Monthly Archives: April 2008

Of Matzoh Balls and Mythology


Guest columnist: Uri Avnery. On the day of the first seder, the legendary Israeli peace campaigner Avnery mailed out a fascinating piece deconstructing some of the “Exodus” mythology, and examining its nationalist purposes. I’m glad he’s agreed to me republishing his work. Pesach is a time of asking questions, of course, and I’ve always wondered about the implausibility of some aspects of Jewish history as it had been passed down to me: Just look around you at the seder table, and ask yourself, do these people look like they could be descendants of the residents of Biblical Judea? And remember, we’re told that this is a pretty closed bloodline; it’s a heritage supposedly passed on genetically through Jewish mating. Well, just look around the table and ask yourself, did the Judeans actually look anything like this? Continue reading

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Who Owns Passover?

Passover is a time of asking questions, and I have a few. This year, though, the furor that surrounded Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his sermons that dared to suggest that this Christian nation may actually be earning God’s wrath and damnation for some of its behavior, reminded me of an issue I’d first encountered in South Africa: The idea that the Passover/Exodus narrative of the Hebrews’ flight from Pharaoh and slavery doesn’t belong exclusively to any tribe, but is a universal tale of freedom into which suffering people everywhere are able to insert themselves. And also that even if your forebears were victims of injustice, you’re quite capable of being a perpetrator of injustice.

It was easy to see how little our Jewish genetic lineage did to make us really Jewish in the South Africa of my youth, where every Passover, we sat around seder tables singing, in a barely understood Hebrew, of the days when we were slaves, while the black women who lived in our backyards under domestic labor system not that far removed from slavery, carried in steaming tureens of matzoh ball soup and tzimmes. We may have convinced ourselves that our DNA entitled us to claim this story as our own, but it was abundantly clear that in the South African context, most Jews had thrown in their lot with Pharoah, while the Israelites were working in their kitchens.

The mantle of justice associated with the Toraha prophets, it seemed to me later, was nobody’s birthright; it had to be earned.
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Rosner, Haaretz’s Itchy Beard

The right-wing nationalist blogger always seemed a little out of step with his paper’s editorial line. Now, Carter’s visit has provoked him to growl menacingly at the editors Continue reading

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Jimmy Carter and the Art of Growing Up


You could say Jimmy Carter was tempting fate by meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal — after all, his entirely appropriate evocation of apartheid in reference to the regime Israel has created on the West Bank earned him the label “Holocaust-denier.” But Carter, bless him, his sticking to his guns, insisting that peace only becomes possible when you talk to everyone involved in a conflict. And I’d say Carter has reason to suspect that despite the pro-forma criticisms of his Meshal meeting from Secretary of State Condi Rice as well as the McCain-Clinton-Obama roadshow, the backlash won’t be anything like the firestorm created by his apartheid book. It was reported today, in fact, that the Bush Administration is regularly briefed on back-channel talks between Iranian officials and a group of former U.S. diplomats led by Papa Bush’s U.N. ambassador, Thomas Pickering. So, far all the posturing and bluster, there’s a back channel. And I’d wager that despite the official sanctimony, Carter will be debriefed on his conversations with Meshal by both Israeli and American officials — because Meshal is a key player, like it or not.

The inevitability of talking with Hamas is already widely recognized in U.S. policy circles, and especially in Israel. Already, the Israelis negotiate secretly over issues such as the fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit, prisoner exchanges and a cease-fire with Hamas through intermediaries such as Egypt. And a poll published by the Israeli daily Haaretz in February showed that two out of three Israelis support direct talks between their government and Hamas — an option publicly advocated by such high-profile Israeli leaders as former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy and former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami. And just as some Israelis are recognizing that Hamas cannot be eliminated, so too do some Hamas leaders appear to realizing that Israel isn’t going to be militarily defeated, either. Continue reading

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There Goes the Washington Consensus

The International Monetary Fund warns that spiraling food inflation threatens the survival of 100 million people; the World Bank warns that it could bring down some 33 governments.

The interesting thing, though, is that solving this particular crisis will require that the World Bank and IMF abandon the economic orthodoxy that they imposed globally during the 1990s — the “Washington consensus,” that frowns on things like government spending on feeding the poor. Continue reading

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Iraq: Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed

The testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker this week — and the ensuing congressional debate — were so utterly predictable, so bland and so basically unchanged from what we heard a year ago, that I thought I’d check in on what I wrote a year ago on the matter, under the title “Why the U.S. Can’t Leave Iraq.” And so much of it applied, with such minor variation, that I thought if Petraeus and Crocker — and a supporting cast of senators — can roll out pretty much the same speeches and analysis as they did a year ago, then why the hell shouldn’t I?

Here it is again, then, exactly as it appeared on April 26, 2007:

The debate in Washington over troop withdrawals from Iraq is largely a pantomime for domestic political consumption — the Democrats are maneuvering to disassociate themselves from an unpopular war that a majority of their senators originally backed, and that they know can’t be ended any time soon but for which they don’t want to share the blame come election year 2008. The reality is that the U.S. can’t leave Iraq for the foreseeable future without fundamentally altering the basic goals of its Middle East policy over the past half century, and the Democrats talk of “benchmarks” and “deadlines” is unlikely to be taken seriously by the Iraqi players — except to the extent that they need to humor the Americans. The failure of the Iraqi government to make significant “progress” towards achieving the Bush Administration’s benchmarks may be routinely reported here has a sign of infighting among them or their political weakness, but the reality may be that they have no intention of acting out Washington’s script. Continue reading

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Healing Israel’s Birth Scar

With the 60th anniversary of Israel’s birth — and of the Palestinian Nakbah (catastrophe) — which are, of course the same event, almost upon us, I was reminded this week that April 9 was also the 60th anniversary of an event that has long epitomized the connection between the creation of an ethnic-majority Jewish state and the man-made catastrophe suffered by the Palestinian Arabs. That would be the massacre at Deir Yassein, a small village near Jerusalem where fighters of the Irgun, led by Menahem Begin, massacred up to 250 Palestinian civilians — in what later emerged as a calculated campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” using violence and the threat of violence to drive Palestinians to flee their homes and land, which were then summarily appropriated by the new state of Israel, which passed legislation forbidding the Palestinian owners from returning to their property. It was the events of 1948 that created the Palestinian refugee problem, and set the terms of a conflict that continues to define the State of Israel six decades later. No resolution of the conflict is possible without understanding the events of 1948 — something that precious few mainstream U.S. politicians do. The irony is that Israelis are far more likely to be familiar with the uglier side of their victory in 1948 than are their most enthusiastic supporters on these shores. Continue reading

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A ‘Revolutionary’ Moment in Egypt?

The idea of the starving masses driven onto the streets to demand bread, and then being forced by the violent response of the state to seek its overthrow, had seemed impossibly quaint for decades — the stuff of a distant epoch, kept alive in Broadway musicals and Warren Beatty vehicles in a world where the masses were acquiring cell phones. Bread? Who needs bread? Let them eat arugula at globalization’s ever-expanding buffet table.

But a cursory look at the headlines of the past month — a general strike and mass protests in Egypt, the storming of the presidential palace in Haiti, violent protests in Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon, demonstrations in Uzbekistan, Yemen and Indonesia, among others, suggests that the proverbial “wretched of the Earth” are arising, all over again, this time in response to skyrocketing food prices. And I’d say the regime in Egypt looks particularly vulnerable. Continue reading

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What Makes Groups ‘Special’?

How the latest piece of politically loaded U.S. military jargon from Iraq – “Special Groups” – made it into mainstream media nomenclature Continue reading

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The Perils of a Banker’s War on Iran

Unable to secure meaningful sanctions through the U.N. and other government-to-government channels, the Bush Administration has made an end-run around the diplomatic process and moved to enforce a credit blockade on Tehran — via the U.S. Treasury, and its ability to intimidate foreign banks into doing U.S. bidding for fear of being shut out of U.S. financial markets. Smart move, from the narrow perspective of the neocons. But if the strategy actually works, Iran is likely to respond by inflicting pain where it is able, by bloodying U.S. forces in Iraq and by cranking up global oil prices. And the potential for chaos raises another question: How long are the foreign banks (and their governments) to which the U.S. owes hundreds of billions of dollars going to tolerate being bullied, via the banking system, into going along with unpopular geopolitical ventures? Continue reading

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