Land’s End– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Man, this is the life!” I say as I lean back in my empyreanite chair and stretch my legs and arms out as far as they can go. My Talmud is open in front of me, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is wafting through the beit midrash, and a cool, balmy breeze wafts through the ether.

My eternal havruta, Shimon Bar Kappara, eyes me from over the top of the large volume of Tractate Sotah that he’s holding up in front of him so as to hide the smaller volume he’s really reading.

“I hate to break this to you,” he says. “But you are neither a man, nor do you have a life.”

“Don’t be such a cynic,” I sigh. “Although I do miss a good cup of really strong Turkish coffee. Nectar just doesn’t do it for me.”

Bar Kappara’s eyes swing left, then right. He reaches into his robe, pulls out a small jar, and pushes it toward me.

Read moreLand’s End– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The One-State Dissolution

Haim Watzman

“Suicide,” said Shaya. He meant the one-state “solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More and more Palestinian intellectuals are now advocating a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, this after years in which short-sighted Israeli governments pursued policies aimed at making it impossible to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Suicide? But isn’t a unitary state in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully and equally under the law the epitome of Western liberal values?

Let me tell you a little bit about Shaya. Like me, he’s a transplanted American. He’s got a long record of left-wing Zionist activism. He works to promote understanding between Jews and Arabs, democratic values in Israeli society, and equality and social justice. On the political scale, he’s to my left—in fact, on occasion in the past he’s gone so far as to vote in national elections for the non-Zionist Communists on the grounds that they are the Knesset’s most vociferous and effective advocates of peace and social justice (I thought he was crazy).

Read moreThe One-State Dissolution

Continuing the Debate About Darwish

Haim Watzman

Yisrael and Shalom,

In response to your comments on my post “Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet,” if you read more carefully, you’ll see that:
a) I don’t put down the Jew, but rather express my admiration for Greenberg’s poetry;
b) I except myself from Darwish’s politics, while expressing admiration for his poetry;
c) I suggest that both poets are important figures in their national cultures, and that they need to be read and understood by the opposing nation.

Regarding the quotes you adduce, the context of the poem from the First Intifada indicates that the “land” he wants the Jews to get out of is probably the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, even if, when writing it, in the emotional turbulence of a quite justified Palestinian uprising against Israeli oppression, he meant he wanted the Jews out of all of the Land, that doesn’t obviate the fact in his political, as opposed to poetic, statements he consistently favored compromise and coexistence. But neither his poetic outbursts nor his political opinions are relevant to the literary value of his poetry and to the importance of it being read and understood by Jews and Zionists.

Read moreContinuing the Debate About Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet

Haim Watzman

What’s a Zionist to make of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet whose funeral today in Ramallah will be a celebration of both Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian culture?

Darwish was a refugee. His family came from the village of Birwa, near Acre, and fled to Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence. They were, however, among the lucky refugees who managed to return to their homeland, if not to their homes, so Darwish grew up as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, where he published his first book of poetry. He later left the country, living as an expatriate until 1995 when, in the wake of the Oslo accords, he settled in Ramallah. He spoke fluent Hebrew and maintained contacts with Israeli writers, among them the poet Yehuda Amichai.

He was a Palestinian patriot and activist, first as a member of Israel’s Communist Party and then as a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee. His criticism of Israel was unstinting, but he also advocated a negotiated peace with the Jewish state.

Eight years ago, the ministry of education included a couple of Darwish’s poems on its list of texts that Israeli high school teachers of literature could teach in class, setting off storms of protest. Was it not a sign of the Jewish state’s bankruptcy, the critics argued, that it was proposing to teach works of an anti-Zionist, an enemy hero, to Israeli children?

Read moreMahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet

Ehud Barak LOL

Haim Watzman

“Demolish the home of a mentally deranged Palestinian? What a joke,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared today in an exclusive interview with the influential South Jerusalem blog.

Barak revealed that, in advocating the destruction of the home of the bulldozer terrorist who killed three Israelis and wounded dozens of others on Wednesday, he’d been engaging in a deliberate parody of his ministerial predecessors.

Read moreEhud Barak LOL

Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Waltz With Bashir
Haim Watzman

Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?

There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.

Read moreAri Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

War Ethics In A War Zone (2)

Haim Watzman

In response to your last post, Gershom, we don’t disagree about most of the big issues. Of course soldiers, like national leaders and citizens, must make moral judgments, and must make them frequently. My point my previous post was that people in all these categories inevitably make these decisions with imperfect—often woefully imperfect—information. I admire Walzer’s effort to establish practical guidelines for how to conduct war and conflict justly and I largely agree with him.

But I think he is at times overly sanguine about people’s ability to make educated judgments in real time in situations of conflict. Indeed, he acknowledges the difficulty. At the beginning of Chapter 19 of Just and Unjust Wars (p. 304 in my paperback of the 4th edition), he writes:

Read moreWar Ethics In A War Zone (2)

Missing the Point: Mohammed Kacimi’s “Holy Land” at the Khan

Haim Watzman

“On both sides of a war, unity is reflexive, not intentional or premeditated. To disobey is to breach that elemental accord, to claim a moral separateness (or moral superiority), to challenge one’s fellows, perhaps even to intensify the dangers they face,” Michael Walzer writes in his seminal Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer refers in this passage to the moral dilemma faced by the enlisted man, but the same dilemma is not foreign to civilians. Wanting to be part of our society and in discourse with it is not only elemental but also commendable. Being moral alone on a desert island is no great accomplishment. We admire those who seek and succeed in living an ethical life in human company.

The new production of the Algerian-born French playwright Mohammed Kacimi’s Holy Land (Terre Sainte) at South Jerusalem’s Khan Theater brings us face to face with this dilemma. Unfortunately, while director Nola Chilton’s production is powerful and unflagging, and the five actors passionate, the play itself disappoints. In addressing the dilemma of war in art, it is facile to do no more than to say that war is hell. A writer taking up the subject needs to delve into the complex and difficult questions that war raises.

Read moreMissing the Point: Mohammed Kacimi’s “Holy Land” at the Khan

Owning Jerusalem: Identity and Borders in the Holy City

Haim Watzman

I recall a gathering of journalists once many years ago at which a well-meaning but clueless intern told me that she worked in “Jerusalem, Israel” and then quickly corrected herself: “I meant just Jerusalem. I believe it should be an international city.”

In response to my Jerusalem Day post earlier this week, DanH asks a related question:

It has always seemed to me that, given the claims of both sides, the only long-term solution for Jerusalem is joint or autonomous administration, not just of the holy places, but of the whole city.

To idealists, and to some overwhelmed by the intractability of the Jerusalem problem, internationalization and joint Israeli-Palestinian rule over the Holy City sound like wonderful solutions. But, quite aside from the practical problems (recall Danzig, recall Trieste), they are wrong in principle.

Read moreOwning Jerusalem: Identity and Borders in the Holy City

Geneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

What if you make a peace agreement and nobody comes? That’s the fundamental story behind “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative.” It’s a fascinating look into the conflict and the “peace industry.” Contrary to the intention of its author, political scientist Menachem Klein, it raises more doubts than hopes about the future of the peace process.

(Caveat lector: I translated this book, and two previous books by Klein into English. He’s a neighbor and friend and fellow-member of Kehilat Yedidya.)

Read moreGeneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

Running from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

The siren last night caught me backing up my hard disk. I’d planned to be at the neighborhood ceremony or upstairs with my family at the beginning of Memorial Day, but I kept procrastinating. When I got upstairs, the television broadcast of the official ceremony was just coming to an end. I had something to eat and watched the segments about fallen soldiers and their families.

“I need to talk to Asor,” Ilana said. So I called him on my cell phone, figuring that he wouldn’t answer. He did. “We needed to hear your voice,” I told him. Ilana tried to take the phone but started crying. Asor was impatient, said he had to go. Should we be thankful that we’re watching the Memorial Day programming rather than being part of it, or brood over the possibility that in some future year we might be on the screen?

When this morning’s siren went off at 11 a.m., I didn’t even hear it. The same unconscious repression mechanism that was at work last night did it again-I was in an elevator in the Malha shopping mall. The door opened and everyone was standing stock-still with their backs to me. For a second I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that I’d again tried to avoid the moment.

Read moreRunning from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

CAMERA: Committee for Agitprop in Middle Eastern Reporting

CAMERA, which claims to monitor the accuracy of reporting on Israel in the American media, doesn’t feel obligated to be all that truthful itself, as I explain in my new column at the American Prospect. A CAMERA staffer organized activists to work as a group to edit Wikipedia articles on Israel – while hiding their intent and their connection to each other. Some would conceal their interest in Israel, get elected as impartial administrators, and then be able to decide disagreements between other volunteer editors.

Ineffectual as the CAMERA effort apparently was, there are several morals to the story. One is that despite the techno-idealism that Wikipedia can inspire, it’s best to approach the encyclopedia with an attitude of caveat lector, let the reader beware. The affair is also a reminder — not the first — that CAMERA is ready to exempt itself from the demands for accuracy that it aims at the media.

Read moreCAMERA: Committee for Agitprop in Middle Eastern Reporting