Icks Factor — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Bibi,

 illustration by Avi Katz</em
illustration by Avi Katz
When you shunted me off to the national embarrassment portfolio as the last and least of your myriad cabinet ministers, I was at first angry and insulted. Having expected to get a senior office of great public and historical weight, such as the Nostalgia Office or head of the National Task Force for the Depletion of Natural Resources, I was taken aback by the prospect of taking on a new ministry created out of bits and pieces pilfered from so many other government agencies.

But after a month on the job, I now understand the great wisdom you displayed in bringing all your government’s efforts to disgrace our great nation together under a single roof. While your piecemeal efforts to make Israel the laughing-stock of international diplomacy have been effective to a large degree, you are certainly correct in resolving, in your new government, to make shame a national priority.

My first step as minister of national embarrassment has been to embark on a tour of European and North American capitals and Jewish communities to assess just how disgusted our allies and compatriots are with us, and to formulate a master plan for transforming this antipathy into something more akin to loathing. Kudos to you for jump-starting my ministry’s efforts with your election-day message warning against a high voter turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens and your pre-election insult to President Obama in the form of your speech to Congress. These two strokes of genius were cited again and again in each city I visited. Here is a sample of the comments I received:

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What the Breaking the Silence Report Says about the Gaza War–and Doesn’t

Excerpt from my new op-ed in The Forward In its most recent report , Breaking the Silence does something different — it points its spotlight at the haze of a full-scale military operation, last summer’s Protective Edge incursion into the Gaza Strip and tries to draw from its testimonies bigger lessons about an Israeli army … Read more

16 Million Refugees Are Not Some Other Country’s Problem

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Item: Two Eritrean refugees who reached Israel by crossing the Sinai desert went to court Thursday, asking for an injunction preventing the government from deporting them to Rwanda. The policy of forced deportation is new, but a recent report by Israeli refugee-rights organizations shows that in case after case, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers who supposedly left voluntarily in 2013-2014 did so under pressure, including threats of indefinite detention. Those sent to Rwanda were in turn expelled by authorities there almost immediately. Others were sent back to Sudan, where some were imprisoned and tortured for the crime of visiting an enemy state—Israel. Dozens of refugees who “voluntarily” left Israel for Africa are now trying to reach Europe: by land to Libya, then across the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats.

Item: An Australian lawyer has filed suit against that country’s government to keep it from returning the family of a five-year-old Iranian refugee girl from a detention center in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, to the island country of Nauru—a speck of land halfway to Hawaii. Australia pays Nauru to take boat people caught at sea while trying to reach Australia. The girl’s family was brought to Darwin because her father needed medical treatment there.  She is suffering post-traumatic stress from the time she has already spent in a detention camp on the island.

Item: When a smuggler’s boat crashed against rocks on the shoreline of the Greek island of Rhodes last week,

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You can take the Jews out of exile, but you can’t take the exile out of the Israeli right

Gershom Gorenberg

My Yom Ha’atzma’ut column is up at Haaretz:

I’m sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem almost on the eve of Independence Day, listening to the Ashkenazi and the Ethiopian waiters joking in Hebrew, in circumstances that existentially are a billion miles from anywhere that my great-grandfather in the Ukraine could have imagined a descendant living, and I’m thinking about the speeches that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give over the next couple of days – and thinking that he actually does not get that we are independent. Not that I mean to pick on Netanyahu, except as a personification of the Israeli right, which for all that it sees itself as strutting in Jabotinskian pride and glory, does not understand what it means to be here – physically, culturally or morally.

It’s a reasonable bet that in one or more speeches Netanyahu will mention Iran, the perfidy of Western nations, our isolation, and our potential extermination. Last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu gave a speech that was more about Iran and fear of a new Holocaust than honoring the memories of those who died in the actual Holocaust. Netanyahu’s entire public career consists of pronouncements that it is, right now, 1938, if not August 1939. His forecasts are detached from the physical universe but are wired directly into the neurons of enough of the electorate to win him elections.

For the literarily or religiously inclined, the words that best portray his constant mood are, “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.”

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The Balcony — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Barak and Bona Washingtonia are one of those couples who have grown apart over the years. Barak’s an army buddy of mine, a regular guy, and at least from my point of view he’s as great as he always was. Bona, who’s an old friend of Ilana’s used to be a lot of fun, too, but in recent years she’s drifted into this weird hypernationalist New-Agey Breslov stuff and it’s been a strain for Barak. More than a strain. The poor guy is having a real tough time, especially now that the kids are all out of the house.

So when he invited me and Ilana over for Friday night dinner, we felt a special duty to go, even though it was freezing outside and we really felt like staying in. It’s a mitzvah to make peace in the home, between husband and wife, and all the more so on Shabbat.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Unfortunately, when Barak opened the door in answer to our knock, we could see immediately that things were not good. So much blood was rushing to his head that his normally olive complexion had gone dull and gray. He looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall (something he was very good at back when we were in Nachal) and using every gram of will-power to keep himself from doing it. Ilana took one look and headed straight into the kitchen to help Bona.

“Hey, what’s eating you, ahi?” I said. “Here, let’s sit down. Don’t keep it in. Let it out. Lay it on me.”

He clenched his fists and hissed and covered his face with his hands and leaned back and looked at the ceiling and finally said, “I can’t believe she invited him!”

“What do you mean? Who?” I asked. “Hey, should I get you a drink of water? A beer?”

