Monday 18 December 2017

How Important is Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem?

President Donald Trump's announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and his decision to instruct the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, have dominated world headlines in recent weeks.  Many have analysed what lies behind his decision, and why he chose to take these steps now.  Amidst the speculation about these points, there appear to be no clear answers to these questions.

The reaction from around the world has been almost universally critically.  Except, of course, Israel's reaction where Prime Minister Netanyahu has lauded Trump's announcement as courageous, just and historic.  It is interesting to understand why western countries have been so opposed to this announcement, and why so many countries have responded in criticising Israel when Israel was not party to this action at all.  Not to speak of the anger shown by the Arab world with riots being held in many countries.  And the launching of missiles towards Israel in a way that one may have viewed Israel to be the offending party here.

Why has there been such a huge reaction to this announcement?  Previous American presidents, most notably Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama, are on record stating the Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act has been on the US statue books since 1995, and dictates that the US embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.  In reality, Trump has said and done nothing new.  He has simply followed in the footsteps of others before him by reiterating the obvious. 

The fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital cannot be disputed.  The decision as to which city is the capital city of any country, is one that is taken by the country itself.  It is almost unheard of for any country's choice of a capital city not to be recognised or respected by members of the international community.  Israel declared Jerusalem to be her capital in 1948, a fact that was entrenched in the Basic Law in Israel in 1980 with the Jerusalem Law.  The Knesset sits in Jerusalem as do all government ministries.  Both the prime minister and the president have their offices and residences in Jerusalem, and foreign dignitaries are received in Jerusalem as the nation's capital.  Trump's announcement, or lack of announcement, makes no difference at all to the situation.  The fact that Jerusalem functions as the country's capital cannot be denied even by the most anti-Israeli person.

So why the furore over Trump's announcement?  It stems back to 1947 when the Arabs refused to accept the UN Partition Plan for Palestine that envisaged the sharing of Palestine, as it was, between Jewish and Arab states.  It also envisaged Jerusalem being a city under international control that would be shared between the Jews and the Arabs.  When the Arabs rejected this plan and grabbed whatever they could for themselves (including East Jerusalem), one would have thought that the UN plan was effectively rejected and binned.  Following a number of wars in the intervening period which saw the Arabs trying to grab more for themselves, but ultimately losing ground, the Arabs ironically still reject this plan as being not enough for them.  Perhaps this is because the Arabs continue to plot for the takeover of the entire city of Jerusalem, and the expulsion of the Jews from all parts of it.  In spite of all of the history, the international community has continued to pressurise Israel to honour the plan, even though it was formally rejected by the Arabs.  In this context, the international community refuses to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, believing instead that the Arabs have some right to it.  They continue to demand a piece of Jerusalem for an Arab country, that seems unlikely to arise in the near future.  What has suddenly changed since 1947 when the Arabs rejected the plan to share Palestine and Jerusalem?  I don't think that anything has changed since then, and I suspect that the same plan would be rejected today by the Arabs as it was then.

For those who continue to insist that the Arabs have some rights to Jerusalem, Trump's announcement has been interpreted as reducing the possibility of this becoming reality.  They consider that Trump effectively took Jerusalem off the table from any peace talks that may take place.  If they were more honest, I believe that they would acknowledge the fact that the Arabs have no current plan or intention to sit down in peace talks anytime soon.  In my view, this means that Jerusalem was never really on the table at all.

Jerusalem has never been freer, than since the city was unified under Israeli rule in 1967.  All religions are free to worship at their holy sites, providing that they come with intention of behaving respectfully and peacefully.  While Jews were denied the right to visit the holiest site in Judaism when it was under Arab rule, Muslims have been assured the rights to their holy sites under Israeli rule.  The Israeli government has rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, improved its infrastructure and made it more desirable for all those who wish to live in and visit the city.  This should surely be something that influences the views of the international community regarding the most appropriate entity to rule over Jerusalem.  The argument that many of the citizens of Jerusalem, particularly in East Jerusalem, are Arabs who have no desire to be citizens of Israel is also used as reason why this area of the city should be ruled by a future Palestinian state.  It should be known that these residents were offered the right to Israeli citizenship, and have many rights as permanent residents of Jerusalem and Israel in spite of their rejection.  Just because entire neighbourhoods of Paris are dominated by Muslim residents, does not mean that these neighbourhoods should form part of an Arab state. Why is this different in Jerusalem?

The Trump announcement is not a trailblazer, and changes nothing in reality.  It is essentially an insignificant act for Israelis, Arabs and the international community.  Israelis may appreciate the statements of support for the Jewish right to Israel and Jerusalem, but are essentially indifferent to Trump's announcement.  They care little about what was said, and would have cared the same if it was not said.  Israelis are determined that the united city of Jerusalem be the capital of Israel, and nothing has changed.

