On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

Presidents Conference Rejected J Street — and Me

Originally published in The Forward on May 1, 2014.

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I’ve watched as millions and millions of dollars have been poured into youth leadership programs, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright trips and other “big initiatives” to foster identity amongst young Jews. And I’ve grown up listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations worrying that the Jewish community will collapse when my generation comes of age.

Well, when my friends and I, many of us products of such communal initiatives, watched as the Conference of Presidents voted to exclude J Street from their membership, we heard a loud and unambiguous message: the voices of thousands of young Jews are unwanted. It’s not very complicated: The fastest way to get Jews to disengage is through votes like this.

The Conference of Presidents vote was not a referendum on J Street representing thousands of American Jews. It was, however, a referendum on whether the Conference of Presidents wishes to be a relevant and representative body to American Jews.

While secret balloting and closed-door meetings might work for the 1950s old boys’ clubs, today it signifies weakness and decay in the Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is supposed to be comprised of organizations with grassroots bases in order to be accountable to the American Jewish public. But an intentionally opaque voting process undercuts the Conference’s supposed representative mission and is an affront to the individuals these groups purport to represent. For example, despite the involvement of many dues-paying AEPi brothers in J Street U, AEPi is not revealing whether its leaders voted against giving their students a seat at the table. Similarly, the JFNA represents Jewish communities across the U.S., with thousands of J Street U students coming under their representative umbrella. We deserve to know if our institutions voted to bar us from admittance. Why are these organizations afraid of transparency?

While some will try to assert that this vote proves that J Street is out of the mainstream, I’d suggest checking in with Jewish students on campus. Not everyone agrees with us, but most students believe in a representative community based on the values we learned at our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and summer camps. Similarly, some of the largest establishment Jewish organizations came out in proactive support of J Street’s admission, including the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and more. While the final “score” was 22-17, many organizations in the Conference just do not represent a significant American Jewish constituency, though they hold the same voting power. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly pointed out, J Street won a landslide of the popular vote.

Our work to achieve two states and end the occupation does not end with this vote. J Street U is already in the midst of planning our Summer Leadership Institute, where students from over 60 campuses will gather in August to plan and strategize for the next school year. Every day, more students begin fighting for a community in which our commitments to Israel, to changing broken political dynamics, and to our progressive values work together in concert. As more students recognize that the state of Israel’s future is inextricably tied to the dignity and freedom of the Palestinian people, J Street U will continue to grow.

Just as lavish hasbara efforts cannot protect Israel from dealing with its serious existential crisis, neither can votes like the Conference of Presidents protect the Jewish community from wrestling with the changing sentiments of American Jewry, particularly amongst young Jews. I wish they had voted differently, and I’m grateful to and proud of the organizations that did back J Street. But, at the end of the day, our work goes on.

 

Should Adelson, Bennett and Lieberman be welcome at Hillel?

Originally published in Haaretz on January 1, 2014.
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Last week, the Swarthmore Hillel student board voted to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, allowing them to work with students of all political perspectives. Hillel President Eric Fingerhut responded by taking the once suggested guidelines and declaring them mandatory practice. The guidelines lay out that, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Fingerhut told the JTA that “under no circumstances” will Hillel host “anti-Zionists” who reject Israel’s Jewish character, as they undermine Hillel’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

But what of those who impugn Israel’s democratic character?

In a follow-up interview, Fingerhut made clear that the guidelines will be “applied across the political spectrum.” If Hillel International is now enforcing the Israel guidelines, then we need to know how they will be applied for those on the hard right who challenge Israel’s democratic commitments.

Would a prominent member of Knesset, like Naftali Bennett, who unflinchingly opposes a two-state solution, be barred from the Hillel building? Would we ban Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said that when push comes to shove, Jewish and Zionist values should trump democratic ones? When those on the left question Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic commitments by calling for one-state, Hillel draws the line. But will it do so for the right-wing one-staters in the Israeli cabinet?

The Haredi Jewish community poses another critical question. A sizable number of Haredi Jews are avowed non- or anti-Zionists. Of course not all are antagonistic towards the state of Israel, but it is crucial to know if Hillel will bar Haredi Jews who reject a modern state of Israel from the communal conversation. Can we write off the political commitments of the Haredi community, the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community?

Hillel International endorses a two-state solution, as demonstrated by the strong consensus in our community that two-states is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and democratic state in the future. If one calls for a one-state solution, can they still be in the tent?

Sheldon Adelson, a prominent funder of the program which provides Israel Fellows to 67 campus Hilllels across the country (not to mention one of the biggest funders of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program) has openly voiced his deep disdain for a two-state solution. If he believes in a one-state scenario in which a minority of Jews control a majority of Arabs, can he be welcome at Hillel? It certainly doesn’t seem like it under the current guidelines.

Unfortunately, there are also those who take active political steps to undermine Israel’s democracy. Members of the Jewish Home political party, now a part of the ruling coalition, called for a number of Arab parties to be banned from Parliamentary elections in 2009. Will the Jewish Home party be added to the list of banned groups with which Hillel refuses to co-sponsor?

If this is beginning to sound a bit crazy to you, it’s because it should. Even though they pose significant challenges to the Israel’s democratic commitments, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman should not be banned from Hillel. And though I find Sheldon Adelson’s politics reprehensible, I wouldn’t deny him the right to speak. Because I know my community is best served by a rigorous and deeply challenging conversation about Israel. I know that we cannot create a future generation of thoughtful, compassionate, intellectual Jewish leaders by barring uncomfortable voices. And those uncomfortable voices, especially on this issue, won’t go away by ignoring them.

Despite Fingerhut’s insistence that the overall discontent with the Israel conversation at Swarthmore is a mere “aberration,” this is not the case. As polls demonstrate time and again, young Jews want to see an end to the occupation through two-states. We’ll need a broad conversation to lead us there: a discussion that includes voices from across the political spectrum. As a pro-Israel and pro-peace student, I do not agree with anti-Zionists, but I still want to hear their perspectives. But I know I need to engage with everyone and take action with those who share my political values.

I take Eric Fingerhut at face value that from now on, speakers who question Israel’s democratic commitments will be as restricted as those who question Israel’s Jewish character. And so all invested in this discussion need to know: are Bennett, Lieberman, and Adelson welcome in the Hillel building?

Thoughts on the Closing of Open Zion

Originally published in The Daily Beast on November 11th, 2013.
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If the latest research on the American Jewish community has shown us anything, it’s that very often the people in positions of power, the leaders with the soapboxes and editorial positions, do not profess views that represent an overwhelming number of the individuals they claim to represent. And so, it was with great disappointment that I learned Open Zion would be closing shop and Peter Beinart would be moving on to new journalistic opportunities.

It seems strange to feel attached to a site that has existed for only a year and a half, and yet I know that I’m not alone in feeling a nervous sense of loss.

Part of what leaves people feeling unnerved is that there just is no other institutionalized forum for this kind of daily online discussion and debate. And especially at this time, right smack in the middle of fragile peace negotiations, losing that type of space provides a stark reminder of what kind of void it was originally created to fill. And how not even the finest Jewish publications out there, like The Forward and JTA really make it their mission to provide that kind of frankly uncomfortable discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can click between Mondoweiss, Al Jazeera, Commentary Magazine, +972 Magazine, The Jerusalem Post  and all the others to try to piece together what perhaps is the spectrum of the debate, but there’s no real space where they all converge. And unfortunately, it’s these media bubbles that so often replicate, reinforce and reproduce our fractious politics. Open Zion was not just an interesting news source, but an experiment to break down the dichotomy between the progressive and conservative media.

I remember attending a J Street U winter conference in January of 2012; Peter Beinart came to talk to me and dozens of other students about his upcoming book The Crisis of Zionism that would be released later that year. He informed us then that he was in the midst of launching a new website, Zion Square, which later became known as Open Zion, to “start a new kind of conversation.”

Everyone working on these issues began reading Open Zion. Where else could you read Yousef Munayyer and Gil Troy side-by-side? What other platform in the Jewish press gave the freedom for writers like Maysoon Zayid to weigh in next to Alan Dershowitz and Danny Dayan? But what seemed so “revolutionary” at the time just turned out to be patently obvious to us now. Of course we need that kind of space. We need to be reading Ali Gharib’s reporting next to Brent Sasley’s analysis, while also making space for Palestinians, politicians, feminists, journalists, students, educators, rabbis and policymakers.

We’ll soon need an alternative to fill the void. I hope some of the institutions we already have will make a greater effort to model that kind of discourse. I’d love to read more Palestinian voices in The Forward, or see liberal Zionists engage more directly with Mondoweiss writers. I wrote for Open Zion for my first time last February, when I weighed in on the BDS debate playing out at Brooklyn College. I later reapplied for an internship, spent the past summer in New York City and had the opportunity to write on all sorts of topics, from intermarriage, to Hebron, to the future of Hamas’s political leadership. Having the chance to research, write and publish on such things strengthened my relationship to the region, deepened my understanding of the issues, and connected me with all sorts of challenging individuals.I wish that Peter Beinart had exerted greater efforts to make Open Zion the type of institution that could survive his departure. Our community needed and still needs that kind of outlet. Maybe the ultimate judgment of the site’s success will be if other platforms in the community do indeed open themselves to diverse, ideologically opposed voices. Peter established the structure, but we don’t yet know if it’s sustainable.

It’s also true that Open Zion was certainly not perfect. The opinions were often unbalanced and many voices were under-represented or absent entirely, such as Haredi Jews and Palestinians living in Gaza. I know much of that stemmed from it having a tiny staff with ambitious goals. If the site had more resources, I think the breadth and depth of content could have been significantly expanded and engaged a greater number of readers and writers.

Our community is a vibrant one with diverse opinions, and our media outlets should settle for nothing less than representing that. Our bare minimum standard should be an acceptance that we can’t have a meaningful discussion about Israel’s future without engaging religious settlers, anti-Zionists, Palestinians and Jews together, in one hard, difficult conversation.

Part of me feels that Open Zion is ending too soon. But then again, it’s also possible that the site contributed to fostering a sense of communal complacency–perhaps we became too dependent on OZ “filling the niche” of open discourse.

Maybe in the end its departure can serve to wake us up.

Far-Right Pro-Israel Group Rallies Against Vaunted New York Jewish Institution

Originally published in The Daily Beast on August 12, 2013.

The 92nd Street Y bills itself as a “proudly Jewish organization,” one that “enthusiastically welcomes people of all backgrounds and perspectives.” That seems to be exactly what’s got the American Jewish far-right so upset.

On Thursday evening, around fifteen people gathered outside the Upper East Side institution, under umbrellas, to stage a protest against the cultural center. Despite the small crowd, the energy and frustration were palpable. Led by Richard Allen and Helen Freedman, the mostly middle-aged demonstrators were joined by a few elderly people, and two or three young children who came with their parents. The rain and humidity would not deter their plans.

A collective known as JCCWatch, a volunteer group that protests allegedly anti-Israel activity enabled by local Jewish community centers, organized the protest—the latest in a series against 92Y. In this case, the protests were against the 92Y’s “financially and morally corrupt” leadership, arguing that the guest speakers they invite are anti-Israel and many are actually leaders within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. JCCWatch advertised the Thursday protest by posting a message on their website: “Enough! STOP HOSTING ISRAEL-HATERS WORKING TO DESTROY THE JEWISH STATE!”

Allen founded JCCWatch a few years back when he noticed that the The Other Israel Film Festival, a project through the JCC in Manhattan, partnered with groups like the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and the liberal umbrella group The New Israel Fund. JCCWatch’s website argued that these groups “actively partner with or link to groups that, in addition to their stated missions, support, fund, or closely work with” BDS groups. Since the JCC in Manhattan and the 92Y are beneficiary agencies of the UJA-Federation, a funder of Jewish communal causes, JCCWatch argues that under no circumstances should they “partner with, link, or in any way support any of these despicable BDS groups.”

The other protest leader, Helen Freedman, serves as the Executive Director of a group known as Americans For A Safe Israel, which was founded in 1970 as the American counterpart to the Greater Israel movement. The Greater Israel movement pushes for Jewish settlement and control throughout all of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Shouting into a megaphone at the protest, Freedman yelled, “The declaration that Israel is occupied is absurd. The declaration that settlements are an obstacle to peace is absurd. 92nd Street Y is an obstacle to peace!”  

The 92Y and UJA-Federation of New York seem intent on ignoring the protests. Neither returned requests to comment for this article. No one from the 92Y was willing to comment during Thursday’s protest either. I asked a protester on the street, who identified herself as Peggy, if there had been any response from the 92Y since the first protest and she said no.

