Tag Archives: Israel-Palestine

Democracy in Israel

One of the countries where democracy is currently in serious trouble is Israel. The Knesset is considering a proposal by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the Supreme Court inferior to the Knesset; by majority vote the Knesset could reverse court decisions. It would also claim the right to nominate new judges, taking that power away from a less partisan commission.

That may sound like a few technical adjustments, but it undoes a key part of the liberal-democratic social contract, in which majority rule is tempered by an independent judiciary that protects the rights of minorities. Under Netanyahu’s proposal, controlling a parliamentary majority would allow him to do pretty much whatever he wants, possibly including quash a corruption case against him.

Massive numbers of Israelis see this threat, and have been on the streets protesting for weeks. NYT columnist Thomas Friedman describes this as Israel’s “biggest internal clash since its founding”, and argues that American Jews cannot stay neutral.

At a deeper level, the current crisis goes back to a tension that has existed from the beginning: Israel views itself as both a democracy and a Jewish state. Both elements are central to its identity, but they have always fit together uneasily.

This tension is not unique to Israel; it exists whenever a nation thinks of itself as both a democracy and a homeland for a particular ethnic, religious, or cultural group. We can also see it in Orban’s Hungary or Modi’s India, not to mention the Christian nationalist fantasies of the American Right. Democracy insists that all citizens are equal, but the X-homeland vision makes the members of Group X special.

The two identities can coexist without too much friction as long as Group X has a comfortable voting majority and the deal it offers not-X citizens is good enough to win their acquiescence. Historically, and glossing over a lot of counterexamples, the deal in Israel has been that Arab parties are locked out of any ruling coalition in the Knesset, but the judicial system is committed to defend the rights of Palestinian Israelis as individuals.

That tension is also what makes the problem of the occupied territories so intractable: If Israel annexes the territories outright and makes them part of Israeli democracy, the Jewish voting majority is threatened, and the new Palestinian citizens have such a long history of conflict with Israel and with Jewish settlers that many of them could not acquiesce to peaceful membership in a Jewish state. But continuing to rule the territories as an occupying power creates an undemocratic Jew/Arab relationship that can’t help but cross the border into pre-1967 Israel and affect Israeli citizens.

So Netanyahu’s push for the elected government to take control of the courts is not only corrupt (motivated largely by Netanyahu’s personal legal problems) and undemocratic in general (since it undoes the rule of law), but it strikes at the heart of the historical compromise between the Jewish state and Israeli democracy. Going forward, the Jewish voting majority would be empowered to rule unchecked, with regard for the equal rights of non-Jews shrinking into a secondary position, from which it could conceivably vanish entirely.

Ordinarily, I would find myself 100% on the side of democracy and opposed to the homeland vision. That’s how I feel about Christian nationalism in America, as well as Hindu nationalism in India, and so on. But Israel’s unique history muddies things up for me. The lesson many people drew from World War II — and it’s hard to argue that they’re entirely wrong — is that the world needs a Jewish homeland somewhere.

You don’t have to believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people to recognize that they have been chosen to be targets of bigotry again and again. For reasons I don’t fully understand, antisemitism appears to be a unique strain of prejudice. (I wish I knew who to credit for this line, but sometime in the last year or two I heard this explanation of why American Jews should be uneasy with the conspiracy-theory-promoting American Right, even if it purports to be pro-Israel: “Anybody who believes crazy things will eventually believe crazy things about Jews.”)

Even in places where it appears to waning, antisemitism can pop back up. Jews seemed to be gradually assimilating into Germany prior to Nazism. The Bolshevik Revolution had a place for Jewish leaders like Trotsky before antisemitism reasserted itself under Stalin. An American president whose daughter converted after marrying a Jew could nonetheless wink and nod at American Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us”, and traffic in rhetoric that led a man to massacre Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

So a decade or two ago I might have scoffed at the idea that American Jews would ever need an escape plan or an obvious place to land. I still think it’s unlikely. But unimaginable? I not as sure as I used to be. The world, I think, still needs Israel.

Simultaneously, though, I have no answer for a Palestinian who wonders why he has to be a second-class citizen (or not a citizen at all) in the land where his ancestors have lived for centuries. And while I can’t offer a simple solution to the democracy/homeland tension, I have to believe there’s a better way to protect the Jewish homeland than establishing an Orban-style autocracy-with-democratic-trappings. So I’m rooting for the protesters.

What to make of Israel/Palestine?


The temperature of the fighting goes up and down, but there is no real prospect for peace. Two articles express two very different ways to look at this situation.

There are basically two truthful ways to cover the current wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians:

  • A pox on both your houses, because neither side seems to have any plan that involves making peace with the other. (See cartoon above.)
  • One side, Israel, bears more responsibility because it is far more powerful, is doing far more damage, and has far more ability to shape the course of events.

A good example of the first type is Vox’ “The Gaza doom loop” by Zack Beauchamp. Beauchamp does mention that the two sides are not equal, but focuses on the similarities between them.

It would seem as if the current round of violence emerged out of a complex series of events in Jerusalem, most notably heavy-handed actions by Israeli police and aggression by far-right Jewish nationalists. But in reality, these events were merely triggers for escalations made almost inevitable by the way the major parties have chosen to approach the conflict. … It’s clear that that this status quo produces horrors. The problem, though, is that these terrible costs are seen as basically tolerable by the political leadership of all the major parties.

Hamas continues to be able to rule Gaza and reaps the political benefits from being the party of armed resistance to Israeli occupation. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas appears cowed by Hamas’s power — most analysts believe he canceled the Palestinian election because he thought he would lose — and so is content to let Israel keep his rivals contained in Gaza.

Beauchamp similarly breaks Israeli politics into two factions: “annexationists … who want to formally seize large chunks of Palestinian land while either expelling its residents or denying them political rights — ethnic cleansing or apartheid” and “the control camp” who (rather than looking for a viable long-term solution) are just trying to minimize the damage that Palestinians can do to Israelis.

The status quo in Gaza serves both groups. From the annexationist view, keeping the Palestinians weak and divided allows Israeli settlements to keep expanding and the seizure of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem to continue apace. Lifting the blockade on Gaza, and working to promote some kind of renewed peace process involving both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, jeopardizes the agenda of “Greater Israel.”

… Meanwhile, the “control” camp sees this as the least bad option. Any easing of the Gaza blockade would risk Hamas breaking containment and expanding its presence in the West Bank, which would be far more dangerous than the rockets — a threat heavily mitigated by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. In this analysis, periodic flare-ups are a price that has to be paid to minimize the threat to Israeli lives — with heavy escalations like this one required to restore a basically tolerable status quo.

There used to be a third faction, the “equality” camp, which “believed that Palestinians deserved a political voice as a matter of principle — either in a single state or, more typically, through a two-state arrangement”, but it “collapsed after the failure of the peace process and the second intifada in the early 2000s.” Beauchamp estimates that the equality camp controls about 10% of the Knesset, and so has virtually no influence on policy.

The second type of coverage is exemplified by Branko Marcetic’s article in Jacobin: “On Palestine, the Media is Allergic to the Truth“. To Marcetic, putting the recent Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza “in context” would mean

explaining that the rockets came in the wake of a series of outrageous and criminal Israeli provocations in occupied East Jerusalem: a series of violent police raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam during its holiest month, that have damaged the sacred structure and injured hundreds, including worshippers; that Israeli forces were attacking Palestinians who were occupying Aqsa both to pray and to protect it from bands of far-right Israeli extremists who have been marching through East Jerusalem, attacking Palestinians, and trying to break into the compound; and that all of this sits in the shadow of protests against Israel’s most recent attempt to steal land from Palestinians in the city, and the ramping up of Israel’s theft of Palestinian land more broadly under Trump.

