Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Meretz tour of Israel

This account, slightly updated, of my first trip to Israel in 1995 contains a surprising number of the same names, the same political parties, the same positions and arguments that we hear today.  In all the basics, it's still 1995.



In early January, 1995, my father, a member of Peace Now, a left-leaning pro-Israel organization, was invited on a tour of Israel sponsored by the Israeli political party Meretz.  He could not go and asked if I would like to take his place. He explained that Meretz was left of center, and that after years out in the cold during Likud governments, it had progressed to become a minority member of a Labor coalition.  I had never been to Israel and was interested, so I agreed to take my dad's place on the tour.

On January 12th I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and was picked up by my dad's friend Yitzhak. He was a tour guide by profession, and he suggested we go directly to Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans) and thus a symbol of the ancient Israeli presence in Jerusalem.  An Israeli Defense Force (IDF) ceremony was underway.  Hundreds of seeming teenagers stood at attention, each carrying an automatic weapon.  In fact throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, and throughout Israel, IDF teenagers carry automatic weapons.  It occurred to me that this is perhaps an enlightened system.  In L.A. we have around 70,000 armed teenagers, unregulated and uncontrolled. In Israel, every teenage male or female joins the army when they turn 18. The armed young people use their weapons only in self-defense, or defense of others, or when ordered to use them, so at least there is adult supervision.  Nevertheless the guns made me nervous.  I asked Yitzhak if they had good safety mechanisms.  He said the M-16's were safe, but that the Uzi's were subject to accidents.

I had arrived several days before the Meretz tour in order to accompany two couples on a side trip to Jordan that my dad had been part of.  The morning after my arrival, Friday the 13th, I met my fellow travelers in a hotel lobby in Tel Aviv and we took a two hour taxi ride to the Allenby Bridge, a major crossing point into Jordan.  I noticed that our driver, when stopped in traffic for a red light ahead, would beep his horn as soon as the light turned orange.  Many drivers around us did the same, so that there were never-ending waves of horn honking, to no observable purpose.  Out on the highways, where speed and arriving somewhere first is considered an absolute good above all others, our taxi driver defied the laws of physics by getting us to the Allenby Bridge alive.

After a two hour bureaucratic ordeal at the bridge, we entered Jordan and met our young Jordanian guide, Abdullah. We drove non-stop to the ancient ruins of Petra, arriving near sundown as the last tourists were leaving.  Hurrying to catch the light, our party fairly bolted from the car and into the vertiginous Siq, a narrow winding path with sheer rock walls that shoot straight up hundreds of feet, said to be created from a tap of Moses' staff.  The Siq helped the builders, a people called the Nabataeans, conceal their stunning city from the Romans, who would have envied it to death.

I lost track of my companions and was alone in the Siq, disturbed only by the occasional returning rent-a-camel.  After about twenty minutes I turned the last corner and beheld the "Treasury," a fantastic palace carved directly into the sandstone mountain.  I had seen engaging photos of the Treasury, but the reality, at twilight, with no one else in sight, was powerful.  These things were built to engender hallucinations of what human existence might be, with the right gods on your side.  The Nabataean civilization was one of the last gasps of polytheism before the Judeo-Christain-Moslem dominion, and the power of its monuments is unnerving.  It was all I could do not to have visions as I wandered into the increasingly dark and ambiguous inner chambers of the Treasury.  I even had an impulse to commune with the Nabataean mountain god Dushara, but for this I was punished with two days severe need of lomotil.

We stayed one night in Amman, at the Grand Hyatt, whose lobby was bombed in 2005.  That evening we walked around the city, under the care of Abdullah, and saw Roman ruins.  I noticed that all the men had dark mustaches, and that their expressions were serious.  Amman is probably the only Arab capital where a group of Jews can walk around without fear.  I wanted to know why that was, but that secret was not revealed by the serious faces in the city.  We met even more serious and heavily armed Jordanian men at a series of checkpoints on the way back to Israel, where we faced lengthy periods of silence while the men slowly inspected our papers, turning to study us between pages.  Each time we were approved for passage, I wondered again what force within Jordanian culture produced this acceptance, or at least tolerance.  

Abdullah took us past the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.  It stretched for miles, rows of tents and small buildings.  The inhabitants were clearly not incorporated into Jordanian society, quite the reverse.  I wondered why there was relative peace around this arrangement, compared with the strife in Israel.

