A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

Half a day with the “last Arab Jew” | The Chronikler

In News, Politics on August 7, 2012 at 07:48

Half a day with the “last Arab Jew” 

Sasson Somekh, critic and friend of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, believes literature transcends politics and can bridge cultures.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

These are troubling times for Arab-Israeli relations. Arabs watch on with rising alarm as Israel continues to cement its hold on the occupied Palestinian territories and toys with the idea of denying that there even is an occupation. Meanwhile, Israelis look on with mounting apprehension as Egypt elects the unknown quantity of its first Islamist president and Syria slips further into civil war.

Amid all this uncertainty and distrust, one man insists on keeping his feet firmly planted on both sides of this chasm. Sasson Somekh describes himself as both a Jew and an Arab, as both Iraqi and Israeli.

This poet, academic, writer and translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew invited me to spend “half a day” with him, in a witty allusion to a little-known short story by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Penned in the latter years of Mahfouz’s prolific career, this allegorical tale relates the events of just half a day in which the narrator enters the school gate for the first time as a young boy in the morning and emerges as an old man in the afternoon.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?” the elderly narrator asked, perplexed.

I wondered the same, as this sharp-witted tortoise of a man, slow of body but swift of mind, snailed through time and space to take me on a riveting journey from the contemporary Israel of his silver years, back to the disappeared world of his youth, Jewish Baghdad (which he eloquently evokes in the first part of his memoirs, Baghdad, Yesterday), via the literary salons of his middle age in Egypt.

Born in Baghdad in 1933 into a well-to-do, middle-class Jewish family, Somekh remembers summers spent swimming in and loungingby the majestic Tigris, the river along whose banks some of the first human civilisations were born. When temperatures soared and water levels dipped, a patchwork of small islets would emerge, providing ideal seclusion for family picnics, consisting primarily of fish grilled on a special covered Iraqi barbecue. “Those were the most enjoyable days of my life,” he recalled wistfully.

At the time, Baghdad was a very Jewish city, with Jews – who were active in all walks of life, including commerce, the professions, politics and the arts – comprising as much as a third of the Iraqi capital’s population. “When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, al-Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” he noted.

Iraqi Jews were so enmeshed in their country’s social fabric that they described themselves, and were regarded, as “Arabs”, and viewed Judaism as a religion and not an ethnicity. As Somekh put it, he grew up with Arabic as his mother tongue and Arab culture as his reference point.

The ancient Jewish presence in Iraq led to some interesting cultural symbioses: Iraqi Jews traditionally wrote Arabic in Hebrew script and Baghdadi Jews spoke a vernacular that had died out among Muslims and Christians. Jews also affected Iraq’s daily life. For example, Somekh recalls, some Shi’ites, who worked for Jewish businesses switching their own day of worship to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, during which Muslim neighbours often helped perform tasks Jews were ritually forbidden to carry out, such as lighting stoves.

Despite the image in Israel of Middle Eastern Jews being very traditional and religious, the educated or wealthy Jewish elites did not keep Sabbath and were very secular. Somekh, whose father was a senior clerk at a British bank, grew up knowing very little about his religious heritage, which was not even taught at the Jewish schools he attended.

During his teenage years, Somekh was a promising young poet who hung out in Baghdad’s vibrant literary salons and managed to get some of his poetry published. But his youthful dreams of a glittering literary career in his homeland were rudely interrupted by history and the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.

Though the vast majority of Iraqi Jews played no part in what befell the Palestinians, they were nonetheless blamed for it. And by 1951 the situation had become untenable.

Iraqi Jewish refugees in Israel were, like the Palestinians, settled in makeshift camps, a huge step down for the Somekhs from the comfort and prestige they had enjoyed in Baghdad. But eventually the family got back on its feet, and the young Sasson Somekh refused to give up on his literary dreams. “Literature is literature. Politics does not enter into it,” he told me with disarming simplicity.

Somekh not only became involved with the only Israeli literary magazine in Arabic at the time, one run by the Israeli communist movement, he also redoubled his efforts to learn Hebrew so that he could translate Arabic poetry into this new-old language.

Somekh’s crowning achievement was to become one of the foremost authorities on Naguib Mahfouz. When Somekh first took an interest in the Egyptian novelist, Mahfouz was almost unknown outside the Arab world. As there was so little information available on Mahfouz’s literature in English, the Nobel committee, according to Somekh, relied heavily on his PhD thesis to assess the Egyptian novelist’s work.

