Saturday, 6 September 2014

The things I learnt this summer (about Hamas, Terror Tunnels, Charters, Rabbis, Boycotts and Tapestry)

Like children returning to school, I thought I'd write some short reflections about the things I learnt during the holidays.

1. Tapestry

I was never much good at arts and crafts. I only do words. But this summer I learnt something about cross stitch tapestry.

Around 260 women, were killed in Gaza during July and August, mostly as a result of Israeli aerial bombing and ground artillery. I know some people like to blame Hamas for all the deaths during the Gaza assault ('they started it' etc) but I don't subscribe to that twisted piece of moral sophistry. If you fire the weapons the deaths are your responsibility. The same goes for Hamas rockets.

In amongst the daily death count of the summer, one loss spoke to me and brought me close to tears on my train journey home one evening.

On July 20th Samar Al-Hallaq was killed in Gaza when an Israeli shell blew-up the residential building she and her family had fled to for shelter in the suburbs of Gaza City. Samar was 29 years old and part of the Palestinian History Tapestry Project. The Project is a charity that has set out to record Palestinian history through the creation of embroidered panels. Each panel is sewn with traditional Palestinian cross stitch and illustrates the life and times of the Palestinian people.

Samar, who had been taught to embroider as a child by the older women in her family, became interested and began to contribute.

Something about Samar's death broke through to me that evening and made all of the other deaths I was reading about meaningful. Samar's two sons, 6-year-old Kenan, and 4-year-old Saji, and five other members of her family were also killed. Samar was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Hussan, who recently completed a Master degree of Science in eBusiness, survived.

I wondered what the rest of Hussan's life would be like.

2. Mosques

I didn't think I would be so moved by the destruction of buildings. But the photographs of whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble showed how disingenuous was the claim that the IDF was only targeting terrorists. It was an impossible aim to begin with and the Israeli government would have known that from the start. When I looked at the pictures from, just for example, Rafah, near the Egyptian border, I thought these are family homes, children were raised there, memories were created in those ruins. Israel (like any other state) has the right to defend itself. But how could that defence possibly look like this when Israeli civilian casualties, after 50 days, were just half a dozen people.

And then there are Mosques. Seventy-three were destroyed in Gaza over the summer. In an article in the New Statesman magazine by Donald Macintyre, I read about the Mahkamah Mosque which had stood since 1455 in a side road off a main street in the Gaza City district of Shejaiya. It was considered a jewel of Malmuk architecture and was testament to an Islamic culture and civilisation just as indigenous to the Holy Land as Judaism and Christianity. It had been in continuous use for three centuries. Three centuries of prayers and learning. Three centuries of a community gathering together to worship God. In the early morning of July 24th it was flattened by an Israeli bomb. It wasn't necessary to imagine this being a synagogue or a church to understand what this must have meant to that community. You can imagine the outcry in the West though if 73 synagogues or churches had been destroyed.

So I learnt that buildings are casualties too.

3. Soldiers

Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed by the time the truce was agreed at the end of August. Investigations are underway, by Israel itself, to establish if any were killed by their own side in an attempt to avoid hostages being taken by Palestinian fighters. But let's assume for the moment that they were all killed by Palestinians. These soldiers' deaths made me angry and upset too.

What was the point of their sacrifice? Was 'Protective Edge' really a necessary and unavoidable operation? Could Israel have chosen to start talking to the fledgling Fatah led Unity government, as the American's urged it to, earlier in the summer? The case for yet another assault on Gaza was never convincingly made. And after it's all over, Hamas remain a political and military force, with far greater support today, in both Gaza and in the West Bank, than they had in June. Just like the 2,100 plus Palestinian deaths, these Israeli conscripts should not have lost their lives just to make the whole situation even worse than it was before.

4. Rabbis

Some Rabbis are better than others.

I wrote a post called 'Standing on one leg for Israel-Palestine' and received strong criticism from a liberal Rabbi on Facebook for failing to mention the three murdered Israeli teenagers abducted on the West Bank in June. I pointed out that I had written about the boys in my previous post 'The true meaning of Brother's Keeper' which the new piece linked back to. In a private message via Facebook I invited the Rabbi to meet with me to talk about our different points of view since we work in the same city. I've had no reply so far. The offer is still open.

