Category Archives: UN

Mobilizing for Women at the Wall – Where is the Outrage for Simple Human Rights?

wow-liberating-wall

There is something sadly skewed with my community’s moral priorities.

I’m sure many of you have been following the growing uproar – in Israel and America – over the curtailment of women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall.  In protest, an Israeli group called the “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly services there for the past twenty years, advocating for their “social and legal recognition of (their) right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” This right, of course, is denied by the Israeli foundation that essentially runs the site – widely considered holy by Jews the world over –  as the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox synagogue.

The cause of the Women at the Wall was recently re-galvanized when its chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and leading a service there. Since then protests have been spreading across the US – led by an organization called “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” that has organized monthly solidarity services throughout the Jewish community.

At one such service yesterday, organizer Hallel Silverman commented:

This was hundreds of people with different beliefs coming together to fight for one thing they all have in common—Jewish equality.

Oh, would that the Jewish community might galvanize this level of moral outrage for the cause of simple human equality in the state of Israel.

Case in point: during the course of these recent protests, another news item passed far lower across the organized Jewish community’s ethical radar: UNICEF’s recently released report that concluded that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children found evidence of practices it said were “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

From a recent HuffPo feature on the report:

In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”

Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.

In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.

UNICEF said it found no evidence of any detainees being “accompanied by a lawyer or family member during the interrogation” and they were “rarely informed of their rights.”

“The interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess,” it said, noting they were restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time causing pain to their hands, back and legs.

“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” it said.

Most children confess at the end of the interrogation, signing forms in Hebrew which they hardly understand.

It also found children had been held in solitary confinement for between two days and a month before being taken to court, or even after sentencing.

During court hearings, children were in leg chains and shackles, and in most cases, “the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation,” it found.

“Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention. Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves,” UNICEF concluded.

childfather1
I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in my community over this report?  While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with “Jewish rights” in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live in it.  Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “tolerant “among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance on behalf of those who are in our “tribe.”

A Ha’aretz article covering yesterday’s solidarity service in NYC reported:

People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.

In fairness, I’m sure many of the individuals involved in these actions have also advocated for human rights in Israel/Palestine. But the sad truth is that our community would never see fit to mobilize this scale of collective protest in support of Palestinian children. It is well within our comfort zone to protest at Israeli consulates on behalf of Jewish rights. For reasons I understand all too well, universal human rights are still well outside that comfort zone.

Calling Israel’s Discrimination What it Is

The H-2 section of Hevron, where Palestinians must walk on separate sidewalks from Jews.

Cross-posted with the Jewish Daily Forward “Forward Thinking” Blog:

Forward columnist Philologos recently took the Israeli daily Ha’aretz to task for using the term “apartheid” in its reporting on a poll that showed most Israelis support discrimination against Arab citizens. “Apartheid” and mere discrimination are two very different things, Philologos claimed. He suggested that Ha’aretz should be censured for using such a damning epithet.

Philologos went on to define what he sees the critical difference between “apartheid” and “discrimination.” The former refers to “the systematic segregation of one people, race or group from another,” while the latter means “the systematic favoring of one people, race or group over another, such as exists in numerous countries around the world today.” And while Israel may practice regrettable discrimination against its Arab citizens, he claimed it was a “lie” to suggest that it is in any way an apartheid state.

While Philologos may be a fine linguist, his knowledge of international human rights law is sorely lacking.

Contrary to Philologos’ characterization, the term “apartheid” does not refer simply to segregation, although the term comes from a word in the South African Afrikaans language that means separate-ness or segregation. In legal terms, apartheid applies to a wide range of acts in which a dominant racial regime commits institutionalized oppression against another ethnic group.

According to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for instance, the “crime of apartheid” was included in a list of “crimes against humanity,” and defined as:

(Inhuman) acts…committed in the content of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.

Earlier, in 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Among the “inhuman acts” listed were:

(Any) legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of a country.

There is certainly a compelling claim to be made that the term “apartheid” may appropriately be applied to Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. In a recent report, Adalah, an Israeli legal NGO, described no fewer than 30 laws, either enacted or proposed, that create different sets of legal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish (i.e. Palestinian) citizens of Israel.

While many Jews prefer to view Israel as an essentially healthy, if flawed, democracy, those willing to face the painful truth have long known that the so-called “democratic Jewish state” would more accurately be described as a democracy for Jews but not for non-Jews. Consider the following facts:

– Israel has no constitution that guarantees individual liberties for all. Palestinian citizens’ homes and land are regularly seized or demolished to give housing to Jews. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, recently reported that the citizenship of increasing numbers of East Jerusalem residents are being revoked to make way for more land appropriation.

– There are separate schools for Palestinians and Jews. In Israeli universities, no courses are offered in Arabic, even Arabic literature. Use of Arabic in road signs is banned except in towns that the government deems Arab.

– While Jewish citizens of Israel can confer citizenship on new spouses who are not already Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens cannot. According to the law, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza may not reside inside Israel. The ruling literally affects the lives of thousands of couples and their precious right to marry if they so choose. In upholding this law, one Israeli Supreme Court judge conceded that Palestinian rights take a back seat to maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide,” he wrote.

– Palestinian citizens of Israel have distinguishing characteristics on their ID cards, presumably so they can be easily identified for additional scrutiny by law enforcement agencies. Palestinians are regularly harassed, searched and asked to produce identification, based entirely on their race. While Jewish citizens are legally entitled to a speedy trial, fair legal representation and clear charges, these laws do not apply to Palestinian citizens.

There are many more examples of ways that Israel systematically privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens. Organizations such as Adalah, B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have extensively documented these methods.

It is important to note that these are not simply a collection of random discriminatory laws, as Philologos would have it. Taken together, they constitute a systematic, institutional “legal” system that maintains Jews’ privileged status in the Jewish state and, most critically, seeks to ensure a Jewish demographic majority within Israel’s borders at all costs.

One telling case in point: back in 2005, Shimon Peres told U.S. officials (in a statement recently revealed by Wikileaks) that Israel had “lost” land in the Negev “to the Bedouin” and would need to take steps to “relieve” the “demographic threat”.

Flash forward to January 2012: the Israeli government approves the Prawer Plan for mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Negev desert. When fully implemented, this plan will result in the forced displacement of up to seventy thousand Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel and the destruction of thirty-five “unrecognized” villages.

At the end of the day, it really is academic whether we choose to label this kind of policy — and many others like it — to be “discrimination,” “institutional racism” or “apartheid.”

The real question before us not what to call it. For Jews who purport to cherish human rights, the right question is: what are we willing to do about it?

American Heroes: Code Pink’s Anti-Drone Delegation to Pakistan

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.

Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War

An injured civilian is evacuated after shelling by government forces in Aleppo. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Now that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has resigned and is no longer leading the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the horrors unfolding in Syria, the prospect for a peaceful conclusion to this conflict look bleaker than ever – if it’s even possible to suggest such a thing:

(Kofi Annan) cited the Syrian government’s “intransigence” and the opposition’s “escalating military campaign” as major impediments to his peace efforts, along with a lack of unity in the international community on how to deal with the crisis.

I’m thinking “lack of unity in the international community” was just Annan’s polite way of saying this tragic mess in Syria has devolved into a sickening proxy war in which no one’s hands are clean and the only losers are the Syrian people themselves.

If you dare, I recommend you read this blisteringly bitter analysis by journalist Robert Fisk, who excoriates the cynical interests – from the US, to Russia and China, to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to Hezbollah, to the media, to “our dear liberal selves – who are allowing Syria to be used as a bloody chess board, even as they speak out against the daily atrocities that are occurring there:

Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I’m not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I’m referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.

What could possibly be the outcome of a cowardly proxy war in a sectarian Middle Eastern country? Samia Nakhoul, in a lengthy piece for Reuters, offered this dismal – if most likely – answer:

With no Western appetite for military intervention and no prospect of an internationally mediated political resolution, many see the civil war spreading and tearing the country apart.

“Disintegration of Syria is a possibility and the problem is it won’t work. It would create a power vacuum in which others get dragged in just like Iraq. It is a very frightening scenario,” (Cambridge University analyst George) Joffe said.

Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury predicted: “Syria could plunge into a long protracted civil war that could last years. The civil war in Lebanon, with its much smaller population of five million, lasted 15 years due to foreign interference so Syria would be much more complicated.

“The Syrian crisis is so inflammatory that its flames will affect the region in one way or another.”

A prayer for the people of Syria – and a pox on all our houses…

Talking to Iran in Moscow – Pray for Success

Talks began today in Moscow between Iran and the “P5 +1” (the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council plus Germany). I’m hoping against hope for a breakthrough, but it’s certainly not looking good.

For a sane and balanced take on Iran, I’ve long turned to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, and one of our foremost experts on US-Iranian relations. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Parsi identified precisely why Obama has precious little room to maneuver going into the Moscow talks. In a word: Congress.

Congress is actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain.

Just before last month’s talks in Baghdad, Congress passed a resolution that endorsed the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s red line on the nuclear issue (Iran can’t have a uranium-enrichment capability), as opposed to the red line adopted by the Pentagon and the president (Iran can’t have a nuclear weapon).  The problem is, Mr. Netanyahu’s red line isn’t feasible and doesn’t leave any room for negotiations…

If Iran agrees in Moscow to accept the American demand that it halt uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level — too low a level to quickly create a nuclear weapon — this would effectively obstruct any Iranian shortcut to a bomb. Congress must then give Mr. Obama the political space to be able to take yes for an answer.

Congress must make up its mind. Does it want to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb or does it want to maintain its sanctions? Going forward, it can’t have both.

As if to put a period on Parsi’s analysis, last Friday 44 senators (23 of whom were Democrats) sent a letter to President Obama demanding that he insist upon three “absolute minimum steps” for continuation of talks: shutting down the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, freezing all uranium enrichment above 5%, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5% out of the country.

The letter concludes:

If the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists. As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing. Iran’s leaders must realize that you mean precisely that.

If you needed any evidence of Parsi’s claim that Congress is “actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain,” this letter provides it.  The writers and signers of this letter clearly know full well that these demands will be a non-starter for Iran.

Even more disturbing is the role of the Israel lobby in these cynical maneuvers. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg revealed, in a piece posted four days before the letter was released, that the letter was drafted by AIPAC staffers, pointing out that it was essentially

an AIPAC device for scoring senators in an election year. Those who sign will be rewarded or left alone. Those who don’t will hear from AIPAC and its friends. Not a pretty possibility.

OK, I’ll say it: the role of the Israel lobby in the Iran issue has been nothing short of shameful.  And at times openly, brazenly disingenuous.  Among the more odious examples: the Emergency Committee for Israel, (what you might call the more “zealous” wing of the lobby) recently released a 30 second scare-ad that proclaimed, among other things, that “Iran has enough fuel for five nuclear bombs” – a spurious claim which belies that fact that Iran currently has no weapons grade material at all.

Yes, this election year gives Obama precious little room to maneuver – and the lobby is clearly doing everything it can to exploit this.  But since Obama has repeatedly bent over backwards to prove his allegiance to Israel and AIPAC, I don’t see how bowing to these latest salvos will do much to significantly improve his electoral prospects. And since he’s going to be excoriated by his political rivals no matter what he does, why not stick to his own administration’s stated policy, behave like a statesman and push for a diplomatic success? After all, who should be determining Obama administration negotiating strategy – the Obama administration or Congress/AIPAC?

When you consider that the alternative is another ill-advised march to another disastrous Mideast war, the stakes could not possibly be higher.

Pray for a breakthrough in Moscow this week.

PS:  I’m honored to be discussing this issue further in a dialogue with Trita Parsi entitled “Can War with Iran be Averted?” on Thursday, June 28, 7:00 pm at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. Click here for more details.

After Cast Lead, Israeli Companies Now Profit from Rebuilding Gaza

More than three years after Israel inflicted widespread damage on the infrastructure of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, two Israeli companies have now won bids issued by the UNICEF for reconstruction projects there.  In other words, after destroying much of the Gaza Strip, Israel is now reaping significant economic benefits from its reconstruction.

This is called “disaster capitalism” – something Israel has turned into something of an art form. To understand the phenomenon more thoroughly, read Chapter 21 of Naomi Klein’s essential book “The Shock Doctrine,” which explains in vivid detail why Israel now believes it is more in its economic interest to wage war than to make peace:

Clearly, Israeli industry no longer has reason to fear war. In contrast to 1993, when conflict was seen as a barrier to growth, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange  went up in August 2006, the month of the devastating war with Lebanon. In the final quarter of the year, which had also included the bloody escalation in the West Bank and Gaza … Israel’s overall economy grew by a staggering 8 percent – more than triple the growth rate of the U.S. economy in the same period. The Palestinian economy, meanwhile, contracted by between 10 and 15 percent in 2006, with poverty rates reaching close to 70 percent.

UNESCO Admits Palestine, the US Pulls $60 Million

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted yesterday to admit Palestine as its newest member – and the United States promptly responded by cutting off $60 million of funding for the agency.

Apparently our administration feels that Palestine’s membership in an organization committed to “the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue” is “reckless,” “anti-Israel and anti-peace.”

Is there anything at all the US will not do for Israel?

From a smart CNN editorial yesterday:

The irony of the decision to cut funding is that UNESCO is one of the few United Nations groups where the U.S. finds a sympathetic ear on issues related to Israel.  UNESCO is actively working with America to promote tolerance and is working to deepen understanding of the Holocaust in countries where people don’t even believe it existed.

Even more important U.S. interests will be at stake if the World Intellectual Property Organization grants Palestinians membership, which as an affiliate of UNESCO they are almost certain to do.  That is where you start directly encountering obvious and significant interests to American business.

To my mind, the best commentary on the absurdity of all this came when AP reporter Matthew Lee questioned State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland during a press conference yesterday. You can watch the whole thing above or read a full transcript on Sami Kishawi’s blog.

Here’s my favorite part – Kafka couldn’t have written it better:

Reporter: Okay, and how does it undermine exactly the prospect of where you want to go?

Victoria Nuland: The concern is that it creates tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table.

Reporter: The only thing it does is it upsets Israel and it triggers this law that you said will require you to stop funding UNESCO. Is there anything else? There’s nothing that changes on the ground, is there?

Victoria Nuland: Our concern is that this could exacerbate the environment which we are trying to work through so that the parties will get back to the table.

Reporter: How exactly does it exacerbate the environment if it changes nothing on the ground unlike, say, construction of settlements? It changes nothing on the ground. It gives Palestine membership in UNESCO, which was a body the US was so unconcerned about for many years that it wasn’t even a member.

Victoria Nuland: Well, I think you know that this administration is committed to UNESCO, rejoined UNESCO, wants to see UNESCO’s work go forward.

Reporter: Actually, it was the last administration that rejoined UNESCO, not this one. But I need to have some kind of clarity on how this undermines the peace process — other than the fact that it upsets Israel.

Victoria Nuland: Again, we are trying to get both of these parties back to the table. That’s what we’ve been doing all along. That was the basis for the President’s speech in May, basis of the diplomacy that the Quartet did through the summer, the basis of the statement that the Quartet came out with in September. So in that context, we have been trying to improve the relationship between these parties, improve the environment between them, and we are concerned that we exacerbate tensions with this, and it makes it harder to get the parties back to the table.

Reporter: Since the talks broke off last September until today, how many times have they met together, with all your effort?

Victoria Nuland: How many times have the parties met?

Reporter: Yes.

Victoria Nuland: I think you know the answer to that question.

Reporter: Correct.