Saturday, April 20, 2013

In Praise of Emotion

IT WAS a moving experience. Moments that spoke not only to the mind, but also – and foremost – to the heart.

Last Sunday, on the eve of Israel’s Remembrance Day for the fallen in our wars, I was invited to an event organized by the activist group Combatants for Peace and the Forum of Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Parents. 
The first surprise was that it took place at all. In the general atmosphere of discouragement of the Israeli peace camp after the recent elections, when almost no one dared even to mention the word peace, such an event was heartening.
The second surprise was its size. It took place in one of the biggest halls in the country, Hangar 10 in Tel-Aviv’s fair grounds. It holds more than 2000 seats. A quarter of an hour before the starting time, attendance was depressingly sparse. Half an hour later, it was choke full. (Whatever the many virtues of the peace camp, punctuality is not among them.)
The third surprise was the composition of the audience. There were quite a lot of white-haired old-timers, including myself, 
but the great majority was composed of young people, at least half of them young women. Energetic, matter-of-fact youngsters, very Israeli. I felt as if I was in a relay race. My generation passing the baton on to the next. The race continues.
BUT THE outstanding feature of the event was, of course, its content. Israelis and Palestinians were mourning together for their dead sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, victims of the conflict and wars, occupation and resistance (a.k.a. terror.)
An Arab villager spoke quietly of his daughter, killed by a soldier on her way to school. A Jewish mother spoke of her soldier son, killed in one of the wars. All in a subdued voice. Without pathos. Some spoke Hebrew, some Arabic.
They spoke of their first reaction after their loss, the feelings of hatred, the thirst for revenge. And then the slow change of heart. The understanding that the parents on the other side, the Enemy, felt exactly like them, that their loss, their mourning, their bereavement was exactly as their own.
They spoke of their first reaction after their loss, the feelings of hatred, the thirst for revenge. And then the slow change of heart. The understanding that the parents on the other side, the Enemy, felt exactly like them, that their loss, their mourning, their bereavement was exactly as their own.
For years now, bereaved parents of both sides have been meeting regularly to find solace in each other's company. Among all the peace groups acting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are, perhaps, the most heart-lifting.
IT WAS not easy for the Arab partners to get to this meeting. At first, they were denied permission by the army to enter Israel. Gabi Lasky, the indomitable advocate of many peace groups (including Gush Shalom), had to threaten with an application to the Supreme Court, just to obtain a limited concession: 45 Palestinians from the West Bank were allowed to attend.
(It is a routine measure of the occupation: before every Jewish holiday the West Bank is completely cut off from Israel – except for the settlers, of course. This is how most Palestinians become acquainted with Jewish holidays.)
What was so special about the event was that the Israeli-Arab fraternization took place on a purely human level, without political speeches, without the slogans which have become, frankly, a bit stale.
For two hours, we were all engulfed by human emotions, by a profound feeling for each other. And it felt good.
I AM writing this to make a point that I feel very strongly about: the importance of emotions in the struggle for peace.
I am not a very emotional person myself. But I am acutely conscious of the place of emotions in the political struggle. I am proud of having coined the phrase “In politics, it is irrational to ignore the irrational.” Or, if you prefer, “in politics, it is rational to accept the irrational.”
This is a major weakness of the Israeli peace movement. It is exceedingly rational – indeed, perhaps too rational. We can easily prove that Israel needs peace, that without peace we are doomed to become an apartheid state, if not worse.
All over the world, leftists are more sober than rightists. When the leftists are propounding a logical argument for peace, reconciliation with former enemies, social equality and help for the disadvantaged, the rightists answer with a volley of emotional and irrational slogans.
But masses of people are not moved by logic. They are moved by their feelings.
One expression of feelings – and a generator of feelings – is the language of songs. One can gauge the intensity of a movement by its melodies. Who can imagine the marches of Martin Luther King without “We shall overcome”? Who can think about the Irish struggle without its many beautiful songs? Or the October revolution without its host of rousing melodies?
The Israeli peace movement has produced one single song: a sad appeal of the dead to the living. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated within minutes of singing it, its blood-stained text found on his body. But all the many writers and composers of the peace movement have not produced one single rousing anthem – while the hate-mongers can draw on a wealth of religious and nationalist hymns.
IT IS said that one does not have to like one's adversary in order to make peace with them. One makes peace with the enemy, as we all have declaimed hundreds of times. The enemy is the person you hate.
I have never quite believed in that, and the older I get, the less I do.
True, one cannot expect millions of people on both sides to love each other. But the core of peace-makers, the pioneers, cannot fulfill their tasks if there is not an element of mutual sympathy between them.
A certain type of Israeli peace activist does not accept this truism. Sometimes one has the feeling that they truly want peace – but not really with the Arabs. They love peace, because they love themselves. They stand before a mirror and tell themselves: Look how wonderful I am! How humane! How moral!
I remember how much animosity I aroused in certain progressive circles when I created our peace symbol: the crossed flags of Israel and Palestine. When one of us raised this emblem at a Peace Now demonstration in the late eighties, it caused a scandal. He was rudely asked to leave, and the movement publicly apologized.
To give an impetus to a real peace movement, you have to imbue it with the spirit of empathy for the other side. You must have a feeling for their humanity, their culture, their narrative, their aspirations, their fears, their hopes. And that applies, of course, to both sides.
Nothing can be more damaging to the chances of peace than the activity of fanatical pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians abroad, who think that they are helping their preferred side by demonizing the other. You don’t make peace with demons.
FRATERNIZATION BETWEEN Palestinians and Israelis is a must. No peace movement can succeed without it.
And here we came to a painful paradox: the more this fraternization is needed, the less there is.
During the last few years, there has been a growing estrangement between the two sides. Yasser Arafat was very conscious of the need for contact, and did much to further it. (I constantly urged him to do more.) Since his death, this effort has receded.
On the Israeli side, peace efforts have become less and less popular. Fraternization takes place every week in Bil’in and on many other battlefields, but the major peace organizations are not too eager to meet.
On the Palestinian side there is a lot of resentment, a (justified) feeling that the Israeli peace movement has not delivered. Worse, that joint public meetings could be considered by the Palestinian masses as a form of “normalization” with Israel, something like collaboration with the enemy.
This must be changed. Only large-scale, public and heart-felt cooperation between the peace movements of the two sides can convince the public – on both sides – that peace is possible.
THESE THOUGHTS were running through my head as I listened to the simple words of Palestinians and Israelis in that big remembrance meeting.
It was all there: the spirit, the emotion, the empathy, the cooperation.
It was a human moment. That's how it all starts.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