I could hear animated conversation in the kitchen. It didn’t sound like Bona was upset. In fact, she called out in her singsong voice: “We’ll just be a few minutes. We’re waiting for a very special guest!”

Barak took a big breath and finally got it out.

“Bibi!” he sizzled.

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Why Israel’s Crazy Electoral System Might Be Best Idea Ever

Haim Watzman My piece praising Israel’s proportional electoral system is now up on the Forward’s website. Jewish suffragettes scored a signal achievement in 1920, when the first nationwide elections were held in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. They received 600 votes. This smattering of women — we may presume that nearly all of … Read more

Not Just an Election Pretext: The Nation-State Law is Netanyahuism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column at The American Prospect, explaining the political crisis over the nation-state law, went up a few hours before Benjamin Netanyahu announced new elections:

Israel’s government is on the edge of collapse. The prime minister and senior cabinet members are trading insults as if they are already campaigning against each other. OK, that’s fairly normal. Israeli coalitions are unstable partnerships of enemies. When they can’t compromise on an unavoidable issue—the budget, for instance, or peace talks—they threaten each other with going back to the voters. Sometimes threats become reality.

What’s abnormal is that for the past week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed determined to scuttle his current coalition of the right and center over an entirely avoidable crisis: his desire to pass a law constitutionally defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. His centrist partners see the law, correctly, as an assault on democracy. The law will inflame tensions with the Arab minority, and damage Israel’s already poor international standing.

Why go to the trouble? Over three-quarters of Israel’s citizens are Jews, who quintessentially display their Jewishness by arguing constantly about what “Jewish” means. Public life is conducted in Hebrew; schools and offices shut for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The crisis looks so unnecessary that pundits have suggested that it’s a pretext: Netanyahu has decided that he’ll do better in elections now than later, and believes that the nation-state law will allow him to run as the candidate of patriotism.

This Machiavellian explanation is too kind. The bill is Netanyahu-ist, and that’s what really is frightening.

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One City, Divided

Gershom Gorenberg

My cover story in the National Journal on Jerusalem is up:

On a midsummer afternoon, at the King George Street station in the center of downtown Jewish Jerusalem, I boarded one of the silver four-car trams of Jerusalem’s only light-rail line. The electric train swooshed east along Jaffa Road to the City Hall stop, just before the narrow, now-unmarked no-man’s-land that divided the city before 1967. The next stop was the Damascus Gate station, serving downtown Arab Jerusalem. From there the train headed north toward outlying Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods.

Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg
Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg

It was a normal rush-hour trip—except that there were no Palestinians on the train. No father spoke Arabic to the son sitting next to him; no teenage girls chattered in Arabic about their purchases on Jaffa Road. The women who wore head scarves had them tied behind their necks, Orthodox Jewish style, not wrapped under their chins, Muslim style. No one got on or off at Damascus Gate. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, a mourning banner with a huge picture of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir hung from an apartment building facing the tracks. A sign on the ticket machine on the platform said it was out of order—as it has been since angry young residents smashed it during the violent protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir at the beginning of July. No one got off there or at Beit Hanina, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood on the line.

The missing passengers weren’t participating in an organized boycott. They were simply afraid.

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It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect. Since the article went up last night, Hamas rejected extending the ceasefire and resumed rocket fire less than one minute after it ended. Israel has resumed missile and artillery fire. Alas.

I.

At four o’clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: “IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel.”

At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.

Let’s return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government’s announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.

But the crisis wasn’t about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government’s tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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This Is Your Brain On War

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won’t include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.

he war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

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In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

 

Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. The poster in the background reads: "The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, Jerusalem area, mourns for the righteous son of Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, murdered as a martyr..."
Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. (Photo © Gershom Gorenberg)

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The American Prospect:

The air-raid silence sounded at three minutes to ten at night in Jerusalem. Two distant booms followed. Afterward, they seemed like an orchestral finale: abrupt, followed by silence, the only notes of a long day that were unmistakable in their meaning.

That afternoon, I’d gone with busloads of Israelis to Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to visit the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. A huge mourners’ tent had been set up: The ceiling was made of blue tarps; one side was open to the street; the other three sides walled with tapestries and printed banners showing pictures of Muhammad. In the pictures, Muhammad looked very young for 16, his age last week when, on his way to Ramadan prayers, he was pulled into a car and doused with gasoline, murdered by immolation. The suspects, now in custody, their names still under a gag order, are six young Israelis from the Jerusalem area. The motives were revenge and hatred—call it national, or ethnic, or tribal.

Here’s the very brief timeline: On June 30, Israeli troops found the bodies of three Israeli teensEyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkelwho’d been kidnapped by Palestinian extremists while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The next afternoon, as their funerals were broadcast on national TV and radio, downtown West Jerusalem became a riot zone. Bands of angry Jews, most in their teens, virtually all male, chanted “Death to Arabs!” They tried to beat up Palestinian workers in the open market, and threw stones at cars, randomly, without any sign that they cared whether the driver was Jewish or Arab. Before dawn the next day, Abu-Khdeir was abducted and murdered.

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Pyromaniacs

In a region already in flames, a Palestinian terror attack and Netanyahu’s response could light another fire

My latest column is up at The American Prospect

Gershom Gorenberg

Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.

For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel’s northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.

In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, “Is there news?” means, “Have they been found? Are they alive? ” While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What’s clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government’s reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home.

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