Peace, not politics

Posted in Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 9 August, 2006

Dove and olive branch

Are the Words “Israel” and “Jews” Synonymous?
By Danny Schechter

I remember reading a story once about some of the Jewish fighters during the years of the Nazi genocide who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewer system into another part of the city. Bedraggled and dazed, they came up into a city that was going about its business as usual, largely unaware of what was happening in a part of town that had been sealed off. (The street cars that went through the ghetto had to darken all windows so travelers couldn’t see what was going on.)

The escapees sought out brave members of the Polish resistance who were also fighting German aggression against their country. They too were at war with the invaders and occupiers. But they soon found that their “comrades in arms” couldn’t accept what they were being told, couldn’t believe the extent of the forced starvation and mass murder taking place just a few blocks away.  They couldn’t imagine the extent of the barbarity, perhaps because it wasn’t happening to them. They were in denial.

The desperate Jews were shaken. They too couldn’t believe that they were unable to communicate the full horror of their plight and make it believable, even to people who shared some of their political goals.  That realization turned into demoralization that turned to despair. They then felt guilty about fleeing and surviving while their friends and families were being killed.

They looked around at the normality and apparent indifference of carefree Warsaw, and decided to go back, back to their fate.

While there is never any exact parallel with today’s events—and no, I don’t believe that yesterday’s victims of Nazism have become today’s Nazis—there is one aspect of this terribly tragic story that has relevance: the inability of many people to transcend their own pain (or point of view) to empathetically connect with the pain of others or even hear the critics.

As someone who grew up in a community that each year marked the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, its lessons were drilled into my head from an early age. I was taught to support those who resist aggression and stand for human rights.  And as anyone who saw the film Schindler’s List knows, it was not just Jews who joined that fight. There were “righteous” Christians and people of all nationalities.

Yet, at the same time, I believed that the bitter history of Jewish suffering conveyed on us a special responsibility to speak out when others are suffering and yearning for freedom.  Is that not the key lesson of the annual Passover Seder and the idea of solidarity and community concern? Is that not why activist “Jews for Justice” rallied to the cause of Bosnia’s embattled Muslims?  Is that not why many Jews have always been on the front lines of the fight for humanity and social change?

Like many other Jews, I was drawn to the civil rights movement and other social justice movements. During those years, I was privileged to personally meet and talk with a Muslim leader named Malcolm X who introduced me to his traditions. Since then I have traveled in the Muslim world and met many people who respect democracy and believe in the need for a just resolution of the Israel-Palestinian crisis.

I know of many Jews who share that concern, and, in fact, surveys have shown over the years that ordinary members of the Jewish community are far more politically progressive about the need for peace than those who claim to be their “leaders,” self-righteous elite who sit on top of vast fundraising machines. They have well-paid jobs specializing in spreading fear and alarm about anti-Semitism as a tool for frequent solicitations and psychological conditioning. The memory of the Holocaust is still manipulated for political purposes.

There is a well-financed Israeli lobby that funds politicians and dominates the op-ed pages. What else explains the dramatic difference in public opinion in this country and overseas? Why do polls show Americans and Israelis backing the war while the world calls for a cease fire?

These organizations operate like a well orchestrated machine to enforce a “party line” and, in some well-documented cases; groups like the Anti Defamation League even spied on and demonized fellow Jews who feel differently. Pro-peace organizations like Tikkun have had to buy ads in the NY Times to get heard.

Jews who support Darfur are acceptable; those who oppose Israel’s bombing of Lebanon are deemed extremists.

Don’t they know that human rights are universal and cannot be invoked selectively? 

Israel cannot be given a special pass:  it has to obey international laws and UN resolutions, not just the ones it agrees with.

Just as the shelling of civilians by Hezbollah is unacceptable, so is the widespread Israeli devastation of a neighboring country, one ironically, with many people who wanted to live in peace with Israel.  Almost every journalist who has looked at this war has noted that Israel used the kidnapping of its soldiers as pretexts for war plans that were years in the making. The Hezbollah rockets were fired after Israel’s bombing began, not before.

If anything, this Bush-backed war will radicalize Lebanon as it is the Middle East and fuel more anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel. It has turned Hezbollah into a hero in the region.

Somehow many in our media have turned the words Israel and Jews into synonyms, as if all Jews are hard-line Zionists who automatically back the policies and practices of the Israeli government, every Israeli government. Ironically, there is more debate among Jews in Israel on these issues than is reported, or somehow allowed in the United States where Jewish critics of Israel policies are often ignored or labeled “self-hating” Jews.

Many organizations, especially in Democratic Party circles (and even the blogosphere) would prefer to ignore the issue for fear of being divisive or attacked. Notice how many in the Congress rallied to Israel’s side before the facts were even in. Notice how few, even in the anti-war contingent, had the courage to speak out. (Read Tom Hayden’s recent piece apologizing for how skillfully he was co-opted by the Israeli Lobby when he ran for office in California.)

Some organizations are just shilling for the Israeli government –no matter what it does—out of both tribal loyalty and political fealty to neo-con/Likudnik politics, a perspective which enjoys unrivalled and disproportionate access to the media and its think-alike punditocracy.  Some are just money generating mechanisms sending money to Israel, a developed county that gets $3 billion dollars annually in US aid intended for developing nations. The Federation which supports many social services just sent millions. One wonders how much of this will go to Israeli Arabs who have also had homes bombed?

It’s not surprising that many Jews are unaware of what’s happening largely because of the information diet they are exposed to, every day and in all media–just like the rest of us. They are expected to recite the “official” mantra—not think for themselves.

On Tuesday, I received an invitation from the president of the American Jewish Congress. It was for a 4 day “Israel Solidarity Mission.” Cost per person: $1000.

It is described as “Not only solidarity but much more!”

“Touring the embattled North of Israel and personally sharing our friendship with families there who have lived through the terror of Katyusha rockets falling on their homes;

“Visiting an air force base where we will thank the brave pilots who are defending Israel and see, up close, the advanced F-16-I jets they fly;

“Receiving a briefing from the Brigade Commander and his troops defending against Hamas terrorism in Gaza;

“Meeting with top officials of Israel’s government to hear what lies ahead and to learn how we can help.”

There’s not one word of interest or concern here with the civilian victims of bombing in Lebanon or the conditions of Palestinians in Gaza. Not one word of compassion or interest in meeting prominent Israelis who feel this war is not in Israel’s interest. It strikes me as more reinforcement for the already deeply held prejudices.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz—which far too many American Jews know nothing about—and in fact know little about Israeli political reality (preferring to live with feel-good myths dating back to Leon Uris’ book Exodus)–Nehemia Shtrasler contends:

“Israel has always said it has nothing against the Lebanese people and does not want to harm Lebanon, only the PLO (then) and Hezbollah (now). But in practice, it has harmed, destroyed and humiliated the Lebanese time after time. Their fate did not interest us.”

What does interest us? What should interest us? I know the great Rabbi Hillel once said, “If you are not for yourself, who will be for me.” But then, he added, let us not forget, “If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And then, there is also, always, that golden rule, forgotten by war-makers across the ages: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter is “Blogger in Chief” of His latest film is “In Debt We Trust.” Comments to

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