On Sunday evening we entered Israel at the Sheik Hussein crossing.  During the two hour taxi ride through the West Bank, one of my companions, Judy, explained that Meretz is actually a coalition of three parties: Ratz, a civil-rights party, Shinoui, a capitalist party, and Mapam, a formerly Marxist party.  I commented that these were strange bedfellows, and Judy said this was characteristic of Israeli coalitions.  She said that Americans demonize their adversaries to the extent that crucial coalitions are often impossible. 

It turned out that all the members of my tour were Ratz supporters.  Above the entrance to our hotel in Jerusalem was a banner reading, "Welcome, friends of Ratz!"

We were in time for the opening dinner, and Member of the Knesset (MK) Naomi Chazan's remarks about the settlements in the territories, which she said needed to be "totally dismantled and dispossessed."  The other members of my tour were in alignment with this, as my dad was, but I was new to the subject and not sure.  That evening I read the texts of recent agreements, the "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements," and the "Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities," signed in 1994, the year before my trip, pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Authority (PA), which then governed the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli Government.  To my puzzlement I found no references in the documents to the settlements and their future.

The next day we went to the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to meet Hanan Ashrawi, a familiar spokeswoman for Palestinians in world media.  I asked Ashrawi if she believed the settlements would have to be totally dismantled in the course of a final phase of the agreements.  She replied that the settlements were built on "stolen, confiscated property."  I mentioned the lack of reference in the 1994 documents and she said the settlements would be dealt with in 1996.  [That did not happen]

From the American Colony we went to the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence.  A Swedish man named Anton talked to us about non-violent principles of Palestinian resistance to Israel.  A British woman extolled the Intifada, telling us that "Intifada" means a "shaking out," as of a carpet, and that rock throwing was the least of it.  A Palestinian named Jibril told a moving story about difficulties encountered in trying to get his ill father across Israeli checkpoints to the nearest hospital.  Afterward I asked Jibril if his non-violent principles prevented him from supporting the rock throwing of the Intifada.  He said he supported the rock throwing.

That evening we met at the hotel with settlement spokesman Yisrael Harel.  He told us that Jews had a biblical and archaeological claim to all of Israel, that Jews were, in fact, there first.  I asked Harel if he thought the entire United States should dismantle itself and leave the North American continent because the Indians were there first.  I meant this as a serious question, but Harel laughed and I got no answer.

Later we dined with MK Benny Temkin.  I asked him my question about the settlements.  He answered as Ashwari had, that settlements will be decided in '96.

Tuesday, January 17, my birthday, we toured the Gaza Strip.  A few miles from the entrance, we stopped at a busy restaurant to pick up lunch.  I used the restroom, which was filled with IDF soldiers.  I was the only person at the urinals without an automatic weapon.  In the parking lot I encountered Sylvia, from the tour of Jordan, who had been very kind to me during my post-Petra intestinal distress. Sylvia was in a thoughtful mood.  She told me that she had been a lifetime supporter of the State of Israel, but that if things didn't change she would have to reassess her position.  She said she had visited Gaza two years earlier, and that I was going to see unspeakable conditions in the Gazan camps.

We left the restaurant and entered Gaza City.  This is a bustling town, with signs of construction everywhere.  The people on the street walked purposefully, and were dressed fairly well, sometimes in designer clothes.  At the south end of Gaza City we saw a large lot with hundreds of parked cars, and hundreds of people walking around.  Our guide told us it was a car auction.

We went first to Fatah-Palestinian National Authority (PNA) headquarters, which then governed Gaza [A conflict in 2007 split Fatah from the PNA; Hamas has ruled Gaza since a struggle between Fatah and Hamas in 2007].  Fatah's leader, Yasser Arafat, was in Morocco, so we were greeted by Freih abu Medein, Minister of Justice for the PNA.  Medein went through a long list of grievances against the Israeli government, from the settlements to Palestinian prisoners.  He did not have anything particular to say about Gaza.

We traveled next to the Red Crescent Society where we met Haider Abdel Shafi, who had been in the news earlier that week after calling for a hard line alternative to Arafat, and hard bargaining over Israel's right to exist (Arafat had already acceded to this right in the Oslo Accords).  Members of our group asked Shafi if it was true that as an original member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks in 1991 he had resisted removing the call for destruction of Israel from the  charter.  He said he had, and that he continued to support this provision as an important card against Israel.  My group was split on this (Sylvia was incensed).

