Olive oil, opposition and Gaza

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On Tuesday, I wrote my friend and sometime doctor, Miriam Garfinkle, to say I'd run low on the olive oil, from Palestine, that she sells. She is normally diligent, even fanatical, about it. It soothes her, she says, as she has grown ever more distressed by Israel's occupation there, and more involved in dissident Jewish actions. I didn't hear back from her.

Then, on Wednesday, I saw in the news that she was among a group of Jewish women who occupied the Israeli consulate in Toronto, in symbolic protest against the reoccupation, or "incursion," by Israel's military into Gaza. The olive oil, too, is symbolic - of the many trees uprooted there and a way of life largely destroyed with them.

Later, I spoke to a Jewish friend who says that, when she reads news from Gaza, she gets sick to her stomach. I asked why. It's a mix, she said: Horror at what is done by Israel to the people of Gaza, and fear that her reaction lends support to a group, Hamas, bent on destroying Israel and killing Jews. I started to say Hamas's record is more complex than that, but it didn't really matter. These are issues where you lead with your emotions, and your reason fills in the tracks that your gut has laid down.

Yet, this kind of Jewish dissent is now widespread. It's no longer just individuals. There is a Canadian umbrella group of groups called Independent Jewish Voices, including Jewish Women Against the Occupation; the well-named NION (Not In Our Name) etc. There is an Independent Jewish Voices in the U.K., and groups in South Africa, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the United States, which also has a new Jewish lobby in Washington, J Street, founded to counter the mighty right-wing Israel lobby, AIPAC. This level of activity is a stage beyond lone voices such as Noam Chomsky or, in Israel, Yeshaya Leibowitz in the past, and Amira Hass or Avrum Burg in the present.

The brew of emotions is often intense; when it involves your people and your past, it's rarely about taking a simple position. Let me give a personal example. In 1967, as a seminarian in New York, I swelled with pride to hear Israel's United Nations ambassador, Abba Eban, defend Israeli attacks on its Arab neighbours, because they had blocked one of its outlets, the Straits of Tiran. This, he thundered, was universally recognized as an act of war - Israel acted in self-defence! I had been hired to research material for a book Abba Eban planned to write on Jewish history. I never met him but was honoured to think my work passed into his hands.

Now, the same Israel has blocked all access to and from Gaza for a year and a half - land, sea and air - tightening the noose recently, so disease and malnutrition are pervasive and no economy really exists. Surely this, too, is an act of war, directed at civilians, like the rockets fired from Gaza in the past two months, which I also find inexcusable. Whew.

And what about Jewish unity in a time of crisis? I think unity matters when your group is under attack, but what's in question here is whether Israel is under attack or is the attacker. There's no doubt Hamas fires rockets, but who broke the truce? Did Hamas abide by it till Nov. 4, when Israel bombed Gaza, killing six Palestinians, and again on Nov. 17, killing four more, as well as intensifying its siege - and Hamas reacted only then?

I think this kind of debate about Israel is healthy. I don't agree with Robert Fulford, who wrote in the National Post that Israel's Gaza assaults are a clear case of civilization versus terror. That kind of language oddly mimics forms such as anti-Semitism, whose essence is stereotyping large groups with scanty labels: All Jews are evil, or Islam is inherently violent. Reality is usually more mixed. So is Israel. Some of its achievements - like the revival of the Hebrew language and culture - are a marvel. Other elements, not so much.

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