While I watched these agitated people pass out flyers and attempt to talk to passersby, I couldn’t help but notice the way they were being ignored. “When we try to talk to them about it, they don’t get back to us!” cried Freedman into the megaphone. “Why are groups like my organization never invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y? We’re a national pro-Israel organization.” 

An elderly woman I spoke to named Charlotte told me, “We are objecting to the Y having so many entertainers and speakers against Israel and who are also for the boycott of Israel. We don’t want the Jewish charity money to be given to anti-Israel people.” Specifically she was referring to guests invited to speak like literary icon Alice Walker and former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, both harsh critics of Israel and backers of BDS. 

But JCCWatch’s objections weren’t limited to advocates of BDS gaining a platform at the 92Y: protesters railed against the decision to invite Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the pro-Israel lobby J Street, to speak this coming fall too. “Groups like J Street, The New Israel Fund, and B’Tselem do not care about Israel,” Allen shouted into the megaphone.

Because JCCWatch often professes views that fall outside the political mainstream, Jewish leaders and communal members tend to dismiss them. Yet whereas groups like J Street have repeatedly advocated for a “wider tent” and “a seat at the table” when they encounter opposition, JCCWatch takes a more hostile approach to the American Jewish Establishment’s efforts to marginalize them. 

“Nineteen U.S. embassies are closed right now,” Freedman said into the megaphone, referring to the mass-closure of American diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and North Africa on grounds of a security threat. “Americans are on the run because institutions like the 92nd Street Y fail in their responsibility to their donors and to their members. This is a disgrace.”

JCCWatch’s mission is to staunch donations to Jewish institutions like the UJA-Federation until they start inviting sufficiently pro-Israel speakers. “Please pay attention!” Allen said at the protest. “Know where your dollars are going. Close your wallets!”

On a civic level, their actions were wholly democratic. These were constituents with a grievance—local New York Jews, who were staging a non-violent protest to voice their concerns. Six NYPD officers were dispatched to supervise the event, and as one officer said to me, “This is their First Amendment right.” 

Yet notably, these individuals who hold oft-dismissed political views do not seem to care that Pro-Palestinian perspectives are also frequently ignored within the Jewish community. Suffice to say that marginalization and McCarthyite attacks occur from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. 

Whether or not the 92Y chooses to engage or respond to JCCWatch is unclear, but either way, their next protest will take place, as scheduled, on Thursday, September 12th.

What Should We Expect From Martin Indyk?

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 24, 2013.

Ignore those who dismiss Martin Indyk as just another AIPAC guy unconcerned with a viable two-state solution; they haven’t done their research. There’s a reason that right-wing Danny Danon is so nervous that Secretary of State John Kerry might appoint Indyk to oversee the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—and why he sent a letter to Netanyahu arguing that Indyk is no “honest broker.” But with the buzz about Indyk’s likely appointment, a reasonable question is, well, what should we expect?

As a pundit, Indyk, who served twice as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and is now Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, left behind a hefty paper trail. In 2009, Indyk published Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peacemaking Diplomacy in the Middle Eastwhich provides a window into his experiences working to negotiate deals with Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians; it notably includes reflections on the mishaps and strategic blunders that derailed such deals. This, coupled with op-eds he has published over the past decade gives us a decent idea of how this man might now behave around a negotiating table.

For starters, we can expect Indyk to be tougher on Israelis than past American diplomats have been. This is promising since he already has established trust with Israel from his ambassadorship. Even so, we can still expect Arab parties to feel frustrated with the American diplomatic approach. Indyk writes that the “easier and more effective” approach to peacemaking will inevitably be perceived by some as showing greater loyalty to Israel than to Palestine. But Indyk argues that “the Arabs cannot have it both ways” and if they’d like to see the U.S. use its influence with Israel then “they should not complain” when that effort means a coordinated response. While histrionic pressure “may provide psychic satisfaction” to Palestinians, it will do nothing serious to make Israel more willing to take the necessary risks needed to relinquish territory.

Indyk writes about how in the past, the United States was too innocent and unsuspecting of ulterior motives that leaders vying for power in Middle Eastern politics had. “It was typical of our naïveté that we never expected Rabin would use U.S. influence for his own purposes,” he writes when reflecting on the failures of Oslo. He argues that the U.S. was blind to the actors and events that disrupted their strategic plans, and that going forward, a more realist approach is needed. “[We showed] a troubling naïveté in the American approach to the Middle East that is in part innocence, part ignorance, and part arrogance.”

Indyk also believes that the United States was soft, “continually backing down” at Camp David–thus ruining their hopes of showing Israelis and Palestinians that they could lead tough negotiations. “Barak and Arafat could only interpret this as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately this would become a familiar pattern.” This time around, hopefully, Indyk has learned his lesson.

We can also expect these talks to be as discreet and private as possible, marking a shift from the public fanfare of previous United States efforts. Indyk notes that “leaks are the lifeblood of the Israeli political system” and that any successful future peace process will necessitate “toning down the rhetoric and allowing the results of American diplomacy to speak for themselves.”

Indyk certainly believes that resolving this conflict is in America’s interest—he sees it directly connected to the strength of America’s bargaining position with the countries in the Persian Gulf. In a sharp New York Times op-ed published in 2010, Indyk criticized Netanyahu for his absence at a U.S. led nuclear security summit to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that “the real reason” for Netanyahu’s absence was that he was avoiding Obama, who had demanded a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Indyk notes that if Netanyahu continues to blow off Obama in favor of Likudniks who oppose peace, “the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire.”

Indyk also deeply understands some of some of the most seemingly intractable issues of this conflict, namely Jerusalem. Ehud Barak has preached for years now that “the real Arafat” revealed himself at Camp David—a leader who lacked the character to make a historic compromise and who was secretly just looking for the demise of the Jewish state. Indyk categorically rejects this.  “Camp David was hardly a good laboratory for that proposition,” he writes in his book. “It was not reasonable to expect that Arafat, or any Arab leader for that matter, would agree to an end-of-conflict agreement that left sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif in Israeli hands forever.” Later, he also explicitly affirms that Camp David negotiations did not break down over the issue of right of return, despite plenty of rumors.

The timetable on these negotiations is unclear. On the one hand, Indyk says that going forward, goals must be more “modest” and assumptions more “realistic.” But we also should not expect this process to take years, squeezed into the final weeks and days of Obama’s term, like we saw with Clinton’s. Indyk argues, “An attempt to reach a Middle Eastern agreement in the last year of a president’s second term is probably the worst timing of all.” He recognizes that how a president hands over policy to the next administration is critically important to its ultimate survival.

Whether or not Kerry will manage to pull off bringing Israelis and Palestinians to direct negotiations remains to be seen. However, with Martin Indyk’s track record and experience working on this issue, assuming he listens to his own advice, it seems that he might be a pretty good choice.

Seeing it For Myself: Injustice In the South Hebron Hills

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 2, 2013. 

Last summer, I traveled with a J Street U delegation to the South Hebron Hills, in the southernmost reaches of the West Bank. Gazing out from an agricultural Palestinian village, we could see two unauthorized Israeli “outpost” settlements, recently erected a few hundred feet away. We saw the outposts’ electrical system and learned they’d been hooked up to a water supply; the Palestinian villagers had neither. This was the face of inequity in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.

Twenty years ago, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three parts. On nearly two-thirds of the land, designated as Area C, Israel retained full control—and with that full responsibility for the Palestinians living there. But those Palestinians, who make up about five percent of the territory’s population, do not receive the same services as their Jewish neighbors, who’ve moved in droves into the Israeli settlements that now dot the area. Over the past twenty years, in short, the state of Israel has shirked its responsibilities.

Last month, B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group working in the West Bank, published a new report entitled “Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, The West Bank.”The report points to a wider effect of Israel’s policies in the areas it controls. “In theory, Israel retains full control in the West Bank only of Area C,” a release for the report said. “In practice, Israel’s control of Area C adversely affects all Palestinian West Bank residents.”

According to B’Tselem, Israeli policy works to serve the water and land needs of Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. As the group sees it, Israel created a de facto annexation of Area C, and now works to make that a permanent reality through the expansion of settlements.

But water and power are only two concerns: the report also covers the continuing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Citing residents who live in South Hebron Hills that the IDF Civil Administration—the Israeli military authority for West Bank Palestinians—refuses to formally recognize, the report states, “Over 1,000 people… currently live under the perpetual threat of expulsion on the grounds of residing in a ‘firing zone.’”

According to Haaretz, the High Court of Justice is now due to consider Israel’s demand to annul a 13-year-old temporary injunction which allowed farmers in the South Hebron Hills to remain in their homes. Israel demanded the expulsion of approximately 1,300 Palestinians, arguing that the IDF needs that land to train in what they designate as “Firing Zone 918.”

