Why I Support the Palestinian Right of Return

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(Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activeststills.org)

If there’s one thing that virtually all Zionists can agree upon, from the political right to left and everywhere in between, it is their abject unwillingness to accept the Palestinian right of return.

There is an almost visceral quality to this rejection, which is invariably presented as an existential necessity, rather than a political argument. Read here, for instance, the comments of the relatively moderate Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:

The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode.

Amos Oz, poet laureate of the Israeli peace movement, used identical rhetoric in a 2013 NY Times interview:

The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.

Since Palestinian civil society issued its call for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, which includes the goal of “respecting, protecting and promoting” the Palestinian right of return, many now claim that supporting BDS – a nonviolent call for equality, freedom and human rights – is itself tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. The progressive American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart has written versions of this position repeatedly over the years:

(BDS) calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.

Conveniently lost amidst all the rhetoric, however, is the fact that the right of return is a legitimately claimed right that is enshrined in international law. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Beinart’s point actually makes it very clear: the choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.

“The Old will Die and the Young will Forget”

Between November 1947 and October 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes by Jewish militias, an event Israel refers to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call collectively the Nakba (“catastrophe”). In December of 1948, as Palestinian refugees languished in camps waiting to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 by a majority of 34 countries, including the United States.

Article 11 of the resolution stated:

Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity.

The government of the newly declared state of Israel, however, refused to allow dislocated Palestinians to return to their homes. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed, many of which had new Jewish settlements built upon them. In towns and cities, new Jewish immigrants moved into empty Palestinian houses that had been appropriated by Israel. And to this day, “the earliest practical date” for the return of Palestinians to their homes remains unrealized.

According to the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, there are currently 7.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – the largest refugee population in the world. Yet almost 70 years later, the Palestinian people continue to hold their right of return as sacrosanct – as both a  collective dream and as an inalienable right.  At the same time, virtually all Israelis and Israel advocates have dismissed the right of return as a pipe dream – a political non-starter that will never come to pass.

“The old will die and the young will forget.” This quote is often attributed  David Ben-Gurion, who reportedly made it while commenting on the future of Palestinian refugees. While there is no documentary evidence that Ben-Gurion actually uttered these words, it is clear that the prediction has not come to pass. Quite the contrary: the children and grandchildren of the 1948 refugees have not forgotten. If anything, the right of return has become an increasingly indelible aspect of Palestinian culture, famously represented by the original keys to homes in Palestine which are passed down from one family generation to the next.

As for me, I can state openly and unabashedly that I support the Palestinian people’s right of return. I believe it is their inalienable right – not a “euphemism” or cynical political ploy that can be wished, threatened or rationalized away. And I do believe that there will never be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians until Israel honestly faces the injustices it has perpetrated against the Palestinian people and honors the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

“The Jewish Character of the State”

To those who claim that the return of refugees would “imperil the Jewish character of the state of Israel,” I would respond that there is a serious problem when the character of a country is dependent upon the denial of basic human rights to an entire people. When we speak of the “Jewish character of the state,” we should be clear on what we actually mean: a form of ethnic nationalism that necessarily privileges Jews over non-Jews.

In order to maintain this national character, Israel has created a system that allows any Jew in the world to become an immediate citizen of the Jewish state upon arrival – while millions of people who actually lived in the land (or have ancestors who did) are unable to set literally foot there for no other reason than they are not Jews. The bottom line: the Palestinian right of return raises the prospect of one democratic state of all its citizens – which for Israelis and Israel advocates means “the dismantling of the Jewish state.”

The real reason so many Zionists treat the Palestinian right of return as a non-starter is that it shines a bright light on the inner paradoxes of Zionism itself. Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has always been dependent upon its ability to maintain a demographic majority of Jews in the land. This ipso facto presents the presence of non-Jews in the land as a problem to be dealt with. While this problem appeared to be “solved” following the Nakba, seven decades later it remains as intractable as ever.

Liberal Zionists have attempted to resolve this problem by advocating a peace process that would result in a negotiated settlement for a two state solution. These negotiations have failed for many reasons, not least of which has been Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. Another critical reason has been Israel’s adamant refusal to even consider the Palestinian right of return during negotiations. Their consistent treatment of this right as a non-starter doomed the various iterations of the peace process over the years. For as many have pointed out, the right of return is not a right that can be negotiated collectively – it belongs to each and every individual Palestinian refugee.

“They Would Throw Us Into the Sea”

Many Zionists articulate the fear that a return of refugees would existentially endanger the Jews of Israel. Upon their return, the argument goes, “Palestinian refugees raised on hatred” would undoubtedly throw the Jews into the sea.

This is a patently racist argument that essentializes Palestinians as incorrigibly violent. In the end, we cannot honestly discuss Palestinian violence against Israel without recognizing the context of the daily violence in which Palestinians have been living for almost seven decades. Palestinian violence is not a product of their upbringing – it is a response to Israel’s violent expulsion of their families from their homes and the violence of brutal, ongoing oppression.

I have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying it’s all well and good for me to preach to Israelis that they must live side by side with Palestinians from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. It’s a fair question – and in good Jewish fashion I’ll answer it with another question: what will ensure the long term safety of both peoples: the  continuance of an oppressive status quo that will only guarantee a future of violence or an process of authentic reparation and repatriation as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?

Obviously we are a long way from an “honestly negotiated settlement.” But before we even get to the practical considerations of how the Palestinian right of return might be implemented, that right must first be acknowledged and honored on its own merits. We cannot yet say how this right will be practically realized – this can only come through mutual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the meantime, the Palestinian right of return cannot be summarily dismissed by shrugging our shoulders and assuming “all nations are created this way.”

What would it look like in a practical sense? The general parameters are actually fairly straightforward: those who choose to remain in the Palestinian diaspora would remain. Those who choose to return would be repatriated to their homes. Where not possible, there would be a negotiated settlement with those individual refugee families or with a collective body they each agree represents them.

Over the past few years, the organizations Zochrot and Badil have done valuable work envisioning ways that the Palestinian right of return might be implemented. As they note in their preliminary report:

(This) project builds on the deep respect in international law for the right of return,1 and its widespread affirmation as the only acceptable durable solution, and starts to address how refugees will return to properties and homes from which they were forcibly displaced, and how such a return can be implemented in a practical, fair, and efficient manner that protects the legitimate interests of all stakeholders involved.

I wish all Jews could read this report, even those who might not be ready to go to such places as yet. For myself, I find it to be extremely liberating to participate in this kind of visioning. Once we grasp that the inner paradox that a Jewish state can only be achieved by violating the rights of another people, we may well come to understand that the right of return does not mean the “dismantling of the Jewish state” – rather, it leads us to a place where are free to envision a future of equity, justice, return and reconciliation.

“Exchange of Populations”

Many who reject the Palestinian right of return make a kind of “tit for tat” argument between the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the 856,000 Jews of Arab countries who were either expelled, immigrated or brought to Israel around the same time. It is not uncommon for Israel advocates to equate the two, and claim that the events of 1948 resulted in an “exchange of populations.”

It’s a spurious argument on several levels. In the first place, while the actions of the governments of Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria cannot be excused for their violence against their Jewish populations, Jews from Arab countries (or Mizrahi Jews) did not become refugees – they were absorbed into Israel and became citizens, fulfilling the state’s demographic need for a Jewish majority.  Palestinians experienced the exact opposite: in 1948 they were forced from their homes and turned into refugees.

Moreover, the two expulsions did not occur at the same time. The Jews from Iraq and other Arab countries occurred after the Nakba and both occurred under very different circumstances. There is absolutely no documentary evidence to prove Israeli leadership intended an “exchange of populations” when they made the decision to prevent expelled Palestinians from returning to their homes.

Another important difference: while the right of return is almost universally cherished by all Palestinians, there is no equivalent call for return from Mizrahi Jews. If anything, the lion’s share of Mizrahi protest has been directed toward discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israel’s Askenazic elite and its erasure of their Arab cultural identity. Throughout the years, in fact there have been a number of Arab Jewish movements of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition that formed in the 1990s, to the current efforts of Mizrahi activists who are seeking to join the Arab Joint List party in the Knesset.

Ironically enough, it was recently reported that the calls to define Mizrahi Jews as “refugees,” have now been taken up by the Israeli government, presumably in order to somehow politically equate them with Palestinian refugees. By so doing, however, this cynical maneuver actually contradicts a central Zionist dictum: that all Jews are welcome and to become citizens of the Jewish state. It’s also profoundly insulting to Mizrahi Jews themselves, as scholar Zachary Smith explains:

Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.
Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.

No, history cannot be turned back, but Israelis and Palestinians can go forward together. The repatriation of refugees is not a pipe dream – it is a very real and practical concept for which we have ample historical precedent. The real question is not whether or not return is possible. It is rather: does Israel have the political and moral will to own the injustice it inflicted (and continues to inflict) on the Palestinian people and accept their inherent right to return to their homes?

As for me, I believe this acceptance is the necessary first step toward a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.


Syrian Trio Hewar Returns to Chicago this Sunday!

On of the most powerful moments of Tzedek Chicago‘s inaugural year last year was a benefit concert by the world-renowned Syrian trio Hewar in support of Syrian refugee relief. I’m thrilled to report that Tzedek is bringing to Chicago for return benefit concert this Sunday on May 7, 7:00 PM at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St.

Hewar (which is Arabic for “dialogue”) is led by Kinan Azmeh, a Damascus-born clarinetist and composer, graduate of Julliard, and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Kinan has appeared worldwide as a soloist, composer and improviser; with Hewar, his trio of Syrian musicians engage in a breathtaking mash-up of Arabic music, jazz, scat and western classical melodies. Comprised of clarinet, oud and soprano, the band builds on the talents of each of its members, juxtaposing and meshing traditions to create truly unique, genre-breaking music.

I’m particularly excited that for this concert, Hewar will be joined by 15 members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including the Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. Following the concert, Jamil Khoury, the Syrian-American Founding Artistic Director of Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, will moderate a Q&A with the musicians. The musicians are donating their time and proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Save the Children.

As those who attended last year’s concert will attest, this promises to be an incredible and important evening. If you live anywhere near the Chicago area this Sunday, I strongly encourage you to attend. You can purchase your tickets here or pay at the door on the day of the concert.

Kinan made the news earlier this year when he was stranded in Lebanon during Trump’s Muslim ban. You can read more about it in this interview with Rolling Stone. Click on the video above for a taste of last year’s concert. I hope to see you there!

Co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee – Chicago, Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, Chicago Area Peace Action, Congregation Hakafa, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Refugee One, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, St. Nicholas Church; and the Syrian Community Network.


All Pharaoh’s Must Fall: A Passover Reflection on Sean Spicer

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(Crossposted with Truthout)

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler, because, “Even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” He later added the “clarification” that “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

There are so many things that are so horribly wrong about Spicer’s comments, it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ll limit myself to four points (and I’m not even going to touch his inscrutable reference to “Holocaust centers”):

#1: Our own allies have used US-supplied chemical weapons.

During its 2008-2009 military assault on Gaza, Israel dropped white phosphorous – a chemical that burns flesh down to the bone and can cause fatal damage to the liver, kidneys and the heart – on densely populated civilian centers.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) later issued a 71-page report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” which provided numerous “witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property.”

Israel initially denied its use of white phosphorous, but when faced with overwhelming evidence, it admitted it did indeed deploy this chemical, claiming it only used it as a smokescreen to protect its troops. This statement, too, was false. HRW’s Fred Abrahams pointed out:

In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops. It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died.

HRW also noted that “all of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time.”

More recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia appears to be using US-supplied white phosphorous in its war on Yemen. When asked about this, the State Department responded that it was “aware of these reports” and is “looking into them.”

#2: Spicer doesn’t seem to believe that Jews were Germany’s “own people.”

Whether consciously or not, when Spicer noted that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people,” he was suggesting that the 200,000 German Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were not Germany’s “own.” This is a time-honored anti-Semitic trope that stigmatizes Jews as alien elements in the nations in which they live.

It is also a meme that Donald Trump and his followers openly apply to immigrants, Muslims, people of color and any other group they deem “un-American.” As Michael Daly correctly observed in the Daily Beast:

When the Trumpians tell us that the president is only fulfilling his promises to The American People and doing what The American People want in the interest of The American People, you can be sure that they meant it in the same sense that Hitler spoke of The German People.

#3: We’ve heard this before.

Even if we chalk up Spicer’s comments to ignorance, this kind of insensitivity is part of a growing pattern of disturbing dog whistles Trump has repeatedly been sounding in relation to American Jews: his appointment of “alt-rightist” Steve Bannon as a close White House advisor; his reluctance to disavow his support from full-bore white supremacists, such as David Duke and Richard Spencer; his use of an anti-Semitic image in his campaign; his International Holocaust Day statement that made no mention of Jews; and his use of the “America First” slogan, which has historically anti-Semitic roots.

Some were hoping that given Trump’s fraught relationship with the American Jewish community, he would at least attend the White House Passover Seder, as Obama did on each of the eight years of his presidency. Alas, neither Trump, nor his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chose to attend. (He did, however, issue a tweet wishing a happy Passover “to everyone celebrating.”)

#4: On Passover?!

Yes, it certainly added insult to injury that Spicer made these comments on the first day of Passover. However, let’s choose to make this a teachable moment. After all, one of the central themes of the Exodus story that is read on Passover is the danger of the Pharaohs who use xenophobia to single out Jews and other minorities for oppression.

So let’s take heart from the lesson that Exodus teaches us. As poet Kevin Coval so aptly puts it in his poem “all the pharaohs must fall”:

wake in this new day
look around
neighbors are allies
we don’t have to compete with
we can ally and fight with them
there are more of us
who don’t drill or bomb or legislate
more of us who 3rd shift and wash dishes
more of us who forge papers and sneak over fences
more of us worried about unlawful arrests
and whose worry arrests in the night without sleep

wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
just
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall


Apocalyptic Extremism: No Longer a Laughing Matter

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photo credit: Getty Images

In my previous post, I explored how Zionism has historically fed off of anti-Semites and anti-Semitic regimes to justify the need for a Jewish state. In this post, I’d like to discuss a phenomenon that has even more ominous resonance for the current political moment: the willingness of political Zionists, Israeli politicians and right wing Israel advocates to court the support of Christian millenarians and apocalyptic extremists.

Some history: In the century after the Protestant reformation, the religious ideology of millenarianism began to spread throughout Europe. Millenarianism took many forms, most of which were rooted in the belief that the physical restoration of the Jews to the land would be a necessary precursor to the apocalypse and the eventual second coming of the Messiah. This religious dogma was eventually brought by English Puritan colonists to North America, where it evolved into present-day Christian Zionism.

It is safe to say that Jewish political Zionism could not have succeeded without the support of Christian millenarians. Reverend William Hechler, a prominent English clergyman who ascribed to eschatological theology and the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel, was a close friend and colleague of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement. Lord Arthur Balfour, who issued the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 was likewise a Christian Zionist, motivated as much by his religious convictions as by British imperial designs in the Middle East.

Today of course, Christian Zionists are most famously represented by Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest coalition of Evangelical Zionists in the world. Hagee has never made a secret of his apocalyptic religious views. In his 2007 book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he wrote that Armageddon might begin “before this book gets published.” He also claimed The Antichrist “will be the head of the European Union,” and that during the final battle, Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood.” The Jews, however, will survive long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”  In Hagee’s more recent book, “Four Blood Moons,” he wrote: “In these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”

While one might expect Jewish leaders to keep their distance from a popular Christian pastor with extremist views such as these, Hagee has been closely embraced by Israeli governments (Netanyahu is a fixture at CUFI conventions), Jewish American politicians (Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has referred to Hagee as a modern-day Moses) and prominent American Jewish leaders (Elie Wiesel once called Hagee “my pastor.”)

CUFI’s Jewish Executive Director, David Brog, clearly serves to give cover to Christian Zionists, painting them as “mainstream” and not nearly as scary as their beliefs would indicate. Following the outcome of the recent election, however, Brog seems to smell blood in the water; he recently announced CUFI’s plans to get “a little more aggressive” in pushing its policies with the Trump administration, where it has clout and connections, particularly with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence.

To put it mildly, Jews should be among the least of those who would seek to find common cause with one such as Mike Pence. In an extremely important piece for the Intercept, last November, reporter Jeremy Scahill convincingly argued that Pence  is “the most powerful Christian supremacist in US history,” concluding:

The implications of a Pence vice presidency are vast. Pence combines the most horrid aspects of Dick Cheney’s worldview with a belief that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels are not fiction, but an omniscient crystal ball.

It should not come as a surprise that Pence family’s last trip to Israel was funded by, you guessed it, John Hagee. Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana, took the time to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. Now connect those dots to Pence’s meeting with Israeli prime minister during his recent visit to DC. Both Pence and Netanyahu later commented that they met to discuss, among other things, the creation of a “mechanism” that would help the White House and Israel better coordinate construction in the settlements on the West Bank.

When it comes to the Trump administration of course, most of the attention has been directed toward his chief strategist, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon. When Bannon’s appointment was announced, there were a variety of responses from the Jewish community, ranging from outrage to support.  For his part, when Netanyahu was asked on 60 Minutes whether or not he was concerned about Bannon, he responded blithely, “I think Mr. Trump and his associates are going to be very strong, not merely in support for the Jewish state, but also in support for the Jewish people.”

While most of the Jewish concern toward Bannon has primarily focused on his alt-right leanings and his personal comments about Jews, less attention has been given to his apocalyptic world view. Strongly influenced by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny”  Bannon ascribes to the theory that American history has operated in four-stage cycles, moving from major crisis to awakening to major crisis.

Linette Lopez, writing for Business Insider:

According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.

All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.

Indeed, Bannon expresses his Fourth Turning-influenced ideas unabashedly. During a 2011 presentation to the Liberty Restoration Foundation, a conservative non-profit, he said:

This is the fourth great crisis in American history. We had the Revolution. We had the Civil War. We had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history, and we’re going to be one thing on the other side.

And in a 2014 speech at the Vatican:

We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

In more recent statements Bannon openly posits that this new war will be fought between “the Judeo-Christian West” and a coalition of “jihadist Islamic fascists,” “expansionist China” and “the aristocratic Washington class.”

According to Strauss and Howe’s book, once the defining climax takes place, America will coalesces under one leader — a boomer “Gray Warrior” — who will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy … ” As frightening as it may sound, Bannon seems to have the perfect “Gray Warrior” figure in Donald Trump – a man who he once described as “a blunt instrument for us,” adding,”I don’t know if he really gets it or not.”

While it’s easy to giggle when, Israeli politicians, rabbis and evangelical pastors publicly call Trump the Messiah, it is far less funny when we consider that the chief advisor to the President is a man who may well view him as a “useful idiot Gray Warrior.” Either way, this is what a century-long willingness to collaborate with apocalyptic extremists has wrought. We are now one terrorist attack away from a truly unthinkable scenario. As journalist Murtza Hussain put it: “As tensions rise, Steve Bannon and ISIS get closer to their common goal: civilizational war.”

In the end it is all too easy to accept the support of religious zealots while we patronizingly dismiss their views as harmless. Now that these zealots are literally in the halls of very real power however, I think it’s finally time to take them at their word.

 

 


The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz

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The carob tree in the old village center of Khirbat al-Lawz

Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.

Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.

Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.

This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.

Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:

This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.

Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.

According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.

So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.

Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.


Hanukkah, Syria and the Perils of Empire

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A front line in Aleppo, Syria, on December 12, 2012. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

Cross-posted with Truthout

It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.

Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.

So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?

Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)

The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!”  Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.

The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.

Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?

I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.

These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:

As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).

We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:

The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.

Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.

Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:

Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.

In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.

One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:

I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.

One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.

This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.


Brexit, Trump and the Sorrows of Nationalism

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As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”

Walt concluded:

Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.

I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.

But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.

It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.

I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.

As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.

In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:

Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).

Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.

Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”

I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War.  It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima.  Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.