Podcast • May 14, 2010

Kai Bird: Cancel the Apocalypse

Kai Bird, as a Pulitzer-grade biographer and historian, is drawn to the apocalyptic. He’s been “obsessed with things atomic,” as he says — with bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer; with the Bundy “Brothers in Arms,” ...

Kai Bird

Kai Bird, as a Pulitzer-grade biographer and historian, is drawn to the apocalyptic. He’s been “obsessed with things atomic,” as he says — with bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer; with the Bundy “Brothers in Arms,” McGeorge and William; and now with the Middle East, where he grew up, and especially Jerusalem, “a city where apocalyptic literature was born and nurtured.”

So it is striking that opportunity is the keynote of Kai Bird’s memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, from his boyhood past the check-points of Arab and Israeli Jerusalem in the 1950s. His half-century chronicle is of promising roads not taken, yet in both the book and our conversation, he is talking today about an epochal turn, in Arab and Israeli thinking, out of stalemate toward secularism and sanity. There’s an extension in spirit here of the stubborn pragmatism that Mustafa Barghouthi voiced with us about a non-violent route out of fanaticism.

At the core of Kai Bird’s vision, Barghouti’s too, is an old idea among Zionists, early and late, of a “Hebrew Republic.” It is the vision inside Bernard Avishai‘s writing from Jerusalem today and his 2008 manifesto The Hebrew Republic. It was much the same vision that fired a fabulous, largely forgotten character that Kai Bird introduces from the 1940s, Hillel Kook:

Even though he was a member of the Irgun and working with Menachem Begin at that time… [Kook’s] argument was that the new state should be secular, very much a division between synagogue and state; that this would open the door to a society inclusive of non-Jews, Christians or Muslims that were also in the state; … that the state would be imbued, drenched in Jewish culture as such; but the state’s identity would be based on its language: Hebrew. And as such, the state of Israel would become a state like any other state. The Hebrews of Israel would be Hebrews, like Frenchmen in France. It would be a modern 20th century secular state…

I would argue, as does Bernard Avishai in his brilliant book, that Israel is going in that direction. Most Israelis live along the Mediterranean Coast in Tel Aviv, and they’re highly educated, inventive, cosmopolitan, high-tech and productive members of their society. They’re secular, and yet they are drenched in Jewish culture and in the Hebrew language. And If Israel becomes more of a Hebrew republic and less of a Jewish state as such, that opens the door to becoming good neighbors with their own Israeli Arab citizens but also with their neighbors in the West Bank and Egyptians and Syrians. It becomes less a religious conflict, and more a question of where the borders are going to be between these states…

Ironically, the radical revisionists of the 1930s and 40s envisioned a secular republic. They did not talk about a Jewish state. They talked about a state where Jews could simply be modern human beings filled with multiple identities, not simply a religious label… But today we’ve been going for 60 years in the other direction, precisely because the conflict has been prolonged, because Israelis are drenched in a sense of victimhood, not only from the Holocaust, but now from all the wars and the suicide bombers. And they face an enemy, the Palestinians, who also are drenched in victimhood and see themselves as the victims of this 60-year conflict. So it’s a terrible tragedy. So this notion that a secular Hebrew republic as such, a more secular Israel, will evolve over the next 20 or 30 years of globalization is a hope, I would argue, that this conflict can eventually be resolved.

Kai Bird in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 7, 2010.

Podcast • April 30, 2010

Mustafa Barghouti: Is there Room for Gandhi in Palestine?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mustafa Barghouti. (53 minutes, 32 mb mp3) Ask Palestinians why there is no Gandhi in their movement, and often the answer comes: but there are several, and Mustafa ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mustafa Barghouti. (53 minutes, 32 mb mp3)

Ask Palestinians why there is no Gandhi in their movement, and often the answer comes: but there are several, and Mustafa Barghouti should be recognized more widely as one of them.

A medical doctor, born in Jerusalem in 1954, trained both in the old Soviet Union and in the US, he is the advocate of a strong, non-violent push to a two-state deal with Israel. He got his break in the show biz of American opinion last Fall on the Daily Show. His B. D. S. campaign this Spring in the world press and on American campuses stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to bring the pressure of international attention and law on the Israeli government.

Mustafa Barghouti has set his own course in the famous Barghouti family and in Palestinian politics. With Edward Said and others in 2002, Mustafa Barghouti helped found the Palestinian National Initiative. He was the Initiative’s candidate (and ran second to Mahmood Abbas) to succeed Yasir Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. His Initiative banner waves for “a truly democratic and independent ‘third way’ for the large majority of silent and unrepresented Palestinian voters, who favour neither the autocracy and corruption of the governing Fatah party, nor the fundamentalism of Hamas.” In a long conversation at Brown’s Watson Institute yesterday, Dr. Barghouti seemed a model of the old virtues: patience, long-suffering, gentleness and a certain deep enthusiasm.

There isn’t any place in the world where apartheid is so systematic as it is today in Palestine… You are talking about a situation where we the Palestinians are prevented from using all our main roads because they are exclusive for Israelis and Israeli Army and Israeli settlers. This did not happen even during the segregation time in the [United] States. People could not use the same bus or same restaurant. But here you can’t use the same road even. I am an elected Member of Parliament. I ran for president in Palestine; I was second in the presidential race. I was born in Jerusalem. I worked as medical doctor, as a cardiologist, in a very important hospital in Jerusalem for 15 years. And since five years I am prevented, like 98 percent of the Palestinians, from entering Jerusalem. If I am caught in Jerusalem, I could be sentenced to seven years in jail.

This is unbelievable. You have a situation where a husband and a wife cannot be together. If a husband is from Jerusalem and his wife is from the West Bank, or the opposite, they cannot live together. Because if the husband or the wife comes to the West Bank they lose their ID, they lose their residency. And the wife or the husband from the other side cannot be granted citizenship in Jerusalem. We have never seen a situation where a country occupies a city like East Jerusalem and then declares the citizens of the city — who have lived there for hundreds, and some of the families for thousands of years — “temporary residents.” And if one of them goes out to study at Brown for five years for instance, they would lose their residency. This is what you see are acts of ethnic cleansing.

There isn’t a place in the world where officially the policy is, if I have a person with a heart attack and I need to get him to a hospital in Jerusalem or in Israel, I have to get a military permit from a coordinator in the military headquarters. And this can take hours or days, or it can not be granted at all. I’ve had patients die in front of my eyes because I could not get them through the checkpoints. We had 80 women who had to give birth at checkpoints, and 30 of them lost their babies. And to me, the fact that a woman cannot give birth in a dignified manner, and having to give birth in front of foreign soldiers out in the street, is equal to the utmost injustice. Tell me, where does that happen anywhere in the world? And this is happening by a country that is claiming that it is a democracy and that it is civilized. And by people that have had suffering in the past. I mean, that’s what amazes me, you know. People who understand how terrible it is to be discriminated against…

So we ask ourselves: how do we make the Israelis change their minds? How do we convince them to stop the oppressive system which is hurting our future and their future? …We have to make their system of occupation painful; and we have to make their system of occupation costly. This can be done through only two ways: either you turn to violence, which I totally disagree with, I don’t believe in and I think is counterproductive; or you turn to non-violence and mobilizing international pressures on Israel, as people did in the case of the apartheid system in South Africa. If it wasn’t for the divestment sanctions campaign in the 80s and 90s we would never have seen the apartheid system fall apart in South Africa, simply because the balance of forces between the regime and the people is so big in the interest of the regime. We have the same situation in Palestine. That’s why I speak about divestment and sanctions to encourage non-violence. This is the only way we make non-violent resistance succeed, by having an international component, especially in the United States. We are not talking about boycotting Israel, or Israeli people. We are talking about boycotting occupation and about divestment from occupation and military industry that is exploiting people, that is destroying people’s lives and that is consolidating an apartheid system. So we are calling for divestment from occupation and apartheid and injustice…

Let’s say we have a Palestinian state and an Israel state. This will make many Israelis calmer because they will not be afraid about the Jewish nature of Israel as a state, although 20 percent of its citizens are Palestinian today. Eventually there will be cooperation between the Palestinian state and the Israeli state, economically, say. I don’t see a problem with us and Israel joining the European Union together, for instance. But Israel has to answer a bigger question.

I mean, Israel is not an island in the ocean. Israel is an island in the Middle East. What we have so far is an Israeli government that is always in conflict with others. They seek conflict, in my opinion, and they use this conflict to justify oppression of Palestinians, and to justify a lack of solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. First it was the Soviet Union: they could not make a solution because a Palestinian state would be closer to the Soviet Union, for instance – or with Egypt which was at that time closer to the Soviet Union. Then it was the problem of Egypt and Syria, and then they had peace with Egypt and ceasefire with Syria. They had a problem with Iraq. Today they speak about Iran. Tomorrow if Iran is no problem they probably will start speaking about Azerbaijan. They keep looking for an external justification for a problem that’s internal.

Many Israelis speak of this. And they ask: in a globalized world when you have economic cooperation, why does Israel want us not to be a democracy? Why did they kill twice already our best experiences developing a democratic system – once in 1976 when we had the first municipatlity elections, and they didn’t like the results. At the time there was no Hamas; at that time Israel was cooperating with Islamic parties against the secular national democratic groups like us. And they killed the results of the 2006 elections which were praised by the United States and the world community as the best democratic elections in the Middle East. You see, I see racism here. Why are Israelis entitled to democracy and Palestinians are not? The question is why are they afraid of us being a democracy? Because we will have a government that cannot be manipulated?

Mustafa Barghouti in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown’s Watson Institute, April 29, 2010.

Podcast • January 10, 2008

George Bush in Jerusalem: Not Too Late for a Legacy

Bernard Avishai My friend Bernard Avishai suggests on his bracing, clarifying blog from Jerusalem that everybody traveling with President Bush in the Mideast this week should stop and see a popular Israeli movie, “The Band’s ...
Bernard Avishai

My friend Bernard Avishai suggests on his bracing, clarifying blog from Jerusalem that everybody traveling with President Bush in the Mideast this week should stop and see a popular Israeli movie, “The Band’s Visit.” It’s about an Egyptian policemen’s marching band from Alexandria that finds itself by mistake in a forlorn Israeli desert community, and then about the bandleader and the woman who welcomes him, unpacking their humanity and their love for one another. The film, Bernie writes, is “the best proof we have that, for ordinary people, peace is already here.”

The reason why this movie is so powerful and so loved is, I think, we’re sort of past these rather stale notions of national self determination and so on. After all the European Community, the European Union is this big mixed up thing. You know, people are starting to see in this country, (I’m talking about the educated elites in this country, really, but even people whose politics wouldn’t be reflected in their love of this movie) … it’s just that we’re all tired of this. We’re tired of this. We know already that there are human beings on the other side. It’s hard not to see it staring you in front of your nose every single day. And I think we are hungry here for us to be snapped out of this war, because we know that it doesn’t take much for the escalation to start, and the polarization to start, and once that happens you start demonizing the other side all over again. And that’s exactly why we need help. We need help, brother. We need help. We need to go for help.

Bernard Avishai, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Bernard Avishai and Steven Erlanger here (31 minutes, 14 MB MP3)

That plea for help is front-and-center in the compact power-point primer for Bush & Company on Bernard Avishai’s blog. And in our conversation today (with The New York Times’ Steven Erlanger) Avishai explains why the plea goes unavoidably to the President of the United States.

We need more Dr. Kissinger and less Dr. Phil here. We need an American president who understands that the difficulties both leaders have — Abbas and Olmert — are not difficulties of personal popularity. The reason why Abbas, the reason why Olmert, will be unpopular taking any stand in favor of “the deal” is because they know each of them are going to have to split their country, as it were, to get it. Abbas does not want to take on his Islamists and radicals and so on, the people running Gaza, he doesn’t want to take them on for the sake of the goodwill of the other side. Olmert does not want to take on his rightists, including the vast majority of the people of Jerusalem, in order to sell a deal which is supposed to be good for them and the other side. Nobody trusts the other side. So what each need to have is some third force — to trust, to sell, to fear — in order to sell something without having to trust the other side. And that third force can only be America. Olmert has got to be able to go to the Israeli people and say: look, it’s not me, it’s America. We can’t have distance between ourselves and the United States. We need to do this because the Americans need it. It’s in America’s interest. The world wants it. We cannot defy American interests over this. That puts his opposition on the defensive. Otherwise the opposition says: you want to do this deal for those Palestinians who are sending missiles into Ashkelon. That’s his dilemma.

Bernard Avishai, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Steve Erlanger, the Times bureau chief in Jerusalem for the last three and a half years, wonders if George Bush after so much loss of altitude at home and in the Middle East, remembers how much clout he still commands.

Just look at Annapolis. Whatever you thought of the Annapolis meeting, the United States snapped its fingers and within a week got 49 countries to come to Washington, including the Saudi foreign minister and the Syrian deputy foreign minister. That was power. That power has not disappeared. George Bush may be considered — particulary at home — a weak figure and abroad he may be hated by many people. But this notion that American power is down the drain is simply wrong.

Steven Erlanger, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Bernie Avishai wonders if President Bush ever reflects that as the occupying power in Iraq, he is effectively a member of the Arab League, in which his mostly Sunni Moslem colleagues “desperately want to get the Arab-Israeli conflict behind them, because it’s roiling their streets, and the biggest problem is Egypt. Everybody knows that Egypt could be next.”

Avishai is a tough analyst and an incorrigible optimist who leaves you believing not so much in George Bush’s late “legacy” play but in the complexity of local logics driving toward a resolution. Steve Erlanger notes that Bill Clinton was even later than Bush in bearing down on the Palestinian-Israeli puzzle. So there may be some unexpected comfort in this candid conversation.