We moved on to the PNA police headquarters, formerly Israeli headquarters.  A man named Ahmed Oreia showed us a large map of Gaza.  He particularly wanted us to see sections of beach which at that time were still controlled by Israel.  He found this to be an outrage.  He said that leaving and entering Gaza was more difficult now than before Oslo [Gaza became legally autonomous in 2005, when Israeli forces and settlements were removed].  When asked about concerns in Israel about dangerous Gazans, he said that Israelis walking around in Gaza do not feel threatened. He talked about unemployment in Gaza, and complained that, unlike the Egyptians after their stay, the Israelis had left the infrastructure of Gaza destroyed, even taking out the phones from the PNA building.

Back on the bus, we were told not to eat the food we had picked up at the restaurant because we were going to the best fish place in Gaza.  After a few minutes, we arrived at a pleasant seaside restaurant. Walking around for a minute, I was struck by the beauty of the ocean and the long sandy beach.  The fish was excellent.  If ever there was a resort town waiting to happen, Gaza is it.

After eating were asked to get on the bus for the trip back to Israel.  Sylvia and others expressed concern that we had only heard political statements and had not seen any of Gaza's notorious camps. After some negotiations, it was agreed that we would drive through the Jubalya camp, with 50,000 residents, the largest in Gaza.  A Palestinian named Samid would accompany us.  Sylvia said I was going to see the true misery of Gaza.  As our bus entered the outskirts of Jubalya, we were shown an intersection where the Intifada had begun over an incident with Israeli police.  Jubalya is a criss-cross of unpaved streets and alleyways.  The homes are makeshift one story shelters of corrugated steel, plywood and whatever material is at hand.  The first thing that struck me was the huge number of young children, running around in groups of twenty to thirty on all the main streets, and more children visible as far as we could see down the alleys.  My impression was of driving across a crowded elementary school playground (I taught elementary school at the time).  The children seemed occupied with their games.  They were adequately dressed.  There were no obvious signs of malnutrition.  I was puzzled by the absence of teenagers, and asked Samid about his.  He said the teenagers were "at jobs."

Sylvia had told me of raw sewage in the streets.  There was water running in narrow ditches, but it seemed clear and there was no stench.  Syvia said the camp had improved considerably since her visit two years earlier.

As we left Gaza, buses of Palestinian workers were unloading.  The men seemed upbeat, many smiling, happy to be back from work.  They streamed through a hole in a chain link fence to a large parking lot.  Apparently many owned cars.

The next morning we headed for an infamous hill near the settlement of Efrat, which had been in the international media recently after Efrat settlers had tried to grade a section for expansion and faced resistance from the nearby town of El Khader.  In Bethlehem, we picked up Anton from the non-violent group.  Ten minutes south of Bethlehem we entered El Khader, where we picked up a man named Hassan.  Anton acted as Hassan's interpreter.  Hassan directed our bus south, up the windswept, rocky hill in contention.  Near the top we parked and got out.  Hassan told us that his great grandfather had given his grandfather this land.  He said that it was holy land, where 7,000 martyrs had fallen, and that no one was supposed to wear shoes here (Hassan wore shoes).  Next to where we parked were some olive trees, which Hassan said were cultivated to prove ownership of the area by El Khader.  South of the trees was an extensive garbage dump, which included an entirely stripped bus. I asked Hassan why the dump was there.  He said "entrepreneurs" put it there.  When pressed to explain, he said car thieves used the area.

On top of the hill was a bulldozer which the settlers had left.  One IDF soldier stood guard.  Hassan pointed south to the next hill, about a mile away, where we could see Efrat.  A typical extension would have been closer to the settlement.  It seemed pretty clear that the bulldozing was a provocative act.  

We boarded the bus and headed down the hill, into a small valley filled with plots cultivated by villagers from El Khader.  Moving up the next hill, we paused at the entrance to Efrat.  There was some discussion about the safety of driving through the settlement of 12,000.  There were no guards; no one seemed to be paying attention to our bus, so we entered.  The first thing we passed was an elementary school.  A couple of hundred children ran around the playground.  The school and all the buildings were white, Jerusalem stone.  The settlement was attractive.  It could have been a community of upscale townhouses in Chatsworth.  There were some modest lawns, reinforcing our group's contention that the settlements appropriate too much water, but at least no swimming pools. We left Efrat without getting off the bus or talking to anyone.  I found it ironic that the only group we feared to encounter was our own tribe.

