Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mort Sahl on the Madrid Conference (1991)

My hometown paper has a tribute to Mort Sahl this morning. Sahl was a pioneer of the political satire practiced by Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.

Here he is in Atlantic City, on November 16, 1991.

He has that same fundamental optimism about America displayed by Williams, Stewart and Colbert.

Was he optimistic about the Israel/Palestinian peace process?

"The great jokes in America," says Sahl, "come from around the water cooler in the Executive office." [Starting at 38:50 of the above video] "They're observations of professional men with a sense of urban irony....." To illustrate, he delivers a great joke about inefficiency and waiting lines in Russia.

Then he moves on to riff on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, in a way that is as fresh today as it was 24 years ago. It's a sad testament to just how little progress has been made.

You know, we're gonna have peace talks in the Middle East, thanks to the good offices of George Bush. We had a hang up, you know, for a couple of days in which they couldn't figure out who would represent the Palestinians 'til they settled on Secretary Baker. 
.... just kidding.... just kidding.... don't take me away!
This is an Israeli joke. Israeli folklore. And who knows the origins?
Baker keeps going back and forth in the shuttle diplomacy. And Yitzhak Shamir is trying to brainwash him to become an advocate of Israel. And so he takes him to the wailing wall. This local site. And these elder Hebrews are praying at the wall (he davens) and writing--the custom is to write the name of your deceased relatives and stick it in the crevice of the wall. And have good things for them. 
So, Baker says "what are they doing?" Because he's a Baptist. And Shamir says "Oh, they're praying for their elders and everything." And Baker says, "Well, that's terrific! We don't have anything like this in Texas. What a great wall." You know. "And I wish I were Jewish sometimes." 
So Shamir says, "Well, you came 10,000 miles. We believe that when you're standing in front of this wall you're talking to God. So if you want to talk to God, why don't you ask for something." And Baker says, "Well, President Bush and I don't want anything specific for ourselves; we just want world peace." 
Shamir says, "Well when you're standing in front of this wall you're talking to God. (Beckoning towards wall) Ask for it." So Baker asks for world peace. 
And Shamir says, "Before we go to lunch, do you want to ask for anything else? You're here anyway, you're in front of this wall talking to God." And Baker says "Yeah, I'd like to ask for friendship between all nations in the new world order." And Shamir says, "You're talking to God" (beckoning....) So he does. 
And Shamir says "Are you ready for lunch?" And Baker says "Just a minute! I want to add a postscript to God...... It seems to me that in my eleven years of experience with Reagan and Bush at the White House, the actual roadblock to peace is the intransigence of the Israeli government, and I believe that peace would be aided and abetted if the Israelis would set a humanistic example by voluntarily giving back all the occupied lands to the Palestinians." 
And Shamir says "Now you're talking to the wall." 
And thus it ever was.

This appearance in Atlantic City was at the time of the Madrid Conference, two years before the Oslo agreements. The First Gulf War (August 2, 1990-February 28, 1991) had come and gone. It was the start of Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq, and Shiite uprisings in the South of Iraq.

Spain hosted a peace conference intended to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Madrid on October 30-November 1, 1991. In addition to the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the United States, the conference was attended by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the Soviet Union. I'm guessing this was the last international conference attended by the Soviet Union. Eleven Soviet republics (including Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Kazakh city and announced the dissolution of the empire, effective on Christmas Day 1991.

Bill Clinton succeeded George H.W. Bush in the White House on January 20, 1993, and eight months later, on September 13, 1993, Rabin and Arafat signed the Oslo Peace accord on the White House lawn.  A short two years after that, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv.  The second Intifada came and went; three Gaza wars have come and gone; there was another Israeli war in Lebanon (2006); the occupation has deepened and has become more entrenched.

And here we are, 24-year-old jokes sounding fresh as today's smelly fish wrap. And that's no joke.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Gabon's President Advocates Banning Female Circumcision.

SF Chronicle--11/27/15. Gambia's president advocated banning female genital mutilation.... President Yahya Jammeh ... [said] he could not find any religious justification for female circumcision.  Female genital mutilation is practiced in more than half of African countries. It entails the complete or partial removal of the external genitalia of women and girls for non-medical reasons. 
For a poetic and sensitive story about female circumcision set in Ethiopia, read Camilla Gibb's "Sweetness in the Belly."  It's one of those books that, even eight years after I read it still resonates.

The Chronicle news snipped uses the word "mutilation." It's the right word, even if pregnant with condemnation.  Here is the controversial anti-Islam crusader Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describing her experience growing up in Somalia. Her grandmother carried out the circumcision contrary to wishes of the parents, and behind her parents' back.

Somalia, where Ali grew up is on the horn of Africa, on the Indian Ocean at the entrance to the Red Sea.  It is a lawless country that scores dead last in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance--with a score of 8.9 out of 100!

Gambia is clear across the continent on the Atlantic coast, the smallest African country, with a population of just under 2 million. Its a pinky of a country, sticking into the belly of Senegal.

In 1588 a claimant to the Portuguese throne sold rights to operate in the Gambian river basin to British traders. In 1618, King James I granted a charter to a British Company, and from 1821 to 1965 Gambia was a British colony and protectorate.

Three million slaves were shipped out of the Gambian area during three hundred years of the slave trade. Britain banned the slave trade across its empire in 1807.

Gambians speak English, while the official language in the surrounding Senegal is French. Last year president Jammeh said Senegal would drop English as its official language "very soon." He did not state a replacement language. Several native languages are spoken: Wondigo (38%), Fula (21%), Wolof (18%), and Jola (4.5).

In October 2013 The Gambia unilaterally withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations (the British Commonwealth). President Jammeh, who seized power in a military coup in 1994, equated calls for good governance with past colonial exploitation in a speech to the UN.

The Gambia's rank in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (comprehensive ranking of the 54 African countries) has fallen from #12 in 2007 to #27 in 2015. The report for Gambia states:
Gambia is one of five countries to have shown deterioration in every category in the past four years. This trend is reinforced at the sub-category level, with Gambia registering only minimal progress in Rights, Business Environment and Education.

In Safety & Rule of Law, the category in which it shows its most pronounced decline, Gambia shows improvement in only one indicator.

Gambia’s broad-based downturn in governance performance, even in Human Development in which it receives its highest rank, is a particular cause for concern.
The economy (nominal GDP of $918 million in 2012 est.)  is dominated by agriculture, fishing, and tourism. There is extreme inequality of income. A third of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.25/day.

There is no established state religion in The Gambia, although approximately 90% of the population is Muslim.  The Economist has the following chart indicating that nearly 80 percent of women in Gambia have been subjected to genital mutiliation, and more than 60% percent think the practice should continue.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Scan a Gun and print it out on a 3D Printer, at Home?

What is 3D printing, you ask? explains:
3D printing ... is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. 
You can print small things, like bowls, jewelry, and utensils, to large things like houses. Consumer 3D printers are available for $1,000 to $3,000.

... And now you can print guns!

Companies like Microsoft and Google are woking on scanning apps that allow you to scan an object (like a gun!) with your phone, and later print it at home.

The battle to contain guns is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

H/t to Eugene Volokh.

Keeping an Eye on the Originalist Fallacy

Justice Scalia/official portrait
When we interpret our American constitution, the question arises “Does one ask what the Framers said in 1789, or what they would have said 200 years later, or something in-between, such as what is the current meaning of what they said then?”

