Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Preaching elimination

From The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert Paxton

If religious fascisms are possible, one must address the potential - supreme irony - for fascism in Israel. Israeli reactions to the first and second intifada have been mixed. Israeli national identity has been powerfully associated with an affirmation of the human rights that were long denied to Jews in the Diaspora. This democratic tradition forms a barrier against "giving up free institutions" in the fight against Palestinian nationalism. It has been weakened, however, by two trends - the inevitable hardening of attitudes in the face of Palestinian intransigence, and a shift of weight within the Israeli population away from European Jews, the principal bearers of the democratic tradition, in favor of Jews from North Africa and elsewhere in the Near East who are indifferent to it. The suicide bombings of the second intifada after 2001 radicalized even many Israeli democrats to the right. By 2002, it was possible to hear language within the right-wing of the Likud Party and some of the small religious parties that comes close to a functional equivalent to fascism. The chosen people begins to sound like a Master Race that claims a unique "mission in the world," demands its "vital space," demonizes an enemy that obstructs the realization of the people's destiny, and accepts the necessity of force to obtain these ends.
A few years ago I expressed concern over the Israeli military naming a military strike in Gaza "Operation Samson's Pillars," noting that this evokes some disturbing Biblical imagery that I guessed would likely not be reassuring to Palestinian civilians. Not least of which being the irony of the hero Samson engaging in an act that comes across as the Old Testament equivalent of a suicide bombing. That Israel considers its nuclear weapons the "Samson Option" isn't very reassuring, either. More generally, I objected to allusion to the tribal, Us vs. Them God of the Bible because:

The Old Testament God is a god of retributional violence, cruelty, and mass slaughter. Any mission paying homage to him is starting out on the wrong foot.
Now there may be further evidence of the democracy eroding effects of religious fundamentalism in Israel. Recent allegations have surfaced that in the latest IDF military operations in Gaza - which resulted in Palestinian deaths at a ratio of about 100 Palestinians killed for every one Israeli (estimated 1400 Palestinian deaths, 13 Israeli deaths) - fundamentalist rabbis were preaching to soldiers a military mission that sounds dangerously like Paxton's description of a functional fascism.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”
The linked article goes on to note the increased presence in the military of religious nationalists, including "the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field." After which he was "reprimanded" for distributing material that "contain[ed] a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy." That's putting it nicely. The specific verse was from Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18:

Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."
Christopher Hitchens observes that this seems to be part of a campaign to create an army within the army which will be willing to disregard orders to disband the settlements which stand as one of the obstacles to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and suggests that the United States make its continued support of the Israeli military conditional on putting a stop to the spread of extremism in the IDF.

Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream. It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.
Internal critics also note the seeming proto-fascist nature of the fundamentalists, with the first article I linked quoting an opponent of Rabbi Rontzki

The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,” he said.

“They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”
The LA Times also covered this story, and provides more testimony

This rabbi comes to us and says the fight is between the children of light and the children of darkness," a reserve sergeant said, recalling a training camp encounter. "His message was clear: 'This is a war against an entire people, not against specific terrorists.' The whole thing was turned into something very religious and messianic."
In addition to commentary on the nature of the problem

But soldiers now going public with allegations of misconduct in Gaza portray the military rabbinate as a corps of self-appointed holy warriors whose sermons and writings demonized Palestinians.

"The army itself is a battleground of conflicting ideals in Israeli Jewish society," said Avi Sagi, a Bar-Ilan University philosophy professor who in the 1990s was a co-author of the military's code of ethics, which obliges soldiers to avoid killing innocents.

On one side, he said, are universal values that call for respecting all human life equally and are largely shared by Jews who seek accommodation with the Palestinians. On the other side are more nationalistic passages of the Torah, cited by religious thinkers who liken the Palestinians to Old Testament invaders and place a premium on Jewish life.
The LA Times goes on to write about a military doctrine adopted for the mission that sounds nakedly like a war crime

And after the 22-day operation, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor with close ties to the military, Asa Kasher, said the decision to shell Gaza's cities stemmed from an anti-terrorism doctrine he had helped draft a few years ago. It stated that in Gaza, as in other areas the army does not control, there is no justification for endangering soldiers' lives in order to avoid killing civilians in the proximity of targeted militants.

That doctrine appears to be at odds with the military code, which obliges the army to avoid civilian casualties, and it was never formally adopted. However, it was echoed in religious terms in literature distributed in Gaza by military rabbis.

"Our ancestors did not always fight with a sword and at times preferred to use a bow and arrow from a distance," one text read.

