Monthly Archives: May 2009

Israeli law makers move to outlaw free speech: The noose tightens

This just in. Its, unfortunately, of a piece with other similar efforts to censor speech in Israel.   In the recent past there have been, on a number of fronts, attempts to silence Palestinian Israeli voices, both in the political arena and at the individual level.   The almost annual attempts to ban Arab Knesset members and political parties who do not pledge allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel have been well documented.  Now we have something new, the beginning of an attempt to ban any official commemoration of the Nakba, this kind of “noose tightening” or muzzling of an alternative narrative, the freedom to express oneself is ominous for any healthy democracy.  Such efforts to silence voices that disrupt a triumphalist national narrative hearkens back to another time and era, and I do not mean this in a salutary manner.  Not only do the Palestinians have to live with the brute facts of settler colonial dispossession, on-going racism and second-class citizenship, but they are increasingly limited in how they may express their disapproval/outrage/counter-narrative.  The extremely strange Haaretz headline “Israel moves closer to banning mourning of its independence” speaks volumes.  Indeed, other questions are also raised regarding the limits of free speech when discussing the “reality” of the Palestinian predicament.

Bethlehem – Ma’an/Agencies – Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, gave preliminary approval to a bill that would mandate a year jail term for anyone who speaks against Israel’s status as a Jewish state on Wednesday morning.

The bill, which still needs final approval before coming law, passed after a heated debate with a vote of 47 to 34 and one abstention. The measure was originally introduced by Zevulun Orlev, a member of a right-wing religious nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home).

The bill’s passage comes three days after lawmakers advanced a bill that would ban all commemorations of Nakba Day, on which Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens, remember their expulsion of 1948.

According to news reports, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, Jamal Zahalka, was removed from the auditorium during an argument after the vote.

During the debate preceding the vote, Chaim Oron, the chair of the left-wing Zionist party Meretz, decried the bill, according to the Ynet news agency: “Have you lost your confidence in the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? This crazy government – what exactly are you doing? Thought Police? Have you lost it?”

Jamal Zahalka said, also according to Ynet’s report, “Many intellectuals in the academia who talk about a country belonging to all its citizens belong in prison, according to MK Orlev. Arab and Jewish leaders who seek real democracy in Israel also belong in jail, according to Orlev… He wants to put anyone who doesn’t agree with him in jail.”

JJ Goldberg on Jewish power again…

New Voices’ Josh Nathan-Kazis (one of the bright stars of the up and coming generation) asked The Forward’s JJ Goldberg “Why It Matters That Madoff is Jewish.” After several years of following censorship within the Jewish institutional world, Goldberg’s reponse hit home completely. Part of what’s happening is a class struggle, with a handful of wealthy donors exerting control over the rest:

How has wealth affected the Jewish community?

There’s been exponential growth of Jewish wealth, partly because there’s been exponential growth of wealth. The top marginal tax rate under Eisenhower and Kennedy was 90%. [Today,] America’s got the lowest taxes in the industrial world. It all changed in the mid 1970s. People blame Reagan, but it really started under Carter. Along with deregulation came the lowering of the taxes. You removed the rules for getting rich, and you let people keep more of that money. And the sky was the limit. The Jewish organizations, for a bunch of reasons, grew and grew and grew during those years. There was always a myth that the richer Jews were more assimilated. Nowadays, the poorer Jews are more assimilated because they can’t afford [Jewish life]. The Jewish community grew by the graces of the donations of the wealthy. And then it built up this infrastructure that was dependent on the donations of the wealthy. It became harder and harder to act independently of the interests of the wealthy.

In 1994, when Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives, [the Republicans] introduced the Balanced Budget Amendment, which was nonsense. After years of unprecedented deficits under Reagan, they decided that Congress couldn’t control itself, so they wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent themselves from spending. The Council of Jewish Federations said it was going to really damage Jewish institutions. The Jewish community probably raises $2 billion a year for the schools, synagogues, and hospitals. It probably spends $8 billion. The rest of it is government money. So the Balanced Budget Amendment was really going to damage the Jewish community. The way I heard it, five families in three cities said, I’m a Republican, and you lose my gift if you lobby against the Balanced Budget Amendment. After 1994, the Jewish community stopped offending Republicans. Quite suddenly.

