Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Activist passion sometimes subverts peace and justice

More than thirty years ago, Richard Cleaver, a colleague at the American Friends Service Committee, led me to the realization that as a peace and justice advocate, I ought to have an elevated concern for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ever since, I have maintained a focus of sorts on the issue.

After twenty years of some sort of activism on the issue, Henry, an old Ann Arbor friend--also Jewish, like me--signed on with a heightened concern of his own. After Sept. 11, it became his soul focus and, over a period of time, he and I began to develop diverging perspectives on the issue, on root causes, on strategic considerations, on tactical steps. Five years later, we had a pretty complete falling out. It has been about ten years since we last talked. 

A couple of months back, a journalist working on a story about Jewish activism on behalf of justice for Palestinians contacted me about Henry. He was trying to flesh out a story about Jewish activists facing considerable pushback from their own communities.

For part of our discussion, I went off the record. I think now that I did so because I still hadn't worked out an understanding of my conflict with Henry that satisfied me. But going off the record was a mistake. It was safe, I guess, because I wasn't sure exactly what I thought. But it was lazy, too, because it was my way of putting off careful reflection about why I had fallen out with Henry and the important lessons that could be learned from the experience.

But now, in the form of a letter to the journalist whose piece ran in al-Jazeera at the end of January, I've tried to get a handle on the whole episode. At any rate, the letter below captures what I'm thinking now.

Dear Dien,

Thanks for sending the link to your January article, "US Jews struggle in the fight for Palestinian rights." Nice piece.

I especially like the part that focuses on Rabbi Brant Rosen, whose support for Palestinian self-determination cost him his job as the leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. Rosen's experiences as a political activist and his continuing efforts to share his justice commitment with his Jewish co-religionists makes his experience a perfect example of the conflict between  Jewish belief and mainstream Jewish support for the state of Israel.

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, I mentioned that I did have a bit of an argument to pick with the article, in particular the way in which my relationship with Henry Herskovitz is portrayed. Simply put, Henry and I did not fall out with each other because I, as a Jew, was somehow offended by his pro-Palestinian beliefs. In regard to an article about the way the Jewish community sometimes penalizes Jewish dissent, this is a crucial point, I think.

Unfortunately, I have been slow to follow up with an explanation for my objections. That, I have concluded, is because my problems with the article are really based in my own failure to explain my perspective on Henry properly. I have also repeatedly postponed writing my own full version of Henry's evolution as a pro-Palestinian activist and my perspective on his journey.

In our exchanges, I did not provide you with sufficient detail about how Henry and I grew apart politically. And, worse, I insisted that we discuss certain points off the record that should have been part of the story. Perhaps, if I had spoken entirely on the record, I might have had an improved grasp of exactly what I thought and needed to say.

Given the limits that I created, I have to acknowledge that you told our story as thoroughly as you could. I give you props for respecting those limits.

But when it comes to the question of Palestinian human rights and the way some elements of the mainstream Jewish community police the boundaries of "acceptable" political perspectives, it has become obvious to me that everything I have to say about Henry and his advocacy for justice for the Palestinian people should be on the record. So, here, without restrictions, but as briefly as I can put it, is the version I wish I had shared with you.

Henry came to political activism after he retired from his nearly career-long employment as a research and development engineer at a brand-name manufacturing firm. We had become close friends years earlier in Ann Arbor in the late '60s. But though I was politically active against the Vietnam War, and continued to focus on social justice issues for the next 40 years, our intimacy was primarily based on our shared social life. We hung out together, we played in municipal softball and basketball leagues together, we partied together, travelled together, and I sometimes lectured him (at unbearable length, I'm sure) about why he needed to come off the sidelines and join the fight for social change. But during most of our friendship, though he seemed to be largely sympathetic to left perspectives on the country and the world, Henry was apolitical.

Then, in a few short years after his retirement, and with the Bush threat to launch a war against Iraq in 2002, Henry suddenly found himself a vocal advocate for peace. With his hands-on, engineer's soul, he decided that he needed to visit Iraq and see what the people and the place looked like to him. So, he went. By himself. Less than a year before the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

I don't remember how long Henry was there, or know where he went in Iraq, but he talked to Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere about the threatened war and about how they perceived America and Americans. He discovered that they were happy to meet him and welcomed him as a visitor to their country.