Judge Scalia is an "originalist." He subscribes to the view that we should interpret the constitution in light of what the Framers said in 1789.  He believes that if the framers believed the constitution was compatible with slavery, slavery can never be unconstitutional absent a formal constitutional amendment, like the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. The constitution has a static meaning, he would say

Since the framers thought capital punishment was not cruel and unusual punishment when the constitution was drafted, originalists like Scalia argue that capital punishment can never violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the eighth amendment absent formal amendment. Most (I would hope) legal scholars, by contrast, would argue that our concept of what is "cruel and unusual punishment" can evolve over time. As Justice Kennedy said in Obergefell v. Hodges
The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a re- ceived legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.
The import of what Kennedy says here is that, even though the death penalty may not have seemed cruel and unusual to the framers, it may appear so to us today, and it is the task of the Supreme Court to interpret the phrase "cruel and unusual punishment" in light of our modern sensibilities.

In addition to the question of whether it is appropriate for judges to look at the current meaning of the words in the constitution, originalists confront the problem of determining original meaning. Is it practical or reasonable to expect judges in the 21st century to be expert of how words were understood in the 18th century?

Last Sunday, Richard Primus, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan, pointed us to an example of Scalia making a broad and sweeping historical claim and getting it just plain wrong:  "Before this country declared independence, the law of England entrusted the King with the exclusive care of his kingdom's foreign affairs,” said Scalia. In fact, the British Parliament had quite a bit of influence over foreign policy in the time of King George III.

Primus believes this example illustrates that even if we wanted to follow an originalist interpretation of the constitution, it is entirely impractical; every judge would need to have specialized knowledge which they don't have--and cannot have (because they are lawyers, not historians).

Here is Primus with his conclusion:
I don’t think that judges—even Supreme Court Justices—should be responsible to know how the British constitution worked more than two hundred years ago.  The world is full of specialized knowledge, and nobody can know everything, and federal judges have enough to keep track of without having to be historians, too.  ...  Instead, the point is that we should all expect that even our leading judges will not know what they would need to know in order to interpret eighteenth-century materials.... If a Supreme Court opinion by a leading originalist ... can open with an entire paragraph of historical fantasy, what hope is there for the practice of originalism in the courts more broadly?  We should not think “Look, sometimes it won’t work out, but most of the time it’s fine.”  We should think “Originalist interpretations are liable to be shot through with misunderstanding even under what seem like favorable conditions.”  
Scalia studied history in college, although this did not guard him against this particular mistake. Most lawyers have no training in history.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Five Books of Krinsky

The Five Books of Krinsky
A novel with commentary
Kindle Ed. $2.99
by Don Shearn

Don Shearn is a poet.  A good one.  Don't take my word for it.  Here he is reciting his poem "Shake Down at Kiddie Land." In 2014 he demolished the competition in the North Shore Poetry Pentathlon. Jennifer Dotson interviewed him for Highland Park Poetry, below. Take a look.  If this seems like a man you'd want to spend some time with, read on. If not..., well, I think you're making a big mistake.

Don has a blog, Don's Basement. Check it out; it will prepare you for what you're in for. It will also be someplace for you to go after you finish The Five Books of Krinsky, because you'll be wanting more.

Turns out Dan Krinsky is a good one to spend some time with too. He's attuned to male sexuality like Philip Roth.  He's middle aged, trying to get oriented after his wife, Jackie, left him. He gets together with Kara, his younger by a decade, a woman from his weekly minyon.
“I’m getting ready.” Her laughter lined the narrow corridor that led to her bedroom. She sensed Krinsky’s unease. “Our relationship?” “It’s changing. “ She opened her bedroom door and Krinsky followed her in.
He's also having dreams of Elayne from years ago. Here's a dream:
"Elayne is nude. Her body covered in white make up. She sits on a wooden chair painted black, at a single pedestal table in the center in the center of the ravine. 'Good night,' she says to Krinsky, 'we’ll have to do this again, you know right after Moshiach comes.'” 
Yeah, sex is like that.

Krinsky went to college in San Francisco "way late for the beats, he only missed the hippies by a few years."

The book starts with a visit to Lenny Cahner' apartment on Michigan Avenue, during the summer of '68. Elaine had drawn a mural in Cahner's apartment: "In the foreground were cartoon bombs and guns with the figure of a black rain-coated terrorist with a bowling bowl bomb and a sparkling fuse. The gender symbol for women with a front view of a snub nose 38, a band of Mexican peasants firing rifles at a passing train, a black man handing a machine gun to a little boy." It's middle aged memories of revolution; memories like sex. The Chicago riots at the Democratic convention are not mentioned; they are just out of the frame like Machu Picchu in the opening scene of Werner Herzog's Aguirre.  "Turns out [Cahner and Krinsky] were a couple of stoned teen-agers eating Italian salami slathered with condiments." Memory, sex and revolution are like that.

It's a Talmudic story. Krinsky's a Jew, in case you haven't noticed. Jews are people of the book. They get together and read weekly portions of Torah (the Five Books of Moses). There are 54 portions (one for each week of a leap year); then the cycle starts over. Each of the 53 chapters of The Five Books of Krinsky starts with a short Torah passage: an epigram that loosely sets the theme for the chapter.  Like Talmud, it's not plot driven, this book. But there is Krinsky, there is commentary, and there is commentary on the commentary.

There are important stories from youth, mysteriously involving a golf slice. There is lust, there is marriage, there is divorce. There are children. Siblings. There is death.

There are the seasons of the Jewish calendar, and non-seasons of the Jewish calendar:
November is not a Hebrew month. The major holidays have passed. Jews have reflected, rejoiced, fasted and repented. They’ve built their little huts or at least strung up a gourd or two. Jews dance with the Torah and begun their cycle of reading the scroll. Again. By the middle of November, (as reckoned by the Gentile calendar) Jews, especially in northern climes are hunkered down, living Shabbat to Shabbat (or weekend to weekend) and hoping for a mild winter.
There is meta-commentary, anti-foreshadowing:
Being non-violent sorts, Krinsky and I favor Jacob. That could be why the book is a little light on conventional action and there will not be a car chase.
There is Zen-like wisdom: “Irreverence is the step sister of knowledge, it's almost the same as ignorance.”

There are traffic directions, Baghdad to the ruins of Babylon:
 The ruins of Babylon lie 65 miles southwest of Baghdad, in the current city of Babil, about an hour and ten minutes on route 1 in light, non-insurgent traffic.
...and Goshen to Jerusalem:
 This place is about 150 hours on foot or a 9 hour drive from Jerusalem. It is clear that the Hebrews who took 40 years to get to the land needed a lot of seasoning.
There are observations about the Jewish condition:
Frankel insisted that Jews are professional victims and not having enough anti-Semitism to go around we are currently blaming assimilation as the cause of all our problems.
...and the relationship between God and the Jews:
Jews will never win the battle of statistics. Because Jews survive. Because in the minds of many of them God wants them to. This is a big boost for a People. For a tribe. A real good unifier. A country is terrific. Don’t get me wrong, Israel. Great. Great. Thing. Not America, a given. But not as good a unifier as God. God while He never seems completely comfortable with the Jewish people, has managed to keep Himself involved with them, His people. They in fairness keep Him involved with them. In their hearts.
 There is psychoanalysis, like this:
His mother might never have showed him compassion but she did believe in loyalty. Compassion can be a gesture. A kind word. Flowers. Loyalty is made of sterner stuff. It is made of the full cloth, the mixture of linens of sickness and health, good and evil.
... or this,
You can never really know another person. Any more than you can know yourself. There are no brain mirrors. Some of the chemistry is invisible. The gap between what we know and what we think is only spanned by God, or faith or drugs or television.
How does this book differ from Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed? you ask. The author explains:
Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote this “to promote the true understanding of the real spirit of the Law, to guide those religious persons who, adhering to the Torah, have studied philosophy and are embarrassed by the contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah. (Whereas my book is for those people familiar with some of the Bible and lots of TV, movies, pop music and the internet and just find this stuff kind of interesting.)
That is true. But it's also true that by the time we get to Book Five it is very profound, and we don't want it to stop.

