Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Throwing in the Towel on Universal Democratic Values

This post has been updated and corrected to correct my initial misreading of Prof. Yaacov Yadgar's tone. I have had an email exchange with Prof. Yadgar wherein he brought to my attention that he is not in any way advocating for or supporting the state's implicit abandonment of universal democratic values that he describes. He believes that the state, for the historical reasons he details, has misappropriated Jewish traditions to privilege Jewish citizens of the State of Israel over others. I reiterate my apology to him for my initial misreading of his intent (and inappropriately imputing that view to Bar Ilan as an institution)


The key political values in the United States are freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, equal rights and protection under the law irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.  These values commit us, as a matter of necessity, to a clear separation of church and state and to a strong and independent judiciary.  When push comes to shove, these are the values we'll fight and die for.

Our Enlightenment Heritage

These political ideas arose from the Enlightenment and were enshrined by our founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution.  The American example, in turn, inspired the French revolution, the French declaration of the Rights of Man, and the foundation of modern nation states in general.

We believe these democratic values to be universal.

The Chinese don't subscribe to these Enlightenment values. They think it's o.k. to suppress freedom of speech, to privilege party insiders to be in charge of major industries and enterprises (and to enrich themselves accordingly), for party insiders to control the courts, the army, the security services. And due process, who needs it? We don't get that. We fail to understand the theoretical model for what the Chinese are doing. [And for any of you Chinese censors reading this, feel free to think about it and email me an explanation]

We look at the nascent Islamic State. To the extent this monstrosity embodies any political values, those values trace back to a misguided conception of the divine.  We reject the divine as a basis for forming a nation state.

Can we get our head around the notion of a "Jewish state?"

Zionism and "Two States"

Zionism presents an interesting case. The founders of the modern state of Israel, by and large, have subscribed to the Enlightenment principles of universal democratic values. Israel likes to think of itself as the only modern democracy in the Middle East. But in practice these Enlightenment values are hard to shoehorn into a Jewish State run by and for Jews when there is a 25% non-Jewish minority (within the '48 borders), a 40% non-Jewish minority if we include the West Bank, and a 50/50 split if we include all of Greater Israel.

Liberal Zionism has its theorists. Bernard Avishai argues for a Hebrew Republic that must be "brought up to code" with the political values of a fully modern nation state (separation of church and state, universal citizenship, and equal rights and protection for all citizens) while preserving a Hebrew culture. Avishai envisions this can be done consistent with universal democratic values, in a manner like Quebec preserves and privileges French culture.  Alan Dershowitz and Peter Beinart subscribe to some version of this. The folks at +972 Magazine subscribe to some version of this.

Privileging Hebrew culture for the state as a whole in a framework of universal democratic values, however, requires a strong majority of Hebrew speakers. Quebec has 5.1 million native French speakers and 1.6 million native English speakers.  Israel has a strong majority of Hebrew speakers within the 1948 borders, but this majority is greatly reduced if the West Bank were annexed and everyone granted citizenship, as Rueven Rivlin (Israel's President) advocates. If the people of Gaza are also included, the majority is gone.

The need for a strong Jewish demographic majority is what drives the need for a two state solution. Israel continues to pay lip service to it. The settler's not so much. Abbas continues to hold out for a Palestinian state on all of the territory occupied in 1967, with a capital in Al-Quds (Jerusalem). Hamas, not so much.  And nobody who matters in Israel is acting to bring about two states. The two state solution appears politically impossible to achieve.

The fall-back position as a matter of political theory, appears to be a state with universal democratic values.  This means Jews cannot be privileged over non-Jews. Jewish control over the state would be reduced, even if a space is carved out for the protection of Jewish culture alongside a protected space for Arab culture.  Power would have to be shared. This type of power sharing should be possible in theory.  In practice, the stalemate may become very bloody.

Giving up on the Enlightenment?

Professor Yaacov Yadgar, is a tenured Senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University. He has an interesting article in the Journal of Religion and Society, The Kriptke Center (Vol. 16, 2014)(Overcoming the 'Religion and Politics' Discourse: A New Interpretation of the Israeli Case) in which he contends that religion and politics in Israel have evolved in a manner that radically departs from Enlightenment democratic values.

Yaacov Yadgar
Professor Yadgar obtained a BA there (1996), a  PhD (2000), he was a lecturer 2001-2004, and he has been a tenured senior lecturer since  2004.  Professor Yadgar has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, UC Berkeley, Rutgers, and Hebrew University.

The concept of separation of church and state, says Yadgar, is "foreign to Jewish traditions." Jewish traditions have historically served both secular state functions and religious functions. The concept of Judaism as a "religion" separate from politics, he explains, was the result of Germany, France, and England beginning to define themselves in secular terms.  Jews in these places wanted to see themselves as loyal subjects of the secular state, while still faithful adherents of the Jewish religion.   The keepers of religion and politics in Israel today might say "this is just so Diaspora!"

In this Enlightenment context, Zionism envisioned that Judaism (as religion) was just a personal, apolitical matter of 'spirituality.' This religious Judaism was not a nationality. What Zionists needed was a nationality, not  a religion. Although Jewish religion has been part of the history of the Jewish nation, Zionists asserted that it is Jewish nationality, not religion, which defines the people.  This idea, says Yadgar, stands at the core of the founding Zionists' conception of the State of Israel as a secular state of the Jewish nation.

