Monday, April 14, 2008

Chutzpah at the Roots

Yes, it is only Monday, which is really too early to be talking about a Chutzpah of the Week award. However, when the candidate is the current Israeli government, whose roots go back to the very origins of the word "chutzpah," one should strike while the iron is hot. Before going into details, I wish to offer two elements of context.

The first concerns my personal experiences in Israel from 1971 until 1973 (having left shortly before the Yom Kippur War). This was my first job after getting my doctoral degree. One of my colleagues in the laboratory where I was writing my thesis was Israeli, and he kept warning me about the arrogant attitudes I would find over there. This tended to be one of the first things most Americans noticed, and it became a frequent topic among those of us who felt we were expatriates, rather than the next generation of immigrants. One prevailing thesis was that the arrogance was a product of a culture that blamed all of the rest of the world for the Holocaust and had now achieved a position secure enough to allow "venting" the anger. With this as an explanation, my own sense of irony would usually chime in with the reminder that the business about turning the other cheek was not in the Old Testament portion of The Bible! The venting has not abated; and the precepts of Jesus are viewed with, at best, a detached historical perspective.

The second element of context has to do with American support of Israel on the grounds that it is the only "real" democracy in the Middle East. In this regard I feel it necessary to return to that letter that Voltaire supposedly wrote to the Abbé le Riche on February 6, 1770, which I cited about a year ago:

Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

At the heart of this week's Chutzpah of the Week award is a text that has been highly detested, the book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, by former President Jimmy Carter. Carter did not have many friends after this book appeared. The Israeli government took extreme umbrage at the wording in the title of the book and fell back on the usual party line of accusing him of supporting a terrorist cause; and, as the Israeli government went, so went most of the "official" reactions to the book from Washington. Fortunately, Carter did have one friend who stuck with him and honored him with an appointment to his group of "elders" who would examine major world problems. That friend was Nelson Mandela. As I had previously quoted from the Reuters report about this appointment, Carter stuck to his guns in trying to get at why his book had aroused such violent passions:

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said governments had frequently failed to tackle the world's big issues and conflicts because they were beholden to voters, inhibited by their own political agenda and beset with domestic problems.

This brings us to last week, when Carter missed out on a positive-connotation Chutzpah of the Week award, primarily because of a strong local bias on my part. Nevertheless, there was a lot of chutzpah behind Carter's decision to meet with representatives of Hamas; and I strongly supported his decision on the grounds that it was more important to view Hamas as the party of legitimately elected officials in Gaza than as terrorists.

This is where the contexts all fold together in the choice for this week's award: a meeting of the democratic recognition of the right to write "detestable text" and the Christian principle of turning the other cheek. According to a report by Adam Entous for Reuters this morning, the Israeli government has rejected both of these principles in the planned treatment of Carter during his visit to the Middle East:

Israel's secret service has declined to assist U.S. agents guarding former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a visit in which Israeli leaders have shunned him, U.S. sources close to the matter said on Monday.

Carter angered the Israeli government with plans to meet Hamas's top leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Syria, and for describing Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories as "a system of apartheid" in a 2006 book.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who brokered Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor, Egypt, signed in 1979, met Israel's largely ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, on Sunday but was shunned by the political leadership, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel has also rejected Carter's request to meet jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is seen as a possible successor to President Mahmoud Abbas, a spokesman for Carter said.

Barghouthi was convicted in 2004 of murder by an Israeli court over the killing of four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk in attacks by Palestinian militants. He is serving five life sentences.

American sources close to the matter said the Shin Bet security service, which helps protect visiting dignitaries and is overseen by Olmert's office, declined to meet the head of Carter's Secret Service security detail or provide his team with assistance as is customary during such visits.

I suppose the real chutzpah of this act resides in the extent to which the Israeli government has used pettiness as an instrument of vindictiveness. It reveals that any language shed over having the strength to confront the difficulties in resolving the problems with current conditions for Palestinians is nothing more than hollow rhetoric, which is probably more for the benefit of American politicians raising support for Israeli than it is for the quest for a secure life in any part of the Middle East. In light of my comments yesterday about the remaining three contenders for the White House, this is another example of an "honest truth" that "needs to be told." It will be interesting to see if any of those three candidates have anything to say (possibly audacious) about the behavior of a country that we ally with because we embrace their democratic principles.

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