CREF Deaf to Shareholders’ Socially Responsible Investment Concerns: Retirement Giant Refuses to Place Human Rights Issue on its Shareholder Ballot
March 26, 2013
Contact: We Divest Campaign, ;

ST LOUIS – TIAA-CREF has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to protect it from liability for refusing to allow its participants to vote on a shareholder proposal. The proposal, submitted by over 200 clients, asks trustees to end investments in companies that profit from serious human rights violations, including those profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

The proposal cites as one example Veolia Environnement, a company profiting from the operation of settler-only buses on segregated roads and a landfill dumping Israeli waste on Palestinian villages’ lands in the West Bank. Said Steve Tamari, a Palestinian-American educator and member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, on behalf of hundreds of CREF filers who signed onto the resolution:

“TIAA-CREF has not only ignored our moral concerns, but now refuses to let us vote or have any voice on the issue. We are hundreds of investors who are deeply troubled that we are forced to support segregation and other abhorrent human rights violations in order to maintain our retirement accounts.”

The Company has made legalistic objections to keep its clients from voting on the issue, taking the position that pervasive segregation, widespread land theft that deprives a farming population of its livelihoods and food, and other major and more violent human rights violations are not sufficiently “significant” social policy issues to justify a shareholder vote. This last assertion comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, where he stated that “continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace,” and “the Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it” (March 21, 2013).

Condemnation of the Israeli occupation on human rights grounds has swept from Europe -- where public pension funds, banks, and other major institutions have divested billions from companies involved in the occupation, including Veolia, which has lost more than $15 billion in contracts following boycott and divestment campaigns -- to the U.S. Veolia’s bids for contracts around the country have been heavily contested, shelved, or withdrawn completely in cities including St. Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, and Yolo County, Calif. Three campuses of the University of California recently adopted divestment resolutions. And when the Brooklyn City Council tried to squelch an event last month on divestment and similar campaigns, the Council was strongly and widely condemned -- by the mayor of New York, among others -- for trying to stifle free speech. TIAA-CREF now aligns itself with that same anti-democratic spirit.

