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The Jewish Left and Palestine

Bleats of Dissent

by Michael Neumann

When Jewish voices of conscience speak out on Israel, there is an astonishing gap between the problem described and the response proposed. The Jewish left and its allies begin with the most ringing denunciations. These trail off into the most timid of recommendations.

Many critics of Israel consider it a pariah state.(*) Many think it racist. Many think it guilty of brutal atrocities against the Palestinian people, and display an almost prurient interest in those atrocities. Many mainstream sources outside the US–the BBC, The Guardian, the CBC– carry harrowing reports of Israeli excesses, and have done so for quite a while. We hear that Israeli officers, when they attack Palestinian refugee camps, study the German assault on the Warsaw Ghetto. We hear horror after horror. Jewish and Israeli activists do not hesitate to draw parallels with Nazi Germany. (see Norman Finkelstein.)

Sounds really terrible, doesn’t it? What should we do about it? Very little, it seems, and so it has seemed for years.

In 1988, the Jewish Committee on the Middle East released a statement which explicity declared that "…Israel itself has become a pariah state within [t]he world community." The statement is still proudly posted on their web site. It attributed to Israel "a racialist ideology". It claimed that "Events taking place today are all too reminiscent of the pogroms from which our own forefathers fled two and three generations ago". (http://www.middleeast.org/archives/jcome1.htm)

These are people who perceive some really serious outrages– war crimes, human rights violations, a violent racial crusade. These are people whose self-produced documentary is called, "We Dare to Speak–Voices of American Jews." What do they recommend? "The unprecedented amounts of economic aid should be cut back over the next two to three years to much small[er] levels. Furthermore, the considerable military and intelligence assistance should also be radically reduced."

Do you read what I read? Doesn’t that say that economic and military aid to this pariah state should be continued? Hmm. So is that how we’re supposed to respond to a state which conducts "killings, beatings, curfews, expulsions and house arrests — all against unarmed Palestinians living in areas Israel has occupied for 20 years"? Seems like the vicious Jewish pariah retains privileges which many virtuous states could only dream of. But this statement was good enough for Noam Chomsky, so I guess it should be good enough for me.

Well, have things changed since 1988? Sure, they’ve grown much worse. So, let’s see, how has the response evolved?

It hasn’t. On one prominent dissident site, Not In My Name, is run by a Jewish organization anxious above all, it seems, not to be tainted by Israeli crimes. It recommends "A suspension of all US military aid to Israel until Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem." ( "Common Ground"). So I guess economic aid will continue. More on this suspension of military aid later.

Then there’s the ad taken in the New York Times on March 17, 2002, by Jewish Voices Against the Occupation. It calls for the U.S. Government:

to suspend military aid to Israel, which is used to maintain the occupation, until Israel withdraws completely from the occupied territories; -to reduce economic aid to Israel by the amount spent on maintaining the settlements until all are evacuated…

OK, still some economic aid, and the military aid will come right back when Israel gets out of the occupied territories: in other words, it gets truckloads of new toys, automatically, any time it cares to withdraw. It’s all like that: no one, so far as I can see, asks for more.

So we have a country denounced for the most serious human rights violations, whose leader is accused of war crimes, a pariah state, whose doings are almost unbearable simply to watch on TV, much less suffer. Everyone seems to agree that such a state deserves economic aid. Military aid is merely suspended: as soon as Israel leaves the scene of the crime, we are to make sure it has lost none of its killing abilities.

Forget for a moment whether this response is proportionate to the crimes it is supposed to address. Let’s just ask what the reponse is supposed to achieve. That’s hardly worth asking about the economic aid, since it will continue, albeit at a reduced level. What then about this bold, soberly considered demand to suspend military aid?

It turns out, at least according to Andrew Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, that Israel could fight for "two years" before needing US help. In other words, even instant cessation of all military aid would do nothing whatsoever to prevent the Israelis from doing anything whatever they liked to the Palestinians. Israel is estimated to possess between 200 and 500 nuclear warheads, with cruise missles that have hit targets 950 miles away. Does this sound like a country that will feel pressure from a "suspension" of military aid? Even if the cupboard were bare, it could sell a few of those warheads and buy just about anything it liked.

Jewish activists know this. Left-wingers know this. They also understand what is normally done to contain a pariah state.

Normally, all aid is cut off. There is an arms and trade embargo. All transfers of funds are frozen. Foreign bank accounts are seized. Air links and most diplomatic ties are cut. Cultural and scientific exchanges are terminated. To make all this stick, the pariah state must be surrounded by obviously superior military forces. There is a crash program to bolster its neighbors’ defense capabilities; a US-led coalition sends many thousands of troops; naval forces are deployed; intelligence and counterintelligence efforts accelerated. Such a state is quietly given to undertand that, should it ever use nuclear weapons, it can expect retaliation in kind. This of course would be a very moderate response, nothing like what happened to Serbia or Iraq. But simply to contain Israel–not to attack it–would require an initiative orders of magnitude greater than the buildup to the Gulf War.

In short, all these people who weep for the Palestinians, all these activists who put their bodies on the line, all the eminent figures and eloquent writers who condemn Israel’s vile actions–none of these people actually request, let alone demand, any remotely serious action against Israel. And there are only ugly explanations for this bizarre behaviour. Are Jews still better than Palestinians? Did the Nazi era confer on them an unlimited licence to plunder and murder? Is being Jewish so sacred, so wise, so humanitarian, so warm and cuddly that a Jewish state couldn’t "really" do much harm, or deserve more than a good scolding? The possibilities are as limited as they are depressing.

One thing is clear: when crimes of this magnitude are committed by your people, in your name, bleating does not absolve you of responsibility. You must at the very, very least–even if you "do" nothing–advocate something that will stop the crimes. By that standard, as far as I know, not even Chomsky’s hands are clean.

Certainly the world has more important things to worry about than that Jews purge themselves of hypocrisy. But for the sake of the Palestinians, I hope the Jewish left can bring itself to do so.

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

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* For example: ‘Israel has turned into a "pariah state" under prime minister Ariel Sharon and his ways of dealing with terrorism are "unacceptable", Jewish senior Labour MP Gerald Kaufman has claimed.

"What could Israel do to cease being a pariah state, if its Washington masters permitted it?" (C.G. Estabrook, CounterPunch, December 5, 2001).

Uri Avnery: ‘"Closure", "siege" and all the other devices for the protection of the settlers are turning us into a pariah state in the eyes of the world.’