Rationale vs. Rationalization: or "making shit up to score political points?"

Rationale: (1) an explanation of controlling principles of opinion, belief, practice or phenomena. (2). an underlying reason. 
Rationalize: "to think about or describe something (such as bad behavior) in a way that explains it and makes it seem proper, more attractive, etc." 
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage: 
Rationale/rationalization:  When you’re explaining the reasoning behind your position, you’re presenting your rationale. But if you’re just making up some lame excuse to make your position appear better—whether to yourself or others—you’re engaging in rationalization.
In the political wars, it's sometimes convenient to confuse the two on purpose.

Four days after the November 13, 2015 horrific mass shootings in Paris, John Kerry made remarks  to staff and family of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Kerry suggested that he could see a rationale in the Charlie Hebdo attack last January (the terror attack on the Franch satirical magazine, which repeatedly lampooned Mohammad) but that the most recent attacks in Paris seemed to him to be "absolutely indiscriminate."

Here is an excerpt of Kerry's remarks:
[W]e are deeply appreciative for your commitment to helping us to help people to share the values and the interests that we are all working to protect. In the last days, obviously,   that has been particularly put to the test. There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. .... And it’s indiscriminate. They kill Shia. They kill Yezidis. They kill Christians. They kill Druze. They kill Ismaili. They kill anybody who isn’t them and doesn’t pledge to be that. And they carry with them the greatest public display of misogyny that I’ve ever seen, not to mention a false claim regarding Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism – I mean, you name it. [Emphasis added]
Right wing media outlets and columnists [e.g. CNS,  Breitbart, Jennifer Rubin] have been all up in arms misrepresenting Kerry as rationalizing terrorist attacks. Jennifer Rubin reports that Jeb bush, at a campaign rally:  "got fired up, reading Kerry's remarks and declaring, 'There is no rationale for barbaric Islamic fundamentalists who want to destroy Western civilization.'" Donniel Hartman accuses Kerry of engaging in "political correctness."

Some errors in usage, of course, are deliberate because they are convenient.

Of course we can see a rationale in a Muslim terrorist attack on the intentionally provocative Charlie Hebdo; and to acknowledge this rationale is not to rationalize the attack.

If Bush and the horde of right wing troglodytes breathing heavily about Kerry's remarks mean to say they can see no underlying rationale for the Charlie Hebdo attack, then they are being dense and they are guilty of a common error in the English language. If they are saying there can be no rationalization for this attack, then they are correct. And so was Kerry.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Olivier Roy on Why the Impulse to "Crush" ISIS Should be Resisted

A few days ago, Jim Schutze, directed us to a NYT op-ed by Olivier Roy. Roy is a Mid-East scholar and a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. "This is must reading for anybody who thinks there is any simple or obvious path forward on ISIS," said Jim.  So I did, and here is a summary of what Roy has to say:

Until now, says Roy, France has been in the lead in treating ISIS as a great strategic threat in the world. All of a sudden, in the wake of the Paris attacks, France has company.  There is a lot of noise from various quarters that we should consider ISIS a world strategic threat that merits a ground invasion. Obama, by contrast, has said that ISIS is being degraded and a ground invasion would be a mistake.

Roy says Obama is not alone in not seeing ISIS as a global strategic threat. In fact, ISIS's neighbors don't consider ISIS to be a strategic threat for the Middle East.

Assad: He views not ISIS, but the other opposition to the Assad regime as his main threat. Russia is now assisting Assad in his fight against that opposition (the opposition that the U.S. supports); so are Iran and Hezbollah. If this non-ISIS opposition can be eliminated, "That would allow [Assad] to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people." Assad doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Turkish Government: They see not ISIS as their main strategic threat, but rather a greater Kurdistan that would occupy eastern portions of Turkey. "[A] victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey." Turkey doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

The Kurds: Their priority is to defend their new found borders, not to crush ISIS. "They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands." The Kurds are opposed to a strong central government in Baghdad, which might curb their new found de facto independence. The existence of ISIS prevents the formation of a strong central government in Baghdad. The Kurds don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iraqi Shiites: Despite American pressure, they are not keen to die to re-take Fallujah (in the Sunni area northwest of Baghdad. "They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it." Iraqi Shiites don't necessarily need to have ISIS gone now.

Saudi Arabia: They support ISIS; they oppose Iran: "the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran." The Saudis don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iran: Iran wants to "contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it." The existence of ISIS "prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein." Iran doesn't really want ISIS gone now.

Israel: They "can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause." Israel doesn't need to have ISIS gone now.

"In short," says Roy, "no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS."

ISIS: And ISIS has reached the limits of its ability to expand. They are not in fact a growing strategic threat. They are not a state in any regular sense. It claims no specific territory or boundaries. There are no more areas for them to expand into because they are bounded by the Alawite state, supported by Russian and Iran to the West, by the Kurds to the North, Shiite Iraq to the East. And to the south, "neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS."

ISIS is turning to terror (e.g. the Russian airliner in Sinai; Beirut; and Paris) precicesly because it is stalled. That's what Obama has said. But by turning to terror, it is causing the world, including Muslims in Europe, to be revulsed and turn away from it. In short, implies Roy, ISIS is not a world, strategic threat. Obama seems to be correct in his judgment.
The trouble is ISIS is not likely to disappear in the near future. A coordinated effort by regional forces seems unlikely, given the different interests outlined above. A NATO lead troop invasion is unlikely because such an effort would be "likely to get mired down in endless local conflicts." [Indeed, why should anyone expect the aftermath of such an invasion to be more successful than Iraq??]

It looks like Obama, and Hillary Clinton are on the right track. Obama has been saying, essentially what Roy says--i.e. that sending troops will mire us in endless local conflicts and not bring solution.
Here is the text to Clinton's speech, yesterday (November 19, 2015). She is more hawkish than Obama in supporting a no-fly zone over Northern Syria, but otherwise cautious. See THIS NYT editorial.

As usual, in this part of the world, Roger Cohen is beating the war drums. He gives no hint that he has thought about or understands the subtleties discussed by Roy. He gives no basis for assurance that a ground invasion to "crush ISIS" ("with overwhelming force" as Jeb Bush suggests) would not draw us into endless local conflict. He provides no reason for confidence that it would reduce the threat of terrorism in the U.S. or Europe.

Interestingly, David Brooks is on board with Hillary. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"The Myth of the Cultural Jew?"

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall
The Myth of the Cultural Jew—
Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition
Oxford University Press, 2015
297 pp. 

This summer I covered a symposium at Balkanization about this book. I summarized what several law professors had to say about it HERE. Since then I have done a close reading of the book and provide this review. I recommend it highly. 


Today, a majority of Jews are secular: they reject the notion that Jewish identity is founded on a covenant with God at Sinai, or that Jewish law is binding on them, or even relevant. For many Jews in Israel the state forms the sole content of their Jewish identity, and for many American Jews, according to a Pew Research study in 2013, Jewish identity revolves more around remembrance of the Holocaust, being intellectually curious, having a good sense of humor, and caring about the state of Israel, than about observance of Jewish law or being part of a Jewish community. Where, then, do we look for meaning in this cultural Judaism and what is the meaning that will get passed on to future generations? 

Judaism has sustained itself for 2,000 years of diaspora with the belief that God commanded the Jews to preserve their particularity as a “nation apart” (a nation even without land or sovereignty) and gave them Jewish law (halakhah) as a path to follow in this endeavor. Can cultural Judaism sustain this particularity without reference to halakhah? This forms the central question in Roberta Kwall’s rich and rewarding new book “The Myth of the Cultural Jew.”

Description of the Book

Roberta Kwall has written a scholarly work, detailed and annotated with copious footnotes. But the book is very accessible and invaluable to anyone interested in the issues of concern to Judaism today.

She explains the processes by which halakhah is kept relevant and fresh in light of changing cultural values over the centuries. She vividly explains how culture and law interact in any legal system, and how, even in an orthodox world, Jewish law is no exception. Along the way, she delves into questions like who is a Jew, what is a Jew, what is the meaning and role of Israel for Judaism.

You’ll find a clear and succinct history of the main movements that have shaped Judaism since the Enlightenment (e.g. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Social orthodoxy, etc.).

Kwall’s cultural analysis of Jewish law explains how halakhah affects Jewish culture from the top-down (Rabbis to laity) and how culture affects halakhah in a reciprocal bottom-up process (laity to the Rabbis). With great focus and clarity she illustrates how this process works in the three main strands of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Along the way, we learn about Bar Mitzvah’s, wedding ceremonies, death rituals, dietary laws, defining who is a Jew, Sabbath laws, and how the different movements have treated the issue of homosexuality, same sex marriage, and much more.

The example of how the different movements have treated homosexuality is instructive. The keepers of the law in each of the movements (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) have responded to the cultural change in how we view homosexuality: the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in the case of Reform Judaism in the U.S.; the Rabbinic Council of America (RAB) in the case of orthodox Judaism; and the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in the case of Conservative Judaism. Indeed, a key difference between different strands of Judaism lies in how easily they can respond and modify halakhah in response to cultural pressures.

In each case these keepers of the law grounded their reasoning (their official stance towards homosexuality) on halakhah. In taking their stance on the great issues of the day—such as same sex marriage—each of these movements falls back on halakhah because it’s the only way they can be authentically Jewish.

[UPDATE: Roberta Kwall has written to me to indicate that she feels I overstate how much CCAR has grounded its position in halakhah. She says that although the Reform movement may cite to halakhic authority in its responsa, "that is different from working through the primary sources to reach a halkahic decision."  She directs us to the first paragraph on p. 188 of her book.  Do read her book]

Kwall worries about coalescence. By not attending diligently to halakhah, Jews naturally draw on values external to the tradition, and by doing so their Judaism becomes inauthentic.

Here is Kwall at p. 276:
Jewish and American values have become so blended that even knowledgeable American Jews no longer recognize the distinct origins of these value systems. (citation omitted) From a cultural analysis standpoint, the particular danger “coalescence” presents for Jewish survival is that this blended jewish american perspective will result in the eradication of Jewish particularity for a large number of American Jews who may not even realize this is happening.
A cultural Judaism not grounded in halakhah will soon lose its bearings and vitality, argues Kwall. Cultural Judaism is a myth, she says, because in order to access what is authentically Jewish in the culture, Jews must engage with halakhah because that is where Jewish meaning comes from, how Jewish meaning evolves, and how Jewish meaning is transmitted.

What About Personal Observance?

[UPDATE 2: What follows are issues that I believe are raised by this book--the views expressed here are mine. Read this excellent book and see if you agree with me]

Being attentive to halakhah, however, does not mean that cultural Jews must observe halakhah, or that they must prefer halakhah over secular values. There is a difference in individuals being knowledgeable about the tradition versus accepting halakhah as a personal obligation; and there is a difference between the keepers of the law working within the strict confines of halakhah, and individuals participating in cultural Judaism.

A 2013 Pew research study found that 62% of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly about ancestry and culture. Sixty-eight percent stated that being Jewish does not require a belief in God. Without belief in God, it is hard to conceive of observance of halakhah as anything other than personal choice.

It seems plain in our post-Enlightenment world that religion does not have a sufficient hold on us to compel halakhically observant lives from a majority.

Here Kwall writes on page 87:
Enlightenment thinkers wanted to replace religious obligations with individual autonomy, religious law and ritual with rational thought and particularistic interests with universalistic concerns. … These Enlightenment ideologies did not sit comfortably with the medieval Talmudic culture that resisted the norms of equality and personal autonomy.
And, of course, that battle for autonomy and recognition of universal human values, like equality, and respect for rational thought has been won. For us in the United States, the Enlightenment is here to stay. The Enlightenment is not a myth.

So what of those Jews who relate to the culture and tradition of Judaism but don’t find halakhah personally binding? Are they not Jews? That is the unfriendly question that lurks in the background of the title of this book.

Kwall believes that halakhah is binding on all Jews. Does she thus deny the individual autonomy, rational thought, and universal values that are the legacy of the Enlightenment? I presume not, but her book does not confront that issue except obliquely though its title.

Here’s what I think. There will always be a minority of Jews, most prominently among the Orthodox, who consider halakhah as a personal obligation imposed by God. The Orthodox will not be disappearing any time soon. They will continue to progress halakhah within that tradition as Kwall so well explains, and they will continue to have a majority of adherents who uphold the practice of halakhah.

The Conservative movement, which also considers halakhah binding, but subject to human influence, will continue to update halakhah in its own, more liberal manner, also as Kwall so well illustrates. They will continue to suffer from the dissonance that comes from teaching halakhah as binding, but having few members who observe halakhah in the manner that the Shulhan Arukh envisions.

The Reform movement, too, will continue to issue responsa on questions of the day based on their analysis of halakhah—even though they don’t consider halakhah to be legally binding on individuals as such.

As for the 68% of American cultural Jews who don’t believe that being Jewish requires a belief in God, they will continue to consider themselves cultural Jews, the title of Kwall’s book notwithstanding. They will participate in Jewish culture, and they will study halakhah in order to deepen their appreciation and understanding of this tradition as they see fit.

In the final analysis, the lesson that Kwall’s The Myth of the Cultural Jew teaches us, may not be that we can’t be cultural Jews, but that it’s all culture: the myth is that Jewish culture can be separated from Jewish law when Jewish culture is suffused with halakhah—always has and always will be. And therefore, if we are interested in Judaism, we will do well to pay attention to halakhah, whether we feel bound by it or not.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fighting Daesh: From Paris to Raqqa.

