Posted tagged ‘Gaza Naval Blockade’

Moving Beyond Helen Thomas

June 10, 2010

It seems that the furor over the virulently anti-Israel statements made by Helen Thomas, the renown White House correspondent, is starting to fade.  And that is as it should be.  The sooner the better!

What she said – that the Jews should leave Israel to the Palestinians and go home, to Poland, to Germany, to America, wherever – was unquestionably outrageous.  It is completely incomprehensible how a person who for so long has carried the responsibility of bringing to the public an accurate reporting of all the news coming out our the White House could be so grossly ignorant of world history; could be so blatantly prejudice; and could be so journalistically naive as to ever make such a comment to a fellow journalist, nevertheless one with a camera and a microphone in his hand, simply boggles the mind!

Be that as it may, the Helen Thomas story is a small story at best.  For at the end of the day, who is she?  Is she responsible for formulating U.S. foreign policy?  No.  Do she possess a significant loyal following who hang on her every word and who transform her utterances into votes in the polling place?  No.  Yes, she is a known personality, but that is about it.  She does not have the power to change the world.  She does not personally pose even a minor threat to the security of Israel or the future of Middle East peace.  Sad to say, today, she has become an opinionated old lady who can no longer maintain the objectivity her job requires.

But in her day, she really was something!  She earned her place in the front row of Presidential press conferences.  She achieved something no other woman before her was able to achieve; she was the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  She challenged and earned the respect of 10 consecutive U.S. Presidents.  She has done so much to advance the cause and status of women in journalism.  Even in the heat generated by this recent diatribe, all the good that she has accomplished should not, and must not, be forgotten.

Helen Thomas made a stupid and bigoted statement.  And she has suffered for it.  So many of those who honored her in the past have denounced her in the present.  From all sorts of places came calls for her to be fired.  Many were truly out for blood.  And to her credit, rather than cause her employers the embarrassment of having to fire her,  she demonstrated the graciousness of resigning.  Indeed, if one were to think of the reactions on a proportional scale, then one would have to wonder why, if Helen Thomas’ 15 second utterance has generated so much anger and vehemence then when one considers all the outrageous statements made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran over the past several years, why have we not nuked that country back to the stone age?  The point is that even though what she did was indeed offensive, she has paid the price for her indiscretion.  Having forced her to step away from the public life which has been so important to her for all these years, it is pointless to skewer her further.

I especially am concerned about whether or not my fellow Jews and my fellow supporters of Israel will be able to let this matter go.  We have bigger fish to fry.  So let us not get fixated on the utterances of a 89 year old woman, no matter how public a figure she once was.  Let us not permit this episode to distract us from the real challenges which today face Israel; the ongoing challenge of achieving peace WITH security; the ongoing challenge of pursuing justice for Israel in a world which is all to ready to condemn her every action, with, and especially without, justification.  Wish as some may, Helen Thomas simply will not effectively stand in the eyes of the world for all those who openly despise Israel.  Whatever she said, she will not distract the rest of the world from looking to serious address the crisis in Gaza.  So let us not harp on her ridiculous interview, but rather let us focus on how we can address the issue of Gaza in a way which will protect our brothers and sisters in Israel while at the same time be far more effective in advancing the flow of humanitarian aid to the suffering people of Gaza

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Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Reflections on Peace Advocacy and the Gaza Floatilla

June 2, 2010

Israel has been on my mind a great deal of late – even before the crisis over the tragic interception of the Gaza Flotilla.  Prior to this most recent crisis, I had been anguishing over whether or not to officially add my name as a supporter of J Street.  It all started when one of my congregants approached me about it.  He had read some J Street material and wanted my advice as to whether or not he should throw in his support.  His questions brought focus to my own indecision on the matter.  So I went back on the J Street website, read their vision statements, and, like my congregant, found a great deal with which I could agree.  For, I too, am a big supporter of a two-state solution which needs to be arrived at through serious non-violent negotiations; a two state solution which would deliver to the Palestinians a nation of their own of which they could be proud, while at the same time would deliver to the Israelis a positive resolution to their security concerns.  However, all that being said, I still had an uneasy feeling that rightly or wrongly, J Street was identified as an influential Jewish voice, all too often critical of Israel.

In my struggle to resolve this question, I gathered, via email, a list of some 50 rabbinic colleagues whose opinions I value greatly; some of them ardent supporters of J Street, some opponents, and many whose positions  I simply did not know.  I shared with them my indecision and my questions, seeking their insights and counsel.  And we were off to the races.  Not all responded to my queries.  Many of those who did, did so privately.  Others shared their thoughts with the entire group.  Many and diverse were their opinions.  So many excellent points were made on both sides.  My eyes were opened to new perspectives on the issue. But in the end, I still remained undecided.  Yet in the process, I came to truly believe that J Street was often misunderstood and intentionally misinterpreted.  I found that more often than not, their statements honestly strove to be evenhanded and fair, but between sensationalist media, unscrupulous politicians, and Israel’s enemies, what came most to the public eye were, and are, their critiques of Israel.  I saw it  akin to the old media adage about “Man bites dog” over “dog bites man.”  It is not news when Jews support Israel or criticize the Palestinians, but when Jews criticize Israel, now that is newsworthy.

