Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson: It's all about Prosecutorial Discretion

In Ferguson, Missouri, a grand jury refused to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting an unarmed black youth, Michael Brown this past August 9. There has been a whiff of impropriety about the proceedings. 

Appearance of Impropriety

Lawyers are schooled to "avoid the appearance of impropriety."  The St. Louis County prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, has failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety in how he has handled the Darren Wilson inquiry.  It's a significant professional breach. 

Why does the proceeding feel improper? First, context matters.  The police and power structure in Ferguson are overwhelmingly white even though Ferguson has been a majority black area for the past fifteen years. The white police and power structure in Ferguson engages in racial profiling, police officers target blacks disproportionately, blacks are incarcerated disproportionately nationwide.

Here is a helpful article on some of the background in Ferguson. I highly recommend Jim Schutze's take on this as well. 

The prosecutor of St. Louis County who instigated this failed grand jury proceeding has dealt with 14 police shootings in the last decade--and from all these cases he never brought charges against anyone. This white prosecutor's father was a policemen killed on duty by a black man. By all appearances, McCulloch's deep police roots have interfered with his proper pursuit of justice for the black community in police shooting cases.

The Role of the Grand Jury

Eric Citron has a very helpful article at Scotus blog.

Twenty years ago in United States v. Williams the U.S. Supreme Court established the rule that prosecutors are not required to present exculpatory evidence to a grand jury, even if it is directly contrary to the prosecutor's theory of guilt. The role of the grand jury, said Justice Scalia, is not to determine guilt or innocence; it's role is simply to determine whether there is enough evidence that a conviction is possible.  The dissenting view by Justice Stevens, that one of the roles of the Grand Jury is to stand as a check on hasty, oppressive, or malicious prosecutions, was rejected by the court.  As a result, grand juries almost always indict. The rare exceptions are when a prosecutor doesn't want them to. 

In this case, McCulloch's office apparently made a decision ahead of time that they did not want an indictment. They then proceeded to cross-examine what would be prosecution witnesses, they presented the coached and one-sided testimony of Darren Wilson to the Grand Jury, and (as I understand it) they made no recommendation of what the grand jury should charge.

The result was a foregone conclusion and was a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Here is Citron:
"When a prosecutor really wants an indictment, you would not expect the grand jury process to look anything like what happened in Darren Wilson’s case. The prosecutor would have no obligation to put forward the conflicting eyewitness testimony, or introduce pictures of Officer Wilson’s injuries – although grand jury members could ask for them if they somehow knew they existed. Instead, the prosecutor could put forward only the first few witnesses corroborating his own theory, along with the evidence that Wilson fired ten shots from a substantial distance away. Eventually, all the exculpatory evidence would have to be shared with the defense before trial, under a line of cases that started over fifty years ago with Brady v. Maryland."
How Should a Prosecutor Exercise Discretion in a Police Shooting Case

Prosecutors have tremendous power whether to charge, and what to charge.  In the 80's and 90's the country veered right and got tough on crime. In California we implemented 3-strike rules, nationwide we declared war on drugs, and we reduced the discretion of judges in sentencing.  The law imposed long jail and prison terms for drug related offenses, and legislators removed discretion from judges to mitigate harsh outcomes in particular cases. As a result our prison population has exploded.


This tough-on-crime policy has very disproportionately affected people of color.  It's a national disgrace.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Jed Rakoff wrote about Why Innocent People Plead Guilty  The article points out how our tough-on-crime sentencing laws, which removed sentencing discretion from judges, has tremendously empowered prosecutors.  As Citron explains:
"Once charges are on the table, the prosecutor has enormous leverage in bargaining for the kind of plea he wants – a case like Wilson’s, for example, might even include the threat of the death penalty. And indeed there has been a lot of coverage of how prosecutors use their charging authority (which goes more or less unchecked by the grand jury) to bring hugely punitive indictments that allow them to simply bargain for the sentence they want, without ever having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. One of the critics has actually been Justice Scalia himself." 
So if the Grand Jury does not act as a check on prosecutorial discretion, how should prosecutors exercise their discretion in cases like the Michael Brown shooting?  Well, surely, we want them to exercise it wisely, and in a manner that does not persecute, or harass, as Justice Stevens suggested.  But there are competing values. There is reason to be sympathetic with cops, as McCulloch obviously is.  There is reason for prosecutors not to put people through the ringer of a trial if they don't believe in their heart of hearts that they are guilty of the offense, or that they will actually obtain a conviction.  On the other hand, society cries out for justice; in matters of societal import, society deserves a complete airing of the facts in a public trial.