While you’re at it, you might at least make clear that the Israeli attacks on Gaza have been far more vicious and deadly than the rockets they’re supposedly “retaliating” against, having killed forty-three people so far [many more since the article was published], including thirteen children, and leveled an entire residential building. You might make clear that Hamas’s rockets are, owing to their own cheapness and Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, at this point closer to the lashing-out-in-impotent-frustration part of the spectrum (which, of course, is not to say they don’t do damage or occasionally take lives — they’ve killed six Israelis thus far). All of this would help people understand why what they’re seeing unfold on their screens is happening, and what might be done to stop it.

Marcetic skewers the even-handedness of most articles of the first type, which refer to “clashes” and “rising tensions” as if they were reporting storms at sea rather than intentional human actions. Israel doesn’t do things so much as stuff happens and a bunch of people wind up dead.

As for what American policy should be, I have no idea. I’m not sure President Biden does either. How exactly do you make peace between sides whose leaders — backed by a sizeable chunk of their constituents — don’t want to make peace?

That said, I’m glad to see the end of the Trump/Kushner policy, which I would sum up as “Fuck the Palestinians.” The Trumpists’ primary goal in the Middle East was to create an Israel/Sunni alliance against Shiite Iran. So they brokered agreements between Israel and four minor Sunni states: Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, and the Emirates. If that spirit of cooperation could be extended to larger Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians would be left without any allies, and presumably would have to take whatever deal Israel feels like offering them.

In essence, the Palestinians were in the way of the strategic realignment Kushner wanted. So to hell with them.

The thing a pampered prat like Jared Kushner can never understand is the thought that Daredevil writer Frank Miller put into the mind of his villain the Kingpin: A man without hope is a man without fear.

No doubt Israel can create a situation where the Palestinians ought to give up. Arguably, it already has. The Kushners of the world, who have lots of non-hopeless options to choose from, certainly would give up and move on to Plan B, C, or D. But I don’t think the Palestinians will. They’ll keep throwing rocks at tanks until the Israelis either deal with them or kill them.

Jared’s Plan for Mideast Peace

It’s such a simple idea: If the Palestinians just surrender all their claims and accept whatever Israel is willing to give them, then there will be peace!
Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?

As soon as the Palestinians realize how easily they can achieve peace — just give up — I’m sure they’ll get on board with the “Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” the Trump administration unveiled Tuesday. How can they refuse if Jared Kushner keeps sweet-talking them like this?

You have five million Palestinians who are really trapped because of bad leadership. So what we’ve done is we’ve created an opportunity for their leadership to either seize or not. If they screw up this opportunity — which, again, they have a perfect track record of missing opportunities — if they screw this up, I think they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they’re victims, saying they have rights.

Such a charmer, that young man. I wonder if he was this endearing when he proposed to Ivanka. (“Say yes. You don’t want this relationship to fail like all your others have.”) Later on in the same interview, we get to this:

The Palestinian leadership has to ask themselves a question: Do they want to have a state? Do they want to have a better life? If they do, we have created a framework for them to have it, and we’re going to treat them in a very respectful manner. If they don’t, then they’re going to screw up another opportunity like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.

Can’t you just feel the respect? Why wouldn’t you want to make a deal with somebody who sees you as a perennial screw-up?

Of course, Jared’s “state” is a euphemism for something far less than a state. As the map above shows, it is a collection of isolated regions, two of which are connected by a fantasy tunnel. Amir Tibon describes it like this in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

The solution that the Trump plan offers to this situation is the creation of a Palestinian “state” that could potentially be established four years from now, in the areas of the West Bank that will not be annexed by Israel. This future state, however, will have none of the actual characteristics of a state. The streets of all of its cities, towns and villages, as well as the roads connecting them, will be under the full control of the military of another state – Israel. It will have no control over its borders, which will also be controlled by Israel.

In addition, this state, despite Trump’s claim that it will have territorial continuity, will in fact be dissected by Israeli settlements that will remain as “enclaves” inside its territory and will be under full Israeli sovereignty. This means that Palestinian citizens of the future “state” could still stand at Israeli checkpoints – not at the border points between their state and Israel, but well inside their own state, between one town and the next. The official reason for these checkpoints could easily be given as the need to protect the Israeli communities located within Palestinian territory.

The chance that any Palestinian leader agrees to accept such a “state” under these conditions is nonexistent. What the Trump plan is offering the Palestinians is basically to take the existing reality – living under Israeli military occupation, with settlements spread in-between their cities, towns and villages – and to enshrine it by labeling it as a state.

The animating philosophy of the proposal is Might makes Right. Israel is stronger, and the Palestinians will never get rid of their Israeli overlords by force. So they should just give up. Forget about the ways they’ve been victimized, stop talking about having rights, and just take whatever the Israelis are willing to offer. Because if they don’t, the next offer will be worse. Israeli news anchor Eylon Levy said as much in the Washington Post:

[The plan] recognizes that any solution has to work with the fact that Israel has basically won, instead of denying it or attempting to reverse it.  … Throughout history, the victors have always dictated the ultimate terms of peace. Is that fair? Maybe. Is it how the world works in reality? Yes. Conflicts don’t end when both sides agree they are tired of fighting; they end when one side, the loser, recognizes it can’t keep up the battle and decides to get what it can before things get worse.

You’d think a culture that makes a shrine out of Masada would understand: At some point you just don’t care that the other side is stronger. You’re not expecting victory any more; you’re just trying to make your enemies respect you.

Coincidentally, Jared’s argument resembles the one Trump used to make to the contractors he shafted: It doesn’t matter who’s right. My lawyers can bankrupt you, so just take whatever I decide to pay you and be happy.

The announcement of the plan made a nice media-distraction event for Trump and for Bibi Netanyahu. Trump, of course, had an impeachment trial going on in the Senate, while Netanyahu is under indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu’s administration said the cabinet would vote Sunday to annex the major Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the ones that just about every country but the US and Israel think violate international law. But that vote didn’t happen, and Kushner is suggesting that it be delayed until after the Israeli elections in March.

Saturday, the Arab League unanimously rejected the plan.

For what it’s worth, I keep repeating the same analysis of the conflict. I see four possible resolutions.

  1. Two states, Israel and a new state where Palestinians have actual territory and self-determination.
  2. One democratic state, in which Palestinians become citizens of Greater Israel, and may eventually become a voting majority.
  3. One Jewish ethno-state, where Palestinians are a subject population, possibly with a puppet-government to save face.
  4. One Jewish ethno-state, from which Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed.

Every year, (1) and (2) seem less and less likely. Getting to either one involves building trust — Northern Ireland could be a model — but both sides seem intent on building distrust instead. Partisans of either side can give you a long list of events proving that the other side can’t be trusted and doesn’t really want peace.

The status quo is basically (3), and Jared’s peace plan seems designed to kill off (1) and lock (3) in place. Even so, though, (3) seems unstable to me. I don’t think the Palestinians will ever accept it, and at some point I think the Israelis will decide that the Palestinians are ungovernable.

That leaves (4), which is what I think will eventually happen. It will be a traumatic thing for the Israeli people to see themselves do, which is why it will take another couple decades for them to work up a sufficient self-justification. But the extreme right wing of Israeli politics is there already, and that seems to me to be the direction everything is drifting.

It’s time to let Israel be a country

The assumptions behind the United States’ Israel policy are obsolete, and many were never realistic. It’s time to go back to Square One and rethink.

Since its founding seventy years ago, Israel has consistently been more of a symbol or a fantasy to Americans than a real place. I can’t pretend to grasp the full significance it has for American Jews, but for the rest of us Israel has meant the Holy Land, a way to make right the collective guilt we felt for doing so little to avert the Holocaust, the heroic Sabras of Leon Uris’ Exodus, a demonstration of the West’s superiority to the decaying Orient, a Cold War destination for talented Jews abandoning the Soviet Union, a David-and-Goliath story of one tiny country standing up to larger ones, and many other things that have been (at best) tangentially related to a real country of real people.

For Evangelical Christians, the founding of Israel started a prophetic clock ticking down to the End Times, when all the Jews who don’t convert will be sadly wiped out, but the rest of us will get to live in Jesus’ Millennial Kingdom. Socialists have idealized the kibbutzim. The alt-Right sees Israel simultaneously as the place they will someday deport American Jews to, and as a model for the ethno-religious state white Christians could make here and in Europe. For globalists, the peace we will someday broker among Israel, its indigenous Palestinians, and its Arab neighbors will prove the righteousness of American power in a unipolar world. For neo-cons, Israel represents a no-nonsense approach to the terrorist threat, unclouded by the hazy illusions of political correctness.

All these constructions are built on a foundation of stereotypes, both positive and negative, about Jews. They are God’s chosen people, the invisible and infinitely manipulative Elders of Zion, both the relatives and the accusers of Jesus, the fast talkers who can sell anything, the source of inexplicably many of the West’s foundational thinkers, or the bankers who always win because they have backed both sides. You can hear echoes of these ancient, quasi-supernatural Jewish powers whenever a conversation turns to Mossad or AIPAC or the Rothschilds or that nebulous collection of “Jews who control the media”. Ordinary notions of possibility and impossibility melt away; they’re Jews, who knows what they can do?

From the beginning, Israel has been both the beneficiary and the victim of the fantasies we project onto them. The benefits have been tangible: billions in American aid every year, American military technology, and the protection of both the American nuclear umbrella and the US veto in the UN Security Council. But our illusions have also been freighted with expectations: Israel should be better than other countries, and should be condemned and even punished when it isn’t.

During the 1948 war that established Israel as a country, Arabs terrified by both real and imagined Jewish atrocities fled the war zone, creating a refugee population that under international law has a right to return home. Since the 1967 war created the Occupied Territories, Israel has ruled a subject population that it treats badly.

But lots of countries are in violation of some international law or another, and lots have subject populations that they treat badly. (Some countries treat all their people badly.) Try being Shia in a Sunni country like Saudi Arabia, or Sunni in a Shia country like Iraq. Hindus and Muslims oppress each other in India and Pakistan. In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority is pushing Muslim Rohingya out of the country, even though they have nowhere to go. Americans, if we bother to inform ourselves about these situations at all, wring our hands helplessly. We don’t organize boycotts or insist that our church or university’s endowment divest holdings tainted by association.

In recent years, Israel’s internal politics have taken a disturbing rightward turn, with growing intolerance and disregard for abstract principles of justice. But so have Hungary’s and Poland’s and (let’s be honest) our own. What fault can you find in Netanyahu that isn’t also present in Trump?

Recent events have been hard to square with American illusions about Israel. Two weeks ago, the United States dedicated a new embassy in Jerusalem, abandoning a long-held bipartisan policy that such a move should wait for a peace treaty putting the status of Jerusalem on a firm international foundation. While this was happening, Palestinian protesters rushed the fence that keeps them trapped in Gaza, and Israeli snipers shot them down by the dozens.

Viewed through one lens, the shooting was entirely justified: The protesters — all hostile, some armed, all attempting to cross an international border — constituted an invading army, or at least an invading mob. Viewed through another, it was a gross overreaction: The Israelis had ample warning and held all the cards; surely they could have devised some less lethal method of crowd control without endangering their soldiers or citizens. Gazan lives, it seems, don’t matter.

For decades, the United States has tried to restrain Israel’s more extreme tendencies. We have discouraged building settlements on disputed territory, pushed for cease-fires, and sometimes even brokered treaties like the Camp David Accords. We have styled ourselves as the holders of the vision of peace, and so we have consistently urged Israel not to do things that can never be undone.

We don’t do that any more. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was full-throated supporter of the Israeli snipers. “No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has,” she told the Security Council. If the Trump administration believes this, it is chilling. It suggests that’s Trump’s wall might someday be manned by snipers indiscriminately gunning down Mexicans because some of them might be MS-13 gangsters.

Increasingly, it is clear that there isn’t going to be a negotiated peace. Gaza is the new model of resolution: Israel will dictate terms. It will set boundaries for zones of Palestinian autonomy, and will decide what that autonomy consists of. Like the reservations the US created for Native Americans, the Palestinian zones will not be economically viable, at least not for the number of people assigned to live there. The best land and the water rights will be reserved for Israeli settlements. As with the Native American reservations, non-viability will be a feature. America hoped its Indians would eventually assimilate into second-class citizenship in white society; Israel hopes that Palestinians will self-deport to Jordan or Egypt or anywhere Israel doesn’t have to deal with them.

All of these developments should raise a question: What is the US role going forward? For decades, Americans have believed that our aid gave us leverage, which we could use to nudge all parties towards a peace agreement. But if we’re not nudging and there isn’t going to be an agreement, what is our aid for? What are we buying? What are we supporting? Why?

I am not proposing answers to those questions. But I am urging all Americans, whether you think of yourself as pro-Israel or anti-Israel or neutral, to rethink your view from first principles. What if we all stopped thinking about Israel in mythic or symbolic terms and instead just thought of it as a country like any other country? In some ways it is like us and in some ways not. In some ways we share its interests and in other ways we don’t. It does things that deserve our support and things that deserve our condemnation.

Like any other country.

When we let go of all the fears and fantasies that we have projected onto Israel, what is left? How should we respond to the reality of Israel as country like any other country?

What Just Happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu trashed President Obama, the peace process, and Israeli Arabs — and made a startling political comeback. Maybe it’s time Americans recognized that Israel has changed.

During George W. Bush’s first term, a lot of thoughtful foreign observers felt sorry for America and its good-hearted citizens. A fluke in our electoral system had allowed Bush to take office even though Al Gore had gotten more votes. Once in power, Bush turned out to be a radical conservative rather than the like-father-like-son moderate many voters had expected.

And now America wasn’t acting like itself at all: It was trumping up bogus reasons to start wars, creating a “law-free zone” in Guantanamo, torturing prisoners caught on the battlefield, and even imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without trials. How sad it must be for the peace-and-freedom-loving people of America, sympathetic foreigners thought, to see what was happening to their country.

Then we re-elected him.

Around the world, the shock of 2004 was the realization that the problem wasn’t him, it was us. Americans, or at least a majority of the Americans willing and able to get out and vote, liked this kind of government. Who could predict what we might do next? [see endnote 1]

That’s what came to my mind Tuesday when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister of Israel.

The spirit of 67. Like a lot of Americans (and in spite of my criticisms of Israeli policy on this blog) I have a deep and irrational affection for Israel. In June of 1967, I was an impressionable ten-year-old stuck inside with a cold and nothing to watch on TV but the Six Day War that was pre-empting all other programming. I was completely sucked in by the David-and-Goliath narrative all three networks presented as tiny Israel thrashed its much larger neighbors. What better fantasies could a housebound Midwestern Lutheran boy ask for than to be an Israeli tank commander kicking up sand in the Sinai, or a pilot screaming over the horizon and striking terror into Egyptian or Jordanian troops? [2]

In the decades that followed, Israelis were easy to identify with: They looked like us and dressed like us and talked like us. All the Israeli leaders who showed up on TV spoke marvelous English. They seemed so polished compared to Yassar Arafat, who always looked dusky and unshaven and foreign. Israel’s armed forces fought like ours, with tech and air power and a high value on each soldiers’ life. Their parliamentary system was more like the British, but that was OK too; it still had campaigns and elections and courts that enforced basic rights.

In high school, I had friends who had been to Israel, and others who wanted to go. They made it sound like such a magical place. Of the Arab countries, only Egypt piqued my interest, and then only the remnants of its dead civilization. Present-day Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus held no similar allure.

Through the 1980s, I paid little attention to the Palestinians. Sinai had gone back to Egypt in the prototype land-for-peace swap, and no doubt the West Bank would eventually be part of some similar deal. It was taking longer than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new and expanding Jewish settlements [3], but peace seemed to be in everyone’s long-term interest, so I had little doubt it would eventually happen.

Since the 1990s, though, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Even appreciating the complexities involved in resolving the problem, it’s hard for me to get past a basic sense of wrongness: This can’t go on. Something has to be done.

Israeli conscience. My main solace these last few decades has been that a lot of Israelis feel that same wrongness. For example, one chapter of Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land discusses his military service as a guard at the Gaza Beach detention camp in 1991, and how he and his fellow soldiers struggled to cope. They know there is no real comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany — for starters, Israel isn’t out to annihilate the Palestinians — but they can’t help but feel the resonances.

And even N., who harbors strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M. explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

I, too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They well up when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fence to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter. They well up when a youngster who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of submission and panic and quiet pride. They well up when I glance at myself in the mirror, shocked to see myself here, a jailer in this ghastly prison. And when I see the thousand or so humans around me, locked up in pens, in cages. …

What makes this camp tick is the division of labor. The division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people. This is how it works: The people who vote for Israel’s right-wing parties are not evil; they do not round up youngsters in the middle of the night. And the ministers who represent the right-wing voters in the government are not evil; they don’t hit boys in the stomach with their own fists. And the army’s chief of staff is not evil; he carries out what a legitimate, elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil — he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. And the interrogators — well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they are told, impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailers, most of them are not evil, either. They only want to leave all this behind and get back home.

Yet in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage together to produce a result that is evil indeed.

Shavit is the great-grandson of one of the original British Zionists, and in his own way remains a Zionist, loyal to his great-grandfather’s Jewish humanism. (In an earlier chapter, he retraces his ancestor’s tour and tries to imagine what he saw and what he was thinking. [4]) He believes the Occupation is a cancer on the original Zionist vision, and it needs to end — not just for the sake of the Arabs, but also for the sake of the Jews.

But he is optimistic. The Zionist story, as Shavit tells it, has always balanced the need for the Jews to survive as a people with their need to survive as a moral people. The current moral challenge is nothing fundamentally new, and Zionists will figure it out as they always have.

The tension Shavit feels between morality and survival reminds me of a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who late in his life hoped for the eventual end of slavery but (fearing a race war if the slaves were freed) saw no practical way to bring it about:

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

I really want to believe Shavit, and to believe in the ability of Israelis like him to meet their moral challenge and shape a just future. But the politics of the Netanyahu era are hard to reconcile with his hopeful vision. And Jefferson’s Virginians never did figure out how to end slavery, did they?

Against democracy. Israelis deal with the contradiction between the Occupation and Israel’s traditional democratic values in two opposite ways: Some, like Shavit, come back from military duty with a determination that the Occupation must end. Others return with a weakened commitment to democracy, an attitude that is sometimes called “bringing the Occupation home”. It is psychologically difficult to serve in the territories, treating Palestinian Arabs as a subject population full of terrorists, and then in civilian life to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens with rights. Even Israeli Jews who oppose the Occupation can come to seem like a dangerous fifth column.

To appreciate the full anti-democratic ugliness of the Netanyahu era, read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Blumenthal is a secular American Jew, the son of the former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Like Shavit, Blumenthal mostly tells stories rather than argues. But the stories he tells come from the kind of Israelis you don’t usually see on CNN: Arabs and left-wing Jews, as well as members of the openly racist parties to Netanyahu’s right. [5]

Americans typically only notice Israel’s foreign policy, but Blumenthal calls attention to disturbing domestic laws that get little coverage in the American media. For example, the government has tried in a variety of ways to make it difficult for Israeli Arabs and their Jewish sympathizers to commemorate the Nakba, a day of mourning for the Palestinians driven from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. [6]

On the Israeli left, there is an effort to boycott products made in the West Bank settlements they consider illegal. But a 2011 law makes promoting such a boycott a civil offense. Simply saying “I think people shouldn’t buy West Bank settlement products” in public could land you in court. Wikipedia summarizes:

The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, [my italics] may be sued civilly, in tort, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

Some Israelis are ignoring the law and daring the government to enforce it, including the Hebrew-language Facebook page “Sue me, I’m boycotting settlement products.”

Most disturbing of all is a Netanyahu-supported and cabinet-approved bill that is still awaiting a final vote in the Knesset: the Nation-State Law, which would end the principle — often ignored by the government, but still occasionally invoked by the Supreme Court — that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law. Haaretz summarizes:

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country’s dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state’s Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

In December, Bernard Avishai put the issues bluntly in The New Yorker:

[T]his bill is about writing into the law old Zionist provisions that have morphed into racist and theocratic practices. It will make judicial correctives nearly impossible. … If it comes to an election, it will be best for democratic forces to unify, not only around what Israel does, but what Israel is. Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not. The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.

Conflict over this bill is part of what led Netanyahu to call for the recent elections. But contrary to his hopes for a clearer mandate, late polls indicated his party might control only 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and that a more liberal coalition might get first crack at forming a new government by controlling 24 seats. [7]

Americans are used to political campaigns ending on a Mom-and-apple-pie note. No matter how radical his positions might be, a candidate closes with an appeal to the center, and attempts to prove to late-deciding voters that he’s not as scary has he’s been made out to be.

Facing defeat, Netanyahu did the exact opposite; he embraced more firmly the ugly side of right-wing politics. He came to America to rally Republicans in Congress against President Obama; he reversed his support for a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians (and then flipped back after the election), leaving the world to wonder whether he has any plan for peace at all [8]; he warned the public of the “danger” posed by Arab voters “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations“, i.e., using their legal rights as Israeli citizens; and he charged that a left-wing government might “follow orders” from the international community rather than defend Israel.

And it worked. In a stunning comeback, his party took 30 seats in the Knesset, which (combined with the vote for other right-wing parties) grants him another term as prime minister. During that term, he will know he owes his office to anti-Arab, anti-peace, anti-international-community, anti-democratic rhetoric.

What this means for Americans. There is still a large bloc of reasonable, humanistic, democracy-valuing, peace-loving Israelis. They are the ones that Americans are more likely to know: more likely to visit this country, more likely to write books published in English, more likely to appear on American TV, and so on. Similarly, Americans who visit Israel will probably spend most of their time inside a bubble of humanistic and democratic sensibility; their academic or business contacts will be largely drawn from educated, well-traveled classes where people yearn for “a globalist Hebrew republic” rather than “a little Jewish Pakistan”. [9]

But what this election should teach us is that those people are not the majority. The problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate. That problem is not going away; it’s getting worse. Israel is drifting away from peace and democracy, with no turnaround in sight. [10]

Americans need to face that reality, and re-evaluate our policies in response to it. We can no longer blindly support the Israeli government, hoping that someday it will produce an Anwar Sadat, or even another Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Those days are over in Israel.

President Obama may be starting to figure that out. If he takes any action based on that new understanding, he will come under a blistering attack from our own right wing. The rest of us will need to have his back.

[1] That’s my explanation for those huge and adoring crowds Barack Obama drew across Europe during his candidacy in 2008. It wasn’t his personal charisma or even the inspiring symbolism of a black president. Europeans looked at Obama’s popularity and hoped: “Maybe the most powerful nation on Earth isn’t crazy.”

[2] I remember a joke from that war: An Egyptian commander sees an Israeli soldier stick his head out from behind a dune, and sends five men after him. None come back. Then he sends twenty men, and none of them come back either. Finally he sends a hundred men. An hour later, one badly wounded soldier crawls back to report. “It was ambush,” he says. “There were two of them.”

[3] I am careful not to use Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, and in this case Jewish is the more appropriate term. Arab citizens of Israel typically are not welcome in the West Bank settlements, even ones their taxes helped build. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Few, if any Arabs live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a surge of violence in recent months has persuaded some to leave those in east Jerusalem.”

The right of Israeli Arabs to live in certain parts of Israel is also controversial.

[4] If I met Shavit, I’m sure we’d find a lot to argue about. But he has written a really good book. It is not an argument, but a series of historical vignettes of the Zionist movement. (HBO is about to make it into a movie.) As Palestinian author Sami al Jundi recognized in The Hour of Sunlight, the way to bridge a divide is not to convince opponents with your arguments, but to engage them with your stories.

[5] In his closing chapter, Blumenthal spends time with young leftist Israeli Jews who can no longer live in Israel freely or in good conscience. He finds an active community of Israeli expatriates in — of all places — Berlin.

A more nuanced but equally disturbing account of Israeli society is a review of Goliath by anthropologist (and self-described “nice Jewish girl”) Callie Madhof.

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

[6] The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.

[7] Forming a 61-vote majority is even harder than it looks, because no Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, forcing would-be prime ministers to cobble together super-majorities of the primarily Jewish parties. (That’s what has given those tiny religious parties their clout through the years.) The Joint Arab List captured 14 seats Tuesday.

[8] Marc Schulman commented in the Times of Israel:

[W]e have always claimed that the Palestinians were the ones who were guilty of saying one thing in Arabic to their home audience, and something different on the international stage. Now … our Prime Minister has been caught brazenly doing the same thing.

My reading of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state peace plan is similar to my reading of his support for a “better deal” with Iran: He is always available to accept his enemies’ surrender, but has no interest in finding a mutually acceptable compromise.

[9] Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

[10] Optimists will point out that the United States rejected Bushism in 2008. But that reversal did not come from any new understanding, it resulted from external shocks: the Iraq War turning into a disaster and the economy collapsing. To hope for a similar Israeli turnaround means hoping for similar external shocks.

Gaza, as seen from a distance

Last week I punted on the Israel/Gaza situation, because what I was reading contained more noise and spin than information and insight, and I didn’t want to make that situation worse. This week I can do a little better.

Immediate causes. ThinkProgress provides a timeline tracing the back-and-forth escalation that began with the disappearance (on June 12) of three Israeli teens who later (June 30) were found dead. Israel blamed Hamas, whose leaders didn’t claim responsibility (as they usually do; Hamas’ leadership constantly battles the perception that it’s toothless against Israel), and began arresting Hamas leaders and their associates in the West Bank, including some released in a previous deal. Hamas saw the kidnapping as a pretext for Israel to renege on that deal, and fired (mostly ineffective) rockets from Gaza in protest.

From there things escalated as they so often do. Israeli troops entered Gaza Thursday night.

A different angle on the immediate causes of the conflict comes from Nathan Thrall’s op-ed in the NYT. Since 2007, the limited autonomy that Israel allows Palestinians has been split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. But Hamas has fallen on hard times recently because of the rapidly diminishing value of its alliances. You can think of Hamas as the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian franchise controlled that country for about a year between the fall of the Mubarak government in 2011 and the subsequent military coup, but is now struggling to survive a major crackdown. The Assad regime in Syria was another Hamas ally, but it is now focused on its own problems. Iran’s aid has also diminished.

So in June Hamas was driven to reconcile with Fatah, more or less turning Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but leaving its 43,000 civil servants in place. Currently, none of those people is being paid, mostly for reasons having to do with Israel and the United States. (Qatar is willing to pay them until something else can be worked out, but that solution is being blocked.) The other thing Hamas hoped to accomplish by getting itself out of the governance business was that Egypt might re-open its border with Gaza, which would be a big deal in the Gazan economy. That’s not happening either.

So Hamas wants:

  • Israeli troops out of Gaza.
  • End the recent Israeli crackdown on Hamas’ people and release the ones who had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
  • Get the Gaza civil servants paid somehow.
  • Open Gaza’s Egyptian border.

Israel wants Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to stop kidnapping/murder operations in Israel. (The rockets don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm, but it’s the principle of the thing.) I’m not sure what Egypt’s military government wants.

This is where the topsy-turvy logic of the situation comes into play: A ceasefire doesn’t get Hamas most of what it wants — which is why it rejected an Egyptian proposal — but all Hamas has to threaten Israel with at the moment (beyond those pinprick rockets) is bad publicity. The more Gazan civilians die, the more support builds for boycotts of Israel and divestment from companies that do business with Israel. It’s like: “If you don’t give us what we want, you’ll have to kill more of us, and then you’ll be sorry.”

In the long run, how does this end? Whenever the Israel/Palestine conflict flares up, it’s easy to get lost in arguments about the most recent actions of each side; whether what one side just did justifies what the other just did, and so forth. I think it’s important to keep pulling back to the big question: How does this conflict end? I can only see four outcomes:

  1. Two states. Some border line is agreed upon between Israel and Palestine, and they become two independent countries with full sovereignty.
  2. One state with democracy. The Palestinians are made full citizens of a unified state. Given demographic trends, they are eventually the majority.
  3. It never ends. The Palestinians remain a subject population ruled or otherwise dominated by Israel. Israelis continue to be targets of terrorist resistance.
  4. Ethnic cleansing. Israel kills or expels large numbers of Palestinians (or otherwise induces them to emigrate), leaving behind a Greater Israel with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority.

It’s important to realize that anyone who finds both (1) and (2) unacceptable is de facto advocating (3) or (4), because those are the only choices.

Some Israelis seem to believe in an outcome (3A), in which the Israeli occupation continues, but the Palestinians are so beaten down that they submit peacefully. I’m pretty sure that’s a fantasy. I don’t know what level of oppression would be necessary to make (3A) happen (if it’s possible at all), but everything that the Russians have been willing to unleash on the Chechens has been insufficient. Israelis need to take that example seriously: They’d need a strongman stronger than Putin to make (3A) work.

Another version of (3A) is: Palestinians end all resistance for a long enough time that Israelis feel safe, and then Israel will consider what rights the Palestinians should have. That’s another fantasy. Nothing in the history of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians entitles them to that level of trust. In fact, I don’t trust the Israelis that far, and I’ve got no skin in the game at all. I believe that once the terrorist threat subsided, Israel would forget about the Palestinians until the violence restarted, and then claim all over again that no deal can be reached until the violence stops.

So I repeat: The four outcomes listed above are the only ones.

With that in mind, it’s discouraging to read the recent remarks by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.

That eliminates (1). (2) is obviously unthinkable to anyone who values Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. So this goes on forever or there’s ethnic cleansing.

Moral calculus. A lot of the media back-and-forth concerns the morality of the two sides. The argument comes down to: Hamas targets civilians while Israel takes steps to avoid killing civilians, but Israel’s weapons are so much more effective that they end up killing far more civilians than Hamas does, on the order of hundreds to one.

Another reason for the disparity is that Israel prioritizes civil defense, while Hamas puts military targets in civilian areas and doesn’t even build bomb shelters. As Netanyahu put it on Fox News:

Here’s the difference between us. We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.

Charles Krauthammer quoted that line in a WaPo column called “Moral Clarity in Gaza“.

Personally, I see this less as a moral difference between the two sides than a difference in their tactical situations. Gaza has no way to stop the Israeli attack by force. Israel will stop when the number of dead civilians creates enough international pressure. So Gazan civil defense would just enable the Israeli attacks to go on longer, with the same eventual body count. What’s Hamas’ motivation to go that route?

And that brings me to a moral principle that I think deserves more attention: Asymmetric warfare is morally asymmetric. In other words: If you are so much more powerful than your adversaries that your decisions create the gameboard and dictate the moves available to the players, then your actions have to be judged differently. You bear responsibility for the shape of the game itself, and not just for the moves you make.

Friendly frustration. Even pro-Israel commentators at some level realize the tactical and strategic realities. Krauthammer writes:

[Hamas rocket fire] makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Taken for granted here is that the Israelis are helpless in the face of this masterful strategy: They must fire back, even if that’s what Hamas wants. Perversely, Krauthammer presents Hamas as the player powerful enough to have choices, while Israel is driven by necessity.

Friends of Israel more in touch with reality are frustrated by the Netanyahu government’s lack of vision. Fred Kaplan describes the short-term logic of invading Gaza, but then laments:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. … Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. … Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.

At The Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg marked yesterday as the moment when the tide turned against Israel. After initially receiving a certain amount of international support — or at least seeing Hamas condemned in equal-or-worse terms

What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. … The sympathy Israel won because of the kidnapping and shelling is melting before our eyes. Until the weekend, protests of Israel’s actions were limited to street demonstrations by leftists and Muslims in various cities around the world, with almost no governmental backing. Now governments are starting to switch sides. … Many Israelis will argue in the next few days that the mounting international criticism is hypocritical, that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the fast growing civilian toll is entirely Hamas’ fault. Whatever the merits of the arguments, they have lost their audience.

Meta-discussion. In some ways as interesting as the discussion itself is the meta-discussion about how to discuss such a divisive topic, where the sides are dug in so deeply and so many of the arguments rehearsed and ready to pull off the shelf. Also at The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michelson posts “5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame“. He’s basically rediscovering the three principles of Quaker discussions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And he asks:

If a bunch of privileged Americans with so little at personal stake can’t internalize the importance of multiple narratives, how do we expect Israelis and Palestinians — both of whom are living under threat of imminent death, while I sit behind a screen in Brooklyn — to do better?

And the blog This is Not Jewish gives instructions on “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic“. Knowing how off-base the line “Democrats think anybody who criticizes Obama is racist” is, I was ready to be skeptical of “Jews think anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic.” In each case, it’s easy to be a lot more racially or ethnically offensive than you realize, and so get hit with criticism that you deserve, but think you don’t deserve. (“What I meant …” is not a defense. And anything that includes the phrase “if I offended anybody” is not an apology.)

Many of the tips are common sense, if you stop to think about it (i.e., don’t appeal to stereotypes). But I had never made the connection between labeling Israel-supporting Jews as “bloodthirsty” and the pogrom-causing blood libel, in which Jews are accused of literally drinking the blood of sacrificed Christian children. I don’t believe I’ve ever violated that rule, but duh, why didn’t I see that? Also be careful about equating Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, who are three different groups of people.

And finally, it’s crazy to hold your local Jewish community responsible for whatever Israel might be doing. (Just like it was crazy to hold your local Muslims responsible for 9-11.) As John Lloyd points out:

There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

All four of my grandparents were German-Americans during the World Wars. None of that was our fault, and I’m willing to let Americans of all other ethnicities make similar claims.

What Free Market?

Do you think it’s hard to get your child into Harvard? Try getting a new product onto the shelf of a big chain of stores in the United States.

— Barry Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism
and the Economics of Destruction 


This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

but you knew that.

… and Chick-fil-A and Mitt Romney’s foreign tour

I covered Chick-fil-A in Is That Sandwich Political?, but let’s deal with Romney’s trip here.

Romney’s tour of Britain, Israel, and Poland was designed to add foreign-policy heft to his image, but the British leg didn’t work out.

That pretty well covers it. Prime Minister David Cameron is a British conservative, but Romney exasperated him to the point where he stuck this knife in:

Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.

Some anonymous Romney adviser really did talk about the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” Obama can’t appreciate, which is even a step beyond calling him “foreign“. Why not just say, “White people shouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black” and get it over with?

These stumbles happen abroad for the same reason they happen at home: Romney’s lack of empathy gives him a tin ear. Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out that Romney’s business experience differs greatly from previous generations of businessmen-turned-statesmen, who actually built things and sold them, and so had to learn to deal with workers and customers. But Bain’s brand of financial manipulation

is not the sort of enterprise that requires even the most elementary understanding of diplomacy, courtesy, or sensitivity to other people’s values, lives, or perceptions.

Instead, it

breed[s] an insularity, a sense of entitlement, a disposition to view all the world’s entities through a single prism and to appraise them along a single scale.

Growing up as the rich son of the governor probably didn’t help either.

I agree with Kevin Drum’s analysis the foreign-policy speech that kicked Romney’s tour off: He’s trying to cast a striking image without saying anything. What little remains beyond the I-will-be-strong-where-Obama-is-weak rhetoric is either vague, outside the president’s power, or exactly what Obama is already doing.

… but I also wrote about monopolies

  • Monopoly’s role in inequality. In my previous discussions of rising inequality, I’ve always felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing. I think I found it.

and you might also be interested in …

The death of first-female-astronaut Sally Ride put a face on the injustice of the Defense of Marriage Act. Most of us learned that Ride was a lesbian only when her obituary named Tam O’Shaughnessy as her 27-year domestic partner. Under DOMA, O’Shaughnessy will not receive the federal survivor benefits that a male husband would get.

The guy who all but invented the too-big-to-fail bank has changed his mind. Former Citicorp honcho Sandy Weill now says

What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail.

In short, let’s just pretend the last two decades never happened.

How does a bill become law? Not the way it used to.

The NYT op-ed Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay by settler Dani Dayan underlines just how intractable the Israel/Palestine conflict is. Dayan presents a we’re-right-they’re-wrong history of the conflict and says a two-state solution is unworkable because

Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile

If a two-state solution is out, then what happens to the Palestinians? I can only see three options:

  • ethnic cleansing: Perhaps Israel could use the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 as a model.
  • democratic annexation: Palestinians become citizens of a democratic Greater Israel, which might not have a Jewish majority. (This is sometimes called the one-state solution.)
  • status quo: Palestinians remain a subject population ruled by Israel.

Dayan opts for the status quo, which he thinks is “immeasurably better than any other feasible alternative”. It could be improved, but only if Palestinians would accept the irreversibility of their subjugation and stop resisting.

Checkpoints are a necessity only if terror exists; otherwise, there should be full freedom of movement.

If Dayan speaks for some sizable and committed bloc of Israelis — and the NYT apparently thinks he does — then I can’t see this conflict resolving for at least another generation.

He may or may not be a reliable witness, but a Florida Republican is blowing the whistle on voter-ID laws, or, as he puts it “keeping blacks from voting”. And Harold Meyerson asks: What if it works? If Romney wins, and his margin in key states is clearly the result of voter suppression, are we all just going to go along?

Pastor Rick Warren appeared to blame the Aurora shooting on evolutionists, tweeting:

When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.

It’s weird how people demonize animals, who aren’t nearly as nasty as humans. How do you think this young mountain gorilla (being comforted by a park ranger in the Congo after his parents were killed by poachers) feels about human morality?

The next installment of the Nuns vs. the Inquisition saga is about to start. In our last episode, board members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious went to Rome, where Grand Inquisitor Levada said they should regard Rome appointing a man to watch over them as “an invitation to obedience”. (I think I would have issued a counter-invitation for Levada to do something impossible with his anatomy, but I guess that’s why I’m not a nun.)

This week the LCWR will meet in St. Louis to discuss

at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.

When Republicans liked the Arab Spring rebellions, they gave the credit to Bush’s freedom agenda. Now that they’ve decided they don’t like the Arab Spring, they claim it was caused by Obama abandoning Bush’s freedom agenda.

I don’t understand why everyone isn’t saying the obvious things Elizabeth Warren says: Our infrastructure is crumbling, people need jobs, and the government can borrow money at rates lower than inflation. What’s the downside?

It might even save money in the long run: If, say, we buried our power lines, we wouldn’t lose all that productivity every time the weather turned bad.

The WaPo debunks Five myths about why the South seceded. The truth is pretty simple: The southern states seceded to defend slavery; they said so themselves in their secession statements. And then Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.

To understand why articles like this are necessary, read the comments.

President Obama isn’t saying the kind of outrageous things the Romney campaign wants to run against, so they’re editing tape to create gaffes. Ezra Klein covers this issue seriously,

And Lewis Black approaches it humorously, but Mike Luckovich captures what’s going on in one image:

Finally, ABC’s Jake Tapper has solved the mystery of the Churchill bust. Will the Romney campaign stop telling the story now that we know there’s nothing going on, or is that too much to ask?

The Sifted Bookshelf: The Hour of Sunlight

The Hour of SunlightWhen extremists have been shouting — and sometimes shooting — at each other for generations, the center is a hard position to hold. Each side has its own version of history, which begins with its own people minding their own business and being horribly victimized by the other side. Each side has its own framing of law and justice and human rights, in which it has always been right and the other side has always been wrong. Even the horrible things that are undeniable — the killing of innocents, the torture of helpless prisoners — were only done to prevent (or in reprisal for) something worse perpetrated by the other side.

