Tag Archives: peace

Walking Over to the Other Side of the Pro-Peace Debate

By Scott Fox

Soon after I sat down at my table at a fundraiser sponsored by the local Justice in Palestine chapter, the elderly woman sitting next to me said, “I see you crossed over to the other side.”

What she meant was that I had crossed over to the St. Olaf side of town for the event. Northfield, Minn., has two liberal arts colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. Carleton is on the east side; St. Olaf is on the west. Even though the two institutions are only a 20-minute walk from one another, it is not too often that students from each school interact.

I could not help but see a parallel between Carleton and St. Olaf and the difference between my beliefs and those of Justice in Palestine. In other words, I could see where they are coming from but it still feels like crossing over to an uncomfortable side.

I am a member of J Street. The conditions in which Palestinians have lived are unacceptable. I even believe that Jerusalem should be divided, as long as Jews have access to the Western Wall. However, when I first found out about Northfielders for Justice in Palestine/Israel, I was hesitant to sign up for the group’s email list. Even though they also advocate a two-state solution, I assume that groups like these are tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, or just misinformation. Thinking I was possibly being too biased against them, I decided to go to their Palestine Gala Dinner to gain a better understanding.

When I entered the church lobby for the event, I encountered a barrage of posters and pamphlets that were mostly biased in favor of the Palestinians. One poster was calling to “break the bonds” and have the U.S. divest from Israel. One brochure read, “Israel is actually involved in an unremitting and merciless vendetta against the subjugated Palestinian people in order to expel them and acquire their land.” The same brochure did make it clear that not all Israelis felt this way and that people should seek out left-wing Israeli opinions. Overall, the display in the lobbying felt off-putting.

Inside, it was much warmer. The sold-out function had brought in much of the Northfield community, though most of the attendees were gray-haired. Carleton’s Arabic professor and his friends provided Oud music. St. Olaf students dressed in full traditional garb performed dabke dances. Before everyone could eat the delicious spinach pie and mujaddara, Christian, Jewish and Muslim blessings were said. The affair raised money for Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a Christian charity dedicated to helping all Palestinians in the West Bank.

Many of the people there had prior awareness of the complexities of the situation in the Holy Land. At my table, a Lutheran pastor who had led an English-speaking congregation in the Old City of Jerusalem sat next to me. Two young women who had spent a year doing missionary work in Bethlehem sat across from me. The pastor was distressed with Netanyahu but did not place sole blame on any government. He recalled how there was so much optimism for peace when he was in Jerusalem during the 2008 U.S. election. Three years later, he feels that hope has been totally crushed. Feeling the communal spirit and compassion of the people around me, I gained more respect for the group doing what it could to help the oppressed Palestinians.

But the main speaker of the evening, Jennifer Loewenstein, Associate Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, made the event take a negative turn. I supported her fight for human rights but felt she was unfairly harsh and incorrect in characterizing the Israeli government’s policies.

Loewenstein described the situation as a “brutal, sadistic occupation” where Israelis are starving Palestinians, applying a divide and conquer strategy that isolates West Bank towns. She called Israel’s actions genocidal. With walls around Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel limiting what food can be shipped into Gaza, conditions may be terrible but not genocidal when the Palestinian Arab population is growing at a faster rate than that of Israeli Jews.

Loewenstein also presented a skewed view of Israeli history with less than accurate statements that emphasized Jews taking Palestinian land without mentioning any reasons for why a Jewish state was necessary such as rising anti-Semitism. She stated that the Arab population rejected the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan not only because they felt Jews were taking land that belonged to them but also because they got the worse half of Palestine, describing their portion of the partition as unfertile desert. Actually, the plan gave Palestinians most of the more fertile Northern Israel. Most of the Jews’ portion of the land was in the Negev Desert.

