(Photo: Ben Piven / flickr)
"How do you plan to spend the holidays?" That's the question asked by the mother of Annie Hall, in Woody Allen's film of the same name, to the mother of Woody's alter-ego. "We fast," Woody's Brooklyn, Jewish mother replies. "Yeah, no food," Woody's father adds, trying to explain the ritual observance of Yom Kippur; "You know, we have to atone for our sins." "What sins?" Mom Hall asks, as her ultra-WASPish family sits around their food-laden Wisconsin table. "I don't understand." "Tell you the truth," comes the punch line, "neither do we."
I recalled this scene, knowing that Yom Kippur would soon be here, as I studied readers' comments to my last Truthout article,"Zionism vs. Zionism." In this High Holiday season, it seems, there are still many Jews who are baffled by the call to atone for sin, at least when it comes to the policies and behaviors of Israel. In their eyes, the Jewish state can do no wrong, even as Israel resists the American president's urging toward compromise, peace and reconciliation with Palestine. They see no reason to repent because they see no wrongdoing. So, they ignore basic, if painful, facts.
One commenter, for example, objected to these words in my article: "Last fall, Israel could have avoided the Hamas rocket attacks and the war. All it had to do was ease its economic stranglehold of Gaza, which was causing widespread poverty and even starvation. And Israelis could know it, if they simply read their own press." "Do you really think it's so simple?," the commenter asked. "You can hate on a full stomach."
This critic might have clicked on the words "know it" and found these words from the Israeli Jewish press when the attack on Gaza was launched: "Six months ago Israel asked and received a cease-fire from Hamas. It [i.e., Israel] unilaterally violated it." Also these words from the former Israeli commander in Gaza: "We could have eased the siege over the Gaza Strip, in such a way that the Palestinians, Hamas, would understand that holding their fire served their interests.... You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they're in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing."
Apparently it was not hate but Israeli violence combined with Palestinian distress that triggered a Hamas response. Nevertheless, an Israeli journalist noted at the time, "Palestinian sources said they do not believe Hamas plans to launch a massive rocket strike on Israel unless the IDF begins offensive operations in the Strip." Israel "did not exhaust the diplomatic processes before embarking on another dreadful campaign of killing and ruin."
Another commenter jumped on this line in my article: "See, we [Israel] are no different than the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam. (A fully consistent Zionist might even add 'or the Germans in Poland')." The critic retorted: "The obvious difference is that the Poles were not lobbing missiles into Germany, the Africans were not sending suicide bombers into London, and the Vietnamese were not calling for the destruction of the United States.... An armed faction of the Palestinians were waging a guerilla war against the Israeli civilians." The truth, as we've seen, is much more complicated and the blame far less clear.
And note that the critic's quote left off the first part of my sentence: "This is what a logically consistent Zionist should say." My article did not say that Israel behaves like other nations; in fact, it stressed the opposite. In this sentence, I was only making the point that the ideology of Zionism began with Jews who wanted a nation that behaves like other "normal" nations. I went on to note that "normal" nations not only wreak unwarranted violence, but also do what the commenter did: claim that it's morally justified. When facts appear that throw their justification in doubt, "normal" nations ignore them, just as these commenters did.
As a professor, I want to give these commenters a rather low grade for accuracy and reading comprehension. As a professor of the history of Judaism, and a life-long, participant-observer in the Jewish community, I want to try to explain why, as it appears to me, they are held back by such poor comprehension. It's not a learning disability. It's a blind faith.
These people don't look at the facts and then conclude that Israel is pure and innocent. That's the premise they begin with before they look at any facts. So, no one can confuse them with the facts. Their minds are already made up. When inconvenient facts appear, these Jews who know no Israeli sin simply overlook or distort the facts so they can hold on to their faith in Israel's purity and innocence.
Another commenter, who seems cut from the same mold, wrote sarcastically about my "crystal ball": "I have no doubt that in 2005, his crystal ball predicted that a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have equally benign results. The complete withdrawal was carried out, completed on September 12, 2005; 12 days later, 30 rockets were fired into Israel. This is the realm of what did happen, not what 'could have' happened."
But other things happened which the commenter, so zealous to blame the Palestinians, overlooked: As long ago as May 25, 2003, Israel's premier newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported that "a senior Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who usually represents movement hardliners, said: 'The Hamas movement is prepared to stop terror against Israeli civilians if Israel stops killing Palestinian civilians ... There is an opportunity to stop targeting Israeli civilians if the Israelis stop assassinations and raids and stop brutalizing Palestinian civilians.'"
