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June 21, 2010

Commonweal Drags Israel by the Ear

It’s a pure coincidence, but the front cover of the June 18, 2010 issue of Commonweal is appropriate in light of the publication’s editorial (subscription only) condemning Israel for its response to the flotilla that tried to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip on May 31. The editorial lays virtually all of the blame for the nine deaths on board the Mavi Marmara on Israel despite ample evidence that the Turkish fighters on board the vessel were looking for a fight and were intent on achieving martyrdom or death at the hands of the Israelis.

On the magazine’s cover is an 1893 photo of Anne Sullivan lovingly touching the face of Helen Keller, who under Sullivan’s tutelage, became an important writer despite the fact that she was deaf and blind. In the photo, Sullivan leans toward Keller, touching her lips and cheeks with her left hand while peering intently into Keller’s eyes as she sits impassively, oblivious to everything but Sullivan’s efforts to connect with her.

The photo is a compelling expression of kenosis or self-emptying and offers an inadvertent but powerful critique of the editorial inside in which Commonweal’s editors portray themselves as trying to shake some sense into the head of the Israelis.

Instead they drag the Jewish state by the ear through a sculpture garden depicting events of recent history in an effort to finally get Israelis to understand what they are up against, as if somehow, the Israelis didn't know what was going on in the region they live. Commonweal’s frustration at Israel’s alleged inability to master its own history is matched by a fundamental ignorance of a few obvious facts.

First off, the editors state that “however violently the activists on the [Mavi Marmara] responded to the commandos, the outrage in the Middle East and Europe at Israel’s use of lethal force is justified.�?

The people who fought with the Israeli commandos were not “political activists�? as Commonweal describes them in the opening paragraph, but men intent on attacking the Israelis as they landed on board the vessel. “Thugs�? might be a better word.

And these “activists�? did not merely “respond�? with violence to Israeli commandos landing on the Mavi Marmara, they spent days preparing for a violent confrontation. As the crew stood by watching nervously, the fighters on board the Mavi Marmara used saws to cut the railings off the vessel to create bars with which to attack Israelis as they landed.

They chanted anti-Semitic slogans in the days before the confrontation. Some of them expressed a desire to become martyrs for the cause. And when the Israelis did land on the vessel, they attacked them viciously with knives and metal bars. They threw one soldier from one deck to another and took two soldiers hostage.

Activists on other vessels knew full well that a confrontation was in the offing on board the Mavi Marmara and that it was going to be provoked by Turks on board the vessel. They knew this before it happened and yet Commonweal’s editors cannot take these facts into account in an editorial dated June 8, 2010 – eight days after the event happened. None of this information should come as a surprise for the story of the Mavi Marmara being a boat filled with "humanitarian activists" started to fall apart within a couple of days of the May 31 confrontation. Instead of acknowledging that there was more to the story, Commonweal’s editors blundered on with their editorial, unable to pass up a chance to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority.

To make matters worse, the editors at Commonweal offer not one word of condemnation of the fighters on board the Mavi Marmara. They offer not one word of criticism of how the IHH, a Turkish Islamist group, cynically used a so-called “humanitarian�? flotilla as a cover for its pre-planned provocation, nor do the editors condemn the Free Gaza Movement for allowing their campaign to be infiltrated by thugs intent on starting a fight with the Israelis.

And for some reason, Commonweal, a lay Catholic publication, fails to acknowledge the presence of Syrian-born Archbishop Hilarion Capucci on board the Mavi Marmara. Capucci, a Melkite Catholic, was convicted of running guns from Lebanon into the West Bank in the 1970s. Some of the weapons he smuggled were reportedly used in the murder of a Jerusalem taxi driver in 1974. If this is true, one can make a pretty good argument that the Archbishop, a man of the cloth, has blood on his hands. And yet, he is lauded as a hero by his fans on Facebook.

How do the editors at Commonweal think that Israelis will respond to Archbishop Capucci’s presence on board the Mavi Marmara? As evidence of the Free Gaza Movement’s peaceful intentions?


These are no small omissions. Whether the editors at Commonweal can see it or not, the provocative behavior of the so-called activists in groups like the Free Gaza Movement and the International Solidarity Movement and the one-sided condemnations of Israel leveled by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International has contributed to a deep sense of suspicion and cynicism on the part of Israelis toward the international community in general.

A recent survey of Israeli public opinion indicates that 73 percent of Israelis believe that they will be the target of world-wide condemnation no matter what they do. Fifty-five percent of the members of Meretz, a left-wing party in the Knesset, feel this way. Under these conditions, credible criticism of Israeli policies has to be based on a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances faced by Israel, an understanding Commonweal is apparently unable to achieve.

To wit: The editors report that as a result of the confrontation on board the Mavi Marmara, Israel may lose “Turkey as a strategic military and diplomatic partner�? in the Middle East. This is bad news, because Turkey was “once the Jewish state’s staunchest Muslim ally in the region.�?

Newsflash: That train had already left the station in 2009 when Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan screamed at Israeli President Shimon Peres during the World Economic Forum in Davos. He told one of the most vocal and persistent supporters of peace efforts in Israel that “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill."

After his outburst, Erdogan cancelled joint military exercises with Israel and engaged in joint exercises with Syria which was the source of Hezbollah’s rockets that were launched into Israel during the Summer War of 2006. None of these actions are the behavior of a leader intent on maintaining good relations with Israel, and yet, Commonweal’s editors place the onus for maintaining these good relations on Israel.

In fact, the confrontation itself is evidence that the alliance had already been abandoned by the Turkish government.

Predictably, Commonweal’s editors go onto blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a lack of progress in negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and for President Obama’s difficulties in the Middle East. They write:

Since it took office, the Obama administration has been trying to get Israel to the negotiating table to hammer out steps toward the elusive “two-state solution.�? Netanyahu has rebuffed the United States at every turn, not hesitating to use the considerable influence hard-line American supporters of Israel have with Congress to make things difficult for the President.

In November, the Israeli Prime Minister agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in an effort to restart peace talks derailed by the controversy surrounding the approval of construction of housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem earlier that year. (Let’s be clear, no one really seriously believes that the neighborhood in question will be handed over to the Palestinians in a peace deal.) Nevertheless, Mahmoud Abbas stated the freeze wasn’t enough for him to return to the negotiating table.

None of this stopped Commonweal’s editors from portraying Israel, and only Israel, as responsible for the stalemate in negotiations.

The editors also contradict themselves on an important point. On one hand, they acknowledge that Hamas “considers itself as war with Israel�? a pretty condign (if not evasive) way of acknowledging that Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction.

The editors then claim that the blockade against the Gaza Strip is "morally questionable." How exactly is it immoral to deprive Hamas of materials it can use to launch attacks against Israel? Exactly what should have Israel done instead? This is a question Commonweal should answer up front given their conclusion that Israel’s political leaders “seem to have lost touch with both the moral foundations and the real security interests of the Jewish state.�?

There it is again, notion that somehow Christians understand the circumstances faced by the Jewish people and their institutions better than the Jews themselves. Commonweal’s editorial is no advice to a valued friend, but a recasting of the Medieval confrontation between Church and Synagogue that for some reason, the Church always wins.

The question is quite simple: At what point will Commonweal forcefully condemn the behavior of Israel's adversaries and not merely mention these misdeeds in passing before condemning the Jewish state?

Commonweal’s editorial was a disgraceful combination of misinformation, disdain and moral superiority that is all too often at the root of Christian commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Posted by dvz at June 21, 2010 02:35 PM


"We will not post comments that include racism, bigotry, threats, or factually inaccurate material." How ironic that is considering that this is what Israel is faced with all day every day, a race in which everyone else is free to run unencumbered and Israel is burdened with hundredweights of racism, bigotry, threats, and factually inaccurate material to drag around with her at every turn.

Posted by: Margie at June 23, 2010 03:16 PM

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This is a moderated blog. We will not post comments that include racism, bigotry, threats, or factually inaccurate material.

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