When I was a deputy prosecutor in Seattle in the 1980's it struck me how the evidence in your typical lower level criminal case (burglaries, thefts, assaults, drunk driving) tended to be much stronger and clear cut than evidence in the most high profile, grizzly homicides.  In low level crimes, witnesses are upstanding civilians, there frequently are confessions, and there almost always is strong direct evidence.  Low level crimes are not charged unless the evidence is strong and the prosecutor is confident a) the defendant did it, and b) there will be conviction at trial.  By contrast, high profile cases are often charged with much flimsier evidence, when conviction is not certain, and even when the prosecutor may not be convinced of guilt.

A high profile grizzly murder will be charged despite the fact that the evidence is purely circumstantial, the witnesses sketchy (dead or from the margins of society), and the theory of the case exotic (e.g. teeth mark evidence).  Grizzly murders of a prominent family in their home on Christmas Eve cry out for prosecution.  If there is enough evidence that a conviction might be obtained--the case is charged, even if there is room to doubt guilt.  The defendant will have the opportunity to air a full defense, will have assistance of counsel, will have access to all potentially exculpatory evidence that the prosecutor might have in his or her possession (under a long line of Supreme Court cases), and he will have the advantage that the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The right to confront witnesses, the right to cross-examine, the rules of evidence, the fact that the prosecutor can't hide the ball, and the burden of proof are deemed sufficient to put individuals through the ordeal of a trial when there is evidence of guilt that could result in a conviction--even if the defendant might not be guilty; even if the prosecutor may not be convinced of guilt.  The prosecutor puts on the case because public justice requires it, because the society needs it.... even if there are questions.

That, and because the prosecutor knows he or she won't be reelected if there is no trial.

In low level crimes, if the case is weak prosecutors drop it. In high profile cases, even if the case is weak, prosecutors tend to pursue it.  In other words, when there are reasons for doubt, there is no requirement to charge just because a conviction might be obtained.  The prosecutor has to exercise discretion.

In this case, McCulloch exercised his prosecutorial discretion not to indict.  The case is not clear cut. The law is in favor of self-defense, in favor of cops, so there might not be a conviction at a trial.  As such, what we have in Ferguson is not an ABUSE of prosecutorial discretion. What we have is discretion that was exercised in a manner that elevated the (legitimate) value of protecting cops and giving them the benefit of a doubt over the competing value of serving the NEED of the black community in Ferguson (and some sense the nation as a whole) to air all the facts in a full trial.

If we grant that the facts are close enough, that it is not an ABUSE of prosecutorial discretion not to indict, then it boils down to a political decision. The white voters in St. Louis County who have elected and kept McCulloch in power over all these years of not indicting cops who shoot unarmed civilians undoubtedly support his exercise of discretion in this case. The black community in Ferguson strongly disagrees with McCulloch's exercise of discretion in this case. So do many of us  around the country who are concerned about police misconduct, about our disproportionate jailing of blacks and people of color, and our lack of government support to communities of color.

What we have in Ferguson is not a failure of the legal system. What we have is a failure to communicate. The remedy is political.  It's up to the citizens of St. Louis county to organize and vote McCulloch out of office.  I hope they so in the next election. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

And I still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For


U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" has a great surfing down the waves under spinnaker kind of tension and drive.  I first encountered the song when we were living on a sailboat on Puget Sound in the 80's.  It mixes aspiration, inspiration, bathos, and cheap poetry with great rhymes and a sticky musical hook. It has echoed in my brain all these years.

But Bono and the lads have left me behind. As I look at recordings of them now, there's too much self-importance.  Greased hair, leather, and sun-glasses on a dark stage don't do it for me. Too much success is oozing too much self-regard.  It has ruined the original version of the song for me.

So I'm looking for one great cover.

Gospel choirs have picked up the song. U2 have played with several of them. They can feel godly and the choir can feel like rock-stars. It's a win-win.

Sexy couples have done it.

Folk bands have covered it. I liked this version by Jenny & Tyler. It's not perfect. It's aspirational, it's sincere.

I still haven't' found what I'm looking for. But I relate to this simple slightly off-key version on the Ukulele by Ken Middleton.




Wednesday, November 19, 2014

David Remnick Undermines Israel's One State President

"Talk of a two state solution has been
swallowed by despair, rage or
triumphalism"--TNY
David Remnick has written a 7,000 word essay describing the "one state reality" in Israel/Palestine. The article appears in the November 17 issue of the The New Yorker.

