Monday, November 14, 2011

Post #75 - Defenders and Critics

Israelis have said: "We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us." Arabs may say, “We will have peace with the Israelis when thy love their children more than they fear us.” The Israel that was to be “based on freedom, justice and peace” has let many olive branches slip through its fingers, and so have the Palestinians. When, in March of 2001, the Arab League decided to offer Israel normal relations in exchange for compliance with UN Resolutions 194 and 242 (a stand that was reaffirmed by 21 Arab states on March 28, 2007), the Israeli response was the next day to destroy the offices of the PLO in Ramallah, which Israel had in 1995 declared to be under Palestinian jurisdiction. Would the Arabs' offer have led to lasting peace? We can never know.

Talmudic scholars
Many who hailed Jimmy Carter when, as president, he brokered the first Israeli-Arab peace agreement, now shun him for the ideas he expresses in his book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. In a n interview on “On Faith”, an Internet feature of the Washington Post and Newsweek, Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, was asked about critics of Israel; he said: "In trying to discern how to distinguish legitimate prophetic criticisms of Israel from illegitimate ones, I have been greatly influenced by the words of Rabbi Jonathan in the Talmudic tractate of Tamid (28a): 'He who reproves his neighbor with pure intent is worthy of a portion from God.'" Criticism, Rabbi Jonathan implies, must be carefully evaluated: Much depends on the motives of the critic.

The unworthy critics today are easy to find. Unlike the great biblical prophets, their shrill voices are neither moderated by love nor tinged with sadness. Their desire is to see the Jewish state destroyed.

Worthy critics, though, may be more scarce. Alive to the realities of contemporary Israel and the tragedies of the 20th century, their words mingle praise along with reproof. They speak directly, sadly, and always in pain. They are the rightful heirs of the biblical prophets, and are the critics worth heeding.

Does Sarna's criterion qualify Jimmy Carter to be placed with the sheep or the goats here? He combines both praise and criticism; he called Menachem Begin “a man of personal courage,” hailed Israeli freedom of expression, and strongly affirmed Israel's “right to exist in peace, behind secure and recognized borders.” He must be considered one who is, in Sarna's phrase, “alive to the realities of contemporary Israel and the tragedies of the 20th century,” having worked with the Israel-Palestine problem for a number of years from a vantage point few could match. He certainly has spoken directly, sadly and in personal pain, as in his earlier book The Blood of Abraham:

"The blood of Abraham, God's father of the chosen, still flows in the veins of Arab, Jew and Christian, and too much of it has been spilled in grasping for the inheritance of the revered patriarch in the Middle East. The spilled blood in the Holy Land still cries out to God – an anguished cry for peace."

Whether “apartheid” is precisely the appropriate term to denote the circumstances of life on the West Bank is debatable (some have criticized it as an imperfect parallel at best; Carter took pains to point out that “the driving force for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa”). Yet it seems that Carter's real transgression is that he insists on seeing the Palestinian people as being worthy of compassionate consideration and on criticizing Israeli policies that exacerbate and prolong the unhappy situation. He responds to pain and loss, no matter the politics or practices of those who suffer it. This, to me, is consistent with, and reflective of, Christian love.

The “face of Israel” I remember from my youth -- elder statesman and former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban -- is quoted by Carter as saying “Unfortunately, it is clear that Israeli governmental policy [in 1983] is so distant from Camp David that when Likud spokesmen invoke the agreement, they are rather like Casanova invoking the Seventh Commandment.” The spirit of Camp David is little honored or invoked today in official circles.

David Gergen, former presidential adviser to both Republicans and Democrats wrote last year:

"As a Christian, [I think] it is wrong and unfair to call into question the loyalty of millions of American Jews who have faithfully supported Israel while also working tirelessly and generously to advance America's cause, both at home and abroad. They should be praised, not pilloried.
Since [Truman], 10 straight American Presidents have befriended Israel - not because they were under pressure but because they believed America had made a commitment to Israel's survival, just as we have to other threatened outposts of freedom like Berlin, South Korea and Taiwan.” “…our friendship with Israel has always been rooted in noble values - just as our friendships have been with other outposts of freedom."

In the Shah's parlor
While I respect Gergen's judgment on most matters, and agree that most U.S. supporters of Israeli policy are loyal Americans, it occurs to me that Iran's democratically-elected government in the early 1950's might well have been considered “an outpost of freedom” at that time – compared with its neighbors in the Middle East and a great many other countries, yet our CIA helped overthrow the leaders chosen by the Iranian people and reinstall a monarchic dictatorship. If you visit the shahs' palace in the North Tehran district of Niyavaran, you can still see the royal study, whose bric-a-brac includes framed and signed pictures of world leaders who were guests there, including Ataturk, Mao Tse Tung and Adolf Hitler.

Iran certainly was such an outpost during its hard-won, but brief, constitutional period in the early 20th century. That was brought to a close by British and Russian intervention, as we read in an article by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson in The Nation July 16:

"The Constitutional Revolution was the first democratic revolution to take place in the Middle East, and perhaps the most important...{It] established a freely elected Parliament and a Constitution with civil liberties, severely limited the powers of the shah and promoted the establishment of women's schools and councils. It also set up a state-based judiciary that challenged the traditional authority of the Shiite clerics...
"As Hamid Dabashi recounts in Iran: A People Interrupted, this [revolution] was... marked by the participation of its ethnic and religious minorities--Azeris, Armenians, Bahais and Jews...Hoping to build what Dabashi calls "an anti-colonial modernity," the great writer Ali Akbar Dehkhoda launched a campaign in the press against oppressive social customs (especially regarding gender). Socialist ideas from the 1905 Russian Revolution entered the country through Baku and Tbilisi.
"The revolution faced two formidable external adversaries, however, in the British Empire and Czarist Russia. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention, which divided Iran into a northern Russian and a southern British sphere of influence, showed that the great powers were bent on pursuing a more aggressive imperialism in the region. In 1911 Russian troops, with British approval, moved to just outside Tehran and threatened to take over the capital unless the Parliament was disbanded. An internal coup ended the standoff and brought the revolution to an end. Although the 1906 Constitution was retained until 1979, it was reduced to a formality..."

Chile might have been considered such an outpost under Allende when we helped to dispose of him and allowed control of that country to shift to a dictator named Augusto Pinochet Ugarte – more people were killed following his rise to power than were killed September 11 – but, of course, the cost to us in the United States was minimal. And, of course, let us not lose sight of the fact that between 1958 and 1965 a republican government existed in Iraq – a relative “outpost of freedom.” It was deemed too chummy with the Soviet Union for our tastes, so it fell and we propped up Saddam Hussein (before we toppled him, captured him and saw him beheaded).

These events occurred under the terms of those same ten presidents that Gergen cites. Those presidents did not always favor freedom, but they always, when push came to shove, favored Israel,. For Gergen to seek to explain the whole reality of that period in terms of love of democracy seems to me a bit disingenuous.

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