Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Power of Capital Markets

Shanghai, China - 1990 (top), 2010 (bottom). H/T Derek Thompson

But will they ever again be unleashed on America soil? Is it merely the transcendent but empty glory of empire building to wish it so? Or is our fortune, freedom and survival tied to whoever erects the crystal phallice of preponderant awe?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What is International Law?

Jonathan1 and I are having a conversation, over at Jewschool, and for the umpteenth time, about whether there is such a thing as international law. I initiated this round by suggesting that the trial of Milosevich was an example of the implementation of international law. Whether imperfect or even at times immoral, my basic position is that we cannot dismiss international law as non-existent. Jonathan1 disagrees. I thought I'd post some of his comments here, followed by my own:
You are giving an example of how international law doesn’t exist. In this case, all sorts of political/diplomatic reasons led to the ICTY, which tried Milosevich (if I remember correctly it was the ICTY.) And he was then convicted under UNR 827 and for violating the Geneva Conventions.) The problem is that this was the .01% of time that this sort of thing happened under a UN Resolution.

Nations violate UNGA and UNSC resolutions every day, with impunity. Even more, unless a special tribunal (like the ICTY) is set up, there is nothing resembling a judicial method to decide if such Resolutions are actually violated. And even if something like that does happen–see the Goldstone Report–there is no avenue of enforcement or redress. [...]

Nobody decides, because there is no judicial mechanism–nothing that resembles domestic courts, to which just about everybody in, say, the US defers to–even if there is a place like the ICJ, only countries in that treaty commit themselves to follow the court’s verdicts–and that doesn’t even happen so much. Who then enforces the verdict? [...] Nobody, because law only exists in the sense that a given society abides by it, and that the society abides by Law’s enforcement mechanism. That’s just not the case on an international scale.
Everything you wrote is true. However, this doesn’t mean that international law doesn’t exist; only that it’s selectively enforced under a specific alignment of will, capability and circumstance. There are some, many in Europe, who wish to make enforcement more typical than not, albeit, more cynically, to enhance their own interests.

Look, I agree with you that national sovereignty reigns supreme - the international system is based on nation states and their interests, not transnational institutions. That doesn’t mean that international law doesn’t exist, however. The UN Charter, to which all nations, as far as I’m aware, have agreed to, delineates certain responsibilities which states have to meet, which they might otherwise not. Likewise, broad-based (but not universal) international agreements impose something approaching common civic standards on governments, including those which are not a party to them.

You don’t like the word “law”, because it has a specific meaning, and I understand that, so allow me to restate the matter. International Law is not about justice, it is about competing national interests.

Although, one could also make the case that national law is not about justice either, but about competing societal interests. What makes law just? Is it majority or super-majority consent? Is that really justice, or mob rule? What is justice? All good questions.

The bottom line is that, under that rare alignment of will, capability and circumstance, international law does exist - a judgment is made and enforcement is carried out. That should end the debate over whether international law exists, because in some instances, it obviously does. The argument we should be having is whether international law is consistent, enforceable, or just, and whether we should be working to make it more so, or not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Quick Thoughts on Palileaks

So far, I see five main lessons in Palileaks:

1) There are no Jewish traitors. Israeli negotiators - yes, even Olmert and Livni, misguided in some respects as they may be - are tough SOBs that understand the issues, drive hard for Jewish interests and have the strength to reject unacceptable Palestinian and American demands which infringe on Jewish security and sovereignty.

2) When the Israeli government stands firm, such as by making Maale Adumim a non-negotiable part of Israel, or rejecting any restrictions on building in Jerusalem, the Americans accept this, and expect the Palestinians to accept it also.

3) Anyone who cares about the future of Jewish communities in Shomron and Yehudah more distant from the Green Line, numbering some 100,000 Jews, needs to make themselves heard. The decision to destroy these communities in the context of a two state solution is being made by Israeli negotiators, not Palestinian ones. A two state solution may be inevitable, but the destruction of these communities is neither inevitable, nor necessary, and the relevant decision makers are, so to speak, in our hands. Of course, my readers have known this for nearly a year now.

4) Transferring sovereignty over Israeli-Arab communities hugging the Green Line, from Israel to a Palestinian state, long thought to be a diabolical ethnic cleansing project of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in fact has support across the right-left Israeli political spectrum.

5) The Palestinian Authority has squandered two decades in not preparing its people, Palestinians in the diaspora or the wider Arab "street" for fundamental strategic concessions to Israel on Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, refugees, a demilitarized state, and so on - matters that harass the root of Palestinian, as well as Arab and Muslim identity.

Is There Life Beyond the Green Line?

This is the question asked by Andrey Deveykin, upon an invitation to attend a tour of the Samaria region for Russian-speaking Israeli press and bloggers hosted by the Shomron Liason Office. Despite the tour taking place on a work day, and dreading the commute through Tel Aviv morning rush hour, Andrey made the trip to the Barkan Industrial Park, near Ariel. He was joined by fourteen other Russian-speaking Israeli bloggers, correspondents and even a crew from HTB, a ubiquitous Russian news channel.

Their first stop was Barkan Industrial Park itself, home to over 100 factories, employing an equal number of Jews and Palestinian workers from surrounding villages. This was followed by a drive to the community of Eli, complete with the scenery for which the Shomron is famous. Then on to Tel Shilo, where archeological excavations of ancient Jewish village are ongoing. Presentations by prominent individuals, visits to several communities, taste testing at a regional winery, a peek at advanced laboratories in Ariel university, and so on.

Andrey ends it all thus:
Интересно, люди спокойно живут за зелёной чертой, вместе с палестинцами. Никто не ратует за депортацию палестинцев. Работают вместе, учатся (в том же университетском центре), ходят за покупками в одни и те же супермаркеты. Живут, как и должны жить соседи. Единственная помеха мирному сосуществованию - политика.
Oh, you don't speak Russian? Well, no one's perfect. Here's a translation:
It's interesting, people live peaceably beyond the Green Line, together with Palestinians. No one is clamoring for deporting Palestinians. They work together, study at the university together, shop at the same supermarkets. They live how neighbors should live. The only obstacle to a peaceful coexistence - politics.
You can view many more of Andrey's pictures here, and all 183 of them here. I'll point out, as would a certain security coordinator for one of the Jewish communities, that the current relative state of tranquility and coexistence in the West Bank exists for one reason only: the security blanket provided by ongoing intelligence and operational activity by the IDF, supplemented and supplanted, in limited areas, by Palestinian security forces.

The media tour in which Andrey participated is one of a series, part of a fledgling and promising effort to improve the image of Jewish communities in Yehuda and Shomron by introducing them, often for the first time, to influential groups of Israelis, domestic and international media, representatives of foreign governments and celebrities. Tourism has been identified as a uniquely effective form of advocacy for the Jewish communities, cutting through the haze of politics and preconceptions, and grounding the often abstract understandings of visitors in reality.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Avigdor Lieberman the Devil Incarnate?

To anyone who watches Russian-language news and has actually heard Lieberman speak, this is gob-smacking hilarious. To the rest, it must seem really frightening - a chilling tribute to JStreet's confused adventure in pro-Israel activism. Lieberman is such an enigma, because he's seemingly so very not mysterious. I do not wish to label him as the Sarah Palin of Israeli politics, because they're quite different people and personalities, but the sensationalism they both generate is remarkably similar. Currently under multiple investigations for bribes and corruption - apparently standard Israeli fare given that the previous two Prime Ministers faced similar charges - his public profile seems to rise with every new accusation, each more devastating than the last, but ultimately having an inverse impact on his party's popularity. The simpleton Moldovan bouncer turned right wing extremist turned neo-fascist turned ethnic cleanser turned... well, the descending staircase of inflammatory adjectives has to end somewhere. The man is almost Clintonesque, with each seeming infidelity winning over adherents in their droves. By their nature, the investigations drag on for years, as they did for Sharon and Olmert, but meanwhile Lieberman soars. The last news report I saw had Yisrael Beteinu, Lieberman's self-founded party, polling up to 20 Knesset seats, up from the current 15 it won just two years ago.

It's all so very twisted, how the likes of Haaretz fan the flames of his support, as if on cue. Just last week, RTVi's Israel affiliate was broadcasting a stinging attack on the man, challenging Lieberman's record as Foreign Minister in light of the Latin American countries' embrace of Palestinian statehood. Russian-speaking Jews care about such intangibles as pride, loss of face, dignity and all the rest, and from all the sweet-talking Lieberman had been doing, they assumed Latin America was safely in Israel's corner. If you remember, shortly after assuming his duties, Lieberman was the first Israeli FM to visit Latin America in three or four decades. He made promises upon his return, in a champagne reception for Russian-speaking media, no less, ushering a new era in which Israeli interests would find warmer reception in continents theretofore ignored.

No sooner was the man being asked to account for his unfulfilled promises that new allegations of impropriety surfaced, or was it just some procedural move on the part of the investigators - but who can keep up with endless Israeli investigations - and Lieberman is back in his element, and on top, deftly maneuvering Haaretz into giving him full page press over rumors of a map granting the Palestinians a provisional state on 50% of the West Bank. A plan apparently being considered by Netanyahu himself, but which Lieberman, with a leak here and a wink there, fleshed out and made his own. And that map, Lieberman then turns to Russian-language media and explains, doesn't actually exist, except as a hypothetical Foreign Ministry scenario, and no land percentages have been finalized. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have already been asked and have had time to reject a map they haven't seen, which doesn't actually exist.

Add to all this Lieberman's recent win on IDF conversions, and an open-minded Israeli voter might begin to wonder, perusing through the pages of Haaretz, who is in charge and running his adversaries around the tennis court like chickens with their heads cut off, Israel's Prime Minister, or its Foreign Minister? At this rate, how long until they switch roles in name, as well as deed? Hmm... Devil incarnate, you say?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jewish Settlements: The Road From Here to There

I am not a supporter of Palestinian statehood in Judea and Samaria, though I recognize that such an outcome is increasingly likely. I am also not an irridentist ideologue, a "Greater Land of Israel" advocate who believes in the immediate necessity of Jews possessing the entirety of the Land and rebuilding the Temple - I leave that for more auspicious times. I consider my positions purely pragmatic and largely non-controversial - a Palestinian state, by the limits of its geography, along with the nature of its ethnic, religious and ideological composition, in nearly every conceivable scenario based in reality, will threaten Jewish and Arab lives, and in a way that a Palestinian non-state can't. Indeed, the consensus on this point is near total, with only the most creative parties envisioning circumstances that could, over time, with flawless execution, enduring commitment and limitless resources, evolve to mitigate conflict and bloodshed.

Still, I understand that Israel was created and exists through a complex geopolitical formulation that requires creative flexibility to sustain sovereignty and security. Moreover, the stewards of Israel's sovereignty are imperfect, and approach their responsibilities through ideological bias and personal limitations. If the balance of forces necessitates the creation of a Palestinian state, I am reconciled to it without diminution of belief in the spiritual ownership of the land being fully with the Jews, or in the vital necessity of preserving the territorial, cultural and political extent of Jewish sovereignty achievable under the circumstances.

Likewise, a Palestinian state or not, I am undeterred from advocating for Jewish rights and Jewish lives, in any context, anywhere in the world, and certainly on behalf of the besieged Jewish communities in territories liberated by Israel in the '67 war.

As with human beings in general, and with Jews in particular, building unity and consensus are a main challenge of policy advocates. This challenge is compounded by my physical distance from the reality of Jewish life in the Land. However, given the lack of leadership and intellectual foresight in the pro-settlement community, I believe there is little choice but to speak my mind, hope someone will listen, honestly consider and incorporate criticism and adapt with that same creative flexibility that is, in my view, a hallmark of our people.

In truth, there is leadership within the settlement communities, and some of it is capable. This leadership is also horrendously understaffed, under-resourced, (with respect) undisciplined, somewhat fantastical in its strategic thinking, to the extent that long term planning is even considered, beyond finagling development forward, over-reliant on personalities and slogans, remarkably lacking in effective political representation, downright provincial in its public relations (despite recent improvement in this regard) and so on and so forth.

As I wrote in a comment on Yaacov's blog, and as I've had to explain to many American Jews:
There's no such thing as the "political [pro-settlement] right" [in Israel]. I mean, yes, people get elected to the Knesset on the Likud ticket [promising never to give an inch to the Arabs], but there isn't anything in the way of organization, think tanks, advocacy groups, etc., the way you have with the left.

There is no coherent agenda, no long term planning, nothing, not for the territories, not for Jerusalem, not for the country. There are slogans, general concepts, but nothing concrete. You would think these things should exist [with half a million lives at stake, and six million behind them], but they just don't. [This is a remarkable thing to discover among a community of Jews, a people culturally addicted to social and political organizational hierachy.]

There are some small groups, like Im Tirzu, which is brand new, and some settlement groups, small ones that care only about one neighborhood of Jerusalem, like Sheikh Jarrah, or that try to find families willing to settle in Hevron [The Hevron Fund], [or the tireless mayor of Ariel, who built that city with his bare hands on a wing and a prayer] but none of them talk to each other. I mean, maybe they know each other, but they don't coordinate strategy at all, not even in a general way. They usually rely on someone in government that they know and trust, like Danny Danon, but I don't see him with a strategy either [just more slogans, more platitudes]. [The warm bodies are there, but it's] a real mess, conceptually, organizationally, etc.
This is the reality: Under no conceivable scenario being proposed by any serious Israeli politicians will the settlement of Shilo, a community of 2300 Jews, "deep in the West Bank" (i.e. a 30 minute drive to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, tops), remain standing. Or Beit El, 5400 Jews; or a stone's throw away Ofra, 2700 Jews; or Itamar, nearby Bracha, Elon Moreh, Yitzhar, or tiny Migdalim and that speck of life amidst a wasteland that is Niran, and dozens of other settlements, tens of thousands of homes, gardens, playgrounds, lives - none will remain. Choose a community and click on it - it's real, it's there. Zoom in and see people's homes, the trees they've planted, the hillsides they've terraced, the factories they've erected, the lives they're living.

Such naked devastation of Jewish communities would be, to me, unacceptable on an emotional level were it to happen in the United States, or Argentina, or the Ukraine, but all the more so is it bitter that such a calamity is being planned, for the countless time, on ancestral Jewish soil, largely by Jewish hands. Were the bloodshed to end there, at such high a price, an argument could be made for the bitter implementation of the remedy, but no one I consider credible is suggesting an end to conflict; merely a shuffling of the deck, a new beginning.

Needless to say, such hyperventilating is neither here nor there. Here is where we are today, a time of uncertainty and peril, when any given Israeli Prime Minister, including - kid yourself not - the current occupant of the post, believing themselves (perhaps justifiably) to be acting in the interest of Jewish national life, could wake up and sign an order destroying Jewish life in Shomron and Yehudah. There, are permanent, secure and thriving Jewish communities "in the heart of the West Bank", and even in the kidneys, and the liver, and what have you, and not to the detriment of neighboring Palestinian villages.

To get from here to there we cannot merely hope or pray, issue heart-rendering speeches or recite relevant passages of Torah, even in a loud voice and exasperated tone. Nor is it is sufficient to merely build, as helpful as that is, for what is built can be un-built, and indeed is being promised to be un-built (i.e. demolished and hauled away as if it never were) under a given set of circumstances. Our present condition is a consequence of a political and strategic reality. We must accept that reality, make use of it and, with a single-minded focus on preserving Jewish communities, and not to the exclusion of secure Jewish sovereignty in the Levant, plan, down to the intellectual nuts and financial bolts, the road to there, from here.

An Open Letter to the Jews of Shomron and Yehudah

I wrote this open letter in late November, 2009, just prior to the ten month Settlement Freeze. Some things have changed since then, a few for the better; most haven't. In the past year, I've learned much about the settlements that I, even as someone long committed, in deed, to pro-Israel advocacy, had previously not concerned myself with. To me, the settlements were an intellectual and political abstraction, despite my having visited some of them several years ago. In the last year, the abstraction has given way to reality, and with not a moment to spare. Today, I believe, after much introspection, that preserving Jewish communities in the West Bank is vital to Jewish sovereignty and security in the Levant. I'm posting this letter here for myself, as much as for you, the reader. Many of the important questions I once asked, I am now knowledgeable enough to answer, and in coming posts, am prepared to do so. This open letter is sort of personal benchmark, and I hope you can find some value in it as well.

The following is an open letter to the Jews of Judea and Samaria. It was inspired by my growing concern at their near complete demonization, first in the Israeli media and now worldwide. Very few Jews in the Diaspora have been to the settlements, and surprisingly few Israeli Jews; life there is perceived as dangerous, the living conditions barren and primitive, the people fanatics. While the vast majority of interested parties are today focused on negotiations over the status and building in large settlement blocks - which the vast majority also acknowledge will remain in Israel, seemingly negating the rationale for such negotiations - dozens of smaller Jewish communities that exist beyond these settlement blocks are expected to be forcibly evacuated in any final settlement with the Palestinians.

