Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Do Israeli Arabs Think?

I've recently come across two very interesting articles that are worth reading for what they have to say about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I've re-posted the articles in their entirety because I think that they are important and because I don't know how long they will be freely available online. The first article, On Campus: The Pro-Palestinians' Real Agenda (posted at Hudson New York) is an interesting (and disturbing) read:

During a recent visit to several university campuses in the U.S., I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah.

Listening to some students and professors on these campuses, for a moment I thought I was sitting opposite a Hamas spokesman or a would-be-suicide bomber.

I was told, for instance, that Israel has no right to exist, that Israel’s “apartheid system” is worse than the one that existed in South Africa and that Operation Cast Lead was launched only because Hamas was beginning to show signs that it was interested in making peace and not because of the rockets that the Islamic movement was launching at Israeli communities.

I was also told that top Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison for masterminding terror attacks against Israeli civilians, was thrown behind bars simply because he was trying to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Furthermore, I was told that all the talk about financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority was “Zionist propaganda” and that Yasser Arafat had done wonderful things for his people, including the establishment of schools, hospitals and universities.

The good news is that these remarks were made only by a minority of people on the campuses who describe themselves as “pro-Palestinian,” although the overwhelming majority of them are not Palestinians or even Arabs or Muslims.

The bad news is that these groups of hard-line activists/thugs are trying to intimidate anyone who dares to say something that they don’t like to hear.

When the self-designated “pro-Palestinian” lobbyists are unable to challenge the facts presented by a speaker, they resort to verbal abuse.

On one campus, for example, I was condemned as an “idiot” because I said that a majority of Palestinians voted for Hamas in the January 2006 election because they were fed up with financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

On another campus, I was dubbed as a “mouthpiece for the Zionists” because I said that Israel has a free media. There was another campus where someone told me that I was a ‘liar” because I said that Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms because of his role in terrorism.

And then there was the campus (in Chicago) where I was “greeted” with swastikas that were painted over posters promoting my talk. The perpetrators, of course, never showed up at my event because they would not be able to challenge someone who has been working in the field for nearly 30 years. What struck me more than anything else was the fact that many of the people I met on the campuses supported Hamas and believed that it had the right to “resist the occupation” even if that meant blowing up children and women on a bus in downtown Jerusalem.

I never imagined that I would need police protection while speaking at a university in the U.S. I have been on many Palestinian campuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and I cannot recall one case where I felt intimidated or where someone shouted abuse at me.

Ironically, many of the Arabs and Muslims I met on the campuses were much more understanding and even welcomed my “even-handed analysis” of the Israeli-Arab conflict. After all, the views I voiced were not much different than those made by the leaderships both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These views include support for the two-state solution and the idea of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in this part of the world.

The so-called pro-Palestinian “junta” on the campuses has nothing to offer other than hatred and de-legitimization of Israel. If these folks really cared about the Palestinians, they would be campaigning for good government and for the promotion of values of democracy and freedom in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Their hatred for Israel and what it stands for has blinded them to a point where they no longer care about the real interests of the Palestinians, namely the need to end the anarchy and lawlessness, and to dismantle all the armed gangs that are responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent Palestinians over the past few years.

The majority of these activists openly admit that they have never visited Israel or the Palestinian territories. They don’t know -and don’t want to know - that Jews and Arabs here are still doing business together and studying together and meeting with each other on a daily basis because they are destined to live together in this part of the world. They don’t want to hear that despite all the problems life continues and that ordinary Arab and Jewish parents who wake up in the morning just want to send their children to school and go to work before returning home safely and happily.

What is happening on the U.S. campuses is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the “occupation” as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel.

Many of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials I talk to in the context of my work as a journalist sound much more pragmatic than most of the anti-Israel, “pro-Palestinian” folks on the campuses.

Over the past 15 years, much has been written and said about the fact that Palestinian school textbooks don’t promote peace and coexistence and that the Palestinian media often publishes anti-Israel material.

While this may be true, there is no ignoring the fact that the anti-Israel campaign on U.S. campuses is not less dangerous. What is happening on these campuses is not in the frame of freedom of speech. Instead, it is the freedom to disseminate hatred and violence. As such, we should not be surprised if the next generation of jihadists comes not from the Gaza Strip or the mountains and mosques of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but from university campuses across the U.S.

Beyond the subject matter of this article, what is really striking is its authorship. While I suspect that the title of this post gave things away, the article was written by an Israeli, but not by a Jew. The author?

Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim, is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades.

He studied at Hebrew University and began his career as a reporter by working for a PLO-affiliated newspaper in Jerusalem.

Abu Toameh currently works for the international media, serving as the “eyes and ears” of foreign journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abu Toameh’s articles have appeared in numerous newspapers around the world, including The Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report and The Sunday Times of London.

Since 2002 he has been writing on Palestinian affairs for The Jerusalem Post.

Abu Toameh has also been working as a producer and consultant for NBC News since 1989.

Perhaps even more striking is the article "Lost in a blur of slogans" published at SFGate (a part of the San Francisco Chronicle's website; emphasis and typos in original):

For those who haven't heard, the first week in March has been designated as Israel Apartheid Week by activists who are either ill intentioned or misinformed. On American campuses, organizing committees are planning happenings to once again castigate Israel as the lone responsible party for all that maligns the Middle East.

Last year, at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to "dialogue" with some of the organizers of these events. My perspective is unique, both as the vice consul for Israel in San Francisco, and as a Bedouin and the highest-ranking Muslim representing the Israel in the United States. I was born into a Bedouin tribe in Northern Israel, one of 11 children, and began life as shepherd living in our family tent. I went on to serve in the Israeli border police, and later earned a master's degree in political science from Tel Aviv University before joining the Israel Foreign Ministry.

I am a proud Israeli - along with many other non-Jewish Israelis such as Druze, Bahai, Bedouin, Christians and Muslims, who live in one of the most culturally diversified societies and the only true democracy in the Middle East. Like America, Israeli society is far from perfect, but let us deals honestly. By any yardstick you choose - educational opportunity, economic development, women and gay's rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation - Israel's minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East

So, I would like to share the following with organizers of Israel Apartheid week, for those of them who are open to dialogue and not blinded by a hateful ideology:

You are part of the problem, not part of the solution: If you are really idealistic and committed to a better world, stop with the false rhetoric. We need moderate people to come together in good faith to help find the path to relieve the human suffering on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Vilification and false labeling is a blind alley that is unjust and takes us nowhere.

You deny Israel the fundamental right of every society to defend itself: You condemn Israel for building a security barrier to protect its citizens from suicide bombers and for striking at buildings from which missiles are launched at its cities - but you never offer an alternative. Aren't you practicing yourself a deep form of racism by denying an entire society the right to defend itself?

Your criticism is willfully hypocritical: Do Israel's Arab citizens suffer from disadvantage? You better believe it. Do African Americans 10 minutes from the Berkeley campus suffer from disadvantage - you better believe it, too. So should we launch a Berkeley Apartheid Week, or should we seek real ways to better our societies and make opportunity more available.

You are betraying the moderate Muslims and Jews who are working to achieve peace: Your radicalism is undermining the forces for peace in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. We are working hard to move toward a peace agreement that recognizes the legitimate rights of both Israel and the Palestinian people, and you are tearing down by falsely vilifying one side.

To the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week I would like to say:

If Israel were an apartheid state, I would not have been appointed here, nor would I have chosen to take upon myself this duty. There are many Arabs, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories who have taken great courage to walk the path of peace. You should stand with us, rather than against us.

Ishmael Khaldi is deputy consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, you read that right. Israel's consul general for the Pacific Northwest is an Arab and a Muslim. Oh, and in his own words, Khaldi is "a proud Israeli".

So next time you hear someone call Israel an "apartheid state" or express support for Hamas or Marwan Barghouti, suggest that they take a few minutes and broaden the scope of their examination of the viewpoints on these issues.

One other point worth making. In Telling the Truth About the Palestinians, an article published at the Middle East Forum in 2004, though still relevant today, Abu Toameh (author of the first article printed above) said:
The lack of free speech in the territories should not be dismissed as an internal Palestinian problem. When Palestinian journalists are intimidated, it affects foreign journalists, who depend on Palestinians to be their guides and translators in the territories. When foreign journalists interview Palestinians, many translators often mistranslate or even reprimand Palestinian interviewees critical of the Palestinian Authority, and foreign journalists' ability to accurately gather facts is thus hampered.

Another problem with the Palestinian media is the sad fact that some Palestinian journalists see themselves as foot soldiers serving the revolution. These so-called journalists are often politically affiliated with one group or another. Under the PA, you basically cannot be a journalist if you are not a member of Fatah or the security forces. All the credible independent journalists have been fired by the three major Palestinian newspapers, and there are many professional Palestinian journalists, but they have been forced to seek work with the Arab and foreign media.

