Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Midnight Despair in the Garden

I am so filled with despair regarding Israel’s prospects. I can’t seem to write poetry. I can barely read it.

I have four step-children, whom I adore, who are good and kind and deserve bright futures. They will all serve in the Israeli army. The first, the dark-haired one with amber eyes and who likes to sleep late and is the only teenage girl I’ve met who doesn’t like Justin Bieber, enters next year. At no point in the last thirty years, has Israel been so isolated. At no point, has its soldiers been so unsafe. I blame Netanyahu and Lieberman, Israel’s current Prime Minister and Foreign Minster, respectively, who together formed alliances with the Israel’s religious Orthodox parties and right-wing to obtain majority in the Knesset (the Orthodox who could care less about the futures of my stepchildren except that their taxes fund their religious schools and pay for their innumerable children).  In return, the government continues to pour money into the coffers of the religious, the right-wing settlers, and those who believe any settlement with the Arabs represents existential suicide.

I also blame the Palestinians who elect rabid fundamentalist leaders who yearn for Israel's destruction. I am realistic enough to know that Israel often felt it had no choice but to react violently when the rockets were being fired, its own people were being slaughtered. But there have been moments of potential compromise. Compromise desired by good people on both sides.

There were so many missed opportunities that a little imagination and compassion could have taken advantage of. They say that many Israeli Arabs cried the night Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist, that many are still crying.

Instead, settlements have expanded 50% since Oslo, Israel is more isolated, Egypt and Turkey who once were partners at least on paper, burn down our embassies. My own father asks, what does Israel want? We have treated the Arabs so long as enemy they have become enemy.

Many Israelis and Jews dismiss Obama, who while perhaps not doing enough in terms of tough love, had Israel’s back even in the worst of times. Didn’t he sit their, his hand under his chin, while Netanyahu lectured him on the error of returning to 1967 borders? Even I couldn’t watch that charade.

Now, I feel, we are in the worst of times again.

There are so many kind, generous, intelligent people here, in Israel. I believe that even the hearts of the right wing are not evil. Why are they being gagged? Why are we letting the fanatics and ignorant decide our fate?

I wish Israel would do something insane. Assuming a Security Council vote is delayed (which it probably will be), and the Palestinians take a vote to the UN General Assembly.  The GA doesn’t have the power to create a sovereign state, but it can upgrade the Palestinians’ current status at the UN from a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state.” That would give the Palestinians the same status at the world body as the Vatican (not that Catholics don't have a lot of injustice to answer for). That means it could become a member of a variety of UN organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Health Organization. What if Israel voted ‘YES.’ The facts on the ground would not change for anyone, BUT it might force the Palestinians to begin acting like a real country and perhaps recognize Israel’s right to exist, respect borders, step away from terrorism. It might also force real negotiations on both sides, force serious people to take charge. It’s a big ‘if.’

But what if Israel does nothing?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Never-Ending 9/11

New York, September 11, 2001

It’s four days after the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I guess it’s time to come out from under the covers. Ten years sounds like a long time, and I suppose in ten years, much CAN change. It has, but in many respects, for the worse.

I started a poem four days ago on the morning of the 11th, watching the CNN coverage of the memorial. My poem began with these lines.

I think it important to know who is being barred from the journey.
I think it crucial to acknowledge that not just anyone can go,
that some will be forced to abandon their unborn daughters
and their guidebooks,
their decapitated Barbie standing sentinel.
The nighlight left lit.

I think it imperative to go ahead and decide
      who will hand out
the pieces of paper,

who will pin the note explaining what took place
to their sleeves.

Cheery, huh? It was not going to be an optimistic or happy poem, more a reflection on how individualistic our society remains, how more individualistic, consumer driven, inward our society has become in these ten years, how afraid we remain.

It’s difficult to remain optimistic when on lives in the Middle East, though even in the wake of 9/11, there were attempts. Many Israelis thought that the demise of the Twin Towers would awaken public sentiment to the threat of fanaticism and fundamentalism. That surely enlightenment ideals would rise up to defend ‘western’ liberalism and freedom, they thought. Instead, America finds itself enmeshed in two wars with no sign of success in either, fundamentalism is on the rise, the ‘Spring’ forecast by protests and revolution in Libya, Egypt, Syria gives way to chaos and increasing anti-Israel rhetoric. The Palestinians, still without a state, will likely take their case for statehood to the UN in two weeks, and Israel finds itself increasingly isolated.

At the same time, I find it difficult to agree with those who yearn for Mubarak’s return to Egypt, that Hassad crush the protests in Syria, who wax nostalgic about Middle East police-state regimes even if the populist democracies (can we call them that) replacing them attack Israel, call for its destruction. I have to believe there is something better, and not just for Israel.

I also believe that the survival and prosperity of Israel is a prerequisite for the prosperity of the US and the promulgation of the values we treasure. As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine,

Egyptians attacking the Israeli Embassy,
September 9, 2011
Historically, then, the fate of the Jews is tied to the fate of liberalism; and after Sept. 11, Berman showed, the greatest threat to liberal values came from Islamic fundamentalists, who spoke about Jews in terms borrowed from European fascists. Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed Islam’s problems on Marx and Freud: “[T]he atheistic, materialistic doctrine in our world was advocated by a Jew, and the permissive doctrine which is sometimes called ‘the sexual revolution’ was advocated by a Jew. Indeed, most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews.” This, as Berman points out, is not theological anti-Judaism (though Qutb voiced that variety as well) but the kind of anti-modern anti-Semitism that identifies the Jew with social dissolution and rootless individualism. But these are the very same things that, when considered as values rather than vices, we think of as essentially American: freedom of the individual, free thought, pluralism.

Concomitantly, I believe that Israel relations with its neighbors will not improve until the cultivation of democratic and liberal values including respect for other religions, women’s rights, the rights of minorities cannot occur in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc. The two are intertwined. This will not be an easy or short process, nor is success certain. In fact, as we have seen, the direction can be backward. But as was pointed out by Armin Rosen in another 9/11-inspired article in Tablet, these same regimes maintained their power in part by using Israel as a scapegoat or target for anger to deflect attention from their own repressive policies. They spread rumors and lies about Israel and their own policies about Israel, even as they maintained civil borders. These regimes had it both ways. I can but hope that as freedom of press and voice develop, as people begin hearing and reading other opinions beyond those fed to them, empathy and understanding may slowly develop. It will take years, decades. It may never happen. But it must.

The poem I started on 9/11 has now reached three pages and it is, surprisingly, becoming something of a love poem. There is also optimism and, at least in one part, a rising tide of community. Here’s one passage:

We were on the one highway leading to Kinneret Lake.
There were so many signs and stop lights,
all of them useless.
Traffic had backed up twenty kilometers.
Slowly word worked back window to window
of a terrible accident.
A few drivers leaned out of their vehicles,
shading their eyes, mouthing words
whose bitterness thickened the August heat, the smog
of the hundred idling engines.
The girl in the backseat looked up from the message
she was typing into her telephone,
Maybe they need help, her blue green eyes,
the sun lightened lashes,
meeting ours in the mirror.
Far ahead, smoke began to rise as one
by one, the people stepped from their cars
began running forward.

I don’t know if this passage will remain in the poem, or if I even trust it.

I guess like most of us, I want to believe in the goodness of people. I guess at some point, I have to. How’s that for an ending to this post?