Posted on December 9, 2013 by Benjamin Friedman
The following are a few notes about my experience at the MASA Security and Diplomacy Shabbaton, which took place in Jerusalem from November 22-23. I attended with several other students from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, (where I am a year-student enjoying financial support from MASA), and can, on the whole say that it was a well organized, informative experience that gave me a lot to think about. The complexity of regional affairs was not overtly dumbed down or sugar-coated, and the facilitating organization, Kol Voice Seminars, did a strong job providing an overview of Israel’s current relationships with major allies and enemies, in a relatively short span of time. I also appreciated the effort to provide a politically diverse lineup of speakers and the effort to acknowledge different perspectives from across the spectrum of Israeli politics. That said, I found the content of the weekend to be more reflective of the “security” theme than that of “diplomacy.” This may be an outgrowth of current geo-political realities (this was the same weekend of the Geneva G5+1 agreement with Iran, for what it’s worth), but it also felt like a missed opportunity. I for one left the weekend without much sense of a positive vision for Israel in the region or world, nor how to fruitfully (diplomatically?) communicate one. Perhaps this was not the explicit purpose of the event, but I for one was hoping it would be a more implicit aim nonetheless.
The Shabbaton began Friday morning with a bus tour of East Jerusalem. Coming from Pardes, where two bus tours of this same area were offered in the past month and a half as part of the Jewish Social Justice Track — one with an emphasis on Palestinian human rights, the other with the agenda of asserting a Jewish/Israeli claim to all Jerusalem – I was curious to see what new ground the Shabbaton tour might cover, if any. The tour distinguished itself, it turned out, in how unbiased in approach it was. We looked at the border from a security perspective while discussing the possible outcomes of current and future negotiations. All the while, our tour guide kept acknowledging the different politicized names for hot-button topics like the Green-Line and Security-Fence/Wall/Barrier…
Though I enjoyed the somewhat breezy, informative feeling of this tour, I could not help but compare the route we took to the one navigated by the human rights trip with Pardes. On both tours we stopped on hilltops to look out at the two halves of Jerusalem and see the socio-economic differences at a great distance. But only on the former did our bus actually go up to and directly past sights that would evoke empathy for those who live in impoverished/contested areas. Whether this was a safety issue (or even an effort not to turn poverty into spectacle), this omission felt indicative of a greater willingness to leave out morally challenging information that could be construed as controversial. The argument that human rights are a security issue (to say nothing of a diplomatic one) is easy to make. But this was an issue I found underrepresented throughout the Shabbaton.
Friday afternoon we arrived at our primary location, the Hotel Yehuda, a luxurious hotel in south Jerusalem somehow passing for a youth hostel, serving lavish all-you-can eat buffet meals and providing the nicest mattress, pillows, and shower that I’ve experienced in all my time in Israel. I mention these details not as a plug for the Hotel Yehuda (though it is a lovely establishment) but to make a potentially unpopular point: at a weekend where we have been gathered to take on the responsibility of becoming more informed, to help build a more peaceful, secure future for Israel, the festiveness (and lethargy) of spirit produced by such a great smorgasbord seemed counter-intuitive to me. Especially when so many MASA recipients are typically feeding themselves on a budget, the temptation to over-indulge was strong, and though it may sound trivial, I’m pretty sure that not a few participants were in utter food-comas during some of the more serious conversations and lectures of the weekend.
Later, as we settled into our seats in the Main Hall, we were told to expect a weekend of “many narratives.” This was a promising introduction from my point of view. Our first guest was then introduced: a Commanding Officer of the IDF named Benzi Gruber, who presented a lecture on the topic, “The IDF Ethical Code and Fighting Terrorism.”
Officer Gruber is a stirring speaker. He narrated for us a harrowing power-point on the intense ethical dilemmas faced by IDF soldiers on the battlefield, with an emphasis on just how short a time-window there can be to make life-or-death decisions. We watched disturbing footage of an attempted terrorist bombing of a settlement and even more disturbing footage of Palestinian militants using children as human shields to avoid being sniped by the IDF. This emphasis on “the barbarism of the enemy” was accompanied by a noble vision of how the Israeli army makes great efforts to avoid civilian casualties, as he played for us video after video of high-tech drone surveillance footage showing missiles deflected away from militants at the last moment, in order not to cause collateral damage. It was hard not to feel some pride in comparing the civility implied by these scenes with the behavior shown by the Palestinian militants.
But it was of course, a very selective offering of material.
We next broke up into moderated discussion groups to discuss what we had heard in Benzi Gruber’s talk. We were asked to respond to increasingly intense ethical dilemmas that forced us to be the agents (either passive or active) in different outcomes that would result in different human body-counts, depending on how we reacted: “A train is speeding towards six people on one track, and you have the option of flipping a switch that will cause it to kill just one person on a second track instead. What do you do? Tick-Tock…WHAT DO YOU DO??” As gruesome as this sounds, I thought it was an effective strategy for shaking us from the role of complacent spectators and getting us to see the world through the harsh battlefield mindset. If you know lives are on the line, what actions would you take, up to and including killing, to prevent greater death?
