vrijdag 26 augustus 2011

The village of Norway

After the attacks in Norway I read a few comments about the village-like character of Norway. There there still is a sense of community, people trust each other and they keep Europe and cosmopolitanism out. It sounds almost like Geert Wilders’s dream, if only those damned socialists would not cherish their Muslims so dearly. In this village, ritual slaughter is allowed to Muslims and not to Jews, and Geert would rather have that exactly the other way round.

Indeed, something village-like cannot be denied to Norway. Attacks were unknown from personal experience. Perhaps therefore Breivik’s crime hit the people extra hard, though the kind of suffering which is caused this way is universally terrible, wherever it occurs.

Something remarkable, I would say village-like, there was also to the first reactions of the conference participants on the shots of the terrorist, namely immediate associations with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To clarify this reaction, it is important to know that the day before on the island Utoya the people had been extensively involved in promoting the Palestinian cause.

Among the issues discussed some were, to my opinion, important and worthy of consideration, such as calls for ending the occupation of the West Bank and support to the formation of a Palestinian state.

But there were also problematic issues. The Foreign Minister Gahr Stoere, for instance, who attended the conference, would without problems approve of a plea for a boycott of Israel – see photo –, which is something else than a boycott of the settlements. And he brought to the conference the demonizing set of ideas which after the attack was expressed once again by Norway's ambassador to Israel: that Hamas’s terrorism against Israel is more justified than other terrorism. In short, they were bashing Israel a few days long already.

In this situation of village-like convenient arrangement of good guys versus bad guys, the following can happen. According to a report by Adrian Pracon, a survivor of the massacre, when the shooting began some people immediately thought of Gaza. This was going to be a simulation of what they had learned just now, so of what according to the conference Israel uses to do in Gaza.

“Some of my friends tried to stop him by talking to him. Many people thought that it was a test ... comparing it to how it is to live in Gaza. So many people went to him and tried to talk to him, but they were shot immediately”, tells Adrian Pracon.

Except that the idea that it might be serious was (happily) far away, the only connection the conference participants were able to establish between the shooting and the rest of the world was the thought of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Apparently to these people words like ‘violence’, ‘shooting’, ‘quarrel’ are largely synonymous with that conflict. It has become proverbial for everything which has to do with shooting, you can think of nothing else anymore.

When people start to think as schematically as this, what happened in their heads? Because something must have happened, unmistakeably. People have done something to images in their heads, or they have let others do something to them.

Somehow distortion of information takes place. Indeed, in substance, there is no justification for such stereotyping and for attributing such negative symbolic value only to Israel. Not because there are no terrible things to report. But because that is not unique to Israel and not highly distinctive either.

It is true, I agree with everyone who thinks that the creeping colonization of the West Bank is a dirty trick, and that every victim that falls in the fight against missiles from Gaza is one too many. But it must also be said that about this situation in Israel there is a lot of discussion. There are historians who with unprecedented openness figure out what exactly happened and happens and who do not spare Israel. And this summer 60,000 Palestinians are on vacation in Israel.

In addition, there are quite a few regimes and militias in the world that make as many or more victims and in more horrible ways. And such for many years already, and among its own people. Or would the idea be that in those cases it is just the leaders who are bad? They are depraved – the common people in all these countries are, as noble savages, only victims. And would it be thought perhaps that in Israel the whole community is bad?

Yes, something like that must be the case. A suchlike distortion must take place in people’s minds, otherwise I cannot explain the exclusive demonization of Israel. Because objectively spoken, there is no reason why the demoncard should be played exclusively to Israel. So if nevertheless you do so, then you do something yourself - in your head. It happens more often than can be justified, I'm afraid.

Or than well-minded people want to account for, I hope – even in a village. I am justified in hoping so because, after all, the village of Norway has been the scene of the first treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

See also Thought Police

dinsdag 2 augustus 2011

Thought Police

Moral decisions can be extremely difficult.

Some people point their finger at members of the Jewish Councils of the Second World War or to others who by a wicked enemy were forced into the impossible choice between saving what could be saved or total resistance.

I really would not have known. The most important thing in these matters is, I believe, that we do not too quickly condemn and judge.

There are also questions which are made to look very difficult but which, morally spoken, are cristal clear . For me, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is such an issue. There is nothing difficult about it, that area belongs to the Palestinians and Israël has no business there. In my eyes therefore there is nothing wrong with a boycott of settlement products - easily distinguished from a boycott of Israel or Israeli products in general.

I am sufficiently historian to understand that these areas are attractive for Jews to settle there. After all in Biblical times Judea and Samaria were key parts of the Jewish territory. There are also safety considerations that hint towards occupation, because Israel’s military position is more firm with the West Bank included. And finally ordinary power and land hunger play their parts.

But these considerations don’t make the issue morally more difficult. Given Israël’s foundation in the UN decision of 1947, in the West Bank Israël momentarily literally exceeds its limits, it does not belong there. Moreover, this transgression of borders causes a lot of damage for Israël at the political-diplomatic level. Its safety position suffers more thereby than can be compensated by physical-military positions.

This situation is bad enough, but I think worst of all may be that since the adoption of the anti-boycott law by the Israeli parliament two weeks ago an open discussion on these issues is prohibited. Anyone who objects to the occupation and for that reason calls for a boycott of settlement products is now in violation of the law.

Here no longer only the Jewish country is at stake, but the entire Jewish tradition. This touches the heart of that tradition. Because if there is anything that characterized Judaism for centuries, it were the culture of debate and the many angles of (moral) positions. One may be in favour or against a boycott, but a free discussion on the subject should be guaranteed. Therefore I can completely identify with the condemnation of the law by the Israeli Council of Liberal Rabbis: “This is an unprecedented dangerous step onto a slippery slope that continuously erodes the Jewish character and democratic nature of Israel”.

Thought police does not suit Israël.

maandag 1 augustus 2011


Not seldom the Jewish tradition is praised by people (including myself) for the multitude of opinions that can exist therein. The Talmud takes seriously different interpretations of transmitted texts and encourages discussion about them. Dogmatic coercion is not an issue, and that can be viewed as a pleasant and mature way of dealing with tradition and texts.

But there’s another current within the Jewish tradition which is equally old and respected. This current stresses harmony and a kind of mystical unity of the Jewish people. So, with the two currents taken together, how much polyphony is actually possible within the Jewish tradition as a whole? Let us have a closer look at that question.

Then at a first glance it appears that there is little question of polyphony. Because for example the book of Exodus describes how Moses went up the mountain and was there all alone with God when he received the Torah. The Midrash elaborates on that when it underlines the unequivocality of the revelation by the statement that where there is only the slightest division, the presence of God does not want to dwell. Philo of Alexandria connects to that when he says that all who rebel will be consumed by their inner desires, and Jehuda Halevi emphasizes the existence of a Jewish folk-soul that unites all Jews.

But it also says in Exodus that all the people have been listening to what happened at Sinai. Or rather, have been watching the voices. Furthermore, God proclaimed to Moses on Mount Sinai not only the Torah which afterwards was written down by Moses, but he also gave oral explanations, including any explanations that there ever would be, however contemporary they might be. Because, says the Talmud, even whatever any clever and serious student in the future will ask his teacher, has been revealed to Moses at Sinai. This means that the Torah cannot be but an explosive mixture, which includes many different things, or even contradictory things.

I emphatically confess myself to the current that cherishes the multiplicity of forms and voices. Because I associate the recognition of the multiplicity with a form of maturity. In that sense, I think the Jewish tradition is mature. There is that desire for an idyllic, smooth unity, but the tolerance for dissent is also well developed. This is evident from the multitude of discussing voices in the Talmud.

In our days this appears in yet another way. Namely in the way the Jewish image of the state of Israel is becoming more mature.

For a long time there was only one and therefore dominant image of Israel and its creation among Israeli historians. That was the picture of the small, brave Israel that stood alone against all-powerful Arab enemies. Like David against Goliath. In which picture the state was seen as the messianic, triumphant outcome of two thousand years diaspora and persecution. And in which the failure of peace plans was entirely due to the Arabs.

This was a way for historians to contribute to the unity and morale of the new state. It was their contribution to the myth-creation, a sort of feel-good history that the people needed to achieve the necessary efforts.

But, as happens with idyllic images and myths, they sooner or later get shattered. In the eighties there was a new group of Israeli historians (who are therefore called the New Historians) who opposed that idyllic image of Israel. They call that image one-sided and propagandistic. They are committed to view matters not only from the Israeli perspective. In their view, there is not just one single player (Israël) with the others as puppets. The Palestinians and Arabs are full players.

The self-criticism that is practiced by these historians caused a great deal of fuss: they were accused of befouling their own nest and even left-wing politicians were talking about a suicidal strategy. My point is that these historians have been able to break through the oppressiveness and coercion that is always connected with a closed dominant historical image. Now there is something to choose. There are now several documented and legitimate ways to look at the same thing, there are multiple voices, even if the discussions take place mainly in academic circles.

I myself am inclined to consider the emergence of these countervoices as evidence of the strength of Israeli society. I think it testifies of maturity if a society is able to produce and take seriously this kind of internal critical voices. Comparable to the way Torah always inspired people to take responsibility and to break the atmosphere of mystical unity that can surround the Torah as well. The New Historians are an expression of critical Jewish consciousness and therefore an asset to be proud of.

See also History as an exact science