Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Significant UN Resolution On Settlements

Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2334, with a dramatic abstention by the Obama Administration. The resolution called on Palestinian leaders to take “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror,” and refrain from “incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.” Its real target, though, was Israel’s settlement project, which, the resolution sharply claimed, has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

Later in the day on Friday, I spoke to Robert Malley, the special assistant to the President on the National Security Council, the senior adviser for the campaign against isis, and the White House coördinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf. In February, 2011, the Obama Administration vetoed a similar U.N. condemnation of settlements—opposing fourteen other members of the Security Council and a hundred and twenty co-sponsors from the General Assembly. Why abstain now, I asked Malley, and not then? “A real difference is that efforts to advance negotiations were ongoing in 2011,” Malley told me. “We were concerned not to interfere with a process that had some prospect of progressing. That’s not the case since Secretary Kerry’s efforts in 2014. We are at an impasse. There is no prospect of resumption of serious meaningful talks between the sides, so the argument that a U.N. resolution would interfere with negotiations doesn’t hold much water.”

In speaking of an “impasse,” Malley was exercising tact. The most salient change, he went on, is the attitude of the Israeli government toward the construction of settlements, which “has accelerated since the 2011 veto—tens of thousands of units approved, and in different stages of tendering and construction.” Malley pointed to the so-called normalization bill to legalize outposts and settlement units built on private Palestinian land, which is being considered by the Knesset. Such building is currently illegal under Israeli law, and has put the Israeli government at odds with the Supreme Court. “The legislation would represent a sea change,” Malley told me. “The Prime Minister of Israel just stated that his government was more committed to settlements than any in Israeli history. And one of his ministers”—Naftali Bennett, the Education Minister and the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party—“said the era of the two-state solution is over. So the resolution reflects not so much a change in President Obama’s position as in the Israeli government’s.”

Minutes after the resolution passed, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump gave his response. “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” he tweeted. He plans to nominate David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has raised millions of dollars for an Israeli settlement, to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Trump has also promised to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a symbolic endorsement of the Israeli right’s claim to the entire city—although his designated Secretaries of State and Defense may have something to say about provoking allies like Jordan. The Walla news site, generally supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reported last month that Israeli officials are hopeful that General Michael Flynn—Trump’s designated National Security Adviser, who has close ties to Israel’s defense establishment—will work with Congress to rescind the restrictions Obama put on the ten-year, thirty-eight-billion-dollar Israeli aid package that was approved this fall.

But Trump’s power as President, however consequential, cannot cancel the power that other countries have in the conflict, as Netanyahu seemed to acknowledge in the bitterness of his response. On Saturday, an Israeli official told Barak Ravid, of Haaretz, that the resolution “revealed the true face of the Obama Administration”; the next day, the Prime Minister accused the Administration of carrying out an “underhanded, anti-Israel maneuver.” On Monday, Ron Dermer, the Israeli envoy in Washington, told CNN that Israel has proof that the Obama Administration was “behind” the resolution, and would “present this evidence to the new Administration through the appropriate channels.” Malley seemed fatigued by the prospect of having to fend off such charges. “Contrary to the claim made by some Israeli officials, we did not cook up this resolution, we did not chase after it,” he told me. “Secretary Kerry averaged roughly one phone call a week to the Israeli Prime Minister over the last four years—almost four hundred—to plead, to warn, against the path his government was on. Not only did settlement-construction activities continue apace, they were accelerated.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Have Trump's Republicans Become An American Likud?

For any Israeli who lived through the “mahapach,” the electoral “upending” of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin’s Likud party to power, Donald Trump’s victory seems dreadfully familiar. It is not simply that America’s most benighted voters—people from the entitled, stressed majority, people living in what has been euphemistically called the “periphery”—turned a protest vote into an unlikely victory for an extremist leader. It is that this protest seems permanent, aimed not at a party or candidate but at the establishment, while the voters themselves seem so fierce in their resentment that they stand to become a permanent fixture of a rightist bloc. During the Obama Administration, Likud became an ally of the Republicans. Now it seems a model for them.

Many observers believe that Trump’s promises will soon prove hollow; that he cannot bring back coal, or tear up NAFTA, or deport eleven million undocumented workers; that he cannot just cut taxes on the rich and produce four-per-cent growth. The danger, as liberal Israelis have learned, is that his efforts to fulfill these promises will prove good enough. Likud Prime Ministers, beginning with Begin, have used defense budgets, and their command over infrastructure, to shore up some of the least employable Israelis in brazenly discriminatory ways. The settlements have involved the investment of billions of dollars in low-cost public housing; the roads and bridges connecting them to Israel proper and the West Bank barrier have created thousands of semi-skilled jobs. Israeli growth jumped from flat in 1977 to well over five per cent for three of the next four years. The Israeli left, like American Democrats, has assumed that the poorest voters could be appealed to as a class with social-democratic promises. Likud has proved that what anxious voters from the majority want is paternalistic action, and they don’t want the government promising broad measures that seem to advance minorities at their expense.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Free Trade Is Not The Problem

Near the end of his 1817 treatise, “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,” David Ricardo advanced the “law of comparative advantage,” the idea that each country—not to mention the world that countries add up to—would be better off if each specialized in the thing it did most efficiently. Portugal may be more productive than Britain in both clothmaking and winemaking; but if Portugal is comparatively more productive in winemaking than clothmaking, and Britain the other way around, Portugal should make the wine, Britain the cloth, and they should trade freely with one another. The math will work, even if Portuguese weavers will not, at least for a while—and even if each country’s countryside will come to seem less pleasingly variegated. The worker, in the long run, would be compensated, owing to “a fall in the value of the necessaries on which his wages are expended.” Accordingly, Ricardo argued in Parliament for the abolition of Britain’s “corn laws,” tariffs on imported grain, which protected the remnants of the landed aristocracy, along with their rural retainers. Those tariffs were eventually lifted in 1846, a generation after his death; bread got cheaper, and lords got quainter.

The case for free trade, embodied in deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, remains at bottom Ricardo’s. And the long run is still working out pretty much as he assumed. The McKinsey Global Institute, or M.G.I., reported in 2014 that some twenty-six trillion dollars in goods, services, and financial investments crossed borders in 2012, representing about thirty-six percent of global G.D.P. The report, looking country by country, reckoned that burgeoning trade added fifteen to twenty-five per cent to global G.D.P. growth—as much as four hundred and fifty billion dollars. “Countries with a larger number of connections in the global network of flows increase their GDP growth by up to 40 percent more than less connected countries do,” the M.G.I. said.

But the case against free trade seems also to be based on Ricardo’s premises, albeit with heightened compassion for the Portuguese weavers and British wheat farmers. American critics—Bernie Sanders, earnestly; Donald Trump, cannily—argue that trade decimated U.S. manufacturing by forcing American products into competition with countries where wages, labor, and environmental standards are not nearly as strong as those in America, or by ignoring how some countries, especially China, manipulate their currency to encourage exports. Sanders launched his post-primary movement, “Our Revolution,” in late August, with an e-mail to potential donors. The most conspicuous demand to rally the troops was opposition to the T.P.P. “Since 2001, nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants in this country have been shut down,” the e-mail said, “and we have lost almost 5 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs. nafta alone led to the loss of almost three-quarters of a million jobs—the Permanent Normalized Trade Agreement with China cost America four times that number: almost 3 million jobs.” These agreements “are not the only reason” why manufacturing in the United States has declined, the e-mail goes on, but “they are important factors.”

Such evidence for why the T.P.P. should be thrown out is hard to dispute, since the e-mail doesn’t say what jobs were gained because of past deals, or explore what other “factors” may be important. President Obama, the champion of the T.P.P., may grant that certain provisions of the deal might be strengthened in favor of American standards without agreeing with “Our Revolution” on what’s bathwater and what’s baby. What’s clearer is that the anti-trade message is hitting home, especially among the hundred and fifty million Americans, about sixty-one per cent of the adult population, with no post-high-school degree of any kind.

The investor Jeremy Grantham in July wrote an op-ed in Barron’s noting that some ten million net new jobs were created in the U.S. since the lows of 2009 (the actual number being fifteen million), while “a remarkable 99 percent” excluded people without a university degree. That’s a crisis, not of unemployment but of unemployability, which backshadows skepticism about the T.P.P. and trade as a whole. Trump’s lead over Hillary Clinton among less-well-educated white voters remains solid, in spite of his alleged sexual predations; a large number of voters remain drawn to his grousing about the balance-of-trade deficit—which he presents as if it were a losing football score. Clinton has apparently decided to pass up the teachable moment, pretty much adopting Sanders’s anti-trade line, though her private views almost certainly remain more nuanced. In an e-mail exposed by the WikiLeaks hack, purporting to detail a conversation between Clinton aides, she allegedly told Banco Itau, a Brazilian bank, in 2013, that she favored, at “some time in the future,” a “hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders”—a curious case of a leak embarrassing a candidate by showing her to be more visionary and expert than she wants to appear.

The anxiety is understandable, but the focus on trade deals seriously underestimates the changes that have reshaped global corporations over the past generation. Trade, increasingly, is mostly not in finished goods like Portuguese wine. It is, rather, in components moving within corporate networks—that is, from federated sources toward final assembly, then on to sales channels, in complex supply chains. An estimated sixty per cent of international trade happens within, rather than between, global corporations: that is, across national boundaries but within the same corporate group. It is hard to shake the image of global corporations as versions of post-Second World War U.S. multinationals: huge command-and-control pyramids, replicating their operations in places where, say, customers are particularly eager or labor is particularly cheap. This is wrong. Corporations are hierarchies of product teams, which live in a global cloud. “Made in America” is an idealization.

Read on at The New Yorker 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Shimon Peres's Real Victory

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli President, died at ninety-three, a revered elder statesman, but his glory days were as part of a suspect young guard. In the early fifties, he was part of a cadre of defense officials whom David Ben-Gurion promoted in order to wrest control of the economy from veteran leaders of the Zionist Labor Federation and hand it to the fledgling state. Peres was at first hawkish, in favor of nuclear deterrence against Arab invasion and retaliation against Palestinian border attacks. He ended his career as a symbol of the peace process, after secretly initiating and championing the 1993 Oslo Accords, for which he and his co-signers, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize. “If I’ve changed my policies, it’s because the situation has changed. I was a hawk, but when we could make peace I was a dove,” he told David Remnick, in 2002.

For his seventy years of public life, Peres was famous as a man who tempered his views to accommodate shifts in political power. He held almost every important government post—Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, President—and served people he both idolized and reviled. After the Oslo negotiations stalled, and during the darkest days of the Second Intifada, Peres assumed his last significant position, as Ariel Sharon’s Foreign Minister, and stayed even after Sharon put Arafat under siege. Yossi Beilin, an Oslo negotiator and a protégé of Peres, was not impressed: of Sharon, he said, in 2002, “To do what he is doing now, he needs a rabbi to make it all kosher.” Beilin added, “In Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon got the most kosher rabbi in the world.”

Yet it would be wrong to suppose that Peres lacked governing principles. What set him apart, and prepared him for a short but pivotal premiership from 1984 to 1986, was political-economic prescience. Early on, he was a builder of Israel’s military power, becoming an expert on increasingly sophisticated arms. He grew fascinated by advanced technologies and, more important, the kind of society that advances them. In many ways, Israel’s entrepreneurial burst in the nineties was facilitated by Peres’s economic reforms of the eighties. It is no diminution of his achievement to say that he was Israel’s first technocrat. “The Arabs have the numerical superiority; we have technological superiority,” he told a cluster of reporters in 1974, while he was the Minister of Communications. “Technology will always defeat numbers.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Friday, September 23, 2016

Obama's New Deal With Israel

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu met at the United Nations on Wednesday—their conversation was, as expected, tactful, punctuated by smiles and banter. The President—whose Administration just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U.) with Israel, committing to a ten-year, thirty-eight-billion-dollar aid package—has reason, this election season, to stress his contribution to Israel’s military strength. “We want to make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe,” Obama told the press before the meeting. Netanyahu, who has openly allied with Congressional Republicans—and has been attacked at home for damaging relations with the President in the process—has reason to show gratitude for the Administration’s largesse. “The military aid deal fortifies Israel’s security and makes sure it can defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” he said.

Israel currently receives about half of all American foreign military aid, about three billion dollars annually, and has gotten a significant, long-term increase, so gratitude is certainly not misplaced. The M.O.U. includes five hundred million dollars each year for Israel’s missile-defense technology, and supports Israel’s acquisition of F-35s, offered to no other ally. But the M.O.U. is really a victory for Obama over Netanyahu and his conservative supporters in Washington—quieter than the Iran deal but arguably as decisive.

As I reported in March, the essential condition Obama set for a significant increase in aid was that Netanyahu make a binding commitment that he (and his successors, presumably) would not lobby Congress for more support in the next decade. A part of the Administration’s thinking, a former White House official told me then, was that the American government needed to budget its foreign-aid appropriations over the long term. But another consideration, the former official said, was overtly political. Obama did not want Israeli officials making common cause with Congressional Republicans during future election cycles, much as he did not want the aid negotiations to hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during this one. The Obama Administration informed Netanyahu, a senior official told Haaretz in February, that, if he refused the no-lobbying condition, he was “free to wait for the next administration.” Netanyahu chose not to, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, complained that the Prime Minister “pulled the rug” from under his conservative allies in Congress.

Read on at The New Yorker

Monday, September 19, 2016

Clinton: Take Control Of The Election's 'Story'

Every election is, in a way, a protest vote. Listen to this interview with Ron Susskind on “Radio Open Source” (hosted by the incomparable Chris Lydon) and then tell me the Clinton campaign does not need to change the focus of this race. We can’t take our eyes off Trump, Susskind says, because he has given us an unfinished story, which transforms into compelling drama—will he, or will he not, blow up Washington in the name of those left behind by global forces? Can he really pull it out? Clinton needs to give us a better story and a more interesting drama—stay loyal to Obama, but not become a captive of the status quo. She needs to give us something palpable to win or lose, which the press can start imagining to be the “story” of the election. Imagine, then, that she made the following speech: 

My fellow Americans,

I know that you know my opponent’s faults. So I am going to stop harping on them. There are plenty of others—editors, historians, generals, officials in Republican administrations, icons of our culture—who feel embarrassed, and panicked, at the thought of Trump presidency. They provide you, every day, enough reason to reject him. I’ll add only that I’ve lived in New York long enough, and have known Donald long enough, to know that people in the real estate business call him “a closer”—call him this with a certain envy, even though the big New York banks stopped lending him money years ago—call him this because they know he’ll say anything, promise anything, insult anyone, flatter anyone, he thinks will turn a customer toward his deal. Donald is not an idiot. He just thinks you are.

But I also know that I have much to account for myself. The hard question I have to answer, and it’s time I admitted this, is why such obvious doubts about him have not translated into enthusiasm for my candidacy. What are the doubts about me? That’s what I want to speak about.

I’ve admitted that I’m not a natural politician, but that’s not the real problem. I am, as my friend Barack Obama put it in 2008, “likable enough.” Pundits fill air time telling you I have been too secretive, so you can’t really know me, or I have been in your face too long, so you are bored of me; or I am too programmed, or I’ve made gaffes; or I’m a woman, so the test is more demanding, or his boorishness is fascinating, so he’s graded on a curve. There is a measure of truth to all of these perceptions. But they miss the main point—the thing our media seems to miss most consistently.

This election is not a referendum on my arguable political talent or Trump’s arguable decency—nor is it a game of splicing together a majority of “demographics.” It is about your anxieties, your families. Somehow, almost unimaginably, a good number of you think Trump, born to his gilded penthouse, and profiteering by stiffing little guys, identifies with your problems, while Bill and I, who came from nothing, do not. This is partly my fault, I confess: I have been campaigning like an earnest student, learning how what seem big social problems have evolved, doing her homework, formulating papers, and wondering why you are not giving me an A.

What I’ve really failed to consider is the biggest problem of all. My positions don’t matter if, as President, I can’t get anything passed. And year after year, or what may seem year after year, the government has itself often seemed an embarrassment: dysfunctional, paralyzed, full of name-calling. Many of you would like to throw a bomb at Washington, though you know in your hearts that a bomb can only destroy. The bomb, in this election, is Trump.

Read on at Talking Points Memo

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Press--A Compromised Immune System?

This past fall, before he died of cancer, my pal Joel Kurtzman reflected on what made its menace so fascinating. The terrible thing, he told me, was that cancer cells—clearly warped under the microscope—make themselves invisible to the immune system. The body would easily destroy cancer cells if it knew danger was there; but these cells evolve into forms that seem so ordinary, so passably normal on the surface, that they get away with growing. The body, or a subsystem of it, makes something fatal to the whole, deliberately designed (if that’s a phrase meaningful to evolution) to fool its defenses.

The jump from this insight to the body politic was natural. Donald Trump was already a thing; he seemed—given a moment’s thought—warped. Yet his campaign was growing and growing. You couldn’t say he was the first boor we
had ever seen, bragging, threatening, making things up. But a boor never made such a serious run at the presidency. What, we wondered, was our equivalent immune system in national politics, and what were the deficits that could have allowed for Trump’s rise—in what sense did he seem, of all things, ordinary?

Joel did not live to see today’s Republican convention, but the answer to the first question seemed obvious enough to us. We both had careers in journalism. We supposed the press should destroy the public reputations of politicians whose ideas were venal, illogical, unwarranted, or based on cooked evidence; or expose behavior that seemed hypocritical, unmannered, or criminal. (This was not exactly a new supposition. “The only security of all is in a free press,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette in 1823. “It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”) Yet Trump seemed to thrive on press coverage. How? A couple of weeks ago, I tuned into MSNBC, the presumed bastion of “liberal” journalism. FBI Director Comey had just come out with the verdict on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It was 7 PM, time for “Hardball,” and I found the network devoting itself to a live broadcast of a Trump speech in Cincinnati. I watched, revolted: free association, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, faked numbers, paranoid conspiracies—all uninterrupted:

Read on at Talking Points Memo

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What's Left To Say About Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, who died on Saturday, wrote fifty-seven books, yet the obituaries and tributes refer to him more consistently as a witness than a writer. His moral authority, which he earned and sought, derived from his experience, not any literary virtuosity, though the spare, confessional prose of his most widely read books—his ability to remember suffered details, and describe their shock on a thinking, pious youth—gave his testimony popular momentum. “Night”—his early masterpiece from the fifties, which eventually sold in the millions—famously recounted how a child was hanged before all in Wiesel’s death camp, slowly suffocating, too light to break his own neck: “Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘. . . Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’ “

Read on at The New Yorker

Monday, June 20, 2016

What Republicans Don't Know About Islam

This is the week to say the things that go without saying. Mainstream Republicans—not just their Gorgeous George nominee, shock-radio echo-chamber, and Bibi cheerleaders—are mocking President Obama for speaking of terror and not “radical Islam.” The inference to be drawn is that Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, are predisposed to intolerance and violence, as if the Muslim religion is a subtle ideological toxin that can be managed in homeopathic doses, but is fatal full force. If we said “radical Islam,” presumably, then we’d be acknowledging the real danger, now suffered for the sake of political correctness.

For Muslims—so the argument goes—non-Muslims are infidels who must be either converted or killed. For Muslims, heaven beckons with sexuality (which is creepy back on earth), and the only law that counts is deadly, or maiming, and God-given. Terrorist acts, killing non-Muslims (or weak Muslims) at random, are, in this view, just Muslims at their most honest. The inference for action: strength, intimidation. We should carpet bomb ISIS, or send in the 101st Airborne, or leave Israeli settlers alone, or ban Muslim immigration “until we know what the hell is going on.” (Our side’s Bill Maher won’t go this far, but seems to suppose that, as long as mankind is ditching religion anyway, we should probably start with Islam.)

Now, the President has answered this claim about as well as it needs to be answered. The sociopaths want us to presume that they are cadres of the true Islam, much like Klan members in the sixties saw themselves as Christian crusaders, and, for that matter, the Red Brigades in the seventies saw themselves as “objectively” proletarian. Every religion has chilling texts, commandments, and supremacist claims that its adherents ordinarily ignore, suppress, or interpret into oblivion. The phrase “radical Islam” should offend us much like “Jewish extremist” applied to likes of, say, Yishai Schlissel, the maniac, a professed ultra-Orthodox, who stabbed six at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem last summer—and might have done much worse had he had access to an AR-15. Not every Jew has a little Schlissel struggling to come out. Omar Mateen was not a Muslim in the extreme.

But let’s assume that speaking of a religious culture is not just silly—you know, that we can extrapolate from the norms and practices of a religion to the expected political culture of a religious community. I have lived for much of my adult life in a city, Jerusalem, that is a one-third Muslim. I have spent months of days (going East to West) in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco—let’s just say I have known a great many Arab Muslims. And when I hear Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and others, insist on the phrase “radical Islam,” I wince, but also feel slightly bemused, sort of the way you’d feel around someone who speaks knowingly while getting things almost exactly backwards.

The Muslims I’ve have known, day-in, day-out, have a very abstract yet immanent sense of the divine, which leads them, not to any kind of fanaticism, but to an instinctive humility and acceptance of their fate. God is everywhere and nowhere, embedded in family love. Indeed, the family, and extended family, is an unrivaled preoccupation. Sexual mores mirror what Americans mean by “family values” (my oldest Arab friend in Jerusalem sent his daughter to a Mormon university in Utah); and the mosque takes over where fathers (and mothers) leave off. My Jerusalem Arab friends, reporting on some recent frustration, typically end their complaints with alḥamdulillāh, praise be to God, and an embrace. A hope, or just the plan for a meeting, is accompanied by in’shallah, God willing.

This is a sense of family loyalty that is not necessarily extended to national claims. (I am reminded of nothing so much as my immigrant Jewish Montreal home, when I would visit my grandmother. There were few adult sentences that weren’t also prayers of a kind. Surrounding me were uncles, aunts and cousins. Every happiness was reported with Gott tzedank, “Thank God,” every plan or prediction with im yirtze ha’shem, “God willing.”) If anything, the practice of prayer in Muslim families, the visits and feasts of yearly festivals—all of these—breed in the bone a sense of obedience, propriety. They make commitment to honor and order, even political quiescence, far more likely than violence. As long as the home is safe, and family property is respected, there isn’t much debate about the specific public policies political leaders pursue. There is more concern for whether or not leaders are corrupt.

“That’s why, ironically, Arab Muslims have been so patient with authoritarian regimes and long periods of colonial rule,” my friend Bruce Lawrence, the veteran Duke University historian of the Arab world told me. “They may be enraged by insecurity to their families, disorder, or anything that undermines their honor, but they are less animated by transformative political ideologies. Inequalities are tolerated, but not humiliations.”

Like Lawrence, I sometimes marvel at the rugged patience and generosity my Arab friends exhibit, not their volatility. They admire Israel’s social safety net, as if a work of charity. On a personal level, generosity is the norm, even from total strangers. Once I was driving in Beit Jalla and saw a weathered old man carrying a basket full of succulent apricots. I stopped my car and pointed at his basket, asking where he got them. He opened my back door and poured half the basket’s contents onto the back seat. In Tripoli, a colleague invited me to his home, and his six-year-old daughter, seeing me for the first time, greeted me with a kiss. A few months ago, I brought my car early to the garage and found it empty, but for an Arab watchman. I turned to him officiously and asked when the mechanics would show up. “Why do you not first say, ‘Good morning?’” he scolded me gently.

I lost a step-sister and cousin to the terror of Abu-Nidal. Please don’t lecture me about the things warped people do; Arabs are members of the human race, which is about the worst thing you can say about them. Last year, there was a knife attack ten-minutes from our home, in the German Colony. A block away is the former Café Hillel, which was bombed in September, 2003. The main street, Emeq Refaim (The Valley of the Ghosts), is another café, Caffit, where two suicide bombers were foiled on two separate occasions. At the summit of the gentle hill overlooking the valley, near Terra Sancta, in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, was bombed in 2002. Walk another ten minutes, into the city center, and you come to a pizzeria that was bombed twice. The nearby Ben-Yehuda Street mall was bombed. When I draw an imaginary circle of a couple of miles around our neighborhood, it encompasses the sites of five bus bombings.

None of these atrocities cancel the thousands of heartfelt encounters I’ve had with Muslim Arab neighbors, friends, and tradesmen. When I hear the phrase “radical Islam,” I remember to say “Good morning.”

This has just been published at Talking Points Memo

Monday, May 30, 2016

Netanyahu Chooses: The Settlers Over The Army And Diplomacy

Last Friday, after weeks of political maneuvering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman to be his defense minister. A longtime political hard-liner who has filled various cabinet positions for more than a decade, Lieberman made his career with coarse talk: Israel, he said, should “cut off the head” of a disloyal Arab citizen, or take “a lesson from Putin” on how to deal with terror. His appointment served as a climax to parallel dramas: a public dispute between Netanyahu’s most conservative ministers and the Israel Defense Forces, which Lieberman’s appointment will inflame, and a secret peace initiative prompted by Tony Blair, involving players from the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which the appointment effectively scuttles.

Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the minister whom Netanyahu fired to make room for Lieberman, spoke bluntly at a press briefing on Friday. “To my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party,” he said. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Ya’alon’s predecessor as defense minister under Netanyahu, angrily reinforced Ya’alon’s message on television later that night. Israel “has been infected by the seeds of fascism,” Barak said. “This government needs to be brought down before it brings all of us down.” At the Knesset on Wednesday, the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, of the moderate Zionist Union, also condemned Ya’alon’s removal. “The Army is mandatory for all, so it must uphold Israel’s collective values,” she told me. “When my two sons served, I wanted them back with the same values they went in with.”

Ya’alon was the I.D.F.’s chief of staff when it crushed the Al-Aqsa intifada, in the early aughts. He ran the last Gaza war, advocated early on for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, and mocked Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent peace shuttles as “obsessive.” So his words of warning about Lieberman’s appointment carry particular weight, and also make a distinction that clichés about Israeli politics tend to obscure. When people speak of a “rightist” drift in the country, they are actually feeling two currents. The first is ideological: neo-Zionist, religiously inflected zealotry for the Land of Israel, representing at most a fifth of Israel’s Jews and valorizing the settlement project as messianic. The second is reactionary: the conviction that Israel has no partner for peace, that an Arab leader’s motivation to destroy Israel will correspond directly with his capability—reinforced with references to the pathos of Jewish history. This right represents a much larger constituency, shading into the centrist parties. Ya’alon—and Barak, too—are solidly in the latter camp. “Netanyahu always jumped from one camp to another,” Livni said.

Last week, perhaps inevitably, Netanyahu was forced to choose, first because of a controversy over recent knife attacks by Palestinian youths, which government officials have exhorted soldiers—barely out of their teens themselves—to deal with ruthlessly. There have been so many incidents in which disproportionate force was suspected that, in February, the I.D.F.’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, felt impelled to reaffirm I.D.F. rules of engagement and warn that it was hardly necessary to “empty a magazine into a teen-age girl carrying scissors.” Then, on March 24th in Hebron, in the West Bank, Sergeant Elor Azaria shot a knife attacker in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. He was taken to an Army prison by his superiors and eventually charged with manslaughter. (Azaria is currently on trial.) Netanyahu, however, had immediately called Azaria’s parents to reassure them that he saw their son as having done his duty; Ronen Bergman, the military correspondent for Yediot Ahronot, reported that the telephone call was seen by the brass as “a gross defiance of the military’s authority.” Lieberman came to court to show his support for Azaria, and called for his release. Late last month, there was yet another incident: a Palestinian brother and sister, who allegedly approached a checkpoint in the West Bank suspiciously, were shot and killed by an Army contractor. The surveillance video has not been released. Again the Army is investigating, and again the investigation was disparaged by the settler right.

The I.D.F. deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, decided to speak out. On May 5th, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he delivered a commemorative speech, calling for national soul-searching. In contemporary Israel, he said, there were the same “nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically.” There is “nothing simpler and easier than hating the foreigner, there is nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating, there is nothing easier and simpler than becoming bestial, forgoing principles and becoming smug.” As for the Azaria shooting, Golan said the I.D.F. should be proud that, throughout its history, it has investigated “severe incidents” without hesitation. “We didn’t try to justify ourselves, we didn’t cover anything up, we didn’t whitewash, we didn’t make excuses, and we didn’t equivocate.” Both Netanyahu and Lieberman sternly reproached him. Golan had “cheapened the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said, and he summoned the general for a “clarification.”

Golan quickly apologized for invoking the Nazis, but his words prompted a continuing controversy. Naftali Bennett, another far-right leader, demanded an end to the “festival of self-flagellation.” Herzog said, “This is what morality and responsibility sound like.” Ya’alon, for his part, who had dismissed veterans of the group Breaking the Silence as “traitors” for exposing routine violations of the I.D.F. code of conduct, could hardly permit attacks on the code itself. Shortly after Golan’s speech, Ya’alon spoke out: “The job of every I.D.F. commander, and certainly every senior commander, does not end with leading soldiers into battle but obliges him to map out values with the help of a compass as well as their consciences.” The attack on Golan was another tactic in an “alarming campaign aimed at politically damaging the I.D.F. and its officers.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Reform Jews Talk To The Wall

Four days before Passover, on the slopes of Mount Scopus, a group of Kohanim sacrificed a lamb as mandated by the laws of Exodus. The Kohanim, members of the priestly caste supposedly descended from Moses’s brother Aaron, erected their altar in a national-religious settlement overlooking the golden-domed site that was once home to the Second Temple; they slaughtered, skinned, and roasted the lamb, poured its blood on the altar, and delivered the priestly blessing, accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Hundreds of spectators, mainly from radical Orthodox movements, were provided bleachers. Arieh King, a member of the group and of the Jerusalem city council, thanked the city for its financial support and said that he looked forward to being able to advertise the ceremony using the municipal logo.

A couple of days later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit prohibited a group of female activists from performing their own version of the priestly blessing, which they intended as part of a (bloodless) Passover prayer service at the Western Wall. The women’s campaign dates back to December, 1988, when a group of seventy women, including a number of female Reform rabbis, carried a Torah scroll toward the Wall—actually, the part of the plaza facing the Wall reserved for female worshippers—to conduct a prayer service. They read portions of scripture and some wore prayer shawls, both of which are prohibited for women by Orthodox synagogues. Their service prompted jeers from the Orthodox women at the site, and they were even threatened by worshippers in the larger, separate men’s section. During subsequent attempts to repeat their service, resistance to their presence grew more violent. Police protection all but evaporated. 

The Ministry of Religion—which maintains custodianship of the plaza, and has typically been run by Orthodox parties in coalitions with the Likud Party—sought to impose jail sentences on those worshipping “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site,” as a 1989 decree put it. An activist group, the Women of the Wall, took shape, led by Anat Hoffman, a charismatic Jerusalem city-council member whose father was American, and who had been exposed to Reform Judaism while studying in the U.S. Over the years, the Women of the Wall filed several lawsuits to the Israeli Supreme Court, which tended to intervene in ways that protected the women’s prerogatives but without challenging the legal status or practice of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Orthodox rabbinate is not just demonstrating theological antagonism but also exercises state power over important civil rights: weddings, conversions, and other ceremonies are legally recognized only if performed by Orthodox rabbis. The rabbinate sees itself as waging a culture war, and it has been winning. Nearly a quarter of Israeli Jews now tell pollsters that they would, if forced to choose, prefer to live under Jewish law than democratic norms. (In 2009, it was a fifth.) In recent years, the American Reform movement has become increasingly involved in this war, with support for the female activists as its focus. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, could not support the suits directly, but his growing enthusiasm for their activism helped the Women of the Wall raise funds among networks of American Reform donors.