There can be no doubt that the announcement by Trump has been seized upon by those who are determined to destroy Israel.  They have taken the opportunity to further their aim of ultimately ridding Jerusalem and Israel of Jews.  Trump's announcement is being used to justify this in a manner that is politically correct.  It seems entirely acceptable to launch rockets into Israel, to attack Israeli soldiers and to riot in Bangladesh in response to the Trump announcement.  The announcement itself was of no consequence, and nothing has changed.  Jerusalem will continue to be the capital of Israel whether the world accepts this or not.  Perhaps this is what Trump came to realise.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Stretching the Limits of Self-Hatred

This was a statement issued on 6 July 2017 in South Africa.  My response follows below.

South African Jews welcome downgrading of SA Embassy in Israel

We as Jewish South Africans warmly welcome the ANC National Policy Conference resolution and recommendation to downgrade the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv. This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime.
The ANC National Policy Conference, which ended yesterday, has called for “the downgrading of the SA Embassy in Israel to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine”.
We would like to draw attention to the letter that our Jewish Israeli counterparts sent to the ANC ahead of its recent National Policy Conference. In their letter supporting the call for a downgrade of relations and support of the BDS boycott of Israel, our Israeli friends explained that:
“After many years of trying to change our society from within, we have come to the conclusion that an international campaign, such as the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is necessary to change the situation here. We believe that the time has come for further measures. Governments including the South African government should be downgrading diplomatic relations and their embassies in Israel, to send a clear message to Israel that its violations of international law are unacceptable. Ultimately we call on the ANC to strengthen its support for the BDS movement and Palestinian struggle.”
We welcome the fact that the ANC has heeded the call by Palestinians as well as those progressive Israelis who are working towards a just peace in Israel-Palestine.
Finally we would like to add that we stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all. To boycott Israel today is not antisemitic, it is an affirmation of these principles.
For more information please contact:
Allan Horwitz 0825128188
*South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) is an organisation of South African Jews wishing to see a just resolution to the conflict in Historic Palestine. We strongly believe in the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, “Repairing the World” which embodies social action and the pursuit of social justice. Historically Jews have been involved struggles to achieve social justice and we are proud to continue this tradition. Furthermore, as Jews, we feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in our name.

Dear Allan and SAJFP members,

I was somewhat surprised to read your need to put out a statement, in which you expressed support for the resolution passed by the ANC National Policy Conference to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv.  This resolution was passed by the ANC conference "to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  According to your statement, "This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime".

There are a number of points in your statement that I feel need to be challenged.  Why do you consider Israel to be an "abnormal regime"?  Having lived in Israel for the past almost 20 years, and having travelled extensively to other countries during that time, I have no doubt that Israel is a perfectly normal regime forced to deal with an abnormal situation.  Israel is the only country in the world that constantly has its right to exist challenged unashamedly, and is frequently threatened with destruction.  This is abnormal.  Not only that, but the terror attacks and threats that Israel is subjected to on a daily basis can surely also not be considered normal.  Despite this patently abnormal situation, Israel has done a remarkable job of surviving and growing, even when compared to so-called normal regimes.  It seems unjust that Israel's actions to defend herself against the abnormal threats that she faces, are judged by normal countries according to scales that can only be relevant in their normal situations.  Surely the time has come for the international community, and Jews around the world like you, to recognise this fact and to give Israel the support that she needs to survive under the abnormal threat in which she finds herself?  It is disappointing that you choose not to recognise this in your statement, and fail to criticise those who have the audacity to threaten the existence of a sovereign nation.

I would like to pick up on your reference to "Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  At the current time, Israel has ceded land in Judea and Samaria to be governed by the Palestinian Authority.  Additionally, Israel gave the entire Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority, which was later taken over by Hamas.  It is on record that Israel would have already given this to an internationally-recognised state of Palestine, as long as the Palestinians would recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state along its border.  This recognition has been withheld, and no peace agreement has been reached as a result.  Why do I not see any recognition by you of the ongoing attempts by Muslims to take over the entire State of Israel?  This is in the charter of both Hamas and Fatah, and is plain for anybody to see.  Where is the recognition of the fact that Israel has ceded land to be governed by the Palestinians, only to find that this land has been turned into a launchpad for missile attacks against Israel?  If it was your family living under this constant missile barrage, how likely would you be to give more land to them to be used in this way?  So please would you explain what you mean by "illegal occupation" and "human rights abuses".  How can Israel be guilty of human rights abuses against Palestinians when their own authorities govern over them?  I think that it would be more accurate for you to accuse the Palestinians of human rights abuses against Israelis for the constant terror attacks that Israelis are forced to endure.

I am not sure who the "progressive Israelis" are that would have sent the letter to the ANC ahead of the policy conference.  Why did you not say who they are?  What are their names?  How many Israelis are really represented by the letter?  I believe that you will find that all Israelis, and not only "progressive Israelis", are eager to work towards supporting a just peace.  But it needs to be that - a just peace.  Just for both sides.  This means recognising the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  Failure to receive this formal recognition would be unjust.  And I cannot imagine any nation, that has its wits about them, that would agree to allow the formation of a country along its borders that has the intention of destroying it.  Why would you think that this ridiculous step would be OK for the Jewish state?

If you truly stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism, and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all, why is it that you do not support the rights of Jews and Israelis to live in freedom and with dignity?  Why do you choose to be self-hating and only find reasons to criticise Israel?  If you were not self-hating, I would expect you to call out acts of anti-Semitism and other abusers of human rights.  I did not notice you speaking out against anti-Semitism in Hungary and France and the UK?  Your silence on this is deafening.  And where is your criticism of human rights abuses in North Korea or Russia or China or Burma or Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe or Soweto or Nkandla?  Why has Israel earned the special right to be singled out by you?  You claim to feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in your name.  I am sorry to burst your bubble, but none of this is carried out in your name.  It is carried out in the name of self-respecting Israelis who wish to survive as proud Jews.  You are just the fortunate beneficiary of these actions.  You are a just a lucky South African Jew, who has been gifted the opportunity to live in peace and security by virtue of the existence of a strong State of Israel, that is willing to defend and give power to Jews around the world, even the self-hating ones.

The anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli actions carried out by our enemies around the world, could be compared in many ways to the Shoah perpetrated against our people by the Nazis.  The fervour with which terrorists rise up to murder our people, with no qualms about risking their own lives in the process, surpasses anything that we saw during the Nazi regime.  The amount of money and the national resources of governments that are devoted to endeavours to murder Jews and destroy Israel as the Jewish state, are equivalent to those seen during the Nazi regime.  The national infrastructure that is being built in Gaza (and in other countries), with the sole purpose of destroying Israel, can be compared to the scale of the concentration camps, railway systems and crematoria built to destroy Jews in Europe.  There is only one key difference today, that makes all of what we are experiencing different from the terrible years of the Shoah.  That difference is the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish army.  Without this, Jews would today be experiencing a Shoah of the proportions experienced during the time of the Nazis.  So you are extremely fortunate to benefit from this.  The State of Israel, that you so vociferously criticise, is exactly what gives you the freedom to live in safety in your comfortable existence South Africa and express your misguided opinions.  Where is your recognition of this fact?

I find it ironic that you choose to express your criticism of Israel, and your call for a boycott that is supposedly not anti-Semitic, by supporting the decision taken by the ANC National Policy Conference.  It is almost as if this is the body that represents the gold standard of upholding human rights.  We all know that nothing could be further from the truth, and the ANC representatives at the conference may be better advised to examine the situation nearer to home before choosing to criticise a country that only has the desire to defend itself to survive.  I would have thought that you, as a Jew in South Africa, would understand that.

I would like to conclude by recognising that the State of Israel is not beyond criticism, nor is every action that it takes worthy of support.  Like every country and every nation, Israel has its moments, both good and bad.  And she has a legal system and a judiciary that is designed to police this.  Feel free to say what you wish about that.  But please save your ill-considered criticisms of Israel's attempts to survive.  You place yourself firmly in the camp of those who are fighting for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.  Jews in the Shoah were forced to understand the hard way that criticising their fellow Jews would not save them from the hands of the Nazis, and from suffering the same fate as all the others.  You should learn from history, because you will not be saved from this fate either.

Anthony Reich

Thursday 13 July 2017

The Unifying Wall That Divides

Image from
A decision by the Israeli government not to approve the construction of an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Compound in Jerusalem and Judaism's holiest site, has opened wounds between the Israeli government and the American Jewish community.  It is ironic that, only weeks after celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of the Kotel to Jewish hands, this iconic landmark and holy site is giving rise to huge divisions between different groups of Jews.  How differently the Kotel is being viewed now, as opposed to 50 years ago when Jews around the world were rejoicing in unison at the prospects of being able to visit and pray at this site.

Things have clearly changed over the past 50 years that we are fighting amongst ourselves over this matter.  Fifty years ago,  Jews would have been happy simply to be able to visit and pray at the Kotel. It would not have mattered if this would have been by a group of men or women on their own, or by mixed groups and families.  After so many years of having been denied the right to visit the site of the Temple, the details of how prayers would be offered there were unimportant.

Fast-forward fifty years, and the Kotel Plaza has been developed to allow and encourage Jews to visit the site for historical and religious reasons.  It was developed according to the tenets of Jewish religious law as befits a site of prayer.  This means that men and women have been provided with separate prayer areas.  This separation is not a new or alien concept amongst Orthodox and traditional Jews.  It is something that is expected at holy sites and areas of prayer.  And while Orthodox or traditional strands of Judaism are dominant in Israel amongst those who wish to identify with the Jewish religion, the same is not true outside of Israel.  There, the Reform and Conservative strands of Judaism are more popular.  These strands follow a somewhat less stringent interpretation of the Orthodox Jewish laws, either because followers have studied the laws and rejected some of the stringencies arising from Rabbinical interpretations and pronouncements over the years, or because it is simply easier to follow.  In a world where the rate of assimilation amongst Jewish communities around the world is running at alarmingly high levels, any form of identification with Judaism can be considered to be positive.  It is for this reason that the Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the USA, have gathered enormous power as they manage to stem some of the massive flows of Jews away from the faith.

