About Derek Penslar

I teach History at Harvard University.

BDS, Israel, and the EU

The Israeli government is increasingly exercised about BDS, a global movement that began in 2005 and has picked up steam over the past four years. The Israeli government has convened a crisis ministerial team to deal with the situation.  The Israeli Prime Minister and some members of his cabinet have equated all types of boycotts against Israel, including those aimed only at the West Bank settlements, as an expression of anti-Semitism. The Israeli foreign ministry has taken a more nuanced line, distinguishing between BDS’ call for a blanket boycott of all Israeli business and recent moves within the European Union to divest from Israeli enterprises located in or dealing with the Occupied Territories.

The EU has long maintained that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not part of Israel, and in 2010 the European Court of Justice ruled that Israeli products from the Occupied Territories should not receive preferential customs treatment under the European Community – Israel trade agreement of 2000.  Last year the EU re-affirmed existing guidelines to member states not to engage in activities with or that bring benefit to Israeli enterprises or institutions in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Yet the EU itself has not imposed sanctions upon Israel; in fact, it was eager to sign Israel on to the Horizon 2020 agreement for cooperative scientific research. As the European Parliament president Martin Schulz said at Hebrew University on Feb 12, “There is no boycott in the European Parliament; there is for sure not a majority for a potential boycott.”

The British Department of Trade and Investment has issued an advisory, warning British businesses against deals with Jewish settlements for fear of “image damage.”  Yet by and large the EU’s member states have taken a cautious line. As Schulz recently told Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, “Israel’s [real] problem is with the [European] business sector.”  In northern Europe private companies and quasi-governmental pension funds have purposefully pursued divestment. The largest Dutch pension fund, APB, has thus far refrained from divestment, but another pension fund, PGGM, divested from Israeli banks earlier this year. Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, has divested from Bank Ha-poalim, and the Norwegian government pension fund’s has divested from all five major Israeli banks. Norwegian and Danish divestment from certain companies, e.g., Israel-Africa Investments, which has construction projects in the settlements, goes back to 2010.

The pension funds’ actions thus far will not have much impact, as their holdings in Israeli financial institutions and companies were only a few tens of millions of Euros.  European investors continue to snap up Israeli government bonds – most recently, 1.5 billion Euros worth on the London stock exchange at beginning of February.

Israel’s real dependence on the EU is not pension fund purchases of Israeli equities but rather exports of goods and services, as the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner.  (A third of Israel’s exports go to Europe, and a third of the country’s imports come from Europe.)  Some of Israel’s leading exports (e.g., industrial diamonds) are unlikely to be affected by increased sanctions, but Israel’s finance minister Yair Lapid cautions that in the unlikely case where existing EU-Israel trade agreements are abrogated the country could lose four billion Euro per year.  Yet so far, trade has suffered very little.  True, Jordan Valley farmers are finding it harder to sell their expensive greenhouse vegetables, which in many European countries are marked as products of the West Bank and thus shunned.  So the peppers are being bought instead by Russia at a lower price.  The price of shares in Sodastream,  which manufactures carbonated water  dispensers and one of whose production facilities is in the West Bank, is down by about 25 per cent.  The company is not likely to go out of business, however – its product is wildly popular, and Scarlett Johansen is its official spokesperson.

The goods produced in the West Bank settlements amount to only about one per cent of Israel’s total industrial product.  A boycott against these goods will do the state of Israel little serious harm.  They will, however, hurt the people who produce them.  Israel has sixteen industrial zones in the West Bank, employing some 21000 workers, two thirds of whom are Palestinian.  They earn about three times the Palestine Authority’s minimum wage and so are not necessarily eager to endorse a boycott of settlement products.

Ultimately, though, the boycott issue is not about economics, but rather about politics.  Supporters of BDS justify the short-term loss of a livelihood for a Palestinian labourer in exchange for the opportunity for the Palestinian people to realize their collective national rights.  In order to appear to be politically progressive, European businesses may be willing to expand the process of divestment from West Bank enterprises and Israeli companies or banks that deal with them.   But it is doubtful that they would boycott Israel altogether. Doing so would have a heavy political cost of its own, and they would lose a lot of money.

Link

New book: “Arabs and Israelis”

An important new book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, co-authored by Shai Feldman, Khalil Shikaki and Abdel Monem Said Aly has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan.  Last November there was a launch for the book at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and my remarks at that event are availabe at this link.

 

A true debate, not “hasbarah”

A thoughtful article on the sadly forgotten 1961 debate in Montreal between the celebrated British historian Arnold Toynbee and Israel’s Canadian ambassador, Yaacov Herzog, about the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the cultural value of Jewish civilisation:

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/161156/herzog-toynbee-1961?all=1

The debates are available in full on youtube.  They are well worth the time.  Herzog’s patient and penetrating analysis was far more sophisticated than the hasbarah that all too often passes for education in Jewish communities throughout the world.

 

Birthright in Palestine

From today’s Haaretz, a piece by Gideon Levy on the efforts of a handful of North American Jews to extend their Birthright tours to give them a few days in the West Bank.  The youths visit Jewish settlements as well as Palestinian villages and cities.  They come back from their trip feeling both connected with Israel and unsettled by what they have seen and heard on the West Bank.   They are on the beginning of a journey that might involve a lot of reading, and arguing, and, if they stick with it, more trips to the region and an ever-deepening involvement with it.  Birthright is about feelings, connections, and identity.  The “Extend” journeys into the West Bank are about education, stretching the mind and confronting challenges to comfortable ways of thinking.   Jews are, after all, not the only people who claim a birthright to this land.  

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A group picture on the steps of PLO headquarters in Ramallah. Around 20 young Jewish-Americans are posing for a photographic memento. In the background is a PLO sign, and two armed Palestinian soldiers in battle fatigues look on from the side. A few hours later, they are wondering aloud: “What will people in the States say?” “Maybe you don’t have to publish the picture?” Some members of the group panic: They’re afraid of what their parents will say and of what people in the synagogue will say.

Still, they’re here, in Ramallah, these members of a Birthright Israel group. After 10 days of indoctrination, including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Rabin Square, Masada, the IDF and the kibbutz in a pita, a veritable shakshuka of propaganda, they decided to stay on for five days of touring the occupied West Bank. It was a courageous, estimable decision – but still, they were leery of the photograph at the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the course of these five days of penitence, they visited Hebron and Ramallah, and the villages in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, Bil’in and Nebe Salah; met representatives of left-wing organizations – B’Tselem, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence; and stayed in a guesthouse in the village of Jifna, near Ramallah. They also met with representatives of the Yesha settlers’ council and with the committee of Jewish settlers in Hebron, as well as visiting the settlement of Psagot. All in all, a very intensive study tour, balanced and horizon-broadening. Few young Israelis ever get to see what this group from America saw.

The person behind this new and refreshing initiative is Jon Emont, a young Jew of 23 from New York. Determined, energetic and brimming with good intentions, Emont has set himself the goal of presenting the other side of the coin, the dark side of the Birthright Israel moon. As a teenager, he thought he would enlist in the Israel Defense Forces – his parents are active Zionists. It was always clear to him that Israel’s enemies are also America’s enemies. Still, Emont did not make his first trip here until 2012, when he visited as part of a delegation, organized by Israel, of editors of student newspapers. A friend suggested that he also visit the West Bank, to get a better perspective on the situation. He then spent a few months in Shanghai, where he conceived the idea of the tours.

He and a friend, Sam Sussman, founded a new organization they called Extend. The idea is to extend Birthright, extend one’s knowledge. At the moment it’s a small initiative with a meager budget. This week they concluded their third tour, in which almost 20 young people took part, almost all of them refugees from Birthright. Zach, Rob, Emily and Daphna from New York, Lily from Maryland, Russell from Canada, Eliza from Boston, Ethan from Vermont, Kayla from Oregon, Julia, and even Aviva, from Alaska – a very likable group of eager-to-learn young people who had read about Israel before coming here, and listened closely to the speakers and taken notes while touring.

Contrary to expectations, perhaps, their bold choice to visit the territories did not make them pro-Palestinian. They’re not likely to join the International Solidarity Movement anytime soon. Most of them say they remain faithful Zionists. Only one of them said that after she read about the massacre in Lod in 1948, described by Ari Shavit in his new book, “My Promised Land,” she pondered the question of whether a Jewish state should have been established if that was the price. (She asked to remain anonymous.) They joined the Extend tour because they wanted to know more and see more. Some of them said that the five days in the West Bank actually made them more involved and more caring Jews. Almost all of them disagree with the prevailing view that you can’t be considered a friend of Israel and be concerned about the country’s future and wellbeing, and at the same time be critical of its policies.

As part of the changes that the large and influential Jewish community in America is undergoing, amid the search for a new identity, their voices should be taken into account, too. But let’s keep things in proportion. So far, this is only a handful: Some 350,000 young Jews have taken part in Birthright since its inception, whereas only a few dozen have availed themselves of project Extend.

After the group photo on the stairs, they enter the PLO building, which is situated at the edge of the Muqata – Palestinian Authority headquarters – in Ramallah. At the entrance to the impressive and deserted mausoleum holding the tomb of Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian soldier suggests that they visit the burial place of “Abu Amar” (Arafat’s nom de guerre), but the group hears it as “Obama” and promises to convey their impressions to him.

The street leading to the compound was lined with Canadian and Romanian flags: The leaders of the two countries were visiting and scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the adjacent building. Two spokeswomen, Rasha Uthman and Samar Awadallah, from the PLO’s information and culture unit, spoke to the group in a luxurious conference room. The young women were plied with tough questions: Why does a map of the whole of Palestine appear on the PLO’s logo? Has the PLO decided to abandon the path of violent resistance, and if so, when was the decision made? Does the PLO support a one-state solution? We hear a lot about apartheid, but why the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”? Why is Mahmoud Abbas said to be so weak as a leader?

“Go home and write about your impressions, write in your student papers and on Facebook, and tell your friends,” was the message of the two spokeswomen, one of them a Palestinian-American, to the group. “Tell people that you met Palestinians and that they are not as horrible as they are made out to be in the United States. Humanize us in the face of all the dehumanization. Ask your congressmen why they support Israel so massively despite the American values of democracy and human rights. You are Jews, so what you say carries great weight in the United States, in contrast to what we say. You can do so much. Talk about us.”

But afterward, on the way out of Ramallah in the minibus, some in the group said they felt they had not received genuine answers to their questions. Daphna Spivack, from New York, thought the two spokeswomen were somewhat out of touch: “So many people are talking about the one-state solution, and they only talked about two states.”

When they crossed the Hizma checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, they started to clap, as people do when their plane touches down at Ben-Gurion Airport. Emont told them that this was their last checkpoint. But here, too, they didn’t waste a minute. On the way to their next stop – a bar in Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Florentin neighborhood, for another political discussion – they engaged in a very lively conversation, not even pausing to look out the window. Almost all of them say they are secular Jews, even if their families belong to synagogues. They are preoccupied with their Jewish identity, the meaning of Zionism and their connection to Israel – all the more so after this visit.

They were astonished to discover that the two communities – the Israeli and the Palestinian – are so remote from one another and how deeply each is immersed in its own narrative. “It’s time to stop talking about history and start talking about the present,” Rob Roth, from New York, urged. Lily Sieradzki, from Maryland, said that the Jewish establishment in her country lacks a critical approach. Julia Peck recalled that in Bili’in, the day before, she had met a girl who was afraid of soldiers, and afterward they had visited the settlement of Ofra and seen two bullet holes in the kindergarten there. “Both communities are afraid in such a human way.” But she was also shocked to discover that there are two separate legal systems, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, in the territories. “Basic human rights, in which we were raised as Jews, are being violated here,” she said.

“I don’t know what you feel at the end of this visit,” Eliza Kaplan, from Boston, said, “but I feel more connected to my Jewish side and more involved in what’s happening here.” Zach Braunstein, from New York, observed that everything is presented in black and white here, “and I, as an outsider, was able to paint the gray for myself.” Ethan Tischler, from Vermont, noted that precisely because he is a Jew, it was important for him to visit the West Bank and see what the Jewish state is doing.

Someone said that if Zionism is occupation and settlements, then he is not a Zionist. Someone else added that Jews may have the right to live here, but not necessarily in a Jewish state. Julia said she will post the photos on her Facebook page. Aviva Hirsch, from Alaska, said she was more confused now than she had been. The organizer, Jon Emont, invited everyone to come to his shul in New Jersey this coming Valentine’s Day. He’ll be talking about his impressions of the trip.

American Jews fighting for Israel – a different perspective

I have made a number of posts about the history of diaspora Jews serving in the armies of their countries.  In my posts about diaspora Jews who fought for Israel in 1948, I have focused on how these volunteers’ contribution to Israel’s victory in its war of independence were long neglected in Israel.  I haven’t paid enough attention, however, to the mixed reception that these brave individuals received from their home communities.  A piece in Tablet from over a year ago illustrates this problem with great sensitivity:

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/94131/flying-two-flags

Comparing occupations? Comparing boycotts?

Peter Beinart has written a very smart analysis of what’s wrong with the AAS boycott:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/17/the-american-studies-association-is-really-boycotting-israel-s-existence.html

And an interesting critique of the EU’s anti-settlement policy by comparing it with EU policies towards Northern Cyprus and the Western Sahara

http://www.timesofisrael.com/why-is-this-occupation-different-from-all-other-occupations/#.Urt3J6eSBxI.email

I’m not convinced because there are distinctive aspects of the Israeli occupation that do account for the EU’s approach.  Still, comparison is always helpful, even if it highlights difference more than similarity.

 

A powerful novel about the 1948 war….

Yoram Kaniuk’s last novel, 1948, was published last year in English translation.  It is available only in e-format, which is a mixed blessing, as it’s the kind of novel whose earlier bits a reader might want to revisit when reading the later chapters, and that sort of flipping back and forth is much harder with an e-book than a printed volume.  1948 is haunting, tragic, and deeply disturbing: a memoir that blends fact and fiction, memory and fantasy, gritty narratives of battle and hints of magical realism.  On one level the book is an old man’s recollections of his younger self’s perceptions and experiences of the war.  On another it offers a microcosm of the infant state of Israel:  relations between immigrants and sabras, the trauma endured by Holocaust survivors, and the reckless courage of Israeli youth who risked, and often lost, their lives in the struggle for Israel’s creation.

http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/nyrb-lit/1948/

Iran, Lieberman, and more

Here is a roundup of commentary on the past week’s events in Israel:

Iran

Regardless of how talks with Iran are faring – and so far no agreements have been reached – Israel appears to be increasingly irrelevant.  Despite President Obama’s reassuring phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu last Friday, several recent meetings between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry and and the arrival of a delegation of US State Department officials in Israel, it is clear that the consensus among the P5+1 is that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis must be found and that military action is not on the table.  Although Israeli Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett and Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman have conjured images of massive US Jewish protest against an Iran deal, the Jewish leadership is far more likely to engage in noisy protests than the Jewish Democrat-voting rank and file.  True, the US Congress may scuttle a deal, but Israel would be but one of many factors influencing congressional behaviour. The steadfast opposition to a deal with Iran voiced by Persian Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates is no less significant than Israel’s objections….

Negotiations with Palestinians

are stuck and likely to be set back into negative territory by recent developments:

Swiss and Russian medical experts concur that it is possible that former PLO leader and PA President Yasir Arafat was killed by polonium poisoning.  Although the Swiss are cautious and the Russians even more so, the Palestinian and in general Arab world has wholeheartedly accepted this story.  This in and of itself is not sufficient to spark off a third intifadeh, but given the  recent economic woes of the Palestine Authority, which is propped up by insufficient and tardy inflows of foreign aid, every additional inflammatory event could be exceedingly dangerous.

In the wake of the latest round of releases of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the government has announced plans for 5000 new housing units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.  What will be no doubt seen from abroad and by the Palestinians as a blatant provocation may well be seen at home as an act of moderation. Why?  Because the units are to be developed in major “settlement blocs” that virtually all Israelis believe will remain part of Israel under a peace accord – Maalei Admumim, Gush Etzion, and “east Jerusalem,” an area twelve times the size of old Jordanian Jerusalem but whose borders were set by Israeli annexation.

The Housing Ministry has issued three new tenders that for first time in Israel’s history make no separation between proposed developments on either side of the Green Line.  Previous tenders had come only from the Israel Lands Authority and distinguished between Israel and the West Bank,  Now this process is being initiated by the Housing Ministry, led by Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party.

In recent months there have been increased attempts by Jews to clandestinely pray while on the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque,  or to legislate permission for them to do so openly.  As an Israeli security figure quoted recently in Haaretz said, “The Temple Mount is like an irritable bowel.  It can always flare up, and there will always be someone to irritate it.”

Lieberman’s back

The acquital of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on all counts of corruption relating to the appointment of the Israeli ambassador to Belarus brings to an anticlimactic end 17 years of investigation for a variety of serious infractions. (Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein focused on a relatively minor matter, thinking it would be easier to prove, but he was wrong.)  Libermann is likely to quickly return to the cabinet as FM – and will be the kingpin of the coalition as his Yisrael Beitenu party shores up the Likud party (11 of its 31).  Lieberman’s party is at record low support as Russian-Jewish voters have assimilated into Israel culture and left Yisrael Beitenu, an ethnic interest-group party, for the Likud or Jewish Home.  Lieberman, however, is a masterful political manipulator and is re-entering politics at a time when Netanyahu is vulnerable to attack from the right for even considering the two-state option.  Whether Lieberman supports Netanyahui, or allies with the Likud’s more hawkish internal opposition led by the likes of deputy foreign minister Danny Danon, who firmly opposes a two-state scenario, negotiations with the Palestinians are even less likely to move forward than they are now, and settlement expansion is likely to continue.

Note Liebermann’s thanksgiving visit to the Kotel: this fiercely secular man is beginning to walk the road towards accommodation with the Orthodox parties without which he cannot become a national leader.

The Economy

is on target to grow a bit more than three percent in CY2013.  The incoming Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug is concerned mainly about the high rates of unemployment in haredi and Arab sectors.  This might sound like old and/or bad news but so far as I know no top governmental figure has seriously acknowledged let alone tried to address these problems, as the haredi issue has centred largely around the symbolic issue of the draft, and only very recently have attempts been made to integrate Israel’s Palestinian citizens into the high-tech labour force (currently 3% of high-tech labour force though 23% of the population).  The construction, sponsored by Stef Wertheimer, CEO of Iscar, of a high-tech park near Nazareth, opened with little fanfare last spring as the government stayed away)    Although much of Israel’s high tech boom is fuelled by experience gained in IDF, in which most Arabs don’t serve, thousands of Arabs graduate in computing and information technology services every year, and there is a lot of money to be made in computing services in the Arabic language.