Thursday, July 20, 2017

From Nevada to Idaho and the Snake River Plain

Our trailer battery was dead. At the Chevron in Carlin, Nevada--also a burger joint--heading towards Wells on 80, we asked who might help.  They direct us to "Randy's."  Tim is Randy's "chief" (and only) mechanic, if we don't count the itinerant film-maker apprentice working off a new engine on his broken-down van. Tim washed up in Carlin (pop. 2368) in 2003 from Hisperia, California. He started at the gold mine in the hills nearby.  "They dug a million ounces of gold out of there last year," he said.  He was hired at the mine to maintain all their machinery.  "It was too high stress," he said, "so I joined Randy."

The Carlin Trend is the seventh largest gold producing region in the world, the most abundant in the Western hemisphere. It contains three open pit mines, four underground mines, and by 2008 the mines had produced 70 million ounces--(~$85 Billion at 2010 prices). Nevada accounts for 75% of U.S. gold production, most of it from the Carlin Trend.

Work is quieter now, for Tim.  "Yesterday a young Norwegian couple rolled in, on foot.  They ran out of gas a couple of miles down the road.  I drove them back with a Jerry can of gas, and the woman proceeded to spill the gas all over the car. How did they every get this far?" he wondered.  "All the way from Norway!"

Tim quickly diagnosed our problem: no live feed to the trailer from the car. He proposed to run a wire from our car battery to the trailer connection.  "About an hour's work," he said, sounding apologetic about the $75/hr rate. The installation eventually lasted two and one half hours over lunch. We chatted, he explained, he snipped the ties, he installed an in-line fuse, lovingly sealing the connection with a torch. When it came time to settle up, "We'll honor our hour estimate," said Tim. Bobbi gave him her CD, he sent a Facebook request as we drove on down the road.

Tim fixing our trailer connection
Entering Southern Idaho the great Basin and Range country--marked by  elongated mountain ranges interspersed with long flat, dry deserts--lifts and gives way to the Snake River Plain. Desert, tumbleweeds, and grazing cattle are replaced by lush irrigated fields with crops of potatoes, corn, sugar beets, and wheat. The Snake River has enabled this agricultural oasis in Southern Idaho since the beginning of the 20th century.

Columbia River and Snake River Basin
At a Starbucks in Twin Falls we charged my computer and picked up extra reading glasses at the Dollar Store across the street:  "How much?" we ask the clerk.  "Everything in the store's a dollar," she says.  Dollar stores dot the urban landscape here in red America like Starbucks dot the big coastal cities. The clerk does not look like she gets paid $14.00/hr (the minimum wage in San Francisco). But she's friendly. Friendly like Tim, the garage mechanic.

Twin Falls looks prosperous, clean, trim. Median household income is $50,447.00. Unemployment is almost non-existent (3.2%), recent job growth is robust (4.2%), and the economy is diverse. So why all the support for Trump?  Idaho went for Trump 2:1 over Clinton; in Twin Falls it was 3:1. It would have been bigger but for the 6.8% garnered by the "never Trump" GOP protest candidate, Evan McMullin.

Today, Idaho has a population of 1.7 million.  For that they get two senators (James Rish and Mike Crapo), same as California's 39 million (lest we ever forget).  

Lewis and Clark crossed what is now the middle of the state in 1806 on their way to the Columbia river. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana purchase. Wilson Price Hunt followed with a party in 1811-1812. They unsuccessfully attempted to travel down the Snake river to the Columbia. So they split into four parties and carried on to the mouth of the Columbia.  In 1812-13 Robert Stuart led an expedition east from Astoria to St. Louis along what became the Oregon trail. 

Between the late 1830’s and 1869 about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, business owners, and families travelled the Oregon trail. In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad opened and made the trip across the rockies much faster and safer.

We stopped for lunch at Massacre Rock, a beautiful narrow spot on the Oregon trail. Apparently there were some close-by altercations with Indians during the migrations west, but the name derives more from the anxiety of settlers as they traversed this spot ideal for an ambush.  

Today it's a well kept state park. 

Snake River at Massacre Rock


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Out Inspecting Some of Our Properties


We're out inspecting some of our properties, as Donald Davis the storyteller once put it.  I'm writing this in our teardrop trailer, parked on Bureau of Land Management land just above Norton Lake in Southern Idaho.  Since leaving the Central Valley of California near Auburn we've hardly left our property.

Together we own 47 percent of the land west of the Mississippi.  There's a lot more than national parks, national monuments, and state parks. As the United States expanded west in the 19th century it purchased or took the land.  This amounted to the same thing, of course. Britain, France, Spain, and our national forefathers all took the land from the Indians. To the extent we "purchased" some of it along the way, we were all trading in stolen goods. We might say the land has been fenced from the  get go.

Our property is vast. And we can criss-cross through much of it on paved roads and good dirt roads with our '99 Passat and our Little Guy Trailer. Only a fraction of the whole can be reached this way, but enough for us to get a sense that "Wow, this place is really big," and "Boy, they don't always make access easy, do they?" Maybe we should talk with management.

As we travel down these roads, all the while spying for a good camping spot, we note there are a lot of actual fences of the barbed wire variety.  Too often they block our way to an attractive river nearby.  It's enough to make us wonder, "is it o.k. to go down there?"

We asked a local couple out for an evening drive about the fences.  They live in Twin Falls, but go to Jackpot, a casino town to recreate.  They had a one year old baby with them.  It's a second family for them they say.  They looked in their 50's.  "We just go anywhere we like," they said.  "When there are gates, we just go through and make sure to close the gate behind us."

We've been following their lead. Still, the fences are annoying.  Mostly they keep in cattle. As we learned during the stand-off between ranchers and anti-government radicals with the federal government in Oregon last year, the government leases most of our land to ranchers at below market rate rents.

The ranchers have the attitude "darn right these fences keep in cattle, our cattle, and we'd just as soon keep you city slickers out!" I can see where they're coming from. When we're out here in the land, standing in it, looking at the basin and the range, we feel connected to its vastness. The fact that we're here alone, makes us feel like we own it,  not in the national park sense, but, in the sense that we own our house in San Francisco, in the sense that would give us the right to keep it all to ourselves.  Standing here, alone in the vastness, makes us forget that we're accountable to 321 million co-owners.

Tonight we went down to the lake, and we ran into a herd of cows.  The cows live down there, and they've turned the lakeshore into a cesspool.  We felt put off. It smells, it pollutes.  We'd rather have this beach pristine for swimming, and floating on inner-tubes, and kayaking.  This is our land, how dare they muck it up so.

When inspecting our land out here, alone, not finding anyone else, it's easy to forget about our 321 million co-owners.
One of my 321 million co-owner's enjoying some of our Properties
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

"The Tragedy of Zionism"


The Tragedy of Zionism
Bernard Avishai
(1985, 359pp)


Bernard Avishai is a keen observer of the Zionist venture. I know him from his fine writing in the New Yorker, The Nation, the New York Review of Books, and other periodicals. I thought it was high time to take a look at his book length writings. 

I start with the Tragedy of Zionism. Avishai has said that when the book was published in 1985, it cost him a tenured position at MIT. Perhaps he anticipated what was coming: he looks out from the back jacket of the book, arms defiantly crossed, looking very Abby Hoffmanesque. But the hysterical response was reactionary. See, e.g. Kirkus (the book is “desparately seeking controversy”). In fact, the book is a wonderfully readable and objective account of Zionism from its origins in the late 19th century, up to the eve of the first intifada (1987). Thirty two years after its publication, The Tragedy of Zionism remains an excellent overview for anyone interested in the topic of Israel, and its judgments are more valid than ever.

The intervening years have deepened the tragedy: there have been three intifadas, three Gaza wars, a second Lebanon war, more settlements, and the construction of prison like walls to isolate Gaza and to cut-off and manage Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Thirty-two years on, democracy in Israel is in more danger than when the book was published. It’s high time that the American Jewish community, which could not stand to listen to Avishai’s message 32 years ago, take another look at this book and open their minds to its message.  

Here’s a synopsis.

Part I:  Origins to 1931

Avishai starts with a short, almost poetic, sketch of Eastern European Jewry in the 19th century: from 1807, the year Napoleon emancipated the Jews, through 1825, the year Czar Nicholas I intensified persecution of the 1.5 million Jews living in the Russian empire, to 1835 and the start of greater conscription of young Jewish men into the Czar’s army, to economic changes wrought by industrialization and mass migration to the cities, to disruptions resulting from the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the Jewish pogroms that followed.

Zionism was born of necessity and circumstance, suggests Avishai, but the path was not obvious:

“The flow of Jews to the cities … turned into a flood. By 1897, the Jewish population of Minsk was 47,562; it was 32,400 in Dvinsk. In Minsk, the Jews finally comprised 52 percent of the whole population; in Bialystock, 63 percent. . . In time the total Jewish population swelled to nearly 5 million, and hundreds of thousands were intimidated and went hungry. Young Jews felt themselves caught between the lure of modern life and a new age of barbarism, unable to go forward and unable to go back. Most were seized with the desire to act dramatically in defense of Jewish interests. . . ; they became increasingly impatient, radical, nationalist. Yet their miserable life did not make the value of a Zionist movement seem obvious. To many, the ideal of a Jewish national home in biblical Eretz Yisrael only mocked their condition.

“What excited most of these people was not any movement but an impulse to motion—that is, the passage of ships from Odessa to New York. Between 1881 and 1914, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire. Of these, 2 million settled in America and only 30,000 made their way to Palestine. American democracy was, and remains, Zionism’s great rival in providing for the safety of Jews.

Avishai traces the growth of early nationalist Zionism through such men as Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, and Vladimir Jabotinsky. All of these men had attempted to assimilate, says Avishai, and all of them shared the conviction that Gentiles would never let Jews assimilate. Individual Jews might try to do so, but common prejudice and anti-Semitism would keep the Jews a people apart.

Monist Nationalism

Pinsker’s and Zabotinsky’s vision for Zionism was steeped in the European far right miasma of Ernst Haeckel, Oswald Spengler, and Enrico Ferri. See Eran Kaplan’s The Jewish Radical Right. “For Pinsker,” says Avishai, “nations were produced by subtle fellow feeling, by psychological, not cultural ties; nations emerged inevitably from the world’s competitive, abrasive conditions, its ‘inherent national antagonisms.’” For these monists, seize the day is what was called for, not visions of universal rights and equality. For these men, “the ideal of international harmony,” continued Avishai, “was nothing more than a dangerous illusion. Jews had to overcome moralistic hallucinations that kept them from seeing what Darwin saw: that only the fit survive, that weakness inspires attack.” These men were not democrats.

A group of young Jewish intellectuals set about doing what needed to be done. They moved to Eretz Ysrael “in a spontaneous show of revolutionary zeal; they founded Rishon LeZion and Zichron Yaacov.” Others joined inspired by Tolstoy and his ideals: they wanted to become a Hebrew peasantry and live autonomous lives “on their native soil.” By 1890 there were 3,000 Jewish agricultural settlers in Palestine, says Avishai, and they were working towards a communal, self-contained, Hebrew culture.

Meanwhile, in Basel in 1897, Herzl organized the First World Zionist Conference. It, too, offered a secular national vision. German Jews “renounced the communitarian works of Eastern Orthodoxy in favor of an individualist faith,” observed Avishai. Their concern was not the preservation of Judaism as a communal religion. In fact, a mere four years before the Basel conference Herzl entertained the idea that the solution to “the Jewish problem” could be the mass conversion of Jewish children to Christianity. It was the trial of Albert Dreyfus in Paris and the rise of anti-Semitism at the dawn of the 20th century that turned Herzl into a community organizer and propagandist for Zionism.

Herzl shallowly imagined this Zion as a liberal, cultured outcrop of Europe; but a Europe for Jews.

Cultural Zionism

Others looked at Herzl’s secular dreams of assimilation and recoiled in horror. Writers like Alexander Zederbaum-Erez and Peretz Smolenskin, and the historian Simon Dubnow, reports Avishai, were steeped in their parents’ Torah culture.  They sought to bring a more communal and traditional vision of Judaism to a new land in Zion. “If political Zionists wanted Jews to take up the challenge of more powerful men,” says Avishai, “the cultural Zionists wanted an answer for Judaism.”

“Orthodox seclusion had produced a common aesthetic sense, a year shaped by festivals and a singsong Hebrew liturgy. There was an oral tradition of legends and heroes, a diet of permitted foods, not to mention the unifying intellectual experience of studying the classical texts and rabbinic literature. Impressed by this ambiance, the people who became cultural Zionists perceived the Jewish predicament not from what was ominous about the Gentile world, but from what was most compelling about the Jewish tradition—language, text, prophesy.”

These cultural Zionists set about to establish a cultural life worth fighting for. They wanted that sense of continuity from communing with the places of Jewish national origins. Like the monist nationalists, the cultural Zionists were secular. They had no more respect for Arab or Moslem religious culture than for Jewish Orthodoxy. But unlike nationalists, who looked to displace the local Arab population, cultural Zionists remained open to bi-national arrangements with Palestine’s native inhabitants.

Asher Ginzburg, born in Kiev in 1856, and assuming the pen name of Achad Haam, advocated for a Jewish state, and not merely a state for Jews in Palestine. But it’s a curious kind of “Jewish state” that Haam envisioned, one divorced from metaphysical conceptions of God’s will, but one full of superior scientific and artistic cultures expressed in their unique language. Start-up nation, David Grossman, Amos Oz, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and young Hebrew speakers in shorts and tank-tops holding hand on Rothchild Boulevard would have pleased Achad Haam, suggests Avishai.

Achad Haam was a utopian. A reader of Herbert Spencer, he believed that reason and scientific knowledge (not the rights of man) would perfect man, and cause man to ultimately “find no greater pleasure than in working for the good of others.” The practice of religion, in Hebrew, in accordance with reason would be instrumental to usher in this messianic age.  The cultural Zionism of Achad Haam would include the study of Torah, halakha, Talmud, blessings and prayers, and the entire oral tradition of Judaism as a training regimen for Jewish minds on the way to naturally finding “no greater pleasure than in working for the good of others.”

Don’t ask Gazans how that worked out.

Labor Zionism

Labor Zionism turned out to be the right tool for building the state. In 1897, the same year as the Basel conference, and the founding of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish labor movement the Allgemeiner Yiddisher Arbeterbund was formed.  Highly successful, and initially staunchly anti-Zionist, the movement did nevertheless spin off a number of dynamic leaders to Palestine, like Nachman Zyrkin and Ber Borochov, who founded the first labor Zionist movement in Eretz Israel.  

Socialism made immigration a one-way valve—workers would not be tempted to leave in an economic downturn; socialism allowed farms to be self-sufficient without hiring Palestinian labor; and socialism provided cohesiveness for the building-up of militias and the propagation of Hebrew. “From class (a Jewish labor class in Palestine) to Nation,” is how one of David Ben-Gurion’s slogans had it.

Avishai covers the thinking and advocacy of such early Labor Zionist leaders as Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin, Aaron David Gordon, Arthur Ruppin, and their contemporary Orthodox rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, David Ben Gurion, and Chaim Weizmann among many others. 

There was Kook:

“[Kook] conceived of the advent of the Zionist labor movement as a strengthening of the vessles for Ruach Elohim, the ‘spirit of God.’ ‘The secularists will realize in time,’ he assured himself, ‘that they are immersed and rooted in the life—land, language, history, and customs—bathed in the radiant sanctity that comes from above.’ Kook would say: ‘We lay tefilin, the pioneers lay bricks.”

The Orthodox, says Avishai, “defined themselves in a long-standing relationship with Labor Zionism, exploit(ing) the chalutzim’s political successes, and liv(ing) off their produce.” But this relationship was not healthy for the long-term democratic prospects for the state, suggests Avishai.  These men were not democrats.

Like the nationalist Zionists, the Orthodox envisioned a world without Arabs, and they looked to military power for holding off potential pogromists. But “unlike Herzl, they imagined that the state would ultimately incorporate halakhah directly into the state’s constitution,” says Avishai.

The Orthodox disdained Herzl’s celebration of national sovereignty, just as they lacked affinity for the secular Hebrew culture championed by Achad Haam, both of which they saw as a challenge to the sovereignty of God. None of them prioritized democratic ideals.

The most powerful force among Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1920 and the declaration of the state, however, became the Histadrut, the trade union organization headed by David Ben Gurion. The Histadrut monopolized many of the service functions of the pre-state community, and controlled many of the means of production. The Histadrut was egalitarian but authoritarian; it was blessed by idealism and marked by a lack of corruption; and it enjoyed broad based support among the workers. The Histadrut was essential for building up the Jewish state, it did not however, develop standards designed for a democratic state.