Early the following year, Rantisi called for a ten-year "hudna," or truce. For his pains, the Israelis assassinated him.
Although Hamas did send rockets into Israel on September 24, 2005, the very next day the Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, announced an end to rocket attacks and "said the organization was committed to a ceasefire which militants declared earlier this year." Less than a year later, according to CNN, "an Israeli navy gunboat fired shells onto a northern Gaza beach Friday, killing at least seven people and prompting the military wing of Hamas to call off a 16-month-old cease-fire with Israel" - a cease-fire Hamas had broken for exactly one day.
Despite Israeli provocation, Hamas did maintain its complete halt to suicide attacks, according to the Jewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (a source hardly sympathetic to Hamas). And, as noted above, Hamas renewed its cease-fire in Gaza in 2008, halting shelling until the Israelis again broke the truce.
In that light, consider the rest of the comment about my "crystal ball": "Let us note one other event in the realm of what did happen. A few months after the recent Gaza War, Hamas DID announce that it was discontinuing rocket attacks. Mr. Chernus could perhaps gaze into his crystal ball to discover the reason for Hamas' decision."
Well, it doesn't take any great psychic gifts to figure that one out. The record of the past several years shows that Hamas has consistently seen advantages in such a cease-fire and has maintained it until Israeli violence provoked Hamas counterviolence. Hamas is once again on a "peace offensive," its strongest yet.
Which brings me to another commenter who ignores inconvenient realities: "People in the leadership of the Arab nations and movements like Hamas are very clear that they are against the existence of Israel. I doubt the author of this essay would ever take the time to read the Hamas Charter or the PLO Charter. These documents make it perfectly clear that they do not want peace with Israel."
What's perfectly clear is that Hamas and the PLO are political parties fighting for power, as all parties do, hesitant to change old documents and thus provoke internal splits, as all parties are, and ignoring those old documents when they are inconvenient, as all parties do. Even the US mass media, so quick to quote the Hamas charter, have ignored the PLO charter since Yassir Arafat effectively renounced it in 1988.
Eventually, they will do the same for Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who invited New York Times reporters to his Damascus office to say: "Hamas has accepted the National Reconciliation Document [which calls for a two-state solution]. It has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem ... This is Hamas's program regardless of the historic documents. Hamas has offered a vision.... It's not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago."
A Jewish scholar at Israel's top-ranked Institute for National Strategic Studies explained why we should believe him: "The supposed split between Damascus-based radicals and Gaza Strip-based moderates is a false distinction. There are apparently moderates and radicals in both places, and Mashal himself is not necessarily aligned with the radicals.... Hamas is willing to accept a process of negotiations with Israel, as it was when it endorsed the National Reconciliation Document." So much for the Palestinians' supposedly undying hatred of Israel.
I've discussed just a few random comments to one article. But my experience and study tell me that they are quite typical of a large (though now shrinking) portion of the Jewish community. All of these commenters and the many Jews who share their narrow vision might well ask the question posed so sharply by Woody Allen: "What sin?"
They overlook inconvenient parts of the historical record that would cast doubt on Israel's innocence - like the Goldstone report, which was the main subject of my article. Apparently all these critics assume that if they can cast enough blame on the Palestinians, no one will take the report's harsh criticism of Israel seriously.
So, they misread articles critical of Israel and, more importantly, they misread the historical record, making it all come out the way they want it to come out: with all the blame cast on someone, anyone, other than Israel.
To be fair, there is also misperception at the other end of the political spectrum. One commenter, who probably shares a lot of my own views (though apparently without knowing it), wrote: "I fail to see the difference between the two Zionisms. Even if one is milder, they are both advocates of apartheid, which is the current state of affairs in Israel proper and the concentration camps it has created in the Occupied Territories."
If the commenter had cared to look into the substance of the Geneva Initiative plan (by simply clicking the link), an article would appear from a centrist Israeli newspaper with these words: "The initiative calls for a Palestinian state in nearly 98 percent of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip and the Arab-populated areas of Jerusalem." The whole point of the Initiative is to end the situation that so many call apartheid.
As Jews observe "aseret y'mai t'shuvah, the ten days of turning around," I would humbly suggest that supporters of both sides who have trouble with reading comprehension might want to try turning around and taking a new direction: reading carefully and looking at all the facts, while allowing the possibility that their preconceived frameworks of interpretation might not be serving anyone's best interests. If there is ever to be a resolution of the conflict - which is surely in everyone's best interests - that is a necessary first step.