Before the modern age, Jews lived in ghettoes. They could tax themselves. Tzedakah was not voluntary. Shabbes wasn’t voluntary. The first synagogue in America, Shearith Israel in New York, adopted a rule saying that if you violated Shabbes you got fined. It didn’t work. People just resigned from the synagogue. [The community] had lost enforcement power. And once you’ve lost enforcement power, you’ve got to ask for it. And once you’ve got to ask for money, you become dependent on the wealthy. Rabbis now depend on the goodwill of a few rich people. And so the balance of power between the moralists and the hedonists shifts. There used to be a check. The moral authority of the Jewish community had enforcement power. Now it’s around for entertainment. Instead of scolding Jews, now they scold goyim. They have no authority to scold the Jews. None. Rabbis lose their jobs for being moral scolds. So there is no more moral authority.

JINSA advocates censorship, military strikes on “partisan” media outlets

JINSA is the hard-line, Likudnik Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. They boast a pretty powerful line-up of present and former advisors including Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle. If you’re looking for groups to blame for helping to get us into the endless war and now occupation of Iraq, JINSA is certainly a great place to start.

The new edition of their house organ includes this remarkable gem, Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars, from retired US army officer Ralph Peters who says openly what we all suspect to be true every time an Al Jazeera office accidentally gets blown up in a war with the US, or the Israeli Defense Forces accidentally shoot a reporter. Revealing both constitutional contempt and the creepy linkages between right-wing Jews and fundamentalist Christian Zionists, Peters actually calls the media godless “neo-pagans” and advocates not only censorship but military strikes. The media, he insists, are a “hostile third party” in war, and must be treated as such.

Of course, the media have shaped the outcome of conflicts for centuries, from the European wars of religion through Vietnam. More recently, though, the media have determined the outcomes of conflicts. While journalists and editors ultimately failed to defeat the U.S. government in Iraq, video cameras and biased reporting guaranteed that Hezbollah would survive the 2006 war with Israel and, as of this writing, they appear to have saved Hamas from destruction in Gaza.

What????? It gets worse…

Pretending to be impartial, the self-segregating personalities drawn to media careers overwhelmingly take a side, and that side is rarely ours. [Ed. emphasis] Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media. Perceiving themselves as superior beings, journalists have positioned themselves as protected-species combatants. But freedom of the press stops when its abuse kills our soldiers and strengthens our enemies. Such a view arouses disdain today, but a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom.

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Would Avigdor Lieberman’s party imprison rabbis for remembering the Nakba?


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(Photo: Lawbreakers- On May 14, 9 Jews and 5 Palestinians commemorated the Nakba at the home of Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston IL. If they were Israelis and Yisrael Beitenu has its way, they would each go to jail for 3 years.)

The Nakba, meaning the Catastrophe, is the term used by Palestinians to commemorate the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. (Yes, Virginia, it is possible for one people’s dream-come-true to be another people’s nightmare.) Just as a small but remarkable group of American rabbis took it upon themselves to Remember the Nakba this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu, continued the march down the road of fascism. Ha’aretz reports:

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party wants to ban Israeli Arabs from marking the anniversary of what they term “the Catastrophe” or Nakba, when in 1948 some 700,000 Arabs lost their homes in the war that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.

The ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party said it would propose legislation next week for a ban on the practice and a jail term of up to three years for violators.

It’s not clear if this law would apply just to Arabs, or to Arabs and recalcitrant Jews. And if so, why stop at the borders (such as they are) and why not just criminalize diaspora Jews as well? The rabbis who remembered the Nakba this week seem like a perfect place to start, Avigdor.

Magic is powerless to stop censorship of Harry Potter actress


“I know with all my heart, my Jewish heart, that it’s wrong.” Watch Margolyes in 2007 supporting Enough! Coalition to End the Israeli Occupation.

