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Musings – Gideon Levy, Arik Ascherman, Haftom Zarhum

October 25, 2015
Gideon Levy in Newburgh, NY - October 19, 2015

Gideon Levy in Newburgh, NY – October 19, 2015

Disconnected images flashing through my mind “by the dawn’s early light” – the news that a rabbi, the head of Rabbis for Human Rights in the West Bank, Arik Ascherman, was stabbed by a masked settler there mingled with the venomous heckling against Gideon Levy in Greenburgh New York that I witnessed a week ago, and the hateful comments of the same shrill quartet against Jewish Voice for Peace. Then the distorted way that current tension – the selective reporting of the current increase in tension, violence between Israelis a Palestinians came to mind, with the deaths of 7 or 8 Israelis either shot or knifed to death Arabs amplified in the news – we see their suffering families – while the more than 50 Palestinians shot or otherwise killed by settlers and the IDF played down, hardly reported – we don’t see, or hardly see, their suffering families, nor many reports of the more than 500 Palestinian youth arrested since October 1.

There is a fanaticism in Israel, the seeds of which have been growing for some time; in the current crisis it has boiled over in an orgy of anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Moslem hatred, so much so that Palestinian children are burned to death by settlers bless by wacky rabbis pickled in hatred, hiding behind the Old Testament, perhaps the most violent and reactionary (where it concerns womens’ rights) of the Jewish-Christian holy texts. In his Greenburgh talk, Gideon Levy noted how in his whole lifetime he has never seen in Israel this level of pure frenzied intolerance, hatred of Palestinians, Arabs in general in Israel. Levy used by way of example the lynching of a 29 year old Eritrean Jewish refugee, Haftom Zarhum, shot and then kicked, stomped to death and cursed by passers-by in a Beersheba bus station because, being dark skinned, he looked like an Arab.

As Zionism continues to be more and more influenced by ultra- religious and settler types it seems the there is a concerted effort to target – besides the main victims of Occupation – the Palestinians – the Jewish critics like this rabbi. Jewish critics have long been targeted but now, as Israels policies become more openly criticized and it’s more zealous defenders more isolated, they, the settler types, have become more shrill. More and more, we, Israel’s critics, being Jewish or not, an award-winning Israeli journalist for what might be Israel’s version of the NY Times, a rabbi opposing settler violence in the West Bank, no longer insulates us …but then shedding our white skin privilege – or having it unceremoniously stripped from us – that is the price we pay for re-asserting our humanity.

I was born to ignorance, and yes, lesser poverty
I was born to privilege that I could not see
Lack of pigment in my skin won a free and easy in
Didn’t know but my way was paved…

If the wind is at your back
And you never turn around
You may never know the wind is there
You may never hear the sound

Two verses from John Gorka’s Ignorance and Poverty

Beyond that the way that media here and in Israel is spinning the whole thing. – ie, that the Israeli government has not changed the rules governing access to the Temple on the Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque – which might be true – but that there have been a series of provocative visits of right-wing Israelis accompanied by strong Israeli police presence. Perhaps the laws themselves haven’t changed, but the Israeli practices on the ground have become increasingly hostile, repeatedly violating the sanctity of the place with greater and greater impunity, adding fuel to the fire that the policy of respecting the Islamic character of the place was no longer in force, a slap in the face not only to Palestinians, whose Muslim majority is largely quite moderate in their views, to say nothing of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims who view the place as their third most holy site after Mecca and Medina, the place from whence, according to the Koran, their prophet Mohammed rose to Heaven.

Adding fuel to the frenzied anti-Palestinian fire is none other than Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu who recently tried to blame the long dead Mufti of Jerusalem for having persuaded Hitler to annihilate the Jews during World War II.  To put it mildly, Netanyahu is stretching (of course) with his attempt to blame the Holocaust on comments made by the Mufti of Jerusalem. Why all this now? I suspect that it is to prepare the world – to justify – another Gaza like operation which is in the making, knowing how unpopular the Israeli attack on Gaza was last time – outside of the USA it was universally condemned. Netanyahu has to raise the ideological stakes with such dumb, racist, historically inaccurate statements – perhaps the most extreme effort to make Israel out as the victim and the Palestinians as perpetrators…ie, to turn history on its head, ie. Beware, this is war talk – whenever the Hitler-Nazi analogy has been raised in the past, it has been a prelude to Israel (and the U.S.) launching Middle East war.

Beware, this is war talk – whenever the Hitler-Nazi analogy has been raised in the past, it has been a prelude to Israel (and the U.S.) launching Middle East war

A Memory Stirs

Then, as if it had nothing to do with all these depressing musings, thoughts of an old Chicano friend, Nick Ulibarri, with whom I worked for a 13 year period spanning 1970s and early 1980s, at what is today Red Rocks Community College, came to mind. Nick died of multiple sclerosis a few years ago. At first I couldn’t seem to connect the dots between an isolated incident long ago and the increasing violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but the more I thought about it, the more the two were connected .  A Chicano from the Trinidad, Colorado area, Nicanor (his formal name, that of an ancient Greek general) was a Korean War (1950-1953), whose world view had become increasingly sober as a result of his military experience. His stories of first entering elementary school and not understanding English because of his Spanish language upbringing have remained vivid in my mind 45 years after hearing them, especially the one about walking into a Trinidad, Colorado school room in kindergarten and feeling dumb because he didn’t speak English and had never heard his name so mispronounced as it was by his Anglo middle class teacher, a powerful memory that stayed with him forever.

Not that we did anything so radical, because we didn’t, but it was Nick and I – and precious few others with names like Alan Marks, Bill Wellisch, Leonard Sapienza to name a few – who from time to time would challenge the status quo, the way things worked, or didn’t work at the college. Nick was quite good at it, myself much more me, the bull-headed novice. Mostly we just questioned how things worked, and came up with ideas that few listened to of how the place could be better, more democratically run.

It was in this context – frankly I don’t remember the specific incident – that a campus administrator simply called me “a Chicano.” He said, “A Chicano, THAT’S what you are.” I found it an odd remark at the time without understanding its deeper meaning until Nick explained to me in one sentence, that because of my political activities on campus I had just lost my white privilege and that I would be so treated by the Administration (which soon thereafter fired me).

It took me a while this morning to make connections between Gideon Levy, Rabbi Ascherman and a little mostly insignificant incident that happened some 35 years ago working with my good friend Nick Ulibarri. But the connection exists: it is the loss of white privilege that comes from challenging racism – be it the kind that Chicanos in Colorado have faced all their lives, or that of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or within Israel itself. A bit of a stretch,…probably, but analogous all the same. Jews critical of Israeli policies have never been popular among mainstream Zionists but now they/we are being shunned and denigrated with new energy.

Until one challenges white privilege – be it an Israeli sticking his or her neck out in support of Palestinian rights, or an Anglo in Denver opposing this region’s highly developed forms of racism against Chicanos – it is difficult to understand what it means: one enters uncharted territory. Maintaining white privilege includes a certain unwritten behavior code, how far one can “appropriately” go in terms of solidarity with non-white peoples before losing one’s status as a part of the elite fraternity. Working too closely with a Chicano guidance counselor I had gone one step over the line; a rabbi opposing settler violence in the West Bank – even if all it means is witnessing, acknowledging it – is taking the same process a number of steps further.  The logic goes something like this: so, since you are in solidarity with “those people” (fill in the missing blank here as you will – Chicanos, Blacks, Palestinians) you have been (informally most of the time, but sometimes even formally) from “our community” and hence force “we” will treat you like we treat “them!” Thus the terms “nigger lover” for those here in the United States who opposed the racism of slavery and Jim Crow policies, or in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – or more accurately the Israeli colonial occupation of the Palestinian people – the term “self-hating Jew.” For those interested in probing this dynamic more, I suggest an old volume – Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized – which describes the situation of those who reject their class and skin privilege and identify with the sufferings and status of oppressed peoples. Memmi explains it as well as anyone and if the models are, admittedly, a bit stereotypical and in a way rigid, still, they ring true today as much as they did 65 years ago when he was essentially describing the relations between colonized and colonizer in Algeria at the advent of that country’s independence war against France.

In terms of Jews like Levy, Ascherman and others who today in actions or ideas oppose either the theory or practice of the Occupation, the terms used to describe them continue to morph. “Self-hating Jews” (a ridiculous, actually quite stupid term in every sense if you think of it) has morphed into “anti-Zionist” Jew which for many of Israel’s more zealous supporters is no different from “anti-semitic.” To call a publication (or a person or an organization) “anti-zionist” is to discredit and discount its legitimacy. I might add that there is nothing new about all this – this ethnic red-baiting has been going on for decades, but at the present it is taking on new, more venomous forms. As the myth of progressive Israel – the old myth that Israel was something akin to a socialist country is replaced with the association of Israel as an apartheid state (in so much as it treats the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank). At the same time, Israel’s defenders, finding themselves increasingly on the ideological defensive in terms of the battle for public opinion, take to more desperate and increasingly shrill tactics and “rules of engagement.” In all this, there is less and less space for moderate views, solutions. Israeli society as a whole, the whole country, under the growing influence of the settlers and religious right, is moving, has moved to the right, the moderates, peace activists – the Avnernys, Gideon Levys, Tanya Reinharts, Felicia Langers, Adam Kellers – bless their hearts – have shrunk to a sliver of Israeli society, while the Meir Kahanes and the like -the racism of which cannot even be veiled with religious pomposity – continue to flourish. These are hard-line racist people and more and more they represent what Israel is all about. They are mean, they pull no punches and they will treat moderate and left-wing Jews – and all those who sympathize, show solidarity with the Palestinians, the same way that they treat Palestinians, with utter contempt and increasing violence.



Most Read Article in Washington Post calls Israel “savage, unreparable society”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    October 25, 2015 1:55 pm

    Good stuff, Robbie. Sarge

  2. Levin permalink
    October 26, 2015 6:51 am

    Nous sommes (je suis) tous des Chicano-a-s

  3. Thomas M. Rauch permalink
    October 27, 2015 7:13 pm


    Thanks vey much for your thoughtful, heartfelt musings on Jews who challenge the controlling Israeli view of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims as evil persons not worthy of life or even justice. Is this the Israeli equivalent of the McCarthy/Red Scare period in the U.S., with the difference being that U.S.citizens were destroyed by words, but Palestinians by bullets and rockets? Your knowledge and insights, both over the Internet and at our old guys book club–I guess you now qualify as a full-fledged old guy since you passed your 70th birthday–are informative and thought-provoking. Your mention of your time at Red Rocks College reminds me that I think you and I met there in the early 1970’s. (Have we talked about this before?). Duane Gall and I, as staff for Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, showed the AFSC slideshow, “The Air War in Vietnam”, many times, usually in schools or churches. I was invited to show it for classes at Red Rocks by a female professor, if my memory is correct, and you were also present for those classes. Do our memories agree on this?



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