Friday, October 10, 2014

A thoughtful response to the book review (on my blog) of "The General's Son"

This response was sent to me privately, which I very much appreciate.  It contains a lot of food for thought, for me, and might be of use to others as well.  I do not know if he has read the book or not, but I do know he has been able to travel to the region, has relatives there, and is a fair-minded and kind person.  So I take everything that he says very seriously.

---- private message follows, name withheld ----

Hi Pat,

I found your blog review of the book about the West Bank and Gaza to be well intended, but full of bias - it's not clear whether you intend the bias or not.

You encourage readers to gloss over the author's own background. You gloss over the fact that his sister died in a suicide bombing. Your comment about personal experience with Israelis was that your Israeli classmate scared you because his personality was intense. Would you say "I had a black classmate who scared me because he was intense?"

I don't deny that intensity is a stereotypical Israeli character trait, but I also think it's simplistic to characterize Israelis as intense. I suppose the intensity comes from being surrounded by hostile and desperate people in proportions of more than 100 to 1, who can't solve their own problems and so they choose to direct their wrath and frustrations at you. I think don't think I'd characterize Israelis as scary in general.

If you think the American press has a strong pro-Israel bias, you don't listen to or read the same press that I do. If you are anti-Israel and pro-Palestine, then it is possible that even a press that isn't sufficiently pro-Palestine would show too much pro-Israel bias.

You quote the author as saying that Gaza has turned into an "enormous concentration camp." I see the author said that, and you can say that it's his words not yours, but it is a very biased statement. It's possible that you mean that a bunch of people live in an urban area, and they don't have the freedom to travel everywhere they want. That's a possible definition of concentration camp.

But when you say concentration camp, anyone except a holocaust denier will conjure up thoughts of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, where millions of Jews and others were murdered.

Gaza is not like that at all. It's a 20 mile strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, about 5 miles deep. Between 1967 and 2005, Jews lived in Gaza (and many Arabs too), both long term residents and ones who moved there during that period. In 2005, Israel forced all the Jews (about 10,000) out of Gaza (against their will). Do you think Israel did this so that they could turn Gaza into a concentration camp? Do you think Israel did it with bad intentions?

This may seem pedantic, but let me discuss for a moment the difference between a concentration camp and Gaza.

Concentration camps had millions of people shipped to them in freight trains, and those people were murdered in ovens.

Gaza is a region on the Mediterranean shore, with luxury resorts and shopping malls and beaches, and a community with a very wealthy leadership with several billionaires and many millionaires who steal money from the public coffers, and the people vote for Hamas to govern them, and Hamas steals from them and shoots many thousands of rockets at Israel and does other hostile acts against Israel, and also much aggression toward residents of Gaza.

Gaza is not surrounded by Israel. It is bordered on the east by Israel but Gaza also has a border of 5 miles or so with Egypt in the south, over which Israel has zero control. Implying that Gaza is a concentration camp because Israel has full control over Gaza's borders is just not true. There were times when there was reasonably free flow of people and goods between Jewish and Arab areas in Israel. It was only restricted, to everyone's inconvenience, after many many lethal attacks by Muslims against Jews.

I agree that Gaza has poverty, but like in some American cities, there are poor and rich areas. Camden is a poor area, but I assume you don't have the same disdain for the middle class folks who live near there that you have for the folks who live near Gaza. And Camden doesn't shoot rockets at its neighbors.

Yes, Gaza has big problems. Yes, Israel makes it unpleasant for Gazans. That is true because Gaza is very hostile toward Israel. Consider that Israel is surrounded by Arabs and Muslims, Palestinian and otherwise, and also that many Muslims live in Israel as normal citizens. The standard of living for Muslims and Arabs in Israel is higher than almost anywhere in the Arab world, unless you're a sheik. Israeli Arabs have longer healthier lives, have more freedom to practice religion and live as they please, and so on.

Note lastly that Israelis have plenty of reasons to want peace, because they have a prosperous society. If Gaza and the Palestinians on the west bank made peace with the Israel, they would be stuck having to focus on their own enormous problems. They would be in a situation akin to the other horrible ones in that area from now and from recent history. Because of the corruption and the division, it would be like the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, or the current brutal situations in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt. Anyone who is familiar with that region on any side knows this.

So yes, it makes sense that you would read a book written by a liberal Israeli and it would make you feel hopeful. That's because most Israelis are liberal, and they aspire to peace (that is, to a resolution of their conflicts with all their Arab/Muslim neighbors), probably somewhat like you do. The problem is that most Palestinians don't aspire to peace with Israel, not because they don't love peace, but for the very good reason that peace with Israel it doesn't solve a real problem for them. I get that Palestinians want Israel out of their lives. But even if Israel didn't exist at all and Palestinians controlled the whole land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, what do you think would be happening now in that place?

If you're optimistic, you could say, maybe it would be somewhat peaceful, like Jordan. Not likely though. Jordan's population is majority Palestinian, but its peace is maintained by their (imported benevolent) Hashemite monarchy, which is more or less Saudi. When the Palestinian people become free, they will be out of the frying pan and into the fire. You might think I'm a bigot to say this, but it's pretty clearly true, and I think most people, Jews, Muslims, and otherwise, accept this. (And this is related to what Israeli leaders mean when they say "we have no negotiating partner.)

I understand from your notes that you don't intend to be biased, and that you have good intentions. I would suggest that you travel to Israel and to Palestine, and elsewhere around the Arab world, and see for yourself. If you do that, I have a feeling your perspective would change a fair amount.

Best regards,

(a friend whose name I am protecting)

Book review: "The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine" by Miko Peled

I liked this book very much despite some unevenness in the narrative.  Read it! Please, please read it. Forgive its long introduction where the author describes his family background in detail--the real narrative begins somewhere in the middle. Just read it. It gives me hope.

In my experience, the only folks who would normally use "Palestine" to describe today's West Bank or Gaza Strip would be Palestinians themselves.  I can only imagine the courage it has taken the author, an Israeli with roots firmly in Zionism, to become an outspoken peace activist willing to befriend, talk to, and visit with his Palestinian counterparts.

In the 1990's, Miko Peled was raising a family in California, running his own martial arts dojo, when back in Jerusalem his sister's 14-year-old daughter died in a suicide bombing.  Instead of desiring revenge, this tragic event caused the author to search his soul and call for dialog between former enemies.   This was at the time unheard of.  As Mr. Peled started his own small steps toward such dialog on a personal level, he recounts feeling physically nauseous when realizing that some deep-seated views he had been raised to believe were simply untrue.

I can relate to the nausea and disorientation of realizing things are not what I believed.  I too have felt an utter resistance to changing my views.   Back in the 1990's, I had a co-worker from Palestine who befriended me.  Over lunches and after intense work meetings (which he led), he talked to me, somewhat against my will, about conditions on the ground in Palestine (a word I had never heard outside the Bible in modern times).  He refused to call the West Bank, where he had been born, "Israel".  At first, I did not believe some of the things he told me.  I had never heard of "settlements" and I began to look into what they were.   As a result of my enquiries, I began to suspect that Palestinians living within Israel were ill-treated minorities without full political or economic rights, and Palestinians living in the areas immediately surrounding Israel (i.e., especially Gaza and West Bank) are being forced to live in increasing impossible circumstances.

It has worried me deeply that, since those 1990's when I first met my Palestinian friend, an entire generation of Palestinian youth has grown up in increasingly desperate, make-shift straits.

I believe that the free press in our own country has been afraid to talk about these sticky-wicket issues.  As happened to me on a personal level, any attempt to enquire about Jewish settlements, and the possible zealotry behind them (these guarded enclaves situated right in the middle of Palestinian communities, which permanently chop up the land so that Palestinians cannot travel even short distances without making circuitous detours), would lead me to be accused to anti-semitism, would lead my very questions to be shouted down and me to be shamed and shunned or verbally attacked.  In such an environment, I had given up any hope of talking about the situation in Israel with any of my many, many Jewish friends and acquaintance.  I felt helpless and frustrated about it, and that had been my situation for years, as I read the mainstream news spun typically to a pro-Israeli-military slant.   Then there was my classmate at Penn who was a former military policeman in the Israeli army, whose presence on more than one occasion actually physically scared me, such was the intensity of his persona.

Enter this book.  First, the things it talks about are seldom talked about without heat, as they are in this book.  Second, the author has walked the walk and talked the talk, so he has the public credentials to speak on these matters.  Third, what he says confirms what I had feared to be the (unspoken about) situation.

Until people turn from violence, it cannot stop.  Until people can even talk about turning from violence, it cannot stop.  It has been, for decades, impossible to talk about it.  But the importance of a man who has walked across the divide to speak with, and learn to understand, his supposed enemies, should not be discounted.  This book should be read, even if it is to be criticized.

About Gaza, Miko Peled writes: "The situation is so severe in Gaza that it makes domination of the West Bank seem practically benign.  Israel's restrictions on travel and movement and the import and export of goods, plus the occupier's complete control over land and sea, have created a siege that is choking one and a half million people, including 800,000 children.  Gaza has essentially been turned into an enormous concentration camp.  On top of that, Israela military incursions have left countless civilians, including children, maimed and traumatized, both physically and emotionally, and usually without access to treatment."

Further: "None of this was caused by a natural disaster.  It was caused because Israel deliberately created these conditions, and on one in America says a thing."  That is because they are not allowed to.  The thought police will not allow any dialog to take place.

I know for sure only that it's very complicated.  I wish the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories might be explored more calmly, past mistakes admitted and all options explored (even if eventually debunked).  As it stands, the empasse only grows worse because people are afraid to question anything.

This is a fairly short book.  It will only take you a few hours.  Please read it.