Passing out of the southern entrance of Efrat, we went down the hill into the next village of Wadi-Nis. Samid knew people here.  We parked next to a large handsome mosque, in the village center, and got out.  The villagers crowded around us.  The children stared at us without smiles.  Soon we were greeted by the Mukhta, the head of the largest family.  He welcomed us to the village and asked if we would like tea.  Everyone said yes, because we were being blasted by freezing wind.  Charles from our group, a conservative rabbi from New York, asked the Mukhta what kind of relations Wadi-Nis had with Rabbi Riskin, spiritual leader and spokesman for Efrat.  The Mukhta said Rabbi Riskin was an honorable man who was a moderating influence on Efrat.  Hassan suddenly burst into a rage at the Mukhta, shouting and gesticulating until the Mukhta offered him a cigarette.  The next moment we found ourselves boarding the bus, the tea forgotten.  Smiles and handshakes all around.

Back at El Khader, Hassan pointed out Highway 16, then under construction, which Israel was building to connect the settlements.  Hassan said this highway proved that Israel will not remove the settlements.  The highway went right along the city wall of El Khader, but there would be no off-ramps for the village.

After dropping off Hassan, we headed for the Knesset, the Israeli legislature in Jerusalem.  Anton stayed with us for part of the way.  He told us of a big demonstration coming up at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem.  He warned "there might be violence."  I asked Anton what his specialty was.  He said, "conflict resolution."  There turned out to be no violence at the checkpoint.

All visitors to the Knesset are viewed as potential terrorists.  Young men with automatic weapons scrutinized each of us, asked if we were armed, took our cameras, and let us in.  We spent a few minutes in the gallery watching the proceedings.  By a coincidence, the whole of the Israeli government was in attendance.  Opposition leaders Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir chuckled together, seeming relaxed and happy in their roles.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin [who was assassinated ten months later] and cabinet member Shimon Peres looked harassed and defensive.

We were led to a small conference room near the cafeteria and were endlessly fed while a succession of Meretz MK's visited us.  The first was the Minister of Environment, Yossi Sarik. Several of our group, inflamed after our visit to Efrat, demanded to know if the government was going to halt settlement expansion. Sarik, like many Israeli politicians, is a master of the irritated shrug.  He said, "We are trying; we will see what happens," as one might say, "Excuse me for living!"

Next we met Haim Ramon, Secretary-General of the trade union organization, the Histadrut.  Ramon had been in the news for opposing Labor entrenchment and corruption in the Histadrut.  When asked if he had made progress weakening corruption, he shrugged: "It's gone."

We met with the mayor of the settlement of Ariel, Ron Nachman (Nachman is also a Likud MK, a legal double duty in Israel).  Nachman told us that Ariel has excellent relations with the surrounding Arab communities, and that they have no problems sharing water.  He also said the settlements are important in ensuring that there will never be a Palestinian state.

That evening at the hotel, we hosted Minister of Science, Technology and Arts, Shulamit Aloni.  She was introduced to us as Mrs. Ratz because she had formed the Ratz party in 1973 [Ratz merged with Meretz in 1997].  Aloni invited each of us to speak of one concern.  When it was my turn, I said that I was troubled by the lack of understanding between the parties concerning the settlements, and that my reading of the situation was that the settlements would not be dismantled, at least not entirely, and that it was perhaps time to talk of compromise.  I half expected the whole room to start yelling at me, but no one seemed troubled.  Aloni said my suggestion was a good one, and I remained on speaking terms with the Friends of Ratz.

Thursday morning we traveled to Tel Aviv.  The headline of the Jerusalem Post that morning read, "Government Bends to Meretz Pressure- Promises Settlement Freeze."  The article quoted a furious Shaas (religious party) MK saying that Meretz members were "spies and traitors" who brought "sympathizers from America to sneak into settlements and spread lies abroad." It was diverting to be part of a perceived conspiracy, and to note the irony of my total lack of actual influence on the politics around me.