The battle lines between Orthodox and Reform/Conservative Jews have long been drawn.  The Orthodox communities have done all that they can to reject the dilutions that are inherent with the Reform/Conservative view on the Jewish world.  They have worked to discredit and delegitimise them, even accusing them of not being Jews.  The Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the US that command power and have access to large sums of money, have used this to fight back against the Orthodox world view.  The battle over the Kotel is simply an extension of this power struggle between the different groups.  The Reform/Conservative strand believes that their followers (and other non-religious people) would prefer to visit and pray at the Kotel in an area that is mixed with men and women - an egalitarian area.  This would also allow families to enjoy this experience together.  The Orthodox are absolutely opposed to this, claiming that the Kotel is a religious place of prayer that requires separation of the sexes according to the traditional Jewish Law.

The State of Israel has set out not to distinguish between different groups of Jews.  In fact, the Law of Return that grants immediate Israeli citizenship to Jews, has chosen to use Hitler's definition of Jews rather than going by Jewish religious law.  Hitler decided that any person who had one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to be treated inhumanely by his regime, and to be part of his plan of extermination.  The Israeli government decided that if a person was good enough to be exterminated by Hitler, they would be good enough to be granted immediate Israeli citizenship.  This means that some of those who have been granted immediate citizenship under this law, are not Jewish according to Jewish Law.  This demonstrates the extent to which the State of Israel has opened its arms to many different groups of Jews - and even to some non-Jews.  Under the circumstances, it seems as though the government would be sympathetic to the claims of the non-Orthodox groups at the Kotel.

Even though the government would probably wish to be more accommodating to the demands of the non-Orthodox lobby, and even previously agreed to their demands for an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, politics always seems to come first.  The current government coalition can only exist with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  Upon hearing of the government's plan to accommodate an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the ultra-Orthodox parties flexed their muscles and threatened to bring the government down if the plan was implemented.  Prime Minister Netanyahu went into survival mode, even at the expense of his relationship with US Jews, and acquiesced to the demands of his coalition partners.  At least for now.  American Jews responded in disgust by withdrawing their support for the Israeli government.

Does the Reform/Conservative lobby have a valid case in declaring open warfare on the Israeli government as a result of this decision?  The Israeli government has said that an egalitarian prayer area does already exist, but it is just not in the premier Kotel Plaza area.  The non-Orthodox lobby claims that this is not good enough, and effectively treats some Jews as second-class.  Their demand is to have the egalitarian area front and centre alongside the other prayer areas in the Kotel Plaza.  The battle is one of power and of wills. This is a battle between different groups of Jews, each of whom demands that their way is accepted, and with the Israeli government being called upon to act as referee.

Is the Kotel a Jewish national asset that should be required to accommodate all groups of Jews in a way that is to their liking?  Or is it an asset that belongs to the religious, as the holiest religious site in Judaism?  Does creating an egalitarian prayer area alongside the other areas serve to dilute its importance and religious status?  Is this issue important enough to be worth creating a rift amongst different groups of Jews?

I don't have answers to any of these questions.  And even if I did, I feel sure that the warring parties would not consider my point of view in formulating their reactions to the situation.  Of course, the Israeli government will always act in way that promotes its own best interests.  At the moment, that requires it to take the side of the ultra-Orthodox parties and freeze the egalitarian prayer area.

In my opinion, the situation requires tolerance and understanding by all parties.  It is natural to expect that the holiest site in Judaism should have some of the most stringent rules attached to it, and that Orthodox Jewish law should apply.  We live at a time, however, when Jews around the world should find reasons to unite, and not reasons to be in conflict with each other, especially over a site as central as the Kotel.  The ultra-Orthodox parties are not generally known for making efforts to unify different strands of Judaism, but it is never too late.  They should know that no man is in a position to judge another one, nor judge his interpretation of the religion.  So they should be taking the moral high ground on this matter in an attempt to accommodate the requests of the non-Orthodox groups.  Surely accommodating an egalitarian space could be acceptable, as long as they continue to have their separated areas?  The situation now requires unity and not conflict.  It is incumbent upon the parties to sit down, and find a compromise that will be acceptable to all.  Is this too much to expect?

Friday 2 June 2017

Trump - Saviour or Poison Chalice

The visit to Israel by US President Donald Trump has come and gone, and the analysts will undoubtedly still spend some time considering their verdicts dissecting each aspect of the visit.  At first glance, the visit appears to have been filled with symbolism but short on substance.  Following a turbulent first few months in office for the US president, there are many who wonder whether his support for Israel is welcome, or whether it is turning out to be more of a poison chalice than a helping hand.