Privileging Jews over non-Jews

By building up a secular Jewish state, says Yadgar, the early Zionist leaders were then confronted with how to define the Jewish nation.  How would Zionism relate to the tradition and how would it build up a national narrative that was not "besmirched with the stain of religiosity?"
Several Zionist leaders and thinkers chose largely to ignore this question, focusing instead on the notion of Jewish political power by way of imagining the 'Jews' State' as a sort of European nation-state...that is ruled by Europeans of Jewish descent. Others ... viewed the Zionist project as primarily obligated to 'secularize' Judaism, that is to reinterpret Jewish traditions so as to make them consistent with a rationalist, modernist, utilitarian world view, which will be the basis of the (secular) nation-state of the Jews.
Early Zionists got away with this, says Yadgar, only because they were all steeped in the tradition. They rebelled against the tradition, but they knew who they were, and they knew what they were rebelling against. Their start-up nation children and grandchildren, by contrast, were largely ignorant of the content of the religion and what the previous generations had rebelled against. Netanyahu and his generation ran into a problem: if the Jewish state is a matter of nationality, and not religion, what positive attributes define that nationality?

[Enlightenment values would say--Duh! If you live there, or if you're born there, you're in, you're part of the nationality. But this doesn't work for Zionism trying to preserve the idea of a "Jewish state"]

So, here's how Yadgar says the state resolved this issue:
"At the end, the state seems to have chosen to focus primarily on the constitution of a Jewish majority--a matter of 'demography'--as the principal condition for its existence as the state of the Jewish People; it put relatively few resources into answering the questions of how to converse with, and reinterpret, the Jewish traditions of the communities that constitute this majority. In the famous contest between two possible translations of Theodor Herzl's Judenstaat, the state's political elite has chosen to focus on the establishment of a "State of Jews," not necessarily on the constitution of a "Jewish State." Indeed this seems to be the core understanding of the meaning of Israel's being a Jewish nation-state among liberal, secularist Zionist circles, such as Haaretz's editorial board, which clearly states-- 'Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state: a refuge for members of the Jewish people, not a state with an official religion like Muslim Saudi Arabia. The Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one. On Israeli identity cards, 'Jewish' describes a nationality (May 22, 2013).' 
"But even such a limited understanding of Jewish politics... [as] politics run by people of Jewish origins--is required to address certain issues of Jewish identity in order to run a nation-state that identifies as the state of the Jews. Primarily, the state is required to decide who counts as a Jew and who does not.
The state opted to outsource this determination of who counts as a Jew to the "rabbis and politicians who adhere to a conservative, orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition."  Among other things, it granted to these official representatives of the religion the authority to oversee marriage laws, "essentially preventing marriages between Jews and non-Jews, thus preserving the distinction" between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state.

As a result, says Yadgar, the State of Israel "has never attempted to genuinely build an Israeli national identity that would be 'liberated,' so to speak, from Jewish 'religion' and would naturally include the non-Jewish citizens of the state." This is illustrated, for example, when the Israeli Supreme Court refused to permit citizens to be registered as "Israeli" rather than "Jewish." The State, Yadgar says, "has been fostering a de-facto identification between Israeliness and Jewishness."  Although the meaning of this Jewish identity is vague, it "is distinct in one critical respect: it is a national identity reserved for Jews only."

The problem here, of course, is this leaves 25% of the population out in the cold if we're talking about citizens, and it leaves 40% of the population out in the cold if we include the West Bank, and it leaves 50% of the population out in the cold if we include all of Greater Israel.

Yadgar continues:  Although the state still nominally espouses a distinction between "religion" and "nationality," the fact that the state defines its national identity as "reserved for Jews only" means that the two concepts are essentially identical. This idea that Jewish religion and Jewish nationality are identical "stands at the core of the national school curriculum," and it accounts for a series of laws with a notoriously narrow interpretation of Jewish tradition. These narrowly religiously orthodox interpretations, and the religious coercion that goes with it, serves the secular Jewish majority, says Yadgar, because it is "what secures the maintenance and preservation" of the secular majority's identity "in a nation state that identifies as the state of the Jews."

Here's the troubling upshot from an Enlightenment universal democratic values point of view that Yadgar points out:
"Being a Jew in Israel means belonging to the majority, which enjoys a privileged position in every aspect of life; whoever is Jewish enjoys a political, symbolic, and cultural capital that is reserved for Jews only. ...The state... enforces 'religion' on the public sphere, through the 'status quo' arrangements among other ways, and guarantees by this the distinction between Jews and non-Jews, as well as the privileging of the former over the latter."   

Justifying the Occupation?

But if the State of Israel defines itself as existing for the purpose of granting a privileged position to Jews over non-Jews "in every aspect of life," as Yadgar suggests is the case, why would the state care about a majority?  If non-Jews are chopped liver, why should it matter whether they constitute 25% of the population, 40% of the population, or 51% of the population?

As soon as the state is willing to cross that threshold and is willing to privilege Jews over non-Jews "in every aspect of life," where does it draw the line? And on what basis?

The separation of Church and state came about for a reason: it is a necessary pre-condition for a state based on universal democratic values. Yadgar suggests that the state's guardians of what is Jewish and who counts as a member of the Jewish nation state have misappropriated Jewish traditions in order to define this national identity for Jews only, and in the process they have thrown in the towel on universal democratic values.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Preserving the Souls of Children

To the End of the Land
David Grossman
Vintage Books (2010), 653 pp.
Transl.  from Hebrew, Jessica Cohen

 “How do you like our beautiful country; our terrible country?” asked Nurit. We had just completed a lap and a half of Israel, which is enough to recognize a remarkable number of the places mentioned in David Grossman’s novel, To the End of the Land. The novel captures what she meant. If you are interested in understanding the complex, and tragic nature of Zionism a half century after Israel became an occupier state, this is an indispensable book. If you are interested in great literature and closely observed details of the complex and intense role of motherhood, the emotional ups and downs of marriage, and the joy and pain of children as they grow up and away from you to become citizens, this is a highly recommended book. If you are interested in a finely crafted tale unfolding with mystery, suspense, and consummate skill over six hundred pages, this is a great read.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, they say has visited Israel almost every year since 1991. In 2010, the year Grossman’s novel was published in English, he issued a glowing review of Israel’s exceptional "start up nation" achievement. “Israel’s technological success,” he says, “is the fruition of the Zionist dream. … It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.” Brooks believes this achievement is worth defending. His oldest son is currently serving in the IDF, which Brooks views as a noble coming of age experience.  “I think children need to take risks after they leave university, and that they need to do something difficult, that involves going beyond their personal limits. Serving in the IDF embodies all of these elements,” says Brooks. But what kind of coming of age is implied by signing on to a military apparatus whose job is to control 4.4 million people, who have no civil rights, and who don’t want you in the land? What happens to these sons and their families when they become old enough to “be nationalized?”

To the End of the Land revolves around Ofer, who has just completed his three year service in the IDF, and who is mobilized for a final spasm of the South Lebanon War.  He bails on joining his mother on a celebratory camping trip to the Galilee. Ora, the mother, panics. Her husband (Ilan) has left her and is off in South America with their eldest son (Adam). She is left terribly alone. She has just had a bitter day with Sami, her Arab driver, an old and intimate family friend; they are divided over the mobilization. It exposes rifts over “the situation.” Ora decides to go on the camping trip anyway.  If only she can hide from the news, not be home to receive the army’s messengers of death, maybe she can keep fate and her anxiety at bay.  Along the way she picks up Avram, Ofer’s birth father, an old lover whose body and spirit remain broken from torture he suffered as a prisoner during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Avram has never met Ofer.  For weeks Ora and Avram wander the Israel Trail from the Lebanon border towards Jerusalem. Along the way Ora tells the story of her family, her marriage, her children, the pain, loss, and sadness served up by “this terrible country.”  "[T]his is why she brought Avram with her,” says Grossman.” “To give a name to all these things, and to tell him the story of Ofer's life, the story of his body and the story of his soul and the story of the things that happened to him."  In doing so she also tells the story of Israel, from a Jewish Israeli perspective, from the Six Day War through Operation Cast Lead, and its last iteration—Operation Protective Edge. The novel speaks to the essence of the nation and the soul of its children.

Ofer starts as a curious, hyper-empathetic child. He is horrified at the realization that the food on his plate is animals; he becomes vegetarian.  As the children grow up Ora works hard to protect them from “the situation.”  But it’s difficult.  Ofer early on becomes aware, and afraid, of the other. The Arabs. It’s not anything that happens. It’s just in the air.  Ora lacks convincing answers to Ofer’s innocent childish questions. “I would wake up with panic attack,” says Ora. "’Look at us. Aren't we like a little underground cell in the heart of the 'situation'?  And that is really what we were. For twenty years,” she tells Avram. She refers to the twenty happy years following the Yom Kippur war, after the birth of Adam and Ofer and before her children are taken from her and nationalized by the army.

Ofer, as a child, takes to sleeping with a monkey wrench in his bed “so he can beat up the Arabs when they come….” This comes in the midst of a long section describing the little phases and obsessions kids go through. It made me think of how 10 year olds “play doctor” before puberty hits and the sexual games begin in earnest.  As Ofer and Adam reach their “age of nationalization,” their beating up of the Arabs turns earnest.  A “slight whiff of anger” begins to emanate from Ofer, “repelling and belittling, especially toward anything and anyone who was not connected to the army." He abandons his vegetarianism and becomes a ravenous carnivore.  The cavalier manner in which her men speak of what they do at check points, in Hebron, in Lebanon eats at Ora.  Ofer’s unit, it appears, failed to catch a suicide bomber at a check point. Ilan says he is glad the terrorist blew himself up in Tel Aviv, not at the checkpoint.  Ofer is incensed: "But Dad, that's my job. I stand there precisely so they'll blow themselves up on me and not in Tel Aviv."   It’s the sentiment that enables Ofer to shape and use clubs, to shoot civilians at close range with rubber bullets, to forget about a naked old man held captive in a meat locker in Hebron. Through it all, Ora attempts to hold the line on his decency; Ofer tells her she doesn’t get it. 

Some are confident that decency is misplaced. Ora and Avram run into a group of Orthodox Nationalist settlers on the trail. They get to speaking of the current operation, and Ofer’s deployment:  “God curse the Arabs,” says a young woman. “With everything we gave them they still want more, all they think about is killing us, for Esau hated Yaakov, and Ora with a very broad smile suggested that today they not talk about politics. The difficult girl furrowed her brow in surprise: ‘that's politics? That's the truth! It's from the Torah!’"  

And in the end, Ora is not sure if she’s not fighting a losing battle for the soul of her children. She thinks she has an ace up her sleeve with Ofer, her absolute certainty as a mother that Ofer could not hurt a human being, because if that happened Ofer’s life would never be the same. “Quite simply, and irrefutably, he would have no life after that. But when she took a step back and looked at him, at the strength of his body, at that skull, she wasn’t even certain about that.”
And this lack of confidence suffuses “the situation.”

The novel opens with Ora, Ilan, and Avram as 16 year olds in an isolation ward in a Tel Aviv hospital. They are gravely ill with a contagion. Everyone has abandoned them and they are left to discover each other early in the Six Day War. They hear triumphal radio Cairo broadcasts leaving them to wonder whether the war is lost.  Similarly, Avram in his cell between tortures during the Yom Kippur war reads false newspaper reports about executions of fifteen mayors from Haifa and the surrounding area.  When he returns from his ordeal, the very existence of the state looks provisional and unreal to him:  "’Look at them. They walk down the street, they talk they shout, read newspapers, go to the grocery store sit in caf├ęs’ -- he went on for several minutes describing everything he saw through the car window—‘but why do I keep thinking it's all one big act? That it's all to convince themselves that this place is truly real.’" Ora and Avram run into memorials to fallen soldiers along their trail: “where will all this end?” wonders Ora. “There’s not enough room for all the dead.” When she drops off Ofer at the mustering station, he whispers in her ear: “If something happens to me—I want you to leave the country…. Promise me you’ll leave the country.”  And as she and Avram get their conditioning on the trail, the very land looks provisional. “When we looked down on the Hula Valley and it was so beautiful with the fields in all those colors, I rallied that its always like this for me with this land …Every encounter I have with it is also a bit of a farewell.”  

The presence of “the other” in the land shows up in the map of hostile surrounding countries; it’s there in the tension between Ora and Sami, her driver and long time friend as they drop off Ofer at the mustering station; it’s reflected in the people they meet near Arab villages on their trip; it shows up in their very flesh as Avram has schizophrenic visions of an Arab in his body; and ultimately it’s reflected in the land itself.

“Listen,” Ora says and holds his hand. “To what?” “To the path. I’m telling you, paths in Israel have a sound I haven’t heard anywhere else.” …. “It’s a good thing they all have the right sounds in Hebrew. How would you possibly describe these sounds in English or Italian? Maybe they can only be accurately pronounced in Hebrew.” “Do you mean these paths speak Hebrew? Are you saying language springeth out of the earth?” And he runs with the idea that words had sprouted up from this dirt, crawled out of cracks in the arid, furrowed earth, burst from the wrath of hamsin winds with briars and brambles and thorns , leaped up like locusts and grasshoppers. Ora listens to his flow of speech. Deep inside, a fossilized minnow stirs

its tail and a wavelet tickles at her waist. “I wonder what it’s like in Arabic,” she says. “After all, it’s their landscape too, and they have rhonchial consonants too, that sound like your throat is choking on the dryness.”

In the end, unlike David Brooks’s son, and unlike those start-up nation capitalists with half a foot in Palo Alto, Ora has no place else to go. “’But in any case,’ she says quietly, ‘if I do, it won’t be just the country.’” She is stuck in this beautiful, terrible land, fighting to preserve the souls of her children.

The Israel Trail

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Can our Politics Survive Tabloid Journalism?

Mat Bai was the chief political correspondent for New York Time Magazine, he has covered three presidential campaigns, and has written for the Times, and is currently the national political columnist at Yahoo News.  He has a new book coming out in October:  "All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."  He is previewing the book in an interesting essay this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. 

The essay is about the implosion of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1987 over some hanky-panky with a bikini model, Donna Rice.

Pretty tame compared to the Clinton-Lewinsky-cigar allegations, but made out of the same stuff.  Just as Congress and the national press corps dropped everything for two years to pursue the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal full time, Gary Hart was hounded out of the campaign by a pack of Papparazzi.

The article raises interesting questions about the nature of how our media covers politics, and problems this causes.

For purposes of thinking about this, let's take as true Bai's characterization of Hart as a "brilliant and serious man", "the most visionary political mind of his generation," who, had he been elected,  would have affected the course of history for the better, but who also engaged in some adulterous hanky-panky.

What has changed in our coverage of politics?

Bai argues that for decades prior to Watergate, ...
the surest path to success (for journalists) was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. By the 1980s, however, Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition. If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal. They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.
Journalism has shifted, says Bai, from gaining the trust of politicians, to gaining wealth and fame by exposing scandal. Instead of seeking understanding and insight, journalists are now seeking to score points.
If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking. .... 
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.” 
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
As a result Politicians were forced into a defensive crouch.  Journalists were no longer on the inside. Journalists lost access and journalism suffered.  At the same time politicians revealed less, and our politics suffered.
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway. 
Changes in technology have made this problem much worse. The internet, smart phones, surveillance performed by businesses, the government, and private individuals alike provides a vast amount of opportunity to uncover unflattering or embarrassing material on even the most saintly among us.  If the goal is to dig up dirt that can be used to embarrass a politician, and campaigns have whole "opposition research" teams dedicated to this task, there are none who will stand pure at the end of the day. It's no wonder cynicism is running amok.

It is doubtful that our politics are better off for this. How can we combat this? Telling politicians to lead exemplary lives misses the point.  Of course they should lead exemplary lives. We all should; but the point is that no one's life will stand up to the full scrutiny of a motivated press corps, opposing campaigns, and the full resources of modern technology applied to uncover dirt.

Surely the answer must lie in a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We need to be able to distinguish between sexual hanky-panky and lying pretexts to go to war. Is there an App for that?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Alba Gu Brath

In 1995 Quebec nearly voted to secede from Canada.  I trust the Scottish vote yesterday will help Canada stay Canada for the foreseeable future.  I'm in favor of that.

Quebec 1995--From Wikipedia:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
Yes or noVotesPercentage
Yes check.svg Yes2,308,36049.42%
X mark.svg No2,362,64850.58%
Valid votes4,671,00898.18%
Invalid or blank votes86,5011.82%
Total votes4,757,509100.00%
Voter turnout93.52%

Scotland, September 18, 2014: 

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

BBC Projection: 7:00 a.m, September 19, 2014 (GMT):  "With 29 out of the country's 32 council areas having declared after Thursday's vote, the "No" side has a 55% of the vote, with the "Yes" campaign on 45%.

Yes check.svg Yes      45%
X mark.svg No       55%

It was formulated as a stark question.  People were debating the effect that formulation of the question might have on the vote.  The Registrar of voters was asked to remove an initial formulation of "Do you agree that....", which is how the Quebec referendum was written.  In addition, it's noteworthy that the Quebec referendum ('95) was couched in lots of wishy washy, tentative sounding "after having made a formal offer" and "political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec...."  

We'll likely not find out if a different formulation would have affected the outcome.  I trust it will be a while before they get to try with another formulation.  

I know many of our Scottish friends were rooting for "Yes" in this. But it looks like they'll get some more local powers... and, most important, they'll always have this....

and this.... 

and, of course, this....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Occupation and the Challenge of the Modern Surveillance State

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the universal monitoring of all American citizens by the NSA, not to mention the likes of Angela Merkel, Obama has attempted to put us at ease by explaining "We are only gathering Meta-Data." How far does one trust this?  Would we trust J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, for example, with the full power of the modern surveillance state? What can we do about it?

Now that the information is available, state security agencies will always be drawn to abuse these powers. The cat is out of the bag. 

For a sobering example, consider Israel and it's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  


Israel has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza since 1967--coming up on a half century.  The Palestinians don't like this. One of the reasons they don't like it is it subjects them to military law, not a civilian legal system.  Under military law, all Palestinians are subject to administrative detention, which means detention without charge or trial...at the whim of 19-year old soldiers.  Some 37 percent of these terms of administrative detention are for durations longer than six months. For a chilling view of this from the point of view of the judicial officers who administer the system, see the documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz "The Law in These Parts."  PBS is making the full film available on line through September 17, 2014. 

Check out the film at PBS.

The Unit 8200 Disclosures

Now consider that on September 12, 2014, 43 Israeli Reservists serving in Israel's secretive 8200 Unit signed a letter of protest to PM Netanyahu, saying that they will refuse to "take part in activities against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as instruments to deepen the military rule over the occupied territories."

Dahlia Scheindlein explains:
8200 is practically a legendary unit within the intelligence corps of the army. It is responsible for both internal and foreign signals intelligence-gathering, alongside the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. A large unit with various subdivisions, some members are known for their Arabic language skills, used to monitor life and media in the Arab and Palestinian world. Perhaps its strongest reputation is as Israel’s high-tech incubator, developing the cutting edge technology related to communications, focused on hacking, and encrypting, decoding and transmitting information. 
As civilians, its highly educated and largely Ashkenazi graduates, particularly the men, have often leveraged their skills in Israel’s high-tech industry and are commonly thought of as the sparky, plucky drivers of the “start-up nation.”
Larry Derfner notes that the government does not appear to be denying the fact that the 8200 unit is gathering private information on all Palestinians which is then used to blackmail anyone susceptible  to act as an informant.  Information thus gathered is used in turn to administratively detain people without charge or trial, for months and years on end.

Here's Derfner:
Interviewing six of the letter’s signatories, Yedioth’s Elior Levy wrote (in Hebrew),“According to them, the Israeli public believes that intelligence is gathered only against those involved in terror. They want to publicize the fact that a substantial portion of the targets they follow are innocent people who are not connected in any way to military activity against Israel, and who interest the intelligence branches for other reasons.” 
According to “N.” one of the six dissidents interviewed, “At the base they told us that if we turn up some ‘juicy’ detail, this is something important to document. For instance, economic hardship, sexual orientation, a severe illness that they or someone in their family has, or medical treatments they need.” 
“N.” continued:  -- "If you’re a homosexual who knows someone who knows a wanted man – Israel will turn your life into a misery. If you need urgent medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or overseas – we’re on your tail. The State of Israel will let you die before it lets you go for medical treatment without your first giving information about your cousin, the wanted man. Every time we hook an innocent person who can be blackmailed for information, or to conscript him as a collaborator, that’s like gold for us and for the entire Israeli intelligence community. In a training course we actually learned and memorized the different Arabic words for homosexual."
This intelligence gathering is a lot more than "meta-data" which is how Obama has characterized the NSA surveillance; it's the full power of the modern surveillance state exploited in support of an occupation of 4.4 million people.  And how secure should you feel if you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel?  Or a peace activist of any stripe within Israel?


If the use of this technology cannot be prevented (overtly or covertly), then this puts a HUGE premium on the importance of establishing clearly articulated civil rights, and the protection of a robust and independent legal system to protect and enforce those rights.

No state should be allowed to blackmail citizens.  If you have a secret to hide, or a special need, and the government discovers this through surveillance and attempts to use this information to coerce you in a way that violates your civil rights, you should  be able to go straight to court and obtain swift and effective relief.  But defining what those civil rights are, and keeping such courts truly independent and effective are big challenges.

Hand wringing about how the government is abusing these powers will only get us so far.  We need to organize and militate for clearly defined civil rights and we need to organize and stand up for a strong and independent judiciary.  If we don't have that we're screwed.

The Palestinians are a case in point. Activism against the Israeli government engaging in surveillance is likely futile. The game has to be to establish Palestininan civil rights: the right not to be blackmailed, the right not to be administratively detained without charge or trial, and the right to access independent, transparent, and effective civilian courts if those rights are abused.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this point mis-cited the B'Tselem statistic as "37 percent of Palestinians" have served time in administrative detention. The cited reference states 37 percent of detentions are for a term of six months or more.  I will try to find a reference for overall percentage of the occupied Palestinian population who have served time in administrative detention.

UPDATE: According to John McKay, who heads a law and justice program for the U.S. Department of State in Ramallah (lecture at Seattle University, September 16, 2014) 40% of Palestinian males have spent time in Israeli jails.

One State, Two States, Confederated state....Beyond the Headlines

Lisa Goldman of Blogginhead TV leads a discussion with Dov Waxman of Northeastern University and Dahlia Scheindlein of +972 Magazine about the options for political solutions in Israel/Palestine.

As I listen to them discussing the pros, cons, why's, and how's of ethnic separation vs. territorial separation, one state vs. two states vs. confederation, it seems to me that ethnic separation is the worst of the options.  The separation barrier, of course, is a monumental fact on the ground towards this worst of all possible worlds.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Not Doing Stupid Stuff in Ukraine While We Work For Better International Structures

It's been six months since the Russian take-over of Crimea, and Crimea just completed local elections for the Crimean assembly and the local municipal offices along with the rest of Russia. The pro-Russian forces seem to have consolidated political power there in Russian fashion. Compare Reuters and Sofia News Agency. Meanwhile, in Eastern Ukraine the situation is still very much in flux. 

In the Donetsk region, rebels declared an "independent" Donetsk People's Republic. The government in Kiev, too weak to assert itself  in the eastern parts of the country, is attempting to purchase peace by agreeing to provide more autonomy to the break-away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Legislation was submitted on Monday, September 15, 2014 that would grant these areas "special status" for three years. As the New York Times reports: "The main points include amnesty for those who participated in the “events” in those regions; the right to use Russian as an official language; the election of local councils; funds for social and economic development from the state budget; and the right to form local police forces." 

On Sunday, six monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe came under attack in Donetsk. In the meantime, in the western part of the country, 15 countries are participating in U.S. led military exercises in an effort to support and prop up Kiev. New York Times

Should We Just Accept Russian Dominance of Ukraine? 

John Mearshimer is a neo-realist professor at the University of Chicago. He has an article in the September issue of Foreign Affairs magazine suggesting that, because Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of influence, the West should not attempt to "democratize" or otherwise attempt to ween Ukraine away from Russia. The West should not attempt to deepen ties between Kiev and the European Union, should not expand NATO, and should not promote democracy, human rights, or the rule of law there. The fate of Ukraine should be left to Ukrainians and Russia.

Here is Mearshimer, under the provocative title ("Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault"):
Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events [in Ukraine] only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy.  But this grand scheme went awry in Ukraine. The crisis there shows that realpolitik remains relevant -- and states that ignore it do so at their own peril. U.S. and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.... 
The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.... It is in Ukraine’s interest to understand these facts of life and tread carefully when dealing with its more powerful neighbor.

Say What? 

In the study of international relations, realists like Mearshimer explain that the machinations of countries are rooted in the structural constraints surrounding security competitions among nations. They focus on nationalism, the self-interest of individual nations, the "balance of powers," and they counsel the continuation of viable military frameworks.  It's an amoral, Machiavellian, and ultimately fatalistic and depressing vision of the world. States are naturally and rationally greedy for power; all they care about is their own survival.  In  his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearshimer wrote:
Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive. (P. 35).
In other words, by annexing Crimea and making a power play for eastern Ukraine, Putin and Russia are acting just as you would expect any country to act while feeling hemmed in by its neighbors: Russia is fearful of the growing influence of NATO and the EU with the countries along its perimeter--Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Russia saw an opportunity to push back by seizing Crimea--forestalling a possible future NATO naval base on that peninsula; Russia is now following its opportunity into eastern Ukraine...and the West should lay off and butt out!

This Hits a Nerve with Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong, a political economist at UC Berkeley, posted a response to the Mearshimer article on his blog. 
DeLong, judging from his tone, believes it is borderline obscene to abandon Ukraine to Russian thugs just because those thugs might not like Kiev gradually incorporating with the West. If Ukraine is hoping to make progress by upgrading its democracy and promote the rule of law we should encourage it and facilitate such a transition. Nation states are not abstract metaphysical entitites, says DeLong: at heart Russia is a conglomeration of people, and those people have organized themselves very differently at different times. Brad gives a brief run down of Russian history over the past 800 years that is witty and interesting.

As Al Michaels argues (the producer of the NBC figure skating programs in Sochi), it is not crazy to hope that Putin will be a passing phase; that the people will overcome, leave Putin behind, and that Russia also will rise as a modern democratic republic. Even if the purpose of states is "to survive," there is no rule of nature which says Russia cannot survive by opting to join the modern world and the community of nations. For that matter, just as people join together in individual nation states and agree to recognize a higher sovereign authority (Hobbes), states are in the process of establishing international structures that recognize a higher sovereignty in  international structures. That is, in part, what's at stake in Ukraine. Do we surrender to the amoral thuggish authority of random states--or do we build international structures and the rule of international law to govern disputes. 

