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Jun 14 11

Clinton’s Spring is Sprung

by Editor

Last night, while listening to NPR’s  “All Things Considered,” I heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say:

“If you believe that the freedoms and opportunities that we speak about as universal should not be shared by your own people — men and women equally — or if you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history and time will prove that.”

I stopped what I was doing and went back to the beginning of the story, to make sure I had the context right. I did. It was a news piece titled “Clinton Pushes African Nations To Break With Gadhafi,” in which NPR’s Michele Keleman reported on a meeting at the headquarters of the African Union in Ethiopia.

And so I listened to Clinton again, and all I could think about was the degree to which our government–nearly all of it, both the legislative and executive branches–is opposed to the Palestinian plan to declare independence this September. How do we align this with the view expressed above by our very own Secretary of State? We can’t. We justify a different policy perspective  with Israel / Palestine by declaring that the details are flawed, that the Palestinian’s step is out of sync with broader movements for peace, or by throwing up bogus defense arguments. (In his “Daily Dish” column on Sunday, Andrew Sullivan had a great take on this.)

Searching for consistency in foreign policy is certainly a fool’s errand. After all, the same problem arises if we look at Bahrain, where we quietly support (through our lack of public opposition) that government’s brutal repression of protests–by people asking for the same things as those in Egypt and Libya: a more democratic, representative, and inclusive government. Our excuse here seems to be either that the protesters are Shia Muslims, and therefore implicitly allied with Iran, or that any change would endanger our massive military installation in Bahrain. But again, these are just excuses.

Hillary Clinton is right about the way the world is trending. Syria and Bahrain and other places may be on the longer, slower side of that curve, but change is coming. To Palestine, too. So perhaps the Department of State should take her advice and start getting behind legitimate movements for freedom a bit more energetically. Otherwise, it will be us that winds up on the wrong side of history.

May 31 11

Still Doing Laundry

by Editor

Ever since Jane Eisner’s opinion piece appeared in the Guardian last week — “Don’t be fooled by the applause, Binyamin Netanyahu” — I have seen a range of comments flying around by American Jews upset that Eisner not only chose to air her disagreements with Netanyahu and current Israeli policy in public, but that she did so in a foreign publication to boot. Many of the nearly five-hundred comments on the site make for disturbing reading, too.

To which I can only say: good on you, Ms. Eisner. American Jews have for too long been stuck in this vicious cycle of permitting outrageous Israeli actions (or outrageous actions by American supporters like AIPAC) without sufficient comment and criticism because of a fear of making their complaints too public. This trend has been on the wane, a bit, thanks in part to a younger generation of people — like Eisner, or Peter Beinart — who are less concerned with this problem and more interested in tackling the issues raised by Israeli intransigence around the peace process with Palestine.

It’s about time. Five years ago, I wrote that I believe “aired laundry dries faster.” Rather than shrink from public criticism, we instead have an obligation to voice it, loudly:

Well, we do have a right to question, and we should. “We” American Jews (and Americans generally, for that matter) provide billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year – billions through the U.S. government, and billions more through charitable organizations supporting the continued growth of the state of Israel – and that financial support entitles us to have a role in discussing how those funds are spent. But we cannot question the actions of the Israelis if we do not first question our own actions and motivations, and if we do not work to better understand ourselves and the needs of our own Jewish community – and this is the part that is missing. The American Jewish community needs more debate, more open discussion about whether our funding of the state of Israel is, in fact, having a negative effect; whether we are enabling Israel to fight instead of encouraging it to make peace; whether we are confusing Israel’s survival with the underlying quality of its existence; whether we are betraying our own Jewish morals and values by supporting an Israeli state that has so often failed to live up to those same values – values which it also espouses in equal measure. We need more voices like Mitchell Plitnick’s, willing to confront the monolith of establishment American Jewish opinion. AND, we need to stop forwarding, blindly and devoutly, every pro-Israel e-mail that comes across our path, because these e-mails contribute to a process of rote emotional response rather than engaged thought.

Keep that laundry out on the line!

May 22 11

Free At Last?

by Editor

Reading the news day after day, I find myself giddy at the prospect of the Palestinians unilaterally declaring independence. This step will force a decision by Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world on whether or not to recognize it—and how to embrace change after it happens.

First and foremost, the Palestinians deserve independence. They deserve a state—a homeland—of their own, formally, officially, and with the same status and international recognition that the Zionists themselves fought for in 1948. Palestinians also deserve a homeland free of occupying forces, and free from the arbitrary application of laws and civil rights that have characterized the Israeli occupation. Historical arguments aside, Palestinians in the last 40+ years have asserted their identity and taken ownership of it, much the way that Jews themselves created the Zionist movement. Palestinians exist as a people, and they deserve their independence and the right to govern themselves.

As an American (and an American Jew) I find sustenance in the universal principles that served to underpin the creation of the United States. Our Declaration of Independence reads, in part: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” This aptly describes the situations of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, both under the repressive Egyptian and Jordanian regimes in the period before 1967, and under the Israelis in the years since. Americans have a moral obligation to support Palestinian efforts to achieve freedom the same way we sought such support in our own times of need.

At the same time, I believe that Palestinian independence will bring a kind of normalization—either that, or a real and true international isolation. An independent Palestine must find ways to coexist and trade with Israel; there is little choice, since developing into a military and economic equal will take decades. As part of coexistence, a Palestinian state will need to bring under control the most militant, anti-Israel factions within it: this new state cannot afford the reprisals that will come from Israel (or elsewhere) if Palestine is used as a home base for terrorism. In fact, Palestinians in an independent state will have lost their (already slim) justifications for such attacks, and the world will evolve to view these attacks as war, not as a fight for freedom. Palestine will not want to become a pariah state: the costs are too high, and they have too few internal resources to survive such a move.

Meanwhile, independence will also be good for the Israelis, even if current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the disingenuous ambassador Michael Oren, and others are too narrow-minded to realize it. A free Palestinian state will legitimize Israeli military action in the event that such provocations demand it. A Palestinian state will free tremendous Israeli resources—financial, military, and human—for other projects that will strengthen Israel itself. And just as the Palestinians will need to confront and manage some of the most extremist elements within their midst, so too will the Israelis, and their do-or-let-someone-else-die American Jewish underwriters: Israelis cannot afford to continue being provocateurs and agents of regional instability, and American Jews must stop their fear-mongering.

Yet another “Israel Day” parade is on the horizon in New York, and American Jews should use this event to ask themselves what they think they are celebrating, especially in an environment in which Israel has turned the universalist, post-Holocaust message of “Never again!” into a selfish joke: “Never again to us.” The original Zionist dream was one of hope: a homeland for a people seeking the stability of independence and self-governance. In the face of the “Arab spring” and the potential proliferation of freedom and democracy across the Middle East, now is the time for Israelis to confront their own failures of leadership and imagination, and to embrace change.

May 1 11

Our Guy, Not the Other Guy

by Editor

It’s human nature, I guess: we rationalize why we demonize opponents even as we rationalize why we make excuses for those we like. If you’re a Democrat, you may have been perfectly ready to vilify Clarence Thomas or former Senator Bob Packwood over the allegations of their sexual harassment–while excusing Bill Clinton and demonizing those who tried to impeach him. If you’re a Republican, same thing: Bill Clinton was happily called a “draft dodger” by so many on the right, while George W. Bush was not (despite being, in effect, a draft dodger who actively worked to avoid service in Vietnam).

This is on my mind right now as I sit and listen to the news and read the various social network feeds about the apparent death–can we call it an assassination?–of Osama Bin Laden. Already, I have seen many comments about how this is President Obama’s success, in contrast to Bush’s failure to do the same during the 6+ years that remained of his term after the 9/11 attacks. And I can’t help but wonder: how many of those folks used to bemoan the drone strikes and targeted assassinations policy of the Bush administration? Can we really claim this as a success for Obama, in the midst of a war in Afghanistan that otherwise continues to be a failure?

The news of Bin Laden’s death leaves me cold. I lived in New York on 9/11 and have been here since; I have seen, in person, the hole where the World Trade Center towers once stood, just as I had been in the towers themselves before they were felled. But I cannot claim to be pleased, despite all the death and devastation for which Bin Laden was responsible. I would rather have had him captured and tried in court, in open, civilian court, with a full airing for his crimes.

Bin Laden is not unique as an enemy; there are surely others. Listening to CNN crow about the “electric response” to this news misses the point. The media’s celebratory (as opposed to straightforward) approach to reporting this story is akin to their ability to keep the “birther” movement alive: they find too much satisfaction in the financial returns from these stories to report the news as it is–or to be honest about their lack of objectivity. And we should be careful in adding this to Obama’s balance sheet as a net positive. Bin Laden wasn’t Satan, Bush wasn’t either–and Obama is far from perfect. Murdering a terrorist several thousand miles away does little to change that dynamic.


A friend posted this quote from Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” column last night: “The pre-eminent symbol of our the multicultural, multiracial society of the future defeated the pre-eminent symbol of the darkest, bleakest throwback to medieval religious fanaticism. Im not ashamed to use the following language: Good defeated evil. And hope rekindles again.

I find this uncompelling; it is jingoism masquerading as intellectualism. Do symbols matter? Of course. But their value is relative–and symbols are extremely susceptible to abuse. Will Bin Laden’s death end terrorism? No. He was the symbolic leader of a diverse and problematic movement, driven by an ideology that by definition cannot be defeated through the slaying of a figurehead. Will Bin Laden’s death end the “war on terror”? No, of course not; that war is owned and managed by the same military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned us, and it is by definition unwinnable on these terms. Will we now move from the the distraction of foreign wars to a more reasonable response to our domestic political issues? Unlikely; and the symbolism of this situation is equally unlikely to provide domestic political benefits to Obama as he engages with his opponents on these issues.

I am not sorry that Osama Bin Laden is dead, but I cannot join in the rejoicing. The death of a symbol is too easily abused for symbolic purposes.