We went to a bank in Tel Aviv where we had lunch with IDF Colonel Shalom Harari, in charge of Army Intelligence for Arab Affairs.  Harari's presentation depicted Palestinians as bunglers and/or crooks.  He said the reason that international money is not forthcoming for the Palestinians is that they are notorious for diverting money into the wrong pockets and will not account for the funds they receive.  He said the PNA in Gaza had made monopoly agreements with companies that supply Gaza in return for a 15% cut.  As an example he cited an agreement with an Israeli cement company. Gazans must purchase cement from this company even though they could get it cheaper from Jordan. When our group pressed him about the destroyed infrastructure of Gaza, he said that some phones were taken, against orders, from the PNA building, but that three months of supplies were left in Gaza's main hospital, including three months worth of vaccinations.  The Israelis did this, the Colonel said, because "we knew what they were like, what they would say."  Concerning the difficult checkpoints, he said Israelis are afraid of the hostile Gazans, and are going to foreign workers, like Romanians, to replace Gazan labor.

After lunch, we drove to the Maccabee Center for a meeting with the Minister of Education, Amnon Rubinstein.  I told Rubinstein that I had read an article in the Los Angeles Times about his "peace curriculum," which is supposed to acquaint Israeli children with "the concept of living peacefully with Arabs under the new agreements."  I asked how it was going.  He said it was going very well, and that even when he had visited "famous Efrat" he had seen the curriculum presented, with flags of Arab nations adorning the classroom.  Presumably this was the elementary school I had seen. The question of what Palestinians are teaching their children (by most accounts they are not teaching coexistence with Israel) did not come up.

Friday morning we headed to Jericho, one of the world's oldest cities.  On the way we passed the huge settlement of Ma'ale Adumin, with 20,000 residents one of the hot spots in the debate over "greater Jerusalem" [remaining a point of contention today].  Inclusion of Ma'ale Adumin in a greater Jerusalem would remove it from the territory of a Palestinian state.  Critics charge that Ma'ale Adumin is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention's article 49, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory.  The Israeli counter argument is that such conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to the West Bank because the region was not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state at the time of the occupation. These opposing legal arguments are unchanged in 2017.  Any official body that chooses one legal opinion over the other is vilified by the losing side.  In hindsight, I feel I made the right decision in 1995 to never use the legal arguments in discussing the settlements.  I might as well try to prove that my house in Woodland Hills should or should not be reverted to Chumash ownership.  Arguments of this nature are designed to defy resolution and last forever.

Moving down into the Jordan Valley we entered Jericho, a sleepy Arab town, no sign of trumpets blaring or walls falling, chosen by the government for autonomy, we were told, because of its apolitical, resort atmosphere.  Mr. Erakat, Minister of Local Affairs, was with his ill father, so for twenty minutes we listened to a spokesman excoriate Israel.  I asked if he could speak about Jericho itself, and he said the economy was in bad shape because of Israel.  I asked if tourism was important to Jericho, and he said tourism was down since autonomy, because of Israel.

At this point in the journey I had become a bit fatigued by the inability of any sides in the region to say something nice about each other.  Arafat, Rabin and American Secretary of State Warren Christopher are the only people in the arena who see any good in the "peace process."  At lower levels, political credibility is gained only by proving you hate the other side.

Saturday morning we toured David's Citadel in the old City of Jerusalem. Our guide told us how the city had originated with David's visions from God concerning the site for the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments.  Alternative narratives, described on nearby plaques not put up by the Israelis, described Mohammed's dream of a trip to heaven via the exact spot shown to David for the Ark, thus establishing the site as holy to Muslims, as well as Jews and Christians, so that now, depending which side has jurisdiction, the official story of Jerusalem's holy sites will be an affront to at least one major world religion.  I had to wonder, was this problem with property rights God's idea, or was it dreamed up by contentious humans?

I left our party to wander in the shuk, a maze of hundreds of retail stalls.  Our guide told me to stay in the Jewish quarter, not to turn left or right (lest I be stabbed, Sylvia added), but mesmerized by the seeming infinite aromas,  colors and corridors, I did turn left and found myself in the abattoir of the Muslim quarter.  The stalls showed a lurid red; blood was splashed over the paving stones.  I had to step through it.  I found myself walking behind a man in civilian clothes, sweater and jeans, carrying an automatic weapon.  I was told later that when people from the settlements come to the Old City they take private security guards with them, and that these guards are subsidized by the government. I walked on and on, and came finally to a towering blank wall with one modest door.  It was an entrance to the Dome of the Rock, a church built by the Ottomans to encompass holy sites such as the spot where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Ark of the Covenant (in the "Holy of Holies" spot, which my father-in-law warned me is not to be looked at by any but a high priest, or God might strike you dead for defiling the site, as He was reported in the Torah to have done to the disrespectful when the Ark travelled through the desert).   An Arab guard sat on a folding chair by the door of the Dome of the Rock.  I asked if I could go in.  He said no, that visiting hours, which were not posted, were over.  [Back again years later for my son's bar mitzvah, I returned to the Temple Mount and was again told visiting hours, still not posted, were over]