Intellectual interest soon blossomed into an improbable and controversial (given the Arab boycott of Israel) friendship between the Egyptian writer and his Israeli critic. The two men kept up a correspondence for years, and the pen pals were finally able to further their friendship when Somekh moved to Cairo in the mid-1990s, to head the Israeli Academic Centre.

“Our two peoples knew extraordinary partnership,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh. “I dream of the day when, thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

Israel’s Fading Democracy – NYTimes.com

In News, Politics, Really?!? on August 5, 2012 at 12:34

Israel’s Fading Democracy 

WHEN an American presidential candidate visits Israel and his key message is to encourage us to pursue a misguided war with Iran, declaring it “a solemn duty and a moral imperative” for America to stand with our warmongering prime minister, we know that something profound and basic has changed in the relationship between Israel and the United States.My generation, born in the ’50s, grew up with the deep, almost religious belief that the two countries shared basic values and principles. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination.Listening to today’s political discourse, one can’t help but notice the radical change in tone. My children have watched their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, kowtow to a fundamentalist coalition in Israel. They are convinced that what ties Israel and America today is not a covenant of humanistic values but rather a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma. How did this happen? Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?Mr. Netanyahu’s great political “achievement” has been to make Israel a partisan issue and push American Jews into a corner. He has forced them to make political decisions based on calculations that go against what they perceive to be American interests. The emotional extortion compels Jews to pressure the Obama administration, a government with which they actually share values and worldviews, when those who love Israel should be doing the opposite: helping the American government to intervene and save Israel from itself.Israel arose as a secular, social democratic country inspired by Western European democracies. With time, however, its core values have become entirely different. Israel today is a religious, capitalist state. Its religiosity is defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations. Its capitalism has erased much of the social solidarity of the past, with the exception of a few remaining vestiges of a welfare state. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state.” However, because Israel has never created a system of checks and balances between these two sources of authority, they are closer than ever to a terrible clash.In the early years of statehood, the meaning of the term “Jewish” was national and secular. In the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers, to be a Jew was exactly like being an Italian, Frenchman or American. Over the years, this elusive concept has changed; today, the meaning of “Jewish” in Israel is mainly ethnic and religious. With the elevation of religious solidarity over and above democratic authority, Israel has become more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world. I see the transformation in my own family. My father, one of the founders of the state of Israel and of the National Religious Party, was an enlightened rabbi and philosopher. Many of the younger generation are far less open, however; some are ultra-Orthodox or ultranationalist settlers.This extremism was not the purpose of creating a Jewish state. Immigrants from all over the world dreamed of a government that would be humane and safe for Jews. The founders believed that democracy was the only way to regulate the interests of many contradictory voices. Jewish culture, consolidated through Halakha, the religious Jewish legal tradition, created a civilization that has devoted itself to an unending conversation among different viewpoints and the coexistence of contradictory attitudes toward the fulfillment of the good.

 

Palestinian hunger strikes: Media missing in action – Al Jazeera English

In News, Politics on May 7, 2012 at 20:03

Palestinian hunger strikes: Media missing in action – Al Jazeera English.

The article makes a point.

Can anyone doubt that if there were more than 1,500 prisoners engaged in a hunger strike in any country in the world other than Palestine, the media in the West would be obsessed with the story? Such an obsession would, of course, be greatest if such a phenomenon were to occur in an adversary state, such as Iran or China, but almost anywhere it would be featured news, that is, anywhere but Palestine. It would be highlighted day after day, and reported on from all angles, including the severe medical risks associated with such a lengthy refusal to take food, with respected doctors and human rights experts sharing their opinions.

At this time there are two Palestinians who were the first to start this current wave of resistance to the practice of administrative detention, Thaer Halalheh and Bilal Diab, enduring their 70th day without food. Both men are reported by respected prisoner protection association, Addameer and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, to be in critical condition with their lives hanging in the balance. Examining doctors indicated recently that both detainees were reported to “suffer from acute muscle weakness in their limbs that prevents them from standing” and are under the “dual threat” of “muscle atrophy and thromohophilia, which can lead to a fatal blood clot”.

Despite this dramatic state of affairs, until today there has been scant notice taken by Western governments, media and even the United Nations, of the life threatening circumstances confronting Halalheh or Diab, let alone the massive solidarity strike that is of shorter duration, but still notable as a powerful expression of nonviolent defiance.

In contrast, consider the attention that the Western media has been devoting in recent days to a lone blind Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who managed to escape from house arrest in Beijing, find a safe haven at the US embassy, arrange a release and then seek an exit from China. This is an important and disturbing international incident, to be sure, but is it truly so much more significant than the Palestinian story as to explain the total neglect of the extraordinary exploits of thousands of Palestinians who are sacrificing their bodies, quite possibly their lives, to nonviolently protest severe mistreatment in the Israeli prison system, and by extension, the oppressiveness of an occupation that has gone on for 45 years?

“Hana Shalabi was among those released in the prisoner exchange, but then barely recovering from her prior detention period, was rearrested in a night arrest raid, once again confined by an administrative detention decree for a further four months in Israeli jail.”

 

Is Netanyahu misleading Israelis over Iran? – Al Jazeera English

In News, Politics on April 30, 2012 at 13:14

vIs Netanyahu misleading Israelis over Iran? –

Israeli security and military commanders have criticised Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, accusing him of misleading the Israeli people on important policy issues.

Does this signal a rift between the prime minister and the country’s security establishment and how might it affect Netanyahu’s chances of re-election?

Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, has become the latest member of the country’s security establishment to openly criticise Netanyahu.

He said Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his defence minister, should not be trusted to lead policy on Iran and that attacking the Islamic Republic might accelerate Iran’s nuclear programme.

“I don’t believe in either the prime minister or the defence minister,” Diskin said. “I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings.”

Diskin is not alone in his opposition to the prime minister.

In comments that contradict those of Netanyahu, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief of staff, told the Haaretz newspaper that he does not think Iran has already made a decision to build nuclear weapons.

“Iran is going step-by-step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb,” Gantz said. “It hasn’t decided yet whether to go the extra mile.”

Gantz added that he believes the Iranian leadership is composed of “very rational” people who will not take the risk of building a nuclear weapon.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, has also joined the fray, calling military action against Iran the “stupidest idea” he has ever heard.

“[Diskin] was closer to [Netanyahu and Barak] than anybody else and he was really the guy that knew everything. He was there until a year ago so you cannot dismiss any word he says and the headlines in the Israeli press show a division among decision makers ….”

– Daniel Ben Simon, a member of the Knesset

But, despite the many current and former high-level members of Israel’s security and military establishment making similar statements, Netanyahu continues to stick to his hard line.

On April 18, he said: “The truth is that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel. The truth is that a nuclear Iran is also a potential threat to other countries in the region and a serious threat to world peace. And the truth is that it is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is the duty of the world. But first of all, it’s our duty.”

 

Ex-Israeli spy boss attacks Netanyahu and Barak over Iran – guardian.co.uk

In News, Politics on April 29, 2012 at 08:53

Ex-Israeli spy boss attacks Netanyahu and Barak over Iran

Israel’s former security chief has censured the country’s “messianic” political leadership for talking up the prospects of a military stike on Iran’s nuclear programme.

In unusually candid comments set to ratchet up tensions over Iran at the top of Israel’s political establishment, Yuval Diskin, who retired as head of the internal intelligence agency Shin Bet last year, said he had “no faith” in the abilities of the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, to conduct a war.

The pair, who are the foremost advocates of military action against Iran’s nuclear programme, were “not fit to hold the steering wheel of power“, Diskin told a meeting on Friday night.

“My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war,” he said.

“I don’t believe in either the prime minister or the defence minister. I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings. Believe me, I have observed them from up close … They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off.

They are misleading the public on the Iran issue. They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won’t have a nuclear bomb. This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race.”

Government aides described Diskin’s comments as irresponsible and motivated from personal frustration.

Diskin’s remarks followed a furore over comments made on Wednesday by Israel’s serving military chief, Benny Gantz, which starkly contrasted with Netanyahu’s rhetoric on Iran. Gantz said he did not believe the Iranian leadership was prepared to “go the extra mile” to acquire nuclear weapons because it was “composed of very rational people” who understood the consequences.

In what was seen as a veiled rebuke to the prime minister, Gantz added: “Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”

The chief of staff later attempted to gloss over suggestions of a breach between the military and political leaderships, telling reporters there was “really no distance” between his view and the prime minister’s.

Neither Netanyahu nor Barak have moderated their rhetoric. The prime minister recently said that those who downplayed the threat from a nuclear Iran “have learned nothing from the Holocaust”. He added: “The Iranian regime is openly calling for our destruction and working frantically for the development of nuclear weapons as a means to that end.”

 

Israel legalizes West Bank settler outposts – The Guardian

In News, Politics on April 24, 2012 at 09:28

Israel legalizes West Bank settler outposts 

This doesn’t help the peace process. 

Israel legalized three unsanctioned West Bank settler outposts and was trying to save another on Tuesday, infuriating the Palestinians as the chief American Mideast envoy was in the region laboring to revive peace efforts.

The decision fueled suspicions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition would try to legalize as many rogue settlement sites as possible to cement Israel’s hold on occupied land the Palestinians claim for a state.

Netanyahu faces stiff pressure from pro-settler hardliners within his own coalition to fend off legal challenges to the unauthorized construction. Some hardliners have even warned that the coalition, which until now has been remarkably stable, could unravel over the issue.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as the core of their hoped-for state, and see all Israeli settlement as illegal encroachment on those lands. They have refused to restart peace talks until construction halts.

“We call upon the Israeli government to immediately stop all unilateral acts,” said senior Palestinian official Nabil Abu Rdeneh. “Netanyahu is pushing things into deadlock once again.”

A string of Israeli governments have pledged not to build any new settlements. But critics say the settler movement, with quiet support from the government, has used the outposts to grab more West Bank land. Dozens of clusters of houses or mobile homes dot the West Bank, in addition to more than 120 authorized settlements.

Netanyahu says the issue of settlements should be resolved through peace talks, which broke down more than three years ago over the settlement issue.

Israel began settling the West Bank and east Jerusalem immediately after capturing them in the 1967 Mideast war, and 500,000 Jews now live there. The international community widely condemns the construction.

 

Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry- Al Jazeera English

In News, Politics on April 18, 2012 at 06:32

Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry

Israel is a European colonial settlement, the last astonishingly barefaced remnant of European colonialism in a world that calls itself “postcolonial”.

The same people who are with perfect justification enraged by the foolish Ahmadinejad (when he denies the Holocaust) are evidently entirely undisturbed when their Prime Minister Golda Meir or their favourite presidential candidate Newt Gingrich denies the existence of Palestinians.

The daring imagination of Günter Grass’ poem – a heroically tragic act precisely because the poet is implicated in the moral outrage of his own poem – is significant precisely because it captures this German and by extension European logic/madness of colonial conquest and moral cannibalism. A German intellectual exposing the structural link between Zionism and colonialism marks the even more innate link between the Holocaust and colonialism – precisely at the moment of warning against the regional warmongering of Zionism as the post/colonial extension of European colonialism.

What Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to Günter Grass’ poem, and many others like him, do not recognise is that precisely when they accuse the German poet of anti-Semitism they are in fact acknowledging the colonial provenance of the Jewish state. The harder they object to Günter Grass, the clearer becomes the fact that the Jewish state is the rhetorical articulation of the very logic of European global colonialism, of which the Jewish Holocaust, as Aimé Césaire rightly recognised, was a local overdose.

There is one, and only one, definitive resolution for that paradoxical consistency to come to an end: the one state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. It is only in that basic, simple, elegant, humane, non-violent, enduring and just resolution that the paradox of Zionism as colonialism, and the structural link between the Jewish Holocaust and European colonialism, can once and for all be resolved.

The fact and the inevitability of that solution, delivering both Israelis and Palestinians from their mutual (however asymmetrical) sufferings, has been staring the world in the eye from day one – and yet the belligerent politics of despair has caused an intentional blindness that prevents that simple vision. So, yes, Günter Grass is right – and in this revelation he could no longer possibly be an anti-Semite:

Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,

Even more, all people, that in this

Region occupied by mania

Live cheek by jowl among enemies,

In the end also to help us.

 

Israeli soldier clubs Danish protester with rifle – guardian.co.uk

In News, Politics, Really?!? on April 17, 2012 at 19:19

Israeli soldier clubs Danish protester with rifle

Click the above link to see the video.. it really is a must see

Denmark has demanded an explanation from the Israeli government for video footage showing a senior Israeli army officer striking a Danish activist in the face with an M16 rifle, an act which has been sharply criticised by the Israeli prime minister, president and chief of staff.

In the video, Lt Col Shalom Eisner, deputy commander of the Jordan Valley territorial brigade, is clearly seen slamming his rifle into the face of Andreas Ias. There was no obvious reason for the assault in the clip, which was broadcast on Israeli television and posted on YouTube. The soldier was suspended by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) pending an investigation.

The video emerged on the same day as Israel launched a security operation to prevent hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists entering the country en route to the West Bank, claiming they were provocateurs and were planning acts of violence. The assault on the Danish man and the operation to block the entry of Palestinian sympathisers have led to questions about whether Israel’s response to activists is excessively heavy-handed and will damage its image.

The Danish ambassador to Israel, Liselotte Plesner, asked for detailed information about the assault on the activist. A statement from Denmark’s foreign foreign minister, Villy Sovndal, said: “We are not aware of all the circumstances surrounding the incident. The Danish ambassador has asked the Israeli authorities for an immediate explanation.”

Ias, 20, was part of a large group of European pro-Palestinian activists cycling near Jericho on Saturday when, according to Palestinian media reports, the IDF stopped the participants. Israel said the protesters were attempting to block the road. In the ensuing scuffle, some activists were injured and taken to hospital, and others were arrested.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/video/embed

Israel forces airline to cancel tickets of British ‘flytilla’ activists -guardian.co.uk

In News, Really?!? on April 14, 2012 at 08:42

jet2 taking off from newcastle

Israel forces airline to cancel tickets of British ‘flytilla’ activists 

no flying… but no refund. 

Israel has forced low-cost airline Jet2.com to cancel the tickets of three women from Manchester intending to travel to Bethlehem via Tel Aviv this weekend for a gathering of pro-Palestinian activists.

Jet2.com informed the women by email that the airline would refuse to carry them and no refund would be paid. The move follows pressure on airlines from Israel to ban known activists.

One of the women, retired nurse Norma Turner, said Jet2.com had caved in to pressure. “It never crossed my mind that Israel could stop people with British passports leaving British airports,” she told the Guardian.

Israel has promised to deny entry to hundreds of activists due to arrive at Tel Aviv airport on Sunday en route to the West Bank for a week of educational and cultural activities.

Up to 2,000 mainly European sympathisers plan to board planes in what has been dubbed a “flytilla” in reference to previous attempts to breach the blockade of Gaza by flotillas of boats.

Jet2.com’s decision followed a similar move by the German carrier Lufthansa, which cancelled the tickets of dozens of activists on Thursday, saying it was complying with Israel’s demand not to fly certain passengers to Tel Aviv. Other airlines are expected to follow suit.

In an email sent to the three women, Jet2.com said it had been obliged to provide the Israeli authorities passengers’ names, dates of birth, passport numbers and nationalities.

Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

In News, Really?!? on April 11, 2012 at 08:00

Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry 

Why have people not rallied behind Gunter Grass? This whole situation is absurd.

 

In the body of the poem itself, titled “What Must Be Said”, Günter Grass, 84, says that he risks the danger of being called an anti-Semite because:

Aged and with my last ink,

That the nuclear power of Israel endangers

The already fragile world peace?

Because it must be said

What even tomorrow may be too late to say…

Remaining silent at these dire circumstances is irresponsible and dangerous:

I am silent no longer

Because I am tired of the hypocrisy

Of the West…

Now that is good enough a reason to break the silence – and you need not invoke fear of being called an anti-Semite. Günter Grass expresses fear of a pending war that “could erase the Iranian people”. He pulls no punches as to the facts that we all know:

Yet why do I forbid myself

To name that other country

In which, for years, even if secretly,

There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand

But beyond control, because no testing is available?

He then points finger at his own country:

Now, though, because in my country

Which from time to time has sought and confronted

The very crime

That is without compare

In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also

With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares

A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,

Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence

Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,

But through fear of what may be conclusive,

I say what must be said.

Setting the dubious fear of being accused of anti-Semitism aside, Günter Grass provides ample reasons – European hypocrisy, German complacency, American barefaced double-standards, Ahmadinejad’s buffoonery and Israeli warmongering – for his poem to assume the global significance that it has. But the importance of the poem is not in stating the obvious – it is in revealing the repressed.