Saturday, November 19, 2011

Self-fulfilling prophecies: The Bible, Zionism and the Palestinians

The Bible contains quite a few prophesies about the Jews returning to Israel.  Some of them related to the Babylonians and the first exile, which ended in the Sixth century BCE, but others came from later.
My favorite is Ezekiel 37 (Yehezkel in Hebrew), whose "Dry Bones" prophesy, in which a valley full of dry bones slide together to make an army of skeletons, sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie:


: 1 The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. 
3 And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” 
4 Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” 
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. 
9 Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. 
11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 



When these words were written, 2600 years ago, I don't suppose any more than a handful of people noticed them, but over the next three millenia the Bible became the most influential book ever created, and such powerful writing was no longer some obscure prophesy, but a statement with the power to move Empires - in this case the British Empire, the largest empire ever created, leading to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. 

Without the biblical prophesies, neither the Jews nor the Christians who facilitated their return, would have considered such a drastic action as a return to a country abandoned more than a thousand years earlier.

There are other examples of self-fulfilling prophesies, though perhaps none quite so impressive. Karl Marx prophesized class-warfare, claiming all human history was simply a tale of class-warfare. He made the point so effectively, that for next century  people motivated by his writings engaged in class-warfare. Although class conflict existed before Marx, the affect of his prophesies was to turn class conflict into one of the dominant forms of social conflict  for the next century (and possibly beyond).


There is another type of self-fulfilling prophesy and that's when you predict that someone will become your enemy, and in the process of pre-empting that eventuality, turn them against you. After the Balfour declaration The Palestinians started claiming that the Jews' objective was to drive them out.  In fact, although most Jews wanted a state with a Jewish majority, even the most radical, Jabotinsky wanted a democratic state and assumed the Arabs would remain.  Jabotinsky had no qualms about using force to achieve Jewish control of Palestine, but he assumed that Jewish migrants could easily outnumber the Arabs.
The Mufti in his efforts to prevent a Jewish majority met with Hitler, who favored expelling the Jews from Europe,  and helped persuade him to exterminate them instead. 
When the UN partitioned Palestine the Mufti insisted on an all or nothing policy ultimately resulting in the departure of a large chunk of Palestine's Arab population, thus fulfilling his own prophecy.  Had the Palestinians embraced the Jews and welcomed them in, it is likely both the Holocaust and the Nakba would have been averted.


The Israeli right, today,  claim to be concerned about the loyalty of Israeli Arabs.  So they are trying to pass legislation defining Israel as a Jewish state, giving preference to former soldiers in state employment tribunals (most Arabs don't serve in the Army) and preventing teaching of the Nakba in state schools. Needless to say Arab disloyalty is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we cannot make allowances to the needs of our Arab citizens then we should not be surprised if they question their allegiances. Perhaps the right doesn't really care whether or not the Arab-Israelis are loyal, its just popular with the voters to put them on the spot.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Collective responsibility: Gaza, Jesus and Gilad Shalit.

My mother recently met an old friend, they had a little chat, but then the next day she got an e-mail from her former friend saying she couldn't talk to her any more because of what Israel is doing in Gaza.
My mother is 90 and lives in London. She has absolutely no influence over Israeli policy and certainly bears no responsibility for it. You might as well blame her for the death of Jesus.  Yet there is this notion in certain circles that Jews are collectively responsible for the fate of the Palestinians. Fortunately, perhaps, the same people have no such claims about our responsibility for our own fate.  If my mother gets bombed, these same people will consider it entirely her own problem.

The idea of collective Jewish responsibility is not a purely antisemitic thing. A recent article in the New York Times  (A Yearning for Solidarity Tangles Public Life by Ethan Bronnercommented on the sense of mutual responsibility that exists in Israel and suggested it was a potential problem in Israeli politics.
Actually I rather like it, its what made our demonstrations in support of the welfare state both highly successful and completely non-violent: the biggest demonstration, with 350,000 (5% of Israelis) in attendance was held in the most expensive square in Tel Aviv, where all the top designer stores have branches, and not a single storefront was broken.   That could never have happened in England. It is also why the Israeli government released hundreds of dangerous men in return for one minor soldier.  Half the country now regards Gilad Shalit as their son. If Hamas didn't give him post-traumatic stress disorder, then the queues of people trying to get a look at him (after years of total isolation) probably will.

I think all this mutual responsibility is related to the Bible. The Jewish God wasn't into individual responsibility. The Jews were chosen to deliver a message and they had to do it as a collective. In the Biblical narrative, if some do wrong, we all get punished. For example, in Exodus 32 (9), the Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf while Moses was up Mount Sinai "I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  Moses then argues with God and gets the punishment reduced, thus launching thousands of Jewish lawyers on the world, all well capable of arguing with God.
That's why Jews aren't required to believe in God: Rabbinical Judaism requires you to follow the commandments; we can be atheists so long as we keep the Sabbath, circumcise boys and fast on Yom Kippur. Otherwise we all get it.  Incidentally the converse also applies: maltreat the Jews and God punishes you collectively.

The Christians developed a different system, one based on individual responsibiity.  Christians, especially protestants, can improvise their prayers and are held to account on a personal basis. But all too many fail to apply an individual-based moral system to Jews.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Identities at the UN

In the recent TV footage of the UN Security Council deliberations on the Palestinian request for recognition as a state, I noticed that the Palestinians were sitting behind a sign saying "Palestine" which brought up some memories from my History MA.

Back in 1947 all UN security council deliberations on Palestine (as it was then known) were attended by representatives of the Palestinian-Arabs and the Palestinian-Jews. They also had little signs and the Arab's sign said "Arab High Committee" and the Jew's sign said "Jewish Agency for Palestine".
At some point in 1948 this changed, the Palestinians ceased to attend the meetings and were represented instead by the Egyptian UN representative.
In July 1948, the Ukrainian representative, Dmitry Manuilsky, was the chair of the Security Council. The security council chair is held for a month and some shenanigan by Stalin had enabled the USSR to wangle three seats in the General Assembly, one for the USSR, one for the Ukraine and one for Bayelorussia. in the late forties' the Ukraine also sat in the Security Council. The chair rotates among Security Council members and each country holds the chair one month in alphabetic order, in 1947-8 the Ukraine held the chair every July.
As chair of the Security Council the Ukrainian representative, who I recall seemed to have arrived early, changed the sign saying Jewish Agency, to read simply "Israel".
There were various protests and little speeches were made by the Canadians and British (who had yet to recognize Israel) to the effect that although they remained seated they did not necessarily accept the sign change. The Egyptian representative stormed off. The sign remained in use in all subsequent meetings. 
Israel was formally admitted into the UN in 1949 (following a Security Council debate) and became able to decide its own representation. 

From about 1943 - 1950 the British and the Zionist movement were in conflict, the British mainly concerned to protect their extensive oil holdings: Britain ruled Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain until 1971 and controlled all Iraqi oil until the late fifties. The Soviets briefly (until about 1951) thought Israel might become their ally, as Israel was the enemy of Britain and deeply (albeit democratically) socialist. The USA vacillated between  Jews, Arabs and Britons; its foreign service was strongly pro-Arab and Jews faced widespread discrimination in the USA; hence the Ukrainian support for Israel. In addition Soviet-block Czechoslovakia supplied Israel with arms and the Soviets allowed free Jewish migration to Israel. 

As it happens the Palestinian observer at the UN is actually the representative of the PLO: In 1974, the General Assembly granted observer status to the PLO, and it was only in 1988, following a declaration of  Palestinian Independence (made in Algeria...) that the General Assembly decided that the sign should say "Palestine", although the representative is still appointed by the PLO. Hamas, even though it won the only full free Palestinian elections ever held, cannot appoint the representative.
The chair of the UN security council in September (when the Palestinians submitted their request) was Lebanon.  Israel has never been a member of the UN Security Council and is the only long-term UN member which has never sat on it.

Incidentally, while it is true that Palestine and Israel have taken up a lot of Security Council time, if you check the records for the last year you can see that the Middle East in general occupies an awful lot of security council time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Palestinian bid for statehood and the end of summer

How the Jewish New Year, the first rain and the Palestinian bid for statehood are connected
The long hot Israeli summer is finally coming to an end. Rain is now mostly a memory. The last heavy rain was six months ago, and the last light rain about four months ago. The temperature has dropped slightly at night, so we now need to cover ourselves with a sheet, though we still sleep with the window wide open.
After months without water, the Lantana bushes that surround my apartment block in Tel Aviv, look dusty and barely alive, yet they always revive once the rains come. The Bougainvillea continues to flower and looks fine and the trees seem to be flourishing.
Predictably, there are far more words to describe rain in English then there are in Hebrew, but Hebrew has two terms that are absent from English: Malkosh, meaning the last rain of the year (in Spring) and Yoreh, meaning the first rain of the year, usually due around October. Both are very ancient words, literally thousands of years old, and can be found in the Pentatuach (Deuteronomy 11).
The end of summer is an important time in the Middle East, it is a time for new beginnings and optimism. So it is a very appropriate time to celebrate the Jewish New Year, to fast in penance at our sins over the previous year (Yom Kippur is ten days later) and restart the annual read of the Pentatuach.
The Knesset is ending its long summer break, the children returning to school, the government committees examining lack of competition in the economy and the need for more social welfare are due to report back. The timing is no coincidence: October and November were also the months that the Intifidas started, the Yom Kippur War began and Sadat visited Jerusalem. Nobody wants to throw rocks in summer or run around the desert covered in a uniform carrying heavy gear in the August heat.
The Yoreh was on Friday, the same day the Palestinians submitted their request for UN sanctioned statehood. The Jewish New Year is next week. In the Middle-East the first rain indicates a blessing, so it would seem the Palestinian bid for statehood, successful or not, has divine sanction. 



Monday, September 19, 2011

Time Lag and the Palestine-Israel conflict

I believe that time lags play a significant role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This works in several ways, firstly  each side has a delayed response to the other's intransigence or peace offers. So when Israel withdrew from Gaza, providing an opportunity for progress in peace, the Palestinians responded by electing the Hamas. When Israel withdrew from South-Lebanon, the result was a growth in Hezbullah poiwer and intransigence. The Israelis responded to the Palestinian election and Hezbullah successes by moving to the right, by which time the West-Bank Palestinians - though not Hamas - were in Peace and co-operation mode.  So each side is constantly out of sequence with the other. One hopes that at some point we will all be in peace mode at the same time, though the latest opinion poll in Ha'Aretz suggests we're stuck with a right wing government in Israel for at least another election and in the long run we're more likely to both be in war mode.

Another aspect of the time-lag is overseas perceptions of Israel. A generation of European NGO managers (and Israeli leftists) grew up in the Eighties when Israel was invading Lebanon and aggressively settling the West-Bank. Those perceptions persisted when Israel changed tack in the Nineties, contributing to the failure of the Peace process (though many other reasons can also be seen).

Now a new generation of Europeans is emerging that grew up post-al-Qaeda and Hamas, and while the anti-Israelis will no doubt remain vocal, I suspect the new generation will be less willing to criticize Israel.

Time-lag also affects the way criticism of Israel interacts with anti-Semitism: what starts out as event-driven criticism gradually shifts towards an expression of prejudice, due to ignorance and a lack of judgement which in turn leads to a backlash. Perceptions of European prejudice also affect Israeli and Palestinian politics.

Basically people don't change their thinking overnight, there is a time lag, and that has an impact on how things play out. Single incidents/major outbreaks play a role in molding opinions, but I think that over time there is an accumulation of events which leads to subtle shifts in attitudes, rather like ripples going through a pond. Changes may not be total single side-taking shifts, but rather more delicate changes in the willingness to vocalize or support activities.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

The answer is 42: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Middle East Conflict.

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an alien species build a massive computer in order to find the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything only to be told that the answer is the rather mundane figure, "42". It then emerges that they never understood the question and a far bigger computer is required to understand it.

It struck me the other day that this was like the Israeli-Arab conflict: While everybody seems to think they know the answer - basically that Israel should withdraw - very few people actually understand the question, that is the nature and origins and whatever-else of the conflict.

Of course it is easier to understand something that hasn't yet happened: Withdrawal sounds easy, but as the withdrawal from Gaza showed, its a lot more complex once it actually happens and could lead to more rather than less conflict.

I always thought we should unilaterally pull-back from Gaza - and still do - but it was also clear to me that if we did and the Gazans attacked us, then the response had to be a massive, don't-fuck-with-me blow. Which is exactly what happened in both Gaza and South Lebanon.

Now I think we should pull back to the "separation barrier" (like most Israelis I just call it "The Wall" ) with the same provisor.

So here I am doing it too... telling you the answer without explaining the problem. So here's my short effort at defining the problem:

I think the conflict is mutli-faceted and combines elements of an array of different conflicts/prejudices/discriminations simulatenously interwoven: historic, survivalist, class, religion, ethnicity, external-meddling, national resource issues, nationalist conflict, majority-minority, immigrant-native, colonial-settler, antisemitism, racism... you name it, we have it and to confuse matters more, its bi-directional: Jews are a majority in Israel but a minority outside it. And it isn't just Israelis versus Palestinians, there are ever wider circles of conflict.
Soon we'll have aliens from out space taking sides and supporting... someone (probably the Israelis because because Jews are often called aliens).

As for how bad it is... how do you compare prejudices? or discriminations? Is the status of Arabs in Israel worse then say, Moslems in the UK? Is that a valid comparison in the first place?

The conflict is riddled with paradoxes: Europeans using anti-racism to justify antisemitism, Israelis using antisemitism to justify racism, Palestinians rejecting Israeli human-rights while claiming human-rights etc. Its so involved and intertwined that it is totally impossible that anyone who reads this (hopefully some one will), can possibly regard me as a "neutral observer" (no you're not one either).

Anyway that's enough. I want to keep this short. Thanks for reading this far.