Place de La Republique, November 14, 2015 (AP/Christophe Ena)
World leaders are having a hard time coming together on a strategy for ending the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, so horribly spilling over into Paris this weekend. For now, the watchword surely has to be "no stupid stuff!"

Diane Feinstein says we must do more.  The Daily Beast reports speaking with a brusque talking anonymous ex-CIA person who is agitating for an assemblage of 6,000 to 7,000 special operations troops to invade and take Raqqa, the quasi capital of Daesh. But American spokespersons say Obama remains staunchly opposed to an American ground war in Syria.

Today French planes have dropped 20 bombs on Raqqa.

Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley sounded anemic on how to bring the fight to ISIS in their debate Saturday night. Clinton was clear enough: "(ISIS) cannot be contained; it must be defeated," she said, adding "but this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential."  She did not sound compelling.

Max Fisher summed up his disappointment in a tweet during the debate Saturday night:
I share the sentiment, although I can understand the reticence of candidates to commit too boldly on an issue where it is devilishly hard to be certain about what to do. The fact that this contains great potential for providing a campaign soundbite to the opposition does not help. Still, Hillary will have to do better in the general election.

In Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a joint news conference suggesting that they are working on joint targeting of Daesh. The plan they are working on is reported (NYT) to be based on a Russian proposal that envisions negotiations involving Bashar Al Assad and opposition forces, starting in January.

In the meantime Peter Beinart reports that Republican candidates Rubio and Cruz are apparently not troubled by the concern about adverse soundbites. Rubio is referring to a "clash of civilizations," suggesting an all out war with all of Islam, and Cruz is suggesting only Christians be allowed to enter as refugees.Vox has tallied all of the Republican candidate responses.

God preserve us from the Republicans; but remember that God helps those who vote.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's Remembrance Day: Fuck you to Hell John McCrae

It's Veteran's Day in the States, an official national holiday, but ignored by most employers. It honors everyone who served in the armed forces, from potato peelers to four star generals, whether they served in war, or not. It's not to be confused with Memorial Day (last weekend in May) which honors the fallen.

But I'm visiting my mother in Vancouver. Up here, November 11 is Remembrance Day. It's a real holiday. People are taking the day off and are out in restaurants and in the parks with Poppies on their lapels, honoring their war dead. It's their Memorial Day. Above all it's the anniversary of "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" that signaled the cessation of hostilities in World War I.

Canada was struck particularly hard in what they call The Great War. Great in what way? we ask. "The War to End All Wars," they said. "There is no such war!" we fear from bitter experience.

Canada, as a dominion of Great Britain in 1914, was automatically at war when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Nevertheless, the manner of Canada's response was left to the Canadian government. Canadians responded with gusto. Unemployed workers flocked to enlist in response to war hysteria in 1914-1915.

From the Canadian encyclopedia: 
By the end of 1914 the target for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was 50,000; by summer 1915 it was 150,000. During a visit to England that summer, Prime Minister Borden was shocked with the magnitude of the struggle. To demonstrate Canadian commitment to the war effort, Borden used his 1916 New Year's message to pledge 500,000 soldiers from a Canadian population of barely 8-million. By then volunteering had virtually run dry.... The total, 330,000, was impressive but insufficient.
Residents of Quebec largely refused to participate. In response, Borden instituted a national registration system in 1916, and on May 18, 1917 he announced a program of conscription.

Ultimately, from a total population of less than 8 million, 619,636 were enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these 424,000 were shipped to Europe, 52,000 were killed in action, and 172,000 were wounded. Thirty-six percent of Canadians who served were killed or wounded in action, nearly three percent of the population.

Canadiens patriotically wear poppies and say "Lest we forget" to honor the dead. But why poppies?

John McCrae (1872-1918) is the reason Canadians wear these poppies. He was a physician, professor of medicine, and army officer in the Canadian armed forces. When war broke out in 1914 he was appointed brigade surgeon. He died of pneumonia late in the war. His poem "In Flanders Fields" was published anonymously in Punch on December 18, 1915. 
In Flanders Fields 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.  
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.  
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poem became a sensation. McCrae said he "was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay." And to this day we wear poppies in his honor... and for his poem.

McCrae was no pacifist. When pulled away from a beloved artillery assignment, he reportedly said: "all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men."

Well, Fuck you to hell, John McCrae. I curse your lines:  "The larks still bravely singing, fly... take up our quarrel... the torch be yours to hold it high." If you should stop to fight, stop to kill and maime and gas,  implies McCrae "we (the dead) shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields."

So I wear that poppy in grief to honor the sacrifice of 52,000 Canadiens. But it's November and it's usually raining. And when I remember that soldiers heeded John McCrae, and maimed and killed, and gassed, and carried the torch he urged them to carry for three more years; and when I remember that soon thereafter, others took up that torch in World War 2, the Chinese revolution, Korea, and Vietnam... I thoughtfully remove that poppy and toss it in the mud.... and I stomp on it to exorcise John McCrae and his ilk.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Monday, November 9, 2015

Ferguson to Mizzou: A Better Kind of Politics

Jonathan L. Butler
It's been 15 months since a white police officer shot unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The town of Ferguson, with a 2/3 majority black population, was ruled by an almost all-white power structure.  The St. Louis county prosecutor controversially decided not to indict. That shooting and its aftermath was full of ugly politics.

Two hours due west of St. Louis, black students at the University of Missouri have been complaining about several incidents of racism on campus this term. The worst was a swastika drawn with feces on a white wall. Students felt the administration, led by UM system president, Tim Wolfe, did not adequately respond to combat a racism issue on campus that had become toxic.

A black graduate student, Jonathan L. Butler, started a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until President Wolfe resigned. The football team backed him up! More than 30 football players on the varsity team banded together and announced they would not practice or play until Butler's demand was met. They had the support of teammates, including white teammates, and the coaching staff.

Mizzou is a Division I school. They play in the Southeastern Conference (currently in 6th place). If the school missed its next game on November 14, 2015 against Brigham Young, the school would stand to lose in excess of $1 million.

Today President Wolfe resigned. The University Chancellor followed suit. It would have been interesting to watch the discussions behind the scenes. Bottom line: one graduate student and 30 football players managed to force the resignation of the president and chancellor of a major university system in less than a week. It's truly remarkable. It's full of glorious politics.

Score one for the underdogs.... even though Mizzou is currently favored to win over BYU on 11/14. It's a game I'd like to see.

Friday, November 6, 2015

David Foster Wallace: One from the Vault

It's Friday night. I just pulled a brisket out of the oven, and friends are on the way over with wine. After dinner we're going to watch "The End of the Tour" about David Foster Wallace. So in preparation, I thought I'd re-read my post on a great commencement speech Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon college ten years ago.

Here it is: One from the Vault

Bobbi's out of town, which means the diet turns all bread, butter, and jam, and I get to surf the Internet. This has lead me to You Tube clips of Christopher Hitchens entertainingly painting all religion black, and vile, and stupid, and evil. Which raises the question, what's left of a professional contrarian debater and polemicist after he's gone?

The unsatisfying part of listening to Hitchens parading on the atheist speaker circuit is that his fire-power overwhelms opponents and it's hard to see what the dialogue might be. The problem with polemics in general, of course, is that a debate is never really joined. There is no dialogue or discussion, no real consideration of The Other. Witness our political debates. Peacocks on parade. What's missing is any considered evaluation of what's truly best for the country.