"Actions must be taken from a distance in order to spare our soldiers' lives."
Human Rights Watch noted that these sort of attacks are indeed a violation of international law

Israel's use of heavy artillery in residential areas of Gaza City violates the prohibition under the laws of war against indiscriminate attacks and should be stopped immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. A Human Rights Watch researcher on the Israel-Gaza border on January 15, 2009, observed Israel's repeated use in the center of Gaza City of 155mm artillery shells, which inflict blast and fragmentation damage up to 300 meters away.
In addition to being a violation of international law, this is a morally indefensible practice. AC Grayling explained in Among the Dead Cities

[S]aving military lives by substituting civilian deaths for them is no different morally from a soldier on the battlefield using a civilian as a shield. Soldiers are contracted, trained and armed for battle, and although they are placed in danger, their commanders usually try to keep as many of them unharmed as possible, by appropriate tactics. Civilians are in a very different situation from soldiers. Many, whether or not in a minority, will not be willing parties to the war that affects them. Civilians also have many efforts made on their behalf to protect them, but the conditions of modern war - especially in respect of bombs and missiles from the air - place them in great hazard despite all that defence measures can do.
Now imagine this scenario: a sniper, let's say a black radical, is on top of a roof firing at white people in an American inner city. Its the 50s. The building is some sort of black community center usually filled with a couple hundred people. The sniper kills two people and the police respond by detonating the building, killing the couple of hundred people inside, in addition to the sniper. It later comes to light that the persons responsible for the choice to blow up the building belong to a church that preaches that black civil rights are a Satanic plot. Would anyone possibly consider the need to not risk police lives an acceptable justification for the mass casualties of civilians in this scenario?

I am not saying this is a direct parallel or anything of that sort, but am trying to draw out the underlying absurdity of the rationalization offered for what ends up being retributional violence being visited upon a population collectively.

More disturbing evidence of the radicalization of Israeli soldiers comes from a Haaretz report that some veterans have ordered t-shirts that appear to celebrate the Michael Reagan approach to peace.

Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children's graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques - these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty. The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription "Better use Durex," next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter's T-shirt from the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, "1 shot, 2 kills." A "graduation" shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, "No matter how it begins, we'll put an end to it."
The Israeli military certainly put an end to the lives of the daughters of Palestinian peace activist and doctor Abu El-Eish who was told by the IDF that his home was a legitimate military target. He recounted the events to Democracy Now

We are standing in the scene of the tragedy, in the place where four lovely girls were sitting, building their dreams and their hopes, and in seconds, these dreams were killed. These flowers were dead. Three of my daughters and one niece were killed in one second on the 16th of January at a quarter to five p.m. Just a few seconds, I left them, and they stayed in the room—two daughters here, one daughter here, one daughter here, and my niece with them.

The first shell came from the tank space, which is there, came to shell two daughters who were sitting here on their chairs. And when I heard this shell, I came inside the room to find, to look. I can’t recognize my daughters. Their heads were cut off their bodies. They were separated from their bodies, and I can’t recognize whose body is this. They were drowning in a pool of blood. This is the pool of blood. Even look here. This is their brain. These are parts of their brain. Aya was lying on the ground. Shada was injured, and her eye is coming out. Her fingers were torn, just attached by a tag of skin. I felt disloved, out of space, screaming, “What can I do?”

They were not satisfied by the first shell and to leave my eldest daughter. But the second shell soon came to kill Aya, to injure my niece, who came down from the third floor, and to kill my eldest daughter Bessan, who was in the kitchen and came at that moment, screaming and jumping, “Dad! Dad! Aya is injured!”

The second shell, it penetrated the wall between this room to enter the other room. Look. This is the room with the weapons, where this room was fully equipped with weapons. These are the weapons which were in this room. These are the weapons. These are the weapons: the books and their clothes. These were the science handouts. There, you see, these are her handouts for the courses that she studies, which is stained with her blood. It’s mixed with her blood. These are the books. These are the weapons that I equipped my daughters with: with education, with knowledge, with dreams, with hopes, with loves.

I am a gynecologist who practiced most of my time in Israel. I was trained in Israel. And I devoted my life and my work for the benefit of humanity and well-being, to serve patients, not as someone else that you are delivering or helping choose. I am dealing with patients and human beings. We treat patients equally, with respect, with dignity, with privacy. Politicians and leaders should learn from doctors these values and these norms and to adopt them.

On his home being a legitimate target

You know, they said there were—they think there were snipers on the roof of my building. It’s important to say the truth, and the truth lies here: only innocent civilian girls were in this room and this building and this surrounding. Nothing else.
The assertion that such deaths are unfortunate but excusable because they were not intentional is one that I find to be seriously lacking. In his lengthy article on this matter, Noam Chomsky put it best

The claim that "our side" never targets civilians is familiar doctrine among those who monopolize the means of violence. And there is some truth to it. We do not generally try to kill particular civilians. Rather, we carry out murderous actions that we know will slaughter many civilians, but without specific intent to kill particular ones. In law, the routine practices might fall under the category of depraved indifference, but that is not an adequate designation for standard imperial practice and doctrine. It is more similar to walking down a street knowing that we might kill ants, but without intent to do so, because they rank so low that it just doesn't matter. The same is true when Israel carries out actions that it knows will kill the "grasshoppers" and "two-legged beasts" who happen to infest the lands it "liberates." There is no good term for this form of moral depravity, arguably worse than deliberate murder, and all too familiar.

1 comment:

malcontent said...

At least 4 of those Israeli deaths were from friendly fire.