The opening page of the article features a gritty photo of Israel's President, Rueven Rivlin, with an ominous caption about the demise of "talk" about the two-state solution. The evident purpose of the article is to discredit Rivlin and his prominent advocacy for a one-state solution, granting citizenship and equality for all.

Remnick warns that such talk is a fig-leaf for right wing one-state ideology that has no intention of granting equal rights of citizenship to Palestinians. The conclusion we are expected to draw, it appears, is that we should pay no attention to Rivlin and his crazy one state talk.

Note that Remnick does not believe the Palestinians will ever have a truly sovereign state.  Any two state solution with a chance of working, he says, must include federal arrangements on security, water, cell phone coverage, sewage and other infrastructure, he says. Remnick does not spell it out here, but what this means is that in any two state solution Palestinians will not have an army, will not have control over their water, and the IDF will continue to patrol the Jordan Valley and all of Palestine anytime they deem it necessary for security. The key feature of this "workable" two state solution would be that Palestinians will not have the right to vote in Israel.  It means the notion of a Jewish state, as distinguished from a shared power arrangement that protects both Jewish and Palestinian cultures, can remain intact.

Remnick scapegoats Rivlin as a false front for the Israeli nationalist right wing, but he praises him for "being nice" and curbing some of the racist vitriol and jingoism.  Be a nice boy, just don't talk about one state with equal citizenship and rights for all!

Here is a closer look at Remnick's article:

1.  Remnick puts the problem front and center. Israel's new president advocates for one state with citizenship and equal rights for all. Rivlin is sketched as a Borscht belt comedian, an eccentric who says crazy things.  In other words, Remnick suggests Rivlin and his one state talk should not be taken too seriously.  On the other hand, Remnick notes favorably how Rivlin has become an "unlikely moralist" standing up against racism. Rivlin describes the problem as a lot of extremists talking too loudly, and nobody listening to each other.  Remnick describes how Rivlin has been taking a lot of heat for this from Israelis.

2. Israeli politicians, says Remnick, are not sufficiently engaged with fighting the challenges to democratic practice. Remnick cites hate speech, attacks by settlers on Palestinians, Knesset legislation aimed at left wing peace groups, and polling that 30% of Israelis believe Palestinian citizens of Israel should not have the vote. Not sufficiently engaged when it comes to hate speech and Palestinian Israelis, but too much engaged when it comes to extending such citizenship to Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, suggests the article.

3. Remnick lists a litany of reasons for the "curdled atmosphere" that make up the one state reality today. He includes "the persistence of the occupation" but then adds a long laundry list that blames Palestinians, the wider Arab world and anti-Semitism.  Reading this list, the typical American Zionist reader of The New Yorker will find no cause to alter his or her view that Israelis are the victims and that there is nothing to be done:
The reasons for the curdled atmosphere are many: the persistence of occupation; the memory of those lost and wounded in war and terror attacks; the Palestinian leadership’s failure to embrace land-for-peace offers from Ehud Barak, in 2000, and Ehud Olmert, in 2008; the chaos in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; the instability of a neighboring ally like Jordan; the bitter rivalries with Turkey and Qatar; the regional clash between Sunni and Shia; the threats from Hezbollah, in Lebanon, from Hamas, in Gaza, and from other, more distant groups, like ISIS, hostile to the existence of Israel; the rise of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe and its persistence in the Arab world; a growing sense of drift from the Obama Administration. 
All these extraneous factors, explains Remnick, have pushed Israeli society to a "fearful embattlement." What Remnick does not include in his list here, although he alludes to it elsewhere in his article, is that this "curdled atmosphere" is also a consequence of the Zionist project itself--a problem which won't be fixed by any "workable two-state solution."

4. Remnick points again to the kidnappings this summer, and how this "outraged the nation," leading to all manner of ugly retaliation.  He cites examples, including a grizzled description of the revenge killing of 16 year-old Abu Khdeir, who was captured in East Jerusalem during Ramadan, choked, beaten, and burned alive. He prominently places the "confession" by the killers of how they regret the act, and how they are really decent human beings.

5. Remnick outlines how the country as a whole has moved to the right, and how hard line politicians spewing of annexation are more openly jingoistic, and how racist elements now operate closer to the center of politics.  Ah yes, of course, see the reasons in 3, readers are invited to think.

6. Remnick notes how Rivlin is "no doubt sincere" when he says he would give Arabs full civil rights in a Greater Israel." But, warns Remnick, don't go there:  "[Rivlin] can be viewed as the more benign face of a right-wing one state-ideology" that wants to turn the occupation into a permanent security police state for Palestinians.

7. What is Remnick's vision for two states? Remnick notes that any two-state solution with a chance of working must include federalist arrangements on security, water, cell phones coverage, sewage, etc.  What this means in practice, of course, is no sovereignty for Palestinians.  The land is too small for the two peoples to live wholly apart; yet they cannot live wholly together, says Remnick.  The occupation, on this model, will remain consistent with whatever the security needs are. Palestinians will have no vote to influence this security apparatus in a Jewish state--ever.

It's unlikely Palestinians would accept such a compromised two-state solution, and if they will not voluntarily accept it, the occupation remains.  In other words, there does not appear to be much of a difference between the occupation security police state envisioned by the right wing settlers and what would likely result from a federated "workable" two state solution.  The one difference: with a nominally two state solution it is much easier to deny Palestinians the vote and say over their security police state, which will remain Israel. That's where Rivlin comes in.

8. Nothing to see here about a one state solution, move along, Remnick says:
To most Israelis and many Palestinians, a one-state solution is no solution at all. It seems like the by-product of left-leaning desperation or right-leaning triumphalism. Even many of those who know that a two-state peace settlement is far from imminent believe that a binational state represents not a promise of democracy and coexistence but a blueprint for sectarian strife—Lebanon in the eighties, Yugoslavia in the nineties. And yet the idea has a rich history.
In other words, Remnick suggests that no right thinking people would opt for a one-state solution.

9. On the right, says Remnick, one state visions originally came from a failure to recognize the presence of "the other" in the land ("a people without land for a land without a people"); nowadays right wing one-state visions are pushed by extremists like Caroline Glick, who writes for the conservative Jerusalem Post and refers to the opera "The Death of Klinghofer" as "anti-Semitic smut," and an "operatic pogrom" .... and by Borscht belt comedians like Rivlin, suggests Remnick. On the left, says Remnick, the idea originated with early Zionists like Brit Shalom and Ahad Ha'am, who had a vision of shared political power and who emphasized a Jewish spiritual revival in Israel/Palestine rather than a majority Jewish state.  Martin Buber also warned against forming an unsustainable military state, although today the military state does not look so unsustainable--unless one wants to achieve peace, of course.

10. Remnick describes how two states were first discussed in 1936 and culminated in the UN partition plan in 1947. By 1948 the thought of a one-state binational state had dissolved and talk of two-states was moot with Syria asserting sovereignty over the Golan, and Jordan asserting sovereignty over the West Bank.

11. Remnick reports on a conversation with Meron Benvenisti (Deputy mayor of Jerusalem 1971-78). Benvenisti spoke out against the occupation from the outset and recognized early that the settlement process would make the occupation irreversible. The settlements meant that any Palestinian state would become a collection of Bantustans, he warned. Here is what else Benvenisti told Remnick:
"David Grossman (the novelist) says that occupation is the source of all evil. This is not true. The problem is the privileged condition of the Jewish ethnic group over the others, those defined as the ‘enemies,’ the ‘terrorists.’ You divert attention, so that it is easier to define, and you restrict your anger and fight a battle that to me is irrelevant. For the Israeli left, it is important that the game [of negotiations] goes on because it soothes their consciences. They are serious people. But they are serious in trying to salvage the Zionist creed. They need to remain Zionists, and for them the definition of Zionism is a Jewish state. They insist on seeing the beginning of the conflict in 1967. They can’t cope with 1948.”
This statement would seem to be directed at Remnick as well: the occupation is irreversible, why are you still talking about two states? Remnick does not take up the challenge to engage with this view.
I asked Benvenisti how his vision of one state would work. “Sometimes it is enough to be a diagnostician,” he said. “When you get into prescriptions, people tend to dismiss the diagnosis.”
By all appearance, Remnick dismisses the diagnosis even without a prescription. [Hint: the one state solution can look just like the "workable two-state solution" with one big difference--Palestinians get the vote, equal protection under the law, and justice. What's so bad about that? From Remnick's point of view it's the end of a Jewish state run by and for the benefit of Jews. It means power sharing; that's what's so bad]

12. Remnick also spoke with Sari Nusseibeh, whose relatives are the holders of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nusseibeh used to be a two-state guy, but now thinks that "classical two-state is exhausted." The Palestinian leadership did not deliver: they "failed to translate the idea into reality" Remnick reports Nusseibeh as saying.  It's not clear what is meant by "classic two-state solution" here. But from the tenor of the article as a whole, one might infer that Remnick means the "classic two-state solution" with actual sovereignty for a Palestinian state is dead; new fangled two-state solution with continued occupation is what can be achieved. Remnick reports that Nusseibeh is now focused on civil rights for Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as inside Israel.  Remnick does not elaborate or follow up what this might mean or what this might imply.  The instability in the region as a whole "conspires against a leap of faith" says Remnick (meaning moving forward on the new two-state solution?). He cites Nusseibeh for the proposition that Palestinians have it better than most Arabs elsewhere: "under the occupation land and resources are taken but we don't live in fear," writes Remnick. Nothing surprising to American Zionists here.

13. Remnick notes there have been prominent Western proponents of a one-state solution, such as Edward Said, Tony Judt, John Mearshimer, Virginia Tilley, and Ali Abunimah. He does not discuss any of their proposals, and he does not need to because those names will reliably extract a dismissive sneer from Remnick's American Zionist audience. He also acknowledges that polling in the West Bank indicates that the status quo has pushed Palestinians towards supporting a one state solution. But he studiously ignores these supporters of a one state solution beyond mentioning some names.

14. Remnick then finishes with a flourish: his coup de grace to the one-state talk so to speak. He spends a paragraph building up the Palestinian bona fides of Hasan Zumlot, an Abbas advisor, only to have him laugh at the idea of a one-state solution and to have him say that he wouldn't want to live in an Israeli state anyway.  "For the past forty-seven years there has been an international consensus about a two-state solution.... So how do you throw that away?"  And Remnick quotes Shimon Peres:
“One state is nonsense,” he told me, adding, “Czechoslovakia had a divorce and they were better off.  The Palestinians are well aware that no Israeli government would consider a binational alternative in which they were in the majority. The history of Jews living as a minority in Arab states is not a pretty one. Edward Said, when he was asked in 2000 by a writer from Haaretz what would happen to a Jewish minority in a binational state, replied, “It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know.”
"What persists," concludes Remnick, is the one-state reality, the status quo of occupation, and, with it, the corrosive rhetoric and behavior that "has turned Rivlin into an unexpected prophet."

15. Remnick quotes Peres as stating that South African Apartheit was broken not by sanctions, but by the feeling of being isolated in the world that sanctions brought about.
"Many Israeli friends have remarked on the √©lite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That √©lite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation."
Remnick is betting that this scenario of decline can still be avoided through a "two state solution with a chance of working"....no matter how remote. In other words, despite the ugly one state reality, Remnick thinks that Israel can continue to have its cake and eat it too.

However, if Benvenisti is correct that the occupation is irreversible, and Remnick provides no reason why we should think Benvenisti is not correct, the only way to avoid the isolation and loss of elites that Peres fears may be to listen more to Israel's one state president Rueven Rivlin and his crazy talk of extending citizenship to everyone and setting a goal of working for a state based on equal rights and protection for all... and to listen less to Remnick.
 


 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Jon Stewart's Rosewater: Exposing the Stupidity of Evil in Order to Disarm It.


Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, portrays menacing Iranian secret service agents interrogating an Iranian born Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (reporting for Newsweek) for 118 days in notorious Evin prison in 2009.  Bahari is blindfolded, placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and repeatedly told he will be executed. "What is more dangerous than the truth, tell me?" says Bahari to his tormentor at one point.  It's the sentiment that lies behind this film, I think.  The film attempts to expose the stupidity of Bahari's arrest and interrogation in the belief that this truth will be a subversive force for good.  Like the Daily Show, the film is about more than entertainment, it is aimed at making a difference.

Stewart has a personal connection to Bahari's story. In June 2009, ahead of the Iranian presidential election between incumbent Mohammad Ahmadinejad and his liberal challenger Hossein Mousavi, the Daily Show dispatched Jason Jones to Teheran to poke fun at the Bush rhetoric that Iranians "hate America" and that Iran is at the center of an "axis of evil." Jones comes away shaking his head in disbelief at his inability to find anyone who hates America, at finding "the truth" that they are just like us. Among other things, Jones snags an interview with Bahari. In this interview Bahari says: "the first thing to know about Iran is that it is not evil.  They have much more in common with America, than difference." He alludes to the fact that Al Qaeda is public enemy number one for both Iran and the United States.  Bahari's interview with the Daily Show may, or may not have led to his arrest.