Saturday evening we met with Meretz MK Ran Cohen.  The group questioned him about the settlement freeze, about Efrat, about greater Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumin.  Cohen sighed, then said that things looked difficult.  Mirroring my thoughts, he said that the time had come to consider a compromise on the settlements.  He speculated that such a suggestion could create controversy within Meretz, but no one in our group had a problem with the idea.  

Concerning an upcoming vote of no confidence in the Knesset, Cohen had a comment that turned out to be prophetic: "I pray to God there will be no terrorist attack in the next two days."

After Cohen left we went to a restaurant for a farewell party with many Knesset MK's and aides. Toasts were made, and we each received a gift from Meretz of candle holders in the shape of doves.

Sunday morning I took a taxi to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, planning to take a bus to Tel Aviv to stay two days with my wife's aunt.  The bus station was crowded with soldiers returning from the weekend furlough.  I waited behind a crowd of soldiers shoving their backpacks into the hold of the bus.  As they bent over, their weapons often pointed at me, sometimes poking my body.  I wondered which were M-16's and which were Uzis.  On the bus I was the only civilian.  Automatic weapons bristled across the aisle.  I was not sure whether to feel protected or threatened.

Arriving at her flat, I found my aunt-in-law engrossed in the TV news.  She explained that two bombs had gone off that afternoon at a bus stop near Netanya.  The bus had been crowded with IDF soldiers. Sixteen had died.  I thought of the bus I had been on, and of Ran Cohen's words.

The next morning the news showed a jubilant rally in Gaza in support of the suicide bus bombers. What if this rally had taken place on the day we toured Gaza?  What questions might we have asked, and what answers received?

The news featured a woman at the bomb scene who said that the aftermath of the bombing was like a butcher shop, with "our boys thrown around like fresh meat."  This woman's statement was shown repeatedly on all the news shows.

My aunt took me to the shuk in south Tel Aviv.  While she bought fruit I wandered into an area of butchers.  I saw a plastic tub filled with chicken heads. On the floor in back of one stall was a flayed cow's head on a table.  A woman eyed a barrel of slow moving fish.  She pointed to one and the shopkeeper grabbed it by the tail and shoved it into a plastic bag, head first.  Still holding the tail, he grabbed a short wooden club and whacked the fish hard on the head twice.  The bag was still.  The lady nodded in approval.  I mention these things only because I had never seen any of them before. Such foundational elements of carnivorism are hidden from urban Americans.

That afternoon I took a train to Haifa to visit more of my wife's family.  The train was full of young soldiers.  They looked tired and apprehensive, no doubt thinking of the bombing.  The relatives took me to a mall north of Haifa, art deco style though it was built in the 80's.  They showed me a rotunda that had been destroyed during the Persian Gulf War by an Iraqi Scud missile that had been intended for a nearby refinery.  No sign of damage remained, but framed photos showed cracked columns and a ruptured ceiling.  The rebuilt rotunda enshrined the Scud rocket itself, retrieved from the rubble.

At home we watched a press conference by Rabin about the bus bombers.  My fourteen year old cousin translated for me.  She emphasized the part where Rabin said, of the bombers, "We will keep fighting you!  We will chase you down! No border will stop us.  We will liquidate you, and emerge victorious!"

The next morning, on the train back to Tel Aviv,  I read the Jerusalem Post: "Prime Minister: Goal of Peace is to separate Israelis, Palestinians."  There were various attacks on Meretz.  Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud [and current prime minister] charged that the government had become a
"greater Meretz."

I arrived that evening at Ben Gurion Airport for the long flight home.  The girl at the security check asked me why I had been to Jordan.  I said I had gone to see Petra.  She asked what I had done in Israel.  I said I had been part of a tour.

What kind of tour? 

A tour sponsored by the Meretz party.  

Whom did you speak to on the tour?  

