Reviewing Israel after Gaza: An army at war with itself; a country at war with itself.

The following piece by Ethan Bronner appeared in The New York Times fairly recently (Sunday, 3.22.09, in the WEEK IN REVIEW section). I reproduce the first few parargraphs, and comment afterwards.
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JERUSALEM: The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the recent Gaza fighting, highlights a debate here about the rules of war.
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But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.
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Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
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A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.
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Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.
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If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren’t representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?, he said. To whom do we complain?
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[END of Ethan Bronner/New York Times quote]
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A few days ago a response from the Army appeared in the NYT, in which several spokespeople contested and (pretty-much) dismissed the accounts of the soldiers.
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It becomes clearer as the years go by: Israel is a country at war with itself. It doesn’t like to show it –understandably. It doesn’t like to admit it to the world –understandably.
But the signs are unmistakeable.
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What is the basis of this internal war, and what does it mean for Israel’s future? These times could hardly be more momentous, or parlous –more so than ever before. And –not just for Israel, not just for the Middle-East, but for the whole world, beset as it is with a gigantic mess of political and economic turmoil.
(Things are a mess –but, guess what: no one –apparently– has done anything wrong! No-one has admitted to doing wrong.
Our system has broken down. )
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There is of course a new administration in Washington. It is –potentially– a change of enormous proportions. A game-changing change.
We are still in the early days of an evolving Middle East policy. We imagine –considering the appointments– that something new is being developed, is being prepared. Many of those who are and will be involved are well-versed in the different arguments. There are some old hands, some wise heads….
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But –some new thinking?
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We will see. There is our new president with his own personal track record of “ruthless pragmatism” which he has brought to bear on his own life and on his own evolving political career –to great effect.
And now of course he is president. The question is: will “ruthless pragmatism” –with its non-partisan clarity– work with Israelis and Paletinians?
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Israel –we hear– is very suspicious of President Obama. Though many Jews, many Israelis, supported Barack Obama, there is the abiding issue of The Jewish Establishment that just doesn’t like him –that same demographic (hovering around 50%, more or less) that wanted McCain to win. McCain was a Friend of Israel. Barack Obama was not considered a Friend of Israel.
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I posted a piece some while ago –just before the Israel elections– headlined (if I remember correctly) :”Israel! –we got rid of our gang of neocons; now it’s your turn.”
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Of course, Israel did not oblige me. Quite the reverse: it went ahead and gave us the perennial Bibi Netanyahu (–whose American twin, Newt Gingrich, was going around here in the U.S. in late 2008 saying “This is World War Three!”; Mr. Podhoretz –Candidate Giuliani’s foreign-affairs advisor, was calling for the bombing of Iran “as soon as possible”.
The Israel Election also brought us a new rightwing extremist, Mr. Lieberman, who looks like he can out-Bibi Bibi without missing a beat!
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Quite a statement!
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(Though what it will mean for Israel is, at this point, by no means clear. Israel can be trusted to come up with endless variations on the “it’ll get worse before it gets better….before it gets…”worser”. Where we are at at this stage is…unclear)
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There were distressing signs during the Gaza conflict that a frantic paranoia was possessing the neocon-inclined element in Israel. The rhetoric reached a previously unheard-of pitch, a new shrillness that I found quite shocking.
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(There were many examples to be found daily in The Jerusalem Post: many that went WAY over the top. I must confess that one in particular quite floored me: after some allegations were levelled at the IDF accusing it of illegal use of phosphorus in the war, the J-Post ran an opinion piece comparing the allegations to the “Medieval Blood Libel”.)
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The Blood Libel? The Blood Libel???
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At about the same time here in the U.S., AIPAC ran a large advt. in the NYT with a graphic showing rockets being fired into the Upper West Side of Manhattan from New Jersey. (Very basic. Very blunt. Very “in your face”. Making it “real” for us, I suppose.)
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The Bernie Madoff case was in mid-unfold at the time, which didn’t help the Paranoid Front. A petulant letter in the NYT from The Secretary of one of the Jewish organizations complained to the NYT Editors, in terms of “Do you have to keep on mentioning that the guy is Jewish? I mean, you don’t mention that Governor BlaGOYovich is a Serbo-Croat…” (The Governor was our latest ethically-challenged American politician to occupy the media.)

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We are in what seems to have become AIPAC’s –once such a worthy and necessary defender (and educator)– new territory here; the difficult territory of “taking offence” and “giving offence”. A fertile field to be sure, in this era of sleights –real, imagined, welcomed, hoped for, inflated…..
[Let us play along at this: WE will rise above provocation by not rising to it. Let us therefore ignore his choice of a Gentile name that “happens” to have the ethnic slur of “GOY” embedded in it. We will suspend our right to feel offended by this. We could adapt that hollow opportunist line that John McCain used in last year’s the Russian-Georgian “interface”: “We are all Serbo-Croats now….”. But we won’t]

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At a discussion at a Jewish Forum –possibly the 92nd St. Y.– reported recently in the NYT, a Jewish panel discussed every angle of the Madoff case (note: see my poem “Bernie Madoff has his day in court” elsewhere in this blog).
One panellist made a strong case for dismissing AIPAC et al: they had “outlived” their usefulness for Jews.
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To make his point he quoted the tiny number of cases of anti-semitism that AIPAC had come up with in 2008. But –as he pointed out– AIPAC had nonetheless raised billions of dollars in donations (flowing no doubt from the “Rockets Over The Upper West Side” and similar aggravating advts.) in the process of publicizing them. (I have some friends who live up that way, some of whom are still vulnerable to these sorts of statements –“Canards” Mr. Foxman likes to call them– though more and more of them are decidedly not.)
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This sort of strongly anti-AIPAC statement from this sort of person (the panellist at the Jewish Forum) was new to me.
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There was applause for the man who made the observations: many in the audience clearly agreed with him.
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I would have to say: AIPAC’s reign is plainly on the wane.
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I want to change the scene here for a moment: the reason will shortly become clear.
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Here in the U.S.A. over the last couple of years, a fascinating, even breath-taking, transition has been taking place.
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In the sensitive arena of African-American evolution, the Old, or at least, the Older Guard –Jesse Jackson et al. (including Al himself, of course)– found itself being gradually sidelined with the rise of Barack Obama, a whipper-snapper if ever there was one. A politically inexperienced Barack had run in Chicago years ago against old black activist Bobby Rush, who defeated him roundly. Essentially Rush won that race by tagging Barack “not black enough”.
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Jesse had always presented himself as the inheritor of the Martin Luther King Jr. mantle –the next in line. He was the longtime national African-American leader, the spokesman for “his people”, the minister to his flock. He had a sort of relentless gravitas to him that had –arguably, at the best of times– served him well enough. He could speak with passion and some poetry; his essential case of “justice” was unarguable; he would not be ignored –despite a delivery that was sometimes…shall we say, “oddly punctuated” (–something that the “Jesse Jackson” guy on Saturday Night Live captured effectively.)
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As Jesse aged, there was a feeling that the mantle was slipping away from him (and from Al too, though Al always displayed rather more natural flair for the job, even if he lacked some of that Jackson gravitas.)
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And when Barack showed up and we ALL –not only African-Americans or Kenyan-Kansans– began to hear his story, it was very clear that a new era was dawning. Had dawned. Times were changing. The rhetoric was changing.
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The narrative was changing.
(“Narrative” has become the BIG WORD these days. Everything is a “narrative”. I can only say that I knew this word –even used it– when it was still a little word; when no-one would give it “the time of day”. I am NOT here saying that I was the ONLY person using it; that nobody else knew what it meant.
At least that’s my narrative and I’m sticking to it.)

