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Thanksgiving tradition mostly lives for expat Americans in Israel

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 20 November 2009
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Thanksgiving is Thursday, and Fred Casden would kill for a cranberry.

“If I could find some fresh cranberries, or even frozen, I would make my sauce,” lamented Casden, an avid home chef who moved to Israel from Teaneck with his wife and daughter. “What they have here in the can is so lame I won’t touch it.”

Like many other Israelis brought up in the United States, the Casdens will be enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends they met on the plane bringing them to their new home in Israel in July 2007. “But I’m not sure our daughter will get home from the army in time to participate,” he said of the Thursday evening get-together.

For Laura Savren, it was not the berries but the bird that proved to be problematic.

About three months after she and her family made aliyah in 1999, Savren walked up to the meat counter of her local supermarket and asked to order a whole turkey.

“They looked at me like I was nuts,” the Boston native recalled, laughing. Israelis eat plenty of turkey — usually in the form of schnitzel or shwarma — but almost never whole, since Israeli ovens are generally too small to accommodate the large bird.

Savren later learned through the Anglo-American network where she lived in Ra’anana that a butcher in town could help. She went in to order the bird, but it was too late. Finally, she found a frozen turkey imported from America in a specialty store that caters to immigrants. The same store also carried the cranberries, canned pumpkin, and mini-marshmallows that she needed to prepare the family’s first Thanksgiving dinner in Israel, with all the trimmings.

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Adaya Mor said celebrating Thanksgiving with other Israeli soldiers who had left behind their families in America provided a needed boost.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” Savren said. “I love the food. I love making a turkey.”

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America in 1621 by American pilgrims who wanted to show thanks for the harvest. It was proclaimed a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Each year, the American Jewish Committee hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for about 40 soldiers from the United States who are serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Adaya Mor, 20, served in the IDF through Garin Tzabar, which groups lone soldiers together on kibbutzim, providing them with a host family and a support system. She made aliyah from Cheshire, Conn., in 2007.

About a week before Thanksgiving last year, Mor said, she realized she might not have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

“I never would have thought it would hit me, that I would really want a Thanksgiving dinner,” said Mor, an Israeli native who grew up in the United States from the age of 5.

Once Mor’s family arrived in the United States, American families invited them to Thanksgiving dinner. Soon her family began holding its own Thanksgiving celebrations.

Two days before the holiday last year, the AJC called Mor with an invitation to its Thanksgiving dinner.

“I was just in shock,” she says. “I was so thankful I was invited.”

Mor added that celebrating the holiday with other soldiers who had left their families in America to come to Israel gave her a boost she really needed.

“Sometimes you need people to remind you why you are doing this,” she mused.

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Fred Casden gets ready for Thanksgiving. Will somebody please send him some cranberries? Abigail Klein Leichman

Mor has heard that the American students at Hebrew University, where she is a student, gather for a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.

For many “Anglo” expatriates wanting to continue the tradition, it’s more common to move Thanksgiving dinner to Friday night.

“We always buy a turkey [for that weekend] but we have it on Shabbat since we have to make a big meal anyway, and nobody’s home on Thursday night,” said Roseanne Greenwald, who made aliyah in 1993 from Teaneck and lives in Tzur Yigal with her husband and kids.

“But we do have a group of friends who get together on Thursday for Thanksgiving and some years we have joined them. We have a lot to be thankful for; America was a wonderful place that gave us the concept of giving thanks for what we have.”

Some ex-pat Americans don’t feel the need to celebrate the holiday.

Lauren Dan of Pardes Hannah, who made aliyah from Connecticut 17 years ago at the age of 22, married an Israeli and moved to an area where there were no other Anglos.

“I became Israeli very quickly,” she said. “I feel so much more Israeli than I do American.”

Thanksgiving is an important tradition in her family back in America, and she calls them each year to wish them a happy holiday. She even admits to an occasional craving for her mother’s corn pudding. But she said she does not miss the yearly celebration.

Her twin daughters, 9, and son, 8, “have no idea” about Thanksgiving. When she questioned them about the holiday, her query was met with quizzical expressions until she asked in Hebrew if they are familiar with Chag HaHodaya.

Yes, they responded. They saw Zack and Cody celebrate it on the Disney Channel show “Suite Life.”

Though the Greenwalds keep the tradition going, Roseanne Greenwald recalled that her Hebrew school teacher in Central Jersey once told his students that Thanksgiving isn’t necessary for Jews. “Why? Because we [already] thank HaShem every time we put food in our mouths; every time we say ‘Hodu l’Hashem ki tov [give thanks to God for He is good].’”

Hodu, by the way, is also the Hebrew word for “turkey.”

Fred Casden, who wouldn’t be celebrating were it not for the invitation from friends, explained the disconnect on a practical level. “When you’re in America, it’s a day off, so you have the leisure to spend that Thursday cooking like everyone else,” he said.

“Here, no one is doing it, so it becomes a non-event — just like days which are important in Israel can never be as important in New Jersey because what everyone else is doing has a big effect on you. You can’t have a holiday by yourself, except maybe your birthday.”

Which is why those new Israelis who do celebrate Thanksgiving tend to do so with other former Americans.

The Savrens have often invited friends of different nationalities to their Friday-night Thanksgiving table. This year’s guest list includes an American family, an Israeli who grew up in Europe, a Dutchman, and his American girlfriend.

Aside from the fact that non-Americans often find the traditional dishes odd — Israeli guests, Savren said, take one look at the cranberry sauce and spend the rest of the meal pushing it around their plate — she says the meal is most successful with other Americans “because they get it.”

JTA/Jewish Standard

 
 

Obama and the deafening silence of American Jewry

 

With flotilla deaths, Turkey may be near tipping point

ISTANBUL – While Turkey and Israel have seen their once-close relationship deteriorate steadily for the past few years, the Israeli commando raid of a Turkish-led flotilla heading for Gaza, in which several Turks were killed, marks a dangerous new low in the two countries’ relations.

“Turkey is now involved in a way it’s never been before: Blood has been spilled,” said Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy and advocacy organization.

Following Monday’s raid, massive street protests broke out in Turkey, and the country recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned Israel’s ambassador to Ankara.

News Analysis

Addressing parliament Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke in harsh terms that seemed to leave little room for an easy rapprochement with Israel.

“This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse,” Erdogan said. “This attack is on international law, the conscience of humanity, and world peace.

“No one should test Turkey’s patience,” he added. “Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable.”

Four Turks were killed by Israeli commandos in Monday’s raid, which left five others dead. Dozens of others suffered wounds, including several Israeli soldiers.

The deterioration in the Turkish-Israeli relationship, much of it connected to the fallout from Israel’s 2009 Gaza invasion, has been mirrored by an equally precipitous rise in Turkey’s visibility and involvement in the Middle East — an area that it had kept at arm’s length for decades because of historical enmity and mutual suspicion.

Until recently, Turkey’s growing regional role included a desire to parlay its good relations with both Israel and the Arab states into a role as a regional mediator. Ankara, for example, hosted Israel and Syria for a round of secret peace talks in 2008 that ultimately failed. All along Turkey has continued its close military cooperation with the Jewish state.

But for now, analysts say, Turkey appears to have abandoned its mediation efforts in the region in return for a more pronounced leadership role in the Muslim world. On Monday, Turkey canceled plans to hold joint a military exercise with the Israel Defense Forces.

“For the time being I don’t see any kind of opening for the peace process,” said Gencer Ozcan, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “So if there isn’t any peace process, there isn’t any need for the good offices of a mediator.”

Pope said, “It’s going to be very hard for Turkey to portray itself as a neutral mediator with Israel anymore.”

Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, said that Turkey’s declared policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has come to a “juddering halt” in the case of Israel.

“Instead, Ankara appears to have given its tacit consent to another policy of sharpening contradictions, of trying to lance the boil instead of putting soothing ointment on the blister,” he said.

While Turkey may earn short-term gains from distancing itself from Israel, there are concerns about the long-term effect a serious breach between the two countries might have on an already conflict-ridden region.

“Turkey has gradually been losing one of the most significant leverages that it was using in the Arab world,” Ozcan said. “Even the Palestinians were telling Ankara over the years to keep talking to the Israelis.”

Turkey’s harsh response to Israel’s action is yet another signal of an important shift in Turkish foreign policy, analysts here say, with Turkey taking a more assertive role both regionally and globally. The government of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came into office in 2002, has worked to forge close relations with neighbors such as Syria and Iran.

“The AKP’s project is positioning Turkey,” said Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a senior research fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute. “It’s a project whose goal is to set up Turkey as an international player, on the one hand, and to get recognition of Turkey as a moderate, market-friendly leader in the Muslim world and be treated as such in international bodies.”

