Sunday, June 27, 2010

Signs Something May Be Seriously Wrong With Your Political-Economic System

The AP:

"According to the Labor Department, three out of four farm workers were born abroad, and more than half are illegal immigrants."


So the federal government is officially trying to deport over half of America's farm workers.

Even if that were moral, or physically possible, it would make zero economic sense. These illegal immigrants want to work, farms want their labor, and Americans (it can be safely assumed) want to eat. A pathway to citizenship for these workers and their families is in everyone's interest.

But our politicians can score points by taking tough stands against illegal immigration and "amnesty." So the majority of farm workers America remain underground, without legal protections or day-to-day security. Every now and then, federal agents descend on some rural town, deport all the illegals they find, issue an overblown press release, and leave the community to pick up the pieces. The economy continues to benefit from illegal labor, right-wing politicians continue to use illegal labor to rally their base, the federal government is allowed to maintain the pretense of a "rule of law," and illegal workers continue to live in fear. Predictably, everyone benefits except for the disenfranchised.

But hey! What the American people want, the American people get.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
American Apparently
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why Helen Thomas Was Wrong

On June 3rd, three days after the flotilla attack, veteran Arab-American White House reporter Helen Thomas was approached by a rabbi with a camera at Washington DC’s Jewish Heritage Celebration. “Any comments on Israel?” he asked her.

She replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When the rabbi asked, “Where should they go?” she replied, “Go home! Poland, Germany, and America, and everywhere else.”

Four days later, Thomas resigned over the outrage her remarks elicited. Four days after that, this letter appeared in my hometown newspaper, The Des Moines Register:

Helen Thomas spoke up like more Americans need to do. This whole fiasco started back in 1947 when the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state.

What the United States did was continue to inflame the discourse that had been going on for centuries.

Thomas is a true American, just a shame there isn't more Americans like her.

- Clarence Swartz, Orient
A letter to the editor is just a letter to the editor, but I think this letter represents some feelings and beliefs that shouldn’t go unaddressed.

First, let’s look at Clarence’s claim that “the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state” in 1947.

This is simply false. The United States did not supply Israel with any “war materiel” until 1964, when we gave them a handful of F-4 fighters. Before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israel ranked twenty-fourth among nations receiving aid from the United States. Today, it is the largest recipient. (See Aaron David Miller, The Much-Too-Promised Land, p. 80).

True, President Truman recognized the State of Israel within minutes of its declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, but that was mostly because the Soviet Union also recognized and supported the infant state, and Truman didn’t want the Soviets to get an exclusive foothold in the Middle East. (Israel’s founders had strong socialist leanings.) The Jews did the actual fighting bit mostly on their own.

This is an important point, because Clarence’s commonly-held misconception has led to Israel being portrayed as a creation of the West, when in reality, it was forged by Jews fleeing from the West (and Russia and the Muslim world). In the latter decades of the pre-state Zionist movement, Jews fleeing to Palestine had to sneak past the British occupiers, who were determined to keep the Jews out to placate the Arab Palestinian population. Eventually, Britain found itself at war with both the Zionists and the Arab Palestinians, and called it quits in 1948. Israel is not a tool of the West. (After all, what purpose could “the West” possibly have for angering the world’s largest oil producers by staking out an outpost in an oilless tract of land smaller than New Jersey?) It is a country in its own right.

But the larger misconception that lies behind Clarence and Helen’s call for the Jews to “go home” is the idea that the wrongs of 1947-1948 can somehow be righted today by yet another mass expulsion. It is all too tempting to think of history only in terms of nations: “The Jews,” “the Arabs,” “the Americans,” etc. This line of thinking has apparently led both Clarence and Helen to conclude, “Well, this whole mess started when the Jews came and took land away from the Palestinians. The Jews should just leave!”

Who are “the Jews”? The Jews who settled Palestine from the 1880s until 1948 are long gone. There are six million Jews living in Israel today. Many of them were born there, have lived their whole lives there. Their great-great-grandparents are buried in Palestine. Whatever the crimes of 1948 were, they are innocent. Sending all six million of them packing (a mass expulsion that would exceed the Palestinian expulsion by nine times) would fix nothing. What Helen Thomas said wasn't simply "taboo." It was a call for ethnic cleansing.

History is littered with massive crimes that cannot be undone. Even if one regards the creation of the state of Israel as a great crime (I do not, for the record), we cannot fix the past by destroying the future.

And really, considering the history of human population movements, no one, except possibly the Africans, has a right to disagree.

Thugs and Criminals!

Sadly, he didn't win.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wrapping up the Prophets

Nahum: God Judges the Empire

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords, and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses-

“I am against you,” declares the LORD Almighty.

- 3:1-5

Habakkuk: God Judges the Next Empire

“Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime! Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

- 2:12-14

Zephaniah: Universal Destruction and Universal Salvation?

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the LORD, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.

“Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.”

- 3:8-9

Haggai: Once More

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

- 2:6-7

Malachi: Sudden Judgment

“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, those who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD almighty.

- 3:5

Now that I’m done reading the prophets, there are three huge swathes of the Bible left that I’ve never intentionally read all the way through: 1) the history of Israel from Leviticus through Esther, 3) the wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and 4) the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and whoever the heck wrote Hebrews. I’m gonna start with the epistles, because I miss the New Testament.

Still haven’t started reading the Qur’an. But it’s coming down the pipe.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Zechariah: His name the only name

Of the last six prophets I read, Zechariah was my favorite. The first six chapters contain nine of the trippiest visions in the entire Bible, which all came to Zechariah in a single night. And starting in chapter nine, Zechariah embarks on two massive oracles that, as near as I can tell, revolve around four events in Israel’s future: the coming war with the Seleucids (predicted in detail in Daniel 8 and 11), the first coming of Jesus, the destruction of the Jewish nation in 70 AD, and the second coming of Jesus. The four events all run together in the narrative, and it’s only with the benefit of partial hindsight that we can distinguish between them (or, alternately, our historical perspective causes us to read these events into the oracles).

Chapter 9 is the craziest example of this:

V. 9:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Most Christians readily identify this with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion, riding in peacefully on a donkey.

V. 10:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

This part could be seen either as Jesus inaugurating a kingdom that spreads peacefully through love, service and the work of the Spirit, or a prediction of the final political peace Jesus will bring at his return.

V. 11-12:
As for you [Daughter of Zion], because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

This passage can be pretty straightforwardly interpreted as declaring the spiritual freedom that Jesus would bring to the former prisoners of sin.

But then...

V. 13:
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.

So the peace agenda is out, then? And where do the Greeks come from?

If is to be trusted, outside of Daniel and Zechariah, the words “Greek” or “Greece” appear only four times in the Old Testament. Greece is not a big player in Israel’s history until the intertestamental period, when Alexander the Great conquered Judea, and his heirs, the Seleucids, tried to destroy Judaism. This didn’t go over so well, and as the Book of Maccabees (according to what I’ve heard, somewhat inaccurately) details, the Jews resisted and eventually drove the Greeks out of the land, restoring Jewish independence for a brief time, and giving the Jews something to celebrate during Christmastime.

So...that war must be what Zechariah is talking about here, right?

V. 14-15
Then the LORD will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning. The Sovereign LORD will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south, and the LORD Almighty will shield them. They will destroy and overcome with slingstones. They will drink and roar as with wine; they will be full like a bowl used for sprinkling the corners of the altar.

The Bible (at least the Protestant canon) is curiously silent on the merits or demerits of the Jewish resistance against the Seleucids. Daniel describes the war and persecution that is coming in great detail, but never mentions the Maccabee rebels directly, as far as I can tell. We are reassured that the evil king, Antiochus, will be destroyed, “but not by human power” (8:25 – he died of illness in Persia). Daniel 11:33-35 says only, “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them.” So who are the insincere? Does Daniel here bless the resistance? Does Zechariah?

Perhaps I should add the Books of the Maccabees to my reading list.

Anyway. In Chapter 11, Zechariah assumes the voice of Christ, and bitterly narrates his rejection by the Jewish religious leaders. God gives Zechariah charge of the “flock marked for slaughter” – so-called because “I will no longer have pity on the people of the land.”

“So,” Zechariah says, “I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock.”

“You hypocrites!” Jesus said. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16)

But soon the flock turns on Zechariah, and Zechariah declares, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh” – a graphic description of the siege conditions in Jerusalem during the war with the Romans in the 60s AD.

“Then,” Zechariah says, “I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.” The nations will now come against Jerusalem to attack it.

Zechariah tells the flock, “If you think it best, give me my pay.” So they give him thirty pieces of silver – “the handsome price at which they priced me!” – and he throws the silver into the temple, to the potter.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

- Matthew 27:3-7
The rejection of the shepherd brings disaster:

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.”

- Zechariah 13:7-8

“I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half the city will go into exile...”

- Zechariah 14:2

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

- Luke 19:41-44

But in the second oracle, which starts in chapter 12, Zechariah blends together what appear to be two separate attacks on Jerusalem – the one in 70 AD, which brings mass slaughter and exile to the Jews, and a second, in which God “will make the leaders of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume left and right all the surrounding peoples, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place” (12:6). Chapter 14 portrays the LORD himself coming down to the Mount of Olives, returning just as he left (Acts 1:11), splitting the mountain in two, and making the enemy troops go crazy and start killing each other. When the Jews see Jesus, “the one they have pierced,” returning, God will send a “spirit of grace and supplication” on the Jews, and they will be seized with remorse for what they did to the shepherd. “The weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo [where King Josiah was killed]” (12:10-11).

Evangelical dispensationalists often read this passage as a prediction of a future war between the State of Israel and the Arab states, perhaps allied with Iran, Russia and Europe under the leadership of the Antichrist. Interestingly, Orthodox Jews read it almost the same way. According to Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg (The Accidental Empire, p. 260-262), in the wake of the 1973 war, in which Israel triumphed, but suffered greatly and acquired no new land, Orthodox Rabbis turned to Zechariah for an explanation of the war’s meaning: “[Rabbi Yehudah] Amital explained [that] the war was part of the messianic process. Any war over the Land of Israel was actually a war over Jerusalem, and so fulfilled the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the battle for Jerusalem at the end of history.”

The Reformed theology in me rebels against this interpretation, since in Reformed theology, there is only one people of God throughout history: the church, first in the form of early Israel, now in the form of the borderless, multilingual, multicultural body today. The implication is that the Jewish race and culture no longer has anything but a historical significance to redemption (cf Romans 9:4-5). But what, then, to make of Zechariah's prophecies? Perhaps a battle between Israel and the world powers is coming, and God will intervene to put an end to war and empire once and for all. I dunno.

In the end, though, the message of Zechariah and the rest of the prophets is crystal clear:

“The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name” (14:9).

Amin. Allahu akbar.

File this under "Unintentionally Revealing Statements"

“We are not seeking to fill our (bellies), we are looking to break the Israeli siege on Gaza."

- Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, explaining why Hamas will not let Israel deliver any of the aid from the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Madness! Madness!" Thoughts on the Israeli Flotilla Attack

“The activists said they never attacked the soldiers. They thought Israel was welcoming them with commando-shaped piƱatas.”

- Jon Stewart

Yesterday at my new 9-5 job (calling employers to verify loan information – I’ll tell you about it later), I overhead this exchange between two of my coworkers:

“What’s going on in Israel?”
“Some ships were bringing food to Gaza, and the Israeli army attacked them and killed like twenty people.”
“Wow, that’s nuts. You know, I really can’t go along with the whole Rambo killing-people thing.”
“Yeah. Especially when they were just trying to drop off food.”

I have a feeling that my coworkers’ characterization of the IDF’s attack on the “Freedom Flotilla” last Monday is fast on its way to being cemented in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, here is my vain attempt to shift the narrative.

(The following summary is based on Matti Friedman’s excellent article in the Associated Press today.)

The Gaza Strip, a 139 square mile sliver of land bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has dedicated itself to total warfare against the Jewish state, with its destruction as its chief goal. Due to ongoing rocket attacks against Israel launched from the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Strip, banning all exports and letting through only food and medicine.

On Sunday, a group of 700 activists on six ships nicknamed the “Freedom Flotilla,” organized by the Free Gaza Movement, set sail from Cyprus to bring 10,000 tons of supplies to Gaza.

Say what you will about the blockade, but any nation that let 10,000 tons of supplies be delivered to territory controlled by its archenemies uninspected would redefine “suicidal.” So, quite reasonably, in my mind, the Israeli government warned Free Gaza that the flotilla would not be allowed through the blockade, but offered to pass on humanitarian aid from the ships.

The ships set sail anyway. The Israeli navy sent its ships to intercept, and ordered them to halt. The flotilla moved on anyway. So the Israelis sent their commandos to take over the ships and turn them towards an Israeli port.

Not expecting any resistance – the ships were carrying peace activists, after all – the commandos were armed only with paintball guns and pistols, “in case of emergency.” To their shock, as the commandos jumped onto the deck of the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, they were attacked by a mob armed with clubs, chairs and knives. One soldier was thrown over the side onto a lower deck and stabbed in the stomach when he landed. Other soldiers jumped into the Mediterranean to escape their attackers. A full twenty minutes after the operation began, the soldiers requested permission to use their firearms, and received it. Two of the “peace activists” were shot dead after they wrested pistols away from the commandos and shot two Israeli soldiers. All in all, nine activists were killed and seven soldiers were wounded.

The surprising part of this story is not that Israel chose to intercept massive cargo ships headed through their blockade into enemy territory. Nor is it surprising that the Israeli soldiers responded with live ammunition when they were attacked. The real question here is: Why did the activists turn to violence so quickly?

They did so for the same reason, I submit, that Israel is now being nearly-universally, unequivocally condemned for the violence that the activists started: In the eyes of Israel’s political opponents, the Jewish state can do no right.

As evidence, I point to an e-mail I received from a pro-Palestinian group called the BRussels Tribunal the day of the attack (Italics mine):


Dead: 19. [sic] Injured: 60.
This is Israel

...For what does Israel fight? Its existence, or the continuance of a regime of collective punishment calculated to destroy the Palestinians? Or are these the same thing?

...From founding until now we have witnessed an unending catalogue of Israeli atrocities. By these countless atrocities, Israel has forfeited any claim to legality — it is moreover a state that refuses to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or consider giving up its nuclear weapons.

...Here every man and woman has a moral duty: inaction is complicity and a betrayal of humanity. All legal rights are with those who attempt to end this situation by whatever means.

■ We condemn the illegal, immoral and inhuman blockade on Gaza, and all who uphold it
We condemn Israel
■ We condemn Israel’s brutal attack on peace activists in international waters. We declare that 700 brave souls, from 50 nations, represent something real that Israeli propaganda cannot erase
■ We demand an international tribunal to judge all Israeli crimes, past and present. We call on the UN General Assembly to request of the International Court of Justice an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel within the United Nations System given its systematic and gross disrespect of international law and moral authority.

Because the global anti-Zionist movement, like the radical Islamist movement and the Palestinian national movement, has never accepted the legitimacy of the Jewish state, its struggle on behalf of the Palestinian people has taken on a zero-sum quality. Its various tactics – blockade-running, disinvestment, etc. – flow from an initial rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and therefore preclude reconciliation with Israel from the outset. In their eyes, no action Israel takes in self-defense can be legitimate, because Israel itself is illegitimate.

Hence – Israel sends commandos to take over ships carrying 10,000 tons of uninspected cargo headed towards enemy territory? They must be trying to kill us! Grab your knives! Man the ramparts! Israel kills nine people in a mob that was beating their soldiers to a pulp? Massacre! Haul them before the Security Council! No, the International Criminal Court! No, the Nuremberg Courts! Israel tries to defend its actions using videos confiscated from activists aboard the ship? Outrage! Have they no respect for freedom of the press?

Keep screaming, activists. This is what the Israeli people hear:

This attitude, to put it mildly, is not helpful – ESPECIALLY for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza held hostage to Hamas’ eternal war against Israel.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is very real. The Strip has one of the highest population densities on the planet - 1.5 million people are trapped in 139 square miles. In 2008, the year before the devastating Israel-Hamas war, 80% of Gazans were dependent on outside food aid, the unemployment rate was 40% , and public services had deteriorated so much that 50 million liters of sewage were pouring into the sea every day. Things have only gotten worse since then.

The blockade must be reformed. Travel rights must be restored. Exports must be allowed through. Real reconstruction must take place, with massive help from the outside world. The blockade must morph into an effective arms embargo.

Unfortunately, Israel is unlikely to do this on its own, for the same reason that Israel elected Benjamin Netanyahu, an anti-two-state solution rejectionist, as prime minister, that its top diplomat is a quasi-fascist who publicly expresses his contempt for foreign leaders, that it publicly humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Jerusalem, that it banned Professor Noam Chomsky from speaking in Palestine, that it has declared its intention to bulldoze thousands of homes and deport thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, that it has refused to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem even temporarily to restart the peace process.

That reason is: since the Gaza War of 2009, Israel has realized that nothing it can conceivably do will win it the respect of the world. So why should they bother?

How different would things have been if the activists had resisted peacefully! The world – and more importantly, the Israeli people - would have seen men, women and children being bound and carried off the ships one at a time. They would have seen the truly innocent cargo being inspected – wheelchairs, food, medicine, cement. They would have asked, “Why are these people willing to go through all this just to bring attention to Gaza? Why won’t our government let cement through to Gaza? What’s so dangerous about wheelchairs?” It might have been the catalyst Israel needed to start a real debate over how to relax the blockade, rebuild Gaza, and undercut Hamas’ popular support. As a professor interviewed in the documentary Handala says, “Nonviolence exposes the reality of the situation. There are no excuses anymore. There are no justifications anymore.”

Instead, I humbly and regretfully predict, the Israeli people will see the world’s irrational overreaction to their government’s completely rational behavior, correctly conclude that they cannot absolve themselves in the eyes of the world, and retreat further into their bunker.

Now is the time for the leaders of the U.S., Egypt, and Israel to pow-wow and figure out a way to relax the blockade while containing the terrorist threat. I only hope that the Freedom Flotilla has not sabotaged that pow-wow before it even begins.