DeLong suggests that Ukraine and Russia will stand a better chance to develop into modern democracies and join the modern world if we engage with them and help them do so.
[W]here ... is it written in stone that whoever rules in the Kremlin speaks for Russia–or, at least, speaks for Muscovy ‘Rus–and has the right to install a corrupt thug of this choice in Kiev, or to veto any Kievan government he does not like?
If John Mearsheimer were a smarter man, he would, I think, be speaking not to Obama but to Putin. He would not be telling Obama to cool it on “social engineering” in–i.e., the economic development and democratization of–the Ukraine. He would be telling Putin that the imposition of Soviet puppet regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary produced an enormous running sore and was a long-term source of great weakness for the Soviet apparatchicks who ruled in the Kremlin. And he would be telling Putin that pulling the Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk away from Kiev will do more than anything else could to ensure that those who rule in Kiev will offer him and his successors in the Kremlin as little as possible. And that going beyond that to install and maintain a puppet regime in Kiev will do more damage to the security of Muscovy ‘Rus than almost anything else one could imagine. 

Seeking More Robust International Structures 

It seems certain that the West will continue to try and integrate with Ukraine. The optimist in me says this will work out in the long term if we and the Russians don't "do stupid stuff" along the way. Mearshimer is a pessimist and he would say, "Yes, but this type of security competition always leads to stupid stuff....and hence the tragedy of great power politics."

The way out of this dilemma of the "tragedy of great power politics" is for all nation states to band together and recognize a higher sovereignty in disciplined, workable, and just international structures. It's a work in progress.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Radio Discussion on Liberal Zionism

.... and here is a radio discussion on Boston's WBUR "Open Source" with Jane Eisner (editor of the Forward), Peter Beinart, Bernard Avishai, and Phil Weiss discussing liberal Zionism, Gaza, and the way forward in Israel/Palestine.

  • Peter Beinart: nicely sets the table with a description of the fundamental tension that exists in Zionism between (a) the state of Israel as a country that has "protection of Jewish life" as its mission statement, and (b) a democracy with complete equality for all.  He notes that since '67 this tension has increased. 
  • Jane Eisner brings the mainstream American Jewish perspective: Israel is under attack, Israel has a right to defend itself, and, yes, what happened to the people in Gaza is sad.
  • Phil Weiss is the activist and emphasizes that Zionism structurally privileges one people over another. 
  • Bernard Avishai focuses on Hebrew culture, and the Hebrew language: "It's the country of Israel, not Ishmael, so, of course Hebrew culture will dominate...." (paraphrase b/c my memory is not perfect)  However, the Israeli democracy must be brought up to code. 

Mondoweiss Smackdown of my Avishai Post, Some Clarifications, and a Question for Everybody

Phil Weiss has been kind enough to post some of my pieces at Mondoweiss from time to time.  I submitted the post on the Avishai response to Lerner for his consideration.  He felt my post was not clear on the distinction between Avishai's aspirational Hebrew Republic and the miserable politics in Israel today.  

Phil sent me an email:  
"I got the impression from your piece that you are accepting Avishai's description of Israel as a democracy and I think that's difficult for our readers, and me too, given the intolerant strains in that society that we've sought to document. Slater, a liberal Zionist, says Israel can be fascistic (at his site Jeromeslater, which we picked up today)." 
So it prompted me to re-read my piece and provide the following clarification: 
"I think the Lerman post and Avishai's response raise some interesting questions about Zionism.  Lerman suggests that "Liberal Zionism" is an oxymoron, and Avishai reacts to that.  Does "Zionism" have any place in Israel-Palestine today, and what is that place?  And what does Zionism mean in that context? 
Avishai thinks that modern Israel is the result of a secular liberal/socialist Zionist movement.  This strikes me as correct.  As I understand Avishai, he believes "Zionism" today should consolidate these gains by firmly committing to a secular state with equal rights for all its citizens.  He would do away with the Jewish Law of Return. My understanding is he would advocate for a Basic Law with an Equal Protection Clause not unlike our 14th Am. Avishai understands the task of Zionism as carving out a space for Jewish culture based on the Hebrew language.   
Carving out space for a Hebrew culture with a firm separation between state and religion leaves open the political structures of Israel-Palestine. It is not incompatible with a parallel protection for Palestinian culture and the Arabic language. Avishai envisions a confederative arrangement with the West Bank and Gaza.  Avishai and Lerman agree, I think, on building a movement to do away with the occupation and building political structures that provide equal rights for everyone. Avishai would say the end game has to include protections for his Hebrew Republic. Lerman's formulation, as stated, doesn't include that.  Confronting where one stands on that is important, I think, when we are critical of Israel. 
Some of the ambiguities in the term "Zionism" in both pieces made me think of this in a new light.  Zionism is one of those terms that is like a vessel that can be filled with any content.  We have to formulate what it is for ourselves, an defend it--or reject it.  Avishai has done this with his Hebrew Republic.  It's not clear to me that Lerman has confronted the question. If you look at the David Bernstein link I provided (and what a smarmy Hasbarist that guy) it's clear he's not thought it through.   
I don't think Avishai has any illusions about the fascist currents in Israel today that Slater describes.  His current piece in the New Yorker makes that clear. Avishai sketches a vision for a liberal Zionism to strive for.  His vision of Zionism is one I can get behind.  You?"