I have friends in the "good" settlements - Elkanah, East Jerusalem - and none in the "bad", but this I now intend to change. This open letter was not written to convince American Jews to support Jewish settlement of Judea and Samaria, or to advance the usual Israel-Palestine political arguments, but to engage in a dialogue with tens of thousands of Jews spread across a hundred hilltops, whose determination and vision I admire, to offer my support and to engage on a constructive way forward.

To the Jews of Judea and Samaria,

I am an American Jew. I don't live in the settlements, but support the growth of peaceful Jewish settlement of Judea and Samaria. I am often stunned by how terrible the image of Jewish settlers in the liberated territories is, as reported by the Israeli media; and what is acceptable to the Israeli media is immediately parroted by world media. What's worse is that the Jews of the territories allow the Israeli elite to run propaganda circles around them and expect a miracle to save them from further ethnic cleansing, much less international isolation, economic blockade or worse.

The settlers associations need to understand how terrible their image is in the West. People are so saturated with propaganda here that it is acceptable for most people to believe that the Jewish settlers are crazy fanatics shooting Palestinians left and right and stealing land every day.

At the same time, you shouldn't view this as a hopeless cause! Think of it as an opportunity. The negative image of Jewish settlers has greatly exceeded the reality on the ground. Once the truth is exposed opinion will shift sharply towards a more balanced reality. This won't happen, however, unless that truth is presented, and presented with sensitivity.

If the residents of Shomron and Yehudah want to be taken seriously in Israel, much less the world, they need to start planning seriously. Furthermore, the fruits of this planning cannot reside in some office cabinet in Modi'in Illit, but must be presented, at least in part, to open review and analysis. In helping this process along, I have three main suggestions.

1) Develop a pragmatic political program

Establish clear leadership which can develop a sustainable political program, and express it in a language that is acceptable to most people, in Israel, in the West, even in Arab countries. Right now, no one in the West actually knows what Jewish settlers want! Do you want to drag Israel into annexing the territories? If so, what do we do with the Arabs? Throwing them out is not going to happen. Jordan is not Palestine. We have to stop whining about what could have been and what should have been and deal with these issues like adults. Alternatively, if the Palestinian state is set up, will you accept Arab sovereignty? Can you dissociate Zionism and Settlement? What is the plan? None has been articulated. The entire settler political program is in a big smoke screen of confusion, sauteed in a fair bit of corruption and the occasional rhetorical outburst, allowing opponents to say what they want about you. There is seemingly no vision being articulated by your present leadership - just stubbornness to achieve short term objectives which are not, by themselves, sustainable. This failure to articulate a coherent, sustainable vision is the most immediate impediment to long term growth of your communities.

2) Find a way to deal with the Arabs

You're there and you should know it better than anyone else: The Palestinians are not going anywhere. There need to be serious efforts on the part of the settler leadership to normalize relations between Jewish communities and nearby Arab villages, to whatever extent possible. Stop relying on the Israeli government to do this. YOU are the ones living 200 meters away from Arabs and YOU have to deal with them every day. I understand you are busy living your own lives and growing your communities, but how is it possible to ignore your neighbors just a stone's throw away? Find an interpreter, sit down with them and talk. You will need to deal with them one way or another - either through cooperation and coexistence or through violence. In the medium and long term, this engagement is unavoidable. There need to be mechanisms set up to share infrastructure, cooperate on development, deal with hooligans and incitement - whether by Jews or Arabs - etc. The Arabs will not love you tomorrow, that we know. However, they will accept a firm but fair Jewish presence over time, especially if they have no other choice. There is a right way to do this.

3) Stand up for your legitimate rights

Let's deal with first things first. There are many Jewish settlements built on private land purchased from Palestinians that are routinely threatened with demolition and evacuation, like Havat Gilad (Gilad Farm). When there are overwhelming and conclusive claims of land ownership, such threats are unacceptable and must be dealt with. You can't allow the global media to call Havat Gilad an "illegal outpost" for ten years, and expect someone in France or Spain or Chicago to think it's not.

There needs to be a database of land ownership established by the settler organizations cataloging their claims to every private purchase of Palestinian lands. Scan the documents into PDF, add supporting photos, video, etc. and put the claims and all evidence online for everyone to see. Otherwise it's the word of some "crazy religious settler on a hilltop" versus a seasoned Haaretz correspondent or any Arab that claims otherwise.

Second, yes, there are Jewish settlements built on private Arab land. We all know it. If there is just ONE suggestion I can give to the settlers, it is that "the Bible told me to do it" is not a valid argument for taking other people's property. No one in the world accepts this argument, so STOP SAYING THAT TO NEWS MEDIA! Yes, I understand, G-d gave us this land. Yes, the land is holy. So why don't we just go into Palestinian homes and take their children as slaves? Obviously there are limits. Moshiach is not here, the Palestinians are, and we need to deal with them as human beings. They are somewhere on a scale from reasonable to stubborn to murderous, I understand, but someone has to think their way out of this paper bag.

Stealing private land is the wrong choice, especially today, when Jews around the world are willing to give money to purchase Palestinian land in a legal way. One of the key instruments of regaining moral legitimacy must be to catalog all settlements (and parts of settlements) that are on stolen Arab land and offer some sort of compensation to the Arab families. This doesn't need to be (and shouldn't be) a public or political process. A serious leadership could approach those families privately, make it clear that the settlement is not going anywhere and that all they will get is compensation, but deal with it somehow.

Third, why is it that an Arab who gets beaten up by the IDF in Balata can pick up the phone and have B'tselem taking pictures of his bruises and giving statements to Haaretz an hour later, but settlers who are abused by the Border Guards or whose crops are torched by Palestinian arsonists just accept their punishment like animals? Justice only works for Palestinians? You have rights, so protect them, wisely. Start taking pictures, videos, collecting testimonies and publicly naming and shaming the border guards, police, IDF and Arabs who are abusive. Collect the reports of abuse in an honest and serious way and send them to news organizations and Jewish Diaspora groups. Learn how to mobilize public support in Israel and around the world to ensure that your rights as human beings are respected.

This is just a sample of ideas that need to be part of this conversation, and it is a conversation we need to have. Relying on the Israeli government to save you is not the answer. How many billions will America need to give (or how many threats will it need to make) before Netanyahu or Livni or Barak force you from your homes, G-d forbid? You're not alone. There are Jews like me, in Israel and the Diaspora, who are willing to help, financially and otherwise, hopefully even make aliyah and join you. The Jewish settlements in the liberated territories face many challenges. Let's grow up and deal with them honestly, as Jews.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Netanyahu Rising?

I tend not to link out very much, or to paste large volumes of writing that is not my own on this blog, as is the wont of many prominent bloggers. Partly, this is because I don't have the traffic to direct the attention of masses of people. I also tend to think that most of the people who read me regularly also peruse similar online publications. It's therefore seems a bit redundant, if I have nothing original to say, to turn the spotlight on a subject that most readers are already aware of.

Nevertheless, I've been reading Barry Rubin more and more these days, mostly due to the repeated exposure he's receiving on the blogs of EoZ, Michael Totten and others, and I'm beginning to think that, if you don't already, you should read him as well.
What outsiders don't understand is that Israeli politics are not today a function of internal ideology or personality but a response to an environment where there is no realistic alternative for transforming the regional situation. (At the same time, there are no burning, passionate issues over social or economic policy.)

Israelis learned important lessons during the 1990s' peace process. They discovered that the Palestinians and Syria are not interested in peace; that the Islamists want to wipe Israel off the map; and that Western allies are not necessarily reliable.  The left's formula--as even Barak came to understand--didn't work. Wishful thinking is no substitute for realism.

There is absolutely nothing on the horizon, despite a lot of fantasy Western media coverage and policy thinking, to change that. Moreover, the Netanyahu-led government has done a credible job of handling the issues, including maintaining good relations with the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, Israel's economy is doing remarkably well.

That's not to say there aren't problems. But neither are the problems so great, nor the alternatives so obvious or attractive, nor the other candidates for leadership so attractive to provoke a change. Bet on Netanyahu to win another term in office, probably this year.
Pair that analysis up with a piece on Haaretz, by Aluf Benn, and we can really get cooking:
[Despite regional instability and American decline, relative to China,] Israel is entering this new era from a position of strength. Its economy is growing and attracting labor migrants and returning Israeli emigrants. Israel's great rival in the struggle for regional hegemony, Iran, is under international pressure and sanctions. The Israel Defense Forces is for now deterring Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority is keeping the lid on the West Bank.

Furthermore, the prime minister's maneuvers are succeeding. In the name of "political stability," the Labor Party ministers who pestered Netanyahu with threats of resignation were removed from office, pushing off elections further into the future. Defense Minister Ehud Barak stayed on but with diminished status, and is being additionally hurt by the problems involving the appointment of Yoav Galant as chief of staff. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's arch-rival, is a candidate for an indictment that will remove him from office. Meanwhile, the opponents of an attack on Iran are retiring one by one, broadening the premier's freedom of action.

There remains only the Palestinian question, which is bothering Netanyahu and threatening to erupt in the summer. The prime minister is looking for a way to outflank PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as the latter travels the world collecting supporters for a declaration of independence. The government is increasingly inclined to realize that an Israeli policy initiative is needed that will halt the erosion in foreign relations.
With the perspective of these two articles, it would appear that Netanyahu has consolidated, not so much power, but pragmatism within Israeli polity. A monopoly on centrist rationalism is a strong position to be in. The main point of weakness in Israeli policy is laissez faire pacifism with regards to Palestinian maneuvers, which force an unhealthy reliance on American diplomatic intervention, itself increasingly a finite resource. With strained Israeli-American relations off the front burner, the imminent threat of Iranian nukes apparently diffused for the time being, and a domestic political environment solidifying in his favor, Netanyahu is entering the first real breathing space of his premiership. Now is the time to think and plan, without the stress of threats or deadlines, about the Palestinians, and to cobble together the existing, incomprehensible fragments of Israeli policies into a coherent whole. After two years of playing dogged defense, it's Netanyahu's ball, finally. Let's see what he can do.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Limits of Communal Conformance

Silke asks, "should it be OK for societies to frown on too much covering up the same way and with the same justification that they frown on too much uncovering." I think we could discuss general issues pertaining to societies, like France, that have legislated head-covering laws in recent years. First, I'd like to cover the subject of coercive communal "dress codes" with an emphasis on the Jewish community, as I see it.

I think the test of whether dress is prohibitively restrictive is whether individuals feel free to remove it, even if they choose not to do so. Certainly I'm not talking about being physically threatened, but purely about oppressive social pressure. Will they still be considered a member of the observant Jewish community? In America they are very much free to do so. In other words, if they did it, people would sigh and talk to their parents, but if they just refused, well, the rest would get on with their lives and, at most, try to make sure their sons or daughters were spending their time with someone else. There is an understanding that, in this society, you can't force people to do things; in fact, that only encourages deeper rebellion. You have to let people develop and try to guide them to the extent they let you. We don't excommunicate anyone (and we hope not to be excommunicated for our misdeeds in turn!). The fact is, there are perfectly good, sensible, and even deeply spiritual reasons why observant Jews wear modest dress. Forcing these laws and customs on people is the single most devastating way to ensure that they never get to internalize and appreciate what they're being coerced to do - you're robbing them of the choice to have a very meaningful experience.

It's a different situation and culture in Israel; less sweet carrot and more stick. There is a young woman I know who has not been married but has a young girl that goes to a religious Jewish school. They only became observant in the last few years. For months she would drop her daughter off at school, and the kids would ask her daughter where her father is. Because, if the mother is not wearing a wig or hat, it means she never got married, despite having the little girl. It's awkward socially. Anyway, it came to the point that the principle of the school mentioned it, so the young woman ended up wearing a wig to make things easier for her daughter. She says she likes it now, but I was furious when I heard this story. It's something that would never happen in America. If I heard Jewish kids talking that way about grown-ups I would smack them. The principle of the school had no business talking to her about it; she opted for the easy conversation with the mom rather than the more difficult and nuanced conversation with the kids who were speaking improperly.

It's just a situation that would not happen in the US, but in Israel, there's more pressure to conform, and there's no place to escape. If the young woman wanted to be part of the observant community she had to either put up with it or leave. It's such a small country; everyone knows you. If can't even go to another city, because everyone has cousins and uncles and people will recognize you. You have to be consistent, as the Russian expression goes, "blood through the nose", no matter what. Consistency is important in the US also, but to a much lesser extent. If I really wanted to, I could avoid contact with the Jewish community here, but in Israel, it would be impossible. Any inconsistency in your appearance or behavior would be observed and cataloged for future notice by the gossip army.

At the end of the day, the young woman wanted kids to stop talking negatively about her daughter and ended up wearing a wig. She's never been married, she didn't have to do it, but it was easier to conform than not, so she did. Now people know her like this, and it's become a part of her identity, so there's no point going backwards, but it's not the kind of thing I enjoy hearing about. It's not the kind of thing people should be taking on, voluntarily, I might add, solely because of public pressure, in my opinion.

Behavioral Conformance in a Communal Setting

They're called penguins: Observant Jewish men who wear black shoes, black pants, black fedoras, black coats and white shirts. Whenever Reuters or CNN needs a spectacle of the foreign, the "other", the "ultra-"orthodox Jews, they shoot endless reels of them, helplessly flailing about before the greedy cameras - penguins in a barrel. Why do observant Jewish men dress this way, in what is often described as 18th century central-European attire? Why would anyone want to dress this way, particularly in the middle of a summer's heat?

Actually, the reason why the dress is like this, and not like that is besides the point. At some point, it was established that the outfit would be this, and not that. It could have been that, but it was determined that this was more complementary to the communal culture and purpose, so this, and not that became the dress. Of course, I'm oversimplifying, as there is significant variation among the outfits of the different movements which outsiders rarely notice, but that's neither here nor there. The basic, recognizable black garb - black is a sign of piety and humility - is a common feature among observant Jewish communities. This, in all its diversity, will remain the dress until some significant culture shock will transform it into something else, as Jewish communal attire has never been static, though it may persist for generations at a time. What follows is a more interesting (more so than the origins discussion), "inside-baseball" conversation on the role of behavioral conditioning in driving internal change, through the eyes of a Jew in transition.

For people who choose to join and participate in a community, particularly one where members share intellectual or theological beliefs, or seek to share such beliefs, behavioral conformance is crucial to thoroughly internalizing the system of communal belief. To be crude, prolonged behavioral conformance is a method of, in this case voluntary mental conditioning.

Jews in general and Chassidim in particular believe that the soul - the G-dly soul and the animal soul - express themselves through the body in the garments of thought, speech and action. Thought is the most amorphous of the three, the least tangible and physical, and also the most difficult to reign in. It is not a simple thing to control one’s thoughts. Control, in this sense, means not to restrain oneself from acting out a thought, but to prevent an unseemly thought from developing at all. If one could thus control their thoughts (within a Jewish context) they would be a tzadik, a perfectly righteous person. If you never think to sin, you will never speak loshon hora (specifically, gossip, but more generally any forbidden speech) and you will never act out a prohibition. Thoughts are the root from which the rest of ourselves are expressed.

Speech is more tangible than thought. To speak something is to more fully actualize it in the physical world than merely to think it. Yet, once spoken, speech does not generally persist (except in the thoughts of the speaker and listener), although it has a capacity for persisting (in the thoughts, speech and actions of those who heard the speech). Actions have a physical permanence which neither thought nor speech can match. Of the three garments, actions are most rooted in the physical, and most capable of permanently transforming the physical world.

The challenge of an individual who wishes to become more sensitive to and observant of the tenets of our faith is how to transform our thoughts, speech and action for good. There’s a how-to guide, written several hundred years ago, which explains how to do this in a systematic way - called the Tanya - so I won’t get into the particulars. In psychological terms, what this all amounts to is behavioral modification. When a behavior - thought, speech and action - is deemed unwanted, at the time it is initiated there is a conscious recognition, arrest and reversal, until suppressing the behavior becomes routine and passes into the subconscious. I’ll give an example of a hot button issue.

Having sexual partners outside of marriage contradicts the Jewish faith, for reasons I won’t get into here. According to the system of soul-expression outlined previously, the final act of sexual intercourse - which is prohibited - is premised on multiple preceding behaviors, which may not themselves be prohibited. From a man’s perspective, and simplifying, but not by much, first, you see a man or woman that you like. You think to yourself, “they’re attractive”. The seed is planted. You speak to them and discover they’re a good conversationalist (or whatever), which reinforces the original thought. Finally you take some form of action which, if not prohibited itself, is edging towards the abyss, which reinforces the thought and speech. Rinse, repeat and you end up sleeping with them, which is most certainly prohibited.

Suppose you decide to become a baal teshuvah (a "master of repentance" or return) and resolve to end this practice of sleeping with people outside of marriage. Good for you, but how do you do so? Most people fail to translate, through actions, who they wish to be into who they are. The reason for this is that there exists a great gulf between the behavior you act out almost on impulse today, and the behavior you want to adopt. Some people may be capable of bridging the distance with ease, but most of us are not nearly so gifted. Our concentration, enthusiasm and self-confidence rises and falls, and without intermediate steps we fall short of the goal and revert to the behavior we do not want.

Returning back to our example, when you see an attractive man or woman, your thoughts are conditioned for a specific response. In other words, you WILL think, “they’re attractive”, whether you want to or not. You can't help having such thoughts; they're normal and natural. However, you can recognize and arrest the thought once you’ve had it, preventing yourself from realizing it further through speech or action. Let’s say you can’t do this and you end up speaking about this thought. Let’s say you don’t even speak to the person you saw, but to a friend, about this person who you found attractive. You’ve taken the thought and implanted it more firmly into the physical world. Maybe they'll talk you into pursuing the matter further, or mention it to someone else, and so on. You’ve made the negative outcome (negative in the way you've defined it) more real than it was previously; you’ve brought it closer to fruition. If you recognize, arrest and reverse yourself at the point of speech, you can contain the situation there. Alternatively, you can take actions which further realize the negative outcome you seek to avoid.

Of the three, physical action is the most important - in that the act itself is prohibited, not the thought or maybe even the speech - and also most vulnerable to modification, so it becomes the focal point of a baal teshuvah’s efforts. You can’t just stop yourself from thinking unwanted thoughts. Maybe it’s even difficult for you to prevent speaking in such a way that brings closer an unwanted outcome, although you can work on this. You have TOTAL control, however, of your physical actions. You can zip your pants back up and leave, so to speak, before you commit an unwanted act, no matter what negative behaviors you participated in which led you to that situation.

How does any of this relate to communal standards? In an inverse way. If the physical act is the most crucial, and the most vulnerable to modification, then an individual who wishes to adopt a system of belief - in a pnimius, fully internalized way - should start by accepting external behaviors which contribute to that internal outcome. In other words, you express on the outside what you wish to become on the inside. If that seems forced and not genuine, that's right, it is fake! Guess what, you're not born perfect, and working to become something you're not requires some honest self-deceit. If you're a thief, and you want to stop being a thief, you can start by not acting like a thief, even if you still really want to be a thief on the inside. Or, as Chabad Chassidim say - fake it till you make it! It may be counter-intuitive, but by first changing your actions and behavior, your speech and thoughts will follow.

Changing yourself internally is very difficult. Changing yourself externally is relatively easy, and will contribute to the process of internal change, like a bridging step to help you cross that vast gulf. If a community which believes certain things dresses a certain way, and you wish to internalize the belief system in that community, then you can begin by dressing as they do, adopting the customs they keep, speaking as they do (and not speaking they way they don’t), etc. With great effort, of which behavioral conformance is just a small part, you will condition yourself to think and believe as they do, which was your voluntary intent all along. Why you would want to condition yourself in this way is beyond the subject of this post.

For anyone appalled that someone should choose to brainwash themselves in such a manner - and that’s what behavioral conditioning is, in colloquial terms, brainwashing - consider that you are no less behaviorally conditioned to act and speak and think as you do right now. Back to our example, if the values of a society dictate that having sex with individuals outside of marriage is perfectly normal, then you have been conditioned to think, speak and act according to those norms. The same goes for how you dress, what customs you keep, what products you purchase, etc. We are all behaviorally conditioned in one manner or another. Should an individual choose another system of belief, such as that in Judaism, they have to undo some of their previous conditioning which is incompatible with the new end goal, and replace it with alternative conditioning. Some place a value system on certain types of conditioning and call it morality, or a morality system.

This answers why individuals would choose to behave as other members of their community, specifically in how they dress. Absent the spiritual dimension present within a Chassidic (and maybe other) Jewish communities that I’m familiar with, where individuals really do invest themselves in external conformity in an attempt to reach an internal sensitivity, a spiritual ideal, I admit this process can be misconstrued in negative terms. The main point is that we are all conforming to something. The key is to make a conscious decision as to what we wish to conform to, not be dragged along by the social current of our time.

The process of coercing conformance within a community is completely separate from individual efforts at behavioral modification I outlined above. One of the reasons I think Chabad is so successful is that it doesn’t generally seek to impose conformance. Once a value and belief system is presented and seen as attractive to an individual, they will drive their internal change with a rigor and earnestness that no external coercion can impose. However, there are some Jewish communities which believe in coercing conformance, at times quite bluntly, even punitively. My only guess at why they do so is fear, by which I don't mean fear of G-d, and I see such methods as counter-productive in the short and long term.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is The Israeli Left Really Under Assault?

One would think, reading Haaretz of late, that with the pending Knesset review of foreign funding for Israeli NGOs, Israeli democracy is on its last gasps. I haven't actually read the legislation authorizing the much talked about investigation; I can't seem to find it online, or even a summary of it, which is surprising, given how devastating a nail this document apparently is to the ready-made coffin of Israeli democracy.

However, I did find something else - a list of groups that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes deserve to have their funding examined and brought to light in the public sphere. Certainly the likes of Peace Now make the list of the persecuted Israeli Left, right? Wrong.
According to Lieberman, the inquiry committee wouldn't focus on leftist organizations like the Geneva Initiative or Peace Now, who "have a political opinion that is entirely legitimate even if I don't accept it." [That must be the anti-democratic, savage Moldovan bouncer talking.] Rather, he said, it would focus on organizations whose goal was to deter the IDF."

The FM went on to name the organizations he believes should be investigated. "I'll begin with Ittijah - Union of Arab Community Based Associations. It was founded in 1995, and its director was Ameer Makhoul. The New Profile movement does not have a proper management license from the Registrar of Companies, and its financial report on donations it received this past year was not submitted."
Lieberman said Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – last submitted a financial report in 2007 and also does not hold a proper management license. "In that report, the organization said it received donations from abroad, including from the Swiss government, but a letter written by its director states that the organization did not receive any donations from foreign elements," he said.
This is the so called "death" of Israeli democracy? I think some of the town criers in this debate need a chance to reflect, get some perspective, maybe go home, take a nap, put on a funny hat - whatever it is that idiots do - because clearly, Israeli democracy will live to see another sunrise.

Jeffrey Goldberg, Please Stop Inciting Against Russian-Speaking Jews

Last week, I documented how Jeffrey Goldberg, a respected journalist, a proud Jew and a Zionist friend of Israel lent his considerable credibility to affirm "the long-held narrative held by enemies of the Jewish people, that Israel is not now and never has been a democracy, and is increasingly incapable of concealing its true racist, Jewish-supremacist nature." He did this by questioning the fundamental commitment of Russian-speaking, Oriental and Observant Jews to democratic norms. I further wrote that his perspective was being shaped "by left-wing, English speaking Israeli pundits and media", for whom "the haredim, the Jews of Russian and Middle Eastern descent, the settlers and Israeli Arabs... represent a somewhat dystopic, unintegrated, illiberal otherness", " an uncomfortable, if not an embarrassing element that is better left infantilised, politically trivialized, strawmanned, suppressed or at least meaningfully unacknowledged". Finally, I explained how " the basic principles of tolerant intellectual pluralism are ingrained in Jewish history, culture and identity, and form the basis of a social contract among the different groupings within Jewish Israeli society. There is no indication that this basic adherence to democratic norms is headed for change."

It was harsh rhetoric on my part, but as I've now learned, perhaps not harsh enough. At a time when we in the United States are in the wake of a national tragedy surrounding the attempted murder of a Congresswoman, and the successful murder of six others, including a child, a similar and dangerous environment has developed in Israel, fed by the type of rhetoric now becoming more common on Jefferey Goldberg's blog.

Today, Ynet has reported that a Russian-speaking member of the Israeli Knesset, Faina Kirshenbaum, received the following letter, among others:
"Dear Madam," it said, "An inquiry commission should be established to look into how so many drunks arrived to Israel from Russia, as well as so many whores, thieves and hooligans. This should be examined. As they say, a good Russian is a dead Russian."
Let me tell you, as a Jew of Moldovan descent, there is little as grating in this world as being pejoratively downgraded as a human being for being Russian, a country whose government suppressed my people for seven decades (just in the modern era), WHEN YOU'RE NOT RUSSIAN! As Faina responded, "I'm not even Russian. I'm Jewish and I came here from the Ukraine."

But really, that's beside the point. G-d forbid something were to happen, and an Israeli extremist, deeply concerned about "the erosion of Israel democracy", and having had his fill of incitement against the Russian-speaking Jewish community on
Jeffrey Goldberg's blog, took matters into his own hands. So, please, Jeffrey, with all due respect, stop contributing to a climate of hatred being generated by elements of Israel's radical left against our fellow Jews. Yes, even we the unwashed, uneducated, un-elite Russian-speaking, Middle-Eastern, "Ultra-Orthodox" and settler Jewish masses get a say in the future of our people, without having to submit our democratic credentials for your, or anyone else's inspection.

Cold Blooded Murder

Here in the United States we are into the third day of a national tragedy surrounding the shooting of a Democratic Arizona Congresswoman who identified herself as Jewish - Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - and the murder of six others, among them a nine year old girl (born on September 11, 2001), by a mentally disturbed individual. Some on the left have been quick to point the finger at what they say is hate speech on the part of the right wing media, punditry and the Tea Party movement, claiming that it radicalized the 22-year old shooter.

However, certain inconvenient facts make this a dubious analysis, not least among them that the left has engaged in quite ugly rhetoric itself. Have we already forgotten the hatred directed against former President Bush, including a movie made fictionalizing his assassination? Indeed, the progressive left's flagship community blog, DailyKos, itself posted Rep. Giffords, now fighting for her life, on a "target list", slapping a primary challenge "bulls eye" on her district (she appears to be a very centrist Democrat) - precisely the language the right is now being accused of using. Demagoguery is back in American life with a vengeance, if it ever left, and as ugly as ever.

It is unfortunate that in a time of personal and national tragedy, our country's political class is tearing one another apart instead of uniting in a common front against cold blooded murder. What seems clear is that the shooter appears to have had no connection to the Tea Party, has been described by former friends as a "left wing pothead", who apparently dabbled in the occult, enjoyed both Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto a bit more than most and railed against the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) - activities reflecting no consistent ideology that I'm aware of, except one of extremism drawn from the political right and left.

Nevertheless, the recriminations continue. Already various pieces of legislation are being drawn up, leveraging the crisis to restrict certain types of speech being directed at public officials, empowering the government to impose "balance" in media coverage, and push through anti-gun measures. Should you choose to do so, I recommend you follow developments on Drudge, a (center-right) news aggregator who is usually a good barometer of American media in a crisis. It will be of some interest if the investigation into the shooter's past uncovers a singular purpose behind the attack.

The State of Israeli Media

If you read one thing today, make it Ronen Shoval's calm and lucid defense of the Knesset investigation into funding sources for Israel's radical left. Compare this balanced, measured article from the chairman of Im Tirzu, published on Haaretz (I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming), to the vitriol and hysteria permeating the paper's English language section. The difference in tone is so stark, the rhetoric so divergent, that Ronen's piece really sets a model for responsible, civil political discourse; an outcome sure to infuriate to new heights the already apoplectic radical left.

Indeed, while the Knesset committee is focused on examining and releasing to the public the sources of foreign funding for non-governmental groups, no understanding of Israel's domestic political environment and international challenges would be complete without taking into account the activities of the Israeli media.

In Israel, there exists a situation where the media, or large parts of it, are fundamentally opposed to the policies of a series of governments, and are in the present circumstances among the primary actors confronting government policy in national life. This, in itself, is not unusual and, indeed, sets an example for robust critique of government policy which is often absent, including in Western societies.

What is unusual is that the radical left among Israeli media are increasingly conducting this challenge to Israel's government not within Israel, in the legitimate public space, but outside of it, and broadly concurrent with the efforts of like-minded and foreign funded NGOs. Such actions reflect not an attempt to impact the public debate within Israel, but to rally or, failing that, manipulate and coerce respectable international opinion to confront and batter into submission democratically-enacted Israeli government policy. This is really a fundamental break from the traditional role of media in Western societies, where a free press is thought vital to holding government accountable to the people for its duties and promises and preserving freedom of expression and a democratic way of life - what we Americans term the Fourth Estate. For, while it is not uncommon within democratic (and not-so-democratic) societies for political factions to generate sympathetic media outlets which fight in the public space, rarely, if ever, is the primary audience of those outlets outside the country in question.

Indeed, the democratically elected government of Israel represents the will of the people to a greater extent than the media, which is unelected, and which increasingly derives its revenues from news and opinion it produces for foreign consumption. In a sense, portions of the Israeli media are today unhinged from the market forces which first birthed them, and are thus unaccountable to the public constituency they were designed to serve. This, itself, is a situation which is perhaps unprecedented, anywhere in the world, and should be noted, though in an era of globalization, not exaggerated.

At a time when a growing challenge to democratic Jewish sovereignty in the Levant is spearheaded not by Arab armies or Islamist terrorism but implacable Israeli radicals, including within the Israeli media - zealots who threaten to burn down the city's storehouses in a time of siege should their demands not be met - the basic and necessary refrain must be sounded: What should be done? Further inflaming passions is that such activity on the part of the radicals is reminiscent of other times in Jewish history, where a minority within Jewry informed on our people and collaborated with our oppressors - the Yevsektsia (the Jewish section), as they were known in the Soviet Union - and that this time, the Jewish majority is not impotent to act against them.

In an effort to protect the country and its people, it may seem right and just to excoriate and persecute those who, having lost the public debate, now intend to impose their will through foreign intervention. Any such efforts and tendencies, and they are not many, are counterproductive and must be resisted in the extreme. The likes of Ronen Shoval provide a sensible, effective and Jewish way forward - a stubborn civility, ground in the bitter reality but determined to respect intellectual pluralism and democratic norms. If that is the way we would act in the minority, then all the more so we should remain calm and clear-headed in the majority.

Those who stand in opposition to the extreme left's mendacious tactics must remember that the peace camp's vision - once a genuine, and well-meaning effort - faltered not through resistance on the part of the political right, but on account of a devastating reassertion of reality over idealism. It is that same reality which the former proponents of peace, now embittered zealots, marginalized in the public square as they are, have obscured to harness international opinion in pursuit of their aims, with some success. It is that same reality we must present, in a cogent and honest way, to roll back the tide.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Monkey Hangers

We've all by now heard of the despicable Zionist crimes in recruiting and brainwashing helpless animals to sabotage Egyptian tourism and spy on Saudi Arabia's vital sand dunes. Naturally, the usual Hasbara Machine kicked into overdrive and covered up these acts of espionage and cruelty in the Zionist-controlled world media, as we knew they would. Slowly but surely the truth is coming out and more and more people are opening their eyes to the Khazar plan for global domination. We cannot predict what fearsome creature the Mossad will employ in the future against our peace, justice and freedom-loving peoples, but we can remain ever vigilant.

However, while there is simply no limit to our shock at Zionist perfidy, the ruse of employing animals to wage subversive war is not unique in history.
During the Napoleonic Wars [early 1800s] a French ship was wrecked off the Hartlepool coast. [There] was a fear of a French invasion of Britain and much public concern about the possibility of French infiltrators and spies.

The fishermen of Hartlepool fearing an invasion kept a close watch on the French vessel as it struggled against the storm but when the vessel was severely battered and sunk they turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore. Among the wreckage lay one wet and sorrowful looking survivor, the ship's pet monkey dressed to amuse in a military style uniform.

The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and held a beach-based trial. Unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like they came to the conclusion that this monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death. The unfortunate creature was to die by hanging, with the mast of a fishing boat (a coble) providing a convenient gallows.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Soviet Leaders Could Teach Andrew Sullivan

In 1980, the Soviet Union was to usher in a new era in human development and achievement, fulfilling a decades long quest to become a true communist state. As of that year, Soviet schoolchildren were taught in the 1950s and '60s, neither inequality nor injustice would persist. Economic, social and political exploitation of the proletariat masses by the bourgeois elite would cease, and a true worker's paradise would ensue, complete with freedom from want, subjugation and fear. The infallible logic of "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" would end the dangerous brinkmanship of unequal human frailty, bringing with it the final stroke of history itself.

Despite being well read on the Soviet Union, I'm not a Sovietologist. I couldn't tell you, for example, why the year 1980 was chosen as the end-date for the victory of Revolutionary Socialism over Capitalist Imperialism, or who it was that made the decision to enshrine that year in the receptive hearts of children in their millions. From the standpoint of the 1940s or 50s, perhaps 1980 seemed sufficiently far off as to be an abstract placeholder for the "not now, but still within our lifetime", much as 2050 seems to us today. Neither do I know at what point it became clear to the Soviet government that all that talk of "1980" should gently be purged from mass media and school textbooks. What is certain, however, is that 1980 came and went, and no one in the Soviet government pretended that a worker's paradise had been achieved, or was in any way closer to fruition than when Marx and Engels first birthed the notion.

The government of the Soviet Union was, in final judgment, composed of rational human beings who understood the value of propaganda, but recognized the exclusive primacy of reality. This is an important point, and one that I wish to impress on a certain Andrew Sullivan, for were he in the position of the Soviet regime, either we would all now be living in and praising our joyous socialist paradise at the point of a rifle butt, ala North Korea, or 1980 would simply not yet have arrived, owing to the impressive abilities of renowned Soviet astronomers laboring under starvation rations at gulag.