Hitchens would say we should throw out religion and look to Shakespeare instead. The polemical narrow-minded part of him refuses to grant that one can, and most do, also take religion and all of its traditions and approach them in the same way: not literally, but literarily. Hitchens throws up the most literal and extreme interpretation of any religious tradition and says, "Here, this is what you must believe" if you claim to be part of this tradition. Among all the patsies that are thrown up against Hitchens on his militant atheist speaking tours none manage to explain this satisfactorily, or to hold their own. One problem for the religious set is that they are reluctant to concede that religion is a man made tradition, and that it's not metaphysics they are speaking of. Hitchens takes full advantage.

David Foster Wallace has the antidote. I first heard of Foster Wallace in the first chapter of "All Things Shining," by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, professors of philosophy at UC Berkeley and Harvard. The book is a version of a 5-Great-Books course (the Bible to Moby Dick) that Dreyfus has been teaching at U.C. Berkeley for years. Kelly gussied this up for the popular market by including, among other things, a discussion of nihilism through Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." (O.K., what were they thinking, really!) I still haven't read Infinite Jest, but it's on the list, if not at the top.

The temperament of David Foster Wallace runs to humility, almost the opposite of Hitchens's hubris. The essayist, author, philosopher, and teacher died of suicide in 2008. But, like Hitchens, he survives on You Tube. I love watching him answer questions in interviews because he genuinely tries to grapple with truth. Check out his interviews with Charlie Rose.

In 2005 Wallace gave a great commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College, "This is Water." It's as good a response to Hitchens as you'll likely run across. Everybody worships, says Wallace.

The Parable of Belief

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
Where do these different interpretations come from, asks Wallace.
[W]here they come from [is] INSIDE the two guys. ... [H]ow we construct meaning [... is] a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Wallace goes on to speak of busy lives, work stresses, lack of time, and running into obstacles at the grocery store, in the parking lot, and on the highway trying to get home, and how aggravating, and annoying, and interfering other people can be as we go about this. And how do we perceive this?
[M]y natural default setting is the certainty that [the world is] really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. ....
You get the idea. ....The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. .... [M]ost days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship. ... [I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: "This is water."
This is an answer to Hitchens.

Go listen to Wallace. in full. He's great.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Full Trans-Pacific Partnership Text is Released graphic

This morning the full text of the the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was released by the U.S. and other countries. The TPP is a multilateral free trade agreement between the United states and eleven other countries: Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Singapore. The agreement was made in Atalanta a month ago and has been under intense legal review by each of the parties. There are 30 chapters and more than 2,000 pages. The text can be found here.

Congress will now have 90 days to review the agreement. Under fast-track rules ("Trade promotion authority") signed into law this past summer, Congress will have an up or down vote within 90 days after President Obama announces his "intent to sign." Congress can not submit amendments.

Here is the preamble to the statement of "benefits" prepared by the U.S. Trade Representative:
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) ... levels the playing field for American workers and American businesses, supporting (sic) more Made-in-America exports and higher-paying American jobs. By eliminating over 18,000 taxes—in the form of tariffs— that various countries put on Made-in-America products, TPP makes sure our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and small businesses can compete—and win—in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world. With more than 95 percent of the world’s consumers living outside our borders, TPP will significantly expand the export of Made-in-America goods and services and support American jobs.
Back in July, Peter Gosselin (Bloomberg News) wrote that "Some of the chief beneficiaries may be big drug companies like Novartis AG, Roche Holding AG, and Pfizer Inc." This is by design, because the administration's trade negotiators were bound by Congressional instructions "to try to get as much current U.S. law as possible into trade accords -- including stringent protections for patented drugs that it’s repeatedly tried to ease at home to encourage more cost-saving generics."

The fight over drug rules reflects the complexities involved in a new generation of trade deals. Traditionally, such accords focused on removing tariffs and other barriers to the flow of goods across borders. Increasingly however, pacts aim at the bigger target of syncing up countries’ laws and rules.  Advocates argue that such “regulatory harmonization” can improve the global economy by relieving companies of the cost of complying with inconsistent regulations in different countries. Yet as the bargaining over the drug provisions for the Pacific Rim deal illustrates, the effort is fraught with potential for clashes between a country’s domestic and trade goals, and the needs of developed and developing countries.
Here is Brad DeLong in conversation with Scott Gosnel at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Gosnel asked DeLong what he thought of the TPP back in June.

Brad DeLong:
The actual deal seems to have a set of important tariff reductions and export-import restraint reductions. That is worth $4 trillion to the people of the Pacific basin over its expected lifetime. But it is also worth -$1 trillion to people–like the people of Bangladesh–who are left out, who are excluded from things like the textile market access provisions.
Normally I would say: adding up a +$4 trillion for some people and a -$1 trillion loss for other people–that looks like a winner. Except that the people outside–the people in Bangladesh–are poorer on average than the people inside. Bangladesh is a lot poorer than even Vietnam right now. And so the utilitarian calculus tells us that even the trade part is not nailed down. The longer it goes without pro-TPP people doing the work to nail down the utilitarian calculus of the trade benefits, the more antsy I get.

My first instinct would be to say: $4 trillion – $1 trillion = +$3 trillion. There is a $3 trillion bill lying on the sidewalk in this thing. We should pick it up and utilize it. We can figure out how to redistribute it later. But the important thing is to pick it up. So my first instinct is to say that I am for the “trade” part–100% in favor. But the fact that the distributional argument has not been made drops me down to 75%.
Then there is the dispute resolution aspect. The dispute resolution aspect worries me a lot. I don’t understand it. The case for it–arguing that this is a good thing–has also not been made. And, as best I can tell, once this dispute resolution framework is set up it is then next to impossible to modify. We may be doing the equivalent of what the European Union did in setting up the European Central Bank: creating institutions without having any reasonable means of changing its modes of operation should they be wrong. 
I think Europe has suffered significantly over the past eight years because the European Central Bank is not subject to enough political control. I fear this is what we are getting into with the dispute resolution mechanism. That drops me from +75% down the +25%. 
Then there are the intellectual property provisions. I tend to think we should be, on balance, loosening intellectual property protection in the world rather than tightening them. That drops me from +25% to -25%. 
So at the moment I am slightly opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I am in favor of passing fast-track, so Obama can actually finished negotiating it. Then we can look at it. But if what he negotiates turns out to be what I expect he will negotiate, I will wind up being opposed then on the final vote. Unless, that is, someone can convince me that the intellectual property protections are not as bad as I fear, or that setting the dispute resolution mechanisms in stone is not as dumb-ass a move as I fear.
We will be hearing a lot more analysis (not to mention loud partisan rhetoric) on this over the next three months. The TPP will likely become featured in the Presidential primaries to be held in the first half of next year.

Stay tuned.... 

You can follow me on twitter @RolandNikles

Monday, November 2, 2015

Martin Buber on Zionism

Martin Buber as a young man

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Buber was recruited by … Herzl to edit the main paper of the Zionist party, Die Welt. He soon found a more congenial home in the “democratic faction” of “cultural Zionists” led by Chaim Weizmann, then living in Zurich. …[H]e never ceased to write and speak about what he understood to be the distinctive Jewish brand of nationalism. …He … search(ed) for psychologically sound foundations on which to heal the rift between modern realpolitik and a distinctively Jewish theological-political tradition. 
Very much in keeping with the nineteenth-century Protestant yearning for a Christian foundation of the nation-state, Buber sought a healing source in the integrating powers of religious experience. …[H]e … began publishing the journal Der Jude, which served as an open forum of exchange on any issues related to cultural and political Zionism. 
In 1921 Buber attended the Zionist Congress in Carlsbad as a delegate of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair (“the young guard”). In the debates that followed the first anti-Zionist riots in Palestine, Buber joined the Brit Shalom, which argued for peaceful means of resistance. During the Arab revolt of 1936–39, when the British government imposed quotas on immigration to Palestine, Buber argued for demographic parity rather than trying to achieve a Jewish majority. Finally, in the wake of the Biltmore Conference, Buber (as a member of Ihud) argued for a bi-national rather than a Jewish state in Palestine. At any of these stages Buber harbored no illusion about the chances of his political views to sway the majority but he believed that it was important to articulate the moral truth as one saw it. Needless to say, this politics of authenticity made him few friends among the members of the Zionist establishment.

At the theoretical core of the Zionism advanced by Buber was a conception of Jewish identity being neither a religious nor a national form, but a unique hybrid. From early on, Buber rejected any state-form for the Jewish people in Palestine. This was clear already in a widely-noted 1916 exchange of letters with the liberal philosopher Hermann Cohen. Cohen rejected Zionism as incommensurate with the Jewish mission of living as a religious minority with the task of maintaining the idea of messianism that he saw as a motor of social and political reform within society at large. In contrast, Buber embraced Zionism as the self-expression of a particular Jewish collective that could be realized only in its own land, on its soil, and in its language. 
The modern state, its means and symbols, however, were not genuinely connected to this vision of a Jewish renaissance. While in the writings of the early war years, Buber had characterized the Jews as an oriental type in perpetual motion, in his later writings the Jews represent no type at all. Neither nation nor creed, they uncannily combine what he called national and spiritual elements. In his letter to Ghandi, Buber insisted on the spatial orientation of Jewish existence and defended the Zionist cause against the critic who saw in it only a form of colonialism. 
For Buber, space was a necessary but insufficient material condition for the creation of culture based on dialogue. A Gesamtkunstwerk in its own right, the Zionist project was to epitomize the life of dialogue by drawing the two resident nations of Palestine into a perfectible common space free from mutual domination.
You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

The State of Zionism Ninety-Eight Years after the Balfour Declaration

On November 2, 1917 British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour wrote his famous letter to the Zionist Organization that "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Thirty years on, on November 29, 1947, after the further immigration of approximately 500,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine and civil unrest made Palestine too hot a potato for the British to handle, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181(II), which recommended the creation of two separate states in Palestine, a Jewish state in areas where Jewish settlers predominated, and an Arab state where Palestinian Arabs predominated. The plan contemplated a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem. 

Sixty-eight years on, Israel has been established as a strong and independent state, but the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine are greatly prejudiced, and no separate Palestinian state has been established. 

Responses to UN 181(II)

Jewish leaders generally reacted favorably to the UN resolution granting them statehood, even if many considered the borders as drawn by the UN simply as a starting point for the subsequent expansion of borders by the Jewish state.  See, generally the Wiki entry HERE. Partition of the land was rejected by Arab leaders and governments.

In the resulting war of independence Israel was indeed able to expand the borders of its nascent state considerably. Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria in the first half of 1949. At the war's conclusion, fewer than 200,000 Palestinians remained inside the Green Line (the 1949 cease fire line). These were granted Israeli citizenship; all Jewish settlements that had been located in the West Bank prior to 1948 were driven off, leaving no Jews living in the West Bank.

The Wiki entry on the war of independence notes that just prior to signing the armistice agreement with Jordan, Israeli general Yigal Allon "proposed to conquer the West Bank up to the Jordan River as the natural, defensible border of the state." David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, refused Allon's request. "Although he was aware that the IDF was militarily strong enough to carry out the conquest, ... Ben-Gurion feared the reaction of Western powers and wanted to maintain good relations with the United States and not to provoke the British." He also felt that the results of the war were sufficient to build a nation.

To this day, Israel has not declared what its borders are.

After the war of independence, Jordan annexed the West Bank and Gaza was placed under Egyptian military rule. This resulted in a short lived de facto division of the land. Israel had its state and a strong Jewish majority population.

The Six Day War and the Resulting Occupation

In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel followed up on what Yigal Allon wanted to do in 1949: Israel reversed the initial division of the land and occupied the West Bank, the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights, as well as the Sinai desert.

After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and returned the Sinai to Egypt.  In 1994 Israel and Jordan executed a peace treaty wherein Jordan relinquished its claim to the West Bank in favor of the PLO.

As Nathan Thrall describes in a comprehensive article in the London Review of Books [November 5, 2015], at this time Israel is no longer threatened by the Arab nations on its periphery. Israel has made peace with them (Egypt and Jordan), is cooperating with them (e.g. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, U.A.E.), or their power has faded away (e.g. Syria and Iraq). At the same time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has been rendered powerless. The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is cooperating with Israel, and Hamas is divided and politically powerless. No force exists to compel Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.

What's left is the Palestinian people.

The occupation and Israel's control over Gaza leaves 4.2 million Palestinians living in Israel/Palestine without a state of their own, without civil rights, or effective political leadership. This disenfranchised minority lives under harsh military rule, subject to arbitrary arrest and administrative detention, without due process of law, and it suffers from intolerable levels of unemployment and poverty. Unemployment in Gaza exceeds 45%; unemployment in the West Bank is in excess of 23%.

The Demographic needs of a "Jewish State" Reprised

Israel wants to be a "Jewish state" ... and democratic. This can only happen if Israel enjoys a significant Jewish majority in its population. Israel achieved this in 1949.  Today, within the Green Line, there is the foundation for a "Jewish state" because Israel has a predominantly Jewish demographic (75%) within the Green Line. In Gaza and the West Bank, however, there is a strong Arab majority (83% in the West Bank; 100% in Gaza). If we include the population in the occupied territories, Israel does not have a decisive Jewish majority population.

Through 48 years of occupation, since the Six Day War, Israel has not found the will and skill to share the land (in the sense of two states living side-by-side). Settlements have undermined the search for a Two State Solution. Almost immediately after the Six Day War, Israel began a settlement process in the West Bank, and this process greatly accelerated after 1980. Today there are more than 223 Jewish settlements and more than 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, plus an additional 350,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem (annexed by Israel after 1967). In 2014, housing minister Uri Ariel predicted that in another five years the Jewish population in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) will be 550,000 to 600,000. The movement for continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank is messianic and fervent and has enjoyed the support of every Israeli government since the 1970's.

When Israel annexed East Jerusalem it did not grant citizenship to the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, undermining its democratic bona fides. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem may vote in municipal elections, but they are not allowed to vote in national elections. Palestinians make up approximately 37% of Jerusalem's population, but this segment of the population is allocated less than 15% of the municipal budgetary expenditures.

It is illegal under International law for a nation to send its civilians to settle occupied territory captured in war, as Israel has done. [The 4th Geneva convention, to which Israel is a signatory, states: "The Occupying Power shall not transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies"]  Some argue on behalf of Israel that the West Bank is not "occupied" territory, but rather disputed territory whose status has never been determined--and hence settlement in the occupied territory is not illegal.  But this argument implies a claim that the West Bank is really part of Israel. However, to date, Israel has neither annexed the land, nor granted citizenship to the Palestinians living there. And, of course, the moment Israel annexes the West Bank it loses the strong democratic majority required to maintain a "Jewish state." Conversely, insofar as Israel has failed to grant full and equal citizenship to Palestinians living in all annexed lands, Israel is losing any claim to be "democratic."

The settlement process has undermined Israel's status as a democratic nation.  Forty-eight years of military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is hard to square with "democracy." At the present time, Israel is a Jewish ethnocracy: it has a government by Jews, for Jews, defended by a Jewish army, police, and security forces. It leaves the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the antechamber of democracy and the Palestinians in the occupied territories out in the cold.

Israel needs a Two-State Solution to Exist as a Jewish and Democratic State

The fact that it appears these settlements cannot be undone (politically) leads many observers to conclude that a two state solution--dividing the land and forming two sovereign states--is no longer possible, and that Israel is doomed to be an ethnocratic state that will loose more and more legitimacy in the eyes of the world as the years pass. Yet politicians continue to insist that two states is the only viable solution.

Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine, said this back in June:
Ironically, however, it is precisely the death of the two-state solution that may turn out to be its revival. Israeli leaders seem to be betting that the status quo of military control in the West Bank can persist indefinitely, but they are likely to be proved mistaken. Younger Palestinians who have lost faith in a negotiated two-state settlement to the conflict are likely to start pushing for their rights inside a single, binational state instead. And as these demands for civil liberties and voting rights escalate and gain international backing, many Israeli leaders may come to realize that however scared they are of a two-state solution, a one-state solution could be even worse. And so they could well end up moving to set up a separate Palestinian state after all.
In light of the ongoing "knife intifada" they were prescient.

What We Know Now

Today three truths stand out:  (1) neither Jews nor Palestinians are going anywhere; (2) the occupation must end, and (3) somehow, Palestinians must become politically enfranchised.

Nobody is Going Anywhere

Although, as Noam Sheizaf says, "there has never been any formal Israeli recognition of historical Palestinian ties to the land" and many in Israel's right wing hold to the belief that Palestinians are mere guests in the land (even while Hamas continues to entertain the parallel fantasy of establishing an Islamic state in all of the land between the Jordan River and the sea and obliterating the Jewish state) it is clear that neither Palestinians nor the Jewish state are going anywhere. They have no choice but to find a way to get along. 

There cannot be a Jewish state in all of the land between the river and sea, with Jewish dominion over all, any more than there can be a Palestinian Islamic state in all of the land between the river and the sea. 

The Occupation Must End

It should go without saying that ongoing occupation and peace are incompatible. No one can have any expectation of peace with a Palestinian society that lives in poverty under the arbitrary rule of 19-year-olds armed with machine guns, tear gas, and the unchecked power to arrest and indefinitely detain Palestinians. Indeed, that is why Netanyahu states Israel is doomed to perpetual strife. It follows from the fact that he has no intention to end the occupation, no intention to facilitate a separate Palestinian state, nor to forge some type of binational state: and so he is committed to perpetual conflict.

What keeps the occupation going? One reason is that the relative peace and quiet in recent years, enforced in part by the Palestinian authority, has led Israelis to believe they can enjoy peace and prosperity without ending the occupation.  A second reason is that the occupation is necessary for continued expansion of settlements; to appropriate land, and to provide protection to settlers. A third reason is an erroneous perception that the occupation is needed to protect Israelis against Palestinian aggression. These are all illusions. The occupation must end in order to build the conditions for peace.

Yehuda Shaul was a soldier serving in Hebron:
We are told that ... we need to apply even more force. The Israeli army is doing precisely that in Hebron every day, at every hour. During the Second Intifada, settlers called upon Israelis to “let the IDF win,” by putting security first. In Hebron, the IDF has indeed won. So how is it that ... during every ... period of escalation, the threats to Israeli soldiers and civilians in the city have only multiplied? ... The answer is simple. What we are enforcing in Hebron is not Israel’s security, but rather Israeli settlement and domination. And that has a price.
The soldiers ... conscripted to protect Israel ...  (have) managed to crush Palestinian life in the city over the last 20 years, without providing genuine security for either Israelis or Palestinians. 
Hebron is the microcosm of the military’s system of control throughout the entire West Bank. The lessons we are learning in the city can and must be applied to the entire system. Prolonged military control over Palestinians will not bring security, but rather perennial cycles of violence. More forceful “security” won’t change a thing.
We aren’t the only ones to blame in this story but we are the stronger side, and we have a choice. We may either continue to enforce this policy of “security” and the violent routine that accompanies it, or try a different approach, working toward ending the occupation and militarily control of the territories. If there is hope for genuine security in our region, that is where it can be found.

The Status of Settlements

UN Resolution 242 is based on a faulty idea of swapping land for peace. If Palestinians deliver peace, Israel might (... in theory) agree to return occupied land, as they did with Sinai... they say. "We can't do it unilaterally," say Israelis, "because look what happened when we abandoned Gaza?" They mean when Sharon decided to remove all settlements from Gaza and for the army to disengage from Gaza in 2005, this did not result in peace. Hamas continued to launch thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza, which resulted in three Gaza wars, most recently in the summer of 2014.

But this argument ignores the fact that Israel has turned Gaza into an open air prison.  It ignores the fact that after Israel withdrew from Gaza it closed its borders and did not allow Palestinians to bring their crops to market. It ignores that Israel has placed a choke hold on Gaza, resulting in world leading levels of unemployment and poverty. Israel must build the conditions for peace. The conditions for peace require Israel to ease up and slowly eliminate the occupation; it requires that Israel permits the economy of Gaza and the West Bank to improve, and slowly flourish. It requires gradual reintegration of the societies, not further separation. 

Some of my friends say “Why shouldn’t Jews be able to settle and live in the West Bank, after all there are Palestinians living in Israel?” and that is a reasonable position. I’d say, “no reason.” But this implies that Jews and Palestinians can/must live together in peace, side by side. They live together side by side in peace in Bat Yam, Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, and Nazareth—so why not in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, Jericho, and Jenin? It can't happen under occupation.

The idea that Jews and Palestinians can get along in peace is the correct premise and the parties should proceed by reintegrating, not separating and building higher and more walls. Fences don't provide security. They create estrangement, they foster the objectification of the unknown "other," and they allow hate and prejudice to fester. Tearing down walls creates connections, knowledge and understanding of the "other;" it leads to more empathy and less hate.

Rejecting the premise that Jews and Palestinians can live in peace side-by-side is demonstrably false because Jews and Palestinians do live in peace side-by-side in Bat Yam, Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, and Nazareth. It is belied by the fact that, despite all, most Palestinian Israeli's are loyal subjects of the state.

People who argue for separation and occupation as a security measure, should recognize that this implies Israel should give up the West Bank settlements. Occupation for the sole purpose of building and protecting Jewish only settlement activity in the West Bank is a bankrupt idea.

Abbas and the PA accept this division of the land.  I don’t think Hamas does. I don’t think the Palestinians leading the BDS movement accept a division of the land. I don't think the present Israeli government does.

In the meantime..., nobody is going away. When it comes to creating a Palestinian state, or ending the occupation, Israel holds all the cards.