Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Salif Keita and BDS, from Alabama to Jerusalem

A few weeks ago I noticed that Salif Keita was due to perform at King David's citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was both surprised and delighted.
I was surprised because Salif Keita is from Mali, a predominantly Moslem country on the edge of the Sahara where there is both an Islamic insurgency and Al Qaeda presence. Keita was also once a minister in the government of Mali. Salif Keita is an albino, which apparently are a group who face discrimination in some parts of Africa and he works to prevent discrimination against albinos.
I was delighted because Keita is one of my favorite African musicians.  His music combines modernity with ancient African themes.  I told my partner that while I would not be willing to spend 600 shekels (150 US dollars) to see the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney (as they are today), I would be willing to spend that much to see Salif Keita in King David's citadel.
The citadel is a structure just inside the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem which was built by King Herod about 2000 years ago.

Unfortunately, the timing of his show didn't suit my schedule with kids etc. so I had to leave it and I forgot about it until yesterday when I discovered from the Engage (anti-racist campagin against anti-Semitism) website, that Mr Keita had cancelled the performance and published a letter on his web page explaining that he was doing so because of  threats and because he wished to protect his work for Albinos. You can see the letter on his facebook page, or here
Salif Keita's letter explaining concert cancelation
 I have no problem with that, as I said I was surprised he would play here at all, and if he doesn't it won't affect how I vote or view the world. I just accept it as one of those things.

What struck me was the debate on his Facebook page, which is rather sad.  Some were saying the boycott was anti-Semitic, others that criticism of them as anti-Semite as an "attempt to silence debate".  There was no attempt to reach out or promote peace and understanding. I saw that some supporters of boycotting Israel were comparing it to the bus boycott in Alabama and after reflecting on this I wanted to point out the difference between non-violence and boycotts as practised by Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and the BDS movement.
First both Dr King and Gandhi steadfastly and absolutely opposed the use of violence. This is not true of the BDS movement (boycott divestment and sanctions).
Second boycotts as used by both Gandhi and Dr King were first and foremost actions taken by those on the recieving end of discrimination. One of the problematics of BDS is that it is not Palestinians who are using non-violence or boycotts, it is predominantly a European movement targetting Israel, while ignoring the history of European-Jewish interaction, in which boycotts were a means of persecution. Dr King always spoke out very clearly against anti-Semitism, even saying that "Israel's right to exist in security is incontestable" which the BDS doesn't.

I suppose BDS supporters conflate themselves with the Palestinians and think that by acting in supprt they become part of a struggle they admire. Instead they are complicating the situation of the Palestinians and turning Israeli foreign policy into a struggle against anti-Semitism. The Palestinian's popularity in some respects is their achilles heal, preventing them from seeking or sustaining any peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Incidentally a Rabbi, Abraham Heschel, was at the front of many of the civil rights marches. Right next to Dr King (second from the right in this picture).

Monday, September 16, 2013

The inevitable defeat of inevitable victory in the Middle East

In 1948 the Palestinians were sure they couldn't fail, they outnumbered the Jews two to one and had the support of all the Arab states. In fact the Jews had nowhere to run and were so scared of failure that they gave the war everything they had. The sense that Israel's situation was precarious remained strong after 1948  and in the run-up to the 1967 war, Nasser's doom laden pronouncements led to widespread fear in Israel.  Again it turned out to be the opposite: Arab overconfidence fed the Israeli dread of defeat and led to opposite results.
In 1973 the situation reversed: The Israelis thought they were undefeatable and the Arabs were sure they couldn't win. Although the Israelis didn't lose the war, it was the closest Israel has come to defeat.

Because many Arabs assumed victory was inevitable sooner or later, they didn't work for that victory and were at a disadvantage. Because so many Israelis thought the Arabs might be right, they were motivated to try harder. Thus inevitable victory fed defeat.

Six months ago Assad's defeat looked invitable, but right now its hard to say what will happen in Syria. Latest reports say 50% of the opposition to Assad are "global Jihad' volunteers. With so many Jihadi forces gathering, Assad may find friends in new places, expeically if he dumps his Sarin collection.

Things may be reversing again. The Arab states are a mess, but given the way things tend to fall upside down in the Middle East, I would hestiate to make any predictions.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hebron and my basic training in the Israeli Army

This post is a continuation of my experiences doing basic training in the Israeli army in 1994.

As part of the basic training, we had to spend a six hour night shift guarding the base. To make it easier we were allocated partners for the shift and I was paired with the only Haredi Jew in our group of new immigrants doing three week basic training.
I no longer remember his name, the Russians liked him because his wife was Russian and he stood out.  He spoke Hebrew with a strong Yiddish inflection but the key thing about him was that he lived in the heart of Hebron.  Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with Jewish settlers right in its heart.  There are I believe, about 400 settlers living there and they are regarded as among the most extreme settlers in the West Bank and a source of constant provocations and tension with the Palestinian population.

Our lone Haredi told us he was doing military service because it would allow him to get additional child support (he had five children) and to carry a weapon.  He also saw it as his duty to educate us about Hebron and constantly explained that Hebron, or rather the "Tomb of the Patriarchs" in the heart of Hebron is the burial site of Abraham and other forefathers (and mothers) and the second most holy site in Judaism (it is also sacred to Moslems).  All this was recounted with a typical slight sing-song Yiddish inflection.
During the peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the 'Nineties a Jewish terrorist opened fire in the tomb, killing 29 Palestinians.

During the six hours that we guarded the base, I told him about my family history and he told me about himself. To my astonishment he turned out to be a former Irish-Catholic postman from Brooklyn. This revelation caused me to take another look at the man. I suddenly noticed that he was taller than me - and among the rather short Russian Jews, I was noticeably tall (in England I am average height).  He was also red-headed.
The next day in the dining room I couldn't keep my new information to myself. "x is a convert" I told someone next to me, "he's a former Irish Catholic from Brooklyn". Everyone who heard this was stunned and you could hear a buzz as the information travelled across the dining room, like waves of grass bending in the wind.

I have since learnt that Rabbinical Judaism regards it as a grave sin to remind a convert of their origins and they are quite right not the least because it is very difficult to convert to Judaism and requires a year of study. I sometimes remember the incident and feel ashamed of my action but with it I feel a sense of annoyance that someone who was not born into Judaism should act in a way that makes life difficult for those of us who had less choice in their religion.

I have never visited Hebron or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but I should add two important facts about the tomb, which contributed tot he Jewish extremism round it.  First of all it is one of what were known to the Jews as the four holy cities (Tsafed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron) in which the Jews maintained a presence across the centuries. In 1929 there were riots in Palestine and 70 Hebron Jews were killed and the rest forced to leave.  The issue was a celebrated cause among right-wing Jews.  The other pertinent fact is that Jews were banned from entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs from the late 1300s until the Israeli conquest in 1967 and despite that apparently maintained their connection with the site, worshipping on the steps at one of the entrances.  

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...