "incident" that underscores how urgent it is that U.S. policy and American-Jewish opinion shift substantially.

Yesterday I went to a wedding at Beit Shemesh, an ancient village on a promontory an hour and a half southwest of Tel Aviv. In pre-biblical times it oversaw a trade route, and then it became a Hebrew outpost near Philistine territory and, later, a border town between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

I went there with a first cousin of the bride's father; their families were from Istanbul and Gallipoli, where their ancestors had lived for 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition drove them to the Ottoman Empire. These Turkish Jews had grown up hearing their elders speak Ladino, a Sephardic Jewish equivalent of Yiddish that is mostly Spanish rather than mostly German - an unbroken but now-disappearing thread back to pre-Inquisition Spain.

The groom grew up among refugees from interwar Europe, but in Buenos Aires, ironically, for a reason that soon overtook us all: As his mother offered her blessings to the newlyweds in a lovely, soft Argentine Spanish, the Turkish Jews at the wedding were surprised and moved to hear remnants and echoes of their old Istanbul Ladino, alongside the more-ancient Hebrew that had traveled liturgically with all the families around the globe and now bound them to the site of the wedding.

On our way down to Beit Shemesh, our driver, a friendly, politically passionate fellow of about 40 with a shaved head, had given us the characteristic Israeli line on "the situation." It's the line that shapes most news reportage in the country and, with it, most Israelis' attitudes and analysis. To paraphrase and summarize:

"The world is against us no matter what we do. They wanted us out of Europe. Now that they got us out, they want us out of here, too. They hated us when we ran Gaza, they hated us when we got out and left greenhouses and schools, which Hamas made a big show of destroying; and now they hate us because we can't let Gaza be run by a heavily armed Hamas, which most Palestinians themselves fear and hate and which is tied to powers that are sworn to destroy us.

"You see, no one in this region respects or responds to anything but brute force. We have to live with that day and night, so we understand.

"I used to vote left, and I still don't like Bibi or [Avigdor] Lieberman, and I'd still say, Give back the Golan Heights, give back East Jerusalem. But give it to who? How naïve can we be?

"Does anyone think that any Arab regime, or Amadenijad or Erdogan, who all have more blood on their own hands than we ever did, and who are trying to hide so much brutality now, care a damn about Palestinians? I swear to you, I care more than they ever will."

He drew analogies between the West's baffling, hypocritical indulgence of such monsters and earlier naifs' indulgences of Hitler as he re-armed, amassed power and credibility, and broadcast his murderous intentions. Finally, approaching Beit Shemesh, our driver reminded us that the name "Palestine" is the ancient Roman imperial name for the land of the Philistines, not for Arabs, and that Hebrew was spoken in Palestine more than seven centuries before Arabic was.

It's a seemingly unbreakable and doomed logic, and most Israelis these days are sunk in it. I won't reprise MJ's and Jo-Anne's responses to this kind of thinking, but suffice it to say here that with the right mix of incentives and alternatives as well as constraints, Hamas and Hezbollah might evolve as other seemingly terminally murderous organizations in Ireland and South Africa evolved. Without such a strategy, far-fetched though it may seem, more and increasingly brutal, hopeless conflicts will drag all parties, including the beautiful wedding party in Beit Shemesh, to destruction.

But can Israel itself change in the ways the Ulster Protestants and Afrikaners did? We rode back from the wedding with two Israelis in their 50s who wish that it could but doubt that it will. They are professional men, one a psychologist and consultant to high-tech companies, the other an industrial-relations expert who hosts some of China's commercial delegations to Israel, where they study irrigation, desalinization, and other agricultural innovations.

Both are cosmopolitan men, intellectuals, readers of Haaretz, the left-liberal paper; they are also Israeli army veterans and fathers of sons who are or were recently in the army. They're very deeply pessimistic about the Israeli public, which they fear won't give up thinking like our first driver until the next, really big, disaster teaches them that the softer, defter strategies are actually Israel's only hope.

Such strategies, involving irresistible economic incentives and real political opportunities, might, if sustained over time, loosen things up enough among Palestinians to diminish the grip of Hamas' ridiculous and destructive theocrats. Such strategies might even more quickly diminish the geo-political shell games now being played by Hamas' cynical supporters who have so much to hide (including Turkey, whose record with Armenians and Kurds makes its posturing as a champion of oppressed Gazans as transparently pathetic as it is demagogic.)

Because our hosts on the drive home doubt that Israel's politicians and public will take the necessary first steps, they're desperate for Obama to take those steps by pulling a couple of plugs on Bibi's state-of-siege politics. Apparently, Obama is considering it. But what it amounts to will depend partly how big a shift of opinion is really underway in the American Jewish community.

I arrived back in Tel Aviv aware even more starkly than I had been before of how despairing and isolated some of the best of Israelis feel. If there is an Israeli Obama on the country's horizon, no one I've talked to has spotted him among the midgets and monsters running most of the show.

None of this is news to TPM readers, but my experiences underscore how much is at stake in work like MJ Rosenberg's and Jo-Ann Mort's - and, yes, Peter Beinart's, if he transforms his opportune re-positioning toward a more dedicated strategy to change young American Jews' thinking, and, with it, American policy.

A potentially immense, though loathsome, spur to such a change is last week's blinding of a 21-year-old American Jewish peace activist by a tear-gas canister fired at her by Israeli soldiers on the West Bank.

A look at the blog of the victim, Emily Henochowicz, an art student at The Cooper Union in New York, shows her as innocent as the young man depicted in an emblematic photo of the late 1960s placing a flower into the barrel of the gun of a soldier guarding the Pentagon against an anti-war demonstration.

That demonstrator was not harmed, and Emily's almost childlike rendering of a demonstration she participated in at Walaja not long before she was blinded makes me think that she expected to be treated similarly. Looking at her illustrations and poetic lines, I can't repress a paternal impulse to warn her that she's not ready and shouldn't be there.

Her blinding and the lethal bulldozing of Rachel Corrie comprise a kind of Kent State for young American activists whom Israel has been systematically trying to frighten away from the non-violent, joint Arab-and-Jewish demonstrations that actually offer Israel its only way out.

But the Kent State students were on home turf, trying to change their own country. Our fellow wedding guests in Beit Shemesh believe that young Americans' most important work right now must be done in the American Jewish community itself. They may well be right.

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Arnold Shcherban - 6/10/2010

<...most important work right now must be done in the American Jewish community itself.>
Unfortunately (since the mission at hand is almost impossible) that is the only alternative left now to change the realpolitik of Israeli governments and, consequently, the one of the Palestinian leading parties.

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