Apocalypse Soon


At the end of August, Jonathan Freedland – a senior journalist at the Guardian, a liberal British newspaper – interviewed Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It caused a furor: a voice that does not echo the party line is not tolerated. The scholarly Sacks belongs to the Orthodox wing of Judaism and was well known in the 1980s for being Margaret Thatcher’s favorite clergyperson: there was the shared admiration for Victorian family values and neo-liberal economics. Rabbi Sacks never embarrassed his Prime Minister with crusades for social justice, and on issues like homosexuality he was impeccably Levitical. Within his own faith community his support for the state of Israel was unwavering; not a single word of criticism ever passed his lips – until now.

In his conversation with Freedland, Rabbi Sacks was emphatic about how besieged Israelis felt. Sickened by suicide bombing, he expressed frustration with the Palestinians for not seizing the prospects for peace which he felt were offered by the Oslo agreement. But then Sacks did the unthinkable – he volunteered a temperate, cautious even, reading of Israel’s 35 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It doesn’t square, he said, with Yahweh’s admonition, repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books: ” You were exiled in order to know what it feels like to be exiles.” Sacks sees the current situation as “nothing less than tragic.” The occupation is forcing Israel “into postures that are at odds with its deepest ideals.” To underscore his point he quotes the 12th century Jewish sage Maimonides: “Israel did not long for the Messiah so it could lord it over other nations.”

His remarks created a rumpus, both inside Israel and across the diaspora. There were calls from the Jerusalem Post for Sacks’ resignation. He had made himself irrelevant, the paper thundered. Other rabbis pronounced his statement “far beyond the pale.” The attacks were surprisingly hostile and left Sacks shaken. Gerald Kaufmann, a Member of Parliament for more than 30 years, shrewdly observed that Rabbi Sacks had not encountered Jewish abuse before, had never been called a self-hating Jew as he, Kaufmann, often has – as when he announced that he would not be visiting Israel again until the occupation ended. (In a film he made for the BBC, Kaufmann pays lyrical tribute to his first visit in the 1960s.) However, in a follow-up piece, Jonathan Freedland went on to commend Rabbi Sacks for coming down on the right side of the issue. History, said Freedland, is certain to judge the occupation harshly and he called upon the rest of the Jewish world to decide where it stands on “this folly.”

A couple of years ago, just before the second intifada, I had the opportunity to visit Gaza. On the day after our arrival in Israel – the spouse was there to lecture on post-apartheid South Africa – we had the chance to accompany a small group of progressive Knesset members to Gaza. They were going to gather evidence from Palestinian fishermen being harassed by young conscripts in the Israeli navy. On a very cold March day, we listened as these barefoot men told their harrowing stories. Very early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, we had also observed the rituals of Palestinian humiliation at checkpoints in which the parallels with apartheid South Africa were obvious.

The gut-wrenching poverty of the area was thrown into high relief by the settlements we passed: neat villages behind high walls, razor wire and gun emplacements. Settler children were in colorful costumes for the feast of Purim. On our side of the barricades exhausted looking Palestinian children rode or drove scrawny donkeys. A few days later, the University where the spouse had lectured sent a car to drive us from the Negev to Jerusalem. Our host, an old friend, was with us. The Israeli driver asked her, in Hebrew, if it would be OK for us to take the route through the Occupied Territories, which we did. At one point a toxic smell wafted through the open windows and I wondered out loud about its source. Our driver made a jocular remark, again in Hebrew, which our companion translated: “He says it’s dead Arab – an Arab graveyard.” The racism was reflexive.

The vitriol leveled at Rabbi Sacks surprised me, and it was almost certainly coming from Jews who have never witnessed the Occupation first hand. I thought such harsh treatment was reserved for the likes of an Israeli friend who actively opposes the Likud government and writes excoriating pieces on the occupation for the Israeli and American press. (Now back in Israel, he had come to Notre Dame to work for his doctorate – after having done military service, in the course of which he sustained a severe combat injury from a grenade.) The abuse this man gets goes way beyond being called a self-hating Jew. I have seen some of the e-mails. They are vile. From the safety of his perch in the natural sciences at Notre Dame, a Jewish professor wrote: “Please do us all a favor and visit all the discos, pizza places, dining halls, malls and super markets you can. Perhaps one of these days you will be in the path of those liberators of Palestinian suffering and be blown right out of this world.” And someone who guest lectures at synagogues and to Jewish organizations in South Bend tells me that very senior people often wish my friend dead – in the most graphic of terms.

Such barbaric attempts to silence the critics of occupation are inexcusable and, moreover, inexplicable given that Israeli colonialism and the settler communities appear to have won the political battle in Israel and, more importantly, in the US. AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee – otherwise known as the Israeli lobby) has spent vast amounts of money on politicians, Republicans and Democrats, to ensure that Israel’s government gets to write its own ticket. The real coup, however, has been in the Pentagon where Jewish-Americans Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle are calling the shots. Not only do these men back the right-wing Likud Party’s policies on the Occupied Territories and the settlers, they helped to formulate them. Douglas Feith, in a previous incarnation as policy chairman of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, argued that Israel should re-occupy all land ceded to the Palestinian Authority, even as he acknowledged that “the price in blood would be high.” This sentiment is not very different from one expressed by the ultra-right leader of Israel’s National Religious Party and quoted in Freedland’s Guardian piece: he called Israel’s Arab citizens “a cancer to be removed.” (To which Rabbi Sacks responded, to his credit, “God forbid.”)

Furthermore, the Pentagon troika has skilled propagandists in Jewish neo-cons like the ubiquitous David Brooks and William Kristol, both at the influential Weekly Standard which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pentagon. And, as an article in The Nation points out, the editorial page at the Washington Post is also resolutely in the Pentagon’s corner. Now Perle, Woflowitz and Feith are planning the war against Saddam Hussein, at the end of which the issue of the Occupied Territories, they hope, will be settled once and for all in Israel’s favor. Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in The London Review of Books, argues that another Gulf war would be “breathtakingly reckless.” The push is coming from men, in Washington and Jerusalem, obsessed with power who “take an extremely unreal view of the rest of the world and are insensitive to the point of autism when it comes to the character and motivation of others.” Still, Lieven says, should things go wrong and war ignite a conflagration in the Middle East, it might at least trigger a discussion and bring into the open “the calamitous role of the Israeli lobby” in US politics.

The lobby has been successful in getting the media and politicians to change the subject whenever debate about weaponsofmassdestruction (as Gore Vidal now calls them) turns to Israel. An unstated assumption is that Israel, as a rational polity, can be trusted never to do anything rash or vengeful. This, I think, underestimates the rabid strain of Jewish fundamentalism in Israeli politics. Some years ago, I was part of a Jewish-Christian dialogue in which participants were drawn from the University and the local community. I still recall the chilling response from an Israeli rabbi – a visiting scholar in the Notre Dame Theology Department – during an energetic discussion of the Occupied Territories. The rabbi insisted they were necessary for Israel’s security and went on to warn that should Israel ever feel threatened, it would not hesitate “to bring down the whole Temple.” His threat, not in the least veiled, was made in the context of Israel being a nuclear power.

A last word on the dangers posed to world peace should go to a Californian rabbi, Haim Dov Beliak , who studied at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Israel when it was the ideological center for the settler movement. He is quoted in a sober analysis (published recently in the National Catholic Reporter) of the apocalyptic, Christian Zionist movement which supports both the Occupation and the settlements. Rabbi Beliak is troubled that “the American public knows little about the settlers there is a profound lack of curiosity about them.” They are, he believes, “deeply problematic because they are going to cause World War III. They are not dealing with normal political reality. There is a complete denial of any rights Arabs might have.”

Ann Pettifer is a freelance writer and the publisher of Common Sense, the alternative newspaper at the University of Notre Dame.