Loewenstein cast blame on Israel’s extremely irrational fear of being driven into the sea even though the Israeli mainland had never been attacked by a foreign enemy until 2006, and its armed forces have always been superior to those of the Arab states combined. But she appeared to forget that Israel’s neighbors invaded the land on its first day of existence, and that Israel frequently faced the threat of attack ever since, and was not always as sure of its military might as it is today. Although Israel has made preemptive strikes in some of its fighting, it was because the threat of an attack was imminent.

“When looking at the conflict, it is two countries saying how much they want peace. But those two countries, the U.S. and Israel, are doing anything in their power to stop it from happening,” said Loewenstein, citing a “military-industrial based economy” in which the U.S’s of high-tech weapons to Israel is extremely beneficial to both countries.

From talking to a few people, it appeared the crowd primarily did not have as extreme views as she does. However, when asking the two young women at my table about whether Loewenstein’s denunciation of Israel was a little too harsh, she said that she was just “preaching to the choir.” At least some of the room supported divestment from Israel, a diplomatic tactic that I feel breaks apart the needed U.S.-Israel dialogue on how to attain peace.

I left feeling a little better about Justice in Palestine groups but remained worried that Loewenstein’s lecture could cause some of the crowd who did not know as much about the situation to leave misinformed. But crossing over to the other side of your beliefs or your town often brings something new.

Back to the Future: Obama’s Peace Plan

by Amanda Walgrove

In 1967, the 25th amendment to the constitution was ratified, the U.S. was in the thick of the Vietnam War, Benjamin Netanyahu first joined the Israeli army and the Six-Day war ended with a U.N.-mediate ceasefire established between Syria and Israel. The year 1967 brought the release of The Doors’ self-titled debut album, Elvis Presley’s marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu, the inaugural Superbowl game on network television, and the birth of Julia Roberts. What a different world it was. Tweeting was still something that only birds could do and revolutions were not started on Facebook, because back then a facebook was a company photo album.

In late May, President Obama delivered a speech that sparked a wealth of controversy and a barrage of criticism after he insisted that Israel and Palestine return to their 1967 borders. Netanyahu urgently responded that the 1967 borders would be impossible to return to because they are indefensible. There are geographical and demographical changes that have occurred in the past 44 years and these cannot be overlooked.

Defending his initial remarks at an address to AIPAC a few days later, Obama reiterated his statements in hopes of clarifying them. Obama insisted he hadn’t said anything new in his speech when he mentioned the 1967 borders, remarking that he was only highlighting a continuation of policy from previous administrations. He felt that he was publicly saying what had always been privately believed. He continued to defend his statement and modify it at the same time. According to Obama, redefining the borders would be based on “mutual swaps,” meaning Israel and Palestine would decide on a border that is different from 1967 but allows them to account for the geopolitical changes that have taken place since then. So they won’t be the 1967 borders, but they will be similar. He even quoted the Talmud, adding, “So long as a person has life, they should never abandon faith.”

Somewhat assuaged, AIPAC issued a statement commending Obama on his speech, citing his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and his “his recognition that Israel cannot be expected negotiate with a group that denies its fundamental right to exist.” Even Netanyahu backed down a bit from the severity of his previous remarks and said that he was “determined to work together” with the president to advance peace.

After trudging through this week’s speeches, rebuttals, and the commentaries, it seems that Netanyahu and Obama wholeheartedly agree on the necessity to preserve a strong and secure Israel, supported by an alliance with America. They can even tout the same key phrases such as “advancement of peace” and “defense of democracy.” It is only how to go about accomplishing these things for which they seem to have trouble coming up with a compromise. Obama said that he and Netanyahu disagree, as friends do, but have always had an open and honest relationship. Both even agree that there is no time to debate and fumble with foreign policy objectives as Israel sits in a hotbed of political turmoil and terrorist threats. But how speedily can peace negotiations be finalized with Palestine when Israel and its ally can’t even determine how to approach such a peace deal?

Along with abortion and gay rights, Israel support is increasingly becoming a hot button political issue, leaving the Jewish vote for the upcoming election in flux. NPR recently ran an article questioning if American Jews were much more concerned with domestic issues, such as health care, than they are with Israel. Still, Obama and GOP hopefuls seem to be scrambling for those votes in any way possible. In a conference call earlier this week, Obama begged Jewish reporters not to perpetuate the hype that is in any way anti-Israel. Meanwhile, it was just announced that Haim Saban, a billionaire Israeli-American donor to the Democrats has announced he won’t be donating to President Obama’s re-election effort. He feels that Obama needs to show more support of Israel and make a visit to the Jewish homeland.

Although the U.S. remains a powerful and crucial ally for Israel, in the end, it’s not our call on how Israel sets its borders. And with Palestinian aggression, it may not be Israel’s call either. Chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council Marc R. Stanley responded to Obama’s AIPAC speech, saying, “Support for Israel isn’t a Republican issue, it isn’t a Democratic issue, it is an American issue. The future safety and security of a democratic, Jewish State of Israel is safeguarded when we all work together, not when we resort to petty political games and finger pointing.” In the near future, there are decisions to be made, votes to be cast, and ultimately, lives to be protected. Going backwards to account for the future may not be possible.

Moment Magazine Launches Tweets4Peace Contest

Moment Magazine is thrilled to announce the Tweets4Peace contest.  Lengthy tomes have been written about the Middle East conflict, which ranks among the world’s most intractable.  Amid the mountains of scholarship, research, and analysis, Moment seeks new ideas in the shortest, simplest form possible: Twitter updates.

Through June 30, the Rabins, Sadats, Gandis and Kings of the world are invited to submit their solutions to Middle East peace via Twitter using the hashtag #Tweets4Peace.  At a time in which peace appears distant, the contest represents an opportunity for fresh thinking and new ideas.  Aside from the obvious reward of bringing peace to the Middle East, the contest winner will receive a 1-year subscription to Moment in addition to a special peace prize (look out, Nobel), to be announced.

Moment Magazine, an award-winning bimonthly with a flagship print publication, lively website, comprehensive digital version, celebrated blog IntheMoment, popular thrice weekly e-newsletter The Fix and much more, was co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel in 1975 and relaunched in 2004 by journalist and entrepreneur Nadine Epstein. As an independent voice, Moment includes points of views that transcend ideological and denominational divides; highly-diverse interpretations of religious thought; a food section for thinking people called “Talk of the Table;” award-winning in-depth features; and first rate book reviews edited by former New York Times Sunday Book Review editor Mitchel Levitas. Contributors include Calvin Trillin, Cynthia Ozick, Wolf Blitzer, Yossi Klein Halevi, Theodore Bikel, Erica Jong, Dara Horn, David Margolick, Dani Shapiro and many others.

For more information on the Tweets4Peace contest or to arrange an interview with editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, contact Niv Elis at (202)-363-6422 or nelis@momentmag.com.

At J Street, Attempting to Redefine “Pro-Israel”

By Niv Elis

In its second-ever conference in Washington, DC this week, the self-described “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel” lobby group J Street drew some 2,000 left-leaning Israel supporters.

By its very existence J Street, has sparked a conflicted and sometimes angry debate within the Jewish community as to what it means to be “pro-Israel.”  Before J Street, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held a virtual monopoly in Washington on the term pro-Israel.  For AIPAC, it meant supporting a “strong U.S.-Israel relationship” by keeping disagreements out of the public spotlight and, more broadly, supporting the policies of the democratically elected government in Israel, regardless of who was in power.  But critics, including many J Street supporters, accuse AIPAC of being more sympathetic to the conservative Likud party and promoting its hard-line policies.

J Street has its own critics, who argue that it provides political cover for those who undermine or delegitimize Israel.  After all, they say, how can publicly criticizing Israel and its policies be construed as “Pro-Israel?”

In order to get a better understanding, Moment asked participants in J Street’s conference what being pro-Israel meant to them.  These are some of the responses:

“It means supporting the best interest of the state of Israel, which means supporting peace.” -Yahel Metalon, New York, NY

“To me being pro-Israel means caring deeply about Israel, its security, its fate and the fate of the Israeli people.  It means hoping for a better Israel, making it a more democratic, safer place for all its citizens to be.” –Shiri Ourian, Moshav Kfar Neter, Israel

“I support a peaceful Israel that is there forever, living in peace, that can count on being secure in its future.  I have a dream of seeing Israel at peace forever and would love to see that come to pass in my lifetime.”  -Bruce Pollock, Rochester, NY

“I think being pro-Israel is about really having the conversation about the future of Israel, where you want it to go and helping to shape that in the present in every capacity whether it’s social, political, economic, educational, all of it.  It’s tying conversation and activism.”  -Darya Shaikh, New York, NY

“I have no idea.  I’m from Israel.  I grew up there and moved to New York in my twenties, so I really can’t answer that question.  This conference is the first time I ever felt there was a viable, Jewish American Left that I can associate with.  I haven’t felt that since I moved from Israel.” -Avi Criden, Israel

“It means defending Israel, when necessary, against its very real enemies, providing for its security and also defending its democratic institutions and ensuring that it can have a stable future as a prosperous, democratic and peaceful state.”  -Ben Alter, New Haven, CT

“It means to be for Israel, for the state, for the survival of Israel.  How do you demonstrate it?  Don’t hate yourself.” –Isi Tenenbom, Hamburg, Germany

“It means thinking about everything in a slightly different way.  I feel a push and a pull, a need to be involved.  I’m afraid to be involved.  Where do you stop with that involvement?  It’s this love conflict and it takes a lot of excitement and motivation to consider things in a different way” –Hilda Blyer, Ottawa, Canada

“I think it’s important for American Jews to be concerned about social justice in at least two countries.  In my mind it’s the obligation of American Jews to assert their concern that Israel be activated as a force for peace, in its interest and in America’s interest.” -Marvin Sparrow, Boston, MA

“I guess to support both a physical place, in terms of a home land—a safe place for Jewish people to go and a place where Jewish people from around the world can feel culturally and spiritually fulfilled in some way—and that includes it being a place where people’s rights are respected.  Ultimately I think that pursuing peace and respecting the rights of others are a very important part of being pro-Israel.  To me being Jewish has to involve justice, and I don’t want to have to choose between those values and having that physical place for safety.” -Daniel Marans, Washington, DC

“I have no f*cking clue.  That’s kind of why I’m here, isn’t it? -Raphaela Wyman-Kelman, New York, NY

What do you think it means to be “Pro-Israel?”  Leave us a comment and let us know!

Additional reporting by Sala Levin

Israel Next on Arab Revolutionary Agendas

By Gabriel Weinstein, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

Yoram Peri, seated, and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler. SHFWire photo by Gabriel Weinstein

On January 1, no one would have predicted protesters in Tahrir Square would oust Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi’s iron grip over Libya would start slipping away. Could an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement be the next game-changing event in the Middle East?

According to Professor Yoram Peri of the University of Maryland and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, the revolutionary fervor sweeping the Middle East could present an ideal opportunity to finally settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peri said that, although the uprisings in Arab world focused on domestic issues, it is only a matter of time before the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes the focus of the greater Arab world.

“If things will continue it won’t take much—weeks—that the Israeli-Palestinian issue will become the focus,” Peri said at a forum sponsored by the Middle East Institute Wednesday.

But the recent re-emergence of negative Arab stereotypes in the Israeli media and the infusion of religious emotion into the context of the conflict will prevent Israel from pouncing on the opportunity. He added that in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Israel has crafted its Palestinian peace strategy around a worst-case scenario instead of mounting a serious attempt at peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demonstrated Peri’s argument last week in a speech on the future of Egypt and the Palestinian peace negotiations when he said, “I cannot simply hope for the best. I must also prepare for the worst.”

“That’s a very typical way of thinking by most Israelis when they look at their future,” Peri said.

He said it is unlikely the government will take “a very brave step” desired by more liberal Israelis because of the increasingly conservative tint of the Israeli ruling coalition and a potential election looming.

Wexler echoed Peri and said that, although the stage seems set for finally resolving the conflict, it will most likely not happen if the world relies on Israeli and Palestinian leadership to take the initiative. Both at the forum and in a recent editorial in Politico, Wexler stressed the United States must intervene as quickly as possible to end the conflict. He predicted that if diplomats continue to wait for the crisis to resolve itself, “some catastrophic event will occur” in the West Bank or Gaza that could thrust Israel and the Palestinians into another conflict. He said he is not confident Netanyahu or Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will lead a diplomatic charge.

“The unfortunate reality is the decision rests here in Washington,” Wexler said. “And it rests with the Obama administration.”

Wexler said the recent events in the Middle East have made it the best time to rekindle peace talks. He called on the Obama administration to partner with Great Britain, Germany, France and other European countries to mediate talks between the two sides.

Peri agreed with Wexler’s call for international intervention. He said Israelis and Palestinians’ perception of the conflict as a zero-sum negotiation has prevented substantial progress from being made in the past. He said American intervention helped propel the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty because both sides were promised generous American military and economic aid.

“A third partner, and it only can be the United States and not Europe, can change the structure of the conflict to a non-zero-sum game. And therefore without…American support it will not be achieved,” Peri said.

The continued idleness of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will escalate the costs of the conflict. Both sides know what the basic outlines of a peace treaty will look like and need to muster the political will to strike a deal.

“To negotiate a half meter here, half a meter there that’s not the topic.…The issue is the will,” Peri continued. “The question is the price. Now what will be the price for not achieving an agreement.…Perhaps by showing both Israelis and Palestinians the price today is much higher than it used to be, that might change the perspective.”

Let My People Vote!

By Steven Philp

Egypt may lack a president, but it is not bereft of direction. Meeting two primary demands of pro-democracy protestors, Egyptian military leaders have dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and set a schedule for drafting a new one ahead of September elections. As the Washington Post details, this is one of the first steps towards civilian rule following the resignation of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. The ruling council has communicated that these changes will remain in effect for six months until presidential and parliamentary elections can occur. In the meantime a committee is being formed to amend the constitution, and provide a vehicle for popular referendum to approve these changes.

What is remarkable about these changes is their genesis within the citizens of Egypt. As noted by columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, one of the mantras of the protestors sums it up: “The people made the regime step down.” This revolution occurred without the explicit endorsement of major world powers, the United States included. Rather support was not offered until after the conclusion of the protests, marked by the cessation of the Mubarak regime. Friedman notes that if – “and this is a big if” – the transition to democracy can successfully occur, it will resonate throughout the Middle East. This is not a model of government imported from the West – like the distinctly American institutions established in Iraq and Afghanistan – but one “conceived, gestated, and born in Tahrir Square.” Contingent on the success of the constitutional committee, it is one that will be shaped by the will of the people. This is a democracy that can be emulated throughout the Arab world, one that has refused the banner of the West while also rebuking the call of Islamists. When Iran issued a declaration compelling the protesters to label their movement an “Islamic revolution” it was the Muslim Brotherhood itself who resisted, noting that their focus is pan-Egyptian – which includes Christians and Muslims.

Although finding its origin in popular revolution the success of the nascent democracy should not rest on the people alone, but is the responsibility of the wider international community. It is in the best interest of the Egyptian people and foreign parties alike that this transition occurs. Several countries – including Israel – have issued statements of support for the pro-democracy movement. According to Haaretz, Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed hope for Egypt; speaking at the resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Peres offered his support to the budding democracy saying, “We bless the Egyptian people in anticipation that its desires for freedom and hope be met.” This comes only a week after Peres had offered an impassioned defense of Mubarak, on the grounds that his regime had been characterized by stability between Israel and Egypt. Although the transition to democracy is tenuous, the potential of improved relations between the two nations is tangible; yet it is important to note that the foundation for this relationship will be built now, necessitating immediate Israeli and Jewish support of the new regime.