I also was brought to the realization that it would be great if there was a “J Street” like organization on the Palestinian side, equally dedicated to the peace process and equally willing to criticize both parties in an evenhanded manner.  But alas, while there are Muslim peace organizations, they usually speak in whispers and do not garner the type of support and prestige that an organization like J Street does within the Jewish and the general community.  This is a tragic unfulfilled need, for in order for an organization like J Street to most effectively address its mission, it really needs a real Muslim partner organization with which it could work hand-in-hand.

It was while my colleagues and I were in the midst of these discussions that we woke up one morning to learn of the violence which had taken place in the waters off of Gaza.

Many groups and world leaders were quick to make statements in response to that situation, even though the facts were far from complete and the story was still unfolding.  Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, as well as Yaariv Oppenheimer, speaking for another Jewish peace organization – Americans for Peace Now.  Mr. Ben-Ami made the following remark which I found disturbing:  “We do know, however, that today is one more nail in the coffin for hopes of ending of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically and for preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”  As for Mr. Oppenheimer, in an article published in the Israeli newspaper, MaAriv, he wrote a statement which I found equally disturbing:  “Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents.  A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.”

Statements like these are precisely why I have discomfort with organizations like J Street and Peace Now.  While I share their ultimate vision of arriving at a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot condone  their knee jerk reactions which immediately assume that Israel is in the wrong in whatever crisis arises.  I find myself scratching my head and wondering why Mr. Ben-Ami of J Street could not have ended his statement at the word “diplomatically” but felt the need to go forward with the assumption the Israel’s actions have done great harm to her fundamental “Jewish and democratic character.”  And as for Mr. Oppenheimer, just the simple fact that an article such as his could appear in a major Israeli publication like MaAriv gives far greater testimony in opposition to his premise for the Israeli democracy is alive and well as long as it permits those who so wish to publicly protest against the actions and policies of its government.

For my part, the events of the last few days have triggered an odd confluene of reflections.  It almost seems ironic that a short while back, I was re-watching the film “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Every time I watch that film I am flooded with memories of the actual event.  As if it were yesterday, I recall my childhood conversations with my childhood friends, wondering whether or not the end of the world was upon us; whether or not the Russians would stage a nuclear attack.  It was indeed a frightening time, especially for children.  Yet with that danger being real and present, there was no question of the legitimacy of Kennedy’s use of a naval blockade in defense of our country; at least not among those of us us who were living under the threat of a missile attack.  Then my thoughts have likewise turned to the painful fact that as Americans, at this very hour, our combat troops have their boots on the foreign soil of two nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – ostensibly waging a war against terrorists who supposedly threaten the security of our nation and its citizens.  So one American President can conduct a naval blockade – in international waters – against another nation, in defense of our country, and it is considered appropriate and heroic.  Two American Presidents can send and maintain troops on the soil of two sovereign nations, having invaded both of them, in defense of our country against terrorism.  While there are those among us who protest this fact, those troops remain, yet we do not view the failure of our protests to achieve their goal as indicative of the demise of American democracy.

Then we have Israel.  Who in their right mind can question the very real danger posed to the security of the nation of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist actions of Hamas, coming out of Gaza?  Who can doubt that if the borders of Gaza were left wide open, there would be no question but that arms aplenty would flood into Gaza, all intended to be used against Israel, and specifically against Israeli citizens?  The threat of arms being smuggled into Gaza is a very real one and an Israeli government which would intentionally ignore that threat would be dramatically negligent, and perhaps even criminally negligent.  So while a blockade and a siege of Gaza is not a desirable course of action, especially from a humanitarian perspective, it – like the naval blockade of Cuba in the 60’s – would seem to be a necessary one in the name of national defense.  It is tragic but unavoidable that in defending one people from those who threaten its security, there very well may be loss of life – sometime, most tragically, innocent loss of life.  If any nation should understand that harsh reality, it should be the U.S., which has been faced with that very same situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is a certain hypocrisy when an American President (one whose election I personally supported and worked for, you should know) who is the Commander-in-Chief of combat troops on foreign soil waging active war in defense of our nation’s security, turns around and criticizes Israel for committing her troops in order to defend her people.  It is wrong to have two standards of behavior – one for the U.S. and another for Israel.  I cannot help but think that the children of Sderot – especially before the Gaza War – were holding among themselves conversations quite similar to the ones I was involved in as a child during the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not offering a wholesale justification for Israel’s actions of the past weekend.  She made plenty of mistakes, not the least of which was naively expecting her troops to encounter actual peace activists rather than violent opponents.  But it is far too easy for all of us Monday morning quarterbacks to provide Israel with our sage post facto counsel.  The hard truth on the ground is that Israel had every good reason to suspect that along with the humanitarian cargo on those ships was also a cargo of weaponry.  With that possibility, those ships did pose a very real security threat to the citizens of Israel and needed to be searched.  How Israel did go about that task will be a matter of  fierce debate in the coming months.  But in all of this, I cannot concur with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street nor with Yaariv Oppenheimer of Americans for Peace Now, that the actions here constitute a threat to the character of Israeli democracy, nor that legitimate attempts to protect the physical safety of her citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

POSTSCRIPT: Two days after I published the above posting, the Office of the White House Press Secretary released the following statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer:

“The government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara.  It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.  In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those aboard the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.

“We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.  The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed.  For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”