In 2013, increasingly troubled by negative American publicity, Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to help put an end to the conflict at the Wall. Sharansky proposed a workaround, which was accepted by all sides, including the U.R.J., earlier this year. The Orthodox rabbinate would retain exclusive control over the plaza, and Reform (and other progressive) Jews would have a section of their own, abutting a newly exposed continuation of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, about a seventh the size of the original. Some of the women activists rejected the plan, and the Orthodox continue to revile the Reform service, conducted so openly and close to their plaza. Nevertheless, the U.R.J. applauded the agreement. “This effort,” Jacobs said in a statement, “is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, and by all of us outside of Israel whose unconditional love for our Jewish State compels us to tirelessly advocate for a more equal, pluralistic, and Jewishly vibrant Israel.”

When we spoke in late February, in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me that he considers Israel’s state-supported Orthodox rabbinate “one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions ever to happen in the history of the Jewish people.” But the compromise over the Wall is one of several signs that suggests he is ambivalent about whether some kind of a state-supported rabbinate is not, after all, what makes the Jewish state Jewish. In both Israel and America, his movement may rail against the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate. But in many instances it has not acted to break rabbinic power so much as to share in it. The Reform movement in Israel, supported by the U.R.J., has repeatedly sued to have its conversions recognized by the state (which would make those converts eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return). A small number of regional councils successfully sued the state to pay Reform rabbis, focussing on the social services the rabbis may provide. Reform rabbis have sued, persistently and unsuccessfully, to be able to perform marriages.

The larger challenge—which Jacobs’s statement about the Wall implied success in confronting, although the compromise almost entirely elides it—is theocracy. “Jew” is a legal status in Israel, over which the rabbinate has considerable say. Orthodox rabbinic officials directly control marriage, divorce, and burial; indirectly, by controlling conversion, they determine important parts of immigration and residency law. The state taxes all Israeli citizens to support a network of Orthodox schools, rabbinic courts, local pulpits, and, in effect, theocratic political parties. (The state also provides funding for institutions of other religions, and for secular schools.) A Jew cannot marry a Muslim, or a Christian. These problems cannot be solved by giving a fraction of rabbinic authority to Reform rabbis.

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Can "Darkness At Noon" Teach Something About This Moment?

Arthur Koestler
Darkness at Noon had staying power,” Michael Scammell writes in The New York Review of Books, “for Rubashov’s story…powerfully illuminates the human condition, men’s moral choices, the attractions and dangers of idealism, the corrosive effects of political corruption, and the fatal consequences of psychological and ideological fanaticism.”

The occasion for Scammell’s essay is the chance retrieval of Koestler's original German manuscript, by a doctoral student named Matthias Weßel, who was combing an archive in Zurich. Until now, Scammell reminds us, all translations worked from the English version Koestler produced hastily with his translator (and lover) Daphne Hardy, as they were preparing to flee France and the Nazi invasion. Presumably, the two themselves worked from this very manuscript, once thought lost. Scammell shows that the English original departs in clumsy, revealing ways from the German even-more-original—and that Koestler's uncertain literary reputation in German-speaking countries could be enhanced by publication of a new German edition. He urges that new translations from this German edition should follow. “It will be like seeing a cleaned oil painting for the first time after the old and discolored varnish has been removed.”

This is a strong claim and Scammell supports it with various examples, almost all of which seem to imply that the original had a harder edge, consistent with the cruelty of Soviet Communism—whose exposure, Scammell implies, the novel was written to expose. Rubashov’s police driver, for instance, was rendered as “chauffeur,” and “fever” as “temperature.” A strike on the head from a revolver butt had been dropped. Rubashov’s (arguably pathetic) meditations on masturbation had been dropped. Interrogators were rendered as “examining magistrates.” These euphemisms, Scammell thinks, seriously are seriously misleading. He supposes the young and ingenuous Hardy employed them because she could not escape the precincts of British civility—the “niceties of habeas corpus or the rule of law”—when conjuring Soviet horrors. “Hardy softened Rubashov’s fate by civilizing his surroundings and cushioning his pain.” A new translation suggesting more searing pain, would presumably better capture what Koestler was trying to convey—about totalitarianism, corruption, zealotry, hence, “men’s moral choices.”

But the euphemism Scammell calls “the most glaring” caught my eye. He notes that the English version’s section headings were contrived as follows: “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” The Third Hearing,” and “The Grammatical Fiction.” He says they would have been more properly rendered as “The First Interrogation,” and so on. Yet it is the last section heading, whose translation he does not dispute, that is obviously the most cryptic—and Scammell says nothing about it. Just what is that “grammatical fiction” Rubashov contemplates and why do Darkness at Noon’s scenes of brutality culminate in Rubashov feeling tortured by, of all things, this? Does the book’s “staying power” really depend on deepening our appreciation for Rubashov’s physical intimidation and shock? Or is there something else—not lost in translation, hiding in plain sight—that needs to be retrieved and reinterpreted for new generations, especially after the moral debauch of Stalin’s Soviet Union is past?

To be blunt, by focusing on how consciousness bends to physical pain, or pleasure for that matter, we are missing "Darkness at Noon"’s main point. Rubashov has been tortured, yes, but the plot of the novel (if plot is the word for it) is the unfolding of his inner despair. Ever the dialectician, Rubashov is suffering not simply because he is being pushed around by his own murderous clique. The tragic slant, the real source of his torment, is that he is never sure his accusers aren't right about him. He dreads that his own political actions have been immoral because they were ineffectual. He cannot readily distinguish between the two.

Rubashov had originally assumed that he could find something close to ethical ground, and meaning for his life, by a “scientific” grasp of society. Locked in a materialist universe—where matter, including people, are thought merely inertial and accidental—Rubashov assumed that right is what works, or must eventually work. He thought he had joined a cadre of social engineers. He had been invested in the belief in historical “laws”: the crises of capitalist production, the formation of an industrial proletariat, the gradual disappearance of material scarcity, the revolutionary sparks of class consciousness, and so forth. The objects of the Party’s science, the masses, themselves responded to capitalism’s buffetings. To oppose the force of historical laws was wrong because it was futile, as self-destructive as opposing the law of gravity.

The “moral choices” Rubashov recognized, then, boiled down to the recognition of necessity. Though numbed by prison, and increasingly cynical about the people who put his back to the wall, Rubashov feels inclined to submit to their verdict. He concedes this rather bluntly to Ivanov, the subtler of the GPU's interrogators—whom Scammell, with a softening euphemism of his own, calls the “good cop”:

We had descended into the depths, into the formless, anonymous masses, which at all times constituted the substance of history, and we were the first to discover her laws of motion. We had discovered the laws of her inertia, of the slow changing of her molecular structure, and of her sudden eruptions. That was the greatness of our doctrine. The Jacobins were moralists; we were empirics. We dug into the primeval mud of history and there we found her laws. We knew more than ever men have known about mankind; that is why our revolution succeeded. 

Ivanov, in his turn (and before he is himself arrested), plays on Rubashov’s vanity. Rubashov should confess to being an enemy of the proletariat because the Party would now benefit. The individual is just material for the Revolution. The desire for any individual good beyond what works for Number One is an infantile psychic wish. The “first-person singular” reflects this illusory wish. It is a “grammatical fiction”:

One may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. That is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery. The greatest temptation for the likes of us is: to renounce violence, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spartacus, to Danton and Dostoyevsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause. 

The first-person singular, a grammatical fiction. But now comes Rubashov’s real crisis. He becomes distracted by a thought with terrible force. Can it be that a presumed knowledge of consequences is not sufficient ground for any ethical claim? He is tormented by the memory of Arlova, the secretary who had adored him, served him, and then sacrificed her life to his political rehabilitation. He is grief-stricken visualizing the curve of her breast. This is not simply, as Scammell implies, a counterpart of lost masturbatory fantasies. Their lovemaking—no, love!—had put Rubashov in a state where he had felt himself mysteriously “absolute”; where meaning could not be justified by a calculation of radical consequences. Arlova had been arrested for participating in one of his intrigues. Rubashov did not come to her defense. She was tried and, at last, executed. (“‘You will always be able to do what you like with me,’ she had told him—and he did!”)

Ivanov dismisses Dostoyevsky, but Koestler relies on our familiarity with Dostoyevsky’s most famous dialogues to frame Rubashov's responses. He ventures (not quite cogently) that Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment's hero, finds out how “twice two are not four when mathematical units are human beings.” Rubashov cannot seem to get out the point he wants to make, which is that he cannot account for why matter matters—why people, including himself, should not be mere means to higher ends, which is usually another’s ends. So Rubashov's burgeoning guilt is more physically intolerable than any strike from the butt of a gun. Had he not exploited her devotion from the start, the way the Party had exploited his own? Was not “absoluteness” the basis for making choices that could be called, strictly speaking, “moral choices”? The Party, Rubashov tells Ivanov gloomily, was actually burying people, a category that seems curiously new to him: “One more makes no difference; everything is buried, the men, their wisdom and their hopes.”

Rubashov has begun to wonder, and cannot stop, whether there must be a dignity the Party’s radical pragmatism cannot explain. In the end, he does confess, knowing pretty well that he is inviting execution. But he seems to do so because—wracked by a kind of suicidal shame—he has lost the ambition to justify his existence through any worldly achievement. He seems to retreat into what’s left of him. In morbid intuitions, Rubashov finds the sources of a curiously sublime freedom. He will, alone, await “the shrug of eternity.”

I am not competent to judge if Hardy caught all the nuances of the original, but it is hard to imagine any translation distorting ideas and exchanges so vividly drawn from Koestler’s experience of historical materialist casuistry. A new edition may be all to the good, but it will not make Darkness at Noon’s agony more available to new generations than the old one; you don’t make the agony of “St. Matthew’s Passion” appreciably more available, say, by switching from Spotify to Tidal’s hifi. The enduring question is whether materialist methods, when confused with ethical search, still have the capacity to debase the politics of a free society.

Rubashov’s epiphany about the limits of materialism could be of particular value to a new generation in the thrall of its own rather ahistorical variety. I mean the academic behaviorism Koestler railed against at the end of his life, and which he mocked in his last novel, The Call Girls. This has launched a creepy form of political punditry that assumes, much as the younger Rubashov had, that people are atomized bundles of appetites, shaped by demographics and mechanized wills. Do rights derive from our “absoluteness” or are they merely the goods of consumers? When we choose our good, do we choose like an explorer or pick like a shopper? If the former, what more to expect from the commonwealth, if the latter, what less? 

All of this may sound like a sophomoric questioning of free-will vs. determinism, but not every question sophomores ask is a bad one. Getting this one right, as Koestler for one knew, could be a matter of life and death. Behaviorist assumptions don’t turn us into commissars. But they do cause many students, and eventually many journalists, to care less about what is just and more about “the perception out there”—about voters whose good is rendered as “preferences,” “interests,” “winning”—as if winning is the most justice we can hope for. Think of how many times we see Bill Moyers asking us what is right as compared with Chuck Todd asking what will play. Todd’s language is not as dangerous as Ivanov’s. But it produces dangers of its own, as the current election suggests.

Read at Talking Points Memo

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Biden In Jerusalem

On Tuesday, Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem, to discuss, among other things, a long-term military-aid package—in effect, funding for the Israel Defense Forces to acquire advanced American weapons. That morning, however, Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to cancel a planned trip to Washington, claiming that he could not secure a meeting with the President. The White House, which learned about the cancellation from news reports, said that it had offered a meeting on a day that the Prime Minister’s office had proposed. Pressed on Tuesday as to whether Netanyahu’s government should have informed the Administration before cancelling the trip, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “I think it’s just good manners.” He continued, “I think you’d have to ask them why they chose to pursue this in the way they did.”

The current memorandum of understanding about military assistance, which was signed in 2007, guaranteed Israel three billion dollars a year in military support, from 2009 to 2018. The Netanyahu government has reportedly asked for as much as five billion dollars a year for the following ten years. Last November, eight months after his brazen speech to Congress, Netanyahu returned to Washington to press Obama for the increase in funding. Negotiations have been ongoing since then, and stalled out after the last round of talks, on February 4th through 6th, in Washington. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz’s Barak Ravid that the U.S. had offered forty billion dollars over ten years, with the yearly allocation increasing over the term of this agreement—if Netanyahu agrees not to lobby Congress for further increases. Without the commitment not to lobby Congress, the U.S. has offered thirty-four billion dollars over the course of the decade.

Inevitably, the negotiations have become hostage to a fraught Presidential election. Clearly, Obama does not want to hurt the chances of his preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, by prompting yet another open dispute with Israel. After the February 6th talks, Netanyahu told his Cabinet that, if the Obama Administration did not offer the level of aid he had asked for, he might simply leave the decision to the next President. “Israel is of course free to wait for the next administration to finalize a new MOU,” or memorandum of understanding, one senior U.S. official said, as the dispute deepened, but “Israel will certainly not find a President more committed to Israel’s security than is President Obama.” Hillary Clinton is far more popular in Israel than Obama (and, in spite of his Jewish roots, Bernie Sanders). But none of the current front-runners have anything like the sympathy for Netanyahu or his government that Mitt Romney had in 2012.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

On Demagogues And Dread: How Tump Mirrors Sharon

In August 1983, a year after the Lebanon War ended not-as-planned, Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, retired from politics and, in effect, was not heard from again; many accounts described him as having sunk into a deep depression, which hardly abated until his death. The reasons for a collapse of this kind are never just political: Begin’s beloved wife Aliza had died; he was then put on a regimen of steroids to cope with a heart condition, which exacerbated his shattering grief. He had always been tortured by having left his family behind in Warsaw at the start of the war, by memories of the Gulag, by the bloody work of the Irgun underground in Palestine. He earned great sadness honestly.

But Begin also knew that he had created, or at least unleashed, a kind of monster, whose name was Ariel Sharon. The smug, bluff, bullying defense minister—who had started in the rival Labor movement, and moved right when Labor ministers refused to make him Chief-of-Staff—had grown to overshadow other, ambivalently liberal leaders in Begin’s Likud party: Ezer Weizman, Simcha Erlich, Dan Meridor. As Minister of Agriculture, after Begin came to power in 1977, Sharon had broken laws and raided budgets to build settlements, sniffing and squinting at liberal reporters and critics with monosyllabic attacks—they were delusional to trust Arabs, they were insufficiently tough, or Zionist, or both—while Begin and veteran Likud leaders looked the other way.

Sharon reveled in his nickname, ha’dakhpor, or “bulldozer,” who cared little for the bureaucratic legalisms to be plowed aside. As a commander, he often disobeyed orders, not always with triumphal consequences, but almost always with bloodier than expected ones. Once Defense Minister, after 1981, he set out to conquer Southern Lebanon in a lightning war, secretly cutting a deal against insurgent Palestinian camps with Lebanon’s Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel—who would notionally take power in a coup. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers (and thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians) paid with their lives; the Palestinian problem remained. After the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, Begin justifiably feared he himself would go down in history, not as a peacemaker, but a war criminal. He told intimates grimly that he, of all people, had been conned by Sharon’s martial confidence.

I thought of Begin’s fatal depression reading the cascade of stories about the “Republican establishment” in a panic over the emergence of Donald Trump. Readers of the New York Times are waking up with the sinking feeling readers of Haaretz have been living with for more than a generation. The political contexts are different, and Sharon postured as a different kind of culture hero: the outsized general in a country of soldiers, in contrast with the outsized mogul in a country of strivers. But what’s so parallel is the willingness of Republican party leaders to risk exacerbating a mounting crisis for ideological or merely electoral gain, as if the worst crisis of all isn’t the debasement of democratic norms themselves; to block progress toward solutions with reckless indifference to the commonwealth (say, the debt ceiling obstruction), attack President Obama with hyperbole, deceit, and shameless manners (“You lie!”), foment tribalist fear (the Benghazi circus), promote candidates with nothing but dogmatic stupidity and teleprompter ad hominems (take your pick)—do all these things—and then be distressed by their embodiment.

The Israeli crisis was occupation: Palestinian grievances and enmity, which the emerging rightist and national-orthodox camp under Begin exacerbated with a settlement project meant to realize permanent control over “Judea and Samaria.” Begin could not have welcomed the ensuing violence, beginning with the 1973 war. It is inarguable, though, that blocking all initiatives, beginning with overtures from King Hussein in 1968, worked to the advantage of his camp. There was no majority for outright annexation on ideological grounds; but the occupation could be presented as an almost metaphysical test of strength against relentlessly hostile enemies, which resonated with the pathos with which Begin abridged Jewish history. Begin’s Likud became both the “party of security” and an instigator of growing threat. For politics, the perfect crime.

America also faces a security crisis, but it is economic, not military. I mean (as I wrote here last time) the radical reduction of unskilled labor in Western manufacturing, owing to technological changes that would have seemed magical in the eighties. This was predictable; many of us close to developments in the business world warned that inequality between haves and have-nots would soon map pretty directly to inequality between knows and know-nots. What once seemed a crisis of cyclical unemployment has become a crisis of chronic unemployability. Since the eighties, salaried American have been reeling, from low wages, the runaway costs of education for their children, and financial bubbles from which financial manipulators profit.

Much like Begin’s Likud, however, Republican leaders have been finessing their country’s crisis, preempting any challenge to their free-market promised land, blocking obvious ways to mitigate the pain of a necessary generational transition. The private sector alone could never solve this problem. The government has to target public investment in infrastructure and higher education—to soak up unskilled labor, and lay the ground for a more advanced economy down the line. If Begin had frozen settlements, as he slyly seemed to promise he would at Camp David in 1978, would Palestinian terrorism from Lebanon have continued as it did? Imagine, correspondingly, that the Republican leadership had responded positively to administration pleas in 2011 to draw millions of people into the national equivalent of Boston’s Big Dig—a project once famous for its cost overruns, but which opened the Boston harbor and financial district, and stimulated tens of billions of new value. Would we have so much tolerance for anger at Hispanic immigrants, say, if the party of “Washington is broken” had not broken Washington?

The point is, demagogues become famous for their reckless authenticity, but they touch people where justified anxieties have taken hold. Sharon spoke “dugri,” “straight,” mocking yefai nefesh, the “pretty souls,” who cared about seeing both sides. By the mid-eighties, even after being forced out of the defense portfolio by a judicial commission, he had become a political fixture: tens of thousands danced horas singing, “Arik, King of Israel.” They didn’t care what he might do; they wanted to know he was on their side.

Trump, of course, is also counting on the under-educated déclassés. They want to see him around, and the ruder the better; he’s got the fuck-you money they can only dream about. And they want someone on their side who doesn’t seem patronizing. By making sure nothing got done, and doing nothing insultingly, and with unlimited negative advertising, House Republicans built a constituency of new Republican voters cynical about everything from MIT to the IRS.

Ironically, strutters like Sharon and Trump are not themselves captives of the ideological cults that enable them. No men this fascinated with muscle can fail to see the state as a proxy for themselves—or see intimidation as strategy itself. Sharon said he’d use the state apparatus to force peace. He took down the Gaza settlements, unilaterally, with the intention of just taking what he wanted in Jerusalem and the West Bank. (Again, things did not work out as planned.) Trump says he’ll bring growth and deals, using the military and trade wars to bend foreign governments to his will. At the same time, he will now try to look, as his wife urges, more “presidential.” He has yet to make the sale, but, finally, he is not being underestimated.

More important, Sharonism did not disappear when pragmatism turned Sharon’s reputation less danceable. There are now a dozen little Sharons in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, talking tough against terror, channeling funds to settlements, repressing domestic opponents, and calling it Zionism. Republican leaders—Mitt Romney now springs to mind—may be appalled by Trump’s swagger and foulness, but they do still underestimate the crisis that’s brought him to the fore. Most, that is, still can’t imagine the government investing in job creation. Trump may fail. But so long as Republicans obstruct the urgent new work of government, there will be others.

This column was published in Talking Points Memo 

Monday, February 29, 2016

This Old House

I wrote about the vandalizing of our home a couple of posts back. My shrewd, warm-hearted wife, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, sees This Old House as a deeper story, which the vandals could not possibly have known when they attacked it, and could not have understood if they had, namely, as a place of peacemaking and an analogy for the way to envision our future with Palestinians. She wrote the following for Haaretz last Friday. The title of the piece "Jerusalem divorced family's home as inspiration for Israeli-Palestinian peace" may serve as the teaser. You can read the article here.

This house goes on sale ev’ry Wednesday morning
And taken off the market in the afternoon
You can buy a piece of it, if you want to
It’s been good to me if it’s been good to you…
– Noel Paul Stookey

There are as many versions of this story as there are old houses and voices to lament the losses they have witnessed. Somehow, the wood, the glass, the concrete, remember. One talmudic sage was prescient enough, or pained enough, to say that when a couple divorces, “even the altar in the Temple cries.” Many reading this know how a once-priceless bond can acquire a price tag, while tears harden into ballistic weapons. The fight proceeds over the house and every item in it (remember the $8 blue plate in “When Harry Met Sally”?) – until, when everyone is exhausted, the property is split (never equally or to mutual satisfaction), then sold, and all the parties go their their separate ways, nursing their grievance and rage for as long as it takes to move on.

When our own marriage ended, after 34 years, the expectation was, indeed, that we would divide the property. It didn’t quite happen that way. But I tell the tale not as personal confession, not as self-justification, nor (more perversely) as self-mortification: There is no need to expose stories that are the private property of persons who are alive and precious and vulnerable. I am telling it because, 18 years after our home was broken, I can humbly point to a scarred yet reconstituted house that serves its present occupants, a manifest demonstration of what peaceful coexistence really means. Like the haroset consumed at the seder to symbolize the material used by the Hebrew slaves to build the storehouses and pyramids for Egypt, the mortar that has re-cemented our broken home is sweet, with just a hint of acid after-taste.

We certainly didn’t anticipate such results when, after years of negotiating over the property, we divided it into two duplexes. My ex-husband and his new wife settled in the lower floors; my second husband and I moved into the upper floors. We had, in effect, arrived at a Solomonic solution that no one was really happy with, and that seemed absurd to some of our friends and family, and crazy to others. Our children dubbed the house the “Mukataa,” after the beleaguered compound in Ramallah where rival Palestinian leaders found uneasy unity.

It is now more than 10 years later. In the formerly disputed territory that is our little compound, the grandkids – like the angels on Jacob’s ladder – go up and down the stairs, laughing, between “Saba’s” place downstairs and “Poppy’s” upstairs. They don’t know anything else, so for them this is simply the norm. All those who were appalled at the idea of such an upstairs/downstairs arrangement a decade ago stand sheepishly in awe. Even if we didn’t plan it that way, we seem to have pulled off the most pedestrian, reasonable and compassionate miracle that life offers. We launched a peace process that does not end.

And just when it appeared that This Old House had settled into its genial routine, something happened to drive home just how endless all such processes are. Last month, an anonymous attack by extremist Jews threatened the life of 89-year-old Yaakov Malkin, our downstairs neighbor. It was Yaakov and his wife Felice with whom we had bought and built our home in the 1980s.

But there are yet other layers to the story of this house that are unique to the neighborhood, the city and the country in which we live. The attackers did not know this, but the provenance of the house before it became ours is itself enmeshed in the politics of appropriation and bureaucratic obfuscation. Suffice it to say that the family from whom we purchased the building were “key money” immigrants from Turkey, who had come to Jerusalem in the late 1940s or early ‘50s, displaced and impoverished.

In the faded records I was able to obtain from the Israel Land Registry Office, there is, in the space designated for “buyer” and “seller,” only “nikhsei nifkadim,” or “absentee property” – a controversial term reserved for the real estate of those, mostly Arabs, who had fled their homes during the war of 1948 and found refuge in countries still at war with the newly formed state. This legal fiction made such properties available for transfer to whomever the state deemed worthy. Those Jewish immigrants, in turn, who had been forced to abandon homes in their own countries of origin – Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab countries – became the anonymous beneficiaries of complex procedures for provisional and then outright ownership. There is no mention in the official records of the name of the family who were the caretakers and then owners of the property until we bought it some 30 years later.

The intricacies of that transaction, along with the sagas of our family and of the others who live in This Old House also include internecine squabbles and divorces that will remain sequestered in private archives or consigned to the leveling powers of oblivion. I shall not dwell on Savta’s Napoleonic gold coins that helped to finance the original purchase, the smarmy lawyer who stole property under the guise of saving the project, and the endless hours put in by my father who took over from the incompetent contractor. Such is a family’s inheritance.
For nearly 30 years, I have been walking a dog around this neighborhood in Jerusalem. It is not the same dog, needless to say; in fact, there have been three dogs that I have followed around with plastic bags over the years. Many changes have taken place in the Greek Colony, a cluster of residential buildings that surround the imposing Greek Orthodox community center. The larger story of gradual gentrification in the 1980s and ‘90s of what had become a poor immigrant neighborhood is not only our story; it is a matter of public record. And, of course, the private dramas continue from generation to generation, heedless of social or economic standing.

During the three decades of my canine peregrinations, there have been at least three divorces that I know of in this neighborhood; many births, illnesses and a few deaths. Every evening the lights shining from kitchens and living rooms illuminate the laughter, and in summer the open windows amplify angry shouts or stifled sobs.

But the careful reader has already perceived yet another layer of history that the walls could tell if they had mouths as well as ears. What is the original provenance of our building? Who built and who owned the one-story house constructed of Jerusalem stone chiseled in the old style? We know that most of the Greek Colony was populated largely by Greek Orthodox who had moved here in the early 1900s to avoid the overcrowded conditions in the Old City. We also know that most of them fled when hostilities broke out in 1948.

The official municipal records include three barely legible names of people who are listed as having purchased the plot in 1941, which suggests that they lived here for only seven years before the house rather magically became “absentee property.” One can assume that it was one of them who built the original structure and planted the lemon tree that gave us all the lemons we needed – along with our own misfortunes – to make lemonade. That tree, which stood beside the grave of the first dog to circumnavigate the neighborhood, is no longer. And, like those stubborn roots that were finally subdued, the more detailed records of historical claims remain buried in murky documents – though there is enough evidence to construct a multi-layered saga of construction and planting, of war and displacement, of laughter and tears.

This story, duplicated in so many houses in this neighborhood alone, remains open-ended as long as what was once called the “Arab-Israeli conflict” and is now called the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” is unresolved. Some of the liberal voices in the Israeli public conversation, such as that of Amos Oz, famously call for a “divorce” between Jews and Arabs. On March 7 last year, Oz wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

My premise is simple and straightforward: We are not alone on this land. To my Palestinian friends I say the same: You are not alone here either. This little house of ours must be partitioned to two smaller apartments. And let there be a good fence between them, contributing to good neighborliness.

Once divorced, let us experience coexistence and leave notions of possible cohabitation to future generations. Ours is not a Hollywood western of good vs. evil. It is a real life tragedy of two just causes. We can continue to clash, inflicting further pain. Or we can be reconciled via separation and compromise.

But what kind of divorce does Oz advocate? How would a “good fence” work? That depends on how many gates there are in the fence and how much good will on either side. Such fences can easily become impermeable, unscalable. The pledge by Bibi Netanyahu and some of his coalition partners to build fences to keep out the “wild beasts” suggests just such a hermetic separation: That is, in their “best case,” non-violent, scenario, all Arabs, including the Arab citizens of Israel (who make up at least 20 percent of this country) would “simply” move to a theoretical Palestinian state. The boundaries would be “adjusted” so that Palestine would accommodate places like Umm al-Fahm, and Jewish settlement blocs like Gush Etzion and Ariel would be incorporated into the State of Israel.

All too often, that is the kind of “divorce” embattled people envision for themselves or their communities. Our experience is that this rarely works, certainly not for couples who have children – and grandchildren – in common, but also not for communities as imbricated in each other’s cultural and economic lives as are the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Tucked safely within the so-called Green Line, I console myself that the ownership of my particular house, with its private dramas more or less resolved, is not at stake, though my inquiries have shaken my own sense of probity. I am a bit more tentative now in arguing that restitution would require no more than a symbolic acknowledgment that the “population exchanges” that took place in the 1940s – culminating in 1948-50 – created reciprocal hardships signified in rusted keys and rusting memories; that the Greek one-story home that became our four-story house would no more be returned to the descendants of the original owners in a projected resolution than my mother’s family home in Ostrowiec, Poland, would revert to her descendants.

But if the wars and expulsions of 1948 produced armistice lines that were meant to lead to permanent borders, with whatever acts of reconciliation and restitution might have been possible, the aftermath of the 1967 war has erased even the pretense of boundaries. Every time another Arab house is occupied by Jewish fanatics in Silwan or Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, every time another outpost is created or settlement expanded in the West Bank, another brick is removed from the condominium that might have provided safety, shelter and dignity for us all, and another gate is closed in that imaginary fence.

Habayit Hayehudi – “The Jewish House” as political party and political metaphor – has no windows or stairs in its present configuration. All the blueprints for divided or shared territory have been shelved. But those plans really were beautiful, reconceptualizing our disputed property to include separate spaces for self-actualization and privacy, shared sovereignty in areas where it is necessary and possible – and a viable border that people and goods can easily cross. Although the only viable blueprint is our reconstituted “Mukataa,” not a fortress – a “neighborhood” that is not a garrison, it is hard to imagine how the “future generations” that Oz projects will repair the damage that only increases every day; how our grandchildren, who now delight in taking their first steps up and down the staircase between Saba and Poppy’s homes will live, or for that matter, how the great-grandchildren of the original Greek owners will find peace.

As I emerged from the staircase with Dog No. 3 in the early morning of January 21, I was greeted by the graffiti that had been scrawled under the cover of darkness on the fence of our building and on the building across the road. A Star of David had been drawn on the Malkins' door, and a letter affixed to their doorpost was held in place by a dagger. Yaakov, whose Bundist roots go back to Warsaw, where he was born and spent his early childhood, is professor emeritus of film at Tel Aviv University and the founder and director of Tmura – the International Institute for Humanistic Secular Judaism. His daughter, Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas, dean of Tmura, lives on the second floor of the building with her family. Their passion for the Bible is matched only by their proud atheism and faith in secular Judaism. The letter, threatening human and divine punishment if Malkin doesn’t mend his ways, was accompanied on the walls by biblical verses; in addition, letters had been placed in neighbors’ mailboxes warning them that a dangerous force was in their midst.

And then, four weeks later, magically, it seemed, another group of Israelis appeared in broad daylight at Yaakov Malkin’s doorstep: On February 23, some 20 cadets from the “Mekhina Hayerushalmit” (the Jerusalem Pre-Military Leadership Program) brought hope in smiling young faces and a sign that read “Your Judaism is My Judaism.”

And so it goes. The verses of the Bible and biblically-inflected pledges are like the stones of the house, recruited to serve the purposes of its users. It is curious, though, that those scripture-spouting zealots who claimed to speak in God’s name last month couldn’t even get their verses right: Citing the merciful God’s act of sending manna to the petulant Children of Israel (Exodus 16: 14-15), rather than what they thought they were citing – the vengeful God’s threat to “blot out Amalek” (Ex. 17:14-15) – they inadvertently painted the two faces of Jerusalem, our embattled home. Because, as Yaakov Malkin would say, we do, after all, create God in our own image.


Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor emerita of comparative literature at the Hebrew University, and a Guggenheim Fellow.