Trump has been openly and publicly supportive of Israel's position, even from before he was elected.  His high profile campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been the subject of much debate and controversy.  When his victory in the presidential election was revealed, the Israeli government (and many other Israelis) welcomed his election with the hope and expectation that this would change the anti-Israel bias within the US government and elsewhere that was such a feature of the Obama administration.  And changes have certainly been felt since his election.

The current atmosphere at the United Nations is entirely different from the one that ruled during 2016 and before.  Part of this change can be attributed to new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who is much less inclined to entertain the constant barrage of anti-Israel sentiment that prevailed under Ban Ki Moon.  Much of the change is, however, thanks to new US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and the change in policy that she represents.  She has imposed the Trump administration's support for Israel at the UN in the strongest possible terms.  The days of raising frivolous anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council are over for now.  The international community has understood that these will be vetoed by the US, and that there is little point in raising them under the current administration.  Haley has been vociferous in her condemnation of the constant attempts to paint Israel in a negative light.  There can be little doubt that the changes at the UN have a great deal to do with the new man in the White House.

President Trump's visit to Israel was highly symbolic.  He made Israel one of the stops on his maiden foreign tour since becoming president.  He visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his visit, becoming the first US president to make this visit while in office.  He emphasized to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that funding terror is not acceptable.  He reinforced the support that Israel will always enjoy from his administration.  In spite of this, he stayed clear of the key substantive issues confronting Israel and the region now.  He did not raise the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  No mention was made of the constant accusations against Israel regarding construction in Judea and Samaria.  Nothing was said about Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, or accusations regarding Israel's claims to Jerusalem as its capital.  His outward shows of support were all seized upon, recognised and appreciated by the majority of Israelis.  The lack of meaningful progress in getting Israelis and Palestinians to sit down around the peace table is what the international community has seized upon.

The issue that Israel needs to consider is Trump's overall standing within the USA and further afield.  It was clear before he arrived in Israel that Trump has many enemies at home, and that they are determined to keep him on the back foot by levelling all types of accusations against him.  Trump's own conduct in defending these accusations has certainly not helped his cause.  And Israel was dragged into the crossfire when Trump was accused of sharing secret intelligence received from Israel with Russia.  If true, this would be a serious violation of trust, and norms associated  with the sharing of intelligence information.

Distrust for Trump appears to be spreading rapidly within the international community as well.  Trump's recent appearances at the G7 and NATO meetings did not show him to be in accord with any of the other western leaders.  On the contrary, there are indications that Trump is being sidelined from the key international organisations.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”  This is an art that Trump has clearly not yet mastered.  Even though Trump frequently says things that many people are thinking, he has not yet discovered how to say it in a way that does not create enemies.  While Israel has no particular issue with Trump's popularity (or lack of it) in the international community, there is a danger that Israel will be tarred with the same negative brush if she is seen to be too closely associated with Trump.

There is no doubt that Israel has already gained a great deal from the change of administration in the White House.  Trump's influence over US domestic and international policy towards Israel, and his influence over proceedings at the UN cannot be under-estimated.  Israel will certainly wish to see more of that in the future.  There is a danger, however, that the association with Trump could prove to be negative in Israel's relationships with other countries around the world.  If Trump continues to completely ignore the accepted rules of international engagement while representing his contrary views, he will quickly became a pariah in the international community.  And, even if Israel wishes to stay close to Trump to benefit from his supportive views and actions, the association with him may proved negative. 

The prime minister and the Israeli government has a tough job to navigate a careful path to take advantage of the emerging situation, without losing too much in the process.  Will Trump prove to be the good things for Israel that were predicted, or a poison chalice?  Only time will tell.

Monday 1 May 2017

Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don't

Much has been written and discussed about Marwan Barghouti's article in The New York Times, trying to explain why prisoners in Israeli jails have embarked on a hunger strike.  Most of the comments have surrounded the factual inaccuracies in Barghouti's statements and accusations against Israel.  Or they have questioned why The New York Times had the audacity to allow such subversive trash to be published at all.  My question is a different one.  I ask whether it is right that Israel should allow its prisoners (whether they are criminal or political prisoners) the freedom that it does, and that allows people like Barghouti to make such ludicrous claims in public?

It is somewhat ironic that Barghouti accuses Israel of operating an "inhumane system" in its attempt "to break the spirit of prisoners" and of "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions against the Palestinian people", while still having the freedom to publish these accusations in The New York Times.  Surely this is a contradiction in terms?  If Israel was so intent on breaching the Geneva Convention, it would surely do more to ensure that prisoners do not have access to publish their articles in international publications.  Or at least opppose violations more vehemently than it has.  It is common knowledge that prisoners in many systems, even in countries that pride themselves on their democracy, are not allowed access to go unpunished when they publish their complaints and accusations in public.  And yet, Israel has hardly responded to Barghouti's article to punish him.

In many countries around the world, even in democratic countries, prisoners have significant restrictions placed on them.  This is even more true of those convicted of terror-related crimes, or who are considered the most dangerous after committing very extreme crimes.  In some cases, these restrictions can result in the opposite outcome of the one that the authorities hope to achieve.  In the case of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa, his popularity grew substantially while he was in prison and isolated from the outside world.  He had no access to the media, and his likeness was not allowed to be published at all by the press.  Despite this, the campaign for his release only grew more over time.  The same was true of Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky when he was imprisoned in the Soviet Union.  Despite these examples, the act of isolating prisoners seems, in the most part, to keep them out of the public view.  This raises the question as to whether a stronger reaction to Marghouti would not be in Israel's best interests?

In spite of accusations of Israel acting in a racist way towards Arabs, and even being called an "Apartheid country", Israel values its democracy and freedom of speech almost above everything else.  And while security considerations are always of paramount importance in every situation, the notion of preserving democracy and freedom has a very high priority.  The Jewish people have suffered so much discriminatory behaviour over the generations that it would be anathema to have a Jewish country that does not embody democracy and freedom in every respect.  Even if it means being tolerant of those who seek Israel's destruction.

It seems as though the furore over the article has died down, and the hunger strike in the prisons has been abandoned by large numbers of prisoners.  It is ironic that some of the most important facts about the treatment of prisoners in Israeli jails seem to have been kept low-key in the whole uproar.  The system of housing prisoners in jails is well demonstrated in the list of the improvements that the prisoners are striking for.  These include;
- increasing family visits from the current 45 minutes a time, to 90 minutes a time
- increasing the frequency of family visits from once a month to twice a month
- allowing the prisoners an increased selection of TV channels in the prisons
- allowing the prisoners greater education facilities.
Comparing this to the way in which Israeli prisoners have been held by Arab states over the years seems a joke.  And yet, The New York Times sees it fit to cover this matter.  This hardly points to the systematic violations of the Geneva Convention that Barghouti accuses of.

With the story having almost burnt itself out, perhaps it was the right decision by the Israeli government not to respond more actively to the article that was published.  In Israel's case, the criticism seems to come whether she has done something, and equally when she has not.  Ultimately, we need to feel good with ourselves that we are doing what allows us to feel good when we look at ourselves in the mirror.  I believe that this is what has been achieved in this case.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Action At Last

The decision by US President Donald Trump to launch an attack in Syria following the recent chemical weapons attack has been widely welcomed by Israelis.  It is also a welcome change from the policy that was pursued by the US during the presidency of Barack Obama.  Finally, the free world has a leader who is prepared to take action rather than utter words.

Last Friday, President Trump really showed what he is made of.  Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack that was carried out earlier last week by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people, Trump took a few days to consider the situation and gather the required evidence before striking in retaliation.  The retaliation was not against a violation of any US interest in particular.  The retaliation was rather against the violation of innocent women and children, and against the unacceptable use of chemical weapons.

Over the past few years, the world became used to the Obama style of doing things.  Obama threatened, but never made good on his threats.  So, it comes as no surprise that Assad gambled on the US not responding to this chemical attack.  After all, previous chemical attacks went unanswered.  In fact, it was the deal that was struck during Obama's presidency in 2013, that enabled this chemical attack.  When Obama discovered the extent of the stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons, he decided to cut Assad some slack and allow him a way to diplomatically and elegantly dispose of them.  The deal struck with Syria by negotiation between the USA and Russia involved the dismantling of no fewer than 12 chemical weapons productions facilities, numerous storage locations, a research and development facility and the destruction of thousands of tons of chemical agents.

But, under the noses of the international supervisors, and with the tacit knowledge of Obama and other members of the international community, Assad succeeded in retaining some of these chemical weapons for himself.  It was one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East.  The Israeli intelligence community believed that the Assad government retained a "residual" chemical stockpile of somewhere between several hundred kilograms to several tons of chemical weapons, about 1% of its original stockpile.  Obama's reaction was fairly predictable.  He turned a blind eye.  Last week's Sarin attack by Assad is the public evidence of Obama's failed policy.

In taking action in the way that he did, Trump sent out a number of very important messages.  The first was a very clear message to Assad and his army.  This US president will not tolerate bully-boy tactics being employed against innocent women and children, even if he is still in the honeymoon period of his presidency.  And he will not tolerate the use of illegal chemical weapons, even if his predecessor was prepared to turn a blind eye to this.

The second message was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  He has been Assad's patron for a number of years.  Initially, this support was in the form of supplying weapons and vetoing resolutions against Assad at the UN Security Council.  While this support has continued, it has also escalated to include Russian boots on the ground in Syria and Russian warplanes in Syrian air space.  Even though Trump was determined to forge a closer link with Putin when he first entered office, the message to Putin is that everything has changed.  Even Russian support, and the possibility of damaging US relations with Russia will not prevent Trump from taking action against Assad.

The third message was sent to other rogue nations of the world, including Iran and North Korea.  In a similar way to how the deal with Syria was struck, Obama also struck a deal with Iran.  This deal involved nuclear weapons rather than Syria's chemical weapons.  The stakes were much higher, but the lack of backbone on Obama's part was exactly the same.  He decided to strike the deal with Iran despite the obvious signs that Iran was pulling the wool over the eyes of the countries signing the deal.  Despite Obama's attempts to placate Israel and other detractors of the agreement, its blaring shortcomings were obvious to anybody with a mediocre understanding of the situation.  Trump, however, sends a completely different message.  He has started his time in office by questioning the logic of the deal with Iran.  And the attack against the Syrian forces sends an even stronger message that Trump will not tolerate any deception or aggression on the part of Iran, and also North Korea.

For the Israeli government, the intervention is welcome.  Israel is typically a country for whom actions speak louder than words, even if the actions are frequently very quietly done.  It is inconceivable that the Jewish state could idly watch from the sidelines when chemicals are being used to kill innocent women and children.  The memory of the world standing idly by and watching during the Holocaust is still too fresh in our minds.  It is a great dilemma about how to respond to a situation like the chemical attack in Syria.  On the one hand, Israel would wish to respond with force to the use of chemical weapons.  Doing so would, however, seemingly play into Syria's hands, and immediately embroil Israel in the war in Syria.  Given the history of the two countries and the way in which friendships line up, this could potentially involve Iran, Syria and the USA very quickly indeed.  This would escalate to a regional conflict, and perhaps even result in a conflict that goes beyond the regional borders.

Trump's strong message shows decisive leadership, and finally a willingness to confront rogue states head-on.  This is welcome.  While debates and condemnations at the UN and other forums may have their place, action on the ground sends a much stronger and more serious message.   And his action also saved Israel from, once again, having to respond in a way that will not result in a war involving multiple countries.

We watch with bated breath to see how things develop with Iran.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Israel Apartheid Week - A Contradiction in Terms

Source; Haaretz
Every year, many universities around the world hold an event on their campuses know as "Israel Apartheid Week".  The event is justified by the fact that it brings the so-called discriminatory behaviour of Israel to the attention of the general public to allow people to know "what is really happening in Israel and the Palestinian Territories".  There could be no greater contradiction in terms than this.

I am trying to work out why the focus is on Israel's reportedly discriminatory behaviour in particular?  Why Israel, as opposed to discrimination by the Turks against the Kurds, or discrimination by the Chinese against the Nepalese, or by the Russians against the Ukrainians in Crimea and other former Soviet countries, or the discrimination in many African countries, or discrimination by many Muslim countries against their minorities and foreign workers, and even their own citizens?  There are surely so many countries on the list of those behaving badly, that universities could mark some country's discriminatory behaviour every week of the year.  While one form of discrimination does not justify another, the question is why Israel is singled out for an apartheid week of its own?  Surely this is discriminatory in itself?  It brings into question the real motivations of those who are the main instigators behind this highly questionable event, and how come it has gained so much traction around the world that it is repeated on an annual basis?

The first question that arises, is whether Israel really behaves in the discriminatory manner that is alleged by so many in the international community?  Given the level of threat and violence that is a constant in and around Israel, it is easy to conclude that Israel discriminates against Arabs.  News broadcasts frequently show IDF soldiers in action against those who are presented as innocent civilians.  Israeli is constantly engaged in one military operation or another.  This supports the easy conclusion about Israel being discriminatory against Arabs.  This conclusion, however, would be misguided.  Instead, it would be more accurate to say that Israel discriminates against the threat of terror and violence that she has to deal with.  And judging Israel's actions using a standard for a western country, that is not subject to the same risks and terror attacks, is not an even playing field.  It would be interesting to see how other peace-seeking countries would respond to the set of circumstances that Israel finds herself in.  I suspect that Israel's so-called "discrimination" would be seen in an entirely different light.  Using the term "apartheid" to describe Israel is simply an emotive term trying to play on the ultimate success of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.  There is no link between what is happening in Israel today, and Apartheid South Africa.

Many people try to put constant attacks on Israel in the international community simply down to Israel-hating and Jew-hating.  It is easy to say that these are anti-Semitic activities dressed up with a political justification, and leave it at that.  And, even though much of that is probably true, I don't feel satisfied with leaving the explanation there.  It is important for me to put this into greater context.  I wish to understand where this comes from, and why it is rearing its head at this time and in this way.

The anti-Israel activities that have become common around the world, and which are epitomised in Israel Apartheid Week, bear resemblance to the wave of anti-Semitism that was in evidence in the years leading up to the Second World War.  We know that anti-Semitism is an age-old phenomenon that has no real explanation or justification.  We know that it has been allowed to rise and fall, largely by the general tolerance and acceptance of the general community.  It increased in its intensity when leaders in the international community have encouraged it, or tolerated it.  Hitler's Germany is the best example when the state encouraged anti-Semitism on an industrial scale at the highest levels.  The man in the street needed little further encouragement, and the results are one of the most shameful periods in history.  It is my contention that the constant criticism of Israel at the highest echelons of the international community, is effectively encouraging the man in the street to believe that his hatred towards Israel and Jews is justified and consistent with public opinion.  It is inconceivable that Israel justifies being the one country in the world with more negative resolutions against her at the UN Security Council, or having a permanent agenda item to answer to at the UN Human Rights Council.  These unjustified actions are encouraging anti-Semitism on the streets of Europe, the USA and around the world.

