No one can claim to be surprised at Benjamin Netanyahu's United Nations General Assembly address. But given the historic outreach by Iran of late—a mutually conciliatory week at the U.N. capped by the first contact between an Iranian leader and an American one since 1979—observers were bound to hang on Bibi's every word. The word he used the most, of course, was "Iran" itself: Netanyahu let his arch-enemy's name pass his lips some 70 times during the address. A few mentions were even positive, as when Netanyahu began by lauding the ancient Persian king Cyrus's freeing of Jews in captivity—in stark contrast to his previous Biblical comparisons. From Cyrus on, however, it was all, to borrow another Biblical allusion, fire and brimstone.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on October 1, 2013 in New York City. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
The hawkish Israeli prime minister's speech delivered on all the grounds one might expect: Netanyahu called for maintaining, and perhaps even increasing, pressure on Iran, and restated that Israel would attack Iran if deemed necessary. He focused on Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, deriding the moderate cleric, again, as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." He read from Rouhani's memoirs and speeches (a risk, given his dubious past readings), raised his alleged role in previous acts of oppression and even terrorism, and asserted Iran's determination to build nuclear weapons. "Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I could believe Rouhani," Netanyahu announced, mispronouncing at every instance the Iranian leader's name. "But I don't because facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Iran's savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani's soothing rhetoric."
Only some of Netanyahu's facts weren't. "Iran is developing nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said, at worst contradicting and at best omitting any modicum of nuance in reading America's—and Israel's—intelligence assessments about Iran's nuclear work. "And since Rouhani's election—and I stress this—this vast and feverish effort has continued unabated." And yet Netanyahu took credit for forcing Iran to slow its own nuclear progress, claiming that his General Assembly speech last year led Iran to reprocess nuclear fuel, rendering it useless for a potential bomb—an argument just as flawed as when the Washington Post made it, but nonetheless one that fails on its own terms to paint a picture of "unabated" progress. Then Netanyahu said that during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian regime "led wild chants of 'death of the Jews'"—a "fact" the Israeli-Iranian scholar Meir Javedanfar and BBC Persian correspondent Bahman Kalbasi both said was flatly untrue (revolutionaries did chant "death to Israel," which may be worthy of disdain, but isn't the same thing). “It really is jarring to see that, the extreme element, and how far he was willing to push it," said Iran expert Gary Sick, to the New York Times, of Netanyahu's speech. "He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”
On October 1, the 68th United Nations General Assembly's final speaker of 2013 took the stage at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. Benjamin Netanyahu, representing Israel, was tardy in getting his paperwork in and ended up in the unfortunate position of going last, after all the big names had gone home or passed out. Normally, being a closer at a world-class event is an honor, but in the case of Israel at the UNGA it was the equivalent of being the last comic to go up at an open mic at 3:30 a.m. with only seven Swedish tourists and your mom left in the audience. When Bibi stepped up to the plate, he looked like he'd stayed up too late the night before at the J Street conference and would much rather be snoozing than giving a speech at the useless U.N. The state of Israel had also ignored a bevy of U.N. resolutions, which had to make being there, center stage, a bit awkward for the PM.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on October 1, 2013 in New York City. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
Netanyahu's speech left me quite bewildered. At first I thought Bibi was Iran's new leader, Dr. Hassan Rouhani's hype man. Kind of like the Dennis Rodman to Rouhani's Kim Jong Un. Like a professional emcee introducing the next act, Bibi rattled off a slew of Rouhani's credits: “This dawg has served on the Islamic council, loves cats, and was most recently elected the President of Iran. Give it up for Dr. Hassan Roukkkkkhani!” However, this was no sparkly introduction. This was a cautionary tale. The kettle was adamantly calling the pot black as Netanyahu accused Iran of doing all sorts of shady things with nuclear power. The types of things only cool countries like America and Israel, who refuse to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, are allowed to do.
Eleven minutes into the address, I gave up on waiting for Netanyahu to mention She Who Must Not Be Named (Palestine) and went to grab a snack. When I got back at the 17-minute mark, Bibi was still droning on about Iran. Netanyahu had pulled out all the stops and went punny. He quipped that, “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellow cake and eat it too.” Someone should remind Netanyahu that Rouhani learned it from watching him and that this is the United Nations, not a comedy club. Eight minutes later, Netanyahu was still going on about how Rouhani was just Ahmadinejad minus the Members Only jacket. I kept waiting for the Palestinian delegation to leap up like Glenn Close from “Fatal Attraction” and shriek, “Palestine will not be ignored, Bibi!” Unfortunately, they—like everyone else—had already gone home.
Childhood is a beautiful and strange thing. Before we truly learn how precious it is, it is already over. For many Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation childhood ends even earlier than you’d think. The commonplace elements of a child’s life in Palestine, which under normal circumstances would be filled with school books, football and games with friends, is instead interrupted by the harsh realities of occupation that include soldiers, checkpoints, walls, discrimination and racism.
When childhood ends for a Palestinian under occupation is impossible to tell. Many who try to carry on with a normal life under the circumstances hope to enjoy the innocence of youth without having it shattered by the oppressive regime that surrounds them. Not all are so lucky. Atta Sabah is one of them.
An Israeli soldier prevents a Palestinian boy from riding his bicycle in the streets that are blocked to Palestinian residents, in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 20, 2012. (Hazem Bader /AFP / GettyImages)
I spend more time than most focused on news from Palestine and the Middle East and every so often there is a story I learn about that I heard nothing of previously. In a situation where death and violence has become routine, not every bullet or victim registers a headline. So when I heard Atta’s story I decided it had to be highlighted, not because it is particularly unique but because it is commonplace and yet unheard of.
CAIRO—An eerie tranquility has settled over post-coup Cairo as the army’s crackdown forcefully continues in Sinai while Egypt’s jails fill with opponents of military rule. There are few protesters on the streets, while pictures of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who led the overthrow of deposed President Mohammad Morsi, adorn store front windows.
Contempt for foreigners, accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine national interests by the government and much of the local press, is a common sentiment on the streets. The detention of two Canadians, John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, which was extended for another 45 days last Sunday, illustrates the repressive and hostile atmosphere.
Chocolates decorated with portraits of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are displayed at a shop in Cairo on August 27, 2013. (Marwan Naamani / AFP / Getty Images)
“There is a lot of xenophobia right now. I think that would flow into every aspect of Egyptian life, including judiciary and the state,” says Adam el Shalankany, a lawyer for Greyson and Loubani, about the impact of the political climate on his client’s situation.
In high school I was a member of the modern Orthodox youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. We sang and danced to scores of niggunim for hours on end. But the song I loved the best was one not danced to: “Ani Maamin” (I Believe). Almost all Jewish Israelis know the words, the powerful melody, and the deep emotion of its message: “I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he may tarry, yet I will wait for him. I will wait for him all the days of my life.”
The deep meaning of the song is that whether or not the Messiah comes, and whether or not there really is a Messiah waiting to come, the yearning for what his arrival would mean, and the injunction never to lose hope for mankind, are values in and of themselves that help make life worth living. Much of the intelligent and passionate piece that Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon have written in response to my New York Times op-ed piece—“Two State Illusion”—is their own version of Ani Maamin. It is an anxious yet defiant song of resistance against despair by professing against all odds “complete faith” in the coming of the two-state solution.
David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images
The reality is that God will not announce that the messiah is not coming. Nor, regarding a negotiated two-state solution, will he announce when the “point of no return” has actually been passed. But there is a great difference between the two. There’s really nothing to lose by declaring the Messiah son of David will come, even if he will not. But there is a tremendous amount to lose by continuing to advocate two-state plans that cannot be implemented when the evil designs of others can exploit that error.
"There could be no greater legacy for America than to help to bring into being a Palestinian state for a people who have suffered too long, who have been humiliated too long, who have not reached their potential for too long, and who have so much to give to the international community and to all of us."
These words—among the strongest ever made by a senior American official about the importance to U.S. foreign policy of establishing a Palestinian state—were delivered in 2006 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the keynote speaker at the first annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine.
This was widely reported in Israel but almost totally ignored in the Arab world. An insightful Israeli noted that Palestinians should regard Rice's speech as their own "Balfour Declaration," unequivocally committing the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state.
ATFP's galas are a celebration of Palestinian Americans, their dignity and pride, their culture and their contributions to the United States and the world. And they are also an unparalleled statement of the mainstreaming of Palestinians and Palestine in the United States.
While delivering her keynote speech at the opening of the J Street Conference on Saturday night, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, “I believe that there is one thing [Israelis and American Jews] should unite behind. I know that Israeli soldiers will do everything they can in order to avoid loss of innocent life. I know it for sure, because they are our children… I know the values that they were raised with and I know they apply these values when we send them to defend our families.”
The contrast between her words and my experience as an Israeli soldier made me shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Tzipi Livni giving the opening night keynote address at the 2013 J Street conference (J Street)
It is easy to be galvanized by Livni's righteous rhetoric of soldiers raised with humanistic values humbly marching to secure the State of Israel. I was one of these soldiers. I served as a sergeant in an elite sniper unit of the paratroops. Back then, I truly believed I could be a humane and benevolent soldier. I was determined to be the good guy. And yet I managed to follow orders when directed to use a Palestinian as a human shield, even though I knew the Israeli Supreme Court had already officially barred the practice.
One of my favorite quotations is one attributed to the French thinker Jean Baudrillard. “Once you are free, you must ask who you are.” This is true, I think, for individuals, groups, and nation-states—including the Jewish people, in our founding myth of Exodus followed by Sinai. At first, we are adolescents, yearning only for release from bondage to others. But then, finally, we’re free. And then what?
The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street—at whose conference I and other key Open Zion contributors, most importantly Peter Beinart, have occasionally spoken—likewise seems in that awkward-in-between stage between youth and identity crisis.
Vice President Joe Biden giving the keynote address at the J Street 2013 conference (JStreet)
I’m not at the J Street conference, so I watched what I could online (only a few sessions were available) and followed the live-tweeting of much of the rest. From what I gathered, though, the convention followed the same pattern evidence at these types of events: lots of discussion about why the organization is important, some laments about the lack of support from the broader community, and a rehashing of old arguments. Still, this year’s conference did have a dynamic to it, which—while it might not be immediately translated into concrete action—at least demonstrated the vitality of the organization.
Participants applaud in a plenary session of the J Street national conference on September 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (J Street)
First, the old stuff. As a left-leaning organization with a strong left-wing base, including a large student presence, faced with criticism that it’s not part of the Jewish pro-Israel mainstream, it’s not surprising that there were lots of discussions about the same old things: the occupation is bad, Israeli society is increasingly unequal, Israeli democracy is threatened, why the Netanyahu government is dooming everyone, and so on. There were also the necessary claims about why J Street is so important for American Jews and for Israel (AIPAC makes the same claims about itself).
I get that these kind of conventions aren’t about setting an organization’s policy. But I think J Street took a positive step in that direction, by bringing in a diverse range of speakers from different areas to throw out new ideas on a broad set of issues. And that’s what makes this year’s conference so important and worthwhile.
Israeli parliamentarians Ruth Calderon and Merav Michaeli provided a rare window into the feminist debate within the Knesset at a panel on “The Changing Face of Politics in Israel: Will Women Lead the Way?” at J Street’s national conference in D.C. on Monday.
The all-female panel included Robi Damelin of The Parents Circle and Yael Patir of J Street, who supplied welcome and important comments on the role of Palestinian women. But it was Calderon and Michaeli who really stole the show. Their verbal sparring made clear that, though both have a vested interest in pushing a feminist agenda in the Knesset, they have very different ideas as to how to go about it.
Michaeli started out by saying that the Knesset is a boys’ club, just like the media and other institutions. True, there are more women than ever before in the current parliament, but they still only hold 27 out of 120 seats. Because she believes it’s important for them to have a forum where they are the majority, Michaeli created a women’s caucus, which all 27 MKs joined. “I feel there is a basic sense of solidarity between the female MKs,” she said. “We tend to support one another’s initiatives.”
“Some say the notion of a Jewish democracy is an oxymoron. Does it have to be?” That’s the question Open Zion columnist Emily Hauser posed at the start of a lively J Street panel, which she moderated Sunday, on “How Israel Can Represent All Its Citizens While Staying True to Its Jewish Character.” The panelists—fellow Open Zion columnist Bernard Avishai, Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amal Elsana Alhjooj—took turns addressing the thorny question, which Israel has yet to resolve in a constitutional framework and which is currently the subject of warring Knesset bills, including one by Calderon.
A secular scholar whose inaugural Knesset speech took the form of a Talmud lesson, Calderon seemed most attached to the idea of preserving the state’s Jewish character. “I don't think that complete separation of religion and state is necessary for a liberal state,” she said, emphasizing that Israel provides an atmosphere of Jewish culture and that that's valuable, particularly for secular Jews who wouldn’t otherwise be immersed in it. She added that her parents’ generation was the first to “live the miracle of feeling at home” in Israel, and that that feeling constitutes a deep human need. To her mind, a state is not—and should not—be neutral; she wouldn’t want to raise kids in "a state without a flavor."
Ruth Calderon and Amal Elsana Alhjooj participate in a panel at J Street's national conference on September 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (J Street)
But Alhjooj pointed out that, as a Bedouin citizen of Israel, she’s the one who has to live with the consequences of Israel’s decision to give Jews preferential treatment. She highlighted the plight of the Bedouin apt to be displaced by the Prawer-Begin Plan. “I also want to feel at home, just like your parents,” she told Calderon. “And I don’t feel at home when this is the way the Jewish state is implementing its policy, based on preferring you and your son over me and my daughter.”
Alhjooj also said that those who advocate for the Jewish character of the state typically support equality in theory, but tend to be short on details when asked how exactly equality can be compatible with preferential treatment. “Show me the policy,” she implored Calderon. But Calderon, whether for lack of answers or simply lack of time, didn’t supply details.
Here at the opening night of J Street’s national conference in D.C., the first plenary session is about to kick off with a big announcement: the pro-Israel, pro-peace organization is launching a $1 million campaign aimed at getting American Jews to rally behind the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Any minute now, J Street will debut the below video, featuring Israeli political, military, and civic leaders all urging American Jews to back the new initiative, dubbed the “2 Campaign” in honor of the two-state solution it hopes to realize.
The goal of the initiative, J Street explained in a press release today, is to “demonstrate that the majority of American Jews will stand behind the Obama administration’s efforts to hold the parties to the hard choices necessary to reach a two-state solution.”
Though that articulation refers to “parties,” plural, it seems clear that J Street’s goal is to convince President Obama that most American Jews will support him if he goes hard on Israel, and that he therefore shouldn’t worry too much about alienating the more hawkish constituencies in the Israel lobby.
The title of the play “The Island,” first performed in Cape Town in 1973, refers to the notorious apartheid-era prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. It focuses on two political prisoners who share a cell, engaging in back-breaking forced physical labor by day and rehearsing for a prison production of Sophocles' Antigone by night. “The Island” won international critical acclaim, a run on Broadway and a 1974 Tony Award. It is today regarded as a pre-eminent artistic commentary on apartheid.
On Wednesday evening Faisal Abu Althayjaa and Ahmed Alrakh of the Jenin Freedom Theater performed an adapted version in English for a warmly sympathetic audience at the Fourth Street Theater in New York City's East Village.
Faisal Abu Alhayjaa (left) and Ahmed Alrakh in a scene from the Jenin Freedom Theater's adaptation of "The Island."
The Freedom Theater was established in Jenin Refugee Camp by the late Juliano Mer-Kahmis, an prominent actor and political activist who was born in Israel to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. His mother Arna originally brought theater to the children of the refugee camp as a creative means of working through the trauma and isolation of living in that besieged and impoverished place during the years of the First Intifada. Juliano went along to film his mother's project, which resulted in the documentary Arna's Children. After her death, he co-founded the Freedom Theater.
Mahmoud Abbas has had a very big week. On Tuesday, the Palestinian president met with President Obama and reiterated his commitment to securing a peace deal within the nine months allotted to him by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas received a pat on the back and a hearty handshake from POTUS who, in return, reiterated his commitment to turning a blind eye to Israel’s compulsive settlement building. Then on Thursday, Abu Mazen had the unenviable task of following up his famous 2011 UNGA appearance, where he stole the show by declaring Palestinian statehood. It was a tough act to follow but his cheering section was there to support him, including Rami Hamdallah and Saeb Erekat, who both resigned but are still representin' at the United Nations General Assembly.
This has also been a difficult week for Abbas and the never-ending peace process. On September 21, 20-year-old Israeli soldier Tomer Hazan was killed by his co-worker in Qalqilya. Before Israel could collectively punish the encircled city, the culprit’s father came forward to condemn his own son and denounced his offspring's act as criminal. He was quoted in The Times of Israel as saying, “I am telling you this from the bottom of my heart… if the military would today give me an M-16 [assault rifle], I would go and shoot my son in the head.” One day later, an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper in Hebron and all hell broke loose. Clashes at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians reached a crescendo this week, making matters even worse.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images
Abbas, who many consider yellow-bellied, jumped head first into controversy during his UNGA 2013 spot. He called out Israel’s daily incursions of the Al Aqsa compound, which houses the recognizable golden Dome of the Rock as well as its lesser-known counterpart, the black-domed Haram El Sharif. The repeated attacks on worshippers in Jerusalem were condemned by Abbas, who timidly shared that if the near-daily attacks on the Al Aqsa compound continued, there could be “dire consequences” for the not-yet-dead peace talks and the region as a whole.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a moderate speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, a speech that contrasted sharply with the rhetoric of last year, when Palestine was urging that same body—successfully, it turned out—to raise its diplomatic status to that of an observer state.
But, listening closely, it was possible to hear in his speech hints at the issues that have been roiling beneath the surface of the recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. That’s because Abbas—like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before him—was doing double duty in his speech. He was delivering a message that was music to the ears of the international community, emphasizing that “the two peoples, the Palestinian and the Israeli, are partners in the task of peacemaking.” But he was also speaking to audiences back home, where concern over the current round of peace talks—and over his own ability to properly represent Palestinian interests there—has been mounting for weeks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 26, 2013 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)
Finding a just solution to the plight of the Palestinian refugees is supposed to be one of the main features of the sought-after Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But many Palestinians believe Abbas is too soft on the “right of return” issue. In an interview with Israeli Channel 2 last year, he effectively renounced his right to return to his hometown of Safed, saying, “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there.” That comment deeply alarmed Palestinians, who read it as a wholesale renunciation of U.N. resolution 194, where Palestinian refugees’ legal right of return is enshrined.
It’s OK for the American Studies Association to judge the country with a double standard. Denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state is another story.