Sami Kohen, a veteran Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the Milliyet daily, says Turkey’s hand in the region is strengthened now.

“There is now more reason for Turkey to take a more active part in the events of the Middle East, since it has suffered personally from this attack,” Kohen said. “Now it can justify its anti-Israeli positions, which get a good deal of sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world.”

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

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Baltimore Jews rally June 4 in support of Israel. Rebecca Gardner/Baltimore Zionist District

The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds, and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting against Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy.

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools, and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation and the way the Israeli navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent at the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel.

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscience in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: Political poker

New Jersey’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle appeared steadfast in their support of Israel after last week’s flotilla raid as Jewish leaders continued to lobby on behalf of the Jewish state.

“The most important thing that we as Americans can do,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “is let our elected officials know that we feel strongly that Israel’s insistence on inspecting goods that are being brought into Gaza is entirely justified. If the tendency by some in the United States to curry favor with the Muslim world trumps the absolute requirement for fairness and support for the only democratic regime in that area, then we’re giving up the moral high ground.”

It is not in America’s best interests, Cole continued, to weaken in its support of an ally — in this case Israel — lest other allies begin to feel they cannot count on U.S. support.

The State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents New Jersey’s federations in Trenton, is pressing state legislators to support Israel. Its director, Jacob Toporek, issued an open letter to Gov. Christie and the 120-member state legislature last week outlining the reasons for Israel’s blockade and its actions. Almost immediately, he said, he received a call from Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County, who said she would introduce a resolution supporting Israel based on the letter.

“That’s a terrific response, unexpected, and we’re very pleased by it,” Toporek said.

“It’s all a public relations game. This open letter and resolution would be very, very helpful.”

Christie’s office acknowledged the letter on Wednesday but had no comment at that time.

“Hopefully as time passes and the outside world sees how Israel is really treating groups trying to bring in outside aid,” Toporek said, “they’ll realize what happened is a confrontation set up by those supportive of Hamas and who intend to put Israel in the worst light.”

NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel lobby, has been calling members of Congress to emphasize that Israel’s blockade is more of an arms embargo on Hamas, said the group’s president, Ben Chouake. Response on the Hill has been very positive, he told The Jewish Standard.

“They fully understand that Hamas is a terrorist group, that they’ve been overtly aggressive to the civilian population of Israel; they oppress their own people, and a flotilla of militants provoked violence against Israeli soldiers who gave them adequate warning and were peacefully trying to enforce an arms quarantine,” Chouake said.

At least among New Jersey’s representatives in Washington, NORPAC appears to be getting its message across.

“My colleagues understand that Israel has a legitimate right and important need to protect its citizens from rockets and guided missiles being brought to Gaza,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) told the Standard on Wednesday. “There is some regret over the loss of life, not withstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Asked why President Obama has not firmly come out in support of Israel in this incident, Rothman credited the president for preventing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel and calling for an international inquiry.

“In diplomacy, it is often the case that the most powerful and effective operations occur behind the scenes and that is what’s happened here,” Rothman said. “In my opinion — and in the view of the good guys as well as the bad guys around the world — actions always speak louder than words. Sometimes soothing words are possible along with quiet diplomacy, but sometimes they are not.”

Rothman’s colleagues in Washington issued their own statements supporting Israel’s actions.

“Israel has every right to defend itself and enforce its blockade against the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said in a statement sent to this newspaper. “The organizations operating the flotilla made their intention to violate the blockade clear and refused Israel’s repeated offers to process the aid through appropriate channels. Clearly, there were people aboard the lead ship who were intent on violence and sparked the tragic events.”

In a statement to the Standard earlier this week, Sen. Bob Menendez outlined the necessity for Israel’s blockade.

“If the blockade were to be broken,” he said in the statement, “it would be impossible to tell which vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies and which were carrying deadly rockets. The bottom line is that the attempt to prevent materials that could be used against Israel from reaching Hamas is of vital interest to Israel and to its national security, and I fully support it.”

The senator went on to emphasize that the international reaction to last week’s incident could legitimize Hamas, which would undermine the peace process.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said that it was regrettable that lives were lost in the raid but praised the bipartisan support for Israel in both houses of Congress. He affirmed Israel’s “right to protect its citizens.”
“It is crucial for the United States to stand beside Israel during these tumultuous times and I am heartened by the bipartisan Congressional support for Israel’s recent actions,” he said in a statement to this newspaper. “I believe the strategic relationship between our two democratic governments will continue to withstand the threats and actions of terrorists who seek to create a rift between our two nations.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) pointed to the need to keep weapons out of Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its borders and to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons and missiles that it has proven it will use to attack innocent Israeli civilians with little restraint,” he said in a statement to the Standard on Tuesday.

Pascrell took a more sympathetic tone toward the people of Gaza, pointing out what he called “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” there. The current situation there, he said, is “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“I am pleased the Israeli government has shown signs that it will consider modifications to their blockade,” the statement continued. “I believe that we can allow humanitarian goods to enter the territory while still ensuring that weapons are not imported and Hamas is not resupplied.”

Breaking from his colleagues, Pascrell called for the creation of an independent commission to conduct an impartial investigation of the flotilla incident.

“We are grateful that the leadership of the United States has been supportive in this matter,” Chouake said. “They well recognize the need for Israel to defend itself against the terrorist group Hamas and it is important to prevent arms from reaching these terrorists.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: The communal response

The general feeling among North Jersey Israelis following Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza last week is one of disappointment, said Tenafly resident Udy Kashkash — disappointment in the world’s reaction and disappointment in how Israel has been treated in the media.

Despite world condemnation, though, 49 percent of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla were to blame for the resulting deaths, according to a Rasmussen Reports national survey released on Monday. Just 19 percent of those polled thought Israelis were to blame, while 32 percent were not sure.

Within the local Israeli community, though, there is a feeling that Israel is being unfairly castigated, said Kashkash, a member of the Israeli Club at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Israel’s taking all the precautions [during the flotilla raid] and even putting soldiers at risk — and after all that, who do they criticize? Israel,” he said.

Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, agreed that there is a sense of shock in the local Israeli and Jewish communities in reaction to the world’s response. Unlike last year’s Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza and 2006’s Second Lebanon War, no physical threat spurred Israel’s actions but rather a perceived threat. This, Levy said, has become a focus of his outreach.

“It wasn’t like suicide bombers or katyushas coming over to Israel from Gaza. It was going to be something that could threaten Israelis, and Israel does have a legitimate right protected by international law to put a maritime blockade around Gaza.”

The federation has been taking out ads in local media and sending e-blasts with talking points.

“What we hope to do as Israel activists is really get the message out in the community about the real facts on the ground,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

She recommended people write op-eds and letters to their local newspapers, as well as monitor local media for inaccuracies.

The Jewish community is largely playing defense now, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

“What’s troubling and frustrating for many defenders of Israel is that the flotilla incident will be viewed without much-needed context and critical pieces of information,” he said. “The tragedy of the deaths overshadows the facts of the circumstances that led to them. Critics of Israel will omit the part about Hamas and the effort to blame Israel in all of this.”

The ADL has not seen any spikes in anti-Semitic incidents around the state, Neuer said, but the organization does expect some backlash.

“We have noticed a rise in the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere,” he said. “The incident fueled many of Israel’s fiercest critics and provided them with the ammunition they needed to demonize Israel.”

Neuer cautioned every Jewish organization to review its security protocols in light of recent events. The organization has not received any threats as of yet, he said, but security reviews are always a good idea.

“It’s critical for the leadership of Jewish institutions to always be vigilant and especially so when the political temperature rises in the Middle East,” he said.

Many local rabbis addressed the flotilla incident during their sermons this past Shabbat, connecting the perspective of the world to that of the spies in the Torah reading who reported that Israel was full of giants and the Israelites should turn around.

“All 12 of the scouts came back with factual information about the land, but what made the reports pejorative was that everyone’s report was colored by their own perspective and expectation,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “When you have Joshua and Caleb going out with faith in themselves and faith in God, they see the challenges as obstacles to be overcome but within their capability.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, is heartened by the Rasmussen Reports poll, but said the American Jewish community needs to continue its efforts to promote Israel’s side of the affair.

“The rush to condemn Israel seems to have become more contagious from Israel’s usual slate of adversaries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” said the Ridgewood resident. “It’s reached those nations that in recent times had better relations with Israel. That’s worrisome.”

Cole urged support of Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.

“Weaponry has been brought into Gaza through the tunnels and other surreptitious means,” he said. “Weakening the blockade means ever-deadlier missiles and more powerful weapons could be delivered.”

Israel’s allies have been active on Facebook and in organizing rallies around New York City. One rally, sponsored by Amcha and several other pro-Israel groups, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon outside the Israeli consulate in New York. Kashkash appreciates such efforts but still wants to see more from the American political arena.

“We need our largest ally to be fully behind us,” Kashkash said. “What we hear coming from the White House is not something very strong and very stable.”

“As more information becomes common knowledge, the world will see that Israel acted correctly,” said Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood Cliffs-based Israel lobby NORPAC, “and this group that created unnecessary violence on the flotilla and unnecessary deaths instigated the incident and Israel will be fully vindicated.”

 
 

Judge not…

 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israel facing tough choices on Gaza as criticism of blockade mounts

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Following the Israeli navy’s takeover of the Gaza bound flotilla, Jerusalem is facing tough questions about its blockade of the Palestinian area. Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Despite the international outcry following last week’s lethal confrontation between Israeli commandos and militant pro-Palestinian activists aboard a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel insists its naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory is justified and will continue.

But even Israel’s closest allies backing the blockade as a legitimate means of cutting off weapons supplies to the Hamas regime, with which Israel is in an official state of belligerency, have been critical of the wider siege, which they say is hurting the people of Gaza far more than their fundamentalist rulers.

The new international predicament in which Israel finds itself raises a number of fundamental questions: How necessary is the blockade and how effective has it been? Why was it imposed in the first place? Why was it accompanied by a wider siege blocking civilian goods and movement? And what should Israel do in the face of the storm of international protest?

The blockade-siege in its present form was imposed in June 2007.

Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats in Palestinian elections in 2006, and it formed a unity government with Abbas’ Fatah Party. The following year, Hamas staged a violent coup and took complete control of Gaza.

Israel and Egypt responded by closing land crossings into Gaza, and Israel reinstituted a naval blockade on the Gaza coast.

Israel’s rationale was that after hundreds of Hamas-inspired rocket attacks, it needed to do whatever it could to keep weapons, weapons’ manufacturing parts, and bunker-building materials out of Gaza. The siege, which also limited civilian supplies, was intended to put pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and possibly even to induce popular rebellion against Hamas.

In September 2007, following dozens more rocket attacks, Israel officially declared Gaza “a hostile territory,” buttressing legal justification for its hostile moves against it.

Moreover, by stifling economic development and living standards in Gaza while promoting them in the west bank, Israel was signaling to the Palestinians that Abbas-style coexistence would get them further than Hamas’ blanket rejectionism.

The Egyptians, concerned that Hamas radicalism could spill over into their territory, argued that opening their border with Gaza would imply recognition of the Hamas government and further undermine the legitimacy of the PA. Formally Egypt insisted on faithfully carrying out the provisions of a November 2005 agreement that provided for supervision of its Rafah crossing point with Gaza by PA and European monitors, a provision rejected by Hamas.

The 2005 “Agreement on Movement and Access” was meant to put the finishing touches on Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza two months earlier. Brokered by the United States, the aim was to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and thus enhance Palestinian productivity.

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Members of Russian American Jewish Experience and other Jewish organizations gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York on June 1 in a show of solidarity with Israel. Ross Den

Under its terms, the main land crossing points at Rafah, Kerem Shalom, and Karni would be fully opened. There was no thought at the time of a naval blockade. On the contrary, work on a feasibility study for an independent Palestinian deepwater port in Gaza was under way.

Dov Weissglas, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, says that with Israel out of Gaza, the Palestinians promised an economic miracle, arguing that without the occupation to hold them back, they would show the world what Palestinians could do if given a chance and turn Gaza into a new Singapore.

According to Weissglas, plans for five-star hotels along the coast and an airport at Dahaniya were far advanced, with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, then the international Quartet’s special representative, playing a leading role. The idea was to underpin peace between Gaza and Israel through economic progress, much as in the west bank today. The Hamas takeover, however, put an end to the Singapore dream.

Stepped-up Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians eventually led to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli land invasion of Gaza in December 2008. After the war ended a month later, Israel’s main concern was to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Talk at the time had German, French, and British ships patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent arms smuggling. But when the idea fell through, mainly at Egypt’s insistence, Israel was left on its own to monitor maritime traffic for weapons. Last November, Israeli Navy vessels intercepted the Francop, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship that was carrying hundreds of tons of Iran-supplied weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly also Hamas.