In fact, there is reason to doubt that The Daily Show was the main reason for his arrest. Bahari was in Iran to cover the June 12, 2009 election for Newsweek.  The election was widely perceived as rigged.  The Iranian green movement was convinced its champion Hossein Mousavi had prevailed and when the regime announced within a few hours of polls closing that the incumbent Mohammed Ahmadinejad had triumphed with 63% of the vote, street protests erupted. (The film leaves no doubt where it stands on the "was the election rigged" question and makes it seem like this announcement came before poll closing).  The Green Movement in Iran erupted in the streets and the protests were violently put down. The number of casualties are indeterminate and may be in the dozens, or in the hundreds.  Bahari had many contacts with the protesters and he prominently documented and reported on the unrest. He also stemmed from a dissident family that would have been well known to the secret service. His father was imprisoned by the Shaw in the 1950's, and his sister was imprisoned by the Khomeini regime in the 1980's. In other words, the regime had reason to keep an eye on Bahari independent of his Daily Show appearance and it seems unlikely that The Daily Show was the main cause of his arrest. 

Bahari himself, did not believe the election turned on fraud.  In an interview with the Guardian newspaper on December 26, 2009, he said:
The atmosphere in the run-up to the election was euphoric; people thought real changes and reforms were possible – people in urban areas, including myself, where reformists, secular and educated people tend to live, maybe had unrealistic expectations. I don't think Ahmadinejad rigged the vote (although I'm sure there was some rigging), but he had been buying votes with the oil boom money for years.
Bahari continued to report on the unrest following the election for eight days.  "I reported on the demonstrations for Newsweek and Channel 4 up until 20 June. The next day, I was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard and taken to the notorious Evin prison," he told the Guardian.

So what is Stewart trying to accomplish with this film?  "We hear so much about the banality of evil, but so little about the stupidity of evil" he told Bahari in an interview on 11/30/09 shortly after Bahari was released from prison. And, of course, that's what connects this film to the Daily Show: Stewart wants to expose the stupidity of evil in order to disarm it.  Does he succeed? 

As a drama and entertainment the film falls short. It is well acted. Gael Garcia Bernal is charismatic, charming, and a pleasure to watch as Bahari. The Danish actor, Kim Bodnia, is menacing and well rounded as his chief tormentor. He knows he is doing a dirty job and is looking for career advancement more than pleasure from the torment he dishes out. The story lacks character development, suspense, and a narrative arc. The story lies not so much in what's on screen as in how this film fits into the back story between The Daily Show, Bahari's appearance on the show, and what Stewart is trying to accomplish. 

The film attempts to paint the interrogators and the interrogation as stupid: how could they be so naive as to mistake Bahari for a spy on account of a play-acting skit on The Daily Show? How could they be so stupid as to think that the telecast of a coerced confession would be useful? The interrogator, smelling of sweat and rosewater (there is a marvelous sequence with the opening credits where a woman conveys violence in how she picks roses) is given the task to extract a "confession" from Bahari that he was working as a Western spy to influence events in Iran. It seems clear that the interrogators are not naive so much about Bahari's true status, as that they don't care. To the extent that the regime has just killed dozens (or hundreds) to suppress a popular revolt, protesting an election which the regime may have rigged, it seems it would be beneficial to the regime in battling its domestic opponents to be able to point to an example of a Western journalist stirring up trouble. The effort is certainly evil: it seems neither banal nor stupid.

The U.S., of course, has been doing stupid things in the Middle East for a long time now. In 1953 we teamed up with Britain to orchestrate the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh for "strategic reasons."  The British were concerned about losing an oil cash-cow; the U.S. was concerned about communist phantoms.  Eisenhower and the CIA thought they knew what they were doing--they did not. And should we consider Kurt Vonnegut's 1965 comedic novel "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater?" here. In Vonnegut's novel, Eliot Rosewater is a drunk volunteer fireman (but President of the fabulously rich Rosewater Foundation) who attempts "a noble experiment with human nature." The book pokes fun at greed, hypocrisy, and follies of the flesh we are all heir to. It's too obscure a reference without Google for me, and I suspect most filmgoers, but it's hard to believe Stewart was not aware of it when he selected his title.

Does this film strike a blow at repression in Iran in a way that might do some good, as opposed to just feel good for Mr. Stewart?  I don't know if it does, but I think it is Stewart's purpose. Thinking about this and watching the attempt, even if it is futile, makes this film well worth watching.

[Here is the Daily Show dedicated to promotion of the film on Novembert 13, 2014]

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Two Walls

Chris Gueffroy, was a 20 year old barkeep who wanted to avoid his upcoming military service in East Germany. He tried to cross the Berlin wall during the night of February 5-6, 1989.  He was shot and killed by East German border guards. His was to be the last of more than 136 such killings.

On November 9, 1989, 25 years ago, the wall came down.


The state signaled its lack of resolve, and suddenly everything changed.

Yesterday, in Israel/Palestine, young men marked the occasion by forcing an opening in the separation wall near Jerusalem.



This wall too will fall.

For now, the Israeli state remains full of deadly resolve. The footage below is from a security camera, not at the wall, but at Kafr Kanna (in the Galilee, just west of the Golani Junction) during the night of November 7-8, 2014. A Palestinian man is crazily striking a police van with a knife. The door opens, he turns to run and he is killed in cold blood (he died a few hours after this event). It is the worst of what we imagine may have happened in the Johannes Mehserle incident at the Fruitvale BART station in the San Francisco Bay Area. The incident follows two days after Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich seemed to endorse the extra judicial killing after two terrorist incidents in Jerusalem.




The Berlin Wall was raised starting on August 31, 1961; it lasted 28 years. The Israel/Palestine wall was constructed beginning in 2001.

The Berlin wall was built to keep people in East Germany; three and one half million East Germans migrated to the West from the Soviet controlled East before construction of the wall.  The Israeli Separation Wall was built to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel. Prior to construction of the wall, 177 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks during the first Intifada (within the Green Line). During the Second Intifada (in the period 2000-2005) in excess of 500 Israelis were killed within Israel.

The wall has been effective at preventing the killing of Israelis. Not so much Palestinians.

                              #killed        Palestinian          Israeli

                               2006:            665                     23
                               2007:            385                     13
                               2008:            887                     35
                               2009:           1034                    ~0
                               2010:             82                      ~0
                               2011:             118                    ~0
                               2012:             254                    ~0
                               2013:             38                      ~0
                               2014:           2,243                    76
                                                  5,706                    147

The East German government had a police state grip on East Germans; when they let go peace blossomed. The Israeli government has a murderous grip on the Palestinians .... when they let go, the result may be civil war.


       

Thursday, November 6, 2014

George Soros is Bullish on Ukraine and Says Europe Should be Too

Petro Poroshenko President of Ukraine

Ukraine, which gained its independence upon dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been much in the news since the Sochi Olympics.  I wrote about Ukraine generally before the Olympics here, and I wrote about Russia and its winter Olympics here and here.

I also wrote about John Mearshimer and his real-politik view of international relations, which leads him to suggest the West should leave Ukraine in Russia's orbit here.

Since the Olympics, Ukraine has been busy.  They have had a peaceful revolution--ousting Russian aligned president Viktor Yanukovich and replacing him with a newly elected government headed by president Petro Poroshenko.  Russia has annexed Crimea, and Russia has invaded the industrial Eastern region of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian government in Kiev and rebels have fought a low grade war. In the process a Malaysian airliner with 300 people aboard was shot down over Eastern Ukraine this last July. After several months of escalating fighting Russian supported rebels and Kiev signed a ceasefire agreement on September 5, 2014.

The situation is tenuous.

Last week (Nov. 3) the Donetsk rebels proceeded with an election considered illegal by Kiev.  In response Kiev is stopping $2.6 billion in public sector wages and pensions to the rebel held areas.  Russia continues to train and support rebel forces. There is sporadic fighting.

***

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, George Soros chimes in on Ukraine. Soros has personal experience. He established a foundation there in 1990 with a Ukrainian board and staff and has visited the country many times, most recently this year "to witness the birth of the new Ukraine."  He vouches for its promise and potential if only we would provide the necessary support.
"[Upon my visit this year] I was immediately impressed by the tremendous improvement in maturity and expertise during that time [the last decade] both in my foundation and in civil society at large. Currently, civic and political engagement is probably higher than anywhere else in Europe. People have proven their willingness to sacrifice their lives for their country."  
He thinks Europe should back up Ukraine. His view appears to be that nation building would be a more rewarding exercise in Ukraine than in Iraq and Afghanistan (to take our most recent disappointments). We should do this by providing direct assistance to Ukraine, not by imposing sanctions on Russia. Sanctions, Soros says, are not effective and they also drag down Europe. If we assist Ukraine by providing weapons, training, support personnel, IM F loans, and trade we would stimulate the European economy.  A win-win.

A win-win so long as it doesn't lead to full out armed conflict with Russia.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Light Unto the Nations


“I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth.”
                                                            --Isaiah 49:6

"It is clear today that the fate of the Jewish people is the fate of the Jewish state. There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state. … [O]ur future, is here. The greatest change that came with the establishment of the Jewish state was that Jews became … a sovereign collective in their own territory. Our ability as a collective to determine our own destiny is what grants us the tools to shape our future - no longer as a ruled people, defeated and persecuted, but as a proud people with a magnificent country and one which always aspires to serve as 'Light Unto the Nations'." 
                   --Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzliya Conference, Feb. 3, 2010

***

In Israel/Palestine, Jews and Palestinians continue to struggle over the land. Can Israel be a light unto the nations by setting an example to the Middle East and the world regarding how to integrate different ethnic groups in a contested land?  It’s what’s at stake politically. 

Bernard Avishai says forget about being a light unto the nations, how about learning a thing or two from other nations, like—you know—upgrade to Democracy 2.0.  I think that’s right, but still … if Israel can find a way to peace, and jobs, and education, and opportunity, and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians alike, it would indeed be a light unto the Middle East if not the world.

Not so much now.

After 116 years of Zionism, Jews are in control of all the land in Israel/Palestine.  As Yaacov Yadgar of Bar Ilan University has argued, Zionism has built a Jewish state that protects and privileges Jews over all others in all aspects of life in the Jewish state. The Palestinian minority within the state of Israel is systematically discriminated against, albeit with democratic rights; the Palestinian majority in the West Bank and Gaza is under Jewish military rule and without civil or democratic rights. God in the mood of Isaiah 49:6 would not be pleased.

The conflation of the Zionist project with Judaism itself, as Netanyahu exemplified in his Herzliya speech in 2010, and as too many in the American Jewish community are ready to do, raises the stakes tremendously. It means if Zionism fails as a project it will implicate Judaism itself.  

There is a contradiction in Netanyahu’s formulation.  Judaism, he said, is a sovereign collective free to determine its own destiny without apology to anyone.  As Berkeley rabbi Menachem Creditor put it in the Huffington Post this past summer, explaining his response to criticism of Operation Protective Edge:  “I am done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality. I am done apologizing for my own Jewish existence.” A muscular Judaism, one not inclined to apologize for itself when it comes to Israel, is inconsistent with the command for Israel to be a shining light unto the world.

A muscular Judaism unwilling to apologize for itself allows for a vision of Jews occupying all of the land, and either pushing out or dominating Palestinians. This is the position of Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Feiglin, and Caroline Glick. It says the land belongs to the Jews, they have a superior right, and a Palestinian presence will be tolerated only to the extent they accept subservient second class status.

For Israel to be a light unto the nations it must achieve peace. There has to be security, jobs, infrastructure, education, respect, and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians alike. The state has to provide space for Jewish culture and Palestinian culture.

For twenty-five years the model for achieving such a peace has been the two-state-solution.  But the two state solution has lost credibility because the settlers who have lots of power and government support won’t have it; because Israel won’t abandon the West Bank both for security reasons and ideological reasons; because Jerusalem is “the undivided capital of the Jewish state” and won’t be the capital of any potential Palestinian state; because Palestinians will never accept ongoing IDF presence on the West Bank willingly; and because this is all a vicious cycle.

The debate is now bounded, on the one hand, by the muscular unapologetic Judaism of Moshe Feiglin, and, on the other, a vision of one state with equal rights for all that carves out space for Jewish and Palestinian culture equally. This battle is now being waged openly on the pages of the New York Times, something unimaginable just a short time ago. 

This is a historic moment for Israel/Palestine because the collapse of the Oslo two-state vision means the issues are being reframed.  Such a reframing does not happen very often.  How will the debate be framed for the next 50 years? Everything lies in the balance.  It’s what makes this particular time in Israel/Palestine so interesting. It’s what has caught my eye after our trip to Israel this past spring and made it compelling to engage.

If you listen to the American Jewish establishment from Adelson's Birthright Program, to Dershowitz’s “Case for Israel," or witness the knee-jerk deflection of criticism directed at Israeli policy, or look at the support of muscular Judaism in Congress …., a one state solution with equal rights for all seems like pie in the sky for now. But if the issues can be reframed, if the arc of discussion can bend towards justice, Israel/Palestine could yet become a light unto the nations in the Middle East.