Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Darfur: silence is consent

Darfur: silence is consent By Gil Troy
Canadian Jewish News, April 26, 2007

Darfur haunts me. In July 2004, I wrote an article protesting the Arab Janjaweed militias’ brutality against farmers in the Sudan’s northwestern region. The Janjaweed had murdered 30,000 people and displaced 1.2 million more. “How dare we sit, drinking our morning coffee,” I wrote, “tut-tutting over evil without trying to fight it?”

Nearly three years later, more than 300,000 have been murdered, and we are still tut-tutting. True, there is enough Darfur awareness that people who want to telegraph their humanitarian bona fides invoke Darfur to position themselves as successors to Mother Teresa. And the Jewish community has responded far more effectively than most. But I remain haunted by Darfur, embarrassed by our silence, humiliated by our impotence, humbled by my own failure to help.

I used to criticize America and Canada for not doing enough during the Holocaust to save European Jewry. While both countries should have welcomed more refugees, I am more cautious in my condemnation. I watched the Rwanda genocide unfold. Former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the dithering duo, did nothing. My friends and I did nothing that inconvenienced us. Now, we are equally numb regarding Darfur.

Fortunately, some of my students still believe they can change the world, or at least stop the slaughter. One, Evan Malach, organized “The Amazing Benefit Concert for Darfur” on the McGill campus, last November. A former student, Josh Scheinert, now studying at Osgoode Hall Law School, succeeded in getting the National Post to publish a series of articles by politicians and community activists this spring.

These initiatives are lovely, creative, inspiring, but will they help? Three years from now, will Evan, Josh and their allies look back as I do on my essay, with an overwhelming sense of failure drowning out what little pride they can muster because they, at least, tried? The answer lies not with them but with the rest of us.

We are overdue for a massive mobilization. We should write letters, make phone calls, contributing our time, efforts, creativity however we can. We should pressure western governments to sanction the Sudanese dictatorship, which facilitates the Darfur slaughter. We should donate money generously but vigilantly, making sure our charity goes to the needy, not the jackals who exploit western guilt and African misery. We need to learn other pressure points, such as boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics unless the Chinese stop supporting Sudan. We must demand that the United Nations prove it can stop Third World abuses not just nitpick at Israel.

We also should help single-issue advocacy organizations connect the dots between their concerns and Darfur. Feminists should mobilize because women and girls are frequently raped, then branded, making the emotional trauma permanent. Environmentalists should galvanize because the murderers sometimes throw corpses into local waters to poison the water supply. Islamic leaders should respond because most of the criminals in this conflict – and the victims – are Muslim. African-Americans should react to the conflict’s racist dimension, with the Arab Janjaweed militias targeting black tribal farmers in a push for Arab supremacy. And human rights groups should rally more vociferously, because this conflict’s brutality demeans us all as fellow human beings.

The ’60s cliché applies: silence is consent. True, Darfur is thousands of miles away. True, most of us have no real stake in the outcome. True, most of us are lucky enough to lead such comfortable lives we cannot imagine this catastrophe’s dimensions. And true, we crowd our schedules with so many work, relationship and leisure time commitments we cannot carve out time for serious activism. That is why we must as a society stand up for Darfur. We need to act heroically, not only for the hundreds of thousands of good people in anguish, but for our own souls. Who are we as individuals, who are we as a people, if we stand idly by? And imagine what we can become as individuals, and as a nation, if we start learning how to be a strike force for justice. We must understand that even when we do not seem to have a stake in the battle for good – we do, and that when we try to save strangers, we are also saving our own souls.

Yom Hazikaron & Yom Ha'atzmaut 2007

Memorial Day in Israel

Israeli soldiers salute after placing flags on graves at the military cemetery on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, April 22, in a ceremony before Memorial Day, which commemorates Israeli soldiers killed in war.

Israel Celebrates

Israelis wave flags as they celebrate the country's 59th Independence Day, in Jerusalem on April 23.

Casualties from recent Lebanon war remembered on Israel's Memorial Day
JTA, 4-23-07

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The young men from reserve battalion 9211 greeted each other with quiet handshakes and embraces on Israel's Memorial Day by the rose and flag-covered grave of their friend David Smidov.

"It's a difficult day," Ori Bushari, 26, said on Monday.

Bushari had been friends with Smidov since the day they were drafted together nearly eight years ago and was just a few feet away from him when a Hezbollah mortar shell ended his life on Aug. 9.

On this Memorial Day, known in Israel as Yom Hazikaron, there was an especially bitter pain mourning those killed in Israel's most recent war as the country asks openly if its leaders bungled how the war was fought and if it was even necessary.

Smidov, 25 when he was killed, was one of the 119 Israeli soldiers killed in a war that only recently was given a name: the Second Lebanon War.

His battalion comrades know that the shell that exploded near their friend could easily have hit them.

Bushari quickly sketches out the formation the battalion walked as its members climbed a path north into Lebanon toward their destination: the village of Marjayoun.

The X he marks at the front of the marching line represents the company commander. He was just one behind, to the right of the commander. Smidov was three men behind Bushari.

"We heard the mortar falling, hit the ground and then heard the cries of someone shouting for the medic," Bushari said.

Smidov was badly injured and died almost immediately.

"It's just a matter of luck, it's not something you have control over," Amir Binyamin, 29, said of the mortar fire.

In past years Binyamin said he had attended Memorial Day ceremonies for a former commander, but this year he was compelled to be here, next to Smidov's grave.

"This time I was there when it happened," he said. "I was only a few feet away."

Smidov's grave and the those of other soldiers killed in Lebanon were scattered through bloc 7 of Mount Herzl, the national cemetery. Next to them were parents, siblings, fiancees and friends huddled protectively around the headstones as the country engaged in a national day of mourning.

There was no room to move Monday at Mount Herzl. People stood packed together between the narrow rows of graves and under the shade of pine trees as a two-minute siren went off in memory of the dead.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke at the ceremony.

"On this special day we are all one bereaved family," he said.

But as members of the reserve unit noted, few people seemed to be listening closely to the prime minister.

Olmert is hugely unpopular and will soon face the findings of the Winograd Commission, which has investigated the way the government and army handled the war.

"It's part of the aftermath of this war and the leadership," Bushari said. "As people say, they hate the state, but they love their friends. That's why they go to reserve duty."

The battalion will meet again next week in the Negev Desert when they gather for a week of training exercises.

Professor Yaakov Bar-Siman-Tov, an international relations expert at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the pain this year is different from the past. While it is always excruciating to lose soldiers in battle, most Israeli wars have been fought with the belief that the state had no other choice.

Israelis had the sense that if enemy nations were about to destroy you, "you had to defend yourself, otherwise the country could face total destruction," Bar-Simon-Tov said. "There is nothing harder than burying one's children, but at least there was a feeling that the sacrifice stood for something."

In the case of the war in Lebanon, "there were so many miscalculations in decision-making and it was not clear of the need to go to war," Bar-Siman-Tov said. "Today with all the pain we feel over the kidnapped soldiers, there is the question of whether or not we could have come to a different scenario."

Smidov, who was to have started studying architecture last fall, was called up for reserve duty just after returning from a holiday in Prague with his girlfriend. In Prague, friend say, he had asked her to marry him. On Monday she stood by his grave.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Great Diaspora Dilemma: To Criticize or Not to Criticize

By Gil Troy
THE JEWISH TRIBUNE, April 19, 2007, p.5

To criticize or not to criticize, that is the great Diaspora dilemma. Those of us deeply engaged in Israel , viewing Zionism as the Jewish national liberation movement, seek ever more involvement in Israeli life. We recognize that the state of our homeland will determine our Jewish future. We know that true love, for countries and individuals, involves seeing the warts as well as the wonders, so we can demand better. Why should we silence ourselves, refraining from criticizing the Jewish state?
At the same time, we Diaspora Jews vote with our feet, choosing not to participate fully in our great national Jewish adventure by living elsewhere. We give what we choose not what we must. We do not pay taxes to the third Jewish Commonwealth. We do not vote in the first Jewish democracy. We and our children do not serve in the modern Jewish army. Given our limited, voluntary investment in blood, sweat, and tears, how dare we dictate decisions about Israel ’s borders, about life and death questions plaguing Israel ’s citizens?
Extremes on the left and the right have been myopic, inconsistent. Traditionally, right-wingers supported Israel “right or wrong,” demonizing dissenters. Starting with the Oslo years, and peaking with the Gaza Disengagement, many Diaspora rightists denounced Israel and the Israeli Army. Meanwhile, too many leftist Jews are what others have called “proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.” These people only identify publicly as Jews to criticize Israel – often viciously.
We could all use some Vitamin “H” – humility. Like all armchair statesman and laptop warriors, I have strong opinions about Israel ’s borders, Israel ’s relations with the Palestinians, Israel ’s strengths and flaws. I happily share them at my dinner table. But even there – and certainly in public – I am humbled by my choice not to put my life, or my kids’ lives, on the line. I do not think it is proper for me to preach to our Israeli brothers and sisters where to draw the line between themselves and their enemies. Under Israel ’s Law of Return I can acquire citizenship instantly and plunge into the debate wholeheartedly. Until that day comes, I choose to stay humble, to keep my opinions on this complicated, existential issue private.
My instincts to be humble are reinforced by the fact that we are not operating in an honest environment. Israel has been subjected to a vicious, disproportionate ideological assault. I am loathe to join the pile-on, and I loathe those who do pile on, attacking Israel without acknowledging Israel’s search for peace, Israel’s willingness to compromise, Israel’s right to self-defense. So I defend Israel ardently, without an asterisk, without feeling constrained by my decision to sit out the border debate, for now. There are so many bigger issues concerning the Palestinians’ immoral decision to turn from negotiations to terror, the world’s amoral acquiescence, the toxicity of Palestinian political culture, the one-sided application of human rights law, the travesty the United Nations has become, the tragedy of Arab autocracy and rejectionism. All these make whatever mistakes Israel has made pale in comparison.
Still, as someone passionately committed to Israel ’s future, for my sake, for my kids’ sake, for my people’s sake, I have no problem criticizing Israel constructively, appropriately, empathetically. I mourn the growing gap between rich and poor, the weakening education system, the epidemic political corruption, Israeli intellectuals’ self-loathing and hypercritical behavior, the Rabbinate’s ham-handed policies which have alienated generations of Israelis, Israeli secular culture’s materialistic paganism, the social, economic, and educational inequities afflicting Israeli Arabs, the harshness of Israeli political culture and street life. All those problems keep my critical faculties more than engaged. Of course, they are balanced out by my wonder at Israelis’ personal generosity, warmth in hospitality, cultural creativity, improvisational entrepreneurship; my appreciation for the remarkable attempts to plant liberal ideas of democracy, liberty, equality in the Middle East’s rocky soil, for the richness of Jewish life throughout the country, and for the idealism, altruism, courage, and humanity I witnessed last summer during the war against Hezbollah..
Thus, just as I avoid opining publicly on military matters, given my fortunate ignorance and insulation from such concerns, I feel particularly emboldened to ply my expertise as both critic and cheerleader when it comes to fostering a vibrant modern Jewish identity, building an effective and humane democracy, nurturing a muscular but moderate middle path. Just as we all could spend more time emphasizing Israel ’s accomplishments not Israel ’s mistakes, we all should spend more time focusing on those areas where our standing is clear, our input constructive, our expertise helpful. North American Jews justifiably bristle when some Israelis cross the Atlantic to lecture us that our communities are dying or that we are not fully realized Jews in the Diaspora. We should extend to Israelis the same courtesy we demand from them.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Olmert: Limit prisoner swap

JTA, 4-18-07

Ehud Olmert said there are limits to what Israel will give in exchange for a soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli prime minister said Wednesday that Israel had rejected a list of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners whom Sgt. Gilad Shalit's captors want freed as ransom.

"The list is disappointing and creates expectations that are impossible to live up to," Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to an official briefing. "It has to be within proper proportions."

Olmert did not say how many prisoners he would be willing to free to recover Shalit, who was abducted to Gaza by Palestinian gunmen last June.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Hezbollah: Captives treated humanely

JTA, 4-6-07

A Hezbollah leader said two kidnapped Israeli soldiers were being treated humanely.

Israel Defense Force reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture in a crossborder raid last July sparked a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah, are receiving the same treatment as that given Elhanan Tannenbaum, Muhammad Kamati told the Nazareth-based newspaper A-Sinara in an interview to be published Friday, the Jerusalem Post reported. Tannenbaum was an Israeli businessman kidnapped in Europe and held captive in Lebanon for several years until he was released in exchange for hundreds of Arab prisoners.

"We are treating the prisoners as the prisoners whom we released in the past have described, and as our religion directs us to treat prisoners of war," Kamati said.

Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, said the statements constituted neither a sign of life nor a "turning point" in efforts to win their release. "We want to see them alive," she told Channel 2 television. "A sign of life is if someone sees them, and a Red Cross representative needs to see them. Until now, no one has seen them, including the Red Cross."

Goldwasser's father, Shlomo, said Israel must talk directly to Hezbollah, just as Britain negotiated with Iran to win the release of captured British sailors this week. He spoke to reporters in Tel Aviv, where he was joined by 150 participants in a cross-country solidarity march for Goldwasser, Regev and Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Palestinians near the Gaza Strip last June.

POW families welcome Iran releases

JTA, 4-5-07

The families of three captive Israeli soldiers welcomed Iran's release of a group of British sailors.

Relatives of Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit sent letters of solidarity to the families of the 15 sailors, who were freed Thursday after almost two weeks in Iranian captivity. The sailors were captured in the Persian Gulf after Iran accused them of crossing into Iranian waters, though Britain insists the group was in Iraqi waters.

The letters, copies of which were provided to Israeli media, congratulated the Britons' on the return of their loved ones and urged them to help in efforts to recover Goldwasser and Regev from Hezbollah and Shalit from his Palestinian captors in Gaza.

"We are certain that, when you finish celebrating the release of your children, you will serve as an advocate for us in Britain through your government and the international community,” read the letters, which were transferred by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.