Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Legislators Propose Bills to Ban Gay Pride Parades in Jerusalem

Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev (Photo: Knesset)

Earlier today, two bills were presented for first reading by the Israeli parliament, both of which attempt to prevent gay parades from being held within the city of Jerusalem, by amending the municipality's Basic Law from above. One parliamentarian, MK Nissim Ze'ev of Shas (about which more below) condemned the homosexual community for "carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people" (Ha'aretz).

Much of our last discussion of the gay pride parade in Jerusalem focused on the opposition of the "ultra-Orthodox" or haredim, as they are called in Hebrew. I realize that for people less familiar with Israeli society and the Jewish world, there is bound to be some confusion about which particular groups this term encompasses. Hence, I hope that those who understand will excuse the rather long excursus on Israel's political and religious landscape that follows.

Until relatively recently, the term "haredim" ("trembling ones") referred almost exclusively to the various black-clad Hasidic and "Lithuanian" groups (Note: the term "Lithuanian," refers to those who identify with opponents of the Hasidic movement; the division between hasidim and their opponents dates to the late 18th century), most of whom either rejected the Zionist state or had an ambivalent attitude toward it best described as "non-Zionism." The main political organ of these groups is the United Torah Judaism party, which is a coalition of the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the Lithuanian Degel ha-Torah, and has 6 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

In the past three decades, we have also seen an increase in another kind of "haredi" or ultra-Orthodox population, which has found its political expression in Shas, a party which derives its guidance from rabbinic luminaries of various mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) communities. This party, however, also draws much of its support from "traditional" and even secular mizrahim, having marketed itself as a party opposing Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel. It currently has 12 representatives in the Knesset, and is a member of the governing coalition.

In addition to these two groups, another constituency involved in the opposition against the gay pride parade was the national-religious or "knit kippah" camp. This sector, which is today identified as the ideological backbone of the settlement movement, is religious (sometimes "ultra-Orthodox") but embraced the state (at least until the evacuation of settlements from Gaza) and interprets the Zionist movement in religious, messianic terms. Its main political organ today is the National Union - National Religious Party, which has 9 seats.

When I watched the documentary about the Jerusalem gay pride parade discussed earlier, I noticed that the approaches used by these various sectors differ significantly from one another. For example, the national religious camp used language much closer to that of the Christian right in America, as I think I noted earlier. Shas, it seems to me, is using more populist language that appeals to "tradition." I think it is not an accident that the haredi parties are keeping a low profile, and that they are probably not going to become involved in this. They do not see this as an issue to gain votes or to mobilize the ultra-Orthodox. Their caution also reflects a distrust of modern party politics and mass organization (i.e., democratization).

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Jewish State

Theodor Herzl's 1896 work The Jewish State (or the "State of the Jews")

Most Jewish Israelis and most Jews living in the diaspora take it for granted that Israel is "a Jewish state." This particular description does not elicit a great deal of controversy for them; it seems obvious and relatively unproblematic. For many Arabs, whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, and for many Muslims living outside the Middle East, however, the phrase seems unacceptable, and usually provokes an exclamation of disbelief that such a thing should be possible. To them it seems prima facie racist. Likewise, while most Jews see Zionism as the political expression of a belief in Jewish self-determination, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for many Arabs and Muslims it is a fascist, genocidal, and/or racist ideology with none of the legitimacy granted to other nationalist movements, including Pan-Arabism.

To me, this discord invites two different lines of inquiry.
  1. Of course, arguments must be made for and against. Indeed, I myself have been forced to engage in such arguments ad nauseam, a fact that at this point in my life tends to fill me with resentment as soon as I hear yet another person challenging me to resist their conversionary or enlightening zeal.

  2. However, a different line of inquiry would proceed more phenomenologically (I think). It would ask: what do all these different people mean when they talk about a "Jewish state"? Further, it would try to investigate why some people sees this self-description as unproblematic, while others vigorously oppose it; it would, moreover, ask the same thing about the desire of many Jews (in Israel and elsewhere) to have the Palestinians as well as others accept the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. This would be a study of fears, hopes, and their consequences.
To kick things off on the first line of inquiry, I will cite the remarks of John Mearsheimer, made at a lecture delivered at UC Berkeley in late October 2006, which succinctly characterize the realist position when it comes to this question. So as not to be accused of taking things out of context, I have included the entire paragraph of remarks:
We think that the fact that there’s a Jewish state is a good thing given the history of antisemitism and our understanding of how the world works. Here in the US, we have a melting pot society. This is not a Christian or Anglo-Saxon state. It’s a liberal state. There is no one ethnic or religious group that dominates; it’s a melting pot. I don’t like the idea of living in state dominated by one culture. But around world, there are lots of states where people identify themselves largely in terms of culture – take Japan: most people there consider themselves to be Japanese. Same is true with Israel – it’s a Jewish state; the same is true for Germany. It’s not the way I like to do business; but it’s perfectly legitimate way to do it in the international system today. I believe in national self-determination. Zionism is a form of nationalism and perfectly legitimate one. There is nothing wrong with having a Jewish state. We are arguing that Palestinians are also entitled to have a state of their own. If there’s national self-determination for the Jews, it should also exist for the Palestinians. The principal obstacle to establishing Palestinian state at this time is Israel. Israel is interested in colonizing the West Bank and giving the Palestinians nothing more than a few enclaves, keeping them disconnected, controlling borders, air and water. As long as that’s the case, the Palestinians won't have a viable state. The same logic that leads us to support a Jewish state leads us to support a Palestinian state.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Obama the Christian

(Photo: Wikipedia)

In recent days, "accusations" that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim (as if this were a crime) have emerged again, ahead of the South Carolina primary. These "allegations" first surfaced in anonymous emails, some of which were sent to Jewish organizations. Apparently, those sending them out believed that since all Jews hate Muslims, these revelations would dissuade Jews from voting for Obama - whether in primaries or perhaps in a presidential election. In the wake of these emails, all of the major American Jewish organizations issued a condemnation of the "smear campaign" (see for example this press release by the AJC). What disturbed me at the time was that no one made a point of saying that "although Senator Obama is not a Muslim but a practicing Christian, the implication that a Muslim is not fit to serve as the president of the U.S. is horrifying and goes against the principles of the American constitution."

A few days ago, I saw Obama himself responding directly to the accusations in televised interview aired on CNN's Situation Room. The day before, I had seen him emphasize his belief in Jesus Christ during the debate with his competitors in the Democratic primaries, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. He made a point during that debate of saying that he attends church services and believes in Christianity. During the interview the next day, which may originally have aired on "CBN" (Christian Broadcasting Network), he responded angrily about the smear campaign calling him a crypto-Muslim, something which he found deeply offensive as a sincere Christian. I can certainly understand someone being offended at having their religious beliefs mischaracterized, but again, I found it strange that he was so zealous in distancing himself from the suggestion that he might be a Muslim. Maybe this is the realistic, smart politician thinking. But if Obama couldn't do it, for whatever reasons, then someone else should have stood up and said unequivocally that even if Obama WERE a Muslim, no person's faith qualifies or disqualifies her from running for public office.

Of course, the reality is that for many Americans the faith of a presidential candidate apparently does matter. Mitt Romney's Mormonism is an issue for many evangelical voters. What I find alarming is that Obama's response to the "allegations" might actually reinforce this kind of bigotry. Someone has to stand up to it and show some courage. Why couldn't any of the other candidates say: "I do not think that being Muslim would make a candidate less suited for office than being Christian."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Secularism, Critique, Blasphemy, and the 2006 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade

Two of the posters ("pashkavilim") shown above are part of the campaign against the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. The one on the right reproduces a headline from Ha'aretz which states that "Religious leaders have warned that the Pride Parade in Jerusalem will cause bloodshed." The second one, on the left-hand side, is from Ma'ariv and cites Shimon Peres as saying that "The homos have crossed the line." I took this photograph in Jerusalem in late June 2006. As always: click to enlarge.

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to see the New York premiere of "Jerusalem is Proud to Present" (ירושלים גאה להציג, 2007) as part of the Jewish Film Festival at Walter Reade theater. In Israel, it has been shown on Channel 2 and Channel 8 and screened at various film festivals.

This latest documentary by the Israeli director Nitzan Gilady ("In Satmar Custody," 2003) is about the attempts to hold a Gay Pride Parade (מצעד הגאווה) in Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, as part of the international "World Pride" celebrations. The parade, which was to go through the city center, had originally been scheduled for August 6. It was postponed several times, in part because of the war still raging in early August, and in part because of the fears that police would not be able to protect marchers from the wrath of religious protesters. Ultimately, the "march" was held as a rally in a closed stadium, guarded by thousands of police officers, on November 10.

Gilady's film begins with a surreal press conference attended by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem, watching clips from previous gay pride parades in other parts of the world, and denouncing the planned event as an abomination. Throughout, it gives space to both supporters and opponents of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, though it is clear that Gilady, who said after the screening that he had only recently come out to his parents, has chosen a position.

One one side, we see the activists and members of the Jerusalem Open House (English). They include the first openly gay Jerusalem city councilor, Sa'ar Netanel (Meretz), elected at the same time as its first ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupoliansky; Adam Russo, the victim of a stabbing attack at the first gay pride parade in Jerusalem on June 30, 2005 (the assailant was eventually convicted of attempted murder); Noa Sattat, the director of the Open House; and Boodi, a 19-year-old drag queen from Ramallah, who performs at Jerusalem's only gay club, Shushan (now closed), and eventually seeks asylum in the U.S. after being kidnapped by Hamas militants.

Arrayed against them, we see Mina Fenton, a national-religious municipal politician who not only organizes a group of American-born settler women using her bad English and crude sense of taste (the Americans seem slightly more attentive to public opinion) but also solicits support in Arabic from a hijab-clad by-passer. We also encounter a Brooklyn expatriate, Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a dogged opponent of the "gay political elite." Less openly involved than these somewhat ridiculous figures, are the various religious leaders of Jerusalem - the Christian clergymen, the Muslim sheikhs, and the Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis. Finally, we see the anonymous masses of rioting ultra-Orthodox protesters.

As the date of the parade approaches, tensions rise and the incitement on the part of the opponents of the parade becomes ever more murderous. The director and Sa'ar Netanel find themselves surrounded in a car by a mob of haredi hooligans, beating on the windows. What follows is footage from various news channels of several days of rioting in the city by young ultra-Orthodox men. Traffic blockades are set up, dumpsters set on fire, and stones thrown. The police respond mercilessly with water cannons and beatings. One foreign commentator calls it the "intifada of the ultra-Orthodox."

The rhetoric of the Open House activists is unapologetically secularist. Netanel speaks of the forces of "darkness," and the black masses of haredi men who appear in the film, anonymous and often in conditions of near-darkness, only reinforce this rhetoric without problematizing it in any way. For Netanel and others, this is a battle of democracy against theocracy, of tolerance against bigotry, of liberalism against religious fanaticism, of progress against backwardness.

The "ultra-Orthodox" intifada invites comparison with the riots that swept across the Muslim world following the Danish cartoon controversy. In both cases, the aggrieved parties - religious believers -responded with violence to what they saw as symbolic desecration (of the Prophet or of the Holy City). The "perpetrators" of these blasphemies, however, presented their actions as a matter of inherent rights and freedoms, which had to be vigorously asserted.

Last October, I attended a colloquium at UC Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities, which posed the question: Is Critique Secular? The first panel discussion of the day featured a paper read by Talal Asad (Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center) called "Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism," with local superstar professors Wendy Brown (Political Science), Judith Butler (Rhetoric), and Saba Mahmood (Anthropology) responding.

In his paper, Talal Asad argued that
The conflict that many Euro-Americans saw in the Danish cartoons scandal was between the West and Islam, each championing opposing values: democracy, secularism, liberty, and reason on the one side, and on the other the many opposites – tyranny, religion, authority, and unreason (Asad 3).
Referring to secular critique itself as a kind of violence, Asad, while claiming to stake out a position beyond the normative, blasted "Western secularists" who can conceive of blasphemy only as "a constraint on the freedom of speech guaranteed by Western principles and by the pursuit of reason so central to Western culture."

Asad wants us to see blasphemy "not simply as a bid for free speech against irrational taboos but as violence done to human relations that are invested with great value" (Asad 16). I may be wrong, but my intuition is that while such an argument finds an audience in the Western academy when the violent protesters are Muslims upset about an insult to Muhammad, it seems to lose a lot of its force when those rioting against blasphemy are ultra-Orthodox Jews upset about the "desecration" of Jerusalem by homosexuals.

Friday, January 18, 2008

INS Hanit

The Israeli Navy Ship Hanit ("Spear")

There is an excellent article by the ever-dependable Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff detailing, for the first time, the "intelligence failure" (it was more complicated than that), which led to the near-sinking of the INS Hanit by Hizbullah on the night of July 14, 2006. Readers will recall the discussion with Hazbani about this a few months ago.

The article also makes interesting points about the intense qassam firing of the past week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lame Ducking It

The Two-State Solution (Image by Makaristos)

In the wake of Annapolis, we heard mostly skepticism and derision about the latest US-backed drive for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The naysayers would do well, however, to take note of the statements by President George Bush on his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week. This lame duck president does not have anything to lose on the domestic scene. In fact, he is better off immersing himself in the kinds of foreign policy ventures that will not entangle him with Congress. The announcement by national security adviser Stephen Hadley, following a speech by the president today, that Bush would be returning to the region before the end of his term is a definite signal that he means business.

The vision of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that Bush endorsed adheres to the historic American line, as well as that of most of the international community. It is the vision of two nation-states, living side-by-side, with monetary compensation for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. It runs decidedly counter to the dreams of a "one-state solution," which seek to turn Israel-Palestine into a staging ground for utopian experiments.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Putting Sderot on the Map

Map from Wikipedia

Steven Erlanger's story on the front page of today's New York Times (print edition) is, to my knowledge, the first time that the plight of the southern town's residents has made it there. The qassam attacks from Gaza began before the withdrawal of August 2005, but they have intensified greatly since. Erlanger's piece, accompanied by photographs of children peering at the destruction caused by the rockets, gives voice to the parents, sons, and daughters of the town, whose suffering has received relatively little attention until now.

There are some who try to relativize the qassam attacks, by pointing to the primitive construction of the rockets, their inaccuracy, and the low number of deaths that they have caused so far. They inevitably follow up with a comparison of the qassam to the F-15, with its deadly strikes on Gaza. This kind of comparison provides the relativizers with poetic justification, just like the image of rock throwers confronting tanks (in reality, they are more likely to face soldiers). We are entreated to view the struggle as one of heroic resistance fighters with limited resources confronting an awesome machine marshaling infinitely stronger state and military power. Or better yet, we are told that the rocket attacks resist "the occupation."

Such comparisons obscure the particularity of the terror that Sderot's residents experience every day. It is easy to remark, upon reading about one of Erlanger's teenage protagonists Razi, who "has seen 15 therapists" since seeing a rocket explode in front of his eyes, that Razi, unlike the children of Gaza at least has a therapist. This is a cynical and cruel game. The suffering experienced by Razi and all of Sderot's residents is not just and it is not unavoidable. It is the outcome of a deliberate strategy to terrorize civilians, which should be condemned as loudly as Israeli air strikes which kill innocent Palestinians.

The qassam attacks are all too often depicted as pin-point blows against the "powerful" by those sanctified as essential "victims." The reality of course is that they are aimed at one of Israel's poorest and most defenseless populations.

In this post, I have deliberately avoided the "causes" of the qassam problem and any discussion of its solution. I do not know whether the qassam attacks are being used for tactical or strategic purposes. These are issues I hope to address soon.

Monday, January 07, 2008

An American in Tel Aviv

Will Bynum playing for the Golden State Warriors (Photo:nba.com).

I've always been curious about the life of an NBA castoff plying his craft on Israel's hardwood. Now Maccabi Tel Aviv's Will Bynum has given us a glimpse. When I was in the country a year ago, the press was pumping up Bynum as one of -- if not the dominant player in Israeli hoops. The former Chicago playground legend and Georgia Tech/U. of Arizona standout seemed to have found a home in TA after a brief NBA sojourn that included time spent here in the Bay Area in the employ of the Golden State Warriors. Bynum is likely to find his new home rather less hospitable after an incident that took place early Saturday morning outside a nightclub called the "G-Spot" in Tel Aviv. Apparently, Bynum and former Philadelphia 76-er Vonteego Cummings were out celebrating Bynum's 25th birthday with Bynum's brother and, potentially, a larger cadre of pro-ballers that frequent the hip-hop club. Bynum's party clashed with a group from Dimona, members of the Hebrew Israelite Community in Dimona, according to the police. The Dimona-ites claim Bynum made a pass at a woman in their crowd. An initial scuffle was settled, but Bynum and his boys found an angry pack of "youths" in the parking lot when they later left the club. Bynum seems to have dashed to his car with Cummings and driven directly at one of his attackers. A 22 year-old man survived the collision, but was severely injured, leaving bloodstains on Bynum's vehicle.

I'm often struck by how hostile clubs and bars are -- an atmosphere I'm less and less comfortable in. This may sound banal, but I, for one, am continually astonished. So was this incident just good old-fashioned drinkin' and fightin' à la Americaine? I'm not sure. I would love to have been a fly on the wall. What was the dynamic here? A Boston Celtics fan blog ludicrously misread this as "Zionist" vs. Other. Some, understandably in light of a spate of recent attacks on pro athletes, see this as further evidence that heckling now involves bodily harm. And the American media hasn't picked up on the fact that, the Hebrew Israelites are, well, basically American, with an African-American pedigree that goes back to the inner circle of Marcus Garvey. Or maybe I'm making precisely the same mistake of mislabeling that Bynum and Vonteego made. Either way, the story should have been material for a perversely imaginative American writer like Ralph Ellison or Chester Himes.