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We heard so much about The Race Card. And we heard that Barack Obama was not going to play it. In his speech about race, in which he talked about the Reverend Wright being from an “older generation” that was “understandably bitter” (–but bitter none the less–) it was not too hard to infer that Barack regarded other leaders of the flock similarly, as having grown ineffective, and drifting out of touch with the new realities.
(At a particularly tense time in the summer of 2008 when RightWingRadio –Limba-ugh and Sean Inanity and the rest of them– was hurling every racially-loaded “single” entendre it could come up with at Barack Obama, many people actually began to fear an assassination attempt on Barack. In one single weekend the Reverend Wright took a series of explosive and widely-reported shots at Barack that seemed that they might well have done him in right there and then. It is not too outlandish to term them “assassination attempts”.)
Could things possibly get any more ironic? Barack Obama “assassinated” not by a rightwing nut but by a bitter old reverend/activist or two; and John McCain, in turn, “assassinated” by rightwing extremists –Limba-ugh, Inanity, Ann Coulter et al. among them.
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And not too long after the Reverend Wright had fired off his shots at Barack, we had that “Exquisite Media Accident” of an un-fortunately placed open-microphone in the immediate vicinity of Jesse Jackson which overheard the Reverend giving voice to some musings –and because this is a Family Blog, I will be circumspect in my mention of them– “darkly Shakespearean ‘testicular musings'” concerning the person, the anatomy, of Barack Obama. That “not black enough” whipper-snapper! (Who is now our President!)
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And as if to sum up a whole era, and signify the passing of the mantle, we later had the sight of a tearful Jesse Jackson in the crowd at Soldiers Field in Chicago the night of Barack’s Victory speech –though who among us would hazard even a hint of a guess at the complex inner emotional mechanisms that might have caused those tears to flow.
Watching the great event on TV with a large group of not-too mildly-ecstatic, cheering Greenwich Village friends, I have to report that a rather unkind mention was made of an eye-dropper when we were shown cut after cut to the persistently-tearful Rev.
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Now let us return to “Israel after Gaza”.
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Outlandish as I know it will seem to some of my friends, I have a definite intuition that a similar “passing of the mantle” is actually already in process with respect to AIPAC, and –further– I sense that it will prove unstoppable.
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Why do I think this?
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A little story (which lies at the heart of the situation): in 2000, some months before the US election, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a long “what manner of man” piece about Presidential candidate George W. Bush.
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It recounted an extraordinary story of a conversation that a newly born-again W. had with his Episcopalian mother. He announced to her the Christian fundamentalist belief that “Jews cannot go to heaven; Jews will NOT go to heaven.”
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She contradicted him: “I don’t think it’s…quite…like that, dear.” They decided to refer the matter to the Rev. Billy Graham –who was due to visit– for resolution.
The NYT story recounted that Billy Graham took W. for a long walk on the beach at Kennebunkport, put his arm around his shoulder and told him: “George, you are right! But you can never mention it.”
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(To those of us with an urge to follow these things, and who in this case have been around long enough to do so, the story had an intriguing earlier resonance: it is well recorded that Richard Nixon and Billy Graham had had a very similar exchange –though perhaps more secularly-based– in the Oval Office 25 or so years before, about the “Jewish-controlled press in New York”. In the intervening years the incident has taken on something of a sense of caricature –the darkly conspiratorial and tightly-wound Nixon with the fair-locked Reverend in one of those loose-drape suits with the floppy lapels that the younger Billy favored.)
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[By way of background, it is by now fairly widely known that Christian Evangelicals consider themselves Great Friends of Israel: Israel, they say, must “continue to exist” so that The Messiah can come.
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It “says so” in The Bible.
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They embrace Israel and all Israelis, and envelope them in warmest Evangelical love and protection. And it is fair to say that Israel and Israelis embrace them back. It is –apparently– a lovefest: how wonderful to be so beloved by a group that traditionally had tended to regard “The Jews” as –shall we say– Inimical to Christianity!
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The (Christian Evangelical) Messiah’s coming signals the End of the World, the onset of The Rapture, the imminent Apocalypse.
At which point –in the Christian Evangelist belief– everything changes for “The Jews”. It is “Convert to Christainity, or die and go to hell” time –not to put too fine a point on it.
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Yes, friends, do not deny it. There is an apocalyptic asterisk over the words “Friend”* and “Must Continue”*. The warning* on the label reads “Revoke after Rapture.
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This was the outrageous belief that George W. Bush –our President-to-be!– was embracing; that he argued over with his Episcopalian Mom (who –in a cruel twist–would not be considered a Full and Proper, died-in-the-wool, washed-in-the-blood Christian by her own son W’s belief!); and this was the outrageous belief that subsequently received the endorsement of the Rev. Billy Graham.
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(John McCain’s 2008 seeking of the endorsement of the “similarly-configured” Reverend Hagee put him in the same neighborhood, but that is a separate story.)
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Back to Bush.
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The only thing that changed was that W. took the Rev. Billy’s advice and “never spoke about it”. The Bush “Message” was famously tightly-controlled and buttoned-up. Until…. it wasn’t.
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We had had some inklings to the extreme nature of W’s belief. In a now famous interview with the Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward asked W. if he had asked his father for advice about Iraq before he ordered the invasion.
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Bush 43 said no, that he had spoken to his Real Father (that is, “The Almighty” up in heaven) about invading Iraq. Apparently The Almighty gave W. the go-ahead on the war–though if W. had only thought to check “with upstairs” about that little matter of Saddam’s possession of WMDs –still the default, we-all-believed-it, bogus “casus belli”– we all could have been spared….a LOT of trouble. Death and dismemberment of Americans AND Iraqis. A lot of Blood. Treasure. Reputation.
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Here is my point about AIPAC.
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George W. Bush has an outrageously Anti-Semitic, “Jews convert or die” extreme-right Christian belief, and THERE NEVER WAS A PEEP out of AIPAC. They never said a word.
In all their earlier decades-long career of monitoring and denouncing instances of anti-semitism, AIPAC would have spoken out.
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But now, not a peep from AIPAC.
Abe Foxman –always ready to jump on an anti-semitic “canard” at the drop of a hat– was, simply, Utterly Silent.
I think that was the time when he lead the switch from principle to politics –the time when he and AIPAC surrendered their moral authority. And for a mess of temporary pottage.
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Where is the Barack Obama of Israel?
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(I know, know. You’re right. It took us a long long time to find ours….)


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