Sami al Jundi believes that people need to tell each other their personal stories, and that when they do, they will empathize with each other and start trying to find common solutions. That’s what he does in The Hour of Sunlight. Al Jundi is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and a secularized Muslim. His story is hard to pigeon-hole or stereotype, and that is the strength of his book. It made me wonder how many other stories of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians don’t fit into any of the standard molds.

Sami was a boy when Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. He grew up with family stories of leaving Deir Yassin in 1948 after a massacre that some Israeli writers say never happened. He grew up with a resentment against Israel and a desire to strike back. When he was a teen-ager, his two best friends went to Syria for a few days of training, and came back determined to make bombs. They blew themselves up. One died, while Sami and the other boy were badly injured. Sami got some experience of Israeli interrogation techniques and a ten-year prison sentence.

Prison, oddly enough, is where al Jundi gets his education in politics, in history, and eventually in non-violence. The political-prisoner community had a strong sense of identity, a strong education program, and the most idealistic democratic process al Jundi ever runs into. After a few years, though, an influx of new prisoners from Gaza produces a new regime and a paranoid search for collaborators. This is the first of many disillusionments about his own people that al Jundi suffers.

A greater disillusionment happens after he is free, and the Oslo agreement seems to promise peace. Al Jundi’s initial euphoria dissolves from both directions: The Israelis continue to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the Palestinian Authority replaces the indigenous semi-democratic Palestinian underground leadership with the corrupt authoritarianism of the newly-returned PLO exiles.

His idealism leads him to work with Seeds of Peace, a group (founded and largely funded by American Jews) that brings Israeli and Palestinian youths together in workshops in Maine, where they learn nonviolence and listen to each other’s experiences. Al Jundi tries to keep the “seeds” (as the youths are called) integrated after they return to Israel/Palestine, and several invite each other to speak at their high schools.

This too falls apart from both sides. The Israeli government is upset that Jewish seeds are becoming conscientious objectors to military service, and Palestinians accuse al Jundi of being a “normalizer” — someone who wants to defang Palestinian resistance without overcoming Israeli oppression. Eventually, he is dismissed because Seeds of Peace can no longer countenance employing someone with his criminal record.

If Hour of Sunlight followed formula, this setback would be the prelude to an even bigger victory. But, at least so far, it hasn’t been. Al Jundi retains his faith in peace-making, in non-violence, and in democracy. But how he will manifest these ideas in the future remains unclear.

Crimes Uncovered

We must make atonement for all the terrible crimes we read of in the newspapers. We must make atonement for the still worse ones, which we do not read about in the papers.

— Albert Schweitzer

In this week’s Sift:

Tortured Coverage: Two Problems in 21st Century News

Two recent stories about torture expose different aspects of what’s wrong with American journalism.

In the first, a study by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government demonstrated that major newspapers’ characterization of waterboarding abruptly changed in 2004, when it came out that the U.S. government was doing it. Prior to public knowledge of American involvement, 44 out of 54 New York Times stories that mentioned waterboarding characterized it as torture, but only 2 out of 143 subsequent articles did. The LA Times was also studied and its numbers showed a similar pattern.

The raw numbers are bad enough, but then you get to the NYT’s self-justification:

As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture. When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.

Translation: The Bush administration told us not to call it torture, so we stopped. Similarly the Washington Post:

After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

What’s wrong here? Waterboarding-as-torture didn’t become “contentious” because some new information threw previous judgments into doubt. It became contentious because an interested party — the U.S. government — started contending against it in defiance of all previous objective standards.

And the major newspapers buckled. By backing off of a word the government didn’t want them to use, reversing their previous judgments about its meaning and proper use, they did take a side in the political dispute. I’ll let Glenn Greenwald sum up:

We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task: once the U.S. Government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term. That compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.

The second story is also about torture, but on a much smaller scale: A former Chicago police lieutenant was just convicted of torturing sometimes-false confessions out of suspects, some of whom have subsequently been released from death row and won a suit against the city. The case came out of a series of articles investigative reporter John Conroy wrote for the Chicago Reader, starting in 1990.

Chicago public radio station WBEZ lucked out in its coverage of the trial: Conroy was available to blog about it because he’s unemployed. Like most big-city papers, the Reader has been laying off reporters — obviously not just the deadwood.

So who’s going to catch the next torturing cop? And who’s going to look into the stories of the people who are still in jail based on their tortured confessions? Not Conroy — now that the trial’s over, he needs to go find a job.

Immigration Reform: Comprehensive or Cartoon?

The Obama administration did two things to push the immigration issue forward in the past two weeks: President Obama gave a speech outlining what immigration reform ought to look like, and the Justice Department filed suit to keep Arizona from enforcing its papers-please law, S.B. 1070. [text of federal complaint. text of 1070]

The course of the immigration debate boils down to this: The problem is simple to describe, and there’s a simple-minded solution that feels satisfying but is cartoonishly unrealistic. Nobody wants to hear complicated answers this year, so every discussion founders on why we can’t just do the cartoonish thing.


Here’s the simple problem: Millions — nobody’s sure exactly how many millions — of people came to this country illegally and live here either under false identities or off the books entirely. This has both good and bad effects on our economy (which I’ll discuss next week). It creates a big hole in our homeland security (because malevolent foreigners might hide in the crowd of harmless people who sneak into the U.S. and live here illegally). And it undermines our worker-protection and public-health laws (because undocumented workers won’t complain to the authorities, and who knows whether their children get vaccinations).

The simple-minded solution is that you build a wall at the border, then pick up the millions of illegal immigrants and dump them on the other side. Patrol the wall with enough troops to shoot anybody who tries to come back. Done.

As soon as you start adding details to that picture, though, the whole thing falls apart. For instance: If a wall will solve the problem, then why is there an illegal Chinese immigrant problem in Israel? They didn’t walk there.

We want foreigners to come here as tourists, students, and on business of various sorts. And we want to be the kind of open society where the government doesn’t keep track of our every move and force us to keep proving that we’re legal. So unless we’re willing to assign Soviet-style minders to every foreign family that goes to Disney World, we’re going to have illegal immigrants.

Now start imagining the Gestapo you’d need to round up millions of people, many of whom have been here for years and have friends and relatives who are legal residents with attics and basements. At a bare minimum, you’d need national ID cards, surprise house-to-house searches, and big penalties for those giving shelter. Where does that go? Years from now, high school students in Germany might be reading the tragic diary of some teen-age Anna Francisco from Indianapolis.

So if you think about the issue for more than a minute or two, you begin to see that we can’t solve this problem unless the vast majority of our undocumented residents cooperate. We can track down some of them, but we’ll need most them to come in voluntarily and register. And that means that our program has to have more carrots than sticks.

Conservatives hate that, because their instinctive reaction to any problem is to punish some non-wealthy person who doesn’t resemble them. But no punishment-based program can solve this problem.

We need what President Obama (and President Bush before him) described: a comprehensive plan that tightens the border, cracks down on employers, and offers undocumented residents legal status if they jump through a series of hoops. Such a program won’t bring the undocumented population down to zero — nothing short of ethnic cleansing will. But it should cut the problem down a few sizes.

Unfortunately, you have to get past the Wile E. Coyote solutions before you can even talk about anything realistic. And even Republican senators who know better aren’t willing to stand up to their radical base.

The federal suit against Arizona has a simple point: Regulating immigration is a federal responsibility, and the federal government needs to have the discretion to handle it. For example, it’s federal policy not to deport refugees who come here fleeing oppression. The Arizona law has no provision for that.

The best place I’ve found for studying the immigration issue is the Immigration Policy Center.

Obama’s immigration enforcement techniques are less showy and more effective than Bush’s.

The NYT has a fascinating article about the long-term unemployed. On the third page we find this:

“I would take a gardening job,” said a 58-year-old woman who had earned $24 an hour as an office manager. “I would clean toilets if I could, but I can’t take that job. Millions of people in California are illegal and they’re taking our jobs.”

A long list of factors went into explaining what had happened to the American economy so that former professionals conversant in spreadsheets and mutual funds were now chagrined to be denied the opportunity to scrub toilets. To a student of macroeconomics, the arrival of illegal immigrants seemed far down the list, somewhere after weak long-term job growth and the near collapse of the financial system.

But to unemployed people trying to divine a cause through the miasmatic haze of their own situations, the presence of illegal immigrants was the explanation they could see most clearly. You could spot them on street corners, waiting for work. You could see them crammed into rental homes, or hear their music blaring from pickup trucks. Joblessness was disorienting. Illegal immigrants formed the only putative cause that lived next door.

DOMA is Unconstitutional

Thursday, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that a big chunk of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

The case. It’s easy for the facts of a case like this to get lost in the subsequent debate, so I’ll state them up front: Seven same-sex couples who are legally married in Massachusetts applied for federal benefits that opposite-sex married couples routinely get (like family health insurance for federal employees), but they were denied because of DOMA. Three surviving same-sex spouses applied for federal survivor benefits under Social Security and were also denied.

Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that they should get their benefits (with one exception on a technicality). From here the case will almost certainly go to an appellate court and then to the Supreme Court before it is finally resolved.

DOMA. Congress passed DOMA in 1996, shortly after a case in Hawaii raised the possibility that same-sex marriage might become legal in that state. (It still hasn’t happened. Hawaii’s governor vetoed a same-sex civil-union law Tuesday. Same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004 and is now also legal in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Wikipedia has the details.)

DOMA says two main things:

  • States don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
  • Every reference to “marriage” in federal law means opposite-sex marriage.

Judge Tauro ruled that the second is unconstitutional. The first provision is also constitutionally suspect (Article IV: “Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.”), but it didn’t come up in this case, so it is unaffected.

The reasoning. Most of the coverage of this decsion has emphasized the 10th Amendment states-rights angle. (In ratifying the Consitutiton, the states never surrendered their right to define marriage.) But that’s not the argument that does the heavy lifting.

If you’ve read any other decision that defended same-sex marriage, this one looks a lot the same. They all start with the 14th amendment, which promises “equal protection under the laws” to every person under the jurisdiction of the United States.

In practice, this means that if the government treats one class of citizens differently from another, it needs to have a good reason. How good a reason depends several factors, but the lowest hurdle a law has to jump is the rational basis test:

A law that touches on a constitutionally protected interest must be rationally related to furthering a legitimate government interest.

In other words, Congress can’t pass a law just to screw with some group it doesn’t like. For example, the laws against burglary were passed in order to protect property (a legitimate government interest), not just to screw with burglars because their lifestyle offends Congress’ sense of morality.

Judge Tauro went through the reasons originally given when DOMA was passed, plus a couple of others put forward by the Justice Department (which defended the case on behalf of the government — more about that later), and found that denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples is not rationally related to any of those goals.

[For example, the administration argued that the federal government has an interest in the simplicity of standardizing benefits state-to-state. Judge Tauro found that the federal government had never before worried about the different standards for marriage in the various states, and does not now worry about it with respect to any other issue:

a thirteen year-old female and a fourteen year-old male, who have the consent of their parents, can obtain a valid marriage license in the state of New Hampshire. Though this court knows of no other state in the country that would sanction such a marriage, the federal government recognizes it as valid simply because New Hampshire has declared it to be so.

Worse, this new desire to choose which state-approved marriages it will recognize has actually complicated the federal government’s process rather than simplifying it.]

Putting Tauro’s conclusion very simply: The disadvantages DOMA inflicts on married same-sex couples aren’t unfortunate side-effects of a law with some other good purpose. Disadvantaging same-sex couples is the purpose of the law. And that’s not rationally related to any legitimate government interest.

The Obama Administration’s Role. This case puts the administration in a difficult position. The executive branch has an obligation to defend the laws as written. (Article II, Section 3: The president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”) So when someone sues to have a law declared unconstitutional, the Justice Department defends.

On the other hand, President Obama is on record saying that DOMA ought to be repealed. One way to get rid of it would be not to defend suits against it. But that’s a bad process, and is exactly the kind of abuse of executive power I complain about in other contexts.

Taken to an extreme, this practice would allow the president and one federal judge to repeal any law they don’t like: You file a test case in the judge’s district, and then the president orders the Justice Department not to appeal when the judge finds the law unconstitutional. Bye-bye law.

Imagine, say, a President Palin or Huckabee refusing to defend a suit against the insurance mandate of the health care reform law. We don’t want to go there. The administration should hold its nose and appeal, and I’m sure they will.

Israel, Palestine, and the New York Times

Without any intention on my part, this week’s whole Sift revolves around the virtues and vices of the New York Times. Maybe I’m just reading articles I used to skim or skip over, but it looks to me like the Times made a conscious decision to deepen its Israel/Palestine coverage after the Gaza flotilla raid.

Usually our news media looks at the world through frogs’ eyes. It only sees motion, so issues can drop out of its sight just by standing still. Israel/Palestine is exactly the kind of topic it covers badly: an ongoing situation where one day looks a lot like the next. These situations may be important, but they’re not “news” in the very literal sense that nothing new happened today.

That was the whole point of the Gaza flotilla. The Israeli government has been very good at pressing the Palestinians without making news, and the flotilla was an attempt to create a newsworthy event that would draw attention to the larger situation.

It’s been working, at least at the NYT, which lately has been sending people out to cover Palestine-related situations that lack any eye-catching event. On July 5 it published a long article about American charities aiding West Bank settlements that the Israeli government considers illegal. Israelis would not be able to get tax deductions for making such contributions, but Americans do.

The money goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like, legitimate expenditures under the tax law. But it has also paid for more legally questionable commodities: housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.

Interestingly, some of the most radical of the American groups are evangelical Christians, known as Christian Zionists.

This article was followed up on July 7 by a “Room for Debate” segment where eight writers answered the question: “Do U.S. donors drive Israeli politics?

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof has been spending time in the region. Thursday’s column drew attention to dissident opinion within Israel, like Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis For Human Rights.

Rabbis for Human Rights has helped Palestinians recover some land through lawsuits in Israeli courts. And Rabbi Ascherman and other Jewish activists escort such farmers to protect them. The settlers still attack, but soldiers are more likely to intervene when it is rabbis being clubbed.

Kristof draws attention to something that I also have been struck by as I’ve dug deeper into these issues:

The most cogent critiques of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians invariably come from Israel’s own human rights organizations. The most lucid unraveling of Israel’s founding mythology comes from Israeli historians. The deepest critiques of Israel’s historical claims come from Israeli archeologists (one archeological organization, Emek Shaveh, offers alternative historical tours so that visitors can get a fuller picture). This more noble Israel, refusing to retreat from its values even in times of fear and stress, is a model for the world.

In Kristof’s previous column he visited a smuggler’s tunnel on the Egyptian side of Gaza. He reports that there are many such tunnels running 24/7 — enough that “shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years ago.”

Far from hurting Hamas, Kristof claims, the blockade has created a tunnel economy that Hamas can more easily tax and control, while ruining the Gazan business community that otherwise might be a moderating force.

Short Notes

The Sift has a new look online. That’s partly because I decided to redesign, and partly because changes in Google Docs broke the way I used to do things. Comments are welcome both on the overall look and on things that don’t work they way you expect them to.

More and more people — the NYT, for example — are starting to notice that judicial activism is a conservative vice, not a liberal one.

It’s dangerous to heckle a comic.

Bonddad gives a primer on the lagging employment picture. And here’s another link to that NYT article about long-term unemployment.

Sharon Angle is working hard to blow what should be an easy job: beating Harry Reid in Nevada in an anti-incumbent year. Salon lists her latest blunders.

This one’s my favorite: After winning the Republican primary, she scrubbed her web site of a lot of the wacky right-wing positions that would hurt her in the general election. OK, everybody does stuff like that to a certain extent. But Harry Reid had saved the old Angle web-site material, and when he reposted it, Angle threatened to sue. How dare Reid make Angle’s previous positions available to the voters in her own words!

You know who’s most likely to walk away from a bad mortgage? Rich people.