Some were freely critical of Saddam Hussein, but quick to point out how a decade of U.S. sanctions against Iraq had done little to hurt Saddam, but much to harm Iraqi civilians. A number of Iraqis told Henry that U.S. policy toward Iraq was most certainly a cause of the anger that fueled the 9/11 attacks, but many also noted that another important cause was Arab and Muslim anger over U.S. support for the Israeli state and the occupation of Palestinian territory.

In point of fact, the message that Henry heard repeatedly--that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a significant cause of anger at the U.S. and the West--inspired Henry to take another trip; to go to Israel and the West Bank in order to better understand why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict loomed so large in the geo-politics of the Middle East and the world.

Henry visited a number of different Palestinian towns in the West Bank, enjoyed a great deal of Palestinian hospitality, and had several frank conversations with Palestinian political activists. Again, he discovered that the people who he talked to seemed unaffected by the fact that he was Jewish, except for their insistence that as an American Jew, he might have an opportunity to influence other American Jews to rethink their apparently absolute support for Israel and Zionism. During his visit, he listened to Palestinians who argued that if the American Jewish community was less generous towards Israel, and more critical in its support, the Israeli state would be more likely to seek a peaceful and productive resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Henry returned from that trip intent on discussing the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian self-determination with other Jews in Ann Arbor. Though he had always identified as a Jew, he had never been particularly religiously observant. In fact, Henry was one of those Jews (not uncommon) who show up at temple only during high holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Regardless, his emotional connection to his identity as a Jew was crucial to him, and he was certain that there would be no significant resistance to his effort to open discussion of the conflict within the Jewish congregations on which he initially focussed.

He quickly discovered that he was naively optimistic. At Beth Israel, the congregation that he eventually targeted with a continuing public protest, Henry made an initial approach to the rabbi. Their first private conversation was cordial, and included the rabbi's observation that his concern with and dissent from mainstream Jewish support for Israel and Zionism was well within the boundaries of tolerable opinion. But by the time of their second conversation, it was obvious that the rabbi would refuse to schedule a forum at Beth Israel.

Henry made further efforts to engage a broader portion of Ann Arbor's Jewish population. He went to Hillel, the leading University of Michigan organization for Jewish students, to see if he could rent space for a public forum. His early contacts with Hillel were positive, I think, but as the moment for commitment approached, Hillel representatives became uncooperative. Henry's other efforts to reach out were similarly stymied. He came to believe (rightfully so, I think) that some people within the mainstream Jewish community were letting it be known that the community should neither engage Henry or allow him a forum.

We talked a lot in those days about what was happening, and about our shared certainty that ending the silence within the Jewish community about the illegal Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people and the illegal occupation of their land could lead to a more vigorous American Jewish opposition to Israeli policy. Though I had always believed that Zionist organizations, and many leading Jewish figures, as well, actively and effectively narrowed the possibilities for dissent within the Jewish community (see my blog post "Adventures with Zionists," for instance), Henry was experiencing the phenomenon for the first time, and in excruciating detail.

But the resistance served only to inspire him to seek other ways to make his point. It was then that he conceived the idea of beginning a silent vigil outside Beth Israel congregation's Saturday morning services. Henry showed up wearing a suit at that first vigil, a kippah (skullcap) on his head, holding a sign that read, simply, "End the Silence." On his car windshield, parked nearby, another sign said something like "End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine."

That first Saturday, Beth Israel congregants responded in a variety of ways. Some were incensed. It was the Jewish sabbath, they reasoned, and Beth Israel a house of worship that ought to be off-limits for political protest.

Other congregants, who shared at least a portion of Henry's political perspective, acknowledged his presence and, in some instances, spoke with him. Though Henry was careful to stay on the public right-of-way, one congregant turning into the synagogue driveway went out of his way to drive as close as he could to where Henry stood. It would be only the first of dozens of angry gestures and implicit, or explicit, threats aimed at him over time. Such extreme hostility was an over-the-top response to the moderation of his early protests, and likely contributed to how adamant and hardline Henry became subsequently.

Regardless, Henry kept showing up on Saturday morning and the vigil grew. Among the first to join him were other Jews who believed as he did that the Jewish community was generally closed to discussion of the most perplexing ethical issue the community faced. Area peace activists, who felt that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a major cause of a number of political conflicts in the Middle East, also joined the vigil; some of them becoming regulars.