Part II: The Contradictions of Self-Determination

In Part two of the book, Avishai examines some of the contradictions inherent in the structures of the young state, and how these structures held back a full flowering of democracy based on equal opportunity and rights under law, and a recognition of universal rights.

Was There a Potential for Co-existence with the Arabs?

The power of the Histadrut came not just from its numbers, but from the fact that “it carried out various economic, social, and cultural services… directed toward building up the Jewish national home.” It did this by excluding Arabs. Even those Jews who worked for private employers agitated for the hiring of Jews, not as a consequence of bigotry, but as an instrument of cultural revolution.

“In cultivating a kind of socialist separatism, Histadrut institutions secured for Palestinian Jews their Hebrew national culture. The Labor Zionists did not . . .  merge with the Arab elites, neither with the urban notables connected to the Ottoman bureaucracy, the ayan, nor with the great land effendis. It is precisely because Zionists feared becoming a colonialist class that Israelis now have roots of their own. (‘If we do not till the soil with our very own hands,’ Gordon warned, ‘the soil will not be ours.’)”

This development of the Yishuv did not necessarily displace Arab residents from their country, but every large estate appropriation by the Jewish National Fund did displace Arab tenant farmers, and helped encircle Arab towns.  In fact, as the Jewish population rose in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, so did the Arab population. Between 1922 and 1948, the Arab population roughly doubled to 1,200,000. Productivity and yield of the Arab agricultural sector in Palestine rose during the British Mandate era; so did the average consumption of commodities; infant mortality rates dropped 27 percent; expenditures on education in the Arab sector doubled between 1931 and 1939 and literacy increased (although still very low—about 25 percent on the eve of World War 2).

There was promise, in other words, for the possibility of two side-by-side states, suggested Avishai.

The Failure of Evian

In the summer of 1938, the Western democracies met in the French resort of Evian-sur-bain on Lake Geneva to consider how Jewish refugees might be given asylum, “but to their everlasting discredit,” said Avishai, “the democracies failed to come up with any serious plan for Jewish refugees.”  The Jewish Agency’s representative, Golda Meir, was no better. “Once Britain had the question of Palestine dropped from the agenda of the Evian Conference . . . (Meir) was content merely to observe the proceedings without uttering a word.” (Zionist leaders in Palestine were concerned about upsetting the Peel commission applecart)

This judgment, of course, is made with hindsight of what happened next: the holocaust. But if we judge Evian in light of what was known at the time, is it any worse than our collective failure to act to alleviate the plight of today’s 22 million refugees, or 10 million stateless persons? Golda Meir offered the following excuse in her memoir:  “I didn’t know then that not concentration-camps but death-camps awaited the refugees whom no one wanted.” As if concentration camps would have excused her silence! The judgment of “everlasting discredit” holds for Evian, as much as it does for our inaction today.

In March 1939, the British government “informed the Zionist executive that Zionist rights under the Balfour Declaration were abrogated and that the offer of a Jewish state was rescinded. . . .  A new British White Paper conceived of a majority Arab state in an undivided Palestine and limited future Jewish immigration.” The discovery of oil and competition with Germany had changed the calculus.

The Fervor of War

War unites as well as kills. In the case of the Yishuv it allowed them to organize militarily, with support of the British; it allowed them to expand factories and manufacture war materials for the British; the fervor of war greatly increased both the industrial base and the agricultural output of the Yishuv. The Jewish population grew to over 500,000; more than fifty new villages were founded. “The value of Jewish industrial production,” says Avishai, “increased nearly fivefold, from 7.9 million Palestinian Pounds to 37.5 million (value was pegged to the British Pound Sterling).

“At the Biltmore Conference of 1942, two years after Jabotinsky’s death, Ben-Gurion endorsed … the Revisionists’ program: a Jewish state in the whole of Palestine.”

Avishai questions whether Ben-Gurion had turned towards the idea of a Jewish state from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean (Revisionist Zionism) based on conviction, or whether he was forced into it. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how it has played out. And our judgment of how it has played out is affected by the failure of Oslo, the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and the fact that the Occupation has just turned 50 years old. 

The Holocaust

By 1942 word about the Holocaust was out. In April 1943 the German Army annihilated the Warsaw ghetto. By the summer of 1944, the death camps had taken 2.5 million Jews from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Greece. In the killing fields of the Eastern front three and one half million Polish, Russian, and Ukranian Jews perished. The sorrow and resolve of the Yishuv was absolute.

After VE Day tensions rose in Paelestine. The British clamped down on the Haganah and the Palmach, the Yishuv militias fighting against immigration quotas. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, retaliated by blowing up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel, killing 91.  Ben-Gurion called a meeting of the World Zionist Organization in Paris, and a plan was again publicly announced to accept a Jewish state in only so much of Palestine as was necessary for a viable state. The UN passed its partition plan for Palestine, Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947.  The British mandate ended and Ben-Gurion announced the formation of the “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel on May 14, 1948. 

The Contradiction of Co-existence

And, without warning or fanfare, Avishai turns to the controversial thesis of his book:

“While a viable democratic Jewish state might have arisen in a climate of peace, without Palestinian refugee, the war (of ’48-’49) did underline the latent contradiction between the national Jewish majority envisioned by Zionism and Israel’s secular democratic goals. How could a Jewish state at war with the Arab world—a state which aimed to ‘ingather exiles and exert the ‘natural right’ of the Jewish people to be ‘master of its fate’ in Eretz Yisrael—also guarantee the ‘complete equality of social and political rights’ to all of its citizens, including hundreds of thousands of Arab residents who bitterly opposed its creation?”

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. That circle can’t be squared.

“What was so tragic about Ben-Gurion’s actions at this crucial time was that, as the war (of independence) dragged on through October, he worked to establish a firm hold on state power without any further concessions to constitutional principles. He invested his growing prestige in efforts to consolidate the military, and presided over a state of emergency under which ninety-eight ordinances were enacted. He did not work seriously to develop a climate conducive to enacting the promised constitution, and in fact, many of the emergency ordinances of the Provisional Council of State were still in force twenty years later.”

Avishai describes the early discussions around a possible constitution, but ultimately Ben-Gurion did not force the issue. It was not at all clear where on a secular-orthodox scale the character of such a constitution would have landed. But the result of no constitution was that, by default, the land laws stayed in the hands of the Jewish National Fund (exclusionary and discriminatory against Arabs), there was no bill of rights, and no secular state authority over marriage and divorce, and many other civil areas. There was no formal separation of religion and state. By default emergency powers remained in place for decades, deeply entrenching a discriminatory system against Arab citizens of the young state. The lack of a bill of rights enabled the law—and ongoing practice—of confiscating “abandoned” Arab property. A democracy was established, with parties, the right to vote for all, including Arab citizens, freedoms of the press and of speech inherited from the British mandate legal system, and an independent judiciary, but the democracy was flawed in important ways.

The Tragedy of Arab Rejectionism

The Palestinians call Israel’s war of independence the Nakba—the catastrophe. It was a disaster for the approximately 700,000 Palestinians who were uprooted by the war. Their property in Israel was confiscated. They and their offspring, now numbering more than 5 million, continue to languish stateless in refugee camps.  Soon to be two million live in a virtual prison in Gaza.  Two and one half million live under military dictatorship in the West Bank.

Ben-Gurion was a pragmatist. He accepted partition. In February 1950 “the Israeli government discreetly negotiated a draft treaty with King Abdullah of Transjordan,” says Avishai. Abdullah too was a pragmatist. In April 1950 he annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan, creating the united Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This was consistent with the Peel commission (1937) recommendation, which Abdullah had accepted. Abdullah’s ability to make peace with Israel, however, was constrained by staunch Arab League opposition, and on July 20, 1951, Abdullah was assassinated by a tribal member of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (Husseini).

The assassination of leaders can alter the course of events. Arguably, the assassination of King Abdullah in 1951 was as pivotal as the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. Instead of moving towards peace and normalization, the Palestinians embarked on a campaign of cross-border raids and terrorism, and the Arab League engaged in aggression and belligerence that eventually lead to the 1967 Six Day War. It’s a tragedy that continues to reverberate today, and continues to be perpetuated by Hamas.

The Devolution of Zionism into Politics

Avishai traces the politics inside Israel through the decade leading up to the Six Day War. “Zionist rhetoric implied something like this: that Israelis should be strong and united against the outside world; that religious spats and class conflicts must be suppressed for the sake unity; . . . that the Jewish state was every Jew’s patrimony; . . .  that the Law of Return was not merely an immigration law promulgated for refugees but the highest expression of the centrality of Israel to Diaspora Jews.”  But by the mid-60’s, suggests Avishai, this Zionism had devolved into a normal, fractious competition of diverse visions and interests, subject to the normal forces of politics. 

By the early 1960’s Zionism, which had been conceived as a national solution to the chronic difficulties of the Diaspora (anti-Semitism and assimilation), had shrunk to the notion that Diaspora Jews should want to participate in solving the chronic problems of the national center. But the chronic problems of the national center, suggests Avishai, were very different from the problems of Judaism in Diaspora. For most American Jews, “Judaism now implied a tradition to help them adjust to a public realm of English liberal democracy, a tradition of historical disquisition, ethics, and texts,” that was very different from “the aesthetic, legal, and linguistic norms of the Hebrew nation.”

By the eve of the Six Day War, Zionism had devolved into the politics of a secure nation state: Israel. “If all of its parts did not fit together neatly, there was comfort in the fact that—given the recession, the peaceful borders, the routines of middle-class life—it (Zionism?) was not to be taken all that seriously.”

Part III: New Zionism and the Trial of Israeli Democracy

For a generation leading up to the Six Day War (1967), says Avishai in Part 3 of the book, sentiments favoring a Greater Israel had been evolving as a “statist myth” among the young, among newcomers, and military figures impatient with Labor Zionist ideas.  “Within six months (of the war) it was widely thought that Golan was inseparable from Galilee, and that a great part of the West Bank could never be, in Moshe Dayan’s word, ‘abandoned.’ By years’ end, Jewish settlers sought to establish permanent control over all these territories, and the …Israeli government … actively encouraged the efforts of squatters.”

In the absence of a liberal-democratic constitution, a “generation of compromise between the secular government and the rabbinate, had produced a rhetoric that frankly justified Israeli national rights in terms of Orthodox claims. The clear reasons for the Zionist revolution having faded (anti-Semitism and fears of assimilation in Diaspora), a new Zionism emerged,” said Avishai. This new Zionism was marked by maximalist territorial claims justified by an appeal to ancient Jewish history.

The hubris was infectious: “There was Jerusalem, prosperity, unity. If the victory could not, strictly speaking, be called a miracle, was there not something mysterious and wonderful about Jewish history that they had missed,” says Avishai describing the doubts of Old Labor Zionists post ’67.

Israelis began to view the conquered lands as their own, suggests Avishai. “Israelis toured the Sinai, camped on the Gulf, and dove to view the coral along the Red Sea coast. They visited Jericho and Hebron like privileged tourists, developing tastes for quaint old restaurants and Persian antiques—also for souk, the glitter, the bargain.” The French educated laureate of the Labor Zionist Yishuv, Natan Alterman, “joined the front ranks of of Ha’Tnua Le’Mann Ertz Yisrael Ha’Shlemah, the ‘Whole Land of Israel Movement,’ … (and) advocated outright annexation of conquered lands, for the sake of ‘completing’ Zionism.”

Golda Meir, who served as prime minister from March ’69 through June ’74, was confronted with four big questions: 1) the fate of the occupied territories and Jewish settlements, 2) the style and structure of the economy, 3) the identity of the disaffected Second Israel, and 4) the lingering question of whether the Zionist institutions (touching on religion and state, and status of Israeli Arabs) should be retired. “Mrs. Meir proved wanting in vision,” on these questions says Avishai. By default she served the maximalist New Zionist cause. By the time she left office, “several settlers had built homes all over the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and North Sinai.” When in the summer of 1970, the U.S. secretary of state William Rogers proposed a plan for Israel to accept UN Resolution 242 in exchange for peace and recognition, Meir rebuffed his overture by adopting Menachem Begin’s strategy of demanding “direct negotiations without preconditions,” and “she made it plain that Israel would never withdraw from Jerusalem and other territories,” says Avishai.

Meir generally did nothing to integrate Israeli Arabs. She refused to approve a petition of Palestinians evacuated “temporarily” from a village “until it was safe to return” during the War of Independence to return to their villages, 20 years later.

By 1977, the year Likud came into power, it was apparent that “the Labor Party had created a crippled, incompetent, highly inflationary capitalism which was hard on the workers and middle-class wage earners who had once been Labor’s natural constituency outside the worker’s agricultural settlements,” said Avishai.

The West Bank Tragedy

By 1981, the year Begin won a second term, Israeli occupation of the West Bank was well entrenched.  Some 20,000 Jewish settlers had begun to live in the territories, says Avishai.

Occupation brought some improvements. Jordan had ignored development of West Bank after it annexed the territory in 1950. Thus the East Jerusalem population of 60,000 stayed the same between ’52 and ’67, while Amman grew from 108,000 to 250,000.  Although 40 percent of West Bank Palestinians were engaged in agriculture in 1967, the Israeli army reported they only found 67 tractors in the whole territory. Under Israeli occupation the number of tractors rose to well over a thousand by 1972, infant mortality was cut in half, and classrooms increased from 6,167 (1967) to 11,187 (1980).

Yet this progress did not extend to democratic institutions. Thus in 1974 Peres expelled (newly formed) Bir Zeit College president in Ramallah, along with other young West Bank nationalists. Peres also stepped up repression of the Palestinian nationalist newspaper al-Fajr. When a pro-PLO slate of mayors with liberal views of a two-state solution was elected in 1976 West Bank municipal elections, instead of embracing them as an opportunity, Peres doubled down with signals that Israel would not relinquish the West Bank. The mayors were sidelined during the Camp David accords (Begin-Sadat-Carter). And Israel signaled that it would not relinquish control of the West Bank by continuing to build settlements and giving voice to hardliners in the settlement movement, and announcing that Israel would always retain control over the West Bank water resources, and would control immigration into the West Ban and Gaza. 

It was “Zionism’s greatest tragedy,” suggests Avishai, “that the disciples of mainstream Labor Zionism, for all their faults,” were thrown out of power by Menachem Begin and the Likud in 1977, in the name of a new Zionism of Greater Israel. Once the Likud came to power, it refused to take seriously any solution to the Palestinian question based on partition.

In November 1981 Ariel Sharon installed a civilian administration in the West Bank, headed by professor Menachem Milson. A month later, the Israeli government formally annexed the Golan Heights. During that winter, Milson deposed the pro-PLO mayors in the West Bank, he closed down two Arab newspapers and Bir Zeit University, a center of Palestinian national sentiment. The Palestinian flag had long been banned. It marked a turning point: Milson transformed the incoherent policies of the labor government into a regime of outright repression.

In the meantime, Sharon announced plans for 120,000 settlers by end of 1985.  Young Israeli couples were offered low-interest mortgages to live in new West Bank projects, and to build private villas. Settlers formed vigilante groups. Prospects for democracy in the West Bank were squashed.

Democracy or Zionism

Labor Zionists reasoned that by superseding the repressive legalism of Orthodoxy, Zionism would usher in a fully democratic and secular Hebrew society, said Avishai. But this may have been na├»ve, he suggests, because “democratic” does not flow easily or naturally from Judaism. 

Judaism has a historic common yearning for freedom, but this historical and traditional vision did not include concepts of individual rights and democracy, says Avishai. Jewish tradition sought the freedom to strive after the sacred: to worship God—to keep his laws—and to build the Promised Land. These freedoms championed by Judaism are communal freedoms: freedom from oppression, freedom from foreign rule, freedom from slavery—also from idol worship. But these communal freedoms are not the freedoms of individual rights that are at the heart of a liberal democracy.

Looking back, said Avishai, Zionism evolved from a Histadrut (trade union) movement, to statism that aspired to be Jewish and democratic, and from this statism that aspired to be Jewish and democratic to a new unabashedly undemocratic Zionism.