This firing zone rationale is a major threat for Palestinians living in Area C. In July 2012, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that the area was essential for the IDF’s training, and that Palestinian residents living in eight out of 12 villages must evacuate their homes. The four other villages, located next to illegal Israeli settlement outposts, like the one I visited, were not ordered to evacuate. ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, filed a petition in response to Barak’s demand.

“It is inconceivable that 1,000 people should be evicted for the sake of military exercises. These evictions, which are tantamount to forced displacement, deny the villagers their livelihood and seize the property of people whose very existence depends upon the land they cultivate,” said Tamar Feldman, an attorney with ACRI, in a statement in January.

Due to the work of ACRI and others, Palestinian villagers won a temporary reprieve from the large-scale eviction. However, their quality of life is highly restricted. The Civil Administration forbids all forms of development, including projects like securing water and electrical systems, setting up additional tents, and digging for water wells.

NGO’s do what they can. COMET-ME is one that helps provide solar and wind power to Palestinians in these areas—but restrictions and changes in status make their work precarious. Without building permits, their projects stand to be wiped away at any moment. That’s because Israel rarely issues such. A study conducted by Peace Now found that, between 2000-2007, 94 percent of Palestinian building permit applications were turned down.

Traveling in the South Hebron Hills, I saw for myself the indefensible conditions in which these Palestinians live, adjacent to Israelis with full water and electricity access. Those who claim liberal outlets like Haaretz and rights groups like B’Tselem take too dour a view of Israeli motives and goals, should see it for themselves, too. Because when one looks over at the land, it’s impossible to ignore the inequities of Israel’s occupation.

The Administrative Detentions of Wasfi Kabha

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 18, 2013.

On June 6, the Israeli military dropped off a Palestinian man at Jubara checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Wasfi Kabha, who’d been imprisoned for the past two years, then reportedly collapsed, sustained severe bruising, and went to a hospital in Tulkarem to be treated. The release marked the end of a seven-year ordeal that saw Kabha go in and out of Israeli custody, all without ever being charged with any crime. Kabha, who like all West Bank Palestinians is subject to Israeli martial law, was held under administrative detention orders issued by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Most administrative detention orders come with six-month expirations, but can be renewed indefinitely. The orders usually don’t serve as punishment for past acts, but rather to prevent future violations of the law. Subjects of the orders are guilty until proven innocent, but proving innocence will be elusive for them because they lack judicial rights. Officials frequently justify the practice by arguing that an open court could reveal sensitive intelligence collection methods that threaten national security. And so detainees languish without a trial, or without even knowing why they’re being held. As of April, 155 Palestinians were being held by the Israel Prison Service in administrative detention, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

“Administrative detention exists in other countries,” wrote the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf last year, “but is considered a unique and exceptional measure, and its implementation usually leads to a vigorous public debate. In the West Bank, it’s routine.” 

The case of Wasfi Kabha goes a long way toward demonstrating just how routine. But who is Kabha? The short version is: a Hamas politician. The long version winds through university in the West, a technocratic municipal job that propelled him to the top of Hamas’s short-lived Palestinian Authority government, and four rounds of detention that have kept him behind bars 61 of the past 84 months.

Kabha was born in a village near Jenin, in the West Bank, in 1959. After earning a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and a master’s in Ireland, he took up a job in the civil engineering department for the Jenin municipality. In 2006, Kabha served as the Minister of Prisoner Affairs for the Hamas government. Controversy erupted around Kabha when he joined other senior Hamas officials in endorsing a Tel Aviv suicide bombing attack in April 2006. Kabha told reporters that such attacks occur within “the framework of legitimate right of resistance against Israeli violations and crimes”—making clear that he supported the views that have gotten Hamas labeled terrorists by Israel, the U.S. and others.

Two months later, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured near the borders of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli forces launched Operation Summer Rain on June 29, launching air strikes and capturing over 60 senior Hamas officials, including Kabha. When Kabha was released nearly five weeks later, he told the Associated Press that he was kept in terrible conditions, subject to long interrogations and ultimately released because they lacked proof he belonged to a terrorist organization. “The only rest I got was during the siren when Hezbollah launched rockets at Israel,” he provocatively added. “They would take me down into a cell underground and they would leave to take shelter somewhere in the jail.” The public remarks were something Kabha would keep up; he’s become one of the most vocal critics of Israeli detention policies—and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority’s complicity.

