I’ve been home for a few days now and am sorting through a myriad of emotions and experiences from our delegation to the West Bank and Israel. I’m not sure I will do them all justice, but I know I promised some concluding thoughts, so here goes:
The essential mission of our delegation of American Jews and Palestinians was to show solidarity with the burgeoning Palestinian popular resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. We wanted to experience this movement first hand: to live in their homes, to meet with their rank and file as well as their leaders, to march together with them in their weekly demonstration.
In the end, we did all this and more. During the course of our short sojourn, we created new friendships and connections with fellow activists on the ground – and we also strengthened our relationships with one another all the more. I do believe this kind of joint Jewish/Palestinian delegation is a model that can and should be emulated. If the goal is a better future for Jews and Palestinians, I believe it makes eminent sense to travel toward it together.
One of the most important lessons we learned on our trip is that Palestinian resistance is a multifaceted phenomenon. Thanks to the images relentlessly portrayed by the mainstream media, too many in the West assume Palestinian resistance exclusively takes the form of armed resistance. But in fact we we discovered (and I hope my blog posts reflected) the Palestinian people have been resisting decades of injustice through a myriad of means: through cultural expression, through education, through familial ties, through remembrance and through nonviolent direction action, to name but a few.
This point was underlined powerfully by Palestinian academic and activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, with whom we met in Bethlehem. Dr. Qumsiyeh, who is well known in the Palestinian civil society world (and the author of the recent book, “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment“) pointed out to us that in fact, Palestinian popular resistance long predated the establishment of the State of Israel. (One such example he cited was the Arab Palestinian Women’s Union, founded in Jerusalem in 1921, a proto-feminist group that protested against British support of the Zionist colonization of the Palestine – but also advocated for a myriad of women’s issues such as family planning, forced marriage, etc.)
I’ve long believed that the current incarnation of the Palestinian popular resistance is eminently worthy of our attention and support – and I was so grateful for this opportunity to experience it and write about it from within. Too often we hear the oft-repeated shibboleths: “the Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea,” “Palestinians are terrorists” and “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?” I hope that my last several posts have helped you to understand the fallacies of knee-jerk comments such as these.
Where are the Palestinian Ghandis? We met them over and over again: in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah and so many places in between. Granted, this movement currently lacks a singular unifying leader – and on this issue, Dr. Qumsiyeh made an important point. He told us he once heard a presentation by a prominent biographer of MLK, who was asked if the American civil rights movement would have existed if Dr. King had never been born. The biographer had no doubt that it would have, pointing out that leaders do not create movements – but rather, it is movements that create leaders. We can only hope that sooner than later, this will be the case regarding the Palestinian popular resistance as well.
This is not to underestimate the daunting challenges facing this movement. A number of Palestinian activists spoke to us about their hope for a “Global Intifada” – a worldwide movement that might leverage a variety of tactics of nonviolent resistance in popular support of justice for the Palestinians. While this movement is indeed taking shape, Iyad Burnat, Bassem Tamimi and others made it clear to us that they have no illusions. Yes, the weekly demonstrations continue, but they still occur in only semi-coordinated fashion in isolated villages throughout the West Bank. Popular movement leaders are struggling in so many ways to maintain momentum and morale, given that the ongoing reality of these Palestinian communities remains so oppressive and so dire.
And it is an oppression we saw for ourselves quite literally on a daily basis. It is difficult to do justice to the stifling atmosphere in these West Bank communities that are struggling so hard to live a semblance of normalcy amid the separation wall, the checkpoints, the ever-growing settlements, the night raids and the tear gas. As we saw for ourselves, their very steadfastness represents their purest form of resistance. As it is written in various points along the separation wall: “To Exist is to Resist.”
I want to thank my colleagues and on this delegation, who have become dear friends all the more. My love and respect to Shafic Budron, Dima Budron, Rich Cahan, Aaron Cahan, Estee Chandler, Lisa Kosowski, Lynn Pollack, Emman Randazzo, Isobel Randazzo, Kalman Resnick. Stay tuned for their guest posts yet to come. Although I will let their words speak for themselves, I think I can safely say we are united in our conviction that this was only the beginning of a much, much longer journey.
To be continued…
I remember well the murder of Alex Odeh.
It occurred exactly 28 years ago today in Orange County, CA. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I followed the case closely. Odeh, a young Palestinian American who served as the West Coast director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was killed when a bomb ripped through his second story office in Santa Ana. I recall reading that Odeh was a gentle family man and political moderate who called for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. I also remember reading that the FBI suspected three members of the Jewish Defense League, a radical Jewish hate group – and that all three had fled to Israel.
It is now 28 year years later and no one has been arrested for the murder of Alex Odeh – even though the FBI has long suspected the identity of his killers. Sad to say, I admit I wouldn’t be thinking of Alex Odeh today had I not received this petition just sent out by Jewish Voice for Peace, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to hold his murderers accountable.