On the cover

More than 700 people turned up to show their support for Israel at the StandWithUs rally held on June 3 in Times Square. Hundreds more stopped to watch footage of the IDF boarding the Mavi Marmara while StandWithUs regional coordinator, Avi Posnick, narrated the events.

According to a group spokesman, “This was the first time the footage was shown out on the street, and the point of us doing this was to get this out to the masses.”

On June 9, the organization co-sponsored a rally at the Israeli Consulate, drawing some 2,000 people.

Hamas has been able to continue smuggling weapons through tunnels along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Israeli fear, though, is that large ships could bring in much bigger rockets and missiles, possibly even game-changing weapons such as the accurate medium range GPS-directed M-600s Hezbollah has received from Syria. Israel sees Gaza and Lebanon as two Iranian forward positions and part of a much wider regional threat.

Many of Israel’s friends recognize its need to check ships approaching the Gaza area for weapons. But there is far less understanding for the limited inflow and often arbitrary exclusion of civilian goods — for example, keeping out unsupervised cement and steel that could be used for building bunkers or making weapons makes sense. And critics ask why thyme, coriander, chocolate, and macaroni are on the exclusion list.

Some critics say the limited influx of goods is causing a humanitarian crisis. Others argue that even if it isn’t, the restrictions constitute a form of collective punishment, which is illegal, even between warring parties.

Israel maintains that no humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza and that it is doing more than enough to prevent one. According to the Israel Defense Forces, which coordinates aid to Gaza, Israel in the first three months of 2010 sent in more than 3,600 trucks with approximately 100,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, animal feed, hygiene products, clothing, and shoes, as well as 1,000 tons of medical equipment.

Moreover, 10,544 Gaza residents were treated last year in Israeli hospitals. According to Western figures, the average life expectancy in Gaza is 73.68 years, compared to about 40 in some African countries, and there is as little malnutrition as in the West.

Israel also supplies 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity, its fuel needs, hypochlorite for water purification, electricity grid repair parts, and glass to fix windows, as well as cement and iron for building, under strict supervision. According to U.N. figures, updated to Jan. 30 of this year, 78 percent of homes lightly damaged in the 2008-09 Gaza war have been repaired. Other observers go even further, pointing to the well-stocked markets in Gaza, the emergence of gourmet restaurants, and the recent launching of a new Olympic-size swimming pool.

Human rights activists contend that although there is plenty of food, not everyone can afford to buy enough to meet basic needs. They say 70 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed, 40 percent of Gaza workers are unemployed, and 60 percent of households are “food insecure” — that is, they can’t be sure of having enough cash for their minimal food needs.

Whatever the true state of humanitarian affairs in Gaza, there is increasingly little tolerance from friends or foes alike of Israel’s limitations on the inflow of civilian goods.

Following a visit to Gaza in March, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin declared that all the siege is achieving is to “enrich Hamas and marginalize even further the voices of moderation.” And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the siege in its present form as “unsustainable and unacceptable.”

To some extent, it seems, continued Israeli insistence on the civilian blockade could undermine the far more vital military blockade. And that’s precisely what the militant blockade runners aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara and others that might follow are trying to achieve: to delegitimize Israel’s blockade altogether and enable the free entry of all ships to Gaza, even those carrying military cargoes.

Israelis are divided over how to go about maintaining the blockade. The government argues that the best course of action is to make Israel’s moral and legal case, and expose the delegitimizers. The opposition retorts that Israel can only hope to deflect international criticism by embracing credible peace policies. In other words, that criticism of Israel was so spontaneous and severe after the confrontation on the high seas because the government was widely perceived as not being committed to ending the occupation.

Opposition voices also suggest that the government should rethink the civilian siege, which they say has not achieved its goals: After four years in captivity, Shalit has not been released or even so much as allowed a visit by the Red Cross, and there is little sign of the siege sparking an anti-Hamas uprising. They conclude that the failed policy is costing Israel heavily in diplomatic coin, leaving it more isolated than at any other time in its history.

The government faces some big decisions: First, whether to allow an international presence in an inquiry into the confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara; second, whether to ease the civilian siege to ensure continued international backing for the military blockade; and third, whether to present a new initiative on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

JTA

 
 

A matter of convenience

 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

image
On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 
 
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