29 November 2006

Is Zionism Still Relevant?

I have been meaning to post about -- and post a link to -- Jewcy.com for several weeks now, but today is definitely a good day to do it.

Jewcy.com is running a new series of exchanges under the title "Is Zionism Still Relevant to the American Jew?", an exchange between David Shneer and Stefan Kanfer to address the conundrum of whether or not, as the Jewcy.com editors were told, "your demographic does not want to read about Israel. They don’t care. They’re not interested."

Anyone who regularly reads what I write knows care about Israel -- and consider myself a Zionist. And I suspect I'm in Jewcy.com's demographic. And I am fairly sure I know a few other folks from our demographic who care (even if they feel differently about the situation than I).

So, have it, folks; on Day 1 of this exchange, I'm enjoying the read.

26 November 2006

Reconciliation & Resistance

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It is difficult to overstate the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so any project that attempts to drill its way into the middle of it and pull apart some of the strands for closer public examination deserves support. One recent effort is the documentary Encounter Point, produced by the non-partisan, peace-focused organization Just Vision. It is a smart, tightly woven piece of film-making that focuses on the stories of eight Israelis and Palestinians, as they attempt to engage with – and change – the very split societies around them.

At the center of the movie is the Bereaved Families Forum, a mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis born of loss, and a desire to use individual tragedies to build bridges to the “other” side – not just to achieve some kind of emotional healing, but to attempt to prevent such tragedies in the future. Death is inevitable, but early death through warfare is not, and few know that better than the relatives of those people killed in a conflict as long-standing and – let it be said – senseless as this one. From this group, we are introduced to several people, and the film follows them through different moments in their lives when they must confront the conflict around them, as well as the solidity of their own beliefs. (Click here for in-depth information about some of the people featured in the film, thanks to its excellent web site.) As the film’s web site says, “Audiences are left with a sense that the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians is at once bridgeable and tremendously wide.” That is certainly true.

But there is another, less convenient truth (to borrow from a different recent documentary) at the center of Encounter Point. There are two words, two concepts, that pop up over and over throughout the film: reconciliation and resistance. The embodiment of reconciliation seems to be Robi Damelin, a Jewish Israeli of South African origin whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while he was fighting in the army; the sniper becomes a hero in the Palestinian communities of the West Bank as a result of his successful murder of an Israeli soldier. We follow Robi as she comes to terms with her loss, and explains again and again – to different audiences, including those of us watching the documentary – why the death of her son does not, as some would have it, automatically lead to hatred of all Palestinians.

Ali Abu Awwad, a young man Hebron who has been shot, jailed, and lost family members to the conflict, is the embodiment of Palestinian resistance. For Ali, the Bereaved Families Forum is an opportunity for reconciliation, to understand the senseless loss on all sides of this conflict, but it also serves as fuel for what he believes is crucially important for Palestinians: non-violent resistance. Where Robi (and others of the Jewish Israelis in the film) seem to talk about reconciliation in terms of a more immediate, active peace-making, Ali very articulately deconstructs the notion of reconciliation and instead frames his devotion to the cause in terms of a wholly different approach to what remains a very active conflict. Two of the best scenes in the film feature Ali tackling this issue. In one, he has gone to visit a cousin at a rehabilitation center in Bethlehem; the cousin, a teenager, was shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers. Ali then winds up in the center’s cafeteria discussing the importance of talking with Israelis – and of non-violent resistance – to a number of other wounded Palestinians. It isn’t initially clear how much progress he makes; both ideas seem completely off the wall to young men whose lives have been defined, emotionally and physically, violence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In another scene, Ali meets Shlomo, a Jewish Israeli who has spent much of his life in a West Bank settlement and for whom this appears to be his first conversation with a real, live Palestinian; it is eye-opening for the mutual honesty both of them bring to their discussion.

Left somewhat unresolved in all this is the underlying tension between people from two very different communities who must, ultimately, face a reality that may be unpleasant: any resolution to this conflict will require compromise, an idea which is not really discussed in the film. Still, non-violence and compromise may be the two most important things that Encounter Point has to teach us. Ali makes reference to the role that non-violence should have in Palestinian resistance, and he talks about the success of the Indian movement for independence, in which Mahatma Gandhi’s persistent emphasis on non-violence ultimately forced the hands of the British. As I have written before (and here, too), this is an idea sorely lacking within the Palestinian community – and more’s the pity, since it would dramatically turn the tables on the Israeli prosecution of the war. (Just in the last week, with the Palestinians surrounding a house in Gaza to prevent it from being bombed by the Israelis, it is possible to imagine change: these “human shields” forced the Israelis not to attack, which in turn means one less demand for violent vengeance from the Palestinian armed groups (terrorists or not) in response to the destruction of another house. Violence only begets violence.)

In fact, the idea of teaching peace is spread across many people and organizations working to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for example, Seeds of Peace, where Sami Al Jundi (also featured in the film) worked, relies on the idea of (teenage) reconciliation to forge a new generation of Middle Easterners who will talk, not fight. But based on my conversations with a number of the organization’s leaders, Seeds of Peace seems to resist the idea of explicitly teaching the fundamentals of pacifism or non-violence, which might better prepare those same kids for a future that is not at all as easily managed as the one-on-one reconciliation that can happen at a summer camp in Maine.

Encounter Point is fascinating, and for anyone who follows the details of this tragic conflict it is a must-see documentary. I suppose there is something to be said for the film attempting a kind of neutrality, for not pushing too hard at what resistance or reconciliation must mean in broader terms. Still, for a documentary that is very clearly driven by people and an organization seeking a non-violent resolution to this terrible, long-term war, it seems an odd omission in the end, not to take the opportunity to define more clearly what must come next. From the film’s first scene to its last, each of the participants serve as articulate spokespeople for dialogue, engagement, and some vague, undefined notion of peace (since the movie does not really dive into the details of what “solutions” to the conflict might look like). But realistically, all the interpersonal talk, the cross-border conversations, the efforts to understand, accept, and move on – all of this must be bolstered by a philosophy that ensures such talk is not easily ignored at the sight of the next tragedy. Finding this philosophy, and teaching it, should not be such a challenge since it sits so solidly at the heart of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the three main religions involved in this conflict. Why, then, does it always seem so difficult?

19 November 2006

Isolationism & Bankruptcy

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration, there was a much-discussed theory that suggested the true rationale behind Bush’s bizarre combination of massive tax cuts and massive spending increases was a desire to “starve-the-beast”: to force a reduction in the size of the Federal government by creating the budgetary and economic conditions that would make smaller government a necessity. (Given the consistency of Bush’s commitment to both tax cuts and government spending several years later, it remains difficult to validate the starvation theory; it’s possible the Republicans are just bad at math and not very good at understanding the economic consequences of their actions.) Listening to Bush’s comments from his trip to Vietnam, thinking about the state of the U.S.’s war in Iraq, and of course pondering the recent Republican election losses, I wonder if there is another theory we Americans should be considering: that the Iraq war was all along intended to fail.

First of all, wars are expensive, and unsuccessful wars are particularly expensive. With Iraq, not only are we taxpayers covering the cost of the war itself – the need to feed and equip our army, etc. – but we are paying for the unintended consequences of the war in terms of higher energy prices (as opposed to the cheaper oil we expected to have), and the many unanticipated costs associated with rebuilding Iraq or trying to repair our freedom-loving image around the world. Just as the theory was that Bush wanted to break the Federal government by driving it to bankruptcy through domestic spending programs, we should also consider the role the war has played towards this same end. The Democrats have “won” back Congress, but what the Democrats and the citizenry will be left with come Bush’s departure in 2008 remains to be seen. What we know for a fact is that it will include massive Federal deficits, helped along by the war, and a larger and even more unwieldy bureaucracy than previous Democratic administrations were able to create.

The other consequence of the Iraq war is one that should make Pat Buchanan very happy indeed: likely isolationism. The more we suffer losses in Iraq, the more the American people will experience the kind of malaise that set in between World War I and World War II. At the time, having been suck(er)ed into the first war-to-end-all-wars, America found itself resistant to the idea of supporting our European allies in their fight against fascism – that is, until the Pearl Harbor attack on our own shores awoke us to the danger of our quasi-neutrality. The terror inflicted on us on September 11, 2001 has often been cast as the psychological and policy equivalent of Pearl Harbor, the event that spurred the U.S. into action against Afghanistan and Iraq. That may be true in very raw, emotional terms – as epitomized by slogans like “These colors don’t run!” plastered over American flags – but the analogy fails since we could not attack the terrorists the same way we were able to attack Japan and Germany. In demonizing terrorists through a “war on terror,” we have succeeded mostly in infringing our own civil liberties.

Similarly, much fuss has been made by comparing the mess in Iraq to the “quagmire” of our war in Vietnam, and the desire for a withdrawal of American troops. Bush’s trip to Vietnam surely reinforces these feelings: America may have lost that war, but look at the (relative) success the Vietnamese have made of their country, on their own, following the American defeat. Iraq is no Vietnam, but anything is possible, the President’s re-dedication of himself to “victory” in Iraq notwithstanding. Perhaps an American defeat in Iraq could lead to the same kind of (mostly) peaceful victory for the Iraqi people that the Vietnamese achieved.

And so it starts to look like perhaps Bush wanted to create a more permanently at-home America by showing us the danger of foreign wars. If that was the goal, he has succeeded perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. This is likely to have an impact well beyond Iraq: even if U.S. troops leave Iraq rapidly, there will be little public tolerance for taking on the threats from North Korea or Iran militarily. Moreover, the Christian Evangelicals and naïve Jews claiming bedrock American support for our ally Israel may also find their beliefs tested if the Israelis continue to fail at peace-making, and if American military support is needed to help with what could be an escalating war there. That situation is certainly compounded by the realization across the Middle East that the Israeli army is no longer invincible, after its bloodied nose in this summer’s war with Hizbollah.

In fact, between losses in Iraq and Lebanon, the world is looking at two potential bullies, both suffering bloodied noses and damaged national psyches. I’ll take no bets on whether the U.S. or Israel recovers more rapidly, or what the next moves are for either nation. Either way, prospects for peace and economic stability only look dim and dimmer.

Magazines, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

About a month ago, I posted a short piece inviting readers to fill out a small survey about magazine subscriptions. It’s been more than the promised two weeks since I return to this subject, largely because the response has been weak, to say the least: only 5 people have taken the time to complete the survey. Before moving (rapidly!) on to other, more engaging subjects, let me at least finish the point I started in that original post.

Anyone who follows news and trends in the publishing world knows that magazines can be a risky and unprofitable business. The costs are high, advertisers (usually the largest revenue source) are fickle, news agent sales vary widely and often according to the sensationalism of the cover, and annual subscriptions don’t generate much money. It is hard to be sympathetic, however.

When I launched the survey, I mentioned the nuisance of receiving two differently-priced renewal notices for The Economist. Meanwhile, about eight weeks ago, I took out a subscription to The Atlantic, signing up on line for (I thought) faster service than sending in a postcard. After 5 weeks, my first issue of the magazine had yet to arrive – but I had already received a renewal offer. Talk about chutzpah! A few years ago I canceled a subscription to a magazine I no longer wanted. The magazine then hired a collection agency to try to bully me in to renewing, arguing that I “owed” them money for a subscription I had actively canceled (and for which the publisher had stopped providing magazines in return). That goes well beyond chutzpah.