I wrote an open letter in July to Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK, asking that she take a bolder position than just offering prayer and empathy for the Palestinians under fire in Gaza. The letter was published on the Jews for Justice for Palestinians website where it received more than seven hundred Facebook 'Likes'. So I must have been saying something that resonated with a great many other British Jews. Rabbi Laura wrote back to me the same day that I sent her my letter and we had a respectful and warm exchange of emails. Like I said, some Rabbis are better than others.

5. Vitriol

People who don't know me from Adam are more than happy to be hateful about me personally.

Here's one email I had to my blog over the summer:

"Ho hum, another so-called Jew more moral than all the rest of us Jews that support Israel. In fact, your kind are so moral, you have to boycott Jews. You think the Jihadists care what kind of self-proclaimed good Jew you are? As an a Israeli, I piss on ghetto Jews like you. We will survive and thrive long after shit like you is maggot food."

I've learnt to be resilient about this kind of correspondence. I hope it is not typical of Israeli attitudes towards Jews critical of Israel.

In contrast, some people are very generous. In the same week as the above message I was sent this from a retired Anglican Bishop:

"I read your Micah's Paradigm Shift with great interest every time it arrives in my Inbox. Thank you for all you write. I see myself as a true friend of Israel, as indeed you are."
Should the Jewish Israeli's view or the Bishop's carry more weight? You decide.

6. Charters

Over the summer I read the Hamas charter written in 1988. It's shot full of extreme religious nationalism, blatant anti-Semitism and crack-pot history. It's a textbook exercise in how NOT to write an inspiring, uplifting tract calling for the liberation of your land and its people. The quality of the English translation probably doesn't help it much. It's definitely an embarrassment for anyone in solidarity with the Palestinians or sympathetic to their right to use armed resistance against an occupation.

The odd thing is, Hamas seem to ignore their charter while the rest of the world obsess about it. It's become a handy way to insist that there is 'no partner for peace' even though Hamas has consistently offered peace based on '67 borders and the lifting of the blockade. I suggest that Hamas negotiate their charter out of existence as part of a settlement, should Israel ever agree to talk to them.

Benjamin Netanyahu's party, Likud, has a charter too, from 1999, and I read that as well. It's also full of extreme religious nationalism and dodgy history but the Islamophobia is only in the sub text. It refuses to accept that 'Judea and Samaria' (aka the West Bank) can be anything other than part of Israel, it says Settlements are an unassailable right of the Jewish people, and it sees Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital city of the Jewish State. Hopefully, Bibi will ignore his charter too. The rest of the world don't seem too bothered about it.

7. 'Terror Tunnels'

In wartime people are always prepared to believe the worst about their enemy. It's a necessary part of the process of dehumanising them so when the killing starts it is easier to deal with it both politically and emotionally.

Even though the existence of 'terror tunnels' dug from Gaza into Israel for the express purpose of killing Israelis had not been a part of the initial justification for Operation Protective Edge, it soon became so. The image of Hamas fighters or suicide bombers suddenly emerging through the floor of a kibbutz kindergarten gripped the Israeli public's imagination. A rumour that there were plans to commit mass murder and kidnapping around the Jewish New Year, with 200 Hamas terrorists dressed in IDF uniforms, gained credence without the slightest credible intelligence. The possibility was enough. Who needed evidence.

So far no tunnels have been found that reached anywhere near civilian centres. The purpose of the tunnels was certainly military and aimed at getting behind IDF lines to kill or kidnap soldiers near the Gaza border. It's called asymmetric warfare. You can read a helpful article at + 972 magazine.

8. Balance

People are getting very good at creating infographics. The dead and injured become neatly lined up stick people, anonymously conveying the asymmetry of the suffering on a tidy chart in bold colours.

The latest one I've seen tells me that apart from the 2,100 plus fatalities (including more than 500 children) there were also:

  • 3,438 children injured
  • 10,080 homes destroyed
  • 450,000 people internally displaced
This is what allegedly 'targeted precision bombing' ends up producing in a densely populated strip of land the size of the Isle of White.