This is my impression of the man's faculties, having read Andrew Sullivan's recent summary of the Obama Administration's faltering two year old efforts at Mid-East peacemaking, which thus far have been aimed not at achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but merely at convincing the Palestinian negotiators to occupy the same room as their Israeli counterparts, and unsuccessfully at that.

That we should consider it a success that stubborn American diplomacy, costly for both the United States and Israel, could not, over the course of two long years, bring the Palestinians to direct negotiations - negotiations in which they had previously been engaged in without preconditions for nearly two decades - is truly a mind-boggling position to take, and requires an inordinate amount of innovative mental acrobatics to justify. Thankfully, Sullivan is in a position to oblige, having trademarked a peculiar distaste for reality in all things Israel, and learned to substitute a glorious, revolutionary narrative in its place.

Indeed, Andrew could teach Pravda a thing or two about duping the masses with such gems of doublethink as: "Failure leads to new terms for success." Yet, failure it is, it being the President's policy, and disguising it as "new terms for success" is truly a downright bizarre way of dealing with reality. What next? "Hunger leads to new terms for gastronomic satisfaction?" Or maybe: "Blindness leads to new terms for optical clarity?"

Failure is failure, and a responsible thinker, a rational government, would evaluate the conditions that brought about a failure in the foreign policy of the United States and recalibrate its diplomacy accordingly. Witness American policy rejecting the failed instrument of a unilateral Israeli abrogation of Jewish property rights in the West Bank and adjusting, however belatedly, but with a certain respect for reality.

On the other hand, an irrational thinker, an emotional basket-case who conflates his contemptuous antipathy for Israel's Prime Minister with a vindictive, punitive foreign policy towards a sovereign state which happens to be an integral strategic and ideological American ally and the sole non-"Arab autocracy" in the region, such a man need do no such thing.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Spam Doctor

My mother has a nickname - the "Spam Doctor". The "Doctor" part is actually non-descriptive, but it just sounds better than "Wizard" or "Addict". She's one of those people who forwards a mass email to her family and friends about various things at least once a day. People stop me on the street, people I don't know, or in shul, and tell me to thank her for sending it. Sometimes it's about the benefits of tomatoes for "men's health". Other times it's someone's poignant account of survival, often in Russian, and always with a moral lesson for an ending. I try to read at least half of them, you know, to show respect. But why should you be deprived of the Spam Doctor's treatment? Without further delay, here's today's installment.
Jewish Mother

Mrs. Fisher comes to visit her son Jacob for dinner.  He lives with a female roommate, Rachel.
During the course of the meal, his mother couldn't help but notice how pretty Jacob's roommate was.  She had long been suspicious of a relationship between the two, and this had only made her more curious.

Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, she started to wonder if there was more between Jacob and his roommate than met the eye.  Reading his mom's thoughts, Jacob volunteered, 'I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you, Rachel and I are just roommates.'

About a week later, Rachel came to Jacob saying, 'Ever since your mother came to dinner, I've been unable to find the silver sugar bowl.  You don't suppose she took it, do you?'  Well, I doubt it, but I'll email her, just to be sure.' So he sat down and wrote an email:

Dear Mama,
I'm not saying that you 'did' take the sugar bowl from my house;
I'm not saying that you 'did not' take it.
But the fact remains that it has been missing
ever since you were here for dinner.
Love, Jacob

Several days later, Jacob received a response email from his Mama which read:

Dear Son,
I'm not saying that you 'do' sleep with Rachel,
and I'm not saying that you 'do not' sleep with her.
But the fact remains that if she was sleeping in her OWN bed,
she would have found the sugar bowl by now.
Love, Mama

Moral:   Never lie to your Mama . . . especially if she's Jewish.
Sigh. Ok, I'll keep that in mind.

Almost Heaven

Americans have a custom, when they go on dates, of asking each other what kind of music they enjoy. As an immigrant raised in a different cultural milieu, I always found this rather strange, to identify yourself with a particular type of music. What's more, they associate a complex set of subjective values to various kinds of musical tastes, making the revelation of your preferred musical style a deep reflection on your background, education, socio-economic status and life goals. I'm not a musically gifted person, but I know what I like, and that spans the full range of music - from rock to rap, house to classical and country, even Arabic pop. I don't understand Springstein, but the sheer numbers and devotion of his fans tells me I should keep trying. To me, an obsession with one type of music over another is an indication that you haven't been very challenged in life, if you think a person's musical taste is of any significance to the things that really matter. It's the kind of petty mindlessness only poverty, dislocation, or civil war could solve, though I wish none of them on anyone.

Anyway, the following has been running through my head all day, and it may as well be running through yours.

A Look Inside the Peace Industry

I don't often link to Jewschool, and when I do, it's usually to highlight a point of contention in the comment section. The following post by Jew Guavara struck me for its sheer humanity. There is a reason why restaurants don't allow patrons in the kitchen. To every delicious sausage there is the sausage-making, which may be far less delectable than one ever appreciated. Spoiled food, rat droppings, meat being dropped on the floor and put back on the grill, appetizers being reused from table to table, enough to make you want to hurl and forswear dining out. It's the same way with activism, and politics, and yes, even the saintly peace industry.
When peacemaking was ‘in’ and respectable parts of Israeli society where invested in it, this included cynical journalists, former army officers and intelligence agents, and various capitalists with ‘new middle east’ stars in their eyes. Not to mention offbeat Orthodox rabbis, ‘peacenik’ settlers, Hamas reformists, and Palestinian Authority returnees in fancy new cars. ICPME was squarely in the center of all this peacemaking.

For the most part, these respectable parts of Israeli society withdrew from supporting peace overly much. Their disengagement was part of a general rightward, pessimistic, ‘realistic’ trend in Israeli politics. But they are waiting in the wings - ready to resume their previous role as professional intermediaries between the Israeli and Palestinian societies. Waiting to fundraise for ‘People to People’ projects. Joint youth camps. International delegations to Scandinavian conferences. Learning missions to Cyprus and the Balkans. ‘Competitive Advantage’ seminars for future binational business initiatives. Water saving cross border initiatives. And all the rest.

All these programs will cost money, and the money will flow to those who best understand the ins and outs of embassy schmoozing and sweet talking foundation executives. Lovable rogues like OB will resurface, showing up in Washington DC to shake hands with whoever seems important - Jeremy Ben Ami and his board of directors might be useful someday. Maybe they can help steer some future USAID ‘peacebuilding’ grant towards whatever organization he ends up running.

It kind of makes me sick.
I left out the parts about philandering, and the women who love to be womanized. There's always that, always.

Is Opposing a Palestinian State and Palestinian Suffrage Racist?

One of the arguments prevalent among those who advocate for the creation of a Palestinian state, including among staunch Zionists - such as Jeffery Goldberg - is that the Jews of Israel must make a choice between two incompatible futures. In one scenario, Israel relinquishes the territory it liberated through defensive war in 1967, divesting itself of millions of Palestinian non-citizens under its control and allowing a Palestinian state to take root in what is commonly referred to as the West Bank. The State of Israel will then remain an overwhelming and unassailable Jewish majority country, continuing to bestow democratic rights on all its citizens without risk of undermining the country's Jewish character. Alternately, Israel may annex the West Bank, but must then grant voting rights to the 1.5-2.5 million Palestinians who reside there (the exact number is debated), ostensibly ending the Jewish people's modern journey in national sovereignty.

In my last post, I discussed the traditional and contemporary commitment of Jews - all Jews - to democratic norms. Of course, Jefferey Goldberg's full argument is that certain problematic sectors of Israeli society - Jews of Middle Eastern and of recent Eastern European origin, residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the rapidly growing haredi minority - are a unique obstacle to Israel relinquishing territory for a Palestinian state, while remaining opposed to granting citizenship to the 1.5-2.5 million Palestinians residing in the West Bank.

It may very well be that large constituencies within Israel are opposed to granting the Palestinians either a state or Israeli citizenship and voting rights (as opposed to say, permanent residency rights). However, neither Goldberg nor Israel's progressive left is really dealing with the reasons why this may be. Instead, they're suppressing the basis for inconvenient opinions and segmenting Israel's Jews into the good and the bad, the reasonable, progressive Zionist democrats, and the illiterate savages who are too stupid to be allowed to think for themselves. Pigeonholing people between the solution preferred by the country's self-anointed elite and the promise of a veritable apocalypse is not intellectually honest dialogue. Further, labeling a likely majority of the Israeli population as anti-democratic and racist for obstructing either a Palestinian state or Palestinian suffrage as Israeli citizens presumes a lack of alternative motivations.

Israel is a nation under siege. Its citizens have been shot, stabbed, blown up, bombarded and generally threatened with a loss of life, limb, parent, child, sibling, friend, or any stranger on the street, not to mention the persistent regional calls for their national genocide, every single day, going on eight decades. When the nation isn't being invaded or threatened by neighboring armies, it is being infiltrated by individuals whose primary intent is either to kill or maim the greatest number of people in the most gruesome, public way possible, slit the throats of entire families in their sleep or kidnap soldiers and bargain their decomposed remains back to the state. Millions of people are living in an environment where, at any moment, for no reason within their control, rockets will fall from the sky and splatter their children's mutilated bodies so completely across sidewalks and playgrounds that it will take days for trained specialists and DNA sequencing to collect the pieces. This is not a normal way for human beings to live their lives.

At this point I can hear a number of my Israeli friends protest, vehemently, at my characterization of them as hapless victims. They live their lives to the fullest, they'll say, and don't think every day about the violence and challenges I'm ascribing to them. Indeed, Israeli society has demonstrated a remarkable resilience and even growth in the face of adversity. This is a quality of the country and its people much beloved their supporters worldwide, and certainly by the American Jewish community. However, such praise, while understandable, isn't admirable, it's sickening. We in the rest of the world are praising a people for accepting as normal a level of violence and threat of violence that would never be tolerated in our societies. That Israelis have internalized and normalized living at death's door, and that we applaud them for it, is not a source of pride, but of shame. What other nation with the power to permanently resolve threats to its security would not do so? That's normal; Israel isn't.

There was a time when the "land for peace" formula made some sense. There was a time when the peace camp promised that its solutions would actually bring peace. I don't know if you've noticed, but after Lebanon and Gaza, no one is making such promises to the people of Israel - not the human rights groups, not the Israeli government, not the Palestinian Authority and not the American president. A nation already at the limit of its tolerance for violence is being asked to double down on a policy which no one can guarantee will bring peace, and may in fact instigate a new round of bloodshed. It's either that or invite the very people who would shoot rockets at your home and riddle your family with bullets into having a say over how your country should be run. Lastly, should you choose to do neither, you're an anti-democratic racist. Enjoy.

Do Russian, Middle Eastern and Observant Jews Hate Democracy?

In Jeffery Goldberg's prominent recent piece examining the future viability of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he highlights three groups - right wing Russian, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the rapidly growing haredi minority - as possibly not sharing his basic belief, he being a liberal American Jew, in the absolute necessity of democratic government, and therefore potentially undermining an essential plank ensuring the domestic and international legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in the Levant. By thus painting large sectors of Israeli society as roadblocks to democratic Jewish-majority rule, the well-meaning Goldberg is tangentially lending affirmation to the long-held narrative held by enemies of the Jewish people, that Israel is not now and never has been a democracy, and is increasingly incapable of concealing its true racist, Jewish-supremacist nature.

From the vantage point of progressive, prosperous and secure American Jewry - a perspective heavily shaped by left-wing, English speaking Israeli pundits and media - Israel is composed of progressive and regressive elements. The high-tech, educated, left of center, affluent, politically elitist, internationally minded bubble of Israel's coastline represents those admirable, "Start-up Nation" aspects of Israeli society which are prized by progressive, prosperous and secure American Jewry. Everyone else - the haredim, the Jews of Russian and Middle Eastern descent, the settlers and Israeli Arabs - represent a somewhat dystopic, unintegrated, illiberal otherness. For some within Israel and among American Jewry, these sectors of Israeli society, which together likely constitute a majority of citizenry, are an uncomfortable, if not an embarrassing element that is better left infantilised, politically trivialized, strawmanned, suppressed or at least meaningfully unacknowledged.

Of course, all of this is of my limited understanding, and perhaps I am overstating the case. Certainly I am not accusing Jefferey Goldberg of openly subscribing to such bigotry, which emanates from Israel's left-of-center elite and, this I do know, permeates much of American Jewry's progressive ranks. However, I do think such thinking, on the margins, appears to shape Goldberg's perspective, and it is crucial to disentangle this thinking from our analysis in order to reach an understanding of the situation which more approaches reality. On the other hand, we could just continue to snicker that a Jew born in the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union once upon a time in his young adulthood took a part time job as a club bouncer. That savage, that brute. But sending Jewish soldiers to war with the wrong ammunition and forcing them to beg for water from the enemy's civilians, that's perfectly understandable. Allowing Arab mobs to urinate on the tombs of Jewish prophets - well, for intellect like that, you need a high class Tel Aviv University education.

Are sectors of Jewish Israeli society fundamentally undemocratic, anti-democratic, or apathetic to Israel's future as a democratic state?

Adherence to democratic principles - a broad social consensus about the value of tolerant political pluralism - is deeply ingrained in Jewish life and institution building, everywhere in the world, including in Israel, and is not limited to sub-groups. Majority rule is a central tenet of Rabbinical Judaism, not merely used in settling disagreements over matters of Jewish law, but also obligating the minority to accept the will of the majority (Pirkei Avot, 4:8), a profound directive which speaks to a deeper social contract. It is one thing to be on the losing side of a passionate dispute, to accept one's failure to prevail (intellectually) over an opponent, but retain full confidence in the preeminent justice of your position - this is typical behavior in democratic settings. Another matter altogether is internalizing the wisdom and justice of the victorious opposing view and accepting it as your own. Simultaneously, far from being an oppressive majority which tramples roughshod over and eliminates minority positions from public view, it is traditional in Rabbinic Judaism that the losing arguments in disputes over Jewish law are meticulously preserved and studied for their own merit.

Neither is the practice of democratic principles in Jewish institutional life limited to matters of faith and religious law. Throughout the history of our people's exile, circumstances necessitated that communities appoint individuals in positions of leadership, in order to represent community interests with the sovereign of a given locale. Such leadership has generally been assigned not on the basis of inheritance, or wealth, or even merit - though these may all have contributed to the selection - but majority rule. Members of Jewish congregations in Europe and the Middle East have never, to my knowledge, had edicts forced on them by community leaders without general consultation, inclusive deliberation and consensus-based models of decision making. It could not be otherwise, as there were no (and there remain no) instruments of forceful coercion, such as those available to a state, to simultaneously impose oppressive controls and maintain community cohesion.

Looking more specifically at the Jewish Israeli sub-groups viewed as problematic by progressive American Jewry, the Russian Jews, Sephardim, National Religious Settlers and the "Ultra-Orthodox" have each developed systems of consensus-based decision making both integrated with and externally of state structures. Avigdor Lieberman's political fortunes may have risen, largely, on the voting patterns of Russian Jews, but no Russian Jew I'm aware of has suggested that Lieberman be installed as dictator-for-life. Lieberman, despite being labeled a neo-proto-fascist, has somehow managed to raise from nothing a consensus-based political party and grow its support across the spectrum of Israeli citizenry, from Russian Jews to Israeli Druze.

Similarly, Jews of Middle Eastern descent are largely represented by the Shas political party, and Jewish settlers are a pillar of strength for Likud. Within Jewish settlements, as in all Israeli towns and cities, there are elections and community meetings where members can freely voice their opinion and deliberate issues of importance to the community - part and parcel of a consensus based approach to decision making. The haredim, to my knowledge, are more politically fractious, splitting their votes among numerous religious and national parties that court their votes. Within haredi society, despite a certain respect and reverence for community leaders absent in secular society, decisions are also made through deliberation and consensus. Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that, while there is a history of dominant personalities within all main parties, that leadership is maintained through painstaking coalition-building. No Israeli politician has been elected by force of violence, vote tampering or other undemocratic means, and no one has ever suggested that this be done.

Even after cursory evaluation, then, the Jewish sub-groups Jeffery Goldberg highlights as potentially problematic in preserving a democratic society are in fact ardent practitioners of consensus-based democratic processes. To label them as somehow secretly opposed to democratic life or majority-rule runs contrary to the evidence available. Nor can it be said that their intentions going forward are anything but the preservation of a political system which enables their political representation, but also that of other Israeli citizens. The basic principles of tolerant intellectual pluralism are ingrained in Jewish history, culture and identity, and form the basis of a social contract among the different groupings within Jewish Israeli society. There is no indication that this basic adherence to democratic norms is headed for change.

And what of the Palestinians? Isn't opposing a Palestinian state and Palestinian suffrage necessarily anti-democratic and racist? Part Two of my response to Jeffrey Goldberg.

On My Bookshelf