All this is to say: I think the magazine publishing industry makes it harder on themselves, to their detriment and ours. Much as retailers seem not to realize that they create holiday shopping exhaustion and ennui well before consumers reach any holiday (e.g., with Christmas promotions beginning after Thanksgiving, if not before), thus affecting how much people shop and how they feel about the experience, magazines have in the last few decades moved in the same direction. Monthly magazines publish with title dates typically a month ahead, so that (for example) the June issue is on the newsstands in early May, presumably to make readers feel like they’re getting the newest thing. Subscription renewal notices begin six or eight months before a subscription actually ends, thus killing any sense of urgency to renew and inuring subscribers to the process – and resulting in those final notices that offer renewals at even greater discounts, thus affecting the publisher’s bottom line.

The magazine world is trapped in an unhelpful cycle, and someone needs to reset the clock on all this: to publish according to dates that match the calendar the rest of us live by, and to start treating subscribers as more than mere numbers that help demand higher advertising revenue. How burned do I feel over that extra $20 for my subscription to The Economist? Not enough to cancel – but enough to know better for next year’s renewal, certainly. In the meantime, I’ll keep throwing out the renewal notices, the publishers will keep losing money by sending them, and the annoyed-but-patient consumer will benefit in the end. Some system.

16 November 2006

Rumsfeld, "Media Darling"

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I was shocked to hear these words strung together in this fashion: “Donald Rumsfeld was master of the Pentagon briefing room and a media darling.” In a segment last weekend exploring the media’s relationship to Donald Rumsfeld, Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On The Media, exposed (perhaps inadvertently?) one reason why we, the American people, have suffered the last six years: bad journalism. (Transcript available here.)

Donald Rumsfeld was no “master” of press briefings, he was a caricature of evasion and deception – which should hardly make him a “media darling.” Gladstone’s guest, CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, goes on to discuss how Rumsfeld wouldn’t answer questions, would challenge the basis of questions he didn’t like, or would simply answer with a non-answer. I certainly agree with that analysis. But the real issue for On The Media to explore should have been how American journalists responded to Rumsfeld in the face of his very evident antagonism.

How a journalist handles someone – even a high-ranking government official – who patently refuses to answer a simple question will, absolutely, affect the coverage that results. If no answer is forthcoming, they should restate the question and ask it again. No one can force a Donald Rumsfeld type to answer questions, but journalists can make their non-answers evident and unavoidable by acknowledging them, openly, for what they are: evasions. By sustaining a polite journalistic tradition – one that that asks a question and generally accepts the answer, whatever it is – we lose the benefit of seeing people squirm, of understanding the discomfort a person should feel as they try to avoid answering a difficult questions or come up with lies in response. The reaction to a question may be worth as much as the answer.

At one point during the program, McIntyre said: “He [Rumsfeld] did blame the media. And I remember having this discussion with members of his staff about why they weren't getting better coverage of the war. And, of course, the real bottom line is if the war is going better, then you get better coverage.” However, there is a chicken-and-egg situation here: if coverage of the build-up to war had been better – more critical, more insightful, more challenging of Bush Administration Bullshit – the war itself might have been avoided. Instead, we have had six years, almost four during war time, in which the Secretary of Defense has been allowed to bamboozle (or, apparently, charm) American journalists, and avoid – as anyone who has watched these briefings knows – most of the tough questions and necessary scrutiny that could have brought about his downfall months, if not years, earlier. As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld was a public official, and he should have been held accountable by President Bush (who is also, apparently, easily bamboozled) and by the media who report on the intentions and actions of our government.

It is disappointing that On The Media’s analysis didn’t switch gears, to explore in more depth the real problems behind journalists’ relationship to Rumsfeld and the nature of news coverage during his tenure. American media played a large role in allowing the Secretary of Defense to escape the deep scrutiny that was needed and that the American people deserved to see. Tough questions should have been asked, and asked again, and yet again – and asked long before a new Democratic majority in Congress made Rumsfeld’s resignation a political inevitability.


Backwards links: a few related articles from the TTAISI archives: American Delirium, Noble Warriors Appreciate Indecision, Under The Rug, The Meta-Coverage, and The Importance of Good Intelligence

14 November 2006

African Labor Markets

From some of the sharpest minds in the business comes a new idea for managing labor markets in Africa: "full private stewardry of labor."

It's brilliant, which is to say, brilliantly funny, from the opacity of the writing to the photographs from the presentation. The press release can be found here, along with links to the presentation and to information about past initiatives.

09 November 2006

Dear President Bush

Dear President Bush:

I appreciate that, after six years in office and almost four years of disastrous war policy, Donald Rumsfeld has -- perhaps with your encouragement? -- finally decided to take responsibility for his failures by stepping down from office. At a moment when the Republican Party has witnessed such a stunning public rebuke in Tuesday's elections, this certainly seems the right maneuver, a start on a path to regaining some much-needed credibility with the American people.

I have only one question: shouldn't Vice President Cheney resign, too? Isn't now the right time for that? After all, Mr. Cheney is as a responsible as Mr. Rumsfeld for the direction and failure of the Iraq war, and for failures in our pre-war analysis and planning, to say nothing of his negative impact on a broad range of domestic policy.

Forgive my impertinence, Mr. President, but I think you should ask Mr. Cheney to resign, too -- for the good of your administration, and the good of the nation.

Yours sincerely,
A.D. Freudenheim

06 November 2006

The Ugliness Behind The Curtain

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Sometimes the question is more revealing than the answer.

For more than a week now, New York’s Jewish paper The Jewish Week, has had a poll posted on its website asking readers to vote yes or no to the following question: “Do you think money raised by American Jews to rebuild Israel’s north after the war with Hezbollah should go to Israeli Arabs?” It has been more than a week since I sent a letter to two of the editors telling them why I won’t vote – and more importantly, why I find the question and its premise offensive and problematic. Despite writing a letter, I find this little issue nagging at me, and have therefore decided to take my objections public. What follows is a modified and expanded version of my letter to the editor.


If America is to be believed, the state of Israel is a paragon of democracy and equality in a sea of Middle Eastern dictatorial mediocrity, worthy of unending support. This is a perspective trumpeted loudly by the American government, by the two major American political parties (e.g., the Democrats: “When it comes to Israel— we are all staunch allies and friends.”; the Republicans: “The Republican Party shares President Bush’s commitment to the security of America’s democratic ally Israel...”) and, of course, by the American Jewish community. AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (for better and, mostly for worse the dominant force in American Jewish support for Israel), states in its document “The U.S. - Israel Partnership, An Unbreakable Bond” that “Israel and the United States both share the fundamental principles of freedom and equality. ... Both stand as symbols of liberty and pluralism in a world still marked by authoritarianism and intolerance.”

At the same time, American Jewish support for Israel is predicated on the idea that Israel is the Jewish state, a home for Jews. This, in turn, places an existential dilemma front and center where everyone can ignore it: how can one have a truly pluralistic, diverse, tolerant democracy that simultaneously proclaims itself to be identified with one specific religion? When certain quarters of American society proclaim this nation to be a “Christian” one, American Jews rightly balk. Christianity arguably had a significant impact on the founding of the United States, but the words that underline the establishment of the nation, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution do not refer to Christ or Christianity, or afford it a place in our governance.

Judaism offers a strong set of guidelines for how to treat the “stranger” amongst us, and to a degree addresses the importance of preserving the rights of non-Jews living under Jewish governance. But there is ultimately a distinct apartness that non-Jews will feel under a structure that explicitly identifies with Judaism and seeks to shelter and protect Jews as its first priority. (I should add that much the same is true of Islam, which famously declares its tolerance of non-Muslims, enumerating the importance of respecting their rights as, for all practical purposes, second-class citizens. In other words, this is not just a Jewish problem.) That the focus on providing a safe-harbor for Jews is the very crux of the Zionist movement does not make the reality of the challenge – how to handle non-Jewish minorities within a Jewish state; how to create a pluralistic environment that nonetheless has a single leading entity – any less real.

So, while I have little doubt that much of the Middle East is dominated by dictatorial mediocrity, proclamations of the strength of Israel’s pluralistic society are not so certain. The very act of an American Jewish newspaper asking a question like this – in effect, should a minority population within Israel receive the same support as the majority in recovering from the effects of war – makes this existential conundrum clear. The question also implies something ominous about American Jewish expectations for post-war reconstruction in the first place: that Jews here assumed that their money would only be used in support of Jews there. It is as if someone asked whether post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction funds provided by white people in America’s Midwest should only be spent on white people in New Orleans. Even though the United Jewish Communities (UJC) made explicit in its “Israel Emergency Campaign” this summer that donations would go to help “all vulnerable populations, including Israeli Arabs, Druze and Jews,” The Jewish Week’s poll is indicative of some discomfort with this approach, implying concern within the American Jewish community that speaks directly to its sense of the importance (or unimportance) of pluralism and tolerance within Israeli society.


The question about the use of reconstruction funds is also offensive because it is so entirely lacking in nuance. Responses to such polls become reductio ad absurdum statistics, used to polarize the debate instead of increase our understanding of the situation; they become little factoids that circulate, either to reinforce likemindedness, or alternatively, to antagonize. It is all too easy to imagine the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic e-mails circulating: Did you know that in a poll conducted by a major American Jewish newspaper, X% of people voted their preference that funds for reconstruction not be used for Israeli Arabs! And they say Jews are tolerant!

Asking this kind of question provides little real insight into people’s thinking, instead appealing to some of our worst instincts as humans: to be clannish, to defend our own (whether right or wrong), and to insulate ourselves from other people’s problems or perspectives. These are also many of the same instincts that Judaism’s system of values is designed to protect against: to remind us that our neighbor’s concerns should be ours too, and that healing the world does not come only from healing the world of and for Jews.


Moreover, The Jewish Week’s survey displays a stunning lack of awareness of the situation in Israel itself. There are, after all, “Israeli Arabs” with different religious identities – Shia, Sunni, and Christian – as well as varying political perspectives and parties, from United Arab List to Balad. As citizens of Israel, Israeli Arabs bring other perspectives to the issue of Israel’s summer war, and not all of them are necessarily anti-Israel or pro-Hezbollah. Nor is it within the purview of the American Jewish community to define what it means to be an Israeli citizen.

For decades, American Jews have fought to break through the stereotypes about our people, to resist the idea that Jews are some other race of human, and to fight the racism that is a destructive force in society. Which is why it is so disturbing to see The Jewish Week perpetuating such terrible stereotypes by talking about “Arabs” as if they are some alien monolith, of which Israeli Arabs are one small, dangerous offshoot. In framing their poll question this way – indeed in asking the question in the first place – The Jewish Week (which states that its “first loyalty is to the truth”) reveals the most uncomfortable truth of all: the anti-Arab bigotry that exists within the American Jewish community.

As an American Jew, for The Jewish Week to pose this question seems to me as offensive as people asking similar kinds of questions – with all sorts of unstated, implicit double-meanings and allegations – about “the Jews.” The answer to the question “Do you think money raised by American Jews to rebuild Israel’s north after the war with Hezbollah should go to Israeli Arabs?” should be obvious: Funds raised to rebuild Israel should be expended on, for, and in support of Israelis. Period. That anyone has to ask a question about whether that should include “Israeli Arabs,” as opposed to Jews, is pathetic. And if there is some sense that not all Israelis are deserving of support at such a time of need, then perhaps the American Jewish community should re-evaluate its rhetoric about the pluralistic nation it thinks it is helping to sustain.