The Reasons Behind the Rockets: Why Yossi Klein Halevi is Wrong about Hamas

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in  Ashdod July 9, 2014. Photo by Reuters

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in Ashdod July 9, 2014. Photo by Reuters

Jeff has a PSA: he will not be co-opted by some dubious Limey health-kick.

The thousands of rockets that plummeted into Israel this past summer must have had a grave psychological impact on the hearts and minds of Israeli citizens, even if their physical impact was somewhat more limited. Yossi Klein Halevi writes movingly of this psychological impact in his article “I Have Two Nightmares About a Palestinian State,” but he seriously misconstrues the psychology of Israel’s aggressors. Halevi’s piece, published in this past September’s New Republic, is profoundly reductive, even myopic, in its account of Hamas’ motivations in the latest Israel-Gaza conflict. His contention, that Hamas’ chief incentive was the breaking of Israel’s sprit, that “Hamas’ goal in this war isn’t military but psychological victory,” ignores the political and economic developments that fully explain why Hamas and Israel were driven to a new round of hostilities.

Halevi rightly points out that in “this last decade, Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli communities along the Gaza border,” but in 2013, the year following the last Israel-Hamas ceasefire in November 2012, fewer rockets were fired from Gaza than in any year since 2003. In other words, Hamas was upholding the ceasefire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense. The terms of the ceasefire ran roughly as follows: an end to attacks from Gaza in exchange for the same from Israel, plus a relaxation on border closings when it came to the transfer of people and goods. But, as Nathan Thrall reported in The London Review of Books, Israel did not hold up its end of the deal. The IDF infiltrated Gaza repeatedly, fired on Palestinian farmers and drove Palestinian fisherman away from the majority of Gaza’s waters. Nor did Israel relax its stranglehold on the border; imports and exports were limited and exit permits for Gazans wishing to travel were harder and harder to come by.

Meanwhile Hamas was becoming increasingly alienated abroad. Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in Egypt, depriving Hamas of an important ally and effectively sealing off its access to yet another crucial trading partner. As Gaza’s situation became desperate—electricity and fuel shortages, aquifer contamination, sanitation plant closings—Hamas turned to Fatah and agreed to enter into a unity government. This involved a number of significant concessions for Hamas, including the party’s tacit support for a government committed to non-violence, past agreements and the recognition of Israel.

The rubble of a home destroyed by Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip, Aug. 12, 2014.

The rubble of a home destroyed by Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip, Aug. 12, 2014.

Then came the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. Netanyahu and his administration linked the kidnapping to Hamas, despite the dissent of several Israeli security officials. Indeed, The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg has made a persuasive case “that the kidnapping was a Qawasmeh family production from start to finish,” that is, plotted and executed by a renegade Hebron-based clan—not operating under the aegis of Hamas. But Hamas or no (some say with Hamas as a pretext), Israel launched its largest West Bank operation against Hamas since the Second Intifada, arresting hundreds of operatives. The raid and arrests sparked widespread protests and rockets from Gaza militants unaffiliated with Hamas. Emboldened, Hamas began encouraging a third intifada, and when the rockets grew more frequent they realized they couldn’t very well be seen as policing the attacks and calling for an uprising at the same time. Then, when an Israeli retaliation resulted in the death of seven Hamas militants, Hamas began taking credit for the attacks. It wasn’t long before Operation Protective Edge was announced.

If we want to have any real sense of what gave rise to the latest Israel-Gaza clash we must see Hamas’ involvement as determined by the foregoing narrative. The rocket fire did not stem from a wish to sow fear and despair, or at least, not solely from that wish. It emerged out of intractable political, and economic isolation, isolation exacerbated in part by Israeli intransigence.

Halevi recounts, stirringly, how his wife tells him, in the throes of the Second Intifada, that she finally understands what her “rabbis meant when they warned me I was risking the lives of my future children by [converting and] becoming a Jew.” But the anecdote tends, once again, to reduce a highly complex political predicament to a simplistic ideological contest: there are the Jews and the anti-Semites, and after, all how do you negotiate with anti-Semites? Certainly occluding large swaths of history and ignoring the political and economic grievances in play cannot be the way.

– Daniel Schwartz

Photo of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted and murdered by a group of Palestinians. Tel Aviv's Rabin Square June 30, 2014. (Reuters/Nir Elias)

Photo of the three Israeli teenagers who were abducted and murdered by Palestinians shortly before Protective Edge. Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square June 30, 2014. (Reuters/Nir Elias)

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Not the Israel His Parents Promised

Jeff holds his loved ones to a higher standard.

I was never Harvey Pekar’s biggest fan.  He hovered over life’s unremarkable moments in a way that I found well, thoroughly unremarkable.  There is a line between life and art.  And when it came to American Splendor, the comic-book series for which Mr. Pekar is famous, Harvey crossed that line time and time again.   Here’s Harvey at the drugstore, Harvey getting directions, Harvey babysitting—the parade of unvarnished, and frankly, uninteresting anecdotes marched along with an almost methodical disregard for all that is aesthetic about existence.

And of course, that was part of the point.  American Splendor was supposed to be about the life of the everyman depicted in all his quotidian glory.  Harvey gave us this life.  But he never gave us the reason for its depiction.  One could argue, as I’m sure many have, that Harvey aestheticized the unaesthetic simply because it had been neglected for so long.  But if that’s the case then American Splendor merely serves to remind us of why; it does not persuade us, or at least this reviewer, that things ought to be otherwise—that what we need are more comics about drugstores, navigation and babysitting.

Foes of American Splendor, and perhaps some of its fans, will take heart in knowing that Harvey Pekar’s latest (and last) work, Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, is not like this.  It takes up the weighty theme (a theme!) of Harvey’s evolving and oftentimes ambivalent attitude toward Zionism.  The story is set in Cleveland where Harvey and JT Waldman, the book’s resourceful illustrator, are discussing their forthcoming graphic novel—the one you’re reading.  As the two roam about Harvey’s hometown they consider what it would take for readers to emerge with a big-picture perspective on the Jews, the State of Israel, and the relationship of both to the author.

Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman browsing for used books.

The book delivers on this, weaving together anecdotes from Harvey’s Jewish upbringing and highlights (flashpoints mostly) from the history of the Jewish people.  The yarn that emerges is equal parts Hebrew School and Khmelnytsky.  But the effect is something more: an evocation of the historicized Jewish consciousness.  Incidents from Harvey’s own life are here transvalued into continuations of a centuries-long struggle for Jewish continuity.  Thus, Rome’s conquest of Palestine follows on the heels of Harvey’s torah reading, the author’s present taking on the drama of his people’s past.

It is in this context that Israel emerges—a symbol of Jewish endurance after so many years of predation.  The State’s mythic dimension, its aura of historical vindication, comes across with an earnestness usually relegated to Zionism’s religious ranks.  In this way, Mr. Pekar does the Jewish narrative admirable justice even as he goes on to question the entitlements of its protagonists.

Harvey Pekar’s final memoir, featuring JT Waldman, will be available in July from Hill & Wang.

Questioning is eventually established as the novel’s central motif, one that gains prominence during Harvey’s account of The Six-Day War, and ultimately sets the tone for the remainder of his reminiscences.  With the end of ’67 Israel went “on to take the Golan Heights from Syria, The West Bank…from Jordan, and most of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.”  While Harvey remembers being proud of Israel for winning against all odds he also recalls being disconcerted by his Leftist friends, those who wondered whether “the Arabs living over there” would ever get “a fair shake.”

But despite the land-for-peace theories that might have given them one, the Palestinians “were so humiliated by the war” that they refused to negotiate.  Then came the Jewish settlers who, with Begin’s blessing, began moving into the Occupied Territories, sabotaging Israel’s “best chance for lasting peace.”  Harvey goes on to denounce the continuing occupation, the settlements and the increasing chauvinism of Israel’s Orthodox when it comes to things like marriage and conversion.  His criticisms are commonplace, though no less damning as a result.  Less commonplace is his frank, uncompromising tone.  Here’s Harvey putting things plainly, as only he can:

I know that we Jews have been the most viciously persecuted ethnic group to survive.  We were scattered from our homeland, yet after 2,000 years we’ve come back to regain some of it.  But the Palestinian Arabs are not going anywhere.  Their ancestors lived on the same land.  They still live in Palestine.  And as long as they do, they will fight for independence.

It is shortly thereafter that Harvey makes his most sobering observation—that “the Jews…are not making a serious effort to come up with a two-state solution.”  Of course this view, and this portion of the book in general, will draw fire from the usual corners for the usual reasons.  In fact, this is something of which Mr. Pekar seems acutely aware, and may explain his repeated attempts at preemption.  At one point JT Waldman warns, “People will just say you’re heckling from the sidelines and that your point of view is skewed and negative.” “Find me a textbook or newscaster who isn’t biased,” Harvey retorts.

In another of these self-conscious moments JT asks, “how [do] you…have a two-state solution when you don’t have a partner on the other side?” Harvey’s response: “Well, what you do is…you stay out of there and don’t go populating the settlements and the border with hundreds of thousands of people they can terrorize!”  Harvey doesn’t address all the points on which his detractors are likely to harp: Arafat, Hamas, The Second Intifada, Palestinian rejectionism. But he is sure to remind us that “there are plenty of other places that people can get a blow-by-blow of historical events,” and that he has intentionally avoided rehashing “every detail of every failed attempt at peace over the last 30 years.”

Israelites roam the land of Canaan in Harvey’s whirlwind tour of the Jewish past.

Despite the criticisms that can be made—the book’s highly abbreviated account of modern Israeli history (precisely that history on which so many of its arguments depend), its omission of Israel’s many liberal accomplishments—one finishes with the sense that Harvey has made his point.  This is simply not the Israel his parents promised him.  This is not a country animated by the idealism the Pekars embodied, one that combined the imagining of new social forms—Harvey’s mother was a Communist—with a special antipathy for ethnic oppression.

Nor is this the country the Jews seemed to promise.  By parents we can take Harvey to mean his mother and father, but we can also take him to mean his Jewish ancestry.  Harvey’s disillusionment with the Jewish State is only exacerbated by his deep respect for the Jewish people, a people whose commitment to justice he always admired.  The Jews, insofar as Israel represents them, have not made good on this commitment, or at least not as good as Harvey would have hoped.  “I thought the Jews were different,” he muses, “straight shooters who would never grab more than what they deserved.”  Harvey’s profound sense of national pride is unmistakable throughout Not The Israel, but it is a pride earned through merit.

Some may object to the standard Harvey holds the Jews.  When he asserts that “Israeli treatment of Palestinians eats at Jewish claims of fairness,” we may well wonder if anyone could have fared better.  But I suspect Harvey, who died in July of 2010, would have bristled at this, thundering, as he does near the end of his book, “I do know the difference between right and wrong.”


Harvey Pekar
1939-2010

– D. Schwartz

Arab-Israeli Attack

Jeff doesn’t see why the Palestinians can’t let the Jews have just one state to call their own.

I made no formal study of the Arab–Israeli conflict growing up and no study whatever of the Arab perspective—if there even was one. On some level it didn’t matter; the Jews had been on the wrong side of history for too long. The Crusades, The Inquisition, The Holocaust—the world had done terrible things to us for as long as we had been around. We were the underdogs of history, and now we needed every advantage we could get.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict class I took in college gave me more of the story, enough to realize that the Arabs too had been spurned by history. Britain had promised them a homeland as well; one that they had reason to think would include much of what is now the Jewish State. But it was only during my time in Israel that I began to understand what people meant when they talked about Arab suffering.

Condoleezza Rice: “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning.”

Organizations like Ir Amim offered political tours of East Jerusalem throughout the year. It was on one of these tours that I visited Homat Shemu’el, an Israeli settlement in a predominately Arab neighborhood. The immaculately kept, meticulously planned enclave looked new enough for me to imagine I could still smell the paint. Across the way was Um Tubba—littered, unpaved, farm animals everywhere, men loitering outside shacks in the middle of the afternoon—an Arab shantytown. Were these our feared rivals, I wondered? They had nothing. They could barely provide for themselves, let alone compete with a burgeoning nuclear power.

Arab neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem. Photo: Debbie Hill

The juxtaposition illustrated how divorced yeshivish rhetoric sometimes was from the facts on the ground. According to a 2006 study, though East Jerusalem’s Arab residents constituted one third of the city’s population, they received only 8-11% of the municipal budget. In yeshiva this would never have been on my radar. Of course Ir Amim’s radar was subject to distortions of its own. The Arabs living in East Jerusalem collectively rejected Israeli citizenship when it was offered to them in 1967 and had boycotted municipal elections ever since. There were then very few in Jerusalem’s administration to advocate on their behalf. But granting all this, how many Arabs may have towed the line for fear of Jordanian reprisal and how many of their children may be of a different mind than their parents?

As absurd as the analogy is I can’t help but think of Abraham’s advocacy for Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon learning of God’s intention to punish both cities for their sins, Abraham challenges, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike….Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

I won’t deny the extent to which emotions may have influenced my outlook on this subject. But I’m not convinced that emotions don’t have their place in political discourse, especially when it comes to things like conflict resolution. The Jews have been the underdogs of history, and will probably continue to be for some time. But the Arabs have been underdogs as well. They need someone to advocate on their behalf, just like the Jews do.

– D. Schwartz

Daniel Gordis Attack

Jeff is that guy  who “makes the weaker argument appear to be the stronger.”

In May of this past year Daniel Gordis, The Shalem Foundation’s acting president, addressed the J-Street Leadership Mission to Israel and Palestine, criticizing the advocacy group for several of its positions and calling its place in the pro-Israel tent into question. Gordis’ remarks sparked something of a controversy, so much so that Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J-Street, felt compelled to rebut them in the form of an opinion piece he later published in the Jerusalem Post.

The majority of those who have weighed in on “In the Tent or Out,” the column based on Gordis’ address, have focused on its content: Gordis’ analysis of the conflict,  the facts he cited and the general thrust of his arguments. Instead, I want to focus on the form that these remarks took, on the way Gordis made the points he did. The Greeks have a word for this, for the way in which one makes points in a debate.  The word is rhetoric.

I find Gordis’ rhetoric to be manipulative in the extreme. And, as luck would have it, there’s a word for this as well, one that, appropriately enough, derives from the Greek tutors who bore it as their title.  The word is sophistry.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis and his family made aliyah in 1998. Photo: Maxine Dovere

The majority of the issues Gordis raises are used more as opportunities for censure than for exchange.  In his discussion of territorial concession, Gordis criticizes J-Street for doubting the legitimacy of those who are hesitant; the reasons for hesitancy itself though, are never addressed.  His focus is similarly skewed with regard to the UN’s resolution on settlements.  There, the discussion revolves around J-Street’s vote in favor, not around the American-Jewish reason for being opposed.  In his remarks on the Gaza War, Gordis condemns J-Street’s protest to it but doesn’t explain the necessity of the conflict at this juncture; Gordis himself admits that Sederot had been under fire for the past eight years.  It isn’t that Gordis is necessarily wrong, it’s that he is so busy tongue-lashing his audience they have no opportunity to evaluate whether he’s right.  There is no frank, extended discussion of the arguments.  There is only a lot of indignant posturing.

But more than this, Gordis’ rhetoric sensationalizes the issues, reducing them to the starkest and most cosmic binaries.  As he opens, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the pro-Israel camp needs a big tent.  Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive if we work only with those with whom we agree.”  This is how Gordis frames his remarks, not with some perfunctory gesture toward complexity, but with a reductive allusion to what he believes is at stake, the very survival of the Jewish people.

And of course, if it is J-Street’s inclusion in the tent that is under discussion, then the prospects of Jewish survival may indeed be determined by what ensues.  In few words, Gordis has made very many issues into one issue: the continuity of Jewish identity.  With this as his point of departure, it becomes increasingly difficult for his audience to navigate the nuances of each issue without being pulled into an ideological binary—you are either for the Jews or you’re against them.

Gordis makes this binary even starker later on in his address declaring:

There are groups who are clearly opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; they are our enemies.  It doesn’t matter if they are in Israel or outside, or if they are Jewish or not.  If they are working to end Israel, or to end it as a Jewish and democratic state, then they are our enemies, plain and simple. There are enemies who cannot be loved or compromised into submission….You need to show us that you care about Israel more than you care about dialogue with Israel’s enemies.

 That caring about Israel is being in dialogue with its enemies is a prospect Gordis doesn’t consider.  Instead he dramatizes the opposition between Israel and its adversaries. But this dramatization only makes it more difficult to get on with the work of coexisting with one’s adversaries, which may in fact be what is demanded of both sides in this conflict.  It is this same dramatization that also explains why Gordis feels he need only cite American-Jewish opposition to the UN resolution, without explaining its ground.

For, in the kind of image Gordis evokes, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the only hope for survival is a big pro-Israel tent.”  Without it, “Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive.”  If J-Street then fails to align itself with Israel’s allies on a certain issue, it is in effect aligning with Israel’s enemies, since misalignment, or a shrinking tent, spells death for both Israel and the Jewish people.  Thus J-Street’s every departure from the party line deserves the disgrace associated with disloyalty rather than the deference accorded dissent.

I’m not convinced Gordis would actually get behind what he seems to be implying is a necessity, i.e., the homogenization of American-Jewish support.  For Gordis himself says, “You certainly don’t need to be a rubber stamp for Israeli policy….Israel desperately needs critique.”  But his rhetoric still serves to paint Israel’s critics into a pretty tight corner, especially critics such as J-Street.  As Gordis puts it, “What matters more to you – the safety of Israel’s citizens, or advancing your own moral agenda in our region of the world?”

This formulation, like the foregoing ones, reduces the conflict to one in which there are only two sides; either J-Street is for Israel’s safety or it is for some moral agenda.  Framing the issue as such makes it seem as if these two positions can only be mutually exclusive.  Moral agenda, dialogue withIsrael’s enemies—this is one side.  Part of our tent, pro-Israel—this is the other side.  My question to Gordis then is this: can there be no position in which a moral agenda and Israel’s security have equal priority?  And if so, what would it look like?  Could it be part of Gordis’ Big Tent?

– D. Schwartz