Not an easy question to answer at all.
But already, like a speeding train, the subtext of the metaphor was bearing down on me: that somebody is expected to die, that the battlefield is where we automatically find ourselves today and looking forward. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but is it a foregone conclusion? Why did this weekend start by placing us at this moment of imminent crisis, rather than at the train station from which these crazy-trains are being launched? Yes, it made me feel more empathy for soldiers (everywhere), but is staring at the world through such crisis-managing, no-win lenses for too long a potential security risk in itself?
To be fair, this exercise did help bring awareness to deeply ambiguous moral terrain. It initiated a conversation in which we as a room acknowledged that the IDF’s noble ideals were essential and inspiring, though not always met in practice. We discussed incidences where the families of Hamas leadership were considered acceptable losses in attacks. Some deemed this a necessary evil. One attendee asserted, “those family members probably hate Israel too, and besides, I just consider Israeli life more important…”
I had to cringe hearing this.
Many in the room did. Tensions were a little high throughout the conversation, as attendees “came out” on the political-spectrum to each other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They say, however, that “a liberal is someone who does not take his/her own side in an argument,” and for the most part, liberal response in the room was muted (though by no means absent). Nobody expressed outrage. Nobody questioned how diplomatically wise it is for the IDF to take credit for a higher, more noble ideal than is always able (or willing) to follow (especially since Benzi Gruber gives the same talk he gave us world-wide). A few people at least made the security-risk point that compromising its ideals with “acceptable” collateral damage is a sure-fire way for the IDF to increase radicalism. Of course, nobody had the chutzpa to ask if radicalism is even the right word for an innocent victim of collateral damage who grows up into a vengeful enemy…
The next day brought two more lectures, along with two more moderated discussion sessions, which we chose from five running options. The topics were: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, US-Israel Relations, Iran and Israel’s Existential Threats, The Arab Spring and Changes in the Middle East, and Keep it in the Family? Defense and Criticism of Israel. Trying to gain as much insight into international relations and issues of diplomacy as I could, I attended US-Israel Relations and The Arab Spring and Changes in the Middle East. I also got to hear from other attendees about their experiences in the other sessions. For the most part, attendees were impressed by the quality of their experiences.
I attended US-Israel Relations first. After a brief yet informative rundown of current affairs –President Obama’s low popularity ratings in Israel, Israeli frustration with American non-intervention in Syria, the disagreements between America and Israel over the then-pending Geneva agreement with Iran – we were asked again to take sides, quite literally. On one wall was a sign marked “Agree” and on the opposite wall, a sign marked “Disagree.” We shuffled back and forth as we considered questions, like, “America is Israel’s most important ally.” and “Israel has the right to criticize America.” Being forced to bodily take a stand provoked a good conversation, and illustrated well how wide the spectrum of perceptions are on the current state of the “special relationship.” One other thing that intrigued me was that around half the group that attended was not American, but rather Russian (with a European or two thrown in). This was a topic of interest, clearly, to many.
After this first discussion session (and a lavish meal) we were introduced to the first speaker of Day Two, a Knesset representative from the Labor Party named Omer Barlev. MP Barlev was presenting his proposal called the Israeli Initiative, which details a unilateral series of steps Israel could take to transfer land, responsibility, and control over the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. While Mr. Barlev spoke with inspiring purpose and optimism, there were two unfortunate problems with the presentation. Sadly, Mr. Barlev spoke his non-native English in a soft voice, and the acoustics in the room were not conducive to hearing much of what he had to say. Secondly, we were only provided with the paper text of his Israeli Initiative plan after his talk with us, leaving us little to grasp onto in Q&A, and lacking the foreknowledge to adequately reflect on his vision.
When I did get a chance to read his proposal, what I saw there looked like a very pragmatic, realistic, and reasonable step by step plan for greater peace. I was heartened by it. But it was still sad to this outsider-looking-in that there was no room for idealistic, humanitarian, or win-win language in the text of the proposal. The entire thrust of the pamphlet was a sale’s pitch emphasizing how the plan would increase Israel’s security. This might simply be the tenor of current political debate in the Knesset. But it does contrast markedly with the language in a book I’ve been reading called, To Make War or Make Peace, a transcription of lectures from a March, 1969 symposium in Tel Aviv (just two years after the Six-Day War) on promoting peaceful co-existence and regional stability for Israel and its neighbors.
In contrast to our weekend, this symposium featured Israeli speakers (from all over the political spectrum) and non-Israelis — Europeans, Americans, and Arab speakers – all speaking with a sense of urgency and idealism about the complexities and crises of their present moment, with language of cautious hope for regional success. By contrast, our Shabbaton felt insular and isolationist. Forty intervening years of disappointment obviously leave a big impact…and a lot of cynicism (though it might be worth noting that a different generation of Israelites left a different sort of desert once, after 40 years themselves). I mention this in particular, because I think it is valuable to note, that even in the direct wake of war, leaders of the past have been able to speak with rhetoric transcending their present moments’ reasons for cynicism.
We then broke up again into our second group sessions.
In The Arab Spring and Changes in the Middle East, our facilitator gave a long and informative lecture on the cascade of revolutions that have swept the Arab World in the last several years, starting with the successful revolt in Tunisia and petering out into the tragic civil war in Syria. We managed to receive a useful historical overview, but there was not enough time or space to discuss the complex implications of the events involved. Perhaps it would have been premature for us to try. But without having a conversation about whether the Arab Spring is a cause for greater optimism or pessimism, about how/if Israel and her allies can/should support it/ignore it/deplore it, we were left with the potentially misleading narrative of a monolithic Arab World that failed in its movement towards democracy, with Tunisia as a naïve starting point, Egypt as a realistic middle point, and Syria as a cynical end-point. The saying, “if you don’t like the way a story ends, just don’t consider it the end of the story,” felt like a missing counterweight to this linear, downward narrative trajectory.
Finally, for our last speaker of the evening (and the Shabbaton), we heard from a Jerusalem Post reporter on his paper’s political beat. Gil Hoffman shared personal stories of his experiences interviewing figures like Netanyahu, Perez, and Olmert and laid out two competing visions of Israel’s current-state-of-security: one in which a destabilized Middle East and an unsympathetic world audience face Israel with more dangers than ever before, and a second, in which the destabilization in the region has actually left so many of Israel’s enemies weakened that Israel is now, perhaps, the most secure it’s ever been. The truth, he assured us, lies somewhere in between.
Mr. Hoffman was another skillful speaker who swept the audience up with his humorously delivered anecdotes and liberal (and sometimes excessive) celebrity name-dropping. He reiterated a notion expressed first by Benzi Gruber that it was incumbent on us, as galut-Jews to keep getting the word out for Israel, to combat the negative press that has built up on so many sides. Towards the end of his presentation, with respect to the issue of Israel growing more secure in inverse relation to the stability of the greater region, he also offered a remark about the drops of wine we spill on Passover to pay respect for fallen enemies. One voice in my head appreciated this acknowledgment of the humanity of the Other. Another felt the comment off-handed and perfunctory.
As with the Shabbaton as a whole, Mr. Hoffman emphasized the issue of multiple narratives and complexity. And to his credit, and to the credit of the organizers and facilitators, there was plenty of content to convey both at the Shabbaton. At the same time, like several others over the course of the weekend, he had some disparaging comments to make about my own Israeli paper-of-choice, HaAretz for saying too much. By this point, I felt the subtext of Gil Hoffman’s talk, and perhaps of the whole weekend, could be represented well by the name of a group-discussion I did not get to attend: “Keep it in the Family? Defense and Criticism of Israel.” And perhaps I should have attended it, because I am a firm believer that transparency, openness, and honesty is an ideal to strive for, and I recognize that it may not be completely safe or appropriate in all cases.
Obviously, the line drawn by the MASA Shabbaton was somewhat different than that of HaAretz or myself. But in the age of Global Warming and WikiLeaks, of crises of energy, environment, and economics requiring collaborative and creative international responses on a perpetual ongoing basis, I think history is, in the long run, on the march towards greater transparency and openness, towards a sense of an extended international family of which our smaller national families must play integral and mutually beneficial parts. Must our automatic response to be to scoff at such high-flung idealism?
This also gets to the heart of the question of why we, as American Jews, Canadian Jews, Russian Jews et al, are here in Israel to begin with. Are we coming here to enter into the conversation as family members or as outsiders? How much does our Jewishness entitle us to make proclamations and judgments about the choices and actions of a nation-state that we are not legally the citizens of? How do we reconcile these competing identities of Jewish/Israeli/American/Liberal/ Conservative /Human, etc? And how do I, as an American supporter and critic of Israel, fit into this conversation?
I realized, in the end, that this Shabbaton treated us paradoxically, as both outsider and insider, trying to get us to think for ourselves while simultaneously feeding us narratives and conclusions formulated for us from without. In this way, many of the pressing questions above were only indirectly addressed…alluded to, but never confronted head on. I’m hopeful that this snap-shot I received is part of an ongoing movement in the right direction though. And I am grateful for the experience I had here…because it got me thinking, more deeply, about many of these very perplexing and important questions for myself. I’m sure the same is true for many of the other attendees. But I worry, by being too uncontroversial, too confined to the us vs. them narrative (and cynical about other, co-existing narratives), too hesitant to openly engage in self-critique…that some attendees may have left the Shabbaton with fewer tough questions…and more simple answers. Whether this is the best way to promote diplomacy and security to MASA recipients in the end is, I think, an essential question worth asking for the future.
Of course, as a good liberal…I concede I might be wrong.