25 January 2009

Chinese Democracy, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It’s Sunday now, not Tuesday. Several days later, I am still sifting through the mental carnage wrought by President Barack Obama's inauguration and speech. That's carnage in a good way, a tableau of pleasant disbelief at how stunning—peaceful, engaging, inspiring—the inauguration was, and at the effective eloquence and intellectual honesty of Obama's speech.

The famous 1963 “March on Washington” has been a prominent discussion point around the inauguration, for obvious reasons. It has also been on my mind for purely personal ones: my grandmother traveled from Buffalo to Washington to be there for it. She was 57 at the time, and had been in the U.S. for 25 years, and I can only guess at her motivations—but it was an experience she spoke about with reverence, and she gave me the button she kept, proudly. Much as I can picture her shouting about the intifada, I can imagine her level of excitement had she lived to see Obama’s inauguration. It would surely have affirmed for her once again an unwavering belief in the strength of American democracy and society (and she would no doubt share in the collective relief that whatshisname has now left the White House).

BUT, I can also imagine that my grandmother would have seen in Obama's election and inauguration an opportunity to point to a vital lesson, one that Americans might have heeded more carefully in 2004, when we should already have detected that the presidency of George W. Bush was going terribly awry. She would have said: we must not, can not, should not take life and liberty for granted. And she would be right.
A few days ago, I posted a brief item about the “communist” Chinese government having censored part of President Obama's speech. This is sad if unsurprising, and at the same time it reminded me of how much I feel like our nation had a close call with a terrible, alternate destiny. When Obama said that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” the Chinese had not yet cut into the speech. The Russians seem to have taken a different approach, simply steering clear of emphasizing the event, according to the BBC.

Unsurprisingly, China and Russia are two examples that come to mind where both governments and citizens have, for decades now, contended with false choices of the kind Obama meant. (The citizens, it must be said, with rather less choice in the matter than the those in government.) In both cases, there is a kind of national, propagandized mythology that strong leaders are needed—and in both nations, “strong” generally means “too weak to risk being criticized by the citizenry,” and “too weak to risk having citizens hear opposing ideas.”

I reject the Philip Roth-ian notion that there is (or was) the likely potential in America for an apocalyptic shift towards fascism. Fascism is not the danger. Instead, we should fear the deadening nature of a government that had trouble acknowledging its failings and failures, that responded to criticism—internal and external—with bluster, and that sought to increase the power of the governmental-individual (the so-called “executive”) at the expense of any deliberative process. That would be the government resoundingly removed from office on November 4, 2008.

So when Obama said “We will restore science to its rightful place,” I took it to mean not only that science would be treated with respect, and that empirically derived data would no longer be abused for political purpose. I took Obama to mean that his administration will be one in which answers and actions will be derived from what we know, not merely what we believe to be true—or wish were so. That questions and basic premises will be tested, not just the likely success of a given solutions.

And when Obama said “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” that too was more than just an unprecedented presidential acknowledgement of those who do not believe in a god. It was a statement of the importance of our differences, not just of our similarities, and an assertion of intellectual principle from a self-professed believer who also believes he is strong enough, sure enough of himself and his nation, to engage those with other views.

And? These are all words, true. But words matter. If words did not matter, China would not have censored the speech, and Russia would have focused more attention on Obama's inauguration in general.

I think we Americans are—finally, again—off to a good start.

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21 January 2009

Chinese Democracy

The New York Times reported today that "China Central Television, or CCTV, the main state-run network, broadcast the [inaugural] address [by President Barack Obama] live until the moment Mr. Obama mentioned “communism” in a line about the defeat of ideologies considered anathema to Americans. After the translator said “communism” in Chinese, the audio faded out even as Mr. Obama’s lips continued to move."

Brilliant maneuver! Surely that will keep the Chinese people from ever discovering that at least one person on the outside world thinks their repressive system of government is flawed. Reminded me of James Fallows' terrific essay from the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic on how the Chinese manage to screw up so consistently in managing public communication(s) and messages.

I'll have more thoughts on Obama's inauguration and speech coming in the next few days.
Stay tuned.

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18 January 2009

"Ancient History"

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I have two distinct early memories of reevaluating my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both dating to the beginnings of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987-1988. One memory is of watching the news with my grandmother, who shook her fist when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir came on the screen and started a sentence that began “This little asshole...” As we listened to and absorbed the news of more rock-throwing protests, and more Israeli repression of those protests, my grandmother’s evident sadness prompted much discussion about the nature of the Zionist enterprise to which my grandparents had dedicated so much of their lives.

The second memory is of a series of conversations with author and political scientist Amos Perlmutter, who (for reasons I no longer remember) was for a while an occasional dinner guest in our house. Perlmutter challenged me to think, to criticize and evaluate my perspective on the conflict, and while we approached the matter rather differently, I recall distinctly our finding agreement on the (myriad) ways in which Israel had done itself harm by its mishandling of both its Arab-Israeli minority and the Palestinians whose lands it continues to occupy.

My grandmother and Perlmutter are both dead, while the whole messy and idiotic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains.

This “ancient” history is top of mind as I read about the current fighting, and think about the evolution of my own views over the years—particularly as I have expressed them here, starting in October 2000. Actually, I think my perspective evolved during the period of the first intifada and has subsequently stayed much the same, bound tightly with a belief in the moral unacceptability of the Israeli occupation. The change since then has focused more on my own religious beliefs, and figuring out ways to personalize, humanize, and “own” a religion (Judaism) and a culture (American-Jewish) in spite of all the (often offensive) things being done in the name of Judaism and Jews, both American and not.


Last week, I said I’d provide a round-up of past columns on this subject. At the time, I was not focused on just how much material that might be. However, in looking through it there are some interesting items and perspectives (if I do say so myself). I have collected all the links together for the years 2000-2006, and they can be accessed easily here: Roundup.html.

Two items to which I want to draw particular attention—because they seem to resonate in the current moment—are my brief report on the Palestinian protest in New York from October 2000, and my comments about Ariel Sharon’s speech in New York in March 2001.

Will we humans ever learn?

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17 January 2009

Common Sense Blog

Leslie Freudenheim has a new blog! If you are interested in some intriguing ideas about federal taxation, Social Security, the "bailout," mortgage foreclosure, and other problems of the day, then this site might be for you.

[For some of my own recent (and not so recent) thoughts on similar matters, see these posts here.]

14 January 2009

With God On Our Side

Two news items worthy of attention:

1. Gershon Baskin had an excellent column in yesterday's Jerusalem Post, titled "Encountering Peace: The sun will come out tomorrow - or maybe not", and it's well worth reading.

2. On NPR's Morning Edition today, reporter Greg Allen had a good story about Jews and Muslims in Florida trying to "seek common ground." Some of the dilemmas sounded similar to the rally I attended on Sunday.

Coming soon: I'll recap and catalog my Israel- and Palestine- related articles from the start of this site back in 2000.

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11 January 2009

All we are saying

I just got back from a peace protest / rally on 2nd Avenue at 42nd Street. This was an event organized as a distinct contrast to the pro-Israel rally taking place on 42nd Street, and to the pro-Palestinian rally taking place at Times Square. For a brief summary of the three events, see the Muslim-Jewish Journal.

Rallies are rallies, so I won't rehash the details of standing around in the cold holding a sign because I've now done it... Nor will I reiterate my views on the current Middle East Madness, which are clear enough here and here.

Instead what I will say as a takeaway from today's event(s) is: there is a lot of hate in the world, and it's rather sad. In some cases, just downright pathetic.

In the two hours I was out there today, many people walking by - on their way to the "main" rally - shouted nasty things at our group. Some stopped to "argue," otherwise known as shout. One guy made the effort to walk around us a few times shouting "Kill them all!" as he headed to the pro-Israel rally. Well, gosh: "Kill them all" is really the right message isn't it? I mean, that doesn't make the (Jewish, wearing a yarmulke) guy sound like a genocidal nutbag, does it? Other people tossed out ridiculous arguments about how Hamas "started it," which is about at the intellectual level of a kid in elementary school.

On the eastern side of 2nd Avenue was another protest, this one by a small group of Satmars waving a Palestinian flag and holding signs against both Israel and the murder of Palestinians. So a small group of Modern Orthodox men took it upon themselves to come to the rally seemingly only with the intent of harassing the Satmars. They had signs - pre-printed - about how the Satmars are not authentic Jews (hunh?) and with absurd slogans like "Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism!" (If you want my take on that nonsense, read this piece about Stanley Fish, from 2007.) It says something sad about the insecurity of those young men that the best they could come up with is a way to harass a bunch of Satmars. I spoke with one of the Satmar gentlemen, and he said "They hate us more than they hate the Arabs."

The best thing to come out of this for me? The response from the cabbies and bus drivers along 2nd Avenue, many of whom gave me a thumbs-up sign, and one of them even pulled over briefly to ask some questions and offer support.

Will any of this make a difference? I don't kid myself. Hateful ideologies are difficult to dislodge, even (especially!) if you're Jewish and a Zionist and too clueless to realize you're full of hate. But it says a lot about the tremendous insecurity of American Jews that two small groups of protesters can arouse such intense hatred and expressions of anger. To me, this suggests that many of these people are not as confident in their views as they would like others to believe.

Anyone for a little "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"?

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10 January 2009

Stupider & Stupider

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It’s Saturday evening and as I catch up on the news from today … I start to wish I hadn’t bothered. The New York Times headline reads (in part) “Israel Warns of More Extensive Attacks,” while an analysis from DEBKAfile explains that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal put the kibosh on ceasefire talks.

If you’re reading this and have any ambiguity about my view on this idiotic quasi-war, see my piece “Dueling E-mails” from last week. Since then, a few different items have popped up in news reports, and I want to address four of them here.

1. According to several news reports (see Reuters, Voice of America), Cardinal Renato Martino, an aide to the Pope, called Gaza “...a big concentration camp.”

Hmmm. Martino’s description requires more nuance than he surely provided. If, by “concentration camp,” he meant a place like Auschwitz-Birkenau—where people were systematically murdered—he is clearly wrong. However one wishes to characterize Israel’s actions (e.g., stupid, cruel, inhumane, dangerous, unlikely-to-help-in-any-realistic-long-term-way), Palestinians in Gaza are not being systematically murdered as were the Jews, Roma-Sinty, homosexuals, etc., at Auschwitz.

If, on the other hand, Martino meant a concentration camp like Sachsenhausen—an internment camp, where people were deprived of basic human rights (food, medicine, freedom of movement), and where political prisoners and others did die on a smaller scale—then he is probably right.

Why am I even focusing on this? Because as much as I condemn Israel’s actions in this instance, rhetoric that is inaccurate and disproportionate to the situation is as harmful to both sides as any real military action. Accusing the Israelis of exterminating Palestinians simply is not true—however terrible the situation is and however many people have died. Such language becomes a propagandistic version of pornography, especially when attached to graphic images, and ultimately it undermines the Palestinian cause.

2. In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Natan Sharansky published an interesting opinion piece titled “How the U.N. Perpetuates the 'Refugee' Problem”; it is very much worth reading and should be free even for non-subscribers.

Towards the end, however, Sharansky’s argument collapses in two sentences: “Whether this war will bring about lasting change, or just provide another breather before the next battle, depends to a very large degree on the Free World. A successful Israeli campaign—in which Hamas is eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza—will bring an unprecedented opportunity for Western leaders to change the rules of the game when it comes to Palestinian civilians.”

The problem? Simple. No matter what Israel does, Hamas cannot be eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza, not militarily, not in any meaningful, long-term way. Hamas’ success is based on an ideology, and that ideology is bolstered by external circumstances that appear to make it’s view of the world seem real, accurate, and engaging to a specific group of people. And just like with any other ideology (e.g., neo-Nazism, or even Zionism) it cannot be eliminated through brute force. In fact, often brute force provides the compelling raison d’etre needed to sustain an ideology that might otherwise collapse.

3. To this same point: on Monday, The New York Times ran an article that quoted a Hamas leader named Mahmoud Zahar as saying “The Israeli enemy in its aggression has written its next chapter in the world, which will have no place for them. They shelled everyone in Gaza. They shelled children and hospitals and mosques, and in doing so, they gave us legitimacy to strike them in the same way.”

This idiocy—on the part of Hamas, and on the part of Israel—is an unsatisfactory repetition of eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. The only people well-served by this are those with the most outrageous ideologies.

4. Read Leonard Fein’s piece in The Forward, “‘There Is No Alternative’ Is No Answer.”

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02 January 2009

Dueling E-mails

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I recently received two e-mails, from opposite ends of the America-and-Israel universe. The first e-mail, which came through my synagogue’s mailing list, was the announcement from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) of a “RALLY TO SHOW SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL'S RIGHT TO SELF DEFENSE!” [Capital letters in the original.] The e-mail went on to say:

Dear Friends,

Please join with USCJ as we rally in front of the Israeli consulate tomorrow, Tuesday, December 30th, from 5 - 6:30 pm to show our support for Israel and her right to defend her citizens. The rally will be held on the east side of Second Avenue and 42nd Street (right down the street from USCJ's NYC headquarters). It is very important that we spread the word about this rally and encourage everyone to attend.

For the sake of courtesy, I will leave out the name of the rabbi at the UCSJ who “signed” the note. My synagogue, which is a member of the USCJ, sent the e-mail with the most neutral of introductions, which (depending on one’s perspective) might have been read as an endorsement or not. Even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there are diverse viewpoints on the wide range of subjects under the heading of “Israel.”

The second e-mail I received was through an organization called J Street, a progressive Jewish coalition, under the signature of Isaac Luria. I don’t know Mr. Luria personally, though I am starting to think I would like to. His e-mail said (in part):

When I heard the news about Gaza I got sick to stomach. More than 275 Palestinians dead. More than 100 rockets fired at Israeli civilians.

Indeed, I did get sick to my stomach, from all of this—but the UCSJ e-mail was particularly offensive, not to mention absurd and wrong-headed.

Israel has the right to defend itself. And there can be no justification for terrorism, even the kind of terrorism caused by rockets that don't kill people. But Israel's right to defend itself is not absolute, and in this case its actions are flawed by being both disproportionate to the near-term problem and a likely long-term contributor to increased Palestinian support for Hamas. In other words: it's just plain dumb.

Even more stupid, however, is the classic American Jewish communal response, as epitomized by the USCJ: pathetically rallying behind Israel, once again, come what may. If USCJ and other American Jewish organizations devoted as much time, energy, and money to pushing for peace instead of blindly rallying to “support” a right—Israel's right to self-defense—that blessedly few Americans question in the first place ... well, heaven knows what might happen.

Almost certainly something better than the current situation, because almost anything would be better than this. I am no naive peacenik. But American Jews should hang their head in shame that, given the opportunity, so many of our community prefer to “rally” to support Israel’s war (or war-like actions) than to fight for peace. We American Jews have tremendous power over Israel—what we lack is the will to exert it.
As I was saying, this situation makes me sick—just as I recently found myself a little nauseous while reading S. Yizhar's wonderful and sad novel Khirbet Khizeh. The story describes the forced evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers during Israel’s 1948 war for independence. For anyone with a knowledge of the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, or of the other acts of “ethnic cleansing” from Armenia to Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, it is impossible to read this poetic little book and not come face to face with the same kinds of issues and (particularly for Jews) a range of questions about the moral equivalencies we use to justify our actions.

People die in this book, but not in the way the above implies; there is no wholesale slaughter of villagers, no rounding-up of women and children for summary execution. The refugees from the village are trucked off to “join” their Arab compatriots, elsewhere. It doesn’t matter, because the violence and the sense of both a degraded morality and a dirtied humanity are clear. At one point, a soldier named Shlomo exclaims that he would rather be fighting—as in, waging war—than participating in this action. “When you go to a place where you might die that’s one thing, but when you go to a place where other people are liable to die and you just stand there and watch them, that’s something quite different.” (Page 102)

A few pages later and the narrator, suffering his own pangs of doubt and conscience, articulates the mythology on which we Jews still fixate, all these years later: “I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue … our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.” (Page 109)
The masters remain embroiled in the conflict, 61 years later. The masters of the masters—the American Jewish community that helps with both political and financial support—have the luxury of remaining embroiled and supportive from several thousand miles away. All while following a kind of McCarthy-ite approach that too often seeks to quiet out any voice that is not unfailingly pro-Israel.

Yizhar's book—fiction, but based on his Israeli war-time experiences—is revelatory of the underlying reality. It is (alas) the same reality now as then, and that can be seen in news reports from all over: for better and for worse, Jews are not exempt from the aggressive, tribalistic, and inhuman impulses that affect the rest of our species. (Though we are no worse, either.)

Mostly, that is for the worse. (Just look at the Bernie Madoff situation.) All this may mean that Jews are just as human as everyone else.

But the bottom line is this: humanity can never be an excuse for inhumanity. That seems like the crux of the problem that Jews, both in Israel and in America, face today.