We have just celebrated the Jewish festival of Purim, that marks victory over unjustified anti-Semitism in Persia more than 2,000 years ago.  It seems that little has changed since then.  Not in the modern-day Persian country of Iran, and not elsewhere around the world.  People are taking their cue from international leaders who find it acceptable to spew venom against Israel at every chance.  And to turn international institutions, particularly those connected to the UN, into tools of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.  This provides the green light for people around the world to feel that it is politically correct and acceptable to focus their hatred towards Israel.  This is clearly a form of anti-Semitism, in the same way as much of the anti-Israel activity is simply anti-Semitism dressed up to look politically acceptable.

Surely the time has come for international leaders to show true leadership and stop the discrimination once and for all.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Making Use of the Trump Card

Donald Trump has finally taken office as the 45th president of the United States and, along with it, many expectations from different quarters regarding the numerous outspoken promises made during his campaign for election.  One of the more controversial campaign promises made, was to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This point has been the subject of much focus, and some question marks over whether Trump will ultimately see this promise through.

Since first hearing of this promise by Trump, I have tried to work out what would have driven him to decide to make this undertaking.  It seems fairly clear to me that Trump decided to make this promise of his own volition, and not as a result of a particular request by any party.  So, what would have given Trump the reason to decide to make this matter a central part of his foreign policy in relation to the Middle East?  Did he think that this would be a statement against the Arab world?  Or a statement in support of Israel?  I feel quite sure that the Israeli government would not have requested such an action of Trump.  So Trump's motives seem strange in light of these facts.

The location of international embassies in Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem goes back to the time of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.  It is accepted and usual for countries to locate their  embassy in the capital city of the host country.  In Israel's case, foreign governments decided not to locate their embassies in Israel's chosen capital, Jerusalem, in order not to contravene the spirit of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine that was passed in November 1947.  This resolution called for the city of Jerusalem to be a "corpus separatum", a separate body from the Jewish and Arab states that the resolution also called for the establishment of.  History shows that the Jews accepted the resolution and went on to build the Jewish state as envisaged by the resolution, while the Arabs did not.  Instead, they attacked the Jewish state in attempt to take it for themselves to control the entire area, a battle that rages until this day.  In spite of all of this, the international community has been insistent to maintain the independent status of Jerusalem, and not show favour towards one part nor the other in their claims over the holy city.  It is for this reason that Jerusalem has not be recognised as the capital city of Israel, for fear of stepping on Arab toes.  This is the situation that has persisted until the current day.

Israel would clearly wish for the embassies to be moved to Jerusalem, and for the international community to recognise the holy city as the capital of the Jewish state.  So Trump's initiative is not entirely unwelcome.  The real question is whether this is what Israel would wish to see Trump using his energy to do as a first gesture of his support for the Jewish state?  I believe that there are currently larger and probably more important fish to fry, and that Trump's assistance could give would be more helpful in other areas.  Examples of this include the issue of Iran, that remains a major thorn in Israel's side.  It is not so much the direct threat that Iran presents to Israel, even though this is a huge issue, it is more about the massive funding that is being channelled by Iran to other terror groups.  All of which are trying to destroy Israel in any way possible.  The deal that was struck between Iran and the P5+1 countries has delivered economic benefits to Iran which have served to increase the flow of funds to these terror groups.  It would be very desirable for Trump to somehow help to turn this clock back.   Trump could also help to redress the imbalance that has existed in the international community against Israel for too long now.  There is no doubt that Trump can also help to isolate terror groups that have been operating against Israel and against Jews.  It is my view that some of these issues are more pressing than moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump's assistance to Israel, even if it is genuine and well-meant, will have its limits.  He has many pressing US domestic issues to deal with, along with foreign policy issues affecting US allies and enemies alike. The amount of time and energy that he will have to devote to Israeli issues will be limited, and it would make sense for Prime Minister Netanyahu to prioritise the help that he needs from Trump very carefully in order to make it really count.  I believe that the location of the embassy in Jerusalem is a lower priority issue.  While I don't think that Netanyahu should forget this idea completely, it may be advisable to freeze it and put it on the back-burner for now.

Netanyahu and Trump are diarised to meet on 15 February in Washington.  Netanyahu will be drawing up his agenda very carefully to get the maximum benefit from this meeting.  It is arguably more difficult for Netanyahu to fix his agenda for the meeting with Trump, than it was to arrange the agenda for meetings with less supportive presidents such as Obama.  It is a little like a kid in a candy store trying to decide which he should leave behind.  The choices are difficult.

With the Trump presidency having started with such positive support for Israel, there is a great danger that Israeli expectations may be heightened to the point of ultimate disappointment.  Only time will tell.