Andrew Pochter Was Not ‘Delusional’

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 3, 2012. 
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It was with incredible sadness that I learned about the death of 21-year-old Andrew Pochter. He was raised in Maryland, studied at Kenyon, and traveled to Egypt to teach English to children for the summer. On Friday he was fatally stabbed in a protest against Mohamed Morsi in Alexandria.

The death of any civilian is terrible. And still, his hit especially close to home for me.

Andrew and I were the same age, grew up in similar towns, were both active in our campus Hillels, and both cared deeply about the happenings in the Middle East. I never met him, but our shared values and upbringings made me react to his death in a particularly visceral way. I just finished my junior year and had so many smart, interesting and idealistic friends study abroad in various Middle Eastern countries. It could have been me. It could have been any of them.

That was why reading Batya and Yisrael Medad’s posts about the death of Andrew Pochter made my skin crawl. For background: Yisrael Medad is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, a member of the Executive Board of Israel’s Media Watch, and a foreign media spokesperson for the settlers’ Yesha Council of Jewish Communities. His wife, Batya, is a newspaper columnist and lives with him in the settlement of Shiloh in the northern West Bank.

In The Jewish Press, Batya wrote an outrageous post entitled, “Why Was Andrew Pochter in Egypt, Not Israel?” She asks, “Are you disturbed by the fact that an American Jewish student is more attracted to Arab society than to Jewish Israeli society?” She wonders if Andrew’s parents “supported his delusion” that he could make a difference in Egypt. And, in the wake of his death, she even asks whether Andrew realized there is “better medical care” in Israel. It “bothers” her that Jewish Americans would truly care about countries other than Israel in the Middle East.

Batya Medad found the situation “disturbing,” but for reasons very different from why I felt so disturbed by Andrew’s death.

Her husband published an equally reprehensible post entitled “Pochter’s Past Left Him No Future.” He snidely points out that Andrew was raised in a family with both Jewish and Christian parents, and concludes:

  • Unfortunately, there are too many American Jewish students with:
  • – no proper knowledge of the Middle East, Arab culture and Islamist custom;
  • – too much enthusiasm and passion;
  • – a progressive/liberal outlook;
  • – too little Jewish background.

Andrew Pochter’s death came far too soon, but he will not die in vain. His life represents the hope of a better, more compassionate and just future. The Medads and others like them still see the world through an “us versus them” prism, still refuse to see how people in the Middle East are interconnected, and still oppose Jewish American interest in any Middle Eastern country other than Israel. But Andrew’s memory, volunteerism, leadership and activism will continue to inspire and guide the rest of us left to further the work he recognized was so important. And I sincerely hope Batya and Yisrael will one day realize that the events, people and conditions in other countries can and will directly impact the events, people and conditions in their own lives. If they refuse to accept this, then they are the ones who are delusional.

Congress Seeks To Strip Waiver From Law On Moving Israel Embassy

Originally published in the Daily Beast on June 10, 2013.

Last week, President Obama granted a six month extension to a waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, a law mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For almost a decade, events around the propsed move have been repeating themselves endlessly like a broken record. It has become an uneventful, unchanging story—one that reflects the peace process it arguably aims to protect.

And yet, given settlement growth, recent timetables set by Secretary of State John Kerry and renewed efforts in Congress to circumvent the anticipated Presidential waivers (more on that in a bit), it seems naive to assume that these political maneuvers could go on forever.

When Congress passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act on October 23, 1995, it called to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. The law also notably called for Jerusalem to remain an “undivided city” and for the U.S. to recognize it as Israel’s capital. This law sailed through Congress with wide margins, passing the Senate 93 to 5 and the House 374 to 37.

So what happened? Despite the vast majority of presidential candidates on the campaign trail, both Republican and Democrat, promising to move the embassy and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, once elected into power, they all wisely avoided making their words into deeds. This is not because they were incapable, but because they recognized that the U.S. Congress should not make decisions regarding final status issues outside of bilateral peace negotiations, let alone for such a decision to be one that no other country in the world would accept or recognize.

Every President since 1995 has used the Presidential waiver, arguing that it breaches the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy. They understand that such a move would shrink the United States’ already thin credibility in the Middle East.

In the words of Jerusalem expert, Danny Seidemann, “Many recite the Jerusalem-The-Undivided-Capital-Of-Israel mantra because doing so is electorally expeditious, and inconsequential. But moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem outside of the context of a permanent status agreement would be HUGELY consequential. It would drive the U.S. into abject, unprecedented isolation, put it on a collision course with much of the rest of the world, and not contribute one bit to ‘uniting Jerusalem.’”

Some in Congress are looking to push back against the waiver power. In January, Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ) authored a new bill: The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013. While the likelihood of such a bill passing in the near future is extremely low, it would seem that as statements from John Kerry increase about various shrinking timetables for already tenuous peace prospects, the Obama Administration’s need to define its policy moving forward on Israel and Palestine will become more pressing. 

These policy shifts could have an impact on the enactment of the Jerusalem Embassy Act.One notable difference between the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013 is the attempt to remove the executive waiver authority granted by Section 7 of the law. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced a similar piece of legislation in the Senate, which also strikes the section allowing for the use of the Presidential waiver.

Garrett’s House bill has 23 co-sponsors right now, picking up its latest this past Monday with Representative Gene Green (D-TX). 19 Republicans and four Democrats represent the makeup of the House bill’s co-sponsors. Heller’s Senate version currently has a mere five co-sponsors, all Republican.

It is good news that Obama extended the Presidential waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Responsible leaders have recognized that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a mistake. Given the changing factors in the region, the question is how much longer will the United States be able to waive the law in the name of holding out for direct bilateral peace negotiations?

We’ve just passed the 46th anniversary of the Six Day War, whereby Israel took control of East Jerusalem, among other territories. If there is ever to be a two-state solution, then the Palestinian capital will be there. President Obama rightly passed another six month waiver this time. With the peace process in a shambles and Congress seeking to remove the presidential waiver, it would be a mistake to get complacent, and assume that this can go on forever.

On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo.