Public Comment

Will Be Ombudsman for Falafel: My Mideast Peace Plan

Friday September 15, 2006

As a sometime contributor to the Daily Planet who knows its executive editor and publisher pretty well, I’m perplexed by the recent fireworks on these pages over the paper’s own past Middle East commentary. 

I was as surprised as anyone by the Aug. 8 material that kicked off this controversy. But I’m floored by some people’s baseless inferences about the editor’s motives, and by absurd suggestions that the hotbed of raging tolerance currently in your hands (or browser) is some eager accessory to bigotry. 

I’m also mystified by how so many far-flung people find so much time for extended, and often factually flawed, dissection of a community paper’s public and private communications. To the exclusion, mind you, even of the underlying Mideast issues. If we’re going to leave any ink in the wells for our grandchildren—let alone achieve world peace—we all need to draw some lessons from this episode and move on to more substantive things. 

First, the Planet’s Aug. 8 commentary page had more than one problem. As the paper has already admitted, Howard Glickman’s commentary was mistakenly given an inflammatory headline that didn’t reflect its contents. And agree or disagree with Mr. Glickman’s own arguments, he’s a strong debater and a Berkeley resident. 

Kurosh Arianpour’s adjacent commentary, however, rapidly degenerated into a repellent anti-Jewish screed that was entirely disproportionate (a word I’ll revisit) to Mr. Glickman’s piece. And what really baffled me was its basic “standing” to appear in the Planet. Mr. Arianpour was credited as an Iranian student studying in India. 

Such remote outsourcing raises the question: Couldn’t the Planet find an anti-Semitic rant from a Berkeley resident? As a Jewish guy, I guess I should welcome the possibility that local anti-Semites aren’t teaching their goon squads to write (entirely likely), or literate locals aren’t anti-Semitic (ditto), or maybe there aren’t many local anti-Semites at all (fine by me). 

Still, I worry that offshoring anti-Semitic rants to low-wage countries might inflame the very resentments that provoke bigots. (And please tell me that Mr. Arianpour isn’t an illegal immigrant anywhere—that really sets off the Yahoos.) This being Berkeley, I hope the Planet will ensure that any future anti-Semitic rants imported from offshore are Fair Trade-certified. 

Second, I’m amazed that anyone has inferred that Mr. Arianpour’s piece reflected the leanings of Becky O’Malley, or anyone else at the Planet. Anyone who knows Becky knows she’s an extremist—but only about free speech. 

Long before she and her husband Mike resurrected this newspaper, Becky regularly surprised some of us squeaky wheels by putting us directly in contact with people we had bad-mouthed. Her philosophy was that direct, unmediated discussion was the best way to resolve festering resentments. Like it or not, she’s run the Planet’s opinion pages on a “common-carrier” basis that’s entirely consistent with how she’s always run Berkeley’s most interesting e-mail relay. 

Furthermore, some of Becky’s best friends fundamentalists who make her look moderate by comparison. These are people who fought good fights in the ’60s, prospered in the technology industry, and today have gray ponytails of wisdom, plus the time and financial security to take highly principled stands. 

I remember one of Becky’s friends denouncing activists whose promised demonstrations had provoked Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel local speeches. I’d thought the old warlords were just chicken, but he made a strong case that they were actually the victims in that episode. 

And in fact, anyone who’s attended any of the O’Malleys’ frequent salons knows that they’re at least as happy hanging out with Jewish people as with anyone else. That’s true of a lot of gentiles, of course—and at the risk of overgeneralizing, I think it reflects well on us as well as them. We tend to be just a little bit more fun than your average bear. 

And not just Jews, but non-Jews with roots in Middle Eastern cultures. When we’re not killing each other with ordnance, we’re often killing each other (or you) with warmth and kindness. 

Get us out of the Middle East itself—a place with too little land, water, and shade, and too much history—and all of this flowers. Like a lot of Jewish Bay Area residents, I buy my bagels at a Palestinian-owned coffeehouse, and often pick up late-night groceries at an Arab-owned corner liquor store. All pleasantly contradictory, and that’s the way it should be. Salaam alechem, l’chaim, and who doesn’t like falafel? 

Which brings me to my last point: Berkeley is the last place I expect to find people digging themselves into sterile, old blood-based divides. This is a city of bridge-builders. Tikkun, Women in Black, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Jewish/Muslim dialogue efforts you’ve never heard of—all have roots or a strong presence here. 

If enduring peace ever comes to the Mideast, Berkeley will ultimately get credit for helping lead the way. Sure, it may take another 3,000 years to undo ancient rivalries; but circa 5,000 A.D., they’ll put a floating plaque beside the ruins of the Gaia Building’s elevator tower. 

This is why it’s so ironic that Berkeley’s little community paper long ago became a lightning rod closely monitored by certain people, throughout the Greater Berkeley diaspora, who are obsessed with cleansing any discussion—anywhere—of the Israel/ Palestine controversy. 

Today, while we’re spilling gallons of ink over Talmudic debates about who allegedly and unverifiably said what to whom, too damn much blood has been spilled in Lebanon and Israel. And there’s the threat of more bloodletting to come. Iran wants to be the Mideast’s big gun, and Israel and the U.S. have each shot themselves in the foot. 

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really said last October that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” He really has called the Holocaust “a myth.” Iran really is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. And if none of that worries you, former Iranian defense minister Ali Shamkhani really did describe American forces in Iraq as Iran’s “hostage.” 

America’s march into Saddam’s quagmire destroyed our country’s image, goodwill, and leverage in much of the Islamic world. And with Iran pulling the strings in an Iraq that’s now dominated by Shiites, the U.S. troops there are less hegemon than captive. 

So much for the U.S. neocons’ triumphant “transformation of the Middle East.” And Israel’s U.S.-supplied attempt to transform Iran-supplied Hezbollah  

didn’t work out any better. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have each accused Israel of war crimes for its conduct in Lebanon. And if you don’t like those messengers, any  

8-year-old watching TV news could have told you the same thing. 

Killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians, and displacing a quarter of that nation’s residents, was a massively disproportionate response to...what? Essentially, Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers—a non-lethal assault on a military target. 

Now spare me the old blood libel that anyone criticizing the worst outrages of the worst Likud-spawned thugs is “anti-Israel,” let alone “anti-Semitic.” Published debate among Israeli Jews regularly makes anything that appears in this newspaper look tame. 

Redestroying southern Beirut and much of southern Lebanon was a desperate attempt by a weak Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to save his own political skin. He’s one particularly chicken warlord. Who gambled wrong. Even if you’re inclined to defend the Lebanon invasion on moral grounds—a sucker’s bet—there’s broad consensus that it was a catastrophe in pragmatic terms. Israel has shattered its own vaunted deterrent: its image of military invincibility. And it has dramatically strengthened Hezbollah’s military reputation, legitimacy, and popular allegiance. 

Those grisly images of Lebanese civilian deaths, which horrified even American children, got replayed over and over on satellite TV throughout the Muslim world. This was a diplomatic and public-relations disaster for Israel and the United States alike. 

And disaster is cheap in the Middle East. Has anyone got a solution for that sad region’s underlying problems? If so, inquiring minds want to know about that—not about yellowing old opinion pages. 

Here’s my tiny contribution: Maybe we should all take a lesson from the rock-star PR success that Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ social-service arms have brought their parent corporations. Provide food and shelter to desperate people, instead of blockading and displacing them. Who doesn’t like falafel? 

Last year, I was delighted to make two modest donations for Pakistan earthquake relief through American Jewish World Service. I know the money wasn’t siphoned off to Al Qaeda. And with my Palestinian neighbors maintaining a bagel supply for folks like me, I liked the idea of Muslims receiving care packages through a Jewish charity. 

So where do I donate to rebuild Lebanon or feed Gaza? 

Let’s keep our eyes on the prize: Let’s export world peace from Berkeley. Let’s not import fossilized animosities. Remember, around 5,000 A.D., our great-great-great-great-grandrobots will thank us. 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident.