Thursday, February 28, 2013

Understanding the Israel - Palestine Conundrum

Recently I viewed a DVD about the struggles of West Bank Palestinian villagers against the encroachment on their land and olive groves by both the nearby Israeli settlement ... a city, really ... as well as the “wall.”  It's a depressing reminder of what Israel has become mired in as a result of its decades-long occupation of the West Bank.  The Israel Defense Forces came off, not surprisingly, as cold and heartless, and the Palestinian villagers as only wanting peace and their land.

I should say at the start of this post that I have always been of a different mind about Israel than my family and most Jews that I know.  While I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel and its right to exist, I have always been critical of actions taken by the Israeli government almost from the beginning that made and continue to make 2nd class citizens of Israeli Arabs (those Arabs who chose to stay in Israel at the time of independence were granted citizenship but lived under martial law until 1966 and continue to be discriminated against in areas such as village infrastructure, education, and social funding).  By its own actions, the State of Israel is not an example of how these two people can live in peace and harmony to their mutual benefit.

But things here are never so black and white.  The Palestinians are not the equivalent of the American Indians or blacks during Apartheid nor are the Israelis the land-grabbing fascists that many have come to believe they are in more recent decades.  There is ample blame to be placed on both sides for the ongoing conflict.  To understand the dynamics and make any effort at being a helpful broker one must understand the history of the conflict.

Prior to WWI, the land that is now Israel and the West Bank, as well as most of the modern states in the Mideast, were part of the Caliphate of Turkey.  There was no Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Palestine.  These countries were created by the Allied powers after winning WWI (Turkey was allied with Germany and so was on the losing side).  They basically drew lines on a map and created these countries and then proceeded to install monarchies in most.

This was not the case with Palestine, however.  Here a British Mandate was created, meaning that the British were responsible for governing this territory.  It was not a colony in the normal sense of the word, but in effect it was.

Around this same time a movement was growing among European Jews called Zionism.  It’s aim was to create a Jewish homeland in what had been biblical Israel and was now part of the Palestine mandate.  If one asks why Jews wanted this, one only has to look at the centuries of persecution that Jews have suffered in almost every country they lived in at the hand of the Christian, and especially the Catholic, rulers and people of those countries.  And I’m not talking about mere discrimination.  There are ample examples, from the Spanish Inquisition to the progroms of Czarist Russia, where the persecution took on a very violent, bloody, government-instigated form as well as the normal day to day beatings that Jews were often subjected to at the hands of Christian thugs.

During the interwar period, Zionists began immigrating to the Palestine mandate and buying land.  As their numbers increased, periodic violence erupted between the Jews and the Palestinians, the longest such incident lasting from 1936-1939. 

Then of course came WWII and the Holocaust.  And the dynamics of the Zionist’s search changed.  In November 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations recommended the partition of the Palestine mandate into two separate states ... one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.  The Zionists accepted the proposed partition but all the surrounding Arab states rejected the partition plan, as did the Palestinians.  Note: the Palestinians could have had their own state right then, but because their Arab sponsors would not agree to a Jewish state and the Palestinians rejected partition for a variety of reasons but basically an inability to compromise, they lost it.

When Zionist leaders proclaimed the independent state of Israel in 1948, all the surrounding Arab countries attacked the new state of Israel, a war which they quickly lost.  At the same time, some 700,000 Palestinians left, fled or were driven from their homes and took refuge in surrounding Arab countries where they remain today, still refugees, not citizens of the host country.  Jordan took control over the West Bank, Egypt over Gaza.  Control of Jerusalem was split between Israel and Jordan. The Palestinians were a people left with nothing. 

Later that year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that those Palestinians who wished to return to their homes should be permitted to do so and those who do not should be compensated by Israel.  That resolution has never been implemented.

The Palestinians became an official entity in 1964 for the first time when leaders gathered with the support of the Arab League and created the Palestine Liberation Organization.  It’s charter clearly states that the creation of the State of Israel is null and void.  