Meanwhile, within Beth Israel, itself, some members argued that Henry should be allowed to convene a forum on the issue within the temple. Others agreed that the issue needed to be widely discussed. But most of the congregation remained strongly supportive of Israel. Some accused Henry of being an anti-semite or, at the very least, an enemy of Israel.

Though disputes grew within the congregation, a new unity also began developing around the idea that the divisions in the congregation were largely Henry's fault and that the protest at Beth Israel was inappropriate. Some argued the Henry's protests should be declared illegal on the grounds, however dubious constitutionally, that it was a violation of the congregation's religious freedom. Even some of those who were critical of Israeli policy began to call on him to stand down.

But that was the last thing Henry was willing to do. The vigil and the signs condemning Israeli policies and Israel, itself, began spreading beyond the side street entrance to Beth Israel and on to the side walk bordering the four-lane road that ran along the property in front of the temple.

As the attitude of Beth Israel congregants became almost exclusively hostile or coldly indifferent, people driving by began to honk in apparent support of the growing and increasingly visible protest, which at some point had become an official activity of the new political group, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF), formed by Henry and his most enthusiastic supporters.

Though I was living in Chicago for much of this time, I had lived in Ann Arbor for more than 20 years and my daughter still lived there. This made me a regular visitor to the city and allowed Henry and I ample opportunity to discuss his activism and political strategy.

As a former member of the Ann Arbor City Council, I had a sort of limited celebrity in the area that Henry wanted to exploit to better promote the vigil. Though the characterization of me as a "celebrity vigiler" made me mildly uncomfortable, solidarity with Henry and the announced perspective of the vigil--to foster open discussion within the Jewish community--encouraged me to show up when I was in town. But when I did so, I was always careful to hold a sign like "End the Silence" or "End the Occupation;" phrases that I believed were simple, clear and not obstacles to further discussion between people with differing viewpoints.

But the protest signs, like "End Israeli apartheid," or "Boycott Israel," became more openly critical, often stridently so. The orientation of the protest away from the temple and towards passers-by became points of contention between Henry and I. We would often disagree about whether or not it made good tactical sense to rely on slogans that suggested that Israel was an apartheid state, or that Israeli policy was the first steps toward a Palestinian holocaust, or that Israel had no right to exist.

I believed that the truth was more nuanced than the slogans suggested, arguing in a subsequent piece on my blog (Painful Truth: Israeli Apartheid") that "if anything defines the difference between the South African and Israeli apartheid states, it is that the South African version named itself. Israeli apartheid is the apartheid that dare not speak its name. It is understandable that large numbers of American Jews cannot concede this truth, Richard Cohen among them. Israel was created at a moment of celebration and hope for Jews around the world. Freshly scarred by the Holocaust, and still fearful that history might repeat itself, [the vast majority of] Jews were inclined not to notice that their [joyful achievement] might be the occasion for the suffering of others."

Though it took me many years to get to that sort of a full articulation of my own position on the question of Israeli apartheid--a position much influenced by Henry--I maintained that phrases like "End Israeli Apartheid" were an obstacle to open discussion, that they provoked stiff opposition, and polarized the discussion. That result, I observed repeatedly, would lead to a vigil that never ended and, ultimately, render it ineffective.

Indeed, by that point, when I would ask Henry what his endgame was, what it would take to end the protest, he would respond that it would end when the congregation voted to join the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement. Henry was fully aware, of course, that the congregation would never take such a position. I expressed strong objection to a strategy that publicly advocated dialogue, but privately had no real commitment to further engaging Beth Israel congregants, the ostensible audience for the vigil.

In response, Henry argued that the vigil's effectiveness could be measured by the fact that some drivers going passed would honk, raise fists and flash peace signs in obvious support. Henry began, then, to formulate the notion that it was actually American Christians, opposed to Israeli policy toward Palestinians, but silent because they were afraid of being branded as anti-semites, who could play an even more pivotal role in changing U.S. policy toward that favored the Jewish state at the expense of justice for Palestinians. That, he concluded, meant that maintaining the vigil at Beth Israel served the larger goal of justice for Palestinians, even if the idea that the vigil was a sincere attempt to open discussion within the Jewish community became nothing more than a pretense. Such insincerity, I contended, meant that Henry's strategy was flawed and that he could not be an effective advocate for justice for Palestinians on that basis.

