Boycott Hamas — But Foster Palestinian Moderation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-17-12

This is the first in a series of articles that will answer the question of how to deal with Hamas.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon part of it,” Part III, Article eleven of the Hamas Charter reads. “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad,” says Article fifteen. And then it goes wacky, invoking the Protocols of Zion, targeting “Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like,” making it clear that, as Article twenty-eight teaches “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

Those who pressure Israel to mollify Hamas want Israel to appease an unrelenting, paranoid, anti-Semitic, Jihadist movement committed to Israel’s destruction and ideologically opposed to compromise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that “words matter.” And the words in founding charters matter the most. They reflect an entity’s character, its highest aspirations, its most cherished self. To ignore those words—and those ideas—is to disrespect the organization, let alone delude oneself.

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Palestinian Hamas premier in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya gestures in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City on August 6, 2012 during a protest against five gunmen who killed 16 Egyptian guards. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Moreover, Hamas has never renounced, never regretted, never apologized for, the many civilian deaths resulting from its suicide bombing campaign against the Oslo peace process. Moreover, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza resulted in repeated rocket fire from Gaza, an area now controlled by Hamas. Hamas dictates how women should dress and what children should learn yet pretends that its dictatorial rule somehow runs out when it comes to a government’s most basic responsibilities, which include maintaining order internally and determining how it acts externally.

At the same time, Israel must live in the real world, a world in which Hamas controls Gaza, and a world in which Palestinian assaults against Israel are repeatedly ignored or excused away. What to do?

As long as Hamas continues to live by its charter, as long as rocket fire and terrorist incursions continue to come from Gaza, Israel should maintain its policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. I would go even farther and let Egypt take responsibility for all deliveries, all electricity, all hospitalizations. If Gaza had no border with Egypt, Israel would have a moral obligation to keep some goods and services flowing. But a country has no moral obligation to a sworn enemy when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to its south.

At the same time, Israel should acknowledge its own historic failures in building up moderates in the Palestinian camp—and learn how to avoid giving extremist groups like Hamas the oxygen they need to grow. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates. And yes, they are justified in being frustrated that Israel frequently responds to the violent extremists more than the reasonable moderates.

The Gaza disengagement should have been part of an exchange with moderate forces in Fatah, giving them a victory rather than allowing the Hamas murderers to take credit.  Israel should continue building economic, political, and security infrastructure in the West Bank, continue its Benjamin Netanyahu-implemented policy of lifting checkpoints there, continue to make it clear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will be better off if they push their leaders toward more moderation rather than veering toward the extremism imposed on their Gazan cousins.

There is an expression in Arabic and Hebrew—sikin b’sikin—one dagger sharpens the other. That has been the dynamic, in many ways, for the last few decades. Surprisingly, right now, there is a bit of a respite, with moderates like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building their state not targeting their neighbors—and Israel is responding in kind. It is fashionable to complain about the current stalemate without seeing how much better off the region is in 2012 than it was in 2002, when violence reigned.  Heavy-handed moves like boycotts, blockades and bombings are easy to implement; creative diplomacy and visionary statesmanship are harder to pull off—but more necessary than ever.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Gil Troy: My Response to Rashid Khalidi

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By , Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-27-12

Professor Khalidi is anxious to bar me from the debate about the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem’s building site that adjoins an ancient Moslem graveyard by questioning my credentials. And I guess he is right.

Offering a symphony of subtlety to a Middle East problem may well be too “American.” It is unfortunate that he could not see in my response any basis for common discourse or compromise or acknowledge that my essay essentially endorsed his goal of preserving the Mamilla Cemetery out of shared reverence for his ancestors and out of respect for his—and others’—feelings.

However, I am sorry to disappoint Professor Khalidi. I will not retreat in the wake of his assault. I stand by my criticism. Without rehashing the entire debate, allow me to offer three correctives to his version of events that prove my point that the whole situation is a classic Middle East muddle rather than a black-and-white situation with the Israelis and Jews acting as evil stick figures.

For starters, Khalidi indignantly dismisses what he calls “the canard regarding the Palace Hotel.” Sounding more like a lawyer than an historian, he carefully emphasizes that “it was always outside the boundaries of the cemetery, so the specter of the Mufti invoked by Troy” is like “a ghost rattling chains to scare the naïve and ignorant.” I had pointed out that the “fiery Palestinian nationalist Haj Amn al Husseini … built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse” and “decreed the end to burials in the cemetery.” If we’re interested in full disclosure, we should acknowledge that one of the architects who worked on the Palace Hotel, Baruch Katinka, wrote in his memoirs that while excavating the foundations, workers discovered human remains—suggesting that the boundaries of the Mamilla Cemetery were less clear than Khalidi would have us believe.

Moreover, when Katinka reported this discovery to the Grand Mufti, the Islamic leader ordered Katinka to rebury the bones elsewhere.  To be fair, because I acknowledge complexity, I will admit that this triggered a religious and political dispute among Muslim religious leaders, and that is why I conclude that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has rights to build but would be wiser not to exercise them.