There are some in the foreign media who knowingly hire consultants or journalists who are really political activists, and rely heavily on them for their reporting. These "consultants" include former security prisoners and political activists who are hired by major media organizations, including American ones, who are often aware of these so-called journalists' problematic backgrounds. Despite the bias of their consultants, which inevitably affects their reporting, the media organizations keep quiet about the consultants' backgrounds. It is hard to say if this acquiescence by foreign media organizations is due to intimidation or to the need to maintain a good relationship with the PA, but it seriously affects the ability of journalists in the region to report the facts on the ground to the world.

Consider that next time your read news reports about events in Gaza or the West Bank.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

IN Touch: Abortion Ruse

My sixth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I've decided to go ahead and continue re-posting those entries here (but go ahead and visit the Star so that their advertisers can try to sell you something; newspapers are having a tough enough time these days). This post borrows a bit from the post "Keep Your Religious Doctrine Out of My State's Laws" that I posted back in January 2008. Almost everything in that prior post is still relevant today.

Despite claims to the contrary, the intent of Senate Bill 89 is to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion. Patient safety is simply a ruse. Both history and language support this conclusion. SB 89 is essentially a re-working of similar bills from previous years. Last year, language to require hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers was part of a bill that also required physicians to tell women that a fetus might feel pain (despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) and that legislated an answer to the theological debate about when life begins. This year, the provisions were simply split into separate bills (SB 89 for hospital admitting privileges and SB90 for fetal pain and beginning of life provisions).

Moreover, if SB 89 was really about patient safety, wouldn't the language be broadly inclusive of all invasive outpatient procedures rather than being limited to abortion? It is worth asking whether doctors performing other types of surgical or semi-surgical procedures at outpatient clinics around the state must also have admitting privileges. If a plastic surgeon performs liposuction or an ophthalmologist performs a LASIK procedure at a rural clinic, must those doctors have admitting privileges at the county's hospital? What about an oral surgeon performing a root canal?

The list of procedures performed at outpatient clinics is long and many are more dangerous than abortion. Yet, so far as I am aware, in none of those other instances must the doctor have hospital admitting privileges. Furthermore, if patient safety were the goal, wouldn't there be an exception for emergency situations where the life of the woman was in jeopardy?

In essence, SB 89 is simply another thinly disguised attempt to keep abortions legal while making them impossible to obtain.

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Seditious Words From Republican Who Believes Democrats Are Anti-American

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while (especially during the latter stages of the November 2008 elections) will know that I have a love-hate relationship with Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota). I hate the things this idiotic Congresswoman has to say and I love to blog about how stupid and hurtful those things are (see Republican Congresswoman Follows Palin's Lead and Calls for Investigation Into Anti-Americans in Congress, Bachmann Misreads Herself! Huh?, Another Republican Accuses Liberals of Being Unpatriotic, and Bachmann Calls Her Own Comments an "Urban Myth"). Well, now Rep. Bachmann has really outdone herself.

First, before I get to her newest statement, I think that it is absolutely critical to contemplate her words in the full context of her prior accusations. During the campaign, she said that the "people that Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large" (she was, in part, referring to Bill Ayers, the 60s-era terrorist who bombed American installations and advocated violence against the government) and she expressed concern that then-candidate Obama "may have anti-American views." And, of course, her classic plea: "[N]ews media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would, I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they are pro-America or anti-America." And so, with those statements firmly in mind, here is what Rep. Bachmann said on a radio program this past weekend:

And really now in Washington, I’m a foreign correspondent in enemy lines. And I try to keep everyone back here in Minnesota know exactly the nefarious activities that are taking place in Washington.


I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States....

(Emphasis added; you can listen to her comments over at Think Progress) These statements were made in the course of a discussion about President Obama's proposed "cap and trade" environmental legislation (now being spun as an "energy tax" by Republicans).

Think for a moment about what Rep. Bachmann has really said. In response to proposed environmental legislation with which she disagrees, she has suggested that her constituents be "armed and dangerous," be ready to "fight back," and called upon the words of Thomas Jefferson advocating a "revolution every now and then". In other words, a sitting member of Congress has, essentially, incited other citizens to armed rebellion to defeat the will of the democratic majority.

Now, to be totally fair, Rep. Bachmann's spokesperson told a Minneapolis newspaper that Rep. Bachmann was speaking metaphorically and only meant that she wanted people to be armed with information. Furthermore, at the point in the interview when she made her inflammatory comments, she was urging people to come hear a speaker and learn more about the issue. But still...

I'm sorry. Any adult, let alone an elected official, let alone a sitting member of Congress, let alone a sitting member of Congress who has expressed concern about the possibility that other members of Congress and/or the President might be "anti-American," should recognize the danger of speech that could be perceived as an incitement to violence. The words that Rep. Bachmann used are the sort of words that we would expect to hear from a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi, not from a member of Congress. And words, whether spoken metaphorically or otherwise have consequences. Just look to the bombings of abortion clinics or the Oklahoma City federal building. Or look to the Middle East and the violence to which influential Muslim leaders (clerics, in particular) lend tacit if not overt approval.

As anyone who has read what I've written in the past knows, I'm a firm believer in free speech, even speech that I don't like. But there are limits (and not just crying "fire" in a crowded theater to borrow an over-used cliche). Incitement to violence and advocating for armed revolution certainly seem to approach that line, if not cross it (and not just barely...). And just for reference, 18 U.S.C. § 2385 (for the non-lawyers, that is Title 18, Section 2385 of the United States Code) states:
Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government ... Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

So let's compare, shall we? Rep. Bachmann accuses then-candidate Obama and other members of being "anti-American" (because Obama "associated" with a person who advocated and used violence 40 years ago and on the basis of economic views -- oooh, socialism, remember? -- that she disagrees with) but is herself willing to "metaphorically" incite people to take up arms in revolt against the American government. So you tell me, who is the real "anti-American" of the bunch? It seems to me that Rep. Bachmann isn't really so far removed from Bill Ayers...

I don't think that Rep. Bachmann should necessarily be indicted for sedition (though can you imagine what Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh would be saying if a Democrat had suggested armed rebellion?) but I do think that Rep. Bachmann's statements -- at best careless and at worst dangerous -- are the exact type of speech that I've been writing (and worrying) about for months. I think that jailing people for what they say or think, rather than for what they do, is generally a bad idea and not in furtherance of our democratic principles and ideas. But at some point speech crosses a line from being protected and in furtherance of those democratic principles and becomes ... oh, I don't know ... it becomes something else, something dangerous, something that civil society cannot condone. I don't know if Rep. Bachmann's speech reaches this level; after all, she was only speaking "metaphorically," right? But even if her speech isn't seditious or even if sedition itself should not really be punishable, in our democratic system, the electorate certainly has a chance to "punish" Rep. Bachmann the next time that she stands before them.

The people of Minnesota still only have one senator because of the ongoing Franken-Coleman litigation. Rep. Bachmann is one of their elected representatives in the House. I would have to say that the people of Minnesota are not presently being very well served. And I think that the people of Minnesota need to have a real conversation with their Congresswoman about the outer bounds of what is and is not acceptable political speech. And I think that "we the people" need to demand more, much more, from our elected officials. If she wants to express her opposition to a particular proposal, she is certainly welcome to do so. After all, that is the beauty of democracy. But when she voices that opposition, she should have a competing proposal and she should voice her opposition with facts to back up any position that she may take (she continues to claim that science shows that global warming is not caused by human activity). But under no circumstances should a member of the United States Congress advocate, even metaphorically, for armed insurrection against the government. That way lies danger.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Response to "Israel Lobby Intimidation"

This morning's issue of The Indianapolis Star included a "Fresh Thoughts" editorial by Scott Williamson entitled "Israel Lobby Intimidation". (Note that I don't necessarily hold the title against the author; I've learned that titles that I suggest for my IN Touch posts aren't used and, instead, the editorial staff of the paper chooses a title. Therefore, I will give Williamson the benefit of the doubt that he did not choose the inflammatory title given to his post.) There is much that I could write about Williamson's post, in particular the fact that the evidence simply doesn't support the allegations that he makes. Instead, I'll start by simply copying the comment what I posted in response to Williamson:

You make the statement that Mr. Freeman withdrew his name after "repeated attacks" and claim that these attacks came from supporters of the "Israeli right".

First, since when is it an "attack" to discuss a particular nominee's previous stated positions as well as the nominee's affiliations (including those nations from whom the nominee has accepted payment)?

Second, why do you presume that someone who was opposed to Mr. Freeman must, by definition, be a supporter of the "Israeli right". Isn't it equally possible for supporters of Israel or for an equitable resolution to the conflict to be concerned by Mr. Freeman's positions and ties to Saudi Arabia?

Finally, while in response to a later comment, you endeavor to distance yourself from the distasteful connotations of the term "Israel Lobby", in your original post, you allege there is a "taboo that forbids our public officials from disagreeing with Israeli policies". Of course, you don't back this statement up with evidence because it is simply untrue. American officials criticize Israel all the time; Secretary of State Clinton did so during her recent visit to Israel. The belief in a "taboo" is simply buying into the worst aspects of the myth of the "Israel Lobby" that you then attempt to avoid.

Moreover, isn't it possible that American officials largely don't disagree with Israeli policies because they do, in fact, agree with those policies? The argument ought not to be whether the mythic lobby is so strong as to create a taboo; instead, the question ought to be whether America should support a democratic regime that recognizes human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other basic notions of fairness that are important to us as Americans or end that support in exchange for support of non-democratic regimes that have no respect for human rights and which use violence as a means to political ends, both foreign and domestic?

Another thing worth noting is the content of some of the other comments to Williamson's post (selected comments only, internal format editing not noted, all spelling errors in original):

Carl writes: Chas Freeman's sin was to utter the truth: 9/11 attacks were the direct result of our blind support for Israel. We need patriotic Americans to speak out against the Israel Lobby. Senator Joe "israel" Lieberman and Chuck Schumer led the fight in Congress. It is a shame that a patriotic and talented American like Chas Freeman was driven out by a parasite lobby. The Israel lobby is a malignant in America's body.

Jack writes: And you wonder why Hitler called the Jews a threat to his country?

mike writes: this is why germans hated jews and finally decided to take back their country

Lowell writes: Shame, Americans have NO control over their country. Obama/McCain all had to get blessing of AIPAC for becoming President. Rahm Imanuel (his father was a memeber of jewish "terrorist" organization Irgun, which killed countless Britisth!) runs White house.What do you expect? Time for Americans, to take their country back. America needs more Jimmy Carter, Paul Finlay!

Keltrava writes: When Israeli air force and ground troops weee killing hundreds of children, women, civillians, policemen and bombing UN compounds, schools, bomb shelters, government buildings and private homes without any objection from Obama he promised to have plenty to say after inauguration. So far not a whisper. A look at Obama's appointments, financial backers and speeches at AIPAC clearly demonstrates that AIPAC will define US policy in the Middle East.
While Williamson may have intended his post to raise and address a good faith discussion of a particular issue, his framing of the issue merely emboldens the more vitriolic anti-Israel and anti-Semitic crowd. So posts like Williamson's inevitably lead to comments and viewpoints like those set forth above which are becoming more and more prevalent and against which we are fighting. And, when I say "we" I don't intend to limit that to supporters of Israel. Instead, the "we" that I refer to includes all of those who believe in open, honest, reasoned debate, free of unsupported allegations, innuendo, and bigotry.

I'm happy to debate anyone on the issue of US support for Israel or Israel's right to exist and to defend itself, but I'm not interested in having that debate with someone who refuses to be intellectually honest, to support their position with facts, or to accept the legitimacy of facts that weaken their position (Jimmy Carter being the chief example...). And I'm certainly not willing to have that debate with someone who, in the absence of facts and logic, will resort to timeless anti-Semetic rants, whether in the form of modernized versions of the Blood Libel or the equally modernized reframings of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As Alan Dershowitz has suggested:
So long as criticism is comparative, contextual, and fair, it should be encouraged, not disparaged. But when the Jewish nation is the only one criticized for faults that are far worse among other nations, such criticism crosses the line from fair to foul, from acceptable to anti-Semitic.
(The Case For Israel, 2003, p.1.) So, by all means criticize Israel, but in doing so be sure that your criticism is reasoned and just, supported by facts, and that you don't hold Israel (or its supporters) to a standard higher than that to which the rest of the international community is held. When you confuse Israeli and Jew, when you question the motives of American Jews, when you resort to vague innuendo that hearkens back to the Blood Libel or Protocols or "Jews control the media/banks" themes, then you are no longer engaged in good faith criticism, but rather you have crossed over the line.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

LibraryThing: "Twilight" and "The Spy Who Came for Christmas"

I've updated my LibraryThing catalog with brief reviews of Twilight [Twilight Saga #1] by Stephanie Meyer (yes, I read it; my wife begged me to, so leave me alone) and The Spy Who Came for Christmas by David Morrell. Now, I'm reading Fault Line by Barry Eisler (his first novel not to feature John Rain).


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Friday, March 6, 2009

Waltzing Alone

Earlier this week I saw the film Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli film (Hebrew with subtitles) nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Apparently the film was quite popular, though controversial, in Israel and was pushed heavily by the Israeli government for Oscar consideration. Waltz With Bashir is an animated (mostly) film dealing with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a work of art, Waltz With Bashir is tremendous. The story is both gripping and compelling, the animation is unique in its implementation and style, and even the music helps set the time and place. The viewer cannot help but be drawn into the protagonist’s quest to remember the nature of his involvement in the war.

While the comparison may not be fair and the analogy may not be perfect, for an American audience Waltz With Bashir is somewhat reminiscent of films like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. And therein lies the problem. When an American audience sees one of those films, they are (usually) already intimately familiar with Vietnam and the events being recounted. Similarly, in Israel, audiences are completely familiar with the invasion of Lebanon, including the years of the Lebanese civil war, the PLO terrorist attacks launched from southern Lebanon, and the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Israeli audiences are knowledgeable about Bashir Gemayal, the Phalange party, the disputes between Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze, and Maronite Catholics (among others) that were at the heart of the Lebanese Civil War. And Israeli audiences are acutely aware of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as well as the findings of the Kahan Commission that investigated that incident and the eventual political fallout that impacted the Israeli political landscape. But I suspect that very few members of an American audience will have much, if any, knowledge or understanding of these events.

To Israelis (and, I suspect, many Jewish supporters of Israel), the issues that are at the core of Waltz With Bashir provide an ideal opportunity for communal soul-searching and coming to terms with history, much as a film like Platoon served a similar (though not identical) role in America. Israelis could discuss among themselves whether they thought the Lebanon War (often referred to as Israel’s Vietnam) was a just war, whether they believe that Israel gained anything by its involvement in Lebanon, whether the type of force used against the Palestinian terrorists operating in southern Lebanon was appropriate, whether, by the time of the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israel had learned from past mistakes, and whether Israel was right to ally itself with the Maronites or intervene in the Lebanese civil war. Even more importantly, Waltz With Bashir gave Israeli audiences the chance to have a heartfelt discussion about the cost of sending young soldiers off to war (especially a complicated war that the soldiers may not have fully understood). And finally, the film gave Israeli audiences, operating with twenty-five years’ hindsight, the chance and reason to talk about Israel’s complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Ariel Sharon’s involvement, and the findings of the Kahan Commission. In other words, I suspect that to an Israeli audience, viewing Waltz With Bashir is an almost cathartic exercise.

One other crucial difference between an Israeli audience and an American audience is worth noting: Israelis also come to films like this with a different perspective than American audiences due to the fact that almost all Israeli youth serve a period of time in the Israel Defense Forces, unlike the US military which remains an all volunteer force. During Vietnam, the US had a draft, but even then many Americans never served. In Israel, all but the ultra-Orthodox and Israel’s Arab population serve in the military for several years after high school and then for a period of time every year until about age 45. Israel’s Bedouin and Druze populations do serve in the Israel Defense Forces. So, essentially every single Israeli watching the film has served in the military [or will, if not yet 18] and, most likely, is continuing such service. Thus, the impact of the film and the issues it raises are much, much more direct and personal to an Israeli audience.

But to an audience without the understanding of the time and events, Waltz With Bashir is a completely different film. To those viewers, I think the film does an excellent job as a standard anti-war film, arguing that violence may not really serve a purpose and it is the innocent who most suffer. More problematically, for those who are already convinced of Israel’s “war crimes” (and here I mean not just Sabra and Shatila, but also the alleged “war crimes” in Israel’s efforts to stop terrorist attacks against its citizens, including the recent incursion into Gaza), Waltz With Bashir will do nothing more than reinforce the already held belief that Israel is culpable or, perhaps, that Israelis are bloodthirsty monsters who haven’t learned from the past.

This last point is, I believe, almost accidentally made by the film. As we see Israeli soldiers marching and riding into Lebanon, we see them firing at everything. And, with one notable exception, we never see those firing at the Israeli soldiers. One time, we see a group of PLO fighters after an engagement with Israeli soldiers, but they are not firing their weapons at that point. Again, with one exception, every time that we see shots being fired at Israelis they are coming from darkened windows, buildings in the distance, or places unknown. The enemy is never given a face. The one exception involves a group of Israeli soldiers walking through an orchard when a young boy fires an RPG at the Israelis. The boy is then killed in a hail of gunfire. Thus, the only time that a face is put upon the enemy is in the guise of a child. I suspect that the filmmaker was not suggesting that all of the Palestinian fighters were innocent; nor do I suspect that he was even suggesting that Israel is wrong to try to stop terrorism. Instead, given that the focus of the movie is upon the impact of war upon those who fought it, I suspect that the filmmaker was purposely dehumanizing the enemy (or making the enemy invisible) in order to ensure that the focus of the film and the audience’s thought process remained on the Israeli soldiers about whom the story is written. Depictions of those that the Israelis are fighting against could detract from the self-analysis that the filmmaker is striving for. An visible enemy allows the audience to focus outward; an invisible enemy forces the audience to focus inward.

