The Maverick Feingold and the Dissenting Feingold

In the run up to the national antiwar mobilizations of February 15-16, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish magazine, complained that at previous major rallies speakers had subjected the crowd to "a barrage of Israel bashing," "the emotional climate at these demonstrations has been one that most Jews I have encountered find somewhere between uncomfortable and overtly anti-Semitic." ("Furor in Frisco," LA Weekly, February 14-20, 2003)

On February 11, Tikkun announced via e-mail that Lerner had been banned from speaking at the San Francisco rally and a petition drive was underway to secure him a spot at the podium. Subscribers were asked to support the drive, which David Corn had publicized in his online column at The Nation.

Three weeks later, another message went out, Israeli peace activists had asked Tikkun to "remind people of good will that the oppression of the Palestinians, and the corresponding violence against Israelis, is still going on and is even being escalated daily, but the focus on the Iraq war has caused the world to turn its attention away." On the heels of this plea came a decidedly more emotional one.

In prefatory remarks to an attached op-ed piece, Tikkun reassured its subscribers that yes, Palestinians "commit disgusting acts of terror" which "we unequivocally condemn," but "still, we must listen carefully to the argument being made by Shulamit Aloni, the former member of Knesset" who "served in the cabinets of Labor governments." The article was from "Ha’aretz, Israel’s most respected paper." "Please read her analysis," Tikkun implored, it "challenges those who say that comparisons with Hitler are always a wild distortion. While not exactly having death camps, Aloni argues, there is a systematic wiping out of the Palestinian people going on now. And we are in denial if we don’t look at it." (TikkunMail, March 3, March 7, 2003)

Aloni’s ("Murder of a population under the cover of righteousness," March 7, 2003) was but the latest in a series of warnings sounded in Ha’aretz.

Martin Fletcher, NBC’s Israel bureau chief, who earlier had been based in Johannesburg, "believes an analogy can be drawn between Israel and South Africa.

"I see more and more similarity between Israel and South Africa in the apartheid period," he says. "And this hurts…The thing is that, to a large extent, Israel today is worse than South Africa. Because if you compare the situation of the blacks under apartheid to the situation of the Palestinians under the Israeli military occupation, the Palestinians’ situation is much worse.

"The idea of apartheid was that the blacks would live separately from the whites, but as long as they were living apart, they could do what they wanted. They were free to travel, to go to the cinema, to go to work, or wherever else they wanted. Here the Palestinians are not free to move because the military dictatorship of this government doesn’t allow it." ("Balancing Act," Aviva Lori, February 21, 2003)

Writing before the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, Gideon Levy notes that "As the first Israeli astronaut took off into space, tens of thousands of Palestinians, among them sick people, children and elderly people, tried to get from their villages to a nearby city. As Ramon’s satellite entered its orbit around the earth, they straggled through the mud and the rain, trying to break through the dirt barriers that seal off their villages, in an effort to get to work, to the doctor or to a shop…

"As the Israeli media were busy whipping to a frenzy the national carnival that accompanied the launch ("Fly, Ramon, cut through the skies," "A great step for Israel," "Touching the sky"), they made no mention, as usual, of the travails of those who only want to move around a bit here on earth…More than ever before, the Israelis’ ignoring of the Palestinians’ suffering is reaching dimensions that are difficult to comprehend." ("As Ramon was launched into space," January 19, 2003)

Akiva Eldar’s column includes a photo captioned "Hebron graffiti: ‘Arabs to the crematoria’" and a letter from a soldier who had been stationed in Hebron for five months. The photo and letter "amplify the message of a petition by Holocaust survivors and second generation survivors which appears today in full in the Hebrew edition." ("People and politics: Judeo-Nazis," 1/23/2003)

Meron Benvenisti, ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem, asserts it is "no accident that Israel is now a symbol for the most extremist groups fighting against compromise in Northern Ireland and in Cyprus. An Israeli flag flies proudly along the border of the Protestant zone in northern Belfast, as a sign of defiant challenge…

"The ‘foreign minister’ of the Cypriot Turks…finds support among Israelis who ‘have expressed their hope that someday a wall will divide them [from Palestinians], like that which runs across the island and slices the capital Nicosia in two…

"Israel remains the only country in the Western world – maybe now in the whole word – that does not hesitate to create facts that are designed to make one ethnic group, the Jews, gain full control over the geophysical, political and cultural resources of the minority Arab national group. It even sees escalation of violence – in the guise of a ‘war on terror’ – as a way to achieve the ‘absolute victory’ of its ethnic objectives.