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bernard Avishai Responds to Antony Lerman: A Discussion about "Zionism"

Antony Lerman is a lapsed Zionist. On August 22, 2014 he published an Op-Ed in the New York Times that struck a nerve: The End of Liberal Zionism. The article concludes that the liberal aspiration of rights and equality for Israelis and Palestinians is, today, incompatible with liberal Zionism. Liberals, he urges, should abandon the "Zionist" brand and get to work on achieving equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures to flourish. This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism. ... [Liberal Zionists] should know that Israel is not Judaism.  Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.... The liberal Zionist intelligentsia should embrace this challenge, acknowledge the demise of their brand and use their formidable explanatory skills to build support for a movement to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.
This advice to heave Zionism overboard in the name of liberalism strikes Bernard Avishai as cavalier. (New Yorker 9/05/14) The Jewish state has been built and its security firmly established long ago. Israel has the 37th largest economy in the world (World Bank 2013 fig.), one of the most powerful armies in the world, a nuclear arsenal, a thriving high tech industry, culture, and 8 million Hebrew speakers. It's a little late to throw all this out and start designing from scratch, says Avishai--one of the foremost members of the liberal Zionist intelligentsia:
[T]the most striking thing about Lerman’s argument, with its focus on whether the Zionist idea can be reconciled to the liberal imagination, is how provisional he takes Israel to be. He seems consumed with historic Zionism’s veiled essence, yet he’s oblivious to its obvious achievement: namely, a home for Israelis that has a reality other than as a cause for diaspora Jews—eight million Hebrew-speaking citizens, thousands of companies networked to (and dependent on) the Western world’s intelligentsia, a popular media, colleges and universities, hospitals, films, books, songs, and a G.D.P. of a quarter of a trillion dollars
It is as if the Anglo-American Commission of 1946—the year of Lerman’s birth—were still holding hearings, and liberal organizations such as the American Jewish Committee were agonizing over whether to become Zionist supporters. Had Jewish liberals been true to themselves, they might never have justified the founding of a state that displaced Arabs; they would not have taken pride in Pete Seeger singing folk songs in Hebrew about girls on farming settlements and soldiers. Israel’s DNA was bad. But it is not too late: Israel isn’t the culmination of Jewish history, but Netanyahu is the culmination of Zionism’s. So let’s start over.
Rubbish, says Avishai.  He reminds us that the Zionist enterprise from 1905 to 1967 was intensely liberal: a modern, secular, egalitarian, post-Halachic Judaism. A Judaism "based on individual conscience and dissolving the authority of the Torah and commandments.  Most rabbis hated most Zionists."  What Zionists were looking for was a social-democratic civil society in their own language. When David Ben-Gurion read the declaration of independence, says Avishai, he invoked the prophets and promised "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex... conscience, language, education, and culture."

Liberal Zionists in Israel, says Avishai, "are not a walking contradiction in terms."  They take for granted the Zionist conception of the state as a distinct nation with a novel politics and language. He is thinking of the Hebrew language protected and promoted by the body politic through education, and support of literature, music, theater, and art.  He is thinking of how the French language and culture are preserved in Quebec in the middle of an English speaking continent.  He is thinking of a separation of temple and state, the cultivation of a Hebrew Republic on an Arabic sub-continent.  He is thinking of a confederation with a Palestinian Authority that would similarly protect and preserve Palestinian culture.  Compromises that allow the two people's national cultures to flourish are not incompatible with Zionism, thinks Avishai, such compromises are liberal Zionism.

For diaspora Jews, says Avishai, "'Jewish'... has a congregational definition, as a religion with an encoded, defensive narrative and Halachic strictures. They may--owing to the anachronistic Law of Return--be able to leave Great Neck, land in Israel, and claim citizenship; but they are usually less attuned to Israel's Hebrew culture than the state's Arab citizens are."

The fact is, the best efforts (and considerable inroads) of Orthodox theocrats and messianic settlers notwithstanding, Israel today is not a state built on religion. Although the rabbinate has considerable sway over who can marry whom and who is considered a Jew, Israel is not a theocracy. It has a vibrant press, free universities, and you can get get a great cup of coffee and a croissant in Tel Aviv during Passover. Although Israel has a sizable Jewish majority population within the pre-1967 borders, Israel is not an ethnocracy either.  People get tied in knots over race and who is a Jew, but what Chabad says works for me:
" While the Jewish people began with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, many people have converted to become Jews over the millennia--beginning with the "mixed multitude" that came with us out of Egypt. Today there are African Jews, Japanese Jews, even Eskimo Jews. It seems difficult to call such a mixture a "race".
Add to this that the Law of Return from 1950, as amended in 1970, grants a right for spouses of Jews and grandchildren of Jews--who may not be Jewish at all--to immigrate without restriction.  And add the fact that 25% of the population is Muslim, Christian, Druze, or other--all of whom can vote and have representation in the Knesset--and it becomes very difficult to think of the state as "by and for Jews."

Zionism conceived as a Jewish state in the land of Israel has never meant "Jews only," and much less religious Jews only. David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University, says that "Some left-wing Israelis are 'post-Zionist' in that they wish Israel to become a 'state of all its citizens' rather than a Jewish state." That is a truly odd thing to say for an American professor of law. Does he really mean to imply that "Zionism" means Israel is not a state of all it's citizens; that it's not a state for the 25% of the citizens who are not Jewish?  Really? That is what Moshe Feiglin thinks. It's what the messianic settlers think. It's not what liberal Zionists think.