After 1967 the initiation of legal reforms towards democracy halted. By 1984 Israel still had no formal constitution, no developed tradition of parliamentary courtesy and ministerial responsibility, no effective check on the executive, no checks on parliamentary authority, and no routine contact between electors and elected. There was censorship of the arts and media. For example, Jesus Christ Superstar and M*A*S*H were both censored in Israel. Rabbinic courts have jealously guarded their new jurisdictions over marriage, divorce, and burial. By 1984 a poll of young Israeli Jews indicated that 60 percent of them were ready to curtail the rights of Arab citizens, and 57 percent thought Arabs in the occupied territories who refused Israeli citizenship ought to be expelled. Most favored annexation over territorial compromise. When asked (in ’84) if the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza should be given the right to vote in the event of annexation, only 3.15 percent of high school students said “yes.” Surely this is not unrelated to the fact that there is no legal mechanism for an Arab to marry a Jew in Israel, suggested Avishai.

Achad Haam thought that the ways of tolerance were imbedded in Judaism, said Avishai. The Hebrew concept of “cherut (freedom)” might also have implied a considerable measure of personal… liberty. To worship the ineffable Name, after all, was to worship an enigma, and this required scope, doubt, reasons. But for Achad Haam, said Avishai, Zionism was also necessary to redeem the Jewish spirit, to consolidate the Hebrew language, to nurture the “instinct for national self-preservation,” and none of this naturally leads to a notion of citizenship and universal rights in the liberal democratic sense.  

Israeli schools have taught children much more about the tribes of Israel than they have about the Enlightenment, says Avishai. The Hebrew language presents democracy as a mere technique of social organization—the best technique to be sure, but like other advanced commodities from abroad, perhaps more than Israelis can afford, says Avishai. For Zionists, democracy has seemed like an added luxury that free people enjoy, not a synonym for freedom itself. “That Hebrew democracy has not yet fully come into being is Zionism’s tragedy,” says Avishai, “not its requirement.” In other words, Zionism can thrive on military occupation without democracy, but it’s a shame not to have Hebrew culture and democracy.

A Zionism without democracy, asserted Avishai, is tragically obsolete. The question he posed in 1985 was whether democratic tendencies in Israel will prevail against the anachronistic institutions which Labor Zionists once made, and against the new Zionist ideology of a Greater Israel. Thirty years on, the question is more pointed than ever and the trend line is not good.

For Avishai, writing in 1985, “Ben-Gurion’s plan to partition the land” was still the key for Israeli democracy. The fact that Israelis today seem less open both to partition and to democracy “may prove the tragedy of Israel,” he concludes.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Relation to Judaism 1: Hebrew


Our Chupah (1979)

1. Hebrew

Harei at m'kudeshet li b'tabaat zo k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael.

Harei atah m'kudash li b'tabaat zo k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael.

We memorized these Hebrew vows for weeks, drilling until we could recite them without a hitch when the pressure was on, under the Chupah, in front of friends and family. Thirty-eight years later we can still pull them up, though we did not dwell on their meaning at the time. The vows served their ritual function. My heart was pounding for all it was worth, which was a lot in those days.

Over the years my wife (Jewish) and I (not) have recited Hebrew prayers and blessings over bread and wine, over candles lit, over Talmud studied; at Passovers, Hannukahs, and Shabbats. We have participated in these prayers and blessings like we have sung along with popular songs on the radio, learning the melodies, catch-as-catch-can, anchoring some of the words with confidence, and faking others in between. We are not unique in this, nor is it a new phenomenon.

Hebrew as it is written in Torah and Talmud emerged as a written language sometime in the late second millennium BCE. But even during the first temple’s heyday, there is reason to think that there were significant differences between the spoken and the written language. "What we know as biblical Hebrew is without doubt basically a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile [following the fall of Jerusalem] existed alongside living, spoken, dialects," says Angel Saenz-Badillos.

The Hebrew religion, after all, was a sacrificial cult while the temples stood. The people brought their unblemished goats, fruits and other offerings to the priests, and the priests recited their blessings over them. It seems unlikely that these goatherds and farmers were well versed in biblical Hebrew. Liturgy was not the job of the common man and woman, and speaking biblical Hebrew was not an entrance requirement for being a Jew. Indeed, by the time the first temple was destroyed (586 BCE), Hebrew fell out of use as a vernacular tongue and was replaced by Aramaic. Only a small elite, the scribes and priests, and perhaps royal administrators, carried the language forward for its literary and liturgical purposes.

After 586 BCE Babylon became a flourishing second center of Judaism. Throughout the Diaspora over the subsequent centuries, Jews spoke Persian, Polish, German, Russian, Arabic, and--of course--Yiddish. Biblical Hebrew retained its liturgical role. A 1931 census in Poland inquired as to the "first language spoken." Of 3.1 million Jews, 2.5 million identified Yiddish as their first language, and only 244,000 said "Hebrew."

Jewish practice in America places an emphasis on biblical Hebrew. Thus the Reform movement in recent times has moved to reinsert more Hebrew ritual into its services. Bar and bat mitzvahs spend a year learning how to read a portion of scripture in Hebrew at the bima. It's a special skill because biblical Hebrew is written without vowels. Correct and fluid pronunciation is the main goal. Understanding what is being said not so much. For that we have the drash, in English. In America, today, therefore, Hebrew remains confined to a liturgical role. Per the 2013 Pew study on Jewish life in America: "Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet. But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew." And, of course, there is a difference between understanding "most or all the words" when reading a prayer or blessing that is repeated over and over for decades, and reading and understanding a random page of Talmud in biblical Hebrew. Most people in synagogues are like me: they fake the Hebrew. Most may fake it considerably better than I--but they're still faking it. And there is nothing illegitimate or not genuine about that. It is consistent with the liturgical role that Hebrew has served in Judaism through the ages.

