Gilad Shalit is home today, after five years and four months as a captive of Hamas. My initial reaction, as an Israeli, reflecting on these developments in Berlin, looking mostly at Israeli written press online: I think it is wonderful that Shalit’s mental and physical condition is good enough for him to be able to appreciate his return.
As for the “home” he will find, others have written about the Israeli society he left in contrast with the one to which he returns. I wish instead to comment on two significant symbolic questions: Was the “price” paid for his return justified? And, the more difficult question which requires the help of a philosopher to address: what is the nature and meaning of his homecoming?
The first issue concerning the “price” paid for the safe return of a soldier seems to me and to most of the Israeli public as a no- brainer: one has to save the life of a soldier sent in one’s name. This issue has been covered in the German press I follow in Berlin, praising the commitment of the Israelis to their own people. However, the Israeli press’ apparent need to declare Hamas inhuman concerns me.
I am happy that Shalit is healthy, and recognize that the call in the Palestinian street today to capture other “Shalits” so that other prisoners will be released is obviously morally wrong. Yet, the parallel Israeli use of “price tag” to refer to the urge to hurt Palestinians, as well as the attacks upon what is conceived as the memory of left wing and secular Israel, specifically focused upon the Rabin Assassination, are no less morally wrong.
The attacks, about which Vered Vinitzky Seroussi has extensively written, seem to appear at moments of peaceful interaction and are deeply problematic. Last week, graffiti on the memorial site read: “free Yigal Amir” [Rabin’s assassin]. Perhaps the positive lesson from the discourse on “prices” is that it cannot be read in a vacuum: . . .
Read more: Gilad Shalit Comes Home
President Barack Obama gave a powerful speech today, one of his best. The president was again eloquent, but there is concern here in the U.S. and also abroad in the Arab world, that eloquence is not enough, that it may in fact be more of the problem than the solution. The fine words don’t seem to have substance in Egypt, according to a report in The Washington Post. There appears to be a global concern that Obama’s talk is cheap. Obama’s “Cairo Speech” all over again, one Egyptian declared. Now is the time for decisive action. Now is the time for the President of the United States to put up or shut up. (Of course, what exactly is to be put up is another matter.)
This reminds me of another powerful writer-speaker, President Vaclav Havel. Havel is the other president in my lifetime that I have deeply admired. Both he and Obama are wonderful writers and principled politicians, both have been criticized for the distance between their rhetorical talents and their effectiveness in realizing their principles.
Agreeing with the criticisms of Havel, I sometimes joke about my developing assessment of him. I first knew about Vaclav Havel as a bohemian, as a very interesting absurdist playwright. I wrote my dissertation about Polish theater when this was still his primary occupation, and I avidly read his work then as I tried to understand why theater played such an important role in the opposition to Communism in Central Europe.
I then came to know him as one of the greatest political essayists and dissidents of the twentieth century. At the theoretical core of two of my books, Beyond Glasnost: The Post Totalitarian Mind and The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times are the ideas to be found in Havel’s greatest essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”
However, as president, Havel was not so accomplished. He presided over the breakup of Czechoslovakia, a development he opposed passionately, but ineffectually. He sometimes seemed to think that he could right a political problem by writing a . . .
Read more: Reflections on President Obama’s Speech on the Middle East and North Africa
Unlike recent posts that have analyzed media performances, today I want to present some direct political criticism. Rather than “perform” our distinguished art of analysis, as we have recently been doing on this blog, I want to underscore the notion that powerful media set our agenda and our performing analyses are determined by what is given to us by media as bones to chew, often with quite negative results. Nothing original, but the topic and the circumstances are.
There is a fundamental difference between the way news is produced and read in the United States and Europe. Here, we have one or two authoritative print sources. Thus, much of the reflection presented at Deliberately Considered draws on reports from The New York Times. This is in sharp contrast to European practice. I miss my daily reading of at least two or three newspapers to tap into contrasting opinions or sources of information. The near monopoly in America is troublesome. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I worry that there can develop an unquestioned prevailing commonsense, with the media reiterating the obvious, instead of challenging dominant points of view and generating new areas of debate.
This struck me in the reports and commentary concerning the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, announced two weeks ago. All of what has been written in the Times columns since the surprise reconciliation announcement in Cairo has re-hashed the usual storyline: Hamas is not a peace partner. Israel has good reason to feel threatened by a national unity government, and Congress should use aid as a threat to push moderates not to accept a deal with the Islamists. This Monday, an editorial summed up the argument.
The only good thing in this editorial was its subtitle, “Continued stalemate with Israel will only strengthen extremists,” but, ironically, this disappeared in the online version. Indeed, the remainder of the piece is just a series of peremptory remarks (“we have many concerns,” “the answer, to us, is clear…”) and hollow statements. Yet, intriguingly, the top ten most recommended replies to the online version were all critical of Israel, showing how people can resist the newspaper’s views.
Media and the Palestinians: “Continued Stalemate Will Only Strengthen Extremists”
Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist, was abducted in Gaza City yesterday, and then killed, apparently by a Salafist group opposed to Hamas. The news already has shaken Italy and Europe, and it will also make for some somber headlines here in the USA.
Arrigoni arrived in Gaza three years ago as part of the International Solidarity Movement, a network of foreign activists who deliberately choose to live in the heart of the occupied territories to bear witness to the continuing harassment of the Palestinian population at the hands of the Israeli occupier (be they military or of the radical settler movements). Some of these activists live in remote villages, some accompany ambulances through checkpoints. Often IDF soldiers let the vehicles through simply because there is a ‘white’ person onboard. Others organize protests around Israel’s Separation Wall or in Palestinian villages, such as Budrus, Ni’lin, non-violently protesting. All confront the apartheid nature of the occupation. For this reason, Israel tries to prevent them from entering its territories, attempting to silence these annoying witnesses.
Arrigoni was such a witness-activist. Choosing Gaza as the place of his activism, he was one of the very few non-diplomat foreigners present during the Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 2008-January 2009). His blogs and reports were published on the Italian leftist daily Il Manifesto for which he kept sending reports.
Gaza has been off limits to most foreigners and at times fully inaccessible to journalists and even ambassadors. Israel controls all of the borders around the Palestinian territories. Based on his experience in the 2008-2009 war, Arrigoni published a poignant book entitled Restiamo Umani, which can be translated in the affirmative as “We Remain Human” or in the imperative form as “Let Us Stay Human.” Giving a human face to the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza was Arrigoni’s mission. His was an urgent sense of witnessing the ordeal of ordinary Palestinians.
But why would a Palestinian group execute him? The official line is that a radical Salafist group, opposed to Hamas, had captured him hoping to exchange his release for the release . . .
Read more: On the Assassination of Vittorio Arrigoni: We Remain Human
Modern media technology is on the mind of everyone analyzing the ongoing Arab revolts. It is also a great didactic tool that can change perspectives inside out, both for students and for their teachers.
Last week, as part of my New School undergraduate class, “Civil Society and Democratization in the Middle East,” I organized a video conference connecting my twelve students with a group of students and activists from Gaza City. Video conference is a bit exaggerated because the New School does not have such a facility, although the two existing universities in the Gaza Strip have the latest technology available. If this were still needed, we had confirmation that Arabs are on top of their technology (and that more money is needed from the Gates Foundation to equip American research institutions). Despite fear of a power failure (as is frequently the case in Gaza) and a bricolage of Skype with a laptop connected to the video-projector, the connection was smooth and the flow of questions on both sides lasted more than an hour and a half.
The Palestinian students were in the MBA and Journalism programs at Al-Azhar University (the college closer in line with the nationalist party Fatah, while the Islamist University is under Hamas’ hegemony). They were chosen for their fluency in English by a former Ph.D. colleague, a long time Palestinian activist and social scientist. The five Palestinian interlocutors (two women speaking articulately and more passionately than their shy male colleagues) responded to my students’ questions with great nuance and passion. The most outspoken student was a female journalist, half Libyan and half Palestinian. Unlike the other students, who showed less enthusiasm for the international coalition’s bombings in Libya, she was very glad to see that, at least once, the international community was standing by its word in defending an anti-dictatorial protest movement.
Read more: Live from Gaza