"There was a time when one could be comforted by the fact that Israel was not alone…If the two sides on the neighboring island can reach agreement – or even dialogue – it will be impossible to bear the shame here any longer." ("Reflections in a Cypriot mirror," January 16, 2003)

In The Link, Americans for Middle East Understanding’s most respected publication, Jeff Halper (coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) writes that the Sharon government’s confidence that total victory is at hand "flows logically and smoothly from ‘Operation Defensive Shield,’ the ferocious incursion into Palestinian areas in March-April 2002." In particular, he notes that Israel was able to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure in Jenin and Ramallah with strong support from the US Congress, which on May 2 overwhelmingly passed resolutions "Expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism." ("A Most UnGenerous Offer," September-October 2002)

While Halper focuses on Jenin and Ramallah, a really edifying event took place in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem on March 8. An Israeli TV crew accompanies troops as they blow open the door of a house. The mother of the family, hit by shrapnel, lies bleeding to death on the kitchen floor for an hour in front of her five children as her husband pleads with soldiers to let an ambulance through.

One of the children "begs the soldiers not to break down a wall to enter the adjoining house, but they do it anyway…Then, one of the soldiers turns to the camera and says ‘I don’t know what we’re doing here. Purification; apparently it’s dirty here. It’s not clear to me what a Hebrew soldier is doing so far from home," but apparently it’s clear to the US Congress. Had he noticed Congress’ presence there beside him, maybe he wouldn’t have felt so forlorn. ("Israelis given a raw glimpse of war," Sandro Contenta, Toronto Star, March 19, 2003; also, "TV Tape of Army Raid Stuns Israelis," Tracy Wilkerson, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2003)

In summary, some knowledgeable and caring eyes see an Israel in the process of becoming or already a veritable darkness unto the nations, with Congress having facilitated the process at a critical time. Against that backdrop, we have two perceptions, one of an antiwar movement obsessively given to "Israel bashing," the other of the "people of good will" who make up the movement having "turned their attention away."

"Think globally, act locally" is the old maxim. For me, locally means Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal bastion, i.e., a place where "people of good will" abound. Locally in particular means The Capital Times (TCT, "Dane County’s Progressive Newspaper") and its associate editor John Nichols, also Washington correspondent for The Nation. John, whom I have talked with on occasion over the years, writes many of TCT’s editorials as well as two columns a week. Using John’s op-ed as a barometer, let’s consider the two perceptions (henceforth, "column" means a Nichols’ column, "editorial" means TCT editorial).

John deserves much credit for his relentless war opposition. So far in 2003, 41 editorials and 26 columns contain "Iraq," a few fleeting references perhaps, but still a staggering antiwar output. But of those 67 pieces, not one also contains "Israel." Rabbi Lerner needn’t worry about the "emotional climate" at TCT. No "anti-Semitic garbage" taints its war protest. If there are no Israel references, there can’t be any gratuitous Israel references. There also can’t be any that rational people wouldn’t consider gratuitous. Issues such as the U.S. double standard in enforcing UN resolutions and tolerating the possession of WMDs, the geopolitical impact of the war on the region, or the affinity some the Bush Administration neo-Conservatives have for Israel’s right wing aren’t introduced.

Not only is there no intersection of "Iraq" and "Israel," "Israel" only appears once by itself, in a January 30 editorial lamenting Sharon’s re-election, "peace has lost." That’s it, there’s no inkling given that, e.g., Israel’s apartheid is worse than South Africa’s. It’s worth mentioning that John signed the petition on behalf of Lerner’s speaking at the San Francisco rally. His awareness of the argument Lerner was raising may have re-enforced his natural inclination not to deal with an emotionally wrought issue. He may have learned of the petition through David Corn. In any case, while he acted on behalf of Lerner, he never acted on behalf of the Israeli peace activists. He probably never heard their plea, there sure wasn’t any Corn column reporting that they felt abandoned as their country was "murdering a population under the cover of righteousness."

On March 16, about a week after Tikkun disseminated the Aloni article, International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie, an American, was crushed to death while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer (made in the US) from demolishing a house. According to Naomi Klein ("On rescuing Private Lynch and forgetting Rachel Corrie," Guardian, May 22), ISM says that the lack of response to her death has emboldened the Israeli army. "First there was Brian Avery, a 24-year-old citizen shot in the face on April 5. Then Tom Hurndall, a British ISM activist shot in the head and left brain dead.

Next was James Miller, the British cameraman shot dead while wearing a vest that said TV…In the past two weeks, half a dozen ISM activists have been arrested, several deported, and the organization’s offices have been raided. The crack down is now spreading to all ‘internationals,’ meaning there are fewer and fewer people in the occupied territories to either witness the ongoing abuses or assist the victims," an ominous development in light of the Ha’aretz series.

While the ISM spokesman was referring to the lack of response on the part of the U.S. government, the Israeli army no doubt appreciates the media’s silence as well. John did report on Corrie’s death in his online column at The Nation, but hasn’t voiced any concern over it and the ongoing campaign against peacemakers to his Madison readers of good will.

The Madison area is also home to Senator Russ Feingold, whose liberal credentials John spells out in a column "Feingold’s world is preferable to [Hillary] Clinton’s" (July 25,2002). "A defender of civil liberties who cast the only vote in the Senate to block the USA Patriot Act…, Feingold has also been the Senate’s most consistent foe of corporate-sponsored free trade schemes, its loudest critic of the death penalty and its most unyielding proponent of government ethics and reform." Feingold opposed the Iraq war of course, but he’s best known as the champion of campaign finance reform "aimed at driving the influence of big money out of politics." It’s not surprising that John would look on and promote Feingold as a candidate to provide principled leadership on a national level, especially given the general bankruptcy of the Democratic Party as demonstrated in the congressional elections last fall. But that doesn’t mean you have to gloss over his weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you don’t prod him to be better.

Below we see how John treats him with kid’s gloves, how advocacy journalism impoverishes political discourse and renders the advocate vulnerable to ridicule.

The May 2, 2002, "Expressing solidarity with Israel" resolution passed in the Senate 94-2 and in the House 352-21. Much to his credit, John realized its importance, addressing it in both an editorial and news report. The editorial praises the five Wisconsin House members who "refused last week to vote for a resolution that essentially endorsed the incendiary policies Israeli Prime Minister has adopted in response to Palestinian suicide bombings." In "rejecting political calculations," the five "distinguished themselves as the visionaries of a Congress where vision is obviously in short supply," whereas the rest of the representatives and "the state’s two senators took the easy out." The state’s two senators, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, are named only in the report, which also names the two senators who opposed the resolution, Ernest Hollings and Robert Byrd. ("For peace in the Mideast," May 10, 2002)

"Political calculations?" Is Russ Feingold, the champion of campaign finance reform, under the undue influence of pro-Israel PACs? Let the thought perish.

The editorial "Attacking peacemakers" (November 14, 2002) deals with the killing of five residents of Kibbutz Metzer, which "had a history of working on behalf of Palestinian rights and of opposing Sharon’s policies. By attacking this kibbutz, the Palestinian gunman – and the defenders of this madness – aided Sharon and did immeasurable damage to the cause of peace and justice." Well, isn’t Russ Feingold a defender of Sharon’s madness? Hasn’t he helped to empower Sharon and damage the cause of peace and justice?

Isn’t it amazing that, in this regard, Wisconsin’s liberal beacon is in league with the Palestinian gunman?

The column "Feingold deserves Senate historian’s kudos" (November 21, 2002) celebrates a "rare day" on the Senate floor. "During this week’s debate," Robert Byrd had the "integrity" to admit he was wrong to have voted for the USA Patriot Act, which passed 98-1. He "graciously" recalled how Russ Feingold "’stood alone in front of the Mack truck that was barreling through the Senate, warning that many of us would come to regret our decision.’"

John could have and should have mentioned the Israel Solidarity vote, when the roles were reversed. While Feingold "took the easy out" and "disappeared into the fabric of self-deception and misconception that characterizes so much of the discourse about the region," Byrd was one of the two "visionaries" who "rejected political calculations." I guess we’re just not as classy here in Wisconsin as they are in West Virginia. What really maddens me is that a few days early, perhaps at the very moment Byrd was speaking on the Senate floor, John and I were speaking on the telephone. The subject of the Solidarity Act came up, Byrd’s principled vote as well as Feingold’s "atrocious" (John’s word) one, yet still John didn’t do the natural and gracious thing in this column.

Finally, there are the columns "Feingold upholds maverick tradition" (May 15, 2003) and "Feingold upholds dissenting tradition" (October 16, 2001).

The maverick Feingold "brilliantly" castigates the president and his aides for devoting their energy to setting up photo ops "’while the actual business of combating the terrorist organization or organizations responsible for the attacks in Kenya,…for the horror of Sept. 11, and now, possibly for (this week’s deadly attacks on Americans in Saudi Arabia), seems to be lost in the shuffle.’" The "’fight against terrorism…has been essentially abandoned over the last year,’" the pertinent questions "’have gone unasked and unanswered.’"

The maverick Feingold raises a couple of questions, but "Why is there terrorism in the first place?" is not among them. There’s no one answer, but as the Chicago Tribune reports, "The equation in the region, according to Arab leaders and most Middle East experts, puts the impetus for much of the Islamic terrorism directed at the U.S. squarely inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and Washington’s strong support of Israel." ("Bush defiant, but ‘road map’ in peril," Howard Witt, May 20, 2003)

John opposed the war in part because "a U.S. attack on Iraq would dramatically increase the likelihood of new terrorist assaults on Americans at home and abroad" ("Smart Hart Makes a Compelling Case," column, Jan 21, 2003). He used this argument a number of times. Others in the mainstream used it as well. Does this mean a taboo has been broken? If it’s permissible to say that current US foreign policy will result in new terrorist assaults on Americans, is it then permissible to say that US foreign policy in the months and years prior to 9/11 resulted in the terrorist assaults on Americans on 9/11?

Beirut-based Middle East expert Robert Fisk’s immediate reaction to 9/11 was to note "the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States." However, he continues, "This is not the war of democracy vs. terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming hours and days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinians homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana a few days later and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their (sic) way through refugee camps." ("Terror In America: The awesome cruelty of a doomed people," London Independent, September 12, 2001)

Qana is a village in southern Lebanon where Israeli artillery killed 106 Lebanese civilians taking refuge in a UN base, more than have of them children. The slaughter occurred a week into "Operation Grapes of Wrath," which Israel unleashed on April 11, 1996, with a day of air attacks that hit Beirut for the first time in almost fourteen years.

Three weeks after Fisk recalled Qana in the wake of 9/11, the will of hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta was found. According to the New York Times, the dating of will "would suggest that Mr. Atta had been planning for years to die for Islam and that he wanted his final actions to be understood as an effort to serve God," for five years and five months to be exact – the will was dated April 11, 1996. (Suspect’s Will Suggests a Longtime plan to die," October 4, 2001; Atta’s will posted on web with date.

Keeping in mind the possibility that the 9/11 mastermind made a commitment to God in the wake of Israel’s first attack on an Arab capital in fourteen years, and the general agreement of "Arab leaders and most Middle East experts" (not to mention Western European leaders) that "Washington’s strong support of Israel" gives "impetus" to Islamic terrorists, let’s return to the maverick Feingold. The obvious question becomes, was his giving in to political expediency and "endorsing the incendiary policies of Ariel Sharon," who thinks in terms of achieving absolute victory over the Palestinians, part of his "brilliant" contribution to the "war on terrorism?"

In the less recent "upholding tradition" column, the dissenting Feingold opposes the Patriot Act, but in so doing affirms "with convincing passion: Protecting the safety of the American people is a solemn duty of the Congress…" John should kindly ask this dissenting Feingold to sit down and have a few words with the maverick Feingold.

California Representative Zoe Lofgren voted for the Expressing Solidarity resolution, but not without expressing misgivings on the House floor.

"Procedural steps prevented any amendments or any substitute resolutions to be considered by Congress. We were not permitted to consider or debate either Senator Lieberman’s or Congressman DeFazio’s language. We were not given the opportunity to meet with our constituents and hear their thoughts and concerns on this divisive and complicated matter. Nor were there any hearings on this matter. This is wrong and does not speak to debate that is central to our democratic process."

It’s not surprising that congressmen who are abrogating their most solemn duty prefer doing it in the dark. What is surprising is how little people of good will seem to care as the "war on terrorism" renders them ever less rich, free and secure. Their passivity is reaching dimensions that are difficult to comprehend.

Some American Jews find the Israel bashing at the occasional demonstration upsetting and some Israeli Jews find their country’s murder of a population under the cover of righteousness upsetting. If I had my druthers, neither group would have to feel distress. But if I had to make some kind of Sophie’s choice, it would be difficult, mind you, but I think I’d probably first try to ease the situation of the Israeli Jews who find their country’s murder of a population under the cover of righteousness upsetting.