Some Zionist Jews, like the American-Israeli writer David Hazony, argue that learning Hebrew is the essence of being Jewish: "[it] will let you engage with your Bible, your Talmud, your medieval Jewish texts, without the hazy filter of translators and professional interpreters," he wrote in The Forward. If American Jews don't learn modern Hebrew fluently--never mind biblical Hebrew--he suggests, they will stop being real Jews. But Hazony is mixing up his Zionism with Judaism: Judaism has worked just fine for 2000 years with most Jews faking their biblical Hebrew; it will continue to do just fine with American Jews continuing that tradition.

Like any vibrant tradition, Judaism needs a core of elite practitioners. These can be found in the ranks of the Orthodox, to a lesser extent in the Conservative Movement, and among rabbis and not so few members of the Reform and other movements. But Judaism doesn't need most, and it doesn't need me, to fully learn Hebrew of the biblical or modern varieties. I'm content with continuing to fake it, and I find myself in good company among my Jewish friends.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

[This post first appeared at the Forward, HERE]

Friday, June 30, 2017

We Should be Working to Improve the UN, not Walking Away from it . . .


Source: Wikipedia
The United States contributes roughly 22 percent of the United Nations' general budget.  This is an appropriate and fair amount given our share of the world's economy.  The U.S. economy ($18.6 trillion 2016) remains the largest economy in the world, comprising nearly 25% of world economic output. The European Union ($16.4 trillion 2016) makes up a little under 22% of the world economy, and China ($11.2 trillion 2016) is in third place at 15%.

The Trump administration, however, wants to back away from our leadership role in the world community. Trump has turned his back on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement; he wants to renegotiate NAFTA; he wants to weaken our NATO commitments; he wants to exit the Paris Climate Accords; he wants to keep out refugees and immigrants; he wants to move towards autarky; and he wants to cut our commitment to the UN in half.

Returning to Our Isolationist Roots

After World War One, President Woodrow Wilson suggested a 14 point plan for an equitable peace in Europe. This included a League of Nations to help put an end to an era of hostile armies crossing the Rhine every 20 years, to borrow a DeLong meme. In the end, to the world's loss, the United States stayed out of the League of Nations, and a mere 21 years later civilized nations were at each other's throats once more. The world would have been better off had the U.S. engaged with the League of Nations after World War I. Would the infamous Munich conference have gone differently had the U.S. been involved? If God could play dice with alternate histories in a parallel universe, he would be tempted to do it in light of the catastrophe that followed.

Following World War II, the nations of the world got together once more to form the United Nations on October 24, 1945. The original 51 countries of the UN came together to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and to promote social progress, better living standards and human rights across the globe.  What's not to like?

Today the UN has 193 member states who have submitted to the founding charter and its amendments. Individual countries can express their views through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees. It's a democracy of sorts, even if some members are more equal than others. The United States, of course, is more equal than anyone. So what's not to like?

The work of the United Nations reaches every corner of the globe. The core mission is peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, but there are many other ways in which the UN works to help make our lives and the world a better place. UN agencies work on sustainable development, the environment, refugee protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, the promotion of  democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women. The UN works on improving governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, all in order to achieve a safer, better world for this and future generations.  What's not to like?

The isolationist forces that have taken over our government don't like the United Nations.  And it's true, the UN is not a perfect body.  In fact it is deeply flawed. The body needs to become more democratic. Stronger. More independent. Many of its member states need to become more responsible. The body needs to become more effective. Still, we should be working to make it better, not turn our back on it.

How do we work to improve anything? Through leadership. And who is in a better position to lead the UN than the United States? No one. And is the United States better off if someone else steps up to take the leadership mantle? I don't think so. Is the world better off if the United States walks away from its leadership role? I don't think so.

But this is not apparent to all. "America, we pay way too much for the United Nations" lamented Brett Shaefer at Fox News a year ago:
Over the last six decades, the share of the U.N. expenses borne by poor or small member states has steadily ratcheted downward to near- microscopic levels. From 1974 to 1998, the minimum mandatory payment for the regular budget for example, fell from 0.04 percent to 0.001 percent. For the peacekeeping budget, the minimum is 0.0001 percent.
The end result is a hugely skewed bill for U.N. expenses.

In 2015, 35 countries will be charged the minimum regular budget assessment of 0.001 percent which works out to approximately$28,269 each. Twenty countries will be charged the minimum peacekeeping assessment of 0.0001 percent or approximately $8,470 apiece. By contrast, the U.S. is assessed 22 percent of the regular budget (approximately $622 million) and over 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget (approximately $2.402 billion). 
But spare us the crocodile tears.  The nation of Tuvalu with a GDP of $36 million, admitted as the 189th member of the UN in 2000, is charged the minimum $8,470 for world peacekeeping.  In other words, Tuvalu is assessed .01 basis points for world defense and their share of world GDP is .0036 basis points.  By comparison, the United States with 25 percent of world GDP is contributing 28 percent of the UN defense budget, AND the U.S. gets to be the world leader. We get to have a veto over Security Council resolutions.  What does Tuvalu get?

In March, reports CNN, instead of stepping to the head of the line and leading by example, the White House instructed our UN mission to gut our contributions to the UN. Instead of having the US shoulder a proportionate to GDP share of the UN Budget, the current administration wants to pay much less. If they could, it appears, they would follow our League of Nations example and  quit the UN altogether.

So yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, celebrated a $500 million cut from the UN peacekeeping budget: "Just 5 months into our time here, we've cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we're only getting started," tweeted Haley. Oh Boy! Isn't that great?  No it's not.

Turning our back on the UN is nothing to celebrate. Let's never forget what happened when we turned our back on the League of Nations. We should be leading by example. We should be engaged with the world body; we should be working hard to improve it. We should not be walking away from it. . .

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles