Given that last week’s big Jewish news was Peter Beinart’s criticism of the Jewish American establishment, I got up today wondering what he’d say about the Gaza flotilla attacks. Not so surprisingly, he had quite a bit to say, and posted his reaction on The Daily Beast.
He makes some good, careful points. And it seems that many reasonable people–whether they fall to the left, like Beinart, or right, like Jeffrey Goldberg–are finding common ground. Their big picture take is this: the Israeli commandos were clearly provoked, and violently so. When you threaten people with knives and strike them with metal rods, you can no longer claim yourself a defenselss civilian. And you can expent those with guns to use them.
And yet, and yet. The Israeli soldiers were clearly in over their heads, acting with far too heavy a hand, which is sadly so often the case. While it’s impossible to know whether any other 19-year-old soldier, be he in U.S. fatigues or NATOs, would have acted differently, the fact is that the Israeli military should not have allowed the situation to get this far. Even Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council of Foreign Relations, who writes a strident defense of Israel’s actions, concedes that Israel blundered this one ("The Israeli commandos…badly mishandled the situation.").
In the end, Beinart hammers home the same basic point he made in his provocative New York Review essay, arguing that Jewish leaders are again focusing on the supposed just-ness of Israel’s actions. But what they are arguing is justified (the embargo on Gaza in this case), Beinart says is actually not justified at all. For the past three years that it has been in place, the embargo has only grossly impovershed 1.5 million Gazans while leaving lethal Hamas radicals, sworn to Israel’s destruction, in power. The point Beinart makes, and which I agree, is that if a policy is not working, you abandon it for something else. Israel, to its own detriment, refuses to do so.
If there’s anything I’d add to this discussion, it’s this: while I’m a big supporter of the good works international aid organizations do — whether its the American Jewish World Service, or the Red Cross — far too many of them have over-stepped their bounds. What the Free Gaza Movement was doing was less huminatarian, than violent provocation. It may be the case that pro-Israel groups are too quick to try to delegitimize humanitarian groups, but the point they are making is still credible.
If aid and human rights are what you stand for, God bless you. But by lowering yourself into violence and wanton provocation, you threaten the image of the good deeds you say you admire. The result is "humanitarian aid" gutted of its humanity. That threatens the world–in Israel, as in any other country–and makes it a far more dangerous place.