In 1967, aware that the Arab countries were again preparing to attack it, Israel conducted a pre-emptive war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  At the end Israel gained control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, as well as the Golan Heights from Syria, and the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt.  That was the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.,

In response to the war, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied conquered lands and the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of all states in the region and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders.  This resolution, with its land for peace strategy, would form the basis for all future negotiations.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria mounted a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  After 3 weeks, Israel had rebuffed those forces and regained control of the Sinai and the Golan Heights.

The first major movement towards peace in the area came with the Camp David accords between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Eqypt’s Anwar Sadat.   Israel agreed to hand back the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace and normalization.  As a result of making peace, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League and Sadat was assassinated.  

At the same time, Begin began a policy of greatly expanding the number and size of Israeli “settlements” on the West Bank in order to frustrate any future attempts to hand the West Bank back to the Palestinians.  Note:  No country other than Israel considers the settlements legal, since they are built on occupied territory and violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 1993, the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo agreements in which Israel recognized the PLO and gave them limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace.  The PLO in turn gave up its claim to the territory of Israel as defined by its borders before the 1967 war and agreed to end the Intifada.  Both sides agreed that they would make gradual steps towards a final settlement and that they would do nothing to change the status of West Bank and Gaza pending the outcome of negotiations.  

Note that while the PLO (as its leader Yasser Arafat had previously done) tacitly recognized Israel’s right to exist, it did not and has not changed the language in its charter calling the State of Israel “null and void.”  A public vote was finally taken in 1998 which supposedly nullified the pertinent clauses, but a new amended charter has never been produced, raising the inevitable questions.

Fast forward to July 2000.  At Camp David, President Clinton shuttled back and forth between Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat.  Barak agreed to most of what the Palestinians had wanted.  The major holdback was the right of return. The other problem was that because of the number of Jewish “settlements”  on the West Bank that Israel wanted to keep control of for a variety of reasons, the proposed Palestinian state would have been divided into disconnected regions and the Israel army would have been in their face constantly.  The talked ended without agreement.

In the Israeli election that followed, the right wing of Israeli politics took the helm once again.  In the intervening years, the parties have never come as close to peace again.  The peace process is moribund.  Israel has drifted into an increasingly insular and right wing perspective, continuing the process of building new and expanding old “settlements” and erecting the “wall” separating Palestinian towns from the Jewish settlements and Israel proper.  Hamas, the more militant Palestinian group in control of Gaza, has been resurgent.  The PLO has been weakened.

At this point, it is hard even for the most positive and peace-seeking individuals to imagine what the shape of a two-state solution would look like on the ground or how the two sides with a history of decades of hate and distrust could find the trust necessary to make compromises and feel secure in peace.  The goal of Menachem Begin of increasing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to make it impossible for a future Israeli government to arrive at a viable peace agreement with the Palestinians succeeded.  

There are no winners here, only losers.  There is no real security for Israel without peace, but peace in and of itself does not bring about security for Israel.  And so long as the Palestinians do not view Israel as a legitimate state, they will never reach their dream of having their own country at last. 

So you see why I say that neither party, Israel nor the Palestinians, come to this matter with “clean hands.”  Both parties, as well as the larger Arab community, have their share of blame.  Pointing one's finger at one or the other party thus is not realistic nor does it move the matter forward.  Peace, and a two-state solution, will only come to be when both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership really want peace and are willing to make the hard compromises that will be necessary and sell them to their people.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Modern Man Enslaved

We live in an era of unprecedented freedom ... of speech, of travel, of work, of intellectual and creative endeavor, of where we live, to name just a few.  And we live in a nation that has experienced great upward mobility over the past century.

And yet, whether rich or poor, professional or working class, we are enslaved.  To be more exact, the habit-energies of our minds are enslaved.  We have become little more than programmed unthinking robots that do what our masters ... the lords of capitalism ... want us to do.  And this affects virtually all areas of our lives.  (You may well find this proposition ludicrous, but please read on.)

The lords of capitalism (by this I mean all those who hold the reins of power in our capitalist system) have achieved their desired control over our lives by preying on the weaknesses of man ... on our intense desire or craving to be loved, to be desired, to be admired, to be part of a group.  Now, wanting to be loved or part of a group is not inherently either a weakness or something bad for us.  But because of the insecurity that affects most of us in this culture, those wants have morphed into cravings which rule our lives and cause us endless frustration and pain, leading us further from the feelings of peace and happiness that are our birthright.

Let me site this enslavement’s most prevailing form.  In our contemporary culture, status is confirmed almost exclusively by one thing ... money.   Because the more money one has the more, and more expensive, things one can acquire, and ones acquisitions ... what used to be called, derogatorily, conspicuous consumption ... is at the core of ones status.  

Whether rich or poor, what you are able to acquire ... whether it’s fancy Nike sneakers for a ghetto dweller or a 20,000 sq. ft. mansion for the top 1% ... gives you status among your peers.  It’s not talent, brains, or looks ... it’s how you’ve been able to parlay those attributes into money.  And so we find that individuals are making life decisions, to the extent they have  control, based primarily on the prospect of making more money rather than the factors that used to be of equal or greater importance.

The reader might say, “so what’s wrong with that?”  What’s wrong is that it traps one in a cycle of endless frustration, even if one is successful, because one always is left wanting MORE.  What’s wrong is that it distorts decisions that are important for the larger society ... like how many people choose to become teachers, or engineers, or primary care doctors rather than financial industry brokers or high paid medical specialists.  What’s wrong is that ethics and professionalism are routinely sacrificed on the altar of money.  Whether you look at almost any aspect of the recent financial debacle or in general at the actions of industry, including the health care industry, if making more money means disregarding ethics or cutting corners on professionalism the latter concerns are hardly given a second thought.

Mind you, I’m fully aware that the enslavement of man’s habit-energies is not something exclusive to the capitalist system.  In almost any system that has a power hierarchy, those in power will take measures to ensure that the masses do what they want them to do.  The most extreme examples were found in totalitarian societies, like Communist Russia or Nazi Germany.

But while the political propaganda in those cases was far more reprehensible and sinister, there is little practical difference between the marketing that we are subjected to on a constant basis and that political propaganda.  It all falls under the category of the big lie.  And the aim in both is the control of people.

“Oh, come on!” you may say.  But think about it.  The success of our capitalist consumer-based economy depends on making people believe they need something, regardless whether they really do.  The more successful marketing has become, the more addicted people have become to consuming, and the more money has become the essential means to obtain the desired end ... to the point that people will do almost anything to obtain money.  

There is no shortage of examples of this among rich or poor.  It is this craving that resulted in affluent people in the financial industry not caring what the impact of their reckless actions were on others in the recent mortgage securities debacle.  It is this craving that results in many of the poor turning to the world of crime (10% of black males in their 30s are in prison or jail on any given day.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one third of all black men can expect to be in prison at some point during their lifetime) or people with meager means agreeing to the removal of mountaintops for coal mining and hydro-fracking if they see money in it for themselves, regardless if the risk is high or virtually assured that it will ultimately despoil the environment and contaminate their very drinking water, the source of life.

“Ah,” you may say, “but people here have free will.  It’s their choice whether to buy something or not.  Whether to work in one industry or not.  Whether to be ethical or not.”  

But that’s just the point.  People don’t really have free will.  They have been programmed by our culture and its pervasive marketing and consumerist values to crave the acquisition of things and to acquire the money needed to satisfy that craving.   And when one craves something, when one becomes addicted to something, one has no free will.  That is how we have become enslaved.  And this includes those at the top who are exploiting the rest of us.  One has no real choice not to do what your addiction tells you to do ... barring of course becoming aware that one is an addict and going through a 12-step program to recover your peace and contentment.

A big lie central to the success of this marketing is the concept of progress.  Certainly since the industrial revolution, and perhaps before, progress has been touted as being the end all and be all for civilization.  And so we have come to accept and to crave everything that bespeaks of progress.  Acquiring such items, such as the iPhone, becomes the latest and most ephemeral of status symbols.

Should progress, however, be so uncritically regarded?  Without question, when it comes to material matters, we have progressed to an amazing degree, and the speed of that progress just increases with the advancement of technology.  

But has that progress brought us increased happiness or security?  No.  Has it brought us the increased leisure time that was much touted at the dawn of the technology age?  Hardly!  People are working longer hours and are more stressed, often being on the job almost 24/7 because of smart phones and the computer.  Has it brought us improved health?  No.   We live longer because of advances in medicine and improved hygiene, but we are not healthier.  In fact we are less healthy.  We are living longer despite our physical condition, not because of it.  Has it made our homes and schools and the world at large less violent?  No

Clearly there are many things that are better now then they were 50 or 100 years ago, but that is due primarily to a change in laws and attitudes.  Such things ... the status of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, for example ... are social matters.  The things that are marketed as progress and which we purchase have not changed our interior, our spiritual, lives for the better.  Yes, women as well as men toil less arduously than they used to, but are their lives better now?  No.

The importance of marketing to make people want and purchase things they don’t really need extends from the highest luxury items down to the most plebian.  Let me give you several examples of the latter.  

Many years ago, because I was living someplace with no hot water, I started shaving using regular bar soap and cold water.  To my surprise, I discovered that I got a wonderful shave, even though I have a rough beard and shaving had always been difficult for me.  Some time later I happened to meet a dermatologist and told her about my experience, to which she replied that that made perfect sense as the cold water closes your skin pores, resulting in an easier shave.  I have not used shaving cream or hot water in more than 40 years!

More recently, we discovered a far less expensive form of clothes washing detergent than purchasing the commercial brands.  Just combine baking soda wash powder and borax powder with water and you have a very effective, inexpensive detergent that does just as good a job on washables (I can’t speak to delicate washables as I have none) as any commercial detergent.

These are but two small examples.  But if everyone followed my example, the manufacturers of these products would be out of business.  And this list could be expanded to much that we purchase.  Most of it just isn’t “necessary.”

The last example is not small.  We have a recognized and bemoaned epidemic of obesity in our nation, especially among our children and younger adults.  Why?  Because their diet habits have changed and their exercise habits have changed.  And why is that?  Because they have succumbed to the marketing wiles of McDonalds and makers of soft drinks and all the other unhealthy, fattening junk food that they eat.  They could easily have a healthier diet (note I didn’t say “healthy”) like kids used to.  And because their days are now spent in front of a variety of electronic gadgets ... TV, video games, and computers ... which they have been sold as being “cool.”  The exercise that children used to get outdoors is mostly a thing of the past.

The reader will in all likelihood now understandably say that what I’m advocating would cause the downfall of our economy and bring about much human misery.  Ah, but not if we turn from a consumer-driven economy to an infrastructure-driven economy as I suggested in an earlier post (“Strengthening America by Changing from a Consumer Economy to a Nation-Building Economy,” November 4, 2011).  In such an economy there would be ample work but money would be redirected and spent not on unnecessary fluff but on things that were critical to the ongoing health and strength of our country and indirectly our standard of living.

If we want to be truly free to do what is best for us ... not for corporate America, if we want to be strong and healthy, we must first recognize that we have become enslaved to the powers of corporate America and we must then demand a change in the status quo.  Just as Gandhi led the people of India to not cooperate with their British overlords, just as Martin Luther King led African-Americans to not cooperate in their own oppression by white America, so too Americans of all walks of life must gather and protest against the oppressive power that corporations have gained over all aspects of American life, including politics.

The future is ours to determine ... this is a democracy ... but only if we take our rights and our role seriously and demand change.