MK's and Palestinian spokespeople.  

Did you become friendly with any Palestinians?  Were you invited to any of their homes?  

No.  

Did you receive any gifts or packages from anyone?  

Just my present from the Meretz party.  

Show me the present.  

She took the candlesticks, my passport and my plane tickets and left for about fifteen minutes.  She returned, handed me my stuff, and wished me a pleasant journey.  I felt that the international praise of Israeli airport security was well deserved.

At home, the L.A. Times was overwhelmed with O.J. Simpson stories.  On a back page was the story that Israel's Labor government had approved a Greater Jerusalem, and that Palestinian leaders say this has killed the peace process.

The Middle East is a history factory.  We like to quote historian George Santayana that those who don't remember history are condemned to repeat it. That could be optimistic.  It's possible we're condemned to repeat history whether we remember it or not.  Or more perversely, maybe the more history we remember, the more prone we are to repeat it.

Anyway, I had a great trip and can look at Los Angeles in a new way: We may have earthquakes, floods, droughts, fires and riots, but at least we don't have a "peace process."


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference, 2017

My wife and I attended our third annual American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 25th - 28th.  AIPAC is an American lobby group that promotes the U.S./Israeli alliance.  Last year's conference featured presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (see post below on the 2016 conference).  This year, not facing an election, neither spoke, though a number of government notables did.

Conference organizers were more concerned about terrorism this time, after a year of rising tensions in the Middle East and just about everywhere. Security was thorough at the two conference venues, the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, at least near the doors. The lines were long when high officials were scheduled, for instance the two hour line around the Verizon Center to see Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Police cars with flashing lights surrounded much of the perimeter, though not all, and people in line were vulnerable on those stretches since it would have been easy to launch an assault on portions of the streets without police. At one point a long, quiet line of protesters carrying Palestinian flags walked down the sidewalk between our line and the building.  I was a foot or so from them, my putative enemies. They walked silently, looking down and avoiding eye contact.  It seemed a predetermined strategy.

Sunday's general session opened with AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus' remarks.  She harkened back to last year's conference when tensions rose between younger members who cheered Clinton when she attacked Trump, and older members who cheered Trump when he attacked Clinton. Pinkus made a heroic attempt to maintain neutrality last year, but was perceived by some as leaning towards Clinton.  In her formulation this year she decried "people who want to divide pro-Israeli Americans," leaving wiggle room for interpretation.

There was a beautiful and intense presentation about the work of Amnon Weinstein, who salvaged discarded violins that Jewish prisoners in the Nazi camps were forced to play as people filed into gas chambers.  Weinstein restored the violins and gave them new meaning.  The presentation included a performance on one of Weinstein's violins by musician Hagai Shaham of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("The Hope") that shook the soul.

The first test of the attempted neutrality came that evening when Vice President Mike Pence said that America's bond with Israel is strong because of (loudly shouting) "Donald J. Trump!"  People throughout the auditorium stood and cheered wildly.  I did an unscientific survey of nearby sections and found that in each row about half the people were cheering and the other half were silent.  The woman sitting next to my wife stood suddenly and said, "I can't take this anymore" and left (she came back later with a giant bag of popcorn).

Jews are starkly divided on Trump, especially since the Obama administration abstained in December on U.N. resolution 2334, which stated that Israeli settlements in "Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," have no legal validity, a point of heated contention.  Many Jews, both Trump and Obama/Clinton supporters, were alarmed by the resolution because it took sides prior to negotiation. Trump played his card by opposing the resolution, unifying Jewish Trump supporters behind him and severely disorienting Jews who support Clinton. 

It was refreshing to veer away from politics for a while in the breakout sessions.   I attended one titled, "Women and the Struggle for Human Rights in the Middle East," partly as a follow-up to our visit the previous day to Washington's outstanding National Museum of Women in the Arts, which displays brilliant female artists sidelined in the art world by a bias towards males.  [An aside: The gift shop sold Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf dolls. I wondered how comforting they would be.  The exhibit included a Judy Chicago ceramic piece, in Chicago's signature vulvar shape, called "Virginia Woolf."  Does that make sense?  If I become a famous writer, should I be represented by a ceramic penis?]

The AIPAC women's rights session featured a panel of female speakers from State Department and university groups which addressed familiar aspects of female oppression such as genital mutilation, restrictions from education and politics, honor killings and more.  One woman from a university group said that empowering women in the workplace would add $28 trillion to the region's economy.  The woman from the State Department talked about the banning of Afghan women from the Loya jirga, a traditionally all-male Pashtun governing body.  She said that during the Afghan war her group lobbied successfully for a U.S. requirement that women be represented on the Loya jirga. At this point I felt some doubt. How fully were women represented on the Loya jirga?  Without the U.S. presence, are they represented now?

It seemed an important point.  The panel did not address the male Loya jirga members' reactions to and comprehension of the mandated female members, nor the efficacy of the American policy's attempt to change their culture.  My guess is that the policy had zero efficacy, and may even have been counterproductive, driving men into a smoldering resentment and encouraging them to bide their time until they could find violent release. Like most forums on women's issues, the panel did not appear to consider understanding of men's issues to be critical for achieving their goals.  90% of the panel audience were women, and I wondered how the presentation would be different if it had included men, on the panel and in the audience. One of the impediments to changing the world so that women have equality of power with men is that no one talks about the ways in which men are swimming against the tide. Do women understand in clear detail what it is like to be a man?  We joke about how hard it is for men to understand women.  Could the reverse be true as well? 

One question I would like explored in a more inclusive dialogue is, "Has the transition from hunter-gathering societies to agricultural and urban confinement frustrated male desires in ways that differ from females' reactions to those changes?"  A follow-up question might be, "Do male difficulties in adjusting to urban confinement matter as much as female difficulties?" Unless men are about to become obsolete through genetic engineering, the answer would appear to be yes, but that's just this reporter's opinion.  

The sense of incompleteness in the women's discussion extended to the political speakers.  Most of them said nothing beyond the obvious speaking points, so you can summarize the positions of Pence, Ryan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, commentator Alan Dershowitz, Israeli politicians Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennet, America's UN ambassador Nikki Haley and others as follows:

1. Israel is among the foremost technological innovators in the world and is helping mankind in a number of ways.

2. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east, and as such gives more rights to Palestinians than they get in any Arab country.

3. Obama's Iran Deal endangers America and Israel.

4. Israel is America's most loyal ally in the region.

Position #1 can be accepted without debate, but 2-4 are ideas subject to differing perspectives, useful for agreeing to disagree.  One person's democracy is another's deep state tyranny.  One person's ally is another's threat.  If the public knows nothing about the Iran deal, then flipping a coin makes as much sense as trying to figure it out. Positions like these are like the positions for and against abortion, producing no resolution, only endless debate.  How many times, for instance, do we need to hear an argument about whether a fetus has a soul, or whether God promised Abraham the West Bank, or the meaning of Muhammad's dream that he flew through the night to Jerusalem?   The positions have in common that none of them can be conclusively proven. That makes them useless for any purpose other than continued disagreement.

Reactions to the 2014 Gaza/Israeli war offer a good example of fruitless argumentation.  The asymmetry of casualties in that war- sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians killed versus 2,110 Gazans- troubled many Jews, including me. The usual course of argument for the Israeli side involves the allegation that Hamas, which rules Gaza, had built a system of tunnels deep into Israeli territory, under inhabited towns, from which it planned to detonate explosions on the Jewish High Holy Days, when families gather, that would have produced casualties comparable to 9/11, and that this necessitated a strong military response from Israel. Hamas denies the tunnel accusation, and people have been left with no criteria for choosing which side to support other than choosing the side they associate with.  

A more productive line of defense for both Israel and the Gazan people would be to question the strategic point and morality of the rockets Hamas routinely fired into Israel leading up to the 2014 war.  These were unsophisticated rockets which, though they produced sporadic physical harm, had no policy impact on Israel other than to rationalize its response. It would be fair to say that Hamas, in launching the rockets, betrayed the people of Gaza by giving Israel a rationale for an asymmetrical attack while not producing any tactical advantages for the Palestinian cause in Gaza. Why then should people who care about human rights not demonize Hamas along with Israel?  A discussion that paints one side as monopolizing evil will obviously reach no resolution. Of course, resolution may not be the goal.

There were many brilliant people at the AIPAC Policy Conference.  It was masterfully organized and engaging. Unfortunately, society's discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as with its discussions of gender rights, is incomplete.  Good intentions abound, but public discussion goes nowhere.

For more Lasken's Log, click on "older Posts" below right.