Miriam Margolyes,  a prominent English actress, perhaps best known for her appearance in the Harry Potter movies, (she is in the middle of the photo below) had a performance canceled by a Jewish organization in Melbourne because of her forthcoming participation in a controversial play, reported on here, about Israel.   Apparently, “Seven Jewish Children” is practically radioactive in terms of its effect on the establishment Jewish community, erroneous claims of “blood libel” are being thrown around cavalierly.   As discussed previously, only some people get to ever reference the Holocaust, while others are anti-Semites of the worst order.

Margolyes, who splits her time between England and Australia, was scheduled to entertain residents at JewishCare, a large elder care facility in Melbourne but was told that her appearance could offend some residents who were Holocaust survivors.

This need to protect the elderly residents from the appearance of Margolyes, not because her performance might be offensive, but because she will be acting in Seven Jewish Children,  speaks to the irrational fears that are so much a part of the effort to muzzle any criticism of Israel.

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Catch and release: Reporter Amira Hass arrested

Ha’aretz writes in “Haaretz reporter Amira Hass arrested upon leaving Gaza“:

Israel Police on Tuesday detained Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass upon her exit from the Gaza Strip, where she had been living and reporting over the last few months.

Hass was arrested and taken in for questioning immediately after crossing the border, for violating a law which forbids residence in an enemy state. She was released on bail after promising not to enter the Gaza Strip over the next 30 days.

Hass is the first Israeli journalist to enter the Gaza Strip in more than two years, since the Israel Defense Forces issued an entry ban following the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in a 2006 cross-border raid by Palestinian militants.

Last December, Hass was arrested by soldiers at the Erez Checkpoint as she tried to cross into Israel after having entered the Gaza Strip aboard a ship run by peace activists from Europe.

Upon discovering that she had no permit to be in Gaza, the soldiers transferred her to the Sderot police.

When questioned, Hass pointed out that no one had stopped her from entering the Strip, which she did for work purposes.

Hass was released then under restriction, and Nahmani said her case would be sent to court.

Durban Review Debate: Jews on Ahmadinejad

Let me say up front that I don’t think it’s wise to ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad, while no Hitler, is an opportunistic demagogue (who undoubtedly loves the Netanyahu-inspired tendency to over-inflate his importance). Nor is it wise to deny that many countries deliberately single out Israel while ignoring their own terrible human rights records.

Acknowledging these facts in no way lessens Israel’s responsibility for stopping its oppression of Palestinians.  And it doesn’t disappear Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who comically condemned the UN conference for giving a platform to his Iranian twin. (For more of my thoughts, you can see my op-ed printed today here, or hear me on Beyond the Pale or Between the Lines.)

I was there at the time and found myself rolling my eyes when Ahmadinejad employed classic anti-Semitic canards to lecture the UN on human rights, love and justice. Diana Ralph of Canada’s Independent Jewish Voices, who was at the conference, was more impressed. She has written a spirited defense of Ahmadinejad:

In the polarized context of opposing narratives, it is risky to appear to defend the “bad guy.” Everyone “knows” Ahmadinejad equals bad, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denier. So why defend his speech? I don’t endorse his values and I regret that, in his speech, he did not acknowledge injustice, anti-Semitism, and racism in Iran.  However, it is NOT true that this particular speech was an anti-Semitic diatribe that denied the Holocaust.

I heard what Ahmadinejad actually said (which dropped language describing the Holocaust as “ambiguous and dubious” from an earlier draft— the one quoted by most mainstream and Jewish press).  You can hear his actual speech by going to http://www.un.org/webcast/durbanreview/archive.asp?go=090420 and scrolling down to 15:00.  …
In his speech, I heard much with which I agreed.  For example, he objected to the UN Security Council’s veto rights over the democratic wishes of the world, particularly in supporting Israeli war crimes and violations of international law. He labelled the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq as exercises in imperial conquest, causing massive suffering, expanding the narcotics trade, and benefiting arms dealers. ….Finally he urged our collective effort to “make the world a better place full of love, fraternity, and blessings; a world devoid of poverty and hatred.”