This commitment to democracy will be tested further as the Egyptian revolution resonates across the Arab world. Already protests have begun to occur in Bahrain, Iran, Tunisia and the neighboring Palestinian Territories. According to the New York Times, officials in the Palestinian Authority responded to the toppling of the Mubarak regime by announcing presidential and parliamentary elections by September. The following day, the cabinet was dissolved until it could be appointed by democratic process. The Palestinian people have not participated in an election since 2006, when Hamas won a majority in the parliament. Following civil unrest in June 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization asserted authority over the West Bank. Currently, Hamas has rejected the call for a national election. This is an important moment for Israel, and the larger Jewish community. Rather than withholding our support – as we did with Egypt until the revolution succeeded – it would behoove us to stand with the P.L.O. on the side of freedom. Letting the people speak may lead to surprising results, including the emergence of a true democracy – one that emulates the Egyptian revolution, refusing Western models while also shedding the burden of the Islamist ethos.

Cairo is Burning; Is Egyptian-Israeli Peace Next?

By Niv Elis

As the world watches the unprecedented protests in Cairo unfold live on Al Jazeera, America and Israel face an intractable dilemma over who to support.  To  lovers of democracy and human rights, the Egyptian people’s uprising is a phenomenon to be encouraged; the Egyptian regime is a police state (though milder than, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia), which for nearly 60 years has held an iron grip on the country’s political institutions, limiting the media and sweeping aside opposition rights.  Like all people, Egyptians deserve better, and it seems incomprehensible that Western governments would fail to support them.

Yet for decades, Egypt’s autocracy has contributed a modicum of geopolitical stability to the region. Having established itself as the leader of the Arab world during the Cold War, Egypt made waves when it broke from its Soviet patronage and the Arab League to ally with the United States and make peace with Israel.  Thus was born a conundrum: the government carried out important strategic choices, receiving huge sums of American aid and opening economic pathways in exchange for international policies often resented by its population. Complicating matters, Egypt was an incubator of radical Islamist thought: the philosophical grandfather of Al Qaida and Salafi jihadism was Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, and the more mildly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, spawned Hamas.  Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cleverly lumped these groups with anti-regime elements seeking democracy and human rights. Ultimately, Mubarak fought off the most extreme of the groups, while allowing the Brotherhood to transform into a defanged opposition party.  Notably, the Brotherhood denounces political violence, except where Israel is concerned.

Nobody can know what the aftermath of the Egyptian protests will be.  When Iranians deposed the pro-Western Shah in 1979, it took several years for the broad coalition of revolutionaries to fight out their differences, leaving the Ayatollahs in firm control and shattering any semblance of democracy or human rights (See Moment’s feature “How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran”). The average Egyptian still views Israel very unfavorably, which could prove a rallying call for future politicians. The linkage of Israel and the United States to the current hated regime only exacerbates the problem.

Israel fears the prospect of a populist or Islamist government coming to power in Egypt, which could lead to a break in the 32-year peace that, though cold, has proved remarkably durable. Israel and the United States could lose the support of an ally that has served as an interlocutor between them and the Palestinians, not to mention between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.  Should Egypt revert to a confrontational relationship with Israel, it could destabilize the whole region and undermine any future peace talks between Israel and its neighbors.

The Obama administration is seeking a stable transition, but unmistakably hedging its bets as it grapples with the complexities, trying to curry favor with the population by acknowledging their legitimate grievances without explicitly disavowing the Mubarak regime.  In a statement today, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.” The West could throw its weight behind Mohamed ElBaradai, the opposition figure who won a Nobel Peace Prize as head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, but that would be tricky should the Mubarak regime survive.  When the future of peace is at stake, it turns out that supporting democracy is no easy task.