Eyal Press is a Nation contributing editor and the author of Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times and Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America.
The world of letters lost an inimitable voice on Monday, when the journalist and historian Amos Elon died in Italy, at the age of eighty-two. For decades, Elon's stylish essays graced the pages of The New York Review of Books, where he wrote about a wide range of subjects, most notably Israel/Palestine, to which his Viennese parents fled in 1933, when he was eight. Elon went on to become the leading journalist of his generation, the Washington correspondent for Haaretz and the author of numerous acclaimed books. Yet he grew increasingly estranged from Israel as it veered to the right in the decades after the 1967 Six-Day War, eventually packing up his belongings and moving to Tuscany in 2004.
Elon's finest essays blended reportage and scholarship, in a voice at once learned and unsparing. Here he is on Jerusalem, in a piece published in 2001:
By now, generations of Palestinians and Israelis have been forcefully and dogmatically instructed by their political and religious leaders that the Old City is exclusively theirs. The early Zionists were wiser than their children and grandchildren. Like most European nationalists of the liberal school they were opposed to religious authority. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, never bothered to have his only son circumcised. He advocated the internationalization of Jerusalem. For the capital of his proposed secular Judenstaat (a "state of Jews" as distinct from what later came to be called a Jewish state) he preferred Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Jerusalem, he felt, was redolent with fanaticism and superstition, the musty deposit of "two thousand years of inhumanity and intolerance..."
"How long can a relatively large minority be assumed by the majority to be an enemy without in the end actually turning into one? How long can the state exist as a stable political framework if this is how it treats a sixth of its citizens?" So asked the Israeli novelist David Grossman in his brilliant and sadly prescient book Sleeping on a Wire, a portrait of Israel's Arab minority that was written in 1991. "Slowly and steadily, as if slumbering, Israel is missing its chance to rescue itself from a horrible mistake," Grossman warned. "It is creating for itself the enemy it will run up against after its other enemies have made their peace with it."
Eighteen years later, a new poll finds that only 53.7 percent of Israeli-Arabs believe Israel has a right to exist as an independent state, down from 81.1 percent in 2003. An astounding 40 percent deny that the Holocaust ever happened. This is proof that "they hate us," some Jewish Israelis will likely contend, "they" being all Arabs, from Cairo to Nazareth. Yet until recently, surveys had consistently shown that the majority of Arab-Israelis wanted to be accepted as citizens despite being subjected to discrimination in everything from land ownership to education. Polls conducted in the past by Sammy Smooha, a professor at Haifa University (who also conducted the latest survey), found that 75 percent of Arab-Israelis between the age of 16 and 22 supported voluntary national service; 68 percent were willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood; 75 percent supported a return of Palestinian refugees only to a Palestinian state.
That was before the Second Lebanon War and the war in Gaza, which may not have vanquished Hamas but which clearly did further radicalize Israel's Arab citizens. Before proto-fascist Avigdor Lieberman was appointed Israel's Foreign Minister. Before another government took power that has shown no interest in stopping the growth of illegal settlements in the West Bank, much less addressing the inequities between Jews and Arabs in Israel. "Time is running out" on Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade President Obama in their meeting this week. As Bernard Avishai points out here, it is running out on something else: the notion that Israel can be the democratic state its founders dreamed of creating.
I spent much of last year in Hungary, leaving just before the IMF cobbled together a rescue package to prevent the nation's economy from imploding. A full-scale implosion has been averted, at least for now, but Hungary is still in dire shape. Its economy is projected to shrink by 6 percent this year, unemployment is rising, and the country's disgraced socialist leader, Ferenc Gyrunscany, recently had to step down after several years of feckless rule that boosted the popularity of the Hungarian right.
