Monthly Archives: November 2010

Responding to Fania Oz-Salzberger, and searching for the ghost of Israeli democracy

Fania Oz-Salzberger has challenged my characterization of her comments at the Nexus Institute’s “Return of Ghosts” symposium. Here is what she wrote in the comments section of my post:

I am befuddled by your representation of what I thought had been a cordial and thoughtful exchange. The snippets you report of my symposium input are inaccurate and out of context. My arguments in the symposium and the accompanying article are far more qualified and complex than represented here. I do stand by the claim that Israel is a vibrant democracy, but it is also – as I said clearly – a flawed one. Wilders is unwelcome to many Israelis, certainly not the handful in which you purport to place me. More crucially, I never “proclaimed” “that occupation has little or nothing to do with the motives of suicide bombers”, but spoke against any insinuation that suicide bombings could be justified by occupation. Finally, I did not “jump in” but politely awaited my turn, despite being an Israeli. In our public and private exchanges I gave your opinions the respect that your blog has now denied my own views. You have good arguments in your arsenal, why the cheap shots?

I have been waiting for video of the symposium before responding to Oz-Salzberger or clarifying my own account, which was based on my impressions from the panel and recorded without the benefit of notes. Now that we are able to view a portion of the symposium’s first debate, let’s go to the videotape:

In her opening remarks (at around 2:45), Oz-Salzberger went on at length about Israel’s democratic tradition. I did not take her comments out of context. Oz-Salzberger said, “My own experience, I come from Israel; 62 years old. Always a democracy ever since it was founded, it was made a democracy which was quite an achievement for its generation, but always a democracy under siege from outside and from within.” I did not hear her describe Israel as a flawed democracy, though she did make a general statement against majoritarian rule and in favor of protecting minority rights in Israel and Europe.

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Confronting the Hebron Settlers in New York

Jewish settler graffiti painted on door of Palestinian home in Hebron's H2 apartheid zone (photo by me)

Jewish settler graffiti painted on door of Palestinian home in Hebron's H2 apartheid zone (photo by me)

On November 16, the Hebron Fund, a tax exempt 501 c-3, held its annual fundraising dinner at Chelsea Piers. The Hebron Fund named its gala “The Hebron Aid Flotilla,” deliberately mocking the massacre of 9 activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The event consisted of a few hundred supporters — and residents — of the most racist, violent Jewish settlements in the West Bank cruising around New York for a few hours. To paraphrase Benjamin Netanyahu, this was no love boat. I do not think it is much of an exaggeration to describe the Hebron settlers as the Ku Klux Klan of Israel. These are the people who celebrated Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, who hailed Baruch Goldstein as a gever, who routinely terrorize and attack defenseless residents in Hebron’s H2 apartheid zone, and who abuse the Star of David as a symbol of Judeo-fascism, painting it on the doors of the Palestinian homes and shops they have forcibly closed.

I stood with about 100 demonstrators outside Chelsea Piers in silent protest of the Hebron Fund’s cruise. A group from J Street’s campus division protested nearby, but would not stand with us, which was weird but not unexpected. Regardless, it was nice to see that a few liberal Zionists were willing to back up their talk about removing settlements to make a Palestinian state possible. I hung around for an hour with good people like Joseph Dana, Noam Sheizaf, Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, Emily Henochowicz, Rebecca Vilkomersen, the Bitar family, Daniel Levy, Daniel May and a former Givati brigade soldier who turned his back on the occupation and now wears a Cynthia McKinney button emblazoned on his IDF uniform.

After the demo petered out, Joseph and I decided to gather up as many people as we could to speak to the Hebron Fund organizers directly. We found about 12 people still milling around; not many, but enough for a minyan. As soon as we reached the Hebron Fund’s registration desk, the group’s director, Yossi Baumol, began screaming about a series of prank phone calls he had received in the past few days. An activist who goes by the alias of Harrabic Tubman and who co-founded the Palestine solidarity/hip-hop network Existence is Resistance, which promotes the music of Palestinian hip-hop queen Shadia Mansour, confronted Baumol with his cheerleading for a settler leader’s decision to run over a 10-year-old Palestinian boy with his car in Silwan, Jerusalem. I told Baumol he should be ashamed to be raising money in public. For some reason this prompted him to launch into a bizarre rant that concluded with his announcement that he was a liberal. (Arthur Schlesinger has nothing on this guy!) Then, like the settlers of Hebron, Baumol scurried away behind a phalanx of security guards. See it for yourself above.

The Return of Ghosts: Debating the rise of Geert Wilders and the far-right at the Nexus Symposium

The Nexus Institutes Return of Ghosts conference was inspired by the rise of far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands

The Nexus Institute's Return of Ghosts conference was inspired by the rise of far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands

I spent last week in Amsterdam, where I participated in the “Return of Ghosts” symposium of the Nexus Institute, a discussion/debate about the resurgence of neo-fascism in Europe and anti-democratic trends in the West. Besides providing a forum for debating European politics, the symposium was the occasion for the first public appearance in Europe by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last month. The arrival of Vargas Llosa, one of the world’s foremost intellectuals, resulted in an overflow crowd filled with members of the Dutch media, the country’s political class, and the royal family.

Even with Vargas Llosa in the spotlight, the participants’ attention was focused on Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is now the third leading party in the Netherlands. With his gathering influence, Wilders has essentially placed the Dutch coalition government in a stranglehold; the government meets with him every Wednesday to gauge his opinions and ask for his instructions. While Wilders dictates at will to the government, he remains independent of it, comfortably avoiding the consequences of policies he has helped to shape. It is the perfect position for a politician whose agenda is comprised exclusively of xenophobic populism, and typical strategy of the far-right in countries across the continent.

Wilders’ base lies in the mostly Catholic south, where ironically few people have ever encountered a Muslim. He has also generated support in the city of Groeningen, once a citadel of the communists. Seeking to expand his base, Wilders promised to hire scores of “animal cops” to investigate and prosecute the abuse of animals, a clever wedge strategy in the only country I know of that has a party dedicated exclusively to animal rights. Of course, Wilders could care less about our furry friends. His stated goal is to end immigration not just to Holland but to all of Europe; ban the Quran (free speech is only for the “Judeo-Christian” community), and severely limit the rights of Muslim citizens of Europe by, for instance, instituting what he called a “head rag tax” on Muslim women. Wilders’ international allies include the goosestepping neo-Nazis of the English Defense League, the far-right pogromist Pam Geller, the Belgian neo-fascist party Vlaams Belang, and a substantial portion of the US neocon elite. Over the course of just a few years, he has become perhaps the most influential Islamophobe in the world.

But does this make Wilders a fascist? Rob Riemen, the director of the Nexus Institute, thinks so. Riemen has just published a book entitled “De Eeuwige Terugkeer Van Het Fascisme,” or “The Eternal Return of Fascism” (I eagerly await its English translation), dedicated to highlighting the danger of Wilders’ eerily familiar brand of right-wing populism. In the book, Riemen urges readers to compare Wilders’ politics to the early incarnations of European fascism, not to the genocidal terminal stage fascism of late World War II. He calls the parallels between Wilders and the early fascists “one-and-one.” In an economic and civilizational crisis like the kind the Netherlands is facing, Riemen warns that reactionary figures like Wilders can easily seize power while centrist elements stand by politely and passively, refusing to call a spade a spade. Where Wilders’ ascendancy will lead is unknown, but if he is not stopped in his tracks, Riemen is certain the story will not end well. In the week after its publication, Riemen’s book flew off the shelves, selling 5000 copies while generating heated reactions from across the spectrum of debate.

Riemen told me that despite the public enthusiasm for his book, his characterization of Wilders has been attacked as “un-Dutch.” In Dutch culture, as in so many others, open confrontation is avoided at all cost. Political disagreement is welcomed only if it is expressed in a collegial manner, as though nothing more than reputations were at stake. So the Dutch cultural elite generally goes along to get along. The resistance Riemen has met since he called Wilders out seemed to have alarmed and frustrated him. Why was it so difficult for liberal elements in the Netherlands to recognize the clear resonances of fascism in Wilders’ political style? he wondered. And why did they seem more concerned with regulating the terms of debate than with forming a united front against the far-right? Once the symposium opened and I was able to see the Dutch elite in action, I began to understand Riemen’s indignation.

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The Rally To Restore Sanity and The Campaign To Restore The Radical Right

On my way to the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, I got a text from John Legend, who has been my friend since our college days. He told me he had decided at the last second to fly into to DC to perform with The Roots on the National Mall. So within a few minutes I was backstage with John and the rest of the performers.

John Legend, Tony Bennett and some random guy

John Legend, Tony Bennett and some random guy

As I stood beside the stage watching John and The Roots play Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” before a huge and relatively diverse crowd, it occurred to me that this was the first time in a long time I had witnessed a rally on the Mall that wasn’t filled with troglodytic racists and anti-abortion fanatics. The Sanity/Fear rally was calculated as the mirror opposite of the rallies I have grown accustomed to reporting on for the past six years: Blind rage and cultural despair was replaced with irony and high-minded humor, while the Tea Party was mocked not as a dangerous movement comprised of pathological bigots but as a stupid and uncool endeavor. One sign read: “Tea Parties Are For Little Girls and Imaginary Friends.”

Most of the performers had to watch the rally on a big screen TV in a tent that was set up behind the stage. I watched with them, except for the moments when Father Guido Sarducci stood in my way (his tattered cape was hard to see around). Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam, who now lives in Dubai, told me that he wanted his appearance at the rally to represent his return to the US since being denied entry to the country by the Bush administration for specious reasons. I talked to Tony Bennett about the influence of Yiddish Theater on Irving Berlin. “That guy knew what he was doing,” Bennett remarked. The crooner spent most of his time writing down song lyrics on a small pad of paper and quietly rehearsing them to himself. At one point, a security guard asked Kareem Abdul Jabbar to take a picture of him standing beside John Legend — a weird spectacle. When Jabbar excused himself as he nudged past me, I asked him if I was blocking his view (I wasn’t). Later, Ozzy Osbourne rushed in and out of the tent with glasses of water for himself and Sharon, while I talked to Jacob “Dude, you have no Quran” Isom about his theory on why God created gays.

As much as I enjoyed the uplifting rally, the backstage fun and clever street theater on the Mall, I was disturbed by John Stewart’s constant drawing of false equivalencies between the extremist Tea Party and mainstream liberals, which he employed again and again to supposedly reveal how the political debate has careened out of control. In Stewart’s presentation, open racist conspiracists like Glenn Beck, Pam Geller and the Fox News grotesque gallery of pundits were likened to center-left figures like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz simply because they all broadcast their opinions at maximum volume and rely on emotional manipulation. It was like comparing the Klan to the Shriners because members of both groups wear funny costumes.

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