I'm doing some work for a television news magazine, "Empire," on Al Jazeera English.
Al Jazeera began in 1996 as an international network broadcasting in Arabic, the first truly independent TV news organization in the region. Most of its funding comes from Qatar, a country on the Arabian peninsula that's bigger than Rhode Island, smaller than Connecticut, with the highest per capita income in the world. In 2003, they launched Al Jazeera English, very BBC, but more adventurous. Sometime in the coming months, they will launch Al Jazeera America, though not because they're under the illusion that it's a third language. They're growing while other news organizations are shrinking. They like depth and serious reporting. In short, they are the only serious rival to Jon Stewart's claim that "The Daily Show" has "the best F**king News Team on the Planet."
My first project was "Empire of Secrets" about the intelligence services. My second assignment is "Oslo +20," the name of the Norwegian city referring to the agreement that was supposed to lead to more agreements that would bring peace in Palestine. The 20th anniversary of Oslo is nigh.
Except for the pleasure of reading the letters to the editor in the Woodstock Times, this is a subject I have studiously avoided. The pro-Palestinian Leftist Jews go at it with the pro-Israel less-Left Jews. Here's a sample selected by the truly random method of let's-see-if-there's-one-in-this-week's-paper. It says, in reply to a previous writer, "It's too late for him to use others as a front while he whines about 'victims.' He has long since crossed over to the dark side of vicious propaganda....Goebbels."
I have an ethnic identity. I'm a Jew. My parents regarded the religion itself as backward Old World superstition. To me, Jewish was a synonym for New Yorker, progressive, intellectual, and sarcastic.
By contrast, in Europe generally, where I have traveled as an adult, and in England, in particular, where we lived for three years, Jews tend to be in the closet. Not like, "the Cossacks are coming!" Just aware that they're in lands where anti-Semitism has old, deep roots, so it's best not to ruin dinner by awakening indecorous thoughts. Yet, as we traveled, we would discover, sometimes decades later, that a disproportionate number of the people we became friends with were Jews. Some cultural imprint, ways of thinking, mannerisms, attitudes, had transcended geography and endured through entirely different sets of assimilations, to form the neural pathways to communication.
About five years ago, I went to Iran. While I was there, I visited a synagogue. My emotional reaction to the irrational idea that these were "my people," completely surrounded by "the others" for a thousand miles or more in any direction, revealed to me the depth of my own tribalism, how profound that is, and how irrelevant reason is to such feelings.
What I am examining now is how "the peace process stalled." How, in fact, "the process" became a substitute for any sort of actual peace or justice, a way to keep the status quo in place—the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories—while Israel gradually grabs more bits and pieces and solidifies its power. This in co-operation with the US, working more closely than American political parties are with each other.
The impulse to have a Jewish state is completely understandable. Most countries are legal wraps around single tribes. Where there's more than one tribe, there's trouble. In virtually every country where the Jews were a significant minority, their hosts turned on them, murdering, raping, robbing, and driving them into exile. Survival depends on controlling the government, the military, and the police.
The location turns out to have been problematic. What would have been less so? If the Germans had given them Bavaria? One actual suggestion was Uganda. America was willing to give them Brooklyn, but only as a loaner, and it's in the process of being returned. In the Caucuses? Saskatchewan? Costa Rica? Everything belongs to somebody and somebody thinks they have the title to any given place. They chose the location of ancient Israel. If that confers legitimacy, prepare to grant it to the Iroquois if they seize Manhattan. It needs be said that Palestinian claims to primacy and priority also have flaws. History is one long coiled strand of sausage and it depends on where you slice it.
All of that is mooted by the fact that Israel has been in place for 60 years. They're dug in. They're not going anywhere. They've done many admirable things. They've set up a democratic state. (An imperfect democratic state is still a democratic state, so to with imperfect theocracies, monarchies, dictatorships. Humans have yet to organize themselves in conformity to Platonic ideals.) They've achieved astonishing material progress, even more striking when compared to the countries that surround them. They are world leaders in the military and espionage arts.
There is a problem. Let us let Israeli insiders, from as far on the inside as anyone can get, explain it.
The Gatekeepers, one of the most astonishing documentaries I've ever seen, consists primarily of interviews with the last six directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. When they discuss operations and tactics the pride and the pleasure they took in how good they were at fighting dirty wars, and they were the best in the world, is evident. Avraham Shalom Ben-Dor, in charge from 1981 to 1986, has the demeanor of an alert but kindly grandfather as he says, "I didn't want any more live terrorists in court." He resigned after a scandal about executing prisoners. "In the war against terror, forget about morality. Find morality in terrorists first."
And the Israelis forgot. They employed mass arrests, used torture, and assassinated people. Avi Dichter, head of Shin Bet, from 2000 to 2005, said, simply, "We'd kill whoever tried to kill us."
All six men came to realize there was something profoundly wrong. Ami Ayalon, who served in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the fighting in Lebanon, and was commander-in-chief of the Navy before he became head of Shin Bet, said, "We wanted security and got more terrorism."
Carmi Gillon, head of the service from 1995 to 1996, said, "We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering."
But it is Avraham Shalom, the oldest of them, who gets to the heart of the matter. That Israel has "become a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II." He specifies that he's not referring to the Holocaust, but to the occupations of places like Poland and Czechoslovakia. "We've become cruel to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the War Against Terror."
This is not a matter of bad people doing evil. It seems to be in the nature of things, that you're fighting a dirty war, the lure of brutality is irresistible. In order to occupy a country where you're not wanted, the intelligence services become as ruthless as the KGB and the police become the Gestapo. The victims of war crimes become the perpetrators of war crimes. I knew that, but I didn't want to have read it and record it, chapter and verse, about the tribe that is so much, and so mysteriously, part of my identity.