For more information about the Alex Odeh case, click on the clip above. I also recommend this extensive piece by Erik Skindrud from 2006 which, among other things, points out the hypocrisy of our nation’s selective “War on Terror:”
According to an internal FBI memo made public in 1987, the agency made multiple requests to Israel for cooperation in solving Odeh’s murder. Israel has refused repeatedly, although the details of the behind-doors discussions have never been released. This is despite the fact that (the suspects) have been tried and convicted of other bombings and shootings in the U.S. and the West Bank.
The contradiction is more than boggling in the post-9/11 world, where the U.S. government’s vow to take action against states that harbor terrorists is repeated regularly. Writing in 2003 about the Odeh killing and several similar incidents, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley called the failure “a glaring double standard applied to Arab Americans and Muslims that can be neither denied nor defended.”
I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial. It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.
While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time. Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.
In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.” It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.
Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files. When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.
When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense. Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision. She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.
So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case. Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.
For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would. The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged. She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners. The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.
The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent. Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling. Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.
I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine. In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.
Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:
People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it. Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.
I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.
I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions. On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency. But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.
Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue. And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year. I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention. Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.
I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry. As John Adams famously wrote:
And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.
True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so. Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.
In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.” On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute. After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise. But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security. History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.
Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation. Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world. But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.
Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.
When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act. It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.
It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost. When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods. They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered. And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.
Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this. That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles. Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.
Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad. When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.
I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner. But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.
As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action. An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.
McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations. In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:
By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.
McCord then ended his letter with these words:
If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.
Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military. After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.
As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video? The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.
I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:
When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?
It’s well worth asking why? Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?
And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?
I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets. The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.
I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.
As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most. In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.
Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror. While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.
Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917. Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined. His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right. It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.
To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone, “All governments lie.” Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies. He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.
That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.
I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these. But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.
As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.” Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.
After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.” The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable. We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.
I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well. Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”
Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together. This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence. And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live? Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?
Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.
Like many Jews around the world, I dutifully celebrated Purim last week. In my case, it meant hearing the Book of Esther read aloud in my synagogue while drinking an occasional shot of scotch, enjoying our annual “Oy Vey Cafe,” (a beloved congregational tradition that mixes member-written and performed show tune and classic rock parodies) and attending our synagogue Religious School’s costume parade and Purim carnival.
I’m sure that many middle-class American Jews celebrated Purim in similar fashion. I’m also fairly sure that most middle-class American Jews are unaware that Purim has long been “celebrated” in a very different manner by ultra-nationalist Jews in Israel.
Last week on the day after Purim, it was reported that a Palestinian woman was attacked by ultra-orthodox women at a light rail station in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem. According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman walked by the Palestinian woman and began punching her (see pic above). Others soon joined in the attack and eventually tore off her hijab. According to the report, the light rail security guard, as well as some 100 religious Israeli men, stood by and did nothing. Eyewitness Dorit Yarden Dotan, who was horrified by the violence and took photos of the beating with her telephone, reported that the security guard even “watched and smiled”. “It was simply terrible,” she added.
By the way, this was not the only act of Purim violence this year. On the same day as the Jerusalem attack, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Hassan Usruf (right), was attacked by drunken Jewish youths whom police suspect had been participating in Purim celebrations during the evening. Usruf was punched, hit in the head with a bottle and kicked after he fell to the ground. He sustained injuries to his head, eye socket and jaw. The police have yet to arrest any suspects.
Those who follow the news must surely know that this kind of Jewish violence against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel. The most infamous Purim moment, of course, occurred in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron wearing an Israeli army uniform and opened fire on Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and wounding more than 125. By committing this act of mass murder, Goldstein believed he was fulfilling the the Book of Esther, which describes the slaughter of seventy five thousand Persians at the hands of the Jews. Since that time, Goldstein has become venerated by ultra-orthodox, ultra-nationalist Jews and for rest of us, Purim has never been quite the same.
I’ve recently finished Elliot Horowitz’s 2006 book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence” – a deeply troubling (but to my mind, profoundly essential) book that traces the history of Jewish violence on Purim over the centuries. Among the many disturbing revelations of Purim history in Horowitz’s book, I was surprised to learn that bad Jewish behavior on Purim has a long and not so venerable history – one that most Jewish histories either gloss over or simply choose to ignore.
Horowitz also parses the history of Purim violence in contemporary Israel, going back to Purim 1981, when Jewish settlers brought down the roof of a Palestinian upholsters’ home, expelled its owner and took over the house. (The house had once been a Jewish infirmary and synagogue, “Beit Hadassah.”) Since then, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hevron has become an annual tradition of Jewish pogroms against Palestinians. As last week’s events have demonstrated, however, this brutality is now ominously expanding into Israel proper.
Yes, the Book of Esther does come off as a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. As for me, I’ve always read the book according to the satirical spirit of the day: an expression of the “Jewish Id” that gives us the chance to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year. But of course, there are – and apparently have always been – religious literalists who are all too prepared to treat what is essentially a secular tale of palace intrigue as a sacred imperative to engage in xenophobic violence against others.
In his book, Horowitz quotes the venerable Jewish scholar Samuel Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), a former rector and professor at Hebrew University, who expressed dismay at boorish and violent behavior of Jews on Purim. Bergman – a religiously observant Jew – commented that its continued observance as a religious holiday was a sign of “the deep decay of our people.” (p. 277)
In the post-Goldstein era, I’d say Bergman’s words resonate with ever-increasing urgency.
Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:
From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.
Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.
My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.
I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001″. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”
This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive. Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.
Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was. Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?
Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash. If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?
Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.” It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.
Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:
The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…
(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.
In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.
In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:
All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…
Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.
The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.
And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.
More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.
Medea Benjamin is a true American hero.
The Code Pink founder and nonviolence activist is currently leading a delegation of 31 American peace activists through Pakistan to protest the tragic damage wrought by US drone attacks. Traveling with popular Pakistani politican, Imran Khan, the delegation recently attempted to hold a rally in the tribal regions that have been hardest hit by the US drone campaign. On October 9, the delegation will publicly fast from sunrise to sunset at a vigil in front of the Islamabad Press Club, where they will display pictures of the more than 160 Pakistani children who have been killed by American drones. (Jews who have only recently completed a fast of atonement should appreciate the spiritual power of such an act…)
From a recent WashPo feature:
The majority-female delegation — in their early 20s to late 70s — traveled with no security guards despite announced militant threats against them and Khan, head of the Pakistan Justice Movement political party. They fell in line behind Khan’s procession as legions joyously waved party flags atop trucks.
By late Saturday, when the Codepink delegates finally reached a large farm belonging to a regional party official, they were mobbed by an admiring Pakistani media and given a hero’s welcome by hundreds of the candidate’s fans.
Anti-American sentiment runs extremely high in Pakistan, but the delegation focused on a simple message: “We are against drones” was emblazed in Urdu in green fluorescent script, outlined with glitter, on the oversize white bibs they wore.
“You hit people with these drones and you create instant enemies,” said JoAnne Lingle, a silver-haired Mennonite from Indianapolis. “It’s supposed to be increasing our national security and it’s doing the opposite.”
The US drone wars are our national shame. If there had previously been any doubt, I’d say they’ve been put to rest by the NYU School of Law and Stanford University Law School, who released a deeply damning report entitled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan” late last month.
From the report’s Executive Summary:
In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.
This narrative is false.
Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones…
(While) civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. In public statements, the US states that there have been “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.”2 It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid- September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.
Shortly after this report was issued, Obama had the temerity to stand before the UN and decry the “killing of innocents” in the US mission in Benghazi. This, while his administration continues to kill innocents in a secrecy-shrouded military program that blatantly undermines the US Constitution and international law – and is most surely inflaming further Mideast rage toward the US. In the face of such hypocrisy, all I can say is thank God for truth-tellers like Medea Benjamin.
You can follow the progress of the Code Pink delegation here. For further reading, I highly recommend reading Benjamin’s excellent new book, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” and this recent piece by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been indefatigably writing shining a bright light on Obama’s drone wars since their inception.
Immediately after September 11, I was so struck by the predominant collective response: the ubiquitous display of flags everywhere you looked; the knee-jerk “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant whenever the tragedies were invoked; the widespread desire for retributive justice, wherever, however possible.
Now eleven years later, even after all that’s happened since, I’m just so saddened that nationalistic displays seem to be the only way we know how to commemorate our dead. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s difficult for me to accept that we still haven’t found a healthier national outlet for our grief. Call me naive, but I was genuinely surprised – and quite honestly mortified – that the loudest cheers at the DNC last week (always accompanied by the still ubiquitous “U-S-A! U-S-A!”) were saved for references to 9/11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
If you found yourself disturbed as well, I highly recommend that you read this recent piece by Glenn Greenwald, who sorrowfully identifies all that was wrong with the bloodlust on unabashed display during the DNC:
Americans once found national purpose – justification for their belief in their own exceptionalism – from inventing new life-improving technologies, or putting a man on the moon, or advancing the cause of equality, or vanquishing the mighty Nazi military machine, or enshrining unparalleled protections for core liberties in the constitution. Now, many Americans find it in the heroic ability to hunt someone down who is in hiding, pummel his skull full of bullets even as he lay dying on the ground, and then dump his corpse into the ocean…
The premise seems to be that – aside from this specific corpse and the others the president has piled up – there is little else for ordinary Americans to celebrate now when it comes to the search for nationalistic achievement, purpose and greatness among their political leadership. That this dark premise appears valid is what is most disturbing of all.
In the meantime, for me the most moving, compassionate and morally honest tribute to the 9/11 fallen – and all who have fallen by our hands since – is this spoken word piece by Palestinian-American Suheir Hammad (above) entitled “First Writing Since.”
i cried when i saw those buildings collapse on themselves like a broken
heart. i have never owned pain that needs to spread like that.
there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are
symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will
never know. there is death here, and there are promises of more.
there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting,
but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will
shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the
rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has risen.
we got to carry each other now.
you are either with life, or against it.