Similarly, it would be fair to acknowledge this dispute’s timeline, because that, too, lightens the burden on the Wiesenthal Center. As described in the Israeli Supreme Court opinion, the building plan was published on August 29, 2002, the application was approved on October 27, 2004, and remains were only found toward the end of 2005, triggering an even later objection. So the Museum of Tolerance did not target a Muslim cemetery. It began building an important project on an area that was an eyesore—an ugly multistory parking lot—then stumbled into this mess.

Finally, the Supreme Court judgment detailed three different compromise solutions offered, which are often used when human remains are found on building sites in Israel. These included “hand excavation,”  “freezing the area” then extracting the bones, or cutting the graves out, raising them on a wooden platform and transporting them to an “alternative site” with no direct human contact being made to respect the graves’ sanctity. These proposals, even if not fully satisfying to the plaintiffs, also demonstrate more good will and intricacy than Khalidi suggests.

Maybe those Wiesenthal people have a point when they complain that their attempts at compromise have been rebuffed. But there again I guess am showing my alleged ignorance by trying to avoid a zero-sum, black-white, good versus evil discussion here.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

How To Model Tolerance

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-16-12

Critics of Israel are having a grand old time turning the proposed Museum of Tolerance under construction in Jerusalem into a symbol of Israeli intolerance, given the museum’s seemingly insensitive decision to build its monument to broadmindedness on a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. Rashid Khalidi’s “Tolerance of Whom?” is the latest attack on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s initiative, this time deeming it “grotesque” and an “abuse of the dead.”

But the outrage over the building is one of those made-in-the-Middle-East cases of selective indignation and political grandstanding. The Wiesenthal Center has every right to build there and is the victim of a political mugging. Nevertheless, sometimes solving a problem with a touch of grace and self-sacrifice is preferable to standing on principle and asserting your rights.

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Frank Gehry’s proposed 2004 design for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem., Getty Images

In his screed against the Wiesenthal Center, Professor Khalidi overlooked the historian’s favorite text—context—and forgot that scholars are not supposed to fear complexity. Khalidi writes poignantly about the generations of his ancestors buried there and fears that this Muslim presence is being “erased.” In fact, many Zionists welcome modern Israel’s rich Arab heritage. I, for one, share Khalidi’s appreciation for the history that consecrates the ground there for him and for many of us who cherish the traditions of all the peoples of the Middle East.

I particularly love the Mamilla burial grounds. Over the years, my children and I passed many hours on visits to Jerusalem, wandering around, absorbing the history, delighting in some of the elaborate burial structures, and imagining the biographies of the many people buried there.

But Khalidi mislead readers by failing to tell them that the story of the Mamilla Cemetery is a complicated tale of a graveyard no longer in use, no longer considered sacred, and oft-violated already by Muslims, not just Jews. Most dramatically, in the 1920s, the fiery Palestinian nationalist, Haj Amin al Husseini, decreed the end to burials in the cemetery, designated the area as a commercial space, and built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse in the heart of Jerusalem. Since then, Muslim religious authorities have considered the cemetery “Mundras,” spiritually abandoned. After 1948, much of the Mamilla area became Gan Ha’atzmaut, Independence Park, and much of the controversial corner where the Wiesenthal Center is building became a parking lot.

Moreover, the Wiesenthal Center people note that for decades, no longer considering the area sacred, Muslims approved of the various commercial activities Arabs and Israelis performed on the site. Even for the first five years after the Museum initiative began, no one filed any religious objections, until some Islamist activists sensed a good opportunity to embarrass Israel—and the trouble began. Living in the Middle East—and especially Jerusalem—means constantly time-traveling through many different historical zones. Layers of history underlie most areas, and bones show up in the most inconvenient of building sites. Here, too, although consistency is a virtue, hypocrisy is rampant. The same progressives who are so outraged at the Museum of Tolerance’s alleged intolerance seethe when ultra-Orthodox Jews try stopping archaeological digs or building projects they deem to be on Jewish burial grounds (while ignoring this controversy, of course).

Ultimately, the legal, historical, and religious record justify the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s decision to build its Museum of Tolerance on the Mamilla Cemetery’s outskirts. Yet, if I were in charge, I would make my blow for tolerance by moving the project. While reaffirming the Jewish claim, while blasting the protesters’ duplicity, while filling in the facts, I would nevertheless build elsewhere. Civility entails knowing your rights but sometimes knowing enough not to assert them fully. Civility emerges from occasionally conceding graciously, even if unilaterally, not solely for the sake of others, but for your own sake. Mamilla Cemetery should be preserved as a Garden of Tolerance, fully administered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a generous fee, with a Museum of Tolerance built somewhere else in Jerusalem.

Not all conflicts need be zero sum, with clear winners and losers. To give the Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Authorities the necessary nudge, deep-pocketed, peace-loving Arabs or Europeans or Americans should help create a rare Middle Eastern win-win. Let these do-gooders tally up all the court costs, real-estate fees, and construction costs to buy out the Center, while finding the Museum of Tolerance a new home. Let the building of the Museum of Tolerance become itself a model of tolerance, achieving its founders’ vision in ways that are all too rarely achieved in the Middle East of simplistic spin and fanatic finger pointing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Conceptually correct, politically tone deaf

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-18-10

President Barack Obama dithered when it came to the question of building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. In that problematic-for-a-president-but-perfectly- professorial-way of his, Obama initially framed the issue as a question of liberty, saying “This is America and our commitment to freedom must be unshakable.”

A day later, backpedalling from the firestorm his remarks ignited, Obama posed the Ground Zero mosque as a question of propriety, saying: “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”

Unfortunately, once again, Obama stumbled by seemingly embracing both sides of a debate, thereby alienating almost everybody invested in the issue. Initially, conservatives grumbled that he failed to defend America – and the 9/11 survivor families – against an Islamic affront. Twenty-four hours later, liberals groaned as
he retreated.

Yet, Obama was conceptually correct if politically tone-deaf. Government bias in favor of freedom of religion should be so strong it butts out of the issue, neither preventing nor facilitating the building of the mosque. At the same time, the Muslim community should be sensible enough to back down, for its own sake – as rumors suggest it may finally be willing to do.

Dwight Eisenhower warned his successor John F. Kennedy that only the tough issues end up on the president’s desk, and this is one tough issue. It pits a community’s fundamental freedom to worship where it chooses against the fact that people acting in the name of that community committed mass murder on that site. When facing this kind of impasse, rather than invoking the Talmudic principle of “teiku” – it is a tie — I invoke the baseball principle of “tie goes to the runner.” In a clash of liberty versus sensibility, I still prefer to see the government erring on the side of liberty and the people swallowing their discomfort, rather than risking religious liberty.

I WRITE this well aware many Islamists would view a Ground Zero Mosque as a monument of Muslim triumphalism. I do not believe the choice of location is benign, given how many mosques have been built on land sacred to others, and how in Jerusalem alone the golden Dome of the Rock is one of many Islamic holy places purposely positioned to dwarf a Jewish holy site. Moreover, I am disgusted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf the alleged moderate behind this initiative, has said: “The US and the West must acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end,” refuses to recognize Hamas as a terrorist group, and said, when discussing 9/11, that “we [Americans] have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

As a result, the ideal outcome would be for the American government and people to allow the mosque and for the Muslim community to seek a different location. That would create the kind of monument to mutuality we need in this world; that would build the kind of bridge Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf claims to desire. Democracy requires self- restraint and self-policing by both the minority and the majority, to weave a web of mutuality, civility, community. A constant assertion of one’s rights in conflict with communal sensibilities generates social stress. By contrast, occasional strategic concessions build goodwill, as does taking responsibility for one’s own community. In turn-of-the-century New York, when Jews were blamed for feeding a crime wave, Jewish leaders organized undercover operations to bust Jewish criminals. Rather than being defensive, the Jewish community chose to be constructive.

In a different vein, after Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967, Israel’s decision to allow Muslims to control Muslim holy places and Christians to control Christian holy places exemplified the noble democratic instinct to cede some rights, to respect certain sensibilities, rather than maximize the government’s prerogatives. While this arrangement has not worked perfectly, in the blizzard of accusations enveloping Israel, its many jaundiced critics often avoid the question of Muslim and Christian freedom of worship, because of Israel’s generous concessions from the start. If anything, it is the Islamic Waqf which has more frequently behaved badly, notably in moving tons of dirt rich in archaeological evidence from the Temple Mount to garbage dumps outside Jerusalem.

WHATEVER THE ultimate outcome of the mega-controversy over the mega-mosque, Barack Obama’s contribution to the discussion foolishly diminished his already dwindling political capital. The Obama of 2008 – who could seemingly do no wrong – might have brokered a compromise with the Muslim community. At the time, he sang his song of multicultural modern nationalism so beautifully, he might have been able to find that political sweet spot which preserved his liberal principles without enraging conservatives. But Obama the lyrical nationalist has been missing-in-action since he won the presidency.

President Obama has rarely succeeded in pitching a position above the partisan bloodbath – and seems to have stopped trying. Instead, once again, he failed to reassure more traditional American nationalists that he shares their post-9/11 pain, that he understands their justifiable worries about Islamism. Dismissing valid concerns as bigotry – as New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has done – only creates more tension. And once again, many were left wondering whether President Obama was too naive to see the historic patterns, harsh statements, and horrific crimes of the Islamists fuelling this fiery debate, discomforting even making many of us who would nevertheless support the building of the mosque. Today, in 2010, we turn desperately to the American Muslim community – rather than to the eloquent American president – to save America from this painful predicament.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com