In a 2009 blog post (American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"), I followed up on this disagreement with Henry:

"It is a further irony that the polarization in Ann Arbor has come to resemble the deadlock in Palestine. But both situations seem a symptom of a larger problem in the politics of the US. Our inability to move toward reasonable and just outcomes in virtually all policy areas, health care, climate change, quality public education, market regulation, reliable public transit and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to name just a few, seems endemic. And ultimately traceable to the politically expedient marriage of religious fundamentalism and corporate interests. When oil companies, weapons manufacturers, Big Pharma, insurance interests, hospital corporations and the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves working together against broader social interests, we are all in trouble."

Ultimately, those disagreements with Henry marked a turning point in our relationship. But we remained in contact, and continued to spend time together when I visited Ann Arbor. I should note that our growing disagreements did not keep me from appreciating both the intensity of Henry's commitment and how extensively educated he had become about the history and politics of the conflict. Though I had always been an advocate of the two-state solution to the conflict, his position persuaded me to look harder at the realities, the facts-on-the-ground, of Palestinian disenfranchisement.

By then, it was clear to me that after 40 years of occupation (and the continuing forcible takings of occupied Palestinian territory) that a Palestinian state created on Israeli terms would not be viable, but I had not backed off of support for the two-state solution. Discussions with Henry eventually convinced me that it made no sense for me to continue to support a non-solution masquerading as the way to resolve the conflict; the creation of a Palestinian state, with borders enforced by Israel and with limited access to water and other resources, would only cement the injustices that Palestinians had suffered since the creation of the Jewish state.

These conclusions moved me to advocate an eventual, single, secular state that would be the home of Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians. But even then, it was impossible for me to go forward with Henry.

To me the path to a single state had to begin with a two-state solution with equal access to resources, like water, and with borders guaranteed by an international force, not by Israel. This would not be a process with much to assure the eventual outcome, but to Henry it was a simple sell-out.

Though I had sometimes been characterized as a "self-hating, Israel-threatening" Jew (a web-based "S.H.I.T. list" had once named both Henry and I as enemies of Israel on that basis), Henry's feeling that I was a sell-out wasn't new, either.

At a Detroit teach-in on the conflict, I had been on a panel with filmmaker Michael Moore, whom I had known from his days as an activist and publisher in Michigan. Based on my experiences and discussions in Israel and the West Bank at the time of the first Palestinian Intifada, I advocated an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and a repurposing of those funds toward joint Palestinian-Israeli development projects, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza. But Moore blasted me directly for suggesting that there was a gradual way to wind down the conflict, characterizing my position as "constructive engagement," a phrase that Ronald Reagan had first used to describe his policy toward South Africa, which emphasized working with the white South African government to "phase out" apartheid. Coming from Moore, the suggestion that my proposals were simple appeasement resonated with the audience (and to some extent, with me) as a stinging indictment.

But criticisms like Henry's and Michael's notwithstanding, the stipulation that I supported a single state in the area was a position that I believed had to be nuanced by a concern for both the process and the speed by which the goal was reached. Though I maintained that the privileged position of Jews in Israel must also change, and that Israel had to become a truly democratic, not a theocratic state, this could never happen without an open and continuing discussion among Jews in both the U.S. and Israel. Adopting such a position without acknowledging how threatening the idea was to both Israeli and American Jews would make it impossible to move further, I believed.

Yes, my perspective had and has a distinct air of unreality, but then so does every other proposed solution to the conflict that began brewing more than one hundred years ago during the days of the British Mandate in Palestine and almost a half-century before the Nazi holocaust. The idea that Israel can continue to exist indefinitely as a Jewish garrison state in the Middle East (without the eventual elimination of the Palestinian people as a national group) ought to be regarded as at least as fantastical as my notion that an Israeli state can cease to be a theocratic state and that Jews would have a secure future in a democratic Palestinian-Israeli state that evolved over time.

As Henry began seeking ways to work around American Jewish resistance to his message, he came across Norman Finkelstein's controversial book, The Holocaust Industry, in which Finkelstein makes a distinction between the historical event that he refers to as the Nazi Holocaust, and the subsequent use that Israel and major Zionist organizations made of "The Holocaust." Finkelstein contends that major Jewish figures in the United States and the organizations they led used the tragedy to obtain settlements on behalf of Holocaust survivors with Switzerland and other European countries, while actually enriching their own organizations and positioning themselves to more powerfully influence U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The book is a well-documented and persuasive read, written by the son of Holocaust survivors. But as Henry began to see how powerful the Nazi holocaust was as a tool in defending and advancing Israeli interests, he began to question historical accounts of how and, particularly whether the Nazis had proceeded with genocidal intent. To me, Henry's entire discourse on the issue reflected how he had become emotionally captured--at a high cost to his ability to proceed strategically--by the idea of fighting all comers on behalf of justice for Palestinians.

