Saturday, February 24, 2007

Peace for our time or The year is not 1938, Iran is not Nazi Germany

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has brought us comforting news: The year is not 1938. Iran is not Nazi Germany.

Rice favours diplomacy in dealing with Iran: "The United States is on a diplomatic path and we believe in this diplomatic path."

In his infamous speech before the House of Commons on September 27, 1938, Neville Chamberlain said:
However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark upon it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is

For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment.

And so that champion of appeasment continued to negotiate peace at the expense of Czechoslovakia, and ultimately, at the expense of the world.

Asked for her response to the analogy between the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938 and the international community's current approach to Iran, Rice responded: "I am fond of historical analogies, but not that fond."

I, too, am fond of analogies, but not so fond as to make a false analogy between Condoleezza Rice and Neville Chamberlain. After all, Chamberlain followed his policy of appeasement in the belief that Hitler was a rational actor, and with a predisposition to believe that Germany had reasonable grievances stemming from the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He also had to balance his fear of the seemingly modest expansionist appetite of Nazi Germany with the existential danger posed by what he no doubt perceived as the insatiable hunger of Joseph Stalin's Communist regime for world domination.

Rice faces no such quandaries. Ahmadinejad is not a rational actor. His willingness to sacrifice millions of his own people in pursuance of his mystical faith in a divine mission to bring about the return of the Mahdi cannot be confused with a hardline realpolitik. Powerful, oil rich Iran has no grievances that might excuse a feeling of humilation. If it harbours territorial claims, they are those dictated by the apocalyptic quest of radical Islam. Since it is radical Islam itself that is currently the primary threat to world peace, Rice faces no rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma of navigating a course between two evils.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid?

Once, Zionism was labelled racism. Now it is called apartheid.

Former President Jimmy Carter picked up on a winning slogan, and wrote a book called “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” and the debate began. The questions addressed both the form and the content. Is Carter’s portrayal of the conflict accurate? Is it balanced? Is he a puppet of Arab oil money or an honest broker dedicated to seeking a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Is the name of the book an antisemitic slur, or merely a cunning marketing strategy?

While the debate on the book’s claims rages on, the issue of the title has quickly been settled. Carter has explained that the title does not refer to the situation within the State of Israel, but merely reflects Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians as the occupier of the West Bank.

The justification for that portrayal of Israeli conduct can, no doubt, be found in the book. Buy it and see. Read it and you will understand.

I will not buy it, and I have no intention of reading it. For me, the title is more than enough.

The title makes an accusation of apartheid. Apartheid describes the legal order of racial segregation established by the government of South Africa in 1948. That system of separation and oppression provided the impetus for the drafting of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The Convention was adopted and opened for signature by the UN General Assembly on November 30, 1973.

The Convention was a Soviet initiative, and the United States, Canada, and the other Western democracies refused to ratify it. But the Third World embraced it, and several Arab states saw it as a vehicle to delegitimize Israel. Thus Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt (which later retracted is reservation), Iraq, and Bahrain ratified the Convention with the reservation that their accession to the Convention did not imply their recognition of the State of Israel. And so, already in 1975, with the accession of Iraq, the Convention was cynically exploited to create a linkage between Israel and the “crime of apartheid.” This should not have been entirely surprising. After all, the Soviet ambassador to the UN had already accused Israel of a “racist policy of apartheid” as early as 1971.

Nevertheless, the above might have remained merely an historical footnote to the background of the political abuse of the term “apartheid” in Arab anti-Israel rhetoric, were it not for a later development in international law. In 1998, “the crime of apartheid” was defined as a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Now, when the term “apartheid” is employed, the above must be borne in mind. Saying that Israel is pursuing a policy that constitutes, or that is similar to, or reminiscent of apartheid is no longer merely political hyperbole or hijacked rhetoric, it is an allegation of the commission of crimes against humanity. The seeds of vilification planted in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War have born poisonous fruit. With the publication of Carter’s book, the often-repeated lie has begun to sound like the truth.

I would never claim that all that Israel does is wise, justified, or even legal. Nor would I claim that there are no instances of discrimination, abuse, stupidity, or cruelty. Mistakes are made, and Palestinian suffering is real, and it is painful even when the cause is justified, and all the more so when it is gratuitous.

We all make mistakes, and some of them are very grave.

Consider Abu Ghraib. Weigh whether or not the US government’s policy in regard to detainees in Guantanamo reflects those noble values that America's enemies seek to undermine and that American soldiers fight and die to defend.

Think about “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects to places where they can be tortured, and reflect upon the justifications proffered for permitting torture of terror suspects.

Remember that until well into the 20th century, racial segregation was the law of many American states. And do not forget that, if you are over thirty, then eugenic sterilizations were carried out in the United States in your own lifetime.

And yet, despite its many flaws, the United States was and remains the greatest democracy on earth. We do not look at the above list and compare the United States to Nazi Germany. We do not accuse the great Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr. of Nazi-like support of Nuremberg-style legislation, even if in justifying eugenics he delivered the opinion of the Court that “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Buck v. Bell, 274 US 200 (1927).

We do not compare Franklin Roosevelt to Hermann Goring for signing the Executive Order that led to the internment of 117,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, nor do we accuse Earl Warren of being like Himmler for instigating that Order.

We do not make such accusations because they are perverse, and the equivalences they imply are manifestly untrue. We are careful not to bandy about the term “Nazi” not only because we fear devaluing the term, but because we recognize the enormity of the accusation.

Yet we are expected to tolerate such lack of restraint when it comes to using the harshest terms of opprobrium for Israel. We are asked to entertain the mitigating explanation that in the title of his book, Carter does not accuse Israel of enforcing a racist policy against its own Arab citizens; it merely accuses Israel of pursuing a policy of apartheid in the West Bank.

Of course, what that means is that Mr. Carter is not merely criticizing what he sees as the injustice of Israeli security policy, or questioning its justice. He is accusing Israel of committing crimes against humanity against the Palestinians. That is not a charge that is any way mitigated by saying that the crimes are committed only in the West Bank, particularly if you are one of those potentially accused. After all, in a country like Israel, with a compulsory military draft, the list of those potentially accused comprises almost anyone.

The list of criminals extends to such people as cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz and former prime minister Ehud Barak who served as commanders of Judea and Samaria, Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, who served as the head of the Civil Administration, and even former General Security Services head Ami Ayalon, who has been trying to float a private peace initiative with Dr. Sari Nusseibah.

Those who understand how military policy is approved, and who realize that most if not all of the various actions and policies that are labelled “apartheid” have been challenged before the Israeli Supreme Court, must also conclude that Mr. Carter’s list of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity also includes every Israeli prime minister and defence minister, and all the justices who have served on the Supreme Court over the last 40 years.

Apartheid? Only in the West Bank? Please excuse me if I feel that I needn't go any further than the dust jacket in order to accuse Jimmy Carter of blatant antisemitism.

That may seem going too far. After all, Mr. Carter is a former US president and a man widely respected. But in this regard we might note that - as reported in the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2005 - a report on antisemitism commissioned by the government of France recommended that publicly equating Israeli policies with apartheid or Nazism be made a criminal offence
. Why? The French report stated, among other things:
The accusations of racism, of apartheid, of Nazism carry extremely grave moral implications. These accusations have, in the situation in which we find ourselves today, major consequences which can, by contagion, put in danger the lives of our Jewish citizens. (For the original French report, see: Jean-Christoph Rufin, Chantier Sur La Lutte Contre Le Racism Et L’Antisemitism, (Ministere De L’Interieur, De La Securite Interieure Et Des Libertes Locales (2004)), p. 30)
So, will I read Carter’s book? I realize that as a potentially accused war criminal, I may be biased. But when the title of a book puts people like Shimon Peres in a class with Slobodan Milosovic and Reinhard Heydrich, I don't feel much need to read the details.

Avinoam Sharon

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Conservative Survey: Divided Unity

Few were surprised when the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) adopted a liberal paper permitting the ordination of rabbis leading an openly homosexual lifestyle. Even if some eyebrows were raised, it was not a total surprise that the CJLS also approved the performance of same-sex commitment ceremonies. What may have been unexpected was that this so-called “inclusive” approach was adopted by a majority vote. Still more surprising – and more problematic – was the fact that a diametrically opposed paper, which forbade both ordination and commitment ceremonies, was approved by an equal majority vote.

Immediately following this majority approval of contradictory positions, four members of the CJLS resigned in the belief that the liberal view could not be deemed a legitimate statement of halakha. It would not be unreasonable to understand these resignations as possible harbingers of the divisive potential of implementing the inclusive position in the Conservative Movement.

Against this background, it is understandable that the Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly commissioned Professor Steven M. Cohen to conduct a
survey on the issue of homosexual ordination.

The results of that survey were reported with some fanfare last week. The press release stressed that the survey showed overwhelming support for gay and lesbian ordination among Conservative clergy and laity, while reaffirming the Movement’s commitment to halakha. According to Professor Cohen, the consensus reflected in the survey’s results spoke to “the underlying unity and distinctiveness of the Conservative Movement.”

Almost concurrent with the celebration of the happy results of the survey came the announcement of the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Although the concurrence of the two announcements was, no doubt, entirely a matter of chance, the fact that Rabbi Nevins was one of the authors of the inclusive paper on homosexuality may seem to some the ultimate validation of the liberal view.

But careful examination of the study’s results leads one to suspect that that the announcements studiously downplayed or even omitted what may be the most salient and troubling findings of Professor Cohen’s survey.

First, it seems that the majority of Conservative clergy who view themselves as ideologically conservative are opposed to the ordination of homosexuals.

Moreover, thirty-five percent of the Conservative Movement’s clerical leaders are of the opinion that “the legal reasoning in the permissive paper that was approved by the CJLS was outside the pale of acceptability of halakhic reasoning.” In other words, over a third of the Conservative clergy agrees with the position that prompted four rabbis to resign from the CJLS.

If that were not enough, the survey also shows that “about half the rabbis, cantors and JTS students have some doubts as to whether the liberalizing stance is compatible with Jewish law.” That statement may reflect a fundamental schism within the Conservative Movement that cannot be glossed over by assertions about underlying unity, nor even by more nuanced attempts to explain that some rabbis prefer an aggadic approach to halakha rather than one of legal positivism.

The reason for suspecting such a rift is that while about half of the clergy believe or suspect that homosexual ordination is incompatible with halakha, nevertheless two-thirds of the Conservative clergy support such ordination. This presumably means that a significant number of Conservative clergy supports an approach that it feels unable to justify in its own conception of Jewish law. Rather, the members of this group ostensibly believe that their personal views of justice and morality overrule even their own understanding of what is halakhically acceptable.

What that says is that regardless of whether one believes that the Jewish theological dialectic yields halakha as the practical realization of aggada, or views aggada as the handmaiden of the halakha, about half of the Conservative clergy is of the opinion that the ordination of homosexuals cannot be justified without leaving what it perceives as the bounds of it own theology of tradition and change. A significant number seem willing to do just that.

Seen in this light, the results of the survey appear less indicative of unanimity and distinctiveness than of what may be a deeply seated theological division in the Conservative Movement.
Avinoam Sharon