This is bad news for all Hungarians, but especially for the country's Roma gypsies, a favorite scapegoat of the Hungarian Guard, a fascist group that has also seen its popularity grow in recent years. A number of gypsies have been killed recently in unsolved murders presumed to be the work of right-wing vigilantes, and the level of anti-Roma sentiment in Hungarian society has apparently increased dramatically. "You now hear anti-gypsy sentiment at every level of society," a prominent politician recently told the Financial Times.
I found this statement alarming in part because, frankly, I heard anti-gypsy sentiment at every level of society a year ago, including from young people in Budapest who thought of themselves as open-minded. In fairness, I also met Hungarians who marched in demonstrations against racism and intolerance. The current economic upheaval has not yet brought the far-right, much less the fascists, to power in Hungary. But it has made expressions of hatred more frequent and more casually permissible, an ominous development in a place where insecurity is rising.
My colleague Robert Dreyfuss wonders whether Roxana Saberi, the American journalist who was recently released after being sentenced to eight-years in prison in Iran, is as innocent as she seems. Based on what, exactly? That she made a trip to Israel? And copied a document? With all due respect, I see nothing in this article in the Independent to suggest that Saberi, who was originally arrested for buying a bottle of wine, did anything wrong.
Glenn Greenwald, meanwhile, has pointed to the hypocrisy of American reporters who rallied to Saberi's defense but have been silent about the plight of journalists like Sami Al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who was held for six years in Guantanamo by our government. Fair enough, but then Greenwald, who has written incisively and admirably about torture and American legal affairs, adds:
In Iran, at least Saberi received the pretense of an actual trial and appeal (one that resulted in her rather rapid release, a mere three weeks after she was convicted), as compared to the journalists put in cages for years by the U.S. Government with no charges of any kind, or as compared to the individuals whom we continue to abduct, transport to Bagram, and insist on the right to imprison indefinitely with no charges of any kind…
What would happen if Palestinians launched a movement of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Could such a movement achieve what suicide bombings and armed struggle plainly have not? This question has been engaged, thoughtfully and bravely, by Palestinians such as Sari Nusseibeh. It is also the subject of a provocative article, "The Missing Mahatma," by Gershom Gorenberg that was published several weeks ago in, of all places, The Weekly Standard.
The piece was originally commissioned by The Atlantic and Gorenberg, its author, is no neoconservative. He is a progressive, a fine journalist and the author of a superb narrative history of the Israeli settlement project, The Accidental Empire. He knows that it is asking a lot merely to suggest that Palestinians who have endured decades of brutality under Israeli occupation should embrace the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. "Absolute nonviolence is a terribly unfair standard to demand of those on the other side – the weaker side – of a conflict, even if it has the potential of being politically effective," Gorenberg writes. "The promise of mere political effectiveness may be too little to convince people to march toward troops or to fast unto death or simply to put down their stones."
Indeed, not even the South African struggle against Apartheid – which Gorenberg curiously fails to cite in comparison – was entirely nonviolent. (Nor was the Zionist struggle against British rule in Palestine.) On the other hand, South Africans did not salute teenagers who blew themselves up in pizza parlors as martyrs. In a struggle for justice, blatantly unjust tactics have a tendency to backfire, and also to corrupt those who practice, celebrate and excuse them, a point Gorenberg makes here, in a reply to some critics (and admirers) of his piece. It goes without saying that the virtues of nonviolence are something to which Israelis, too, have grown painfully blind. Even so, Gorenberg is right that nonviolent resistance has the potential to exert a ‘gravitational pull' on world opinion – and the opinions of Israelis – that suicide bombings and rocket attacks do not. In my view, nothing would scare and unsettle those who whitewash and excuse the occupation more.
It was a bad week for Republicans – those who want their party to appeal beyond the ever-shrinking core of true believers, that is. Take a peek over at the website of The American Spectator and you'll appreciate why, as dispiriting as things may look right now for the GOP, they're likely to get worse. Several articles – "The National Socialism of Obamanomics," "The Facts on Fascism" – suggest without irony that we are gliding down a path toward dictatorship, courtesy of Obama's expansion of government and effort to deal with the implosion of the economy.