Because Henry had the sense not to embrace Holocaust revisionism publicly, I had always believed that it was not up to me to "out" him and would only talk off the record about that to you. But I take that step now because I have reached the conclusion that a journey that began with the honest belief that American Jews could have an awakening to the injustices suffered by Palestinians beginning with the creation of the Jewish state morphed into a devotion to the Palestinian cause that no longer required him to believe what he was publicly proclaiming.

I believe that effective dissent requires dissenters to proceed ethically precisely because lies and misrepresentation are frequently the tools of those who defend the status quo. As Henry became increasingly focused on tactical effectiveness, he lost perspective on the social justice goals of the struggle he had engaged. To me such a disconnect between devotion to principal and tactical success (measured, for instance, by Henry's belief that he would be "...even less popular the next time you talk to me...") made him willing to embrace any position that undermined support for the Jewish state. Thus, his embrace of "Holocaust revisionism."

My point in sharing that information off the record was to further drive home my argument that Henry faced virulent opposition from the Jewish community not because he was a dissenter, but because he attacked the community and made it a prop in his Kabuki play of political activism; unlike, say, Brant Rosen, who had lost his job within the Jewish community precisely because of his advocacy for Palestinian self-determination.

Unfortunately, my decision to do so left you in a position where you had to choose between telling a story based on on-the-record sources, about a Jewish activist who has taken plenty of flak from the Jewish community, or not telling the story merely because I maintained that the secrets I wouldn't allow you to share should be sufficient reason to leave Henry's story out of your piece. My bad, I know, and I apologize.

I take the central point of your article to be that activist American Jews who think that true justice is best served by vigorous opposition to Israeli policy toward Palestine and Palestinians (and American support for that policy) often face significant challenges from fellow Jews, in some cases becoming pariahs in their own communities. Of course, this is often the fate of dissenters. To persist in the face of that opposition frequently requires a sort of heroism that deserves our respect. But, as I have noted, I do not consider myself (or the withering of our friendship) as an obstacle that I created and that Henry had to overcome. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if I was an enabler, encouraging Henry as he went through a transformation so rapidly that balanced response to setbacks became increasingly difficult.

Henry's commitment to justice for Palestinians and his persistence in that effort may be heroic, but I would contend that his political immaturity exacerbated confrontations, escalated conflict, polarized discussions, and defeated the goal of productive debate. If, in the face of such a debacle of action/reaction, Henry's persistence required courage and inspires admiration, so be it. But that seems to me to have led to a situation where the fate of the Palestinian people is no longer the central question.

In that respect, Henry's decision to go to virtual war as a way to create justice for Palestinians reminds me of the fatal decision by a small percentage of anti-war activists to choose violence as a strategy to end the Vietnam War and to defeat the foreign adventures of the American war machine. Groups that resorted to violence at the time also linked their fight to the domestic repression of African Americans and other minority groups.

The perception that only violence, a left revolution, could overthrow a corrupt American government serving the interests of the wealthy, was shared by a significant part of the anti-war movement at the time. But only a tiny minority of them ended up advocating "armed revolution."

The decision by that tiny minority to resort to domestic terror, helped instigate a repressive counterattack by the authorities at activists of all sorts, including non-violent activists. Certainly, there were other factors at work in provoking the counterattack. Black nationalists, militant workers within and outside of unions, feminists and counterculture organizers were, indeed, threatening corporate control of the economy, and work and social life.

But I have to say that the decisions people made then, to abandon dialogue and advocate confrontational strategies at the expense of smaller victories that could be won and could be the foundation for further victories, seemed ego-driven to me. They had ceased to be about the goals of progressive social change and became about the delusions of people who considered themselves to be working-class heroes.

Henry calls the end of our friendship "the 'most painful break-up' as a result of his activism."  I can't agree. My contention is that Henry allowed his own role as a political activist to become a cause in and of itself, an obsession, a delusion, that long ago lost its connection to justice for Palestinians. The end of our friendship was simply collateral damage.