Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Anti-Semitism and the Gaza Flotilla Incident

For those of you unfamiliar with the Gaza flotilla raid, allow me to quickly brief you on the story's salient points:

- After Hamas, a terrorist organization openly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Israeli government began a naval blockade around that region, allowing only one-quarter of the humanitarian relief into that region that had been allowed prior to their blockade, and implementing mandatory inspections of all such ships so as to prevent the importation of weapons. The intention of this blockade was to pressure Hamas to either moderate its position toward the Israeli state or to remove itself from power.

- On May 31, 2010, six ships - organized by the IHH, a Turkish non-governmental organization that provides humanitarian relief to victims of hunger, war, natural disaster, and political conflict, and Free Gaza Movement, an organization specifically dedicated to ending the Gaza blockade - attempted to break the blockade in order to provide relief to the Palestinians who reside in Gaza. They were stopped by the Israeli navy as soon as they approached the blockade, and all six ships were boarded; on one of those ships, the MV Mavi Marmara, violence broke out, resulting in the deaths of nine protesters, as well as dozens of injuries on both sides (thirty-four of the activists have been hospitalized, with nine in serious condition; ten Israeli soldiers have also been hospitalized, with two in serious condition).

As a humanitarian, I was immediately horrified by the actions of the Israeli military. Despite their subsequent claim that the ships were smuggling weapons to Hamas, virtually no evidence of such weaponry has materialized. The sole intention of the passengers of those vessels was to provide relief to the Palestinian citizens who were suffering in Gaza as a result of the blockade. As such, while Israel arguably had the right to arrest, detain, and deport the passengers on this flotilla as a result of their attempted violation of a military blockade, there was no just cause for engaging in violent reprisals.

That said, even the act of arresting them for trying to break the blockade is morally questionable, for the simple reason that the blockade HAS, as the protesters claimed, inflicted great suffering upon the Palestinians in Gaza. While the Israeli government's prohibition of weapons and weapons-making materials is both understandable and necessary, engaging in economic warfare against civilians as a means of exerting pressure on their terrorist government is unconscienable. Even though Israel likes to claim that it only targets individuals who pose a direct threat to their state's security, that argument is undermined the instant they implement policies which punish citizen and terrorist alike.

Yet there is another component to this story, one to which as a Jew I am particularly sensitive. It came out when tapes of the conflict on the Mavi Marmara were made public. As The Wall Street Journal reported:

In the tapes, an Israeli serviceman can be heard politely warning those on board that they are approaching a naval blockade and offering escort to a port where aid can be unloaded... Passengers on board the Mavi Marmara can be heard saying: “Shut up, go back to Auschwitz” and “We’re helping Arabs go against the U.S., don’t forget 9/11.”

Only one thought goes through my head when I read those comments - if I had been there, watching as a crowd of sanctimonious so-called "peace protesters" chanted that vile hate-speech, my first instinct would have been to shoot the bastards.

That feeling was exacerbated during the controversy over veteran Washington reporter Helen Thomas, who was fired this week - after half-a-century on the White House beat - for saying that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine... Go home. Poland. Germany. And America and everywhere else."

There is a significant irony to Thomas' statement: One of the main reasons Israel was founded is that, after the Holocaust, the millions of Jewish survivors who tried to return to their old homes in Poland and Germany were persecuted and murdered on a widespread scale, eventually causing them to be herded into refugee camps while nations like America - which refused to let all but a handful immigrate to their countries - decided what to do with them. Yet even if you sweep this historic myopia aside, the reality is that you are left with a statement so virulent in its bigotry that it only serves to further inflame Jewish anger toward, and fear of, anti-Semitism.

In his speech at Cairo University last year, President Obama summarized the essence of this problem better than any other prominent political figure today:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

Does that mean that the Israeli soldiers were right for behaving as they did toward the protesters? Of course not. At the end of the day, words - no matter how incendiary, infuriating, or downright hateful they might be - are not weapons, and the Israeli soldiers had no right to respond to them with violence.

At the same time, had I been on that ship, hearing those chants, I would have been tempted to lash out. That doesn't mean that I would have done so (at the very least, I'd like to believe that I would not), and it certainly doesn't mean that I would have been right. Yet the temptation would have been there, because as a Jew - one who is not only aware of the history of anti-Semitism, but has had personal encounters with it - I would have, at that moment, absolutely hated the people saying those things.

Hate begets hate. This is the one lesson that both sides of this conflict need to learn.


Cliff said...

I don't think the Israeli soldiers were responding to the "Go back to Auschwitz," comments so much as they were responding to being bludgeoned with iron pipes, chains and chairs.

Matt Rozsa said...

You can't compare the use of pipes, chains, and chairs to that of guns. Israel did not have to respond with the lethal force that they employed, and the fact that they are trying to justify having done so causes me to doubt their credibility on other matters relating to this story.

On an unrelated note, I find it interesting that so many people who post comments on stories related to the Helen Thomas incident are complaining that "you can't criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism". While there is a real problem of Israel's legitimate critics being wrongly accused of bigotry (Jimmy Carter being a great example), the reality is that Thomas' comments didn't focus on Israel - they focused on Jews. She IS an anti-Semite, and the sad thing is that anti-Semites DO have a tendency to use Israel as an excuse for their hatred. The need to differentiate between Israel's legitimate critics and Jew-hating bigots is very important.

Cliff said...

I disagree. The weapon used is not as important as what it is used for. What were they suppose to respond with, harsh language? If I'm being bludgeoned to death by 6 guys with iron pipes and I have a gun, I do not consider it morally illegitimate to shoot them until they stop bludgeoning me.

The entire purpose of this was to create the very sort of response. They ran a blockade, they were warned, they refused to stop, they were boarded, they responded to that boarding with attacks that could not be responded to without violence, and then they complain when the inevitable happens.

Let's put it this way: If I ever start beating a cop with an iron pipe, I'm not going to go crying "excessive force" when he shoots my ass. What's he suppose to do? Wait till I crack his skull open then decide to shoot me?

Matt Rozsa said...

Israeli soldiers have at their disposal (or so I was told when I visited the country) a host of weapons that can incapacitate assailants without killing them. Why did they not use clubs, tasers, paintball guns, or any of the other instruments at their disposal?

Also noteworthy is the fact that we don't know who initiated the violence on those boats. You are assuming that the protesters provoked the conflict; I'm not so sure that you're correct, since I find it odd that protesters on one of the six vessels would be violent when those on the remaining five were peaceful.

Yet let us act for a moment, hypothetically, that the protesters did provoke these hostilities; in that case, the Israeli soldiers STILL reacted wrongly by escalating the level of violence through the use of lethal weapons. Even if you believe that this was a "set up", those Israeli soldiers still took the bait - and they didn't have to.

Cliff said...

Why did they not use clubs, tasers, paintball guns, or any of the other instruments at their disposal?

Because they were attacked before they even sat foot on the boat. There's video, look it up.

Also noteworthy is the fact that we don't know who initiated the violence on those boats.

# 1, the video makes it pretty clear. #2, If the Israelis initiated the violence, there would be a WHOLE lot more dead "peace activists".

Yet let us act for a moment, hypothetically, that the protesters did provoke these hostilities; in that case, the Israeli soldiers STILL reacted wrongly by escalating the level of violence through the use of lethal weapons. Even if you believe that this was a "set up", those Israeli soldiers still took the bait - and they didn't have to.

Again, what would you have them do? Sit there and take beatings until they are dead? Defending yourself from an angry mob beating you with pipes requires measures to stop the beatings or get your skull cracked open. It's not "escalating the situation." It's self-defense.

A cop who shoots someone who's beating him with an iron pipe is not "escalating the situation." The situation was "escalated" by the guy who attacked an armed man with a deadly weapon.

matt.rozsa said...

I watched the video. In my mind, it doesn't make that clear at all, although I'm interested in seeing how you feel it does (and I'm not saying that as a tongue-in-cheek jab either; I'm quite serious).

I don't see how, if Israeli soldiers were being attacked "before they even set foot on the boat", that that somehow explains why they used guns instead of the other weapons at their disposal. If anything, the fact that they would have been able to anticipate in advance what was going to happen would suggest that they SHOULDN'T have used guns, since in that instance, the idea that they only had a split-second in which to figure out how to defend themselves goes by the wayside.

You cannot compare blunt objects with guns. The probability of a blunt object causing death is not the same as that which comes from using a gun. The reality is that the Israeli soldiers used excessive force in responding to verbal provocation. For this, they were wrong.

Anonymous said...

The account is misleading in a number of ways, e.g.:

Para 2: The partial blockade is also supposed to stop missiles being transfered to Hamas, not only to pressure them to moderate or step down. Hamas has fired thousands of missiles on Israel for years, and the missiles are transferred in this way.

Para 3: The IHH has extensive connections to many terrorist groups, supporting Al Qaeda and Hamas, and are not simply a non-governmental humanitarian organization.

Para 3: The intention of the ship was not humanitarian. Otherwise they would have accepted the offers from Israel and Egypt to transfer the aid to Gaza under the "humanitarians'" supervision. Israel promised to transfer the aid, and transfers more aid every week, likely every day, in any case.

Furthermore, besides for bludgeoning and stabbing the commandos, the "humanitarians" also sand about massacring Jews. Hardly the humanitarian type.

Para 3: Violence did not simply "break out" on the ship. The humanitarians started bludgeoning and stabbing the Israelis as soon as they boarded; they clearly intended to murder to soldiers, as the videos show.

Para 4: I have seen no claim that these ships were smuggling weapons; at any rate this is not the central contention against the ships. The problem is that they were intending to break the partial blockade necessary to prevent the transfer weapons.

Para 14: The commandos did not "lash out" because of hateful comments, but because they were being bludgeoned and stabbed. They boarded with paintball guns, and only resorted to their side-arms after some time, and when facing immanent bludgeoning to death.

As to your last comment, the probability of a blunt object killing is extremely high, when these objects are metal, big, and are being smashed over one's head repeatedly by a violent mob. Besides, the knives where not blunt.

Matt Rozsa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Rozsa said...

In response to "Anonymous":

1. I mention in the second paragraph that the Israelis began "implementing mandatory inspections of all such ships so as to prevent the importation of weapons." Apparently you missed that.

2. You are correct that IHH has connections to terrorist groups. However, even Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center - an Israeli NGO - has acknowledged that IHH is also extensively involved in humanitarian projects. The question that has to be asked is whether the individuals on the raided ship were humanitarian or terrorist in their objectives. Considering that no weapons were found on any of the vessels (a point that you have yourself conceded), the former conclusion is sounder.

3. The other ships in the flotilla did accept the Israeli offer of transferring the aid to Gaza under their supervision; since those ships were part of the same group as the one on which violence broke out, you could just as easily use their actions to, by extension, reflect on the intentions of the Mavi Marmara, as you could use the actions of the passengers of the Mavi Marara to reflect on the intentions of the other ships.

4. I already mentioned the anti-Semitic rhetoric used by the protesters on those ships. It was in my first article, the one to which you are presumably responding.

5. The videos that I have seen are not nearly as cut-and-dried as Israel's supporters keep insisting. While I definitely detect acts of violence from the passengers on that ship, the videos do not capture this event from the very beginning, and are shot with poor lighting and in various bad angles. As such, it is hard for me to establish proper context for what I am seeing. However, given the other forensic details from that scene - such as the disproportionate number of casualties suffered on the protesters' side, the fact that none of the other ships had the same outburst of violence as this one, and the fact that none of the ships were smuggling weapons, suggesting a non-belligerent mission - it seems to me that, while the protesters weren't blameless, the Israelis are still guilty of an inexcusably violent overreaction.

6. If the protesters weren't planning on smuggling weapons, then their effort to break the blockade shouldn't have been thwarted. This is also a point that I addressed earlier in my article.

7. Once again, you insist on a version of reality that - though you claim it is verified by the tapes - is really just the assertion of the side in this conflict that you support. The tapes themselves only prove that hateful language and violence did come from the Turkish side in this conflict; they do not prove, as you claim, that they instigated it. That said, the disproportionate number of casualties incurred by the protesters - to say nothing of the simple fact that the Israelis used firearms at all, when non-lethal means of controlling their opponents were at their disposal - does not reflect well on the Israelis.

8. To address your eighth point, I sadly must repeat myself: Why did the Israelis have to use lethal means to protect themselves, when non-lethal methods - that would have been just as effective - were at their disposal?

One of the biggest problems with the State of Israel today is that its defenders refuse to accept the possibility that their nation can ever be in the moral wrong. The problem, of course, is that Israel IS often in the wrong, which makes the kind of factual somersaulting that you just posted counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

In reply to your response:

First, your contention that no weapon was found on the ship is false and is not conceded. The metal knives and rods were weapons. They also used broken bottles, chains and slingshots. There is abundant video and photographic evidence of this. There is also the possibility of guns thrown overboard, with reports of rifle-sights and cartridges not belonging to the Israelis discovered on the ships.

Secondly, about 40 IHH fanatics boarded the ship, planned the violence, and took control of the ship. The majority of the passengers were not in on this. This is confirmed by the captain of the ship. The radical group did not board the other ships. This is the difference, and why the actions of the other ships don't reflect on the ship in this case.

Thirdly, this is evidence that the IHH came with violent intentions, besides for the evidence of their singing about massacring Jews, their statements about martyrdom, and their rejection of Israeli and Egyptian offers.

Fourthly, the effort to break the partial blockade should be thwarted, because the partial blockade is there for good reason - to prevent the thousands of missiles fired onto Israel. Aid must be allowed through but with inspection to ensure that no missiles are transferred.

Finally, you insist that the Israelis could have used non-lethal force. But what is your evidence for this? The videos show that they did not start the violence, and that they faced immanent bludgeoning to death.

But if, as you contend, the videos are not good enough to show this, then they aren't good enough to show the opposite either. They knife cuts both ways. But then why, in the absence of evidence either way, accuse Israel?

Matthew Laszlo said...

1) Your assertion that "blunt objects" and items like knives (which are common domestic items and hardly the instruments-of-choice by those with militant agendas) count as "weapons" is laughable. You could argue that their use constituted a threat to the Israeli soldiers, and one that warranted response, although frankly I am dubious about that; the idea that they counted as "weapons", at least insofar as the term is being used by both sides in this debate, is patently absurd.

2) You are beginning to pull points directly out of your ass. All of those ships were boarded by people organized by either the Free Gaza Movement or the IHH; what makes the "forty IHH radicals" so different from the other IHH and Free Gaza protesters that you identify? What evidence is there that these people were, in some provable and marked way, different from their companions? What evidence is there that anybody on that ship planned violence, or that they "took control" of the vessel? Even if, hypothetically, all of this did indeed happen, then why is it that the passengers on the ship itself are overwhelmingly claiming that it was the Israelis, and not this supposed group of IHH "radicals", that instigated the violence?

3) The American Red Cross has repeatedly said that the humanitarian aid which is actually able to get through to the Gaza Strip is nowhere near adequate to meet the needs of the people who live there; this explains why the offers made by external parties to distribute that aid were rejected. As for the anti-Semitic chants and the songs about martyrdom... I never claimed that those weren't hateful. At the same time, they do not prove violent intent (and frankly, in my opinion, demonstrate an inexcusable willingness to allow anger to provoke incendiary and bigoted language).

4) Once again, although I have said from the beginning that Israel has the right to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip (of which blunt objects and knives do not count, despite your assertion to the contrary), the blockade is unjust precisely because it also targets humanitarian aid to the civilians of the Gaza Strip. Though you argue that this aid is being allowed to get through, organizations from the Red Cross (see above) to Amnesty International beg to differ.

5) You keep insisting that the Israelis had to resort to violent force and that the protesters instigated the violence, and repeatedly cite the video as evidence of this. Once again, the video footage that I have seen is shot in such a way that it is hard to come to decisive conclusions about who started the violence. That said, the disproportion in the weaponry possessed by the protesters relative to the Israelis is highly suggestive that the soldiers started the violence. What's more, fear of getting bludgeoned to death does not require gunfire in response, particularly when such means as tear gas and paint guns are also at your disposal. All of this has been pointed out to you before; noen of it has been effectively addressed.

PS: While this is admittedly a petty point, I would personally appreciate it you would identify yourself in future blog posts. It strikes me as a tad cowardly to be so vehement in expressing opinions that you won't then put your name behind.