Monday, July 28, 2014

A perfect storm of Anti-Semitism?

This morning I woke up, yet again, to a series of headlines about unruly mobs screaming vile slogans in the street, and of attempted murder and arson at a Jewish Community Center in Toulouse. And the problem is not confined to France - all across the continent anti-Semites appear to be emboldened in a way the world has not seen in Europe for some 70 years. Until a few years who, I would have thought that stories of attacks on French synagogues and crowds shouting "gas the Jews," belonged more to the first half of the nineteenth century than to 2014. Now I know better.
Despite the best efforts of governments, security services and NGO's, there seems to be an increasingly large segment of the population which is very comfortable embracing not only Nazi ideology and rhetoric, but is willing to put such ideology into action, attacking and killing people for no other reason than their ethnicity or religion. As I have written before, there are two main groups which seem to have no problem turning hate speech into hateful acts: the far right/neo-Nazis and Muslim extremists. From my vantage point, it looks like their combined presence represents a clear danger not only to Jewish communities,  but to the very foundations of civil society itself. The fact that these crimes are happening at all should serve as a major wake up call for European leaders, from the highest levels of government on down. 
Much of this antisemitism has risen to the surface with protests against the war between Israel and Hamas. Perhaps there is something about the sense of anonymity afforded to one as part of crowd. Perhaps it is the perception that if thousands turn out to protest what is happening in Gaza, that they too must share an ideology of antisemitism which signals to some individuals that actions like attempting to burn down a house of worship are somehow not just acceptable, but sanctioned, by those around them. 
Whatever the root causes may turn out to be, it is clear to me that a violent storm is brewing in Europe. These "protests" against Israel may seem at first like bothersome drops of rain, but now we are hearing the first rumbling thunder of violence in the streets of France, Germany and Belgium. Sadly, more and more it feels as though a storm is coming, and we ignore it at our own peril.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In Mosul, history repeating

Someday historians will look back on the dawn of the 21st century and attempt to make sense of the chaos that now reigns across the Middle East and North Africa. They will undoubtedly try to tease out the many tangled threads that have combined to form this patchwork quilt of violence and ideology, looking for clean lines of cause and effect, seeking to elevate certain figures and movements as foundational and influential. 

All one has to do is open a browser and go to any major news outlet to see this bloody tableau. Right now, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has the top spot in practically every form of media, while the civil war in Syria, the latest upheaval in Egypt and the Iranian nuclear program seem less prominent. For the moment I’ll leave the obsession with Israel aside (although I highly recommend reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s analysis of this phenomenon on The Atlantic website) and turn my attention to what is happening in Iraq, where the so-called Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) now appears to be making significant inroads not only when it comes to destabilizing an already shaky country, but in their zeal to murder, drive out and obliterate any sign of non-Muslim residents. Their total disregard for human life is bad enough – what worries me even more is the monolithic ideology behind their actions. It is an ideology which has no place for anyone different, and they are willing to employ merciless violence on a massive scale to spread their message. 

The city of Mosul is a good example of how religious intolerance is impacting the Middle East today, and how it has grown over time. At one point, this city (and many other cities and towns in Middle Eastern and North African countries) was home to a significant Jewish community withancient roots. But just as Jews were driven from Mosul in the middle of the last century, it appears that today Christians are also facing persecution, this time at the hands of the Islamic State terror group. As NPR recently reported, many Christians in Mosul have been given the option to flee, pay a special tax, convert to Islam or die. For this Christian community, which has existed in Iraq for more than a thousand years, these are stark choices which no person should ever have to choose between.

We are a long way off from the final analysis of any of the current Middle East conflicts. That being said, I can’t help but think as I look at the news out of Iraq today, that the gains made by the Islamic State are not only an immediate threat to ordinary citizens in Iraq and Syria, but that their bloodthirsty proselytizing and total disregard for the beliefs and cultural norms of others is the latest step in a long tradition of violent intolerance in the region. It is the same intolerance which forced hundreds of thousands of Jews  from across the Middle East and North Africa to flee their homes for the safety of the State of Israel, the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 

The ideology which drove Jews to flee 60 years ago may be different than that which is behind the current assault on Christians, but the demonization, intolerance and violence are the same. It may well be many years before someone writes a thorough book about what is happening now in Mosul, but one day they will, and it will represent a very sad chapter in the history of the Middle East that will fit all too well into the broader narrative.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The victims of MH17 deserve better than this

On Thursday we heard the first reports that a Malaysian Airlines plane had crashed in the Ukraine, followed by even more disturbing news that the cause of the disaster was likely a surface-to-air missile. This was sad (and worrisome) enough, but what has followed has been even harder to believe: pro-Russian separatists have purposely made it difficult for investigators to reach the site of the crash, the bodies of the victims were left to lie where they fell in an open field, and there appeared to be evidence of looting at the site by local people.

Meanwhile the New York Times reported this morning that there are large groups of volunteers picking their way through the wreckage, potentially destroying or removing key pieces of evidence which may be vital to any investigation. And there are reports that the rebels have moved the bodies to another location, also under separatist control.

For the families and friends of those who perished it is a personal tragedy. For investigators, the global aviation community, governments whose citizens were killed, and the flying public, any delay in the investigation leaves unanswered important questions. This situation is also intolerable when it comes to the profound lack of respect to being shown to the victims themselves.

To leave their bodies out in the open, exposed to the elements and the gawking stares of local curiosity seekers, is  morally repugnant. It is not something that civilized people do. The world needs to hear this not only from officials and commentators in the West, but from Vladimir Putin. If  Putin has any influence with the rebels -  and there is considerable evidence that he does -  he should use that influence to quickly resolve issues around access to the crash site by properly trained investigators and the repatriation of the bodies of the victims.

Whatever the precise sequence of events which led to this disaster, the world needs to put pressure on Russia to move much more swiftly when it comes to dealing with this air disaster. Whatever Putin might hope to achieve geopolitical with his support for pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Europe, there is a clear moral imperative here to repatriate the bodies of the victims as quickly as possible. It's the least he can do.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hamas embraces an ethos of death, with repercussions for all

As Israel observed a humanitarian ceasefire at the request of the UN, Hamas and its allies were apparently using this time to plan their next round of attacks. As the above graphic shows, Israel is facing a serious threat from  a well-armed foe bent on its destruction.
By now I was hoping I might be able to write a post about how Hamas had come to its senses, ended its ceaseless rocket attacks and other terrorist activities, and a relative peace had returned to the region. I hoped that this might happen, but of course I also knew that it was unlikely –after all, a terrorist regime that uses human shields is unlikely to just wake up one morning and decide to respect human life.

Sadly, the fighting rages on, and the Palestinian people remain hostage to Hamas and its minions, while Israelis are forced to live their lives constantly on edge as they wait for the next siren to sound, the next mortar or rocket to land. It is indisputable that there have been tragic incidents on both sides, but I think it is vital that the world not lose sight of the fact that although there have been relatively few Israeli deaths and injuries, it is not for a lack of trying on the part of Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Nor should Israel be asked to apologize, implicitly, by some in the media, that “only” one Israeli has been killed to date.   

In addition to the indirect fire attacks from Gaza that there have also been at least two attempts by terrorists to enter Israel –once by sea, this morning by tunnel – with nefarious purpose.
Further evidence that Hamas has no interest in a peaceful resolution was on display today, when, within seconds of the end of a United Nations requested humanitarian truce, the rocket attacks from Gaza resumed right away. 

While Israel does everything it can toprevent death and injury to Palestinian civilians, and admits (and investigates) when it makes a mistake and innocent lives are lost, Hamas delights in the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians equally – the former seen as inhuman and alien, the latter as martyrs for their cause. As long as this pattern continues, with Hamas and its allies seeking to cause indiscriminate death and destruction, I’m afraid peace feels a very long way off.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

When "criticism" is a cover for hate

Like the United States, Western European countries and any other democratic nation, Israel does not do everything perfectly. There are plenty of issues within the country that are divisive: tensions between “secular” citizens and the Ultra-Orthodox, a public education system in need of reform. People with good intent may point to ways they disagree with Israeli foreign policy or to flaws they perceive in the peace process or with how Israel interacts with the Palestinians. There are a whole range of legitimate criticisms to be made – but then there are many more which are not legitimate at all, many more which are simply a cover for hatred, lies and outright anti-Semitism.

Heard during times of relative stability, such comments, overt or subtle, are bad enough. Today, though, when Israel is facing real danger from Hamas and other terrorist groups every minute of every hour, I find them much more worrying; all the more so when they take the form of outright anti-Semitism. As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg noted tonight, the hashtags “killjews” and “HitlerwasRight” are now popular on Twitter. The internet has a certain amount of anonymity woven into its digital fabric, but I have no doubt that there are those who hate both Israel and Jews who are more than happy to make use of these disgusting hashtag phrases. I understand there are people who feel strongly about the need for a Palestinian state – I myself think that a two-state solution is ultimately the only viable solution – but to employ violent anti-Semitic rhetoric in support of the Palestinian people reveals these “advocates” for what they are: hate-filled and ignorant.

And this use of Anti-Semitic hate speech has not been limited to the internet. Just this evening the Times of Israel reported that a protest outside the Israeli Consulate in Boston this past week became particularly heated, as students showing solidarity with Israel were reportedly called “Jesus killer” among other epithets. The fact that people who were supposedly protesting against Israel decided to employ this kind of rhetoric tells me that they probably care a lot more about expressing hatred for Jews than any love for Palestinians.

Sadly, this seems often to be the case among those who advocate the loudest for a Palestinian state. Not only do they seem woefully ignorant of the internal political realities within the Palestinian population and the degree to which Hamas has done seemingly everything it can to prevent positive steps forward, but their enthusiasm for Palestinian nationalism is often blind to the suffering that Israel has had to endure from bombings, rockets and other forms of attack for many years.

The quickness with which so many of these outspoken critics slip easily into language that is deeply anti-Semitic not only reveals their true colors, but shows the degree to which such people are actually an impediment to peace. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all – that once again hatred for Jews, whether from the fringes of the left in America, the far-right in Europe or among Muslim extremists has become the central rallying cry for anti-Semites as they seek to exploit the pain and suffering of everyone involved in the conflict for their own destructive purposes. The more we recognize this, and call it out for what it is, the sooner we can push aside those who call out “Jesus killer” in the streets of Boston and tweet the hashtag “HitlerwasRight,” and begin to make space for real dialogue among people of good conscience, among people of all nationalities, ethnicities and religions who care about peace.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A question mark hangs over Jewish life in Europe

It is a question that few would like to ponder, but that many are asking: do large Jewish communities have a future in  Europe? It is a provocative question, equally sad and pessimistic, but increasingly prominent as news of blatant acts of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence are reported in the media.  In addition to high-profile incidents such as the terrible murders in France and Belgium, there have been many other less less deadly, but no less disturbing examples that have raised alarm. 

As I have written before, the Jews of Europe face threats from the European far-right and neo-Nazi groups, as well as Islamic fundamentalists. These are groups which represent a threat to European civil society as well. While they may have different ideology what they share is a common hatred for those they consider inferior and a total disregard for the value of human life. What is particularly disturbing in the case of ultra right-wing groups is that they have appear to have tapped into a certain strain of hate and frustration among a segment of voters, leading to success in elections.

This is problematic at a policy of level, as these newly elected officials may be able to negatively influence legislation when it comes to respect for human rights and the protection of minorities. Their election also sends a dangerous message to these on the fringes of society that their hateful beliefs represent legitimate political and social opinions. Furthermore, I believe the increasing popularity and success of groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have the potential to normalize the sort of prejudice and hatred that leads to violence against Jews and other minorities.

It is important that leaders such as AJC Executive Director David Harris and ADL National Director Abraham Foxman have spoken out forcefully about the threat this legitimization poses. But it is not enough - I would argue it is also incumbent upon anyone who cares about not only ethnic and religious minorities in Europe, but about civil society, to pay attention to what is happening in Germany, France, Greece and other European nations.

The importance of this issue has also not been lost on Israeli leaders. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported yesterday, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky has also been musing aloud about the future of European Jewry. I think his comments in the JTA piece reflect a broader concern among Jewish leaders around the world that it's not just cultural survival, but physical safety that has become a concern.

I would like to think that those who speculate about the potential demise of major centers of European Jewry are being alarmist, but there is real cause for concern. I don't think Europe's Jewish communities will disappear any time soon - but it will take more than statements by Jewish leaders to stem the tide of hate that is rising across the continent. The question of whether Jewish communities in Europe have a future has been raised, and voices of moral weight and authority have weighed in - now it is up to the people of Europe, leaders and citizens alike, to respond.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

As terrorists do what they want, Israel is forced to do what it must

Early last week the world learned about the tragic murder of three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped by terrorists. Later in the week there was the murder of a Palestinian teenager which now appears to have been a "revenge" action by Jewish extremists. As everyone from leading rabbis to the Prime Minister of Israel to the leaders of the major Jewish American organizations have stated, this action by Jewish extremists is disgusting, shameful and there is no place for the perpetrators of such a vile act within Israeli society. There is every reason to be confident that the murderers of the Arab teen will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, as well they should be.

 Unfortunately, these events have helped fuel violence across Israel as Palestinian leaders failed to take any action which might have defused what was clearly an explosive  situation. Now Hamas and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of the tragic deaths of these young men as well as violent rioting among Arabs in the country to launch a reenergized assault against Israel, firing hundreds of rockets out of Gaza, and today, a rocket apparently came quite close to hitting Tel Aviv. There are also reports of terrorist attempting to infiltrate an Israeli army base.

Citizens in places which have not often been under direct threat from tickets and missiles, such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem now must face a real possibility that they too could face this kind of attack. It is perhaps both reassuring and depressing that Jerusalem already has bomb shelters in many places - when I lived there I always made a mental note of the nearest one, and I'm thankful I never had to use that knowledge.  

Now major conflict has flared once again - and it is striking how as Israel attempts to neutralize the threat poised by terrorist leaders, rocket launchers and terrorist weapons supplies, Hamas and its fellow militants are firing indiscriminately into Israel without the slightest concern about how many innocent children and it get civilians (including Arabs) might be maimed or killed. 

It is impossible to know when this fighting may end or when peace talks may resume, but I hope that  those who are so often intensely critical of Israeli defensive actions will look at how this latest disaster has unfolded and realize that as Israeli leaders are doing everything they can to avoid the deaths of innocent people, that it was the intentional murder of three israeli teenagers which lit this match, and that the terrorist who did it had every intention of starting a fire. 

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The moral force of four grieving families

The horrific murder of a Palestinian teenager in Israel last week has shaken those of us who care about peace to the core. Not only was the crime itself utterly barbaric, inhuman and a violation of all the principles that democratic nations such as Israel hold dear, it was also a clear attempt to subvert any current attempts at peace. Just as I wrote when the three israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists, this death is not only a profound tragedy for the family and friends of this young man, but a terrible blow to any prospects of coexistence in the near future.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, whomever is found to be responsible for this heinous crime not only needs to be caught and prosecuted, but they have no place in Israeli society.

As others have pointed out, when the Israeli teenagers were kidnapped (and murdered) no such statements were made by Palestinian leaders. In fact, the Palestinian general public celebrated the abduction of the three Israeli teens. Now there are 4 dead teenagers, murdered simply, it would seem, not because of anything they did, but because of who they were. Because they happened to be Jewish or Arab, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is not the first time, and sadly, it is unlikely to be the last. As I write this, rockets continue to rain down on Israel, threatening the lives of Israeli civilians, and rioting has caused damage and injury in eastern Jerusalem and in Israel's north. Whether or not one agrees with everything that Israel does to protect itself, it an indisputable fact that Israeli leaders have moved swiftly and forcefully to find and capture the killers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and to denounce whomever is responsible. This stands in stark contrast to Palestinian leaders who seem unable or unwilling (or both) when it comes to exercising moral leadership or significant influence in calming tensions.

I am under no illusion that Hamas will do anything even remotely helpful in this situation, but the Palestinian Authority would do well to look the example set by the bereaved families and their supporters, both Israeli and Palestinian. Despite the intense pain of their loss, they have called for calm instead of bloodshed, they have reached out to offer their condolences and words of comfort, across the great divide that separates so many Israelis and Palestinians.  If Israeli leaders can do it, if regular Israeli citizens and Palestinians can do it, then I think the time has come for the world to turn to the PA and ask why it cannot do the same.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A sad ending, with little hope in sight

Shortly after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by terrorists in the West Bank I wrote a blog post about how this act was not only a personal tragedy for the families involved, but likely to further damage (if such a thing is possible) any prospects of a real peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite hope that they would be found alive and well, tragically, the three young men were found murdered, probably shot very soon after their abduction. 

This senseless act of brutality is already fueling unrest and violence in Israel, with riots breaking out in in Eastern Jerusalem following the discovery of a murdered Palestinian teenager and many Arab residents blaming Israel for his death. As of this writing it's not clear if there is any connection between this death and the murder of the three Israeli teens, but it would clearly be in the best interest of everyone involved, from the families of these murdered children, to the Palestinian Authority  and the government of Israel, to catch those responsible as swiftly as possible. 

I think even by the standards of the region and recent history that things are at a low point right now, and I'm not the only one. In an article on the Foreign Policy website, author and former diplomat Aaron David Miller writes:

"As for the impact of the murders on the formal peace process, the question has been pretty conclusively answered: The notion that violence and terror could provide a clarifying moment and lead to a breakthrough is as illusory as using a prayer summit to produce a two-state solution. Netanyahu's recent statements after the murders, hardening Israeli security requirements in the Jordan Valley, strongly suggest that this process is closed for the season."

Miller's assessment is not optimistic, but I believe it is realistic. The chance of any major breakthrough or even movement when it comes the peace process feel very far away, and with political turmoil and ideological violence on the rise across the Middle East, there are any number of other regional conflicts that could easily force Israel to turn its attention to more pressing issues. The advance of ISIL and the possibility that the group could cause problems on Israel's doorstep in Jordan, and spillover from the Syrian Civil War in the north, are just two examples of threats that may end up drawing Israeli attention and resources away from peace talks with the Palestinians. And these are just two threats we can identify today- unfortunately we have no way of knowing what tomorrow may bring.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.