(And here I want to briefly note one other interesting scene in the film [sorry, in advance for the spoiler]. At one point, the narrator mentions the advent of car bombings. Several soldiers are sent off to patrol and told to be on the watch for a red Mercedes that intelligence says will be used as a car bomb. While waiting and watching, an ice cream truck approaches the soldiers. Frankly, it isn’t clear whether the ice cream truck is real, an illusion, or a way to bring the events of Lebanon back to the present or to things familiar to the soldiers. But in any event, as I watched that ice cream truck approach the soldiers’ position, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was the car bomb. I don’t know if others had the same reaction; perhaps those who have not seen ambulances used to transport suicide bombers or women who pack explosives around their waists to disguise themselves as pregnant would never think that an ice cream truck might bring murder and death. I don’t know. But that brief moment had quite an impact on me.)

So here is the problem. Israelis watch Waltz With Bashir. They are engaged by the film and the issues that it raises. They understand those issues and they use the film to help them look at themselves and their country. They can synthesize the message from the film with their own viewpoints and those of their friends, family, and other Israelis, to help them make informed decisions about what is best for themselves and for Israel. And then they can go to the polls and elect leaders and try to work within their democratic system to move Israeli politics, culture, and actions in the direction that best fits their will and view. Just like here in America.

But that same discussion, the opportunity for cathartic self-analysis, the recognition that history isn’t always pretty or friendly, and the communal mea culpa for having done bad things is not going on in Lebanon or Syria or Iran or Egypt or the rest of the Muslim world. As Israelis try to come to terms with their own past, most of the Muslim world still refuses to take a critical self-analysis and examination of historical events, let alone actions like terrorism. The Muslim world is still watching films and television mini-series that glorify anti-Semitism, that refuse to acknowledge any historical Jewish links to Jerusalem, that dramatize the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that advocate the martyrdom of children in the name of killing "Zionists”. The Muslim world is happy to examine the wrongdoings of Israel, but is wholly unwilling to examine their own culpability; in fact, the Muslim world is even seeking to use the United Nations to limit critical discussion of Islam itself.

And in the West, audiences who may already be hostile to Israel (or even merely ambivalent) and who don’t understand how an Israeli audience (for whom the film was made) sees the film or the issues raised therein, will watch Waltz With Bashir and take away from it what they already “know”: that Israel is the “bad guy” who is at least complicit in, if not outright guilty of, the murders of women and children. The audience with whom I saw the film (there was a panel discussion following the movie) included many people who took from the movie the simple message that “war is bad” and “stop the violence” and those people seemed interesting in helping to promote peace. But right now, only one side is listening to those voices; in fact, only one side has a means of communication to which those voices can be addressed. How, precisely, does a concerned American tell Hamas or Hezbollah to “stop the violence”?

Thus, while Israelis' engage in dialogue over moral dilemmas and the consequences of actions, that dialogue takes place in a vacuum while those around them may use that dialogue, not as a point of pride or as evidence of an open and honest society, but, rather, as a tool of condemnation.

As I said during the panel discussion following the film (less articulately, I’m sure), Israelis want to talk about their issues and they want to discuss these issues with the Muslim world in general and the Palestinians in particular. But, at present, the Israelis are having a dialogue by themselves as the Muslim world refuses to look inward and backward at itself. So, for the time being, the Israeli self-analysis and catharsis facilitated by Waltz With Bashir is not a two-way street; in essence, Israelis are waltzing alone.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Does Failure Mean?

Ever since Rush Limbaugh stated, shortly before the inauguration, that he hoped President Obama would "fail" there has been quite a bit of discussion (and derision) on just what Limbaugh and others who echo his thoughts ... er, sorry ... ditto his thoughts really mean. Lately, one of the apparent talking points is that Republicans don't want America to fail, they just want President Obama's policies to fail. For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) told CNN's Rick Sanchez "You bet, we want those policies to fail." To be fair, here is Rep. Pence's statement in broader context:
Everybody wants America to succeed but everyone like me, Rush Limbaugh and others who believe in limited government, who believes in conservative values, wants the policies that this administration is bringing forward, higher taxes, massive increase in government spending, a huge increase in the role of government, in our daily lives, departure from traditional values. You bet, we want those policies to fail. Because, Rick, we know big government, increases in debt, the micromanagement of the economy out of Washington, DC is a policy that will fail.
So let's take Rep. Pence at his word. But let's also think about what he's saying. Fine, he wants President Obama's policies to fail. First, let's ask why? Why would he want those policies to fail? Could it be that if those policies work then Republicans will have that much more difficulty getting back into the majority? After all, if President Obama's policies succeed then wouldn't that mean that he was right and the Republicans were wrong? Also, note the circularity of his statement. He wants the policies to fail because he knows that they are policies that will fail. Huh?

Second, think for a minute what it would mean if President Obama's policies were to fail. Perhaps that would mean good news for the Republicans, but would it really be good for America? Set aside whether you think President Obama's policies are a good or not. Those policies have been enacted largely as a method to address the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression (which was not caused by Franklin Delano Roosevelt despite recent Republican claims...). If those policies fail, what sort of economic condition will America find itself in? Republicans disagreed with the stimulus plan. Fine. But now that the stimulus plan has been passed, shouldn't Republicans hope that it succeeds? Which would be worse for America: the success of President Obama's policies to the detriment of the Republican Party or the failure of those policies to the potential economic detriment of America? Hmm, tough one. On one hand, we have the Republicans remaining in the minority while on the other hand we have millions more Americans out of work and millions more homes foreclosed. It seems like an easy answer to me.

And one more thing. Go back to the days when the the War on Terror, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq were the main focus of political discussion. Recall how offended Republicans were when someone would criticize President Bush's handling of the wars. Think of the days shortly after 9/11 when anyone who was critical of the President was labelled unpatriotic. If you didn't support the Patriot Act you were apparently in league with Al-Qaeda. Ann Coulter wrote a book called Treason in which she baselessly accused liberals of being traitors on the basis of their political views (how dare someone disagree with President Bush, let alone Ann Coulter or her political idol Joe McCarthy). So now that the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, how is hoping that President Obama's policies fail any different from criticizing President Bush's war effort? Actually, I would contend that hoping for failure is worse; criticism of the President is a core component of democratic freedoms while hoping for failure goes against the very fabric of our nation (united we stand, divided we fall...).

Republicans should feel free to criticize President Obama's policies (but they should be able to offer a competing vision and should rely on verifiable facts and statistics, not just innuendo, rumor, and fear mongering), to offer their own proposals, to vote against policies that they don't like, and to hold the Obama administration accountable for things within the administration's control. And they can certainly be ready with a plan of action should President Obama's policies fail. But they should never hope that those policies fail because then, despite what they may claim, they are really hoping that America fails or at least becomes worse off than it is presently.

So next time you hear a Republican say that they hope President Obama's policies fail, force them to defend that statement. Ask them precisely which policies they hope fail and don't allow them to offer broad generalities. Ask them if they hope that the stimulus plan fails to generate jobs. Ask them if they hope the economic bailout fails to prevent banks from collapsing. Ask them if they hope that more Americans can't afford health coverage or are forced out of their homes. Then gently remind them that it is acceptable to oppose policies that they disagree with, but that it is not acceptable to hope that policies implemented for the greater good fail.

And remind them that in November 2008, Republicans put their competing vision up for examination by the American public ... and lost.


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Helping Republicans Apologize to Rush Limbaugh

Have you noticed over the last few days the number of Republicans who have criticized Rush Limbaugh only to retract those criticisms and apologize very quickly thereafter? It appears that, much as they may try to deny it, Limbaugh has indeed become the de facto spokesperson for the Republican Party and Republicans officials are showing themselves to be very wary of confronting their "leader". Well, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has created a little web tool that should make those apologies a bit easier for Republicans. Go ahead, take a look.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

IN Touch: Check the Facts First

My fifth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. As an experiment, I've decided to go ahead and re-post that entry here (but go ahead and visit the Star so that their advertisers can try to sell you something; newspapers are having a tough enough time these days).

The debate over the economic stimulus package highlighted a problem in our political discourse that has been exacerbated by 24-hour news programs, talk radio and the Internet, but which, thanks to the Internet, can be readily addressed. Obviously, the need for public education about important national issues is critical; a well-informed electorate is essential to the proper functioning of our government. So, too, is an open and honest debate, not just among our elected leaders but among citizens as well.

However, we as a society need to be careful when engaging in those discussions to do so based on accurate information. All too often during the discussion of the economic stimulus package, people would rely upon certain talking points that made for very effective rhetoric but were devoid of accuracy. Some legislators made unsupportable claims or allegations that were then parroted by members of the media, who either did not fact check or crossed the line from news to opinion.

It is easy to just assume that anything we hear or read is true. But it is also easy to take a few extra minutes and fact check a claim before relying on it to make a decision or form an opinion. How many people took the time to go online and read the stimulus bill or seek out what the other side had to say to be sure they were able to weigh both sides of the argument before forming that opinion? To be an informed and intelligent electorate, we each have the responsibility to exercise some independent thought rather than just accepting and regurgitating talking points, especially without being sure that those talking points are, in fact, accurate.

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