Oxford University’s Brian Klug of Independent Jewish Voices in the UK had something entirely different to say, much more in line with my own response:

Someone might object that, unlike the Protocols [of Zion], Ahmadinejad confines his attack to Zionists and does not brand Jews collectively. But no other political movement in the world is credited with the kind of fantastical power and influence that he attributes to Zionism. Moreover, Zionism is a Jewish movement; and what he attributes to it is precisely the kind of power and influence that antisemitism attributes to Jews. It’s a bit of a giveaway. As is his embrace of Holocaust denial: no one denies (or plays down) the Nazi genocide against the Jews except for dyed-in-the-wool antisemites and certifiable lunatics. Whatever else he might be, Ahmadinejad is not insane.

I have written extensively about the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism and the danger of conflating them. But the one can turn into the other. And if it is wrong to make false accusations of antisemitism, it is equally wrong to turn a blind eye when it stares us in the face.

We should not be deceived by the fact that following an intervention by Ban Ki-moon, Ahmadinejad left out one or two of the most inflammatory passages that appear in the transcript … A last-minute response to diplomatic pressure from the UN secretary general does not constitute a change of heart.

Mitchell Plitnick of B’Tselem, and formerly of Jewish Voice for Peace, adds in response to Ralph’s piece:

[Ahmadinejad] said the “Zionists” essentially ordered the US invasion of Iraq (specific quote: “Was not the military action against Iraq planned by the Zionists and their allies in the then US administration in complicity with the arms manufacturing countries and the possessors of wealth?”)

And what about this modern version of the Protocols? “They [the Zionists] mobilize all the resources including their economic and political influence and world media to render support in vain to the Zionist regime and to maliciously diminish the indignity and disgrace of this regime.”

There are other, more subtle pieces to this, but come on, how can anyone who is even remotely familiar with the mechanics of anti-Semitism not see it in his speech? Is David Duke also only anti-Israel because he says Zionists and not Jews?

We Jews have no monopoly on suffering, nor on the ability to dehumanize others

Caryl Churchill’s play, Seven Jewish Children, posits a direct historical line between Jewish trauma, Jewish fear, and Jewish callousness towards Palestinian life. I think it’s not only fair, but compassionate, even as it makes us look at something so ugly and disturbing about ourselves. I wrote a post on this yesterday which I saw quoted in other blogs. Something didn’t feel right- and I added this piece which I think is worth highlighting. It follows a statement I made about the general disregard for Palestinian and Arab life that can be found at many Jewish dinner tables.

It must be remembered that the same question can be asked of virtually all people. How many Americans ate dinner as usual after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many people in the Arab world today might think little of the deaths of Israelis or Jews? How many Europeans paused even a moment to consider the horror of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, or their homeland’s vicious colonial practices? We are all implicated. All accountable. To think Jews are exceptional on this count is to be in denial about the fundamental nature of people. [And it's anti-Semitic.] But to move out of this terrible ability to dehumanize and disconnect requires open discussion, not silence. We have to lift the rock and peer beneath, no matter how ugly.

I do not take from the Holocaust the lesson that Germans are essentially evil. I take from it the lesson that we all are capable of being Nazis, in some fashion.

Rather than working to shut down Seven Jewish Children, as some wish to do, we should support cultural production that forces all people to ask these questions about ourselves. Let’s start with Seven, or maybe Seventy American Children.

More McCarthyism in Toronto: Jewish institutions distance selves from artist because of her views, not her work.

Why is artist/Yiddishist/Klezmer performer Reena Katz losing sponsorship of her community-based art installation? Reena’s big problem is that she’s smarter, more depthful, more nuanced and more devoted to bringing back the richness of nearly extinct Jewish culture, than the small-minded groups that are funding her project.

Theirs is a simplistic, narrow and ultimately pathetic form of Jewishness which primarily worships Jewish nationalism -a form of idolatry- and tries to impose a mythical monoculture on a rich, varied and argumentative tradition- which has a history of including political Zionists and non or anti-Zionists. Today, non Zionists can do no art there, regardless of the content. Tomorrow, I suppose, they won’t be allowed in the door as visitors. When will staff have to pass a loyalty test? Why are they so insecure that they can’t allow everyone, Zionists and anti-Zionists, to be part of the same Jewish community? (The same can be said of those on the left who would like to ban anyone who identifies as Zionist from their midst.)

