Sunday, May 06, 2012

Beinart, Israel, Gaza, & Auschwitz

Challah Hu Albar 

On Wednesday evening Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis had a debate, sponsored by Tablet Magazine and The Columbia Current. At one point Gordis highlighted a sentence of Beinart’s book in which he writes that Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza "sometimes" shell Israel.
I honestly thought that this was a joke, so I went and found the quote.
At the core of the tragedy lies the refusal to accept that in both America and Israel, we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else. American Jewish organizations do not deny that Jews wield power; privately, they exult in it. Emotionally, power is what groups like AIPAC sell: the power to be a modern-day Esther, whispering in the ear of the King and saving your power from destruction. What they don’t acknowledge is what happens at the end of the Purim story. By discussing power only as a means of survival, the American Jewish establishment implicitly denies that Jews can use power for anything but survival. They deny that Jews, like all human beings, can use power not merely to survive, but to destroy.

A few years ago, a journalist reported that Malcolm Hoenlin, the influential executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had a photo in his conference room of Israeli F-15s flying over Auschwitz. It is a photo of fantasy. Israeli jets never bombed Auschwitz and never will. What they have bombed, in recent years, is the Gaza Strip, a fenced in, hideously overcrowded, desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel. Hoenlin, in other words, has decorated his conference room not with an image of the reality that he helps perpetuate, but with an image of the fantasy he superimposes on that that reality. In this way, he embodies the American Jewish establishment, which, by superimposing the Jewish past on the Jewish present, is failing the challenge of a new age. 
First, Palestinian terrorist groups do not sometimes shell Israel from Gaza. Since 2005 (as of May 2, 2012), 11,724 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza. In other words, for the past 7 years, 4 months and two days there has been a DAILY average of 4.38 rockets and mortars from Gaza. That is anything but sometimes.
Second, I do not know the exact photo that Hoenlin has, however, it could be the one on the right. I am personally a fan of this one. The photo is not meant to be about Israel bombing Auschwitz, it is meant to show that the Jewish people now have the State of Israel, which can defend itself and the Jewish people and ensure that such an atrocity is never again committed. How Beinart does not comprehend this simple matter is mind-boggling. 
Here are the words from Brig. Gen. Avi Maor, one of the pilots in the famous flight in 2003: "I decided that this would be the most proper way [to visit Poland]…because it represents the state of Israel and the Jewish people in a different way. Not just 'what was done to us' but presenting the national strength and the fact that Israel is a strong state with a strong army." Or, more powerful is the statement Amir Eshel read as the planes flew over"We pilots of the Israeli Air Force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage, and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel." Eshel has since said that he often looks at the picture he has of the flyover: "I look at the picture and see that every challenge can be overcome…If we rose from ashes, we can achieve even more." 
Additionally, here is the report on Hoenlein that appeared in Lifestyles Magazine that Beinart is likely referencing in his book. 
Hoenlein, the son of Holocaust survivors, emphasizes how lucky world Jewry is to have the State of Israel and quotes the late Abba Eban, who said during WWII, “Jews had influence in many places, but power in none.” But not today; Israel does have power, both militarily and politically as a strategic democratic partner with the United States. And Israel should make no apologies about defending itself. As Hoenlein explains how Jews have triumphed over their troublesome history and merciless enemies, he points to a picture hanging on the conference room wall. Wide, black train tracks lead the viewer’s eye through a looming open gate into Birkenau, the Nazi death camp. But flying above this imposing people-less scene are three Israeli F-15s. The picture was taken during a visit to Auschwitz by Israeli Air Force pilots. Hoenlein first saw the picture hanging in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office and was so moved by it that he asked where he could get one. For him it summarized the polarity of Jewish history. “Just when our enemies thought it was the end of the Jewish people, we triumphed,” Hoenlein says with great emotion. “Our enemies are in the ground and the Jews fly high.” Over the gates of death, he points out Olmert’s inscription which reads: “This will never happen again because of this,” referring to the F-15s. Hoenlein makes clear that the flight of the F-15s was not a statement of military prowess but of moral victory.
Unfortunately, this all seems to be lost on Beinart, who has taken a deeply disturbing read of the photo's meaning. 
A colleague of mine has the following take on all of this, which I highly recommend. 
First, if you are right about the photograph, it is not a photo of a fantasy, it is a photo of a reality. The flight happened. The Israeli F-15’s flew over Auschwitz
The paragraph actually shows something about Beinart’s treatment of fact. To Beinart, observations of fact turn into fantasy when Beinart judges them to be ill-motivated. So the F-15’s flying over Auschwitz is no longer a photograph of reality because Beinart has speculated that Hoenlein’s motivation was a fantasy. 
Beinart is doing exactly what he accuses Hoenlein of doing. He’s writing not of the reality that he sees, but an image of the fantasy (what Beinart fantasizes is in Hoenlein’s brain) Beinart imposes on reality. It’s not Hoenlein that is doctoring reality to suit his fantasy, it’s Beinart. 
It is a fact that Israeli F-15’s flew over Auschwitz. It is a fact that the photograph displays that reality. 
It is a fantasy that Hoenlein had a photograph of F-15’s bombing Auschwitz and a fantasy that this photograph was part of a revenge fantasy against Nazis. 
And this leads us, of course, to the question of why Beinart is so eager to impose a fantasy of Jews as psychologically ill on a more complex reality. 
Second, you’ll notice the way the paragraph parallels Gaza and Auschwitz. This is a sick parallel that has been drawn by bigots engaging in a form of demagogic anti-Semitism (the Jewish state is Nazi) combined with Holocaust denial (the Nazi Holocaust consisted of cruel and illicit combat actions against an inferior combat foe, not the rounding up and slaughter of civilians who had no combat whatsoever with the Nazis). 
The parallel in Beinart’s text is undeniable, even if the comparison is not made in so many words. Beinart adopts the imagery of Israel’s most anti-Semitic critics. 
And this leads us to the question of why: is it that Beinart shares their anti-Semitic views, or more likely, that he is simply too obtuse to understand how offensive it is to echo them and too lacking in self-awareness to even observe what he is doing?

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