The We Divest Campaign, a coalition effort that began in 2010 urging TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, is calling the Company’s refusal to hear their own clients’ human rights concerns a “double standard,” given TIAA-CREF’s otherwise active promotion of shareholder resolutions directed at companies in which it invests.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Israel Set To Jail Teenage Conscientious Objector for the Eighth Time

The Guardian, Sunday, March 31, 2013
It is a routine Nathan Blanc knows well. At 9am on Tuesday morning, the 19-year-old will report, as instructed in his draft papers, to a military base near Tel Aviv. There he will state his objection to serving in the Israeli army. Following his refusal to enlist, Blanc expects to be arrested and sentenced to between 10 and 20 days in jail. He will then be taken to Military Prison Number 6 to serve his time. And then, following his release, the cycle will begin over again.

The reason why Blanc knows what to expect is that this will be the eighth time the teenage conscientious objector has been jailed in the past 19 weeks. Since the date of his original call-up for military service, Blanc has spent more than 100 days in prison; on one occasion, he was released on a Tuesday and re-imprisoned two days later on a Thursday.
Blanc began to consider the possibility of refusing the draft several years ago. "It was a very hard decision, it took me a long time to get to it," he says.
The turning point was Operation Cast Lead, the war in Gaza that began at the end of 2008 and ended three weeks later with a Palestinian death toll of around 1,400. In a statement issued when he was first imprisoned, Blanc said: "The wave of aggressive militarism that swept the country then, the expressions of mutual hatred, and the vacuous talk about stamping out terror and creating a deterrent effect were the primary trigger for my refusal."
The government, he said, was "not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it … We will talk of deterrence, we will kill some terrorist, we will lose some civilians on both sides, and we will prepare the ground for a new generation full of hatred on both sides … We, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game."
Operation Cast Lead
In an interview with the Guardian, he says: "The war going on in this country for more than 60 years could have ended a long time ago. But both sides are giving into extremists and fundamentalists. The occupation was supposed to be temporary, but now no one speaks of it ending."
The Israeli state, he adds, keeps people "under our control" without democratic rights. Palestinians are subject to "collective punishment" for the actions of a few.
Most Israelis grow up knowing that compulsory military service – three years for boys, two for girls – lies at the end of their school days. "Going to the army" is a deeply ingrained, collective experience in Israeli national identity.
For some, it's an eagerly-anticipated patriotic duty; for others, a rite of passage; for a few, a difficult moral dilemma. But it is rare for people to refuse on grounds of conscience. Blanc says that since November, he has been the only conscientious objector among the 300-400 inmates in Military Prison Number 6. Most of his friends have come to accept his position – "we had the arguments a long time ago" – and some who are currently serving as combat soldiers now say they admire it. His parents, despite some anxiety, are supportive.
Blanc rejected the option taken by some objectors of claiming a medical condition that would exempt him from military service. "I didn't want to lie. This is a point of principle." Neither could he seek exemption of the grounds of pacifism. "The army has a narrow definition of pacifism – someone who would never apply force in any circumstances. The [IDF's] conscience committee asks tough questions, and I would not be able to say never. I think force should be used rarely, but it can't be completely ruled out."
Blanc is willing to undertake national service in lieu of the compulsory stint in the army, but thus far the military has refused to countenance this. In a statement, the IDF said it could not comment on Blanc's specific case, but conscription was a result of Israel's security situation. Although there were limited grounds for exemption, those called up were "fully aware of their responsibilities towards the military and the consequences for failing" to carry them out.
Blanc hesitates when asked if he would describe himself as a patriot. "I feel a strong connection to this country, and I'm proud of it in many ways. But I have an aversion to nationalism." 
Prison life has taken some adjustment. Blanc, who shares a tent with around 20 other prisoners, is woken for roll call around 5am and works eight hours a day in the kitchen. The inmates, who wear surplus US military uniforms, can make calls on a public phone but are forbidden to keep their mobiles. There is a prison library, but no gym.
"I have no idea how long this will go on for," said Blanc. "The bad scenario is that I will be put in front of a military court and sentenced to something like a year in prison. The better scenario is that they'll get tired of this, and will let me do national service instead."
It is hard for Blanc to see beyond the game of cat-and-mouse in which he and the IDF are currently engaged, but he says: "I don't want to deal with politics and conflict all my life." He would like to study science or technology at university. He brushes aside a suggestion that his current stance could harm his future prospects. "I'm proud of what I'm doing. I may have caused some damage to my future, but it's minor compared to the principle at stake."