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Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Israel’s Three Solitudes

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by David

In light of the recent article by Peter Beinart on “The American Jewish Cocoon,” I composed this post, which may seem a bit dated, on the various “cocoons” in Israel.

Diverse Passengers on Jerusalem Light Rail

I was in Israel, but I thought of Quebec. Specifically, I thought of Montreal, my hometown. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan wrote a novel called Two SolitudesI never read it, but I know what it’s about. It’s about the deep, historic, and persistent divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada and especially in Quebec.

I lived in Montreal for the first nineteen years of my life, and I felt that divide. Growing up, I had no French Canadian friends. I still don’t. This  is not that surprising. I went to Jewish elementary and high school for all but grades five and six, where I went to an overwhelmingly Jewish public school with a Jewish heritage supplementary program. I lived in a bubble. I had no non-Jewish friends either, except briefly an Irish kid from hockey who had a French Canadian mom but identified as Anglophone. I had a handful of somewhat Francophone Jewish friends, mostly Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, some of whom spoke French at home. But most Moroccan Jews attended French Jewish schools, or French public or private schools, rather than my overwhelmingly Anglophone institution.

After high school, I attended CEGEP, a sort of non-remedial junior college designed to prepare students for university (what we in Canada call college). I went to Dawson College in the Liberal Arts program, and had two of the best years of my life. I learned the whole scope of European history, extensive philosophy and literature as well. I also made non-Jewish friends. Most were wealthy WASPs or other Anglophones. I became friendly with two Francophone women. I remember this because we called them Francophone Jen and Francophone Emilie to distinguish them from their Anglophone counterparts with the same names (we did not call the others Anglophone Jen and Anglophone Emily).

Ironically, I had my first serious conversation with a French Canadian sitting next to one on the bus from Boston to Montreal. A fellow Harvard student, he came from a working class Quebecois background, was extremely bright, hard-working, and ambitious. He spoke perfect English, and we conversed the whole ride. I asked him if he felt any affinity with the Harvard Canadian Club, whose members periodically pestered fellow Canadians to attend parties and drink Canadian beer. He was quite clear in his response. No, he did not feel any affinity with them, or any other Canadian from Vancouver or Toronto. He felt like he belonged to a different group of people, and in some ways was from a different country.

I thought about these things when I rode the bus in Israel, or took the new light rail in Jerusalem. I saw all sorts of Jewish passengers, soldiers and civilians, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrachi and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian and Russian and everything in between. And they’d be sitting or standing next to Arabs: Muslims and Christians, secular and religious. And neither group noticed the other. It’s as if they weren’t there. Not only did they never ever talk, they barely acknowledged each other’s existence. They were taking the same mode of transportation, sometimes getting off at the same stop, but clearly going to very different places.

I felt this separation when we visited a small mosque in East Jerusalem. Our (Jewish) cab driver told us to speak only English, not Hebrew, so that the people in the mosque would think we were non-Jewish tourists. We did so, and had a very hard time communicating with the three Palestinian Arab Muslims who were in the mosque at the time. They were very friendly, doing their best to explain so of the rituals and the layout of the main rooms. We only stayed about 10 minutes, and it was very interesting. I wondered how often Jewish Israelis or Jewish tourists to Israel ever set foot in a mosque.

I felt this separation again when we visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Behind the hotel lay a small museum, the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Much of it consisted of artifacts, or perhaps replicas of artifacts, from the Palestinian past, clothing and other essential items. But one room was labeled the room of “destroyed villages.” And that room had lists, and photos, and some artifacts from the villages destroyed by the nascent Israeli Defence Forces in 1948. There was a model of Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of Palestinians, but which was one example among many. Both sides committed atrocities, of course, but for so long Jewish Israelis pretended that they were blameless, that Palestinians had willingly fled and abandoned their homes. It was not true, and eventually the Israeli academy, and to a lesser extent the public, began to accept that fact. But here, the Palestinians had preserved a record, a monument, to those tragedies.

What struck me, however, was the language of the museum display. It was in Arabic and it was in English. There was no Hebrew. This suggested to me that Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis seldom made their way to this museum. But it also suggested that the Palestinian citizens of Israel who ran the museum had very low expectations of their Jewish neighbours. Perhaps those expectations were and are justified. But I wonder (and I really wonder, as I don’t know), does Yad Vashem have signs in Arabic? How many Arabs visit Yad Vashem? And is that different because Yad Vashem chronicles German and not Palestinian crimes?

Another time I felt this separation between Jews and Arabs was when I explored the old city. Walking through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, we saw barely any other Jews. We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where hundreds of tourists poured in and out. They came from all over the world. I saw women in hijabs and the Muslim men who accompanied them. But I did not see a single yarmulke. Not one person who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. And  few appeared to be secular Israelis either . Indeed, very few of the tourists appeared to be Jewish, if any. This made me sad. How could someone live their whole life in Jerusalem without the intellectual or cultural curiosity to visit this church, one of the world’s most significant historic sites? It made no sense to me.

And yet Israel was racked with even more divisions.

You can tell a lot about a (Zionist) Jew by what city is his or her favourite in Israel. If it’s Tel Aviv, he or she is probably secular, if Jerusalem, probably religious. Jews who keep kosher rave about the food in Jerusalem, those who don’t recognize it as thoroughly average (like my father says, “nobody goes to Jerusalem for the food” by which he means nobody secular).  The two worlds are so different, it’s like religious and secular Jews are visiting different Israels. To visit Israel means something very different for religious and secular Jews.

I felt this immediately on the plane I took to Israel. It was a United flight, and it left on a Friday morning, flying through shabbat into Israel. It was the first flight to Israel I had ever taken without any religious Jews on it. There were secular Israelis, some Arabs, and lots of Christian tourists. But no frum Jews.

After my stay in Jerusalem, I spent to time in Rehovot with my step-family. The story of how we’re “related” is an amazing one. My dad’s parents survived the Holocaust, and married after the war, and had my dad in Montreal. My dad’s mom died when he was in his 20s. Sometime after that, my grandfather reconnected with his childhood sweetheart from Poland. She had immigrated to Israel, married, and had a daughter. Her husband died, and so, in the 1970s, in his 70s, my grandfather moved to Israel and married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He became like a father to her daughter, and like a grandfather to her daughter’s children, particularly her older daughter. I always felt a special connection to her daughter, because she knew my biological grandfather as her “real” grandfather, whereas I saw him only 4 times in my life, as he lived in Israel and died in 1990. We shared him in a very powerful way.

I love my step-family. But what struck me was how secular their lives were, like those of so many other Israelis. They seemed to have no religious friends, nobody who was shomer shabbat, nobody who was seriously observant in any way. In fact, my cousin’s husband liked to “celebrate” Yom Kippur every year with a giant barbecue and loud music and dancing. While that might be extreme, the secular isolation from the religious (and vice versa) seems all too common.

This divide has entered popular culture. Watch the Israeli TV show Srugim (which is totally awesome), about single Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and see how the Orthodox struggle in their limited relationships with non-Orthodox (and at least thus far in my watching, Arabs are completely invisible).

I have no answers, no conclusion. Only hope for rapprochement. In Quebec today there is tension between the secular and the religious, between French and English. But in Israel and Palestine it remains much worse, much more explosive.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 2, 2013 at 17:38

Israel Through Its Cab Drivers

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David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.

My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.

The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.

I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.

Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.

In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.

Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.

He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.

But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.

We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.

After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.

Written by David Weinfeld

August 16, 2013 at 17:57

Jewish “Culture Wars” in Israel and America

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by David

Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage has brought talk of American “culture wars” back to center stage. As my friend and fellow US intellectual historian Andrew Hartman has written, the culture wars never really went away. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street movement merely opened up another front on that battlefield, uniting economic and cultural forces in new and profound ways. Issues of gay rights, abortion access, and immigration restriction mingled with questions over government size and spending, healthcare reform, and military policy, even as numerous members of both “sides” seemed to be acting against their economic interests.

In addition to these thoroughly American culture wars, however, another set of culture wars looms, one that may be even more bitterly contested, and more complex, than the American version. I’m talking about the Jewish culture wars which are currently taking place in both the United States and Israel.

The Washington Post has already called attention to Israeli version, which has made headlines with Israel’s new national unity government coalition which includes the ruling right-wing Likud Party and its chief rival, the “centrist” Kadima. Though the pretext for this alliance is to deal with the Iranian threat, the first order of business for the new government is domestic, namely the question of whether Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) citizens should be drafted into military service. About 10% of Israel’s population, most haredi men do not serve in the military, and instead are exempted from the draft to study Jewish texts at religious schools known as yeshivas. Both Likud and Kadima, though in many ways right-leaning, are secular oriented parties. Even Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu seems intent on at the very least conscripting the haredim into some form of national service, if not directly to the military.

This issue extends beyond the religious Jewish community. Aside from the Druze and some Bedouins, Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the military. A change to the law of military conscription may very well also affect them.  As Yossi Klein Halevi writes, “some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.” Ironically, the bringing together of Israel’s right-wing and centrist parties might achieve some progressive reform at the level of Israeli citizenship and move the country in a more inclusive, secular direction.

This clash of religious versus secular Jews in some ways mirrors the domestic American Jewish struggle over US policy towards Israel and the Middle East. Here in the US, there is a conservative Jewish establishment, represented by AIPAC and much of the institutional, organized Jewish community, that advocates unfaltering support of the Israeli government, and an aggressive policy towards Iran and anyone else deemed a threat to Israel, including numerous Palestinian factions. On the other side, liberal Jews have formed organizations like J-Street in an effort to advance a more dovish policy towards Iran, along with encouraging the resumption of peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians.

In the United States, it’s not clear where these two sides of this divide would fall on the Israeli domestic debate over military service. It’s possible that both American sides of this dispute would likely endorse any Israeli government attempts to draft haredim and Palestinian Israelis into national service, the AIPAC supporters because of their hawkishness, the J-Street crowd because of its negotiation-oriented strategy. Yet I could also see some religious Zionists in America – Jewish and Christian, arguing that the haredim play an important role in Israeli/Jewish life by studying and praying. The battle lines, if there are to be any, have not yet been drawn.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

May 14, 2012 at 10:39

Posted in culture, Israel, Jews, religion

Israeli Film Review: Footnote

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by David

In a sense, the excellent Israeli movie Footnote tells a thoroughly Jewish, or even Judaic tale. The movie is in Hebrew and set in Israel. The plot revolves around two professors, a father and a son, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both are Talmudic scholars.

And yet, more fundamentally, the movie is universal, and not Jewish at all. The Israeli setting, the Hebrew language, is incidental. This is a story about family, and about academia. The language, setting, and the academic discipline are irrelevant. It could just as easily have been about literary scholars in France, or chemists in England.

Some might argue that the elephant in the room of this film is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel is able to make a movie that completely ignores the existence of the Palestinians, which simply provides more evidence of the power of the occupation.

I read this fact differently. I think it is the fulfillment of one kind of Zionist dream, specifically Theodor Herzl’s dream of Jewish and Israeli normalization. Herzl supposedly quipped something to the effect of: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”

Well, there certainly are Jewish sex workers in Israel (though I don’t think they should be arrested). But my point is that movies like Footnote are evidence of the partial normalization of Israel. They provide a vision of what Israel might be, if the Palestinian conflict were resolved. A country like any other, with the ability to tell universal stories using its own language and cultural markers. It’s a vision I endorse, one that seems far away, but provides the occasional glimmer of hope.

In any case, the movie is terrific. It’s funny and poignant, with great dialogue and superb acting. The film is accesible to anyone, but it’s especially relevant for historians (as Talmudists, the protagonists are de facto medieval historians) and anyone familiar with archival research and the academic life. And this isn’t just my opinion: Footnote was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Go see it.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 21, 2012 at 11:37

Posted in Academia, film, Israel

A Real Palestinian Peace Movement

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by David

About 10 years ago, in May of 2002, as a college freshman, I wrote an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson titled “An Arab Peace Movement.” I wrote:

Palestinian peace advocates should do two things. First, they should organize. Second, they should protest suicide bombings in addition to the Israeli occupation.

A model for Arabs to follow is Peace Now, an organization founded by Israeli reserve officers in 1978. With branches in the U.S., Canada and Europe, it is the foremost Jewish peace organization. It organized massive protests throughout the 1980s and 1990s that influenced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Even Israel’s Labor party under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak eventually adopted many of its views. In response to the current conflict, Peace Now advocates a withdrawal from the occupied territories, a two-state solution and an end to violence.

There is no Arab or Muslim equivalent to Peace Now.

I actually think this article holds up pretty well. It’s true, there is plenty of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though still perhaps not enough. But that’s not the whole of it. Palestinians cannot simply adopt the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They need to advance the only pragmatic end goal: a peaceful, two-state solution.

Norman Finkelstein, defender of Israel?

This is the crucial point. Calls for a one-state solution are de facto calls for the destruction of Israel. Even Norman Finkelstein (Norman Finkelstein!), a critic of Israel so vociferous he makes Noam Chomsky look like a Likud party apparatchik, recognizes that the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement is simply a front for a group dedicated to Israel’s peaceful destruction.

As I wrote ten years ago:

Some non-violent anti-occupation Arab organizations do exist, including Addameer, LAW (a Palestinian human rights organization) and the Arab Association for Human Rights. But compared to Peace Now, these groups are tiny.

More importantly, Peace Now does not exist to oppose Hamas; it opposes the Israeli occupation. There is no broad-based Arab equivalent.

Today, in addition to Peace Now, there is also J-Street. There remains no Palestinian equivalent. If there are, I haven’t heard of them, and you probably haven’t either. Their voices are muted, and their members can meet in a phone booth. They need better PR. And they need a better message. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just preach non-violence, he told whites what they wanted to hear, namely, that his goal was peaceful integration, not separation.

In this instance, Palestinians must peacefully advocate the opposite goal. They must say: we recognize Israel, and we simply want our own state, and we will do anything peaceful to achieve that result.

As I concluded my article:

Peace comes through compromise, admission of guilt and self-criticism. Arab progressives need an organization like Peace Now. No such organization exists, and Arab voices of peace are reduced to whispers.

I’m proud of what I wrote 10 years ago. Things have gotten worse since then. But I don’t think the answers have changed. We still know the way forward, even though it seems even farther in the distance. But we still have to try to get there.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 9, 2012 at 13:13

Posted in activism, Israel, Palestine

Peter Beinart Strikes Again, Israel’s “Defenders” Cry Huckster

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by David

Peter Beinart, he of boyish good looks and correct criticism of the Israeli government

Apparently some people are angry at Peter Beinart again. Remember Beinart, famous for his 2010 New York Review of Books piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” I blogged about it here and here.

Well Beinart is now calling for a boycott of the settlements, for a clear distinction between “democratic Israel” and the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He is leveling criticism at the Israeli government and the Israel lobby again. And his critics are angry. Again. They cast Beinart as a shameless self-promoter. I’m in no place to judge, but I met Beinart once, and he seemed perfectly nice to me. He spoke at NYU in front of a large crowd, and then had a smaller discussion with some students of the Hebrew and Judaic Studies department, including myself. I liked him.

And you know what? I don’t care if he’s a shameless self-promoter. Because he’s mostly right, and if he’s galvanizing Jews on the left to support J-Street, and endorse a peaceful two-state solution, then that’s a good thing. This piece, by Noah Millman, “How Israel is like an Alcoholic Mother,” expresses this sentiment well, though it’s actually a bit unfair to Beinart, who has been a committed Jew and Zionist his whole life.

But at the end of the day, again, I’d have to say that Beinart is right on Israel, wrong on American Jewish youth. Frankly, I wish more were critical of it, because at least that would show that they cared. But they don’t. Most young American Jews aren’t angry at Israel. They don’t care about Israel. They don’t visit it. They don’t read about it. They don’t think about it. Apathy and assimilation are the real enemies to the Jewish future in the Diaspora, not anything Israel does. A.B. Yehoshua gets this; Beinart doesn’t. And that, in some ways, is a far bigger problem.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 25, 2012 at 20:44

Posted in Israel, Jews

The Best Journalist on Israel-Palestine: Khaled Abu Toameh

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by David

Khaled Abu Toameh

In light of the discussion generated my last post on the Harvard conference on a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (on this blog and my Facebook page), I decided to write a very short post about the person who I think is the best journalist and best source on Israel/Palestine: the Palestinian-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh. I saw him speak in Israel back in early 2006, I was impressed when someone asked him about the peace process and he replied: “Peace process? What peace process?” I’ve tried to follow his work ever since, and though I followed it much more closely a few years ago than I do now, it’s still more relevant than ever.

As his Wikipedia page notes, Toameh was born in Tulkarem, in the West Bank, but grew up in an Arab village in Israel proper. He is an Arab Muslim, of Palestinian ethnicity, with Israeli citizenship. He calls himself an “Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian.” He became controversial writing for the right-wing Zionist paper The Jerusalem Post, who seemed to love him because he was hyper-critical of the ultra-corrupt Palestinian Authority, even more so than he was of Hamas. Toameh was and is a vital source for the conflict between the PA and Hamas, which has occasionally turned into a civil war involving violence, atrocities, and torture on both sides. Many in the PA hate and even think of him as a traitor, but he is extremely effective at talking to high level officials and getting a sense of the Palestinian street.

Here is a list with some links to his most recent pieces.

Though he is clearly cynical, and no supporter of right-wing Israeli governments, Toameh seems to endorse a two-state solution and appreciates his Israeli citizenship. Some quotes from his Wikipedia page:

On his vision of peace:

If there is a Jew who would like to live in Palestine he is welcome, and if there is an Arab who would like to live in Israel he is also welcome. In an ideal situation, peace means that people can live wherever they want. (2010)

On living in Israel:

Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given the choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as a first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah. (2009)

On Arabs in the Israeli Knesset using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel while in South Africa:

And then they come here to tell us that Israel is a state of apartheid? Excuse me. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What then are you doing in the Knesset? If you are living in an apartheid system, why were you allowed, as an Arab, to run in the election? What are you talking about? We do have problems as Arabs with the establishment here. But to come and say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration. I am not here to defend Israel, but I think that Knesset members like this gentleman are doing huge damage to the cause of Israeli Arabs. I want to see the Knesset member sitting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, and fighting for the rights of Arabs over there.

Obviously Toameh is not the be all and end all of truth regarding the conflict. But he is provocative and provides novel insight and information and is essential reading for anyone concerned with the region.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 4, 2012 at 14:37