Elsewhere, Doug Bandow makes the case that the way forward for the GOP is to make it clear to the American people that it stands for… smaller government. Republicans became unpopular, Bandow contends,
because they cheerfully spent money faster than the Democrats going back to Lyndon Johnson. The GOP further federalized education, added a massive new welfare program, bloated virtually every federal department, initiated an unnecessary war, and demonstrated all-around incompetence.
My colleague Chris Hayes recently hailed Virginia Senator Jim Webb's admirable crusade against the prison-industrial complex. As Webb mulls how to reform America's busted, bloated criminal justice system, which currently houses a staggering 25 percent of the world's prison population, there is a new book he ought to read: Dreams From The Monster Factory, by Sunny Schwartz.
Schwartz is the founder of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP), a restorative justice program based in California that has reduced the recidivism rate among violent inmates by as much as 80 percent. As anyone who reads her book will discover, she hasn't achieved such results by pretending the prisoners who enroll in the program are choirboys. A Jewish lesbian and feminist, Schwartz makes no effort to excuse the conduct of the rapists, child molesters, gangbangers and murderers who populate California's prisons and turn up in the pages of her gritty, unflinching book. But she is equally unforgiving of a system that funnels violent offenders through its doors without even trying to instill the one thing that might prevent them from committing more crimes: a sense of accountability and remorse.
There's no point in trying, conservatives have insisted for years, pillorying liberals who want to waste taxpayer dollars on programs that don't work. But RSVP does work, and not by dint of some magical formula impossible to replicate. Through a rigorous yet disarmingly simple regimen of education and counseling sessions that exposes inmates to victims' rights groups, religious leaders and other prisoners who have changed, Schwartz shows how hardened criminals – many of whom are victims of physical violence and sexual abuse themselves – can muster the courage to take responsibility for their actions, to feel remorse, to empathize.
As noted in my last post, some conservatives have perused the contents of the newly released torture memos and concluded that they do not, in fact, authorize torture. Today's New York Times informs us that these conservatives are not alone. As Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti report in this excellent article, the SERE tactics authorized under Bush were created to give US soldiers and pilots a sample of the torture methods used by Communists during the Korean War. "The Communists do not look upon these assaults as ‘torture,'" a 1956 government study of shackling, sleep deprivation and other techniques used by Chinese Communists noted. The logic didn't quite persuade the authors of the study:
But all of them produce great discomfort, and lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes; there is no reason to differentiate them from any other form of torture.
The ability to deny reality is hardly unique to conservatives. There are some people on the left, for example, who believe Hugo Chavez is a model democrat, and others who remain convinced that George W. Bush didn't actually win more votes than John Kerry in the "stolen" 2004 Presidential election.
But the release of the CIA torture memos has caused an impressive uptick of reality-denial on the right, the most notable example being this surreal op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, both of whom served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. "The Memos Prove We Didn't Torture," reads the title of their piece. How do the memos prove this? By showing, for example, that "walling" – that is, smashing a detainee against a wall, which sure sounds like torture – was approved only if a flexible wall was used to reduce the probability of injury. "Their shoulder blades – not head – were the point of contact, and the ‘collar' was used not to give additional force to a blow, but further to protect the neck," write Rivkin and Casey in case you weren't convinced yet.
The authors don't say whether doing this twenty to thirty times, as was officially sanctioned, still fails to qualify as torture. According to them, waterboarding, too, was administered with specifications that prevented it from crossing the line, since the water "was not actually expected to enter the detainee's lungs." In the actual memo from which they draw this conclusion, then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee makes no effort to disguise the feeling this purportedly benign variant on a familiar torture technique was designed to induce: "This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic,' i.e. the perception of drowning." Making someone feel like they're drowning doesn't quite do it, just as sleep deprivation, dousing victims with cold water and other practices the State Department has described as ‘methods of torture' in reports on other countries don't merit the label.