I'm glad Israel's rocket defence system, the Iron Dome, exists. It meant that only a six Israeli citizens were killed during the summer. In fact Hamas may have killed more of its own people than it did Israelis, with rockets that fell short of their targets. That didn't stop Israel and its supporters presenting the conflict as though they, rather than the Palestinians, were facing a truly existential threat. But there is a big difference between sirens sounding in Tel Aviv and whole neighbourhoods disappearing in Gaza City.

Members of my family wanted me to convey 'more balance' in my writing. Which I think means putting Israel's side of the story. I keep saying there is no balance. Look at the stick people! And after all, isn't what happens to the Palestinians part of Israel's story too? Okay, I say, if the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies attempt some balance, then I will try harder as well.

9. Boycotts

Boycotts are the real 'terror tunnels' into the hearts of the Jewish community.

In the UK this summer the focus has been on a cosmetics shop in Kings Street in Manchester that sells products sourced from the Dead Sea, most of which is within the West Bank. So the issue has been that minerals acquired through an illegal occupation are generating profits for Israeli businesses.

The boycott Israel campaign makes most Jews in the UK feel angry, fearful, confused, personally threatened and extremely defensive. Attempting to present it as a legitimate non-violent protest against the policies of the State of Israel and in support of Palestinian rights just does not work for most of the Jewish community. 

From the mainstream Jewish perspective, BDS is simply a return to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And, as I was asked over the summer, why pick on Israel for such actions? Why not organise boycotts of Syria, or ISIS or Russia? "Surely this disproportionate focus on Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism."

I've tried to explain that BDS against Israel is a workable tactic for change against a country that relies on international trade. I've also made the point that it's the Palestinians that have called for this action. I've said that there are plenty of government led sanctions already in place against Syria and Russia and how on earth do you boycott ISIS?

But I suspect none of this cuts through. That's because the whole issue has deep emotional implications linked to religion, history and personal identity that a purely rational argument does not begin to address for most Jewish ears.

10. Big Thinking v Small Thinking

I believe there exists such a thing as Jewish values and ethics that are worth upholding and that have meaning that Jews can take pride in. Call it Jewish Big Thinking. There also exists a tradition of Jewish myopia and Small Thinking, of which Zionism, particularly in its religious nationalist vein, has done much to contribute to. Both the Big Thinking and the Small Thinking are equally part of Jewish history. By the way, the same distinctions can been seen in Christianity and Islam.

The Jewish Small Thinking was well represented over the summer. These were the people from the Jewish community who still think Israel-Palestine is just a problem of presentation ("If only people could understand what Israel is up against" etc).

More than a thousand people attended a 'Town Hall' meeting on August 13th in North London organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to discuss the situation in Israel and Gaza and its impact on the UK Jewish community. The media reports of the event told me a great deal about those who have the loudest voices in the Jewish community. At the meeting there were no cries for justice, no calls for reconciliation, no suggestion of establishing a friendly critique of Israel's actions. Nobody was in despair at the death of hundreds of children at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces.

Instead, those speaking from the floor called for bigger London rallies in support of Israel, more effective lobbying of the British parliament and better PR on behalf of the Israeli government.

The need of large sections of the Jewish community to feel totally blameless and to maintain a self and public perception of victimhood is incredibly strong. So, at best, we say we are desperately longing for 'peace' while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the slightest culpability for 'war'. And by 'peace' we do not mean 'peace and justice' but rather 'peace and quiet'.

And in the meantime, the State that claims to act in our interests (mine included), has created another generation of orphaned, maimed and bereaved children who will struggle to give Israel the benefit of the doubt when they are asked to accept them as genuine partners for peace.

Still, if you live in Siderot or Ashkelon, at least it's quiet again. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, Israel is becoming a pariah state and Jews are threatened and attacked on the streets. But not because they are Jews but because our spiritual and communal leadership and a great many individual Jews too, have chosen to make no distinction between Judaism and Zionism.

So, these are the things I learnt during the summer that's just past.

As we enter the autumn and the days of annual Jewish repentance and spiritual renewal, there is a great deal to reflect upon.


Further reading from Micah's Paradigm Shift during summer 2014




Remembering COHEN A. and COHEN H. (Or the short trip from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip)