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Needed: Nuance and Balance in Gaza Flotilla Debate
Thu, 06/03/2010 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week

When the New Israel Fund sent an action alert to protest gender-segregated buses in Israel, we got an enthusiastic response.

When we and the human rights groups we fund were attacked in Israel, viciously and dishonestly, we asked for signatures to a petition to Prime Minister Netanyahu in support of democratic dissent, and we got a very enthusiastic response.

But the immediate reaction we got to a brief, carefully-balanced letter we sent about the...well, let's call it the disastrous incident of the Gaza flotilla... now that was a response.

"I think that Daniel's letter is the best statement that I've read about the flotilla."

"Why should the Israeli government conduct an inquiry when its own continuing policies of unmitigated aggression and human rights abuses caused the attack and deaths in the first place?"

"Were you not 'shocked and dismayed' by the deliberate and provocative effort by anti-Israel activists - and ships sponsored by a recognized terrorist organization - to defy a legitimate naval blockade, despite Israel's offer to transfer the aid directly to Gaza?"

"Living up to our ideals is the best answer to these unfortunate events. Thank you for keeping up the hope for a better future through dialogue. The extremes thrive only on silence."

"Daniel: You are out of your mind."

Let me make one thing clear from the outset. We are neither foreign policy nor military specialists, nor are we a "peace group." Our letter was written to express our fundamental concern for Israel. We are a proudly progressive organization that has built and supported Israeli civil society -- the human rights, social justice and religious pluralism organizations that are so much of the reason Israel considers itself a vibrant democracy. As the leading supporter of cutting-edge causes that advance Israeli democracy, we are used to controversy and to diverse views within our own big tent, both in the U.S. and in Israel.

But as accustomed as we are to argument, the nerve touched by the flotilla letter seems to us to be raw, and frightening, and possibly predictive of some very hard times ahead for American Jews who love and are connected to Israel.

We do empathize with the passions aroused by the flotilla action and the larger issues at stake here. Whether they called the flotilla participants armed militants or peaceful activists, our respondents care about Israel. Whether our respondents faulted the IDF or Turkey, the Netanyahu government or Hamas, defended Israel's action to the hilt or attacked it vociferously, our supporters reflect a connection to Israel that was once assumed to be one of the strongest ties binding the American Jewish community together.

But those ties are fraying. More and more, we who work day in and out for Israel, whether from the left or right, know that every program we fund, every project we sponsor, is a potential target for ideological attack. The community events that should reflect the diverse opinions of American Jews about Israel too frequently deteriorate into controversy about this film or that speaker -- the argument being that those with whom one disagrees do not deserve the attention of a thoughtful audience. Some American Jewish organizations apparently wait for their talking points from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, while others jump to criminalize Israel's actions in utter isolation from the existential threats it has endured since its founding.

If we as a community leap to defend every action and policy of the Israeli government, we are outsourcing our consciences, our values and our own responsibility. If we likewise forget that Israelis live next door to enemies who have sworn to eradicate them, we are transposing our own American comfort and security to a place that knows neither. And if we shrug our shoulders at Israel's lost ideals, silently thank our own American forbearers for settling here rather than there, and give up, we have abandoned what must remain the fulfillment of the collective dream of the Jewish people.

Having worked for Jewish organizations my entire career, I am alarmed and saddened. Not just by the outcome of the Gaza flotilla, but by the black-and-white character of too much of the communal response. A people who created the Talmud should not be so deaf to nuance, to balance, to contextualizing a rational argument. A people who knew suffering for millennia should not be indifferent to the suffering of others, and a people who were defenseless for almost 2000 years should not be dismissive of the security concerns of its homeland.

Six boats in the Mediterranean are sailing through the holes in the fabric of the Jewish community. We need to be careful to ensure that our community's conversation is open, honest and respectful of criticism and self-examination. We can and will disagree about what happened last week and about what it means for Israeli policy and Israel itself.

But we must do so with some sense of connection and mutual care, for each other and for Israel.

Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.


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Gaza flotilla, Jewish activism, Jewish life, pro-Israel politics

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Whether or not NIF or any grantees are directly responsible for the misinformation in the Goldstone report, they are indirectly responsible. They finance a form of dissent that is not healthy given that Israel is under constant siege. Such dissent may be appropriate in Canada or the U.S., but neither of these face threats of an existential nature!
Thank you Helen Thomas! That is thank you for clarifying what most Arabs and Moslems mean by “occupation!” She didn’t say “go back to West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv;” she said “go back to Poland or Germany!” I hardly think that Helen Thomas is what you’d call an extremist by Arab standards! The “occupation” of which they speak is not really a request to go back to the Green Line. They want to annihilate Israel! I say don’t give back one more inch!
I have to laugh at the above comments. Clearly the Zionist astro-turfers are out in force. If this is the nonsense you get when you call for balanced, nuance consideration of the situation, I'd hate to see what you get when you actually take a stand on something. Based on the above comments, your concern for Israel is wasted breath. Israel is doomed by the actions of its own supporters. Have a nice day!
My comments are in response to phil lyons 6/11 response: I am trying very hard to stay out of the "we support Israel no matter what" camp, and challenge myself to see both sides of a story, holding all accountable to behave responsibly. I do not naively think that the Israeli government always makes the best decisions in how they handle their affairs, in particular the palestinian-israeli conflict - no country has a track record void of criticism. Having said that, I am really struggling to see the "other side of the story" with this conflict and it concerns me. Taking a step back, phil lyons points out that the real issue is the "whole collective punishment" Israel has imposed on the people of Gaza. Again, we can debate Israel's every action in how they have balanced security and humanitarian issues regarding Gaza and its people. Regardless of the advice we would offer Israel - continue with the status quo, reduce their security measures or pull out and leave Gaza entirely in the hands of Hamas - the real issue for the Palestinian's misery is their leadership. Israel's objective is not the oppression of the Palestinians. This is worth repeating: Israel's objective is not the oppression of the Palestinians. In contrast, most Israelis want the Palestinian situation to improve, not only for humane reasons, but practical ones as well (e.g., for the safety of Israeli soldiers, daily humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza are costly) Israel desires to leave the Palestinians alone. Contrary to popular belief, the general population of Israelis do care that Israel's actions are balanced and humane (this challenge is constantly being discussed in Israel - I was just there last week). The real issue on hand is Hamas' self-proclaimed goal to destroy Israel. It's quite simple, if Israel is not under attack, there would be no need for Israeli military blockades. Israeli actions should be questioned. But I am convinced that Israel's goal is the security of its people. And, albeit imperfect, they attempt to do so minimizing civilian casualty. Hamas' objective is the destruction of Israel, a state the U.N. gave birth to. Hamas has blatantly aimed at Israeli civilians in its attacks. Hamas has gone further and deliberately put its own civilians at risk in attacking Israel. This hostility has caused reactions where Palestinians are ultimately paying a huge price. Where is the outcry from the U.N. about Hamas? Why doesn't the international community question Hamas aggression? The legality of its actions? How can we take the U.N. seriously when it first condemns Israel on flotilla, for example, then calls for an investigation of the facts? To me, there is a glaring double standard being imposed and I find it amazing that the world is generally silent about it. Please help me understand the other side because the big picture I see is scaring me. In reaction to phil lyons criticism of Israeli politician actions on Jerusalem, it is my understanding that the announcement of settlement expansions when Biden was in Israel was a mistake made by a gov't official, not deliberate. Appreciate also that regardless of Benjamin Netanyahu's position on the matter, if he were to fully agree to Obama's request on freezing development in Jerusalem, a likely outcome is that he would face early re-election and not remain in power. Israeli's are frustrated that they are asked to stop construction which is limited to meeting immediate needs of natural growth in Jerusalem and is legal, when Arabs are building illegally without reprimand. There is a lot more I can say on the matter. These are just a few points to show that the situation is not so black-and-white.
Most of diaspora Jewry are dismayed whenever a PR problem arises for Israel. I have no problem with your initial letter,- I expected it to be much worse, putting the blame for the PR disaster,- not the actual operation,- at Israel's feet. We don't know why the IDF or commando members found themselves in such a dire predicament. It was obviously a trap,- but we have been spoilt,- Israel is not supposed to fall into such 'traps'! We expect the Mossad to be on top of these evil people's plans and get to them before they get to kill or maim Israelis! But that is only in a perfect world, in fictional novels. Who got killed? Only Islamic militants,- none of their Westerner "useful idiots" did,- did they? Turkey has been looking for a reason to disengage from cooperating with Israel,- militarily as well as commercially,- so there is nothing better than such a bloody showdown with "civilians" and NGOs. The Westerners fell into the same trap! Are they going to get mixed up with the Islamists again?
It would appear that Israeli politicians are more concerned with their self perception and fighting battles of mitigation against propaganda misunderstandings. There is little will extant for any long lasting and strident policy outside of that of 'security' (security which it has always had the power to uphold). In a world were semantics and nuance classes are much needed, the original article was balanced. Shouting louder and firing more is certainly a right wing response. However, the rest of the world is fed up with both sides who are part of the same problem. Get real.
To the last poster I must ask the following: “Are we to let the rockets keep falling unabated?” “Are we to accept a cease-fire where the rockets are [temporarily] not falling, but the enemy is setting up more rockets to launch an overwhelming attack when it suits them?” Israel’s response has been much more restrained that the U.S’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis (given that these rockets were actually launched). In the past I was an NIF supported and have even travelled to Israel on NIF-sponsored trips more than once. I fully support the work you do with non-Orthodox Jews, with immigrants, with GLBT Israelis, etc. Even much of the work that you do in the Arab sector is good work. However, I cannot in good conscience continue to fund Arab organizations (or Jewish ones for that matter) that are hostile to Israel’s right to defend herself. The idea that the question should not be “. . . whether Israel being completely in the right or completely in the wrong” is a good idea, at least in the abstract. However, Israel’s basic right to defend herself is under attack, so it doesn’t seen sensible to worry about “nuance and balance” at this time. Also, it was stated that grantees will not be” penalized for signing one letter.” If the letter is bad enough, then yes, one letter is enough! In closing I will post this question. What is the consequence of Arab Israeli groups expressing fundamental hostility to the Jewish State? The consequence is almost certainly a backlash against Israeli Arabs! Hardly the outcome that we’re looking for!
It's interesting to be labeled an 'American Jew' just because I wrote something in response to that letter. It's interesting that the only quotes given are from one 'side.' It's interesting to be called American by someone who seems to me to be more American than I am or will ever be able to be. American forbearers? Huh? Why is he/ are you talking to? If I feel a certain way and say so, I'm irresponsible? How much weight needs to be put on my shoulders because of what I was born into? Where is my responsibility to myself and the real people in my real life? I guess it's to be expected from someone who's worked for Jewish organizations all his life, though. Not all of us -- and I can't say who because Mr. D.S. has already said for me who I am, where I'm from, and who my 'forbearers' are -- think of being Jewish first. Some of us are Israeli. Some of us Israelis might live anywhere. And I for one feel split because I believe in people, and befriend people for who they are, not for their religious traditions or what name they give to God.
Phil - If you want to make an argument, please stick to facts. Nobody is saying cement can be used to build rockets. Cement and metal bars can be used for military purposes, such as to build bunkers. Cement is allowed into Gaza for specific, approved purposes, such as rebuilding homes. There is no "collective punishment" being done by Israel. The medicine and food carried by the flotilla clearly wasn't needed, since Hamas refused to let it in, once Israel had inspected it to make sure it didn't contain anything that could be used for military purposes. Other food and medicine is transported into Gaza on a regular basis.
Daniel, There is no nuance in an expressed desire to run a military blockade. The stated purpose of this excursion per the organizers, was to force the blockade. Well as it happened, as sometimes does when military blockades are tested, people get killed. Israeli forces should have handled the boarding differently (why one at a time from a static line with paint guns ?) and not gotten themselves into this position, however faced with a uniformed troop coming down, the "protesters" should have not attacked. What is the expectation when you attack a soldier? So where is the nuance. Sincerely, Alex Gersznowicz
As is the norm in these events, you hear, mostly loudly from the " we support Israel no matter what..." folks. I suspect this is a case where, to borrow a phrase, " the silent majority", who would like to examine ALL the facts, before a rush to judgement, were just that...silent ( as I was before reading this). The issue isn't the flotilla and whether it was meant to be provacative, nor is it merely an examination of how effecively ( or not ) the Israeli action was from a military or intelligence point of view. It should be an examination of the whole " collective punishment" Israel is, and has been, imposing on the people of Gaza. All one has to do is to witness the vast destruction of homes,infastructure, and lives ( about 1,400 vs well less than 100 killed by rockets...the rationalization for the Gaza invasion) to see the real issue, which is the embargo on Gaza. The rationalization that virtually everything has the potential to turn into rockets is absurd. Cement, for example, is critical to rebuild the homes and other infastructure destroyed in what is called " the incursion". Can it be justififed to embargo cement because, somehow or another that can turn into rockets ( I'm not sure how)? Is it some wonder that people living in these conditions are radicalized? Does it strike one as peculiar that people in these conditions try " provocations" ( if one wishes to so label the flotilla ) to bring the world's attention to this embargo? Are we, as Americans , supposed to rush to support Israel, no matter the impact on our own country, no matter what Israel does? The deleberate announcement of settlement expansions when Biden was there, the announcing of more apartment building in Jerusalem as the "proximity" talks are trying to get under way, and on and on, seem clear to me that there is a significant portion of Israeli politicians ( and, I sppose,by extension, its people) who are more interested, by far, in holding land than in getting a settlement. I feel no need as an American Jew to be suppostive of this. It is adverse to America's interests and unjust to the Palestinians, people who lived over 40 years inder occupation. It is clearly time well past for the two state solution. I applaude NIF for being a balanced voice in matters such as this and urge you to continue to do so. There is no need for a "2nd AIPAC."
Daniel, These people were on a specific mission and they succeeded. Their stated purpose was to run a military blockade and therefore were ready and willing to be in a military action, according to the groups organizer. The consequence was that some of them died. These kinds of acts put Israel in the most difficult position and the terrorists know that. You refer in your op-ed to "this film or that speaker" that the community responds to. Should I assume you are referring to last years Jewish Film Festival movie about Rachel Corey and her mother speaking at the event? You only heard their side at the event. The audience was purposely filled with anti-Israel voices. I am more than open to listening to the "other side", the problem is, it is a one way street. The people on this flotilla and others like them, want Israel to fail. The people on this boat won't listen to "nuance and balance". Human rights was not their reason for this flotilla. I have great compassion for innocent victims of terror and certainly support giving food, medicine and aid to the people of Gaza. Daniel, you have seen me work for the rights of all Israeli citizens. This act only harmed Israel and helped the cause of those that hate us.
The NIF letter started, "We at NIF are shocked and dismayed by the tragic consequences of the raid on the flotilla this past Monday. " Calling it a "raid" and ignoring the attempt to break the blockade sounds to me like NIF does not understand or support Israel's right and need to defend itself. Instead, it could have started, "We at NIF are shocked and dismayed by the tragic consequences of the blockade-running attempt by the flotilla this past Monday." This wording sounds to me like the blame is being placed on the people on the boats. If NIF really wanted to be balanced, the letter could have started, "We at NIF are shocked and dismayed by the tragic consequences of the flotilla incident this past Monday." This version places the blame on neither party. As a previous donor to NIF, I think I know where NIF stands on this issue. I have serious doubts about whether I will be an NIF donor in the future. I suspect there are plenty of other organizations in Israel to which I can donate that are fighting for peace and equality while still supporting Israel's right to defend itself, or at least are willing to take the time to make a better attempt to be more balanced.
I think I agree with you, but I'm not ready to give up on the really positive things that the NIF accomplishes. I'm as dismayed asy you are by the tone of Daniel Sokatch's letter.
Sarah, This is how I felt for a long time, but I am quite disgusted by NIF’s activities in the Arab Sector. Actually, I am even disgusted with some of the activities in the Jewish sector that support these views. The grantee that really made me feel this way was Adulah. With my NIF donation money – and remember that all money is fungible – they sued to get permission to hold a memorial rally for George Habash (a terrorist by any standard). They lost that suit, but the fact that my money paid for it was intolerable. The fact that I learned of this the day after a horrific attack on young Yeshiva boys in Jerusalem added to my disgust. My usual disdain for the Orthodox took a back seat that day. Furthermore, I learned more about this grantee. One of their spokesperson stated that Palestinians should take up “armed struggle” against the “occupation.” These words were uttered at an NIF event, no less! Again, she was clearly referring to events earlier than 1967, so we know what “occupation” she really meant! As far I’m concerned, I will not give one more cent to NIF as long as Adalah is a grantee. It’s not negotiable! I agree that it’s a shame, because I really like much of the other work they do. For instance, work with non-Orthodox Jews (suing for public funding to get a Reform Shul built), work on battered women’s shelters (both Jewish and Arab), work on family status and agunot issues, work with liberal sectors within Orthodoxy (for instance, women of the Wall), work with gays and lesbians (which is of supreme importance), and even some of the work within the Arab sector.
What is accomplished by having Arabs hold a memorial rally for a terrorist like George Habbash (or by an attempt to do so)? What is accomplished is a backlash against Israel's Arab citizens, exactly what NIF reports it wants to prevent! Shouldn't they be counseling their Arab colleagues about appropriate behaviors to avoid a backlash?
Right! My thoughts exactly.
Your comment below is exactly correct; Having worked for Jewish organizations my entire career, I am alarmed and saddened. Not just by the outcome of the Gaza flotilla, but by the black-and-white character of too much of the communal response. A people who created the Talmud should not be so deaf to nuance, to balance, to contextualizing a rational argument. A people who knew suffering for millennia should not be indifferent to the suffering of others, and a people who were defenseless for almost 2000 years should not be dismissive of the security concerns of its homeland. We are in for rougher times irreespective of one's view!
The problem here is that that whatever the merits are of sending “humanitarian” supplies to Gaza, it was the intention of this flotilla to pick a fight. The fact that we might have wanted a more restrained response does not justify playing into the hands of those who seek to delegitimize Israel. Also, in NIF’s denials of having anything to do with the Goldstone report, you failed to focus on the distortions of the Goldstone report itself. While, I do believe that NIF’s denials are technically accurate, I do not believe that NIF was not a facilitator – albeit unwittingly – to the distortions in this report. Also, there was no pledge to be more judicious in the future. Your statement about “extremist settler organizations” is not relevant to me as a former donor (and possible future donor, if I’m satisfied with the answers), as I know NIF does not fund such organizations! In a 2007 conference in the United States, one of your Arab sector grantees called for violent resistance to the “occupation.” I don’t even know if her idea of “occupation” doesn’t include even inside the Green Line. An NIF spokesperson stated that “you won’t agree with everything.” Well, I’m sorry but there’s such a thing as “not agreeing with everything,” and there’s such a thing as egregious, and that was the latter! You would never fund a Jewish group that spoke this way; neither should you be funding such an Arab group. As a one-time donor, the “shrill” voices that I worry about are the ones that I might be funding!
Thanks for proving his point, you two. Fact of the matter is, there are no facts. Only narratives. And Israel's constant focus on image over substance has made the situation what it is. Instead of a thorough self-examination on tactics and the use of lethal foce on civilian craft, the Netanyahu government has chosen to try to pull the wool over everyone's faces again by disputing that Han, not Greedo, shot first. If there was no blockade around Gaza, this wouldn't even be a question.
Your argument that "there are no facts" is either malicious and agenda driven, or just grossly ignorant. Just because you admit that you don't know what the facts are, and therefore have nothing worthy to add, it doesn't mean that everyone else doesn't know. The words you have interjected here are self serving and meaningless. You should allow yourself to watch the following with an open mind http://www.aish.com/jw/me/95501584.html and allow yourself to withhold painting a false impression of the facts you see before you even see this, just because you believe "there are no facts," or you've heard it all before. Obviously, you haven't understood anything, even if you had heard it before. This time, watch it without bias, for even your closed mind could paint over the truth when it is as plain as the paint shot from a paintball gun.
i have yet to read anything in Jewish week that was not from a left wing peacenick view. Progressive has taken on the meaning that Hamas is OK and if only the Israelies would play nice Hamas would become peace loving willing to live side by side in peace with the Israelis. What really stopped the rockets coming from Gaza was the Israeli Invasion. Most Progressives believe that War and violence solve nothing convientently forgetting Nazism. Some fanatics only understand a bob on the head. Remember the world tried for years to talk nice to Hitler. When Obama and his crew finally get it they will understand that there are certain people you just can not talk reason to because they are not reasonable. I put Hamas in this group.
Mr. Sokatch, Your original email was neither balanced nor nuanced. It condemned Israel for defending it's boarders and demanded that inquiries and policies be set to avoid such outcomes in the future. But in this case, Israel di not 'attack' it nave boarded a hostile ship attempting to break the bloackade, not a peaceful humanitarian mission. Israel will investigate, as it always does. But where is the balanced voice that should also be demanding an investigation of the Turkish government officials and agencies that claimed to have carefully inspected the boats and ensured Israel there were no arms aboard? Why have no 'leaders' stood up and demanded and inquiry into the oraginzing body IHH? Anyone claiming to be 'balanced' must also deman inquiry into the organizations and individuals who allowed this violend, illegal attack on Israel and its navy. Since when are 'liberals' afraid of investigating terrorists? What are you afraid of? Finding out that maybe Israel ISN'T to blame for EVERYTHING? Being liberal demands courage to stand up for what is right. Where is the NIF's courage?