Saturday 5 June 2010

5 things about the Gaza flotilla

5 things about the Gaza flotilla from Velveteen Rabbi
Please click to the original for extra indepth links for further background material

Among my reasons for not posting again about the Gaza flotilla situation: I'm not sure I have anything new or fresh to add to the conversation; my computer time is quite limited these days and I'm not sure I want to spend it writing about this; often when I post about Israel, I get comments which depress me deeply.

Among my reasons for posting again about it even so: if I want to see more thoughtful blogging from progressive Jews on this subject, I need to speak up too.

Imagine me with two little cartoon figures hovering over my shoulders. One whispers into one ear, "Let it go! Writing about things which make you angry and sad is not good for your equanimity!" The other whispers into my other ear, "Don't take advantage of the luxury of being able to set this aside. Highlight the voices you want to see highlighted."

Guess which little cartoon angel won out.

Here are five things I think need to be said:


1. So much depends

...on who's telling the story, and which sources they choose to cite. A few days ago, Gershom Gorenberg posted A Brief History of the Gaza Folly, noting:

Activists who were on board say the Israeli commandos fired before being attacked; the Israeli military says the soldiers were defending themselves from a mob. Both sides present film clips of the nighttime struggle to back up their case.

I appreciate Gorenberg's careful unraveling of the decisions which led to this situation -- and his pointed observation that both sides present film clips to support their claims. In recent days CNN has reported that eyewitness accounts of what happened on the Mavi Marmara differ. Which is to say: the story looks different depending on who's telling it. It seems to me that a lot of people are overlooking that, and we shouldn't.

2. Provocation

In my previous post I asked for links to essays by women, because it bothered me (still does) that the chorus of voices I've been reading on this issue is so overwhelmingly male. One of the essays to which I was pointed was Emily Hauser's OK, now I'm pissed, in which she writes:

Of course the flotilla was a provocation — it was designed, all along, to draw attention to Israel’s collective punishment of the population of Gaza. Of course the activists didn’t acquiesce to Israel’s demands that they turn around, of course they knew something crazy would happen, of course they were taking an enormous risk to make a political point — that is the way that civil disobedience and activism work!

Hauser has a point -- and it seems to me that Israel played right into the trap. A number of commentators I've read have suggested that those who made the decision to attack the Mavi Marmara ought to have remembered the story of the SS Exodus. (If that reference doesn't ring a bell, this NYTimes blog piece provides good context.)

The flotilla's arrival was intended to highlight the plight of the people of Gaza and to draw Israel into precisely this kind of response (see Leon Weseltier's Operation Make The World Hate Us.) In a recent Salon article, reporter Taghreed El-Khodary calls Israel's response to the flotilla a "present" for Hamas. Israel's response to the Mavi Marmara is indicative of the kind of problematic use of force which characterizes the Occupation writ large.

3. Unnecessary

And the hell of it is, things didn't have to play out like this. Here's an excerpt from a document called J Street on Gaza Flotilla and Aftermath:

We harbor no illusions about the motives of those who organized the flotilla. While the cargo they carried was humanitarian in nature, their intent was to force the Israeli government to confront the consequences of the blockade of Gaza - including by using the media coverage to further damage Israel's standing in world opinion.

They have succeeded not only in creating negative publicity but in highlighting for the world that Israel's actions and policies go far beyond the measures necessary to prevent the import of weapons and other material aid to terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Israel may have had the necessary legal justification to enforce its blockade, but the correct question isn't whether it had the right to use force, but whether that decision was strategically wise and furthered the clear goal of promoting the security of a Jewish, democratic and safe Israel. We believe it did not.

(While I'm at it, I also recommend J Street's set of Key questions and answers on the Gaza Flotilla.) Along similar lines, a recent statement from Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun notes that:

[T]here was no need for any of this to have happened. Israel could have waited for the boats to arrive at shore and then sent military to search what was being brought to Gaza to ensure that it was in fact humanitarian aid. Moreover, as the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom pointed out on May 31, the core of the issue remains Israel's attempt to starve and punish the entire population of Gaza for the activities of Hamas.

As inevitable as this clash now seems to have been, it didn't have to happen this way.

4. Counterproductive

That word can apply both to the raid on the Mavi Marmara, and the blockade of Gaza writ large.

It seems to me that the blockade is not a wise way to ensure Israel's safety and security. Retired Israeli Brigadier General Meir Elran agrees: "The blockade policy has not proven itself in the last three years, and I don't think it will prove itself in the next three." (That's from the Washington Post's In Gaza, a complex, dysfunctional way of life.)

In his essay Of Boycotts and Blockades: An Analysis of the Gaza Flotilla Attack, published recently in Zeek, Shaul Magid notes:

Israel’s counter-argument that it needs to blockade Gaza to protect its own security is real and should not be minimized by the international community. However, one can also justifiably question its sincerity when it turns down an offer of diplomatic relations with a moderate Arab country over the quantity of cement that country wants to import. One can question Israel’s sincerity when its government decides to stage a risky Rambo-like commando operation against a flotilla that had passed inspection by a country with which it has (or had) good relations.

Even given the security concerns, was there no other alternative to blockade? Was there no alternative to boarding the humanitarian flotilla? Is what’s at stake really only security? Or is this also about collective punishment?

I believe that Israel's policies of collective punishment on the inhabitants of Gaza are neither effective nor ethical. Back when Operation Cast Lead was new, I wrote, "What aims could the 'operations' have had, to have been accomplished in this manner? It looks to me, from here, like what was achieved was a lot of bloodshed and suffering which will give rise to more bloodshed and suffering." I wish I had been wrong about that.

5. The Shadow

In her recent Ha'aretz essay, The Shadow Over Israel, author Margaret Atwood writes about what she calls The Shadow:

The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel's treatment of the Palestinians
linked with Israel's own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.

To be clear, there is dehumanization on both sides -- and that dehumanization leads to a vicious cycle of violence and destruction. And now it has led to the needless deaths of several internationals aboard a Turkish ship, which have captured world attention in a way that the ordinary deaths of Israelis and Palestinians tragically often don't.

There's a natural inclination to take sides when something like this unfolds, and the weird echo chamber effect of internet homophily can mean that each of us falls into the trap of preaching to her or his own kind of choir. (And those who do visit blogs authored by people with whom they disagree tend, I've found, to make those visits on a drop-in basis with the intent of arguing, rather than as part of a sustained and collegial conversation about differences of opinion among friends.) But I'd like to invite us to try to feel empathy.

It is possible to empathize with the Israeli soldiers who were placed in the untenable position of carrying out this mission while also being furious at the government which made the decision to put them there. It is possible to empathize with the people of Gaza who are living under blockade while also being furious at those among them who would fire rockets into Israel. It is possible to empathize with the earnest do-gooders on the flotilla while also recognizing that the flotilla was also a PR stunt designed to goad Israel into behaving badly. It is possible to empathize with Israel's beleaguered position while also being exasperated that Israel behaved badly in exactly the way this incident was meant to provoke. And most of all, it is possible to sincerely regret the loss of life regardless of whose "side" one is on.
I commented:Irrelevantly but relevantly I point to Chairman Mao who knew just how to draw the Americans into Vietnam and support the Vietcong war from just off-stage in the manner that we dangle a small ball of wool in front of a kitten. Many surmised this at the time, but it was brilliantly described in this decade's book on Mao by Jung Chang and her partner.
The wise stand back from the tirades on both sides and look for the hand offstage in the wings.
Good post. May I borrow it.

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