On March 17, 2007, Hamas and their rivals in the Fatah party finalized a landmark agreement yielding a unity government. Wasfi Kabha took up a post as Palestinian Minister of State. A little over two months later, Israeli forces arrested 33 members of Hamas’s political wing in the West Bank, and then entered Kabha’s home, captured him and took his computer. Kabha remained in administrative detention for three years.

In November 2010, seven months after Kabha was released from detention, the Israeli press reported that low-ranking members of the Shin Bet had taken meetings with select senior Hamas officials, Kabha included, in the West Bank. The meetings, held over coffee, came days before a Damascus meeting between Hamas and Fatah officials to discuss reconciliation. According to the account in Haaretz by unnamed sources, Shin Bet officers visited Hamas officials in their homes late at night seeking to merely discuss their opinions regarding peace talks. Hamas officials said the meeting was less a consultation and more a series of home raids and interrogations. Kabha, whose house was searched, was among them: “It was rather a raid on our homes by Israeli forces and intelligence officers which terrified our children.”

A month later, Kabha was detained again without charges, this time only for a week. An Israeli military court said he was released due to declining health. The Director of the Ahrar Center for Prisoner Studies, Fuad Khuffash, said the judge made the decision following a review of Kabha’s medical records, which detailed the worsening state of his diabetes and high blood pressure. By June, Kabha was again taken from his home in Jenin and placed in administrative detention. Hamas issued a statement urging Kabha’s release, citing the same health problems that got him sprung from detention the year before. A year later, with a hearing coming up, Kabha denounced his imprisonment as part of a “new wave of the extensions of the administrative detention” against top Hamas officials in an attempt to quash reconciliation.

Earlier this month, after his most recent stint behind bars, this time for two years, Kabha was released and taken to the hospital in Tulkarem.

To be sure, Israel must be vigilant about protecting its citizens, and Wasfi Kabha’s condemnable record of defending suicide bombings means he should certainly be monitored for future threatening acts. But that doesn’t justify detaining an individual for years on end without ever charging him for a crime, particularly in a democracy that seeks to respect the rule of law.

Opening the door to peace

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 25, 2013.

Given how low the expectations were for President Barack Obama’s highly publicized trip to the Middle East, it may not be saying much to declare that he exceeded them. But given the precarious state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would also be easy to underappreciate just how crucial his efforts may prove to be in the long quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East. When Mr. Obama arrived in Israel, he faced many who believed that the possibility of a two-state solution was on its death bed, if not gone already. Although the president brokered no breakthrough, he did make it appear that, for at least a little while longer, a negotiated peace deal is still a legitimate option.

On the second day of his trip, Mr. Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem that was well received by both the spectators in the audience and the Israeli and international press. This is not to be understated — in a conflict where distrust, cynicism and skepticism on both sides are at soaring levels, President Obama’s ability to speak to the concerns and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians was crucial. Raising hopes is a key variable in this conflict, where the element most lacking in negotiations is often political will.

Mr. Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to see the world through each others’ eyes and made clear that he can do so — something that many Israelis in particular had doubted. The president emphasized that peace is “necessary, just, and possible” — necessary for Israel’s security and viability as Jewish democracy, just because Palestinians living under military occupation deserve a state of their own, and possible, because Israel is the strongest country in the region, with the U.S. as its unconditional ally, and with leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who can be a “true partner.”

The president acknowledged that a two-state solution is far from guaranteed. However, with his legacy still to be decided and no election in the near future, the time for strong U.S. diplomatic leadership appears to be ripening. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a prioritized issue, and he is set to lead exploratory talks over the next few weeks, with the hopes of direct negotiations thereafter.

On a symbolic front, the trip was certainly a success and erased Israeli doubts about Mr. Obama’s understanding of their views that had lingered since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo four years ago. But President Obama’s trip to Israel yielded some surprising tangible results as well.

At Mr. Obama’s urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for actions taken by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade of Gaza. Nine were killed in the raid, which drew international condemnation. Both countries agreed to restore ambassadors and normalize relations. This unexpected reconciliation is good news for several reasons, notably that any legitimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would need the backing of Turkey, a stable and strong country in the Middle East and a pillar of American foreign policy in the region.

On Monday, again at Mr. Obama’s urging, Israel announced that it would release withheld payments to the Palestinian Authority, funds that the Israeli government suspended after the Palestinian Authority successfully sought to upgrade its status at the United Nations in November. That is another step meant to help build confidence between the two sides to restart negotiations, as well as to disempower Hamas in the Gaza strip.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has made serious mistakes in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past, and his commitment to Israel and the peace process in general has been questioned by many at home and abroad. However, following a trip that yielded tangible results as well as smart, pragmatic, and inspiring rhetoric, Mr. Obama has provided himself with at least a chance to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated peace.

College Organizing and the BDS Controversy

Originally published in The Daily Beast on February 6, 2013.

In thinking through the most recent BDS controversy now unfolding at Brooklyn College—where the political science department is co-sponsoring a panel in support of a controversial movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies—it is helpful to keep in mind some of the basic rules of college organizing. Students understand these intuitively, but adults often confuse them. The most important one, obviously, is that free food is the best recruiting tool there is to bring students to events.

But beyond food, students know that co-sponsorship does not equal endorsement. It has to be that way. If a student group contacts your organization saying they have a speaker they want to bring to campus and would like your co-sponsorship, how can you be sure their speaker will say 100 percent things your organization agrees with? You can’t. Thus it’s implicitly understood that you will co-sponsor on principle, because you believe this is the type of discussion or event that should be happening at your school. After the event, you have the prerogative of holding whatever debrief or critical analysis your group sees fit. You might also make a point to open the event with the acknowledgement that there are multiple perspectives on an issue. But you all agree that sharing views, whether or not they are your own, is a worthy thing to do in an academic setting. And you understand that working collaboratively on events is often the only way to afford any programming at all.

Last semester, a student group at Johns Hopkins (where I’m currently an undergraduate) organized an event called “Living Under Drones at JHU,” which was created to raise awareness about drone warfare and to start a public discussion about the role the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab plays in drone development. At the event, a petition was circulated to demand Hopkins halt drone research until more information is brought into the public forum. The Johns Hopkins Political Science department proudly co-sponsored this event because they support students organizing events like these. Everyone understood that that does not mean the Political Science department endorses anti-drone activity, or the petition itself, and that even if they did, they would not be able to go on record about it. I thought it was great that the school provided institutional support to student efforts, legitimizing the students’ drive to have conversation, while not endorsing any specific views.

A third rule of college organizing is that controversy sells. If BDS opponents think that a public uproar against it will make students uninterested in the material, then they should probably consider enrolling in Intro to Psychology. When the University President and Political Science professors support the event and government officials and activists oppose it, who do they think students will trust more? To be sure, the Brooklyn College Political Science department should make clear that there are multiple views on this issue and that they fully support events that present alternative perspectives.

I am against BDS, but I’ve reached this position through many long, difficult conversations trying to wrap my head around what it is about it that I agree and disagree with. I’m grateful that J Street U, the student wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, gave me the opportunities to hold those discussions, and even exposed me to speakers who do support it in order to challenge me. The BDS movement exists, it is influential, and it is growing. Trying to shove the issue under the rug does not make the ideas disappear. The only reason that I feel comfortable opposing BDS is that I’ve been given the honest chance to research, discuss and figure out what I really think about it.

Many of us grew up in American public schools where boycotts are taught as quintessential, proud staples of our country’s history. We’re raised to venerate the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights movement. We applaud labor boycotts as a non-violent means for workers to protest fairer conditions. We understand that the international boycott played a major role in helping to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

My point is, if Jewish community leaders think it is self-evident that boycotts are a poor tactic for opposing occupation, they’re unfortunately mistaken. For many students, that question is confusing. So when Hillels across the country say they refuse to associate with BDS speakers or to even hold discussions about BDS because they’re “drawing a red line,” who do you then think will ultimately be left to influence students’ perspectives on BDS? Chances are it won’t be the pro-Israel students who didn’t come to the table. And that’s a real missed opportunity on the pro-Israel community’s part.

The real way to battle bad ideas is with better ideas. Hillels should feel confident in the merits of their arguments against BDS. Especially at college, when students are continually confronted with perspectives of the world that challenge, confuse and contradict what we think, we really need individuals who support us in making sense of it all, not those who dismiss or reject ideas from the outset.