Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The chosen people or Jewish barbarians?

20 When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

--Joshua 6, the taking of Jericho, New International Edition

* * *

24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed [a] all who lived in Ai. 27 But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua.

28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. 29 He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.

--Joshua 7, the destruction of Ai, New International Edition.

* * *

I don't remember exactly when I was first told that we Jews were "the chosen people." My clearest memory was when I was 10 years old and attending Hebrew school in Los Angeles, in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah. At that time, and perhaps today, Hebrew school was as much about Jewish and Biblical history as about learning the beautiful language I have retained so little of, sad to say. I don't recall the specific lesson we were learning, but our teacher paused to say: "We are the chosen people. We are the chosen people."

This repetition with so much emphasis hit home with me, and before long I was going around telling everyone who would listen that I had two countries, Israel and America. This was only a decade after Israel had declared its "independence" in 1948, and the idea that it had done so under anything other than divine right to the land of Palestine was not a topic of discussion.

In 1999, I spent a day in Gaza reporting a story on archaeology in the Holy Land. During an interview with the Palestinian Authority's head of archaeology in Gaza, the gentleman--a plump, friendly man with a moustache--got onto the topic of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This was a time, some may recall, when nearly everyone on both sides thought a Palestinian state was coming in a year or two, and it was a time of calm and peace. No suicide bombers, no rockets, no Hamas in control of Gaza. The archaeologist had read the Bible too. "God promised this land to the Jews," he told me, "as long as they fulfilled certain conditions. The problem is, they failed to fulfill the conditions!"

I began to smile, then to laugh out loud. It was very funny, and oh so true. I don't know if the archaeologist knew I was Jewish--he didn't ask and I didn't offer to tell him--but he gleefully smiled and laughed with me.

By that time I no longer considered myself "chosen," and my Jewish identity was expressed most strongly in my love of lox and bagels. Indeed, my two visits to Israel (this one and one earlier in the 1990s) left me pretty revulsed by Israeli society and attitudes. While I met many nice people, there were also so many who were amazingly arrogant, smug, and convinced of their superiority to both Arabs and Christians. It was clear that they still felt they were "chosen." And yet equally surprising was how rudely so many Israelis treated each other, similar to the attitudes in Paris I encounter daily. (My time in Gaza and the West Bank, where I was always welcomed warmly and graciously, was a stark contrast.)

On another occasion during that visit, I went to the Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall), where I watched Jews bend, sway and pray in grief at the loss of their great temple. I wondered at the time whether they were grieving more for the loss of this sanctuary to their relationship with God or for the Kingdom, born in the kind of bloodthirsty violence evidenced in the Bible passages above, that their failure to meet God's conditions had apparently caused them to lose.

The Bible, which was written by people and not by God, says that God told Joshua and the Israelites to carry out the massacres that won them the land of Canaan. How convenient! Take over a land, slaughter whole peoples, and then claim one is doing it in God's name. The same claim is made today by the settlers in the West Bank, which Israel does not want to give up--the key to understanding what is going on today.

The world tolerated the creation of a Jewish state on a land where not everyone was Jewish because of guilt over the Holocaust and geopolitical considerations that are even more important today. In other words, the world's response to ethnic cleansing of the Jews was ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from much of their lands, and the destruction of their culture.

There are basically two kinds of Jews today: Those who cling to the tribalism of Joshua and the Israelites, who claimed that God was on their side; and those who have responded to the very real persecutions of Jews over the ages with a high level of social consciousness and a concern for social justice for all humanity.

Fortunately, we are seeing evidence that many Jews around the world, especially in the United States, Europe, and even Israel, belong to the second group. We may not really be the chosen people, but we are responsible for what is being done in our name in Gaza--and we are the ones primarily responsible for ending it.

Illustration: Joshua taking Jericho.

Afterthoughts: As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to analyze political events primarily through a moral lens. But let's talk naked American self-interest for a moment. In six days, Barack Obama will be president. The world has written off George W. Bush, and his refusal to stay Israel's hand in Gaza is no surprise to anyone. But on January 20, the United States will have a chance to change its image. If Obama does not step in to stop the killing, Americans and America will be the targets of terrorists for generations to come. The U.S.'s completely one-sided position in the Middle East is the number one recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and our nation has handed them one excuse after another for their killing sprees. And as many have pointed out, Israel too will reap the whirlwind from its current actions, sooner or later. Yes, for once, peace is actually good for the Jews too.

Did Olmert get Bush to undercut Rice at the UN? Despite U.S. State Department and White House denials, Olmert is sticking to his story. It would appear that Condi was denied one last chance to do the right thing after 8 years of doing nothing at all to bring peace to the Mideast.

Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction. That's the call from Naomi Klein in The Nation: "It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa."
I need to give this some thought. Is it the right course? You think about it, too.
More on boycott: I saw this piece in the left publication Counterpunch last week by Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone but did not link to it then; I am doing so now as it makes a number of points I agree with although I am still not at all sure about the boycott idea.

Jewish opposition to Gaza war makes news in Israel. Rabbis and others take out an ad in the New York Times, according to Ha'aretz.

Israel has done all it can in Gaza. That's according to top Israeli defense officials, who are calling for a cease-fire, reports Ha'aretz. If it happens, Israeli leaders and their supporters will no doubt cite it as evidence of Israel's peace-loving ways. The paper also reports on serious splits in the Israeli leadership about what to do next, with Olmert's aides attacking Livni and Barak. I wonder when the American news media will catch up with events?

A call from Israeli human rights groups (a pdf of the following available here):

A Clear and Present Danger

An Israeli Call for Urgent Humanitarian Action in Gaza

January 14, 2009

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi

OC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant

Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz

RE: Warning of a clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians

Since the beginning of the campaign in Gaza on December 27, a heavy suspicion has arisen of grave violations of international humanitarian law by military forces. After the end of the hostilities, the time will come for the investigation of this matter, and accountability will be demanded of those responsible for the violations. At this point we call your attention to the clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians.

The level of harm to the civilian population is unprecedented. According to the testimony of residents of the Gaza Strip and media reports, military forces are making wanton use of lethal force which has to date caused the deaths of hundreds of uninvolved civilians and destroyed infrastructure and property on an enormous scale. In addition, Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as "legitimate military targets" solely by virtue of their being "symbols of government."

Caught in the middle are 1.5 million civilians in extreme humanitarian distress, whose needs are not being adequately met by the limited measures taken by the army. That distress is detailed in the Appendix to this letter. Its main points are as follows:

  1. The fighting is taking place throughout the Gaza Strip, whose border crossings are closed, so that residents have nowhere to flee, neither inside the Gaza Strip nor by leaving it. Many are unable to escape from the battle zone to protect themselves. They are forced to live in fear and terror. The army's demand that they evacuate their homes so as to avoid injury has no basis. Some people who did escape are living as refugees, stripped of all resources.
  2. The health system has collapsed. Hospitals are unable to provide adequate treatment to the injured, nor can patients be evacuated to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip. This state of affairs is causing the death of injured persons who could have been saved. Nor are chronic patients receiving the treatment they need. Their health is deteriorating, and some have already died.
  3. Areas that were subject to intensive attacks are completely isolated. It is impossible to know the condition of the people who are there, whether they are injured and need treatment and whether they have food, water and medicine. The army is preventing local and international rescue teams from accessing those places and is also refraining from helping them itself, even though it is required to do so by law.
  4. Many of the residents do not have access to electricity or running water, and in many populated areas sewage water is running in the streets. That combination creates severe sanitation problems and increases the risk of an outbreak of epidemics.

This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes.

The responsibility of the State of Israel in this matter is clear and beyond doubt. The army's complete control of the battle zones and the access roads to them does not allow Israel to transfer that responsibility to other countries. Therefore we call on you to act immediately as follows:

  1. Stop the disproportionate harm to civilians, and stop targeting civilian objects that do not serve any military purpose, even if they meet the definition of "symbols of government."
  2. Open a route for civilians to escape the battle zone, while guaranteeing their ability to return home at the end of the fighting.
  3. Provide appropriate and immediate medical care to all of the injured and ill of the Gaza Strip, either by evacuating them to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip or by reaching another solution inside the Gaza Strip.
  4. Allow rescue and medical teams to reach battle-torn zones to evacuate the injured and bring supplies to those who remain there. Alternatively, the army must carry out those activities itself.
  5. Secure the proper operation of the electricity, water and sewage systems so that they meet the needs of the population.


Atty. Fatmeh El-Ajou

Adalah -- The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel

Vered Cohen Barzilay

Amnesty International Israel Section

Dr. Haim Yaakoby

Bimkom -- Planners for Planning Rights

Jessica Montell

B’tselem -- The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Atty. Sari Bashi

Gisha -- Legal Center for Freedom of Movement

Dalia Kerstein

Hamoked -- Center for Defence of the Individual

Prof. Zvi Bentwich

Physicians for Human Rights -- Israel

Dr. Ishai Menuchin

Public Committee Against Torture in Israel

Atty. Michael Sfard

Yesh Din -- Volunteers for Human Rights

Appendix: The humanitarian collapse in the Gaza Strip

Situation Report, January 14, 2009, [Day 19 of Fighting]


As of Wednesday, January 14, 2009, the 19th day of the military campaign in the Gaza Strip, the dimensions of the humanitarian collapse in the Gaza Strip are growing: many injured people are not receiving medical treatment at all, the evacuation of the injured to hospitals is not being permitted, medical teams are being attacked on their way to render aid and the health system in Gaza, especially hospitals, is collapsing. Gaza's electricity, water and sewage systems are in a state of partial collapse, preventing Gaza residents from accessing clean water and exposing them to the risk of infectious disease and lethal sewage flooding in populated areas.


Damage to the health system and prevention of evacuation of casualties

  • Six cases of army shooting at medical teams have been documented by human rights organizations. 12 medical personnel have been killed, and 17 were injured.
  • We know so far of 15 cases of attacks on medical facilities, including a medical supply warehouse, three mobile clinics, a mental health center, the walls and windows of three government hospitals and a number of rescue vehicles. Direct attacks were recorded in the European hospital and the Dura hospital, an UNRWA facility and the Safha Al-Harazin clinic in Shuja’iya.
  • There are delays of an average of between 2 and 10 hours in coordination between the army and the medical teams for evacuation or transfer of casualties. In most cases, the army does not respond at all to the requests made to it. The human rights organizations know of more than 100 civilians who were trapped for more than 24 hours, including dozens of injured, without any medical care, sometimes without water or food either. In one case a family of 21 (including six injured) waited seven days until the army allowed Red Cross representatives to evacuate them. In two other cases families waited more than 36 hours for evacuation. The organizations believe there are other similar cases that have not yet been documented.
  • The Gaza health system is in a state of total collapse after more than a year and a half of continuous closure: a severe shortage of medical equipment and medications, a shortage of skilled personnel, the absence of knowledge and experts to treat complex injuries and more. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, only 30% of the medical equipment and medications permitted to be transferred to the Gaza Strip meet the needs and of its hospitals and are responsive to their shortages.
  • There are 2050 hospital beds in the Gaza Strip (1500 in government hospitals and 550 in private clinics). The intensive care unit at Shifa Hospital was reinforced from 12 beds to 30. Since January 1, 2009 the unit has been at full capacity, even though since January 6, 2009, each day an average of five patients are sent from it to Egypt. The health system is maintaining a 75% capacity at Shifa while at other hospitals, the capacity is 95%. The treatment of chronic patients, including cancer patients, liver patients, dialysis patients and others, has stopped almost completely due to a shortage of hospital beds in the departments and of available doctors.
  • 850 chronic patients and hundreds of injured from the Israeli assaults need to be referred to medical treatment outside of Gaza since December 27, 2008. Of them, just three wounded and a few dozen ill patients have been evacuated to Israel while 250 injured were evacuated to Egypt through the Rafah Crossing. Since January 6, 2009 no additional patients have been transferred to Israel for medical care.
  • Shifa Hospital and the other government hospitals in Gaza city operated without electricity supply using generators for a week between January 3-10. Since January 10, 2009 the hospital has been receiving electricity for 8-12 hours a day. Throughout the month of January the other hospitals in the Gaza Strip have been receiving electricity for an average of 4-8 hours a day. The rest of the time the hospitals rely on generators. In at least one case when a generator broke down at the Al-Quds hospital it remains without any electricity supply and life-saving medical equipment stopped working.
  • Patients who are at home are exposed to heightened risk because of the shortage of electricity, which prevents the regular use of household medical equipment operated by electricity as well as heating devices.


Attacks on electricity, water and sewage infrastructures

Electricity lines, water and sewage pumps and waste collection and treatment facilities have been damaged by the bombardments. The battles taking place in the Gaza Strip prevent most repair work in the absence of security coordination with the army. The same is true of transporting fuel and equipment inside the Gaza Strip. Without electricity, it is impossible to pump water and treat sewage.

In the 14 months before the military campaign Israel prevented the supply of vital products to the Gaza Strip and thereby emptied it of the fuel, food, medicine and spare parts needed to cope with the severe results of the fighting. There is a severe shortage of fuel needed to operate the power plant in the Gaza Strip as well as the generators that back up the electricity system. There is a shortage of spare parts and equipment needed to perform repairs and maintenance.

Water and sewage systems

  • More than half a million people are completely cut off from access to clean water, mostly in Gaza City and the northern area. Some of those people have been without access to water for more than 10 days. Many water pipes have been damaged. Without electricity in the homes it is impossible to pump water to the high stories and the water reservoirs on the roofs of the high houses.
  • Sewage is flowing in the streets because of the shortage of electricity for sewage pumps and treatment facilities, due to the damage caused by the bombardments and because of breakdowns that could not be fixed in the absence of security coordination with the army and without the necessary spare parts. In Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Jabaliya and parts of Gaza City the sewage pumps are not working at all. Since January 3, 2009 it has been impossible to access a sewage pipe in Beit Hanoun that was bombed. Since then sewage has been flowing to the area.
  • Israel is preventing Water Authority technicians from accessing the Gaza City waste treatment facility. Since January 3, 2009 sewage has been flowing to the facility but it is not emptying because there is no one to operate the pumps. In addition on January 10, 2009 one of the sewage reservoirs there was bombed. It is believed that the sewage from the treatment facility and the sewage reservoir has begun to flood the area, but the damage cannot be assessed in the absence of security coordination.
  • Israel is prohibiting access to the Beit Lahiya sewage reservoirs, where the waste level rises every day in the central reservoir and the waste water threatens to flood the area. The reason is destruction of the generator on January 3, 2009 that is supposed to pump the waste into overflow lagoons. Despite requests from international organizations to avoid striking that sensitive area, the area was bombarded again on January 10, 2009 and damage was caused to buildings next to the reservoir. Floods in that area would risk the welfare and lives of some 10,000 residents living nearby.
  • The Gaza Strip water company needs many items that are in short supply including chlorine, pipes, valves and other items. Most of the equipment was ordered months ago but no permission was given to let it in.

Electricity system

  • At least a quarter of a million residents of Gaza have been living without electricity for 18 days. At any given moment, up to one million people are disconnected from the electricity supply, which makes it difficult to access water, use medical equipment, preserves and refrigerate food and heat homes.
  • Six of 12 high-voltage lines supplying electricity from Israel and from Egypt are not working because of damage caused by the bombardments. The Gaza power plant has been working since January 10, 2009 very partially (at 38% capacity) and manufacturing only 30 MW a day. As a result, the Gaza Strip is receiving a supply of only 48% of the required amount of electricity, at most. It is estimated that because of local breakdowns of lines, the amount of electricity reaching consumers is much smaller.
  • The amount of industrial diesel available at the power plant is 500,000 liters, the amount needed for one single day to operate the three turbines. Another 369,000 liters were transferred to the Palestinian side of the Nahal Oz terminal but cannot be shipped to the power plant because of the absence of security coordination.
  • On the night before Tuesday, January 13, 2009, Israel bombed the electric company's warehouse in Gaza, causing tremendous damage including damage to transformers, cables, low voltage disconnect pillars and additional equipment. Israel had allowed the entrance of this equipment and spare parts into Gaza only four days earlier, after delaying the approval of its entry for months. The stores of the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company were empty before the military campaign since Israel has for months prevented the transfer of spare parts that were ordered and paid for.


A predictable humanitarian collapse

  • For the last 14 months Israel has deliberately and consistently restricted the transfer of fuel into the Gaza Strip as part of the Cabinet decision from September 19, 2007 authorizing punitive measures against the residents of Gaza. Instead of fulfilling its duty to provide the civil population with the necessary humanitarian products before launching the military campaign, the Israel drained the Gaza Strip of the fuel, food and equipment needed to cope with the severe results of the fighting.
  • In the two months preceding the military campaign Israel tightened the closure and deliberately drained the Gaza Strip of the industrial diesel needed to manufacture electricity, by preventing its transfer through the Nahal Oz terminal. During those two months Israel allowed the transfer of only 18% of the amount of industrial diesel needed to operate the Gaza power plant, which is only 28% of the amount of industrial diesel the Supreme Court ordered it to provide.
  • For more than three months Israel has been preventing the transfer of the spare parts needed by the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company (GEDCo) for its current operations. Even at this very moment spare parts are waiting at the Karni Crossing and the Ashdod port.


jqb said...

In re

... the group had to buy the advertising space because the national newspapers would not make room for their perspective


I wonder when the American news media will catch up with events?

see this excellent piece on American journalism by Jay Rosen.

-- Your brother in flesh and "deviant" views

Anne Gilbert said...

What is going on in Gaza, and in Israel, for that matter, makes me really want to cry. I cry for the Palestinians trapped in Gaza: no food, no water, no access to medical care, children and women injured and killed. I cry for Israelis, too. They have families; some of their families get killed. The face of loss and sorrow is the same, whether it's an Israeli or Palestinian face. I do not cry for the Israeli government, which knows exactly what it is doing, but doesn't care. As for Jews being "chosen", well I don't know what to say. I always understood(at least from my Jewish friends), that being "chosen" meant being chosen to bear witness to something,though what Jews might be bearing witness to to, I'm not at all sure. Be that as it may, I am glad someone, somewhere, is finally beginning to get up and talk back to this madness.
Anne G

Michael Balter said...

Anne, I'm afraid your Jewish friends are putting some latter-day spin on the original notion, no doubt well intentioned. This is the basis of the notion, the origins of the idea that Jews were somehow "special":

Deuteronomy 7:6 (New International Version)

6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

The idea is elaborated again later, notably in Exodus.

Corinna said...

Show me what good the arabs are doing for the world!!! I have listsssssssssssss of how Jews and Israelis alike have contributed to vastly to the world. You demise the Jews - its quite unbelievable - I wish you to live your life in an arab country. May it bring you happiness. You can talk your heart out with your friends there demonizing Israel.

Albert Gonzalez said...

What Palestinian culture?
Who has been indoctrinated by current swing ways of thinking? Look at any quotes in context (Exodus is before Deuteronomy, by the way), and you see "Chosen"ness has to do with "chosen for a purpose." Chosen does not mean 'better.' In a sports draft, for example, a person is "chosen" for the strengths he brings to the mission of those who choose him. In the case of the Jewish people, God "chose" Abraham and his descendants because God loved him, and gave them the Bible (which you consider authored by man and thus don't believe in God) to teach ethics, morality and monotheism to the world.
I am sorry you feel ethics and morality can be taught through your own lense of humanistic tendencies.
Every person has the God given right to live in peace. Leadership must do what is in its power to stop its individuals who prefer to fight. Israeli terrorists are few and rare in comparison to Arab or Muslim, or Palestinian.
Regarding the Joshua story - it is difficult to understand with modern eyes. We are not told too much of what the people of Jericho or Ai had done. And even if you are unhappy with any explanations, the IDF currently fights to defend its citizens. If Israel were not facing mortal threats and were not subject to militant attacks, the IDF would be very happy to not have to fight anyone.