Taking what happened at Chicago’s Spertus Museum as an example, it’s likely the Koffler curator was supportive of the project and Reena too. It’s the people with the purse strings at the Canadian United Jewish Appeal who threw a fit, and if you want to keep your job… The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports:

A leading Toronto Jewish community-funded art gallery severed its ties to an exhibit over the artist’s political associations concerning Israel.

The Koffler Centre of the Arts announced Friday that it was disassociating itself from an art installation titled “Each hand as they are called,” about life in the one-time Toronto Jewish neighborhood of Kensington Market, because of artist Reena Katz’s politics.

That’s right. Not the art project itself, which sounds extraordinary, complex, layered and beautiful. No, simply because they decided on Friday to take a peek at her public Facebook page and saw that she endorsed Israel Apartheid Week, something she had never made a secret. Of course knowing that pulling $20,000 from the project a year after it started might not look so great, they offered to let her keep the money, while pulling their name off of everything. JVoices has Reena’s entire statement, as well as the statement of project curator Kim Simon, also Jewish, also pissed off:

It is with absolute outrage and a deep sadness that we write this statement regarding our experience working with the Koffler Centre of the Arts. As a Jewish curator and Jewish artist, we were invited by the Koffler to develop a project in early 2008. Since April of last year we have been working closely on an off-site exhibition wholeheartedly approved by Koffler curator Mona Filip, Koffler Executive Director Lori Starr and the Koffler Arts Advisory Committee.

Slated to open on May 20th 2009, the project, entitled each hand as they are called, is an ambitious and considered series of ephemeral gestures reflective of life in Toronto’s historic Kensington Market. The project consists of sonic and visual performances, brings elders from Toronto’s Jewish community into conversation and play with students from Ryerson Public School, and involves a series of vivid posters designed by Cecilica Berkovic sited throughout the Kensington neighborhood. This beautiful, smart and tender project reflects a deep commitment to animating a dialogue between aspects of Toronto’s diverse Jewish/Yiddish history and its fascinating contact with other cultures. Through a queer framing of social history, this dialogue draws on the current social and economic space of Kensington Market, the trans-cultural game of Mah-Jongg, and the fusion music of the North American Yiddish song.

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Attempted Censorship of Play Seven Jewish Children

Watch 7 Jewish Children The JTA reports:

B’nai Brith Canada has asked Toronto’s mayor to “use his good offices” to prevent the staging of a controversial play at a city-owned theater.

The Jewish human rights group says “Seven Jewish Children” by British playwright Caryl Churchill is “blatantly propagandist” and “aimed at delegitimizing not only Israel but its Jewish supporters worldwide.”

The good news is that you can watch Caryl Churchill’s Play, Seven Jewish Children, right now. It’ll take under 10 minutes. Make sure you have your box of tissues with you.

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, who call Churchill “one of the most important and influential playwrights living,” recently wrote in The Nation about the play’s UK production:

While some British critics greatly admired the play, which was presented by a Jewish director with a largely Jewish cast, a number of prominent British Jews denounced it as anti-Semitic. Some even accused Churchill of blood libel, of perpetrating in Seven Jewish Children the centuries-old lie, used to incite homicidal anti-Jewish violence, that Jews ritually murder non-Jewish children. A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews told the Jerusalem Post that the “horrifically anti-Israel” text went “beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse.”

We emphatically disagree. We think Churchill’s play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible.

Though you’d never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn’t also direct and incendiary. It is. It’s disturbing, it’s provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn’t arouse anger and distress has missed the point.

Israel-based human rights activist Rebecca Vilkomerson wrote in a letter, also in The Nation:

I’ve read Caryl Churchill’s play, “Seven Jewish Children—A Play for Gaza” three times, and cried through each reading. As a mom and an activist, living in Tel Aviv and raising two daughters, I found the play to be devastating and true. Beyond that, it is remarkably compassionate and clear in its historical consciousness and the awareness that our deepest urges, to protect our children, can have terrible moral consequences. There’s not an anti-Semitic word in it.

As my Israeli husband said, “she captured exactly how it really is to live here.”

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