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Sunday, June 14, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

To make an Israeli omelet is it necessary to break so many eggs?


"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. . . . Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. . . . Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell."

Though many of his compatriots criticized him for accepting Israel's Jerusalem Prize for 2009, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami nonetheless went to Israel to accept it. In his moving acceptance speech, delivered in English on Feb. 20, Murakami identified with the Palestinian victims, the eggs, against what he called "the System" that Israel has created in various physical and psychological forms to contain and isolate Palestinians.

"The System," said Murakami in this speech, "is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others — coldly, efficiently, systematically."

In his reference to the wall, Murakami meant not only the structure that Israel is erecting, presumably to afford it security, but also a slew of Israeli actions, including the use of illegal weaponry, unleashed on their Palestinian neighbors.

The wall itself, scheduled for completion next year, comprises imposing, vertical slabs of concrete, as well as watchtowers, electrified fences and razor-coil wire. Its $2-billion cost includes the leveling of Palestinian land and the felling of more than 100,000 trees to guarantee the wall's "integrity."

Can Israelis sit back, once this wall is finished, and feel secure? Or has the Israeli government, with its wall and its oppressive measures against Palestinians, become the very architect of the nation's insecurity?

Walls are built to be torn down, as is this one which offers sham protection. U.S. President Barack Obama, who on June 4 delivered a moderate speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, would have made a greater impact had he paraphrased the words of another president (Ronald Reagan) about another "great wall": "Mr. Netanyahu, tear down that wall!"

Murakami generally shuns the limelight and rarely makes political statements. It took personal courage on his part to denounce Isreal's apartheid-like policies while there.

A similar stance was taken recently by U.S. scholar Herbert Bix, whose "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Writing this month in the online newsletter, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Bix brilliantly analyzes Israeli intentions and deeds in his essay titled "The Israeli-U.S. Gaza War and its Aftermath." (I add here that I am an associate of the journal.) There, he reminds us that the wall is an utterly illegal manifestation of a broad policy of intimidation and aggression against Palestinians.

"In July 2004," Bix writes, "Israeli jurists on the High Court of Justice deliberated on Israel's separation wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague had just determined, by a vote of 13 to 2, that the 30-foot-high (10-meter) wall was part of Israel's policy of building settlements on stolen or confiscated Palestinian land, and had condemned it as an illegal land grab which other states should not recognize. The U.N. General Assembly almost immediately called on Israel to comply with the ICJ advisory opinion and end its illegal wall-building, whose real aim was the defense of settlements, not Israel itself."

But everyone, as Murakami suggested in his acceptance speech, relates to great issues in a personal way; and I, too, see Israel from the standpoint of my own upbringing and education.

I grew up in a thoroughly Jewish household and can trace my ancestors, on my mother's side, back through the 400 years they lived in Krakow, Poland. Though my parents spoke no foreign languages, I made it a point to study Russian and Polish and, thanks to that knowledge, was able to find out more about my roots than my parents could have known. I have read and studied every major Jewish author who came from East-Central Europe, cook a blintz as light as a dirigible, and can tell so many Jewish jokes it isn't funny.

I open that window on myself neither to boast nor to establish a pedigree. I just don't want any schmendriks writing in and calling me an anti-Semite just because I don't believe Israel should be a Jewish state. (A schmendrik is half fool, half jerk.)

I am also not a philo-Semite. If we Jews are the chosen people, we have been chosen to be like anybody else. And if Israeli policies toward Palestinians are wide open to criticism, as Bix suggests in his essay, then it just goes to show that when Jews establish their own state, they end up acting much like the Japanese did in their period of expansion (roughly the half-century from 1895 to 1945): Take what you can get and blame it on persecution past and present.

When the state of Israel was founded 61 years ago, it was recognized immediately by the United States, whose support has been the linchpin of Israeli geopolitics ever since. The second nation to recognize Israel was the USSR, ensuring that, at least in the initial stage, Israel's national integrity was protected from Cold War posturings. Recognition by Arab states and Iran one day is desirable and inevitable.

I have every reason to believe that, once Israeli citizens renounce the definition of their country as "the Jewish state," Israel can exist securely as a multicultural democracy in peace with a Palestinian state and its other Arab neighbors.

In the long history of the Jewish people, there have been, on the whole, harmonious relations with Muslims in their societies. Jews in the Middle East, in Turkey and in Iran lived for centuries in harmony with Muslims, experiencing little or no persecution. It has been the Christians who have given Jews a hard time; and it is ironic that countries such as the United States, overwhelmingly Christian as it is, now bend over backward to demonstrate support for Israel as a Jewish state. Is this association by guilt?

The issues between Muslims and Jews are geopolitical, not religious, though fanatics on both sides are wont, for their own aggrandizement, to couch them in terms of the latter. This is why I am hopeful for the future of the Middle East, insofar as the problems there relate to Israel. History is on the side of Muslim- Jewish harmony.

Murakami was right to go to Israel and say his piece. His eloquence, I believe, will someday resound throughout the Middle East:

"We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you."



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