Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah And Christmas, Again

I have posted this meditation on the complimentarity of Hanukkah and Christmas every year since I started this blog four years ago. Last year I added something more. This year, I suggest one might get into the spirit of the moment by listening to this remarkable broadcast on Judas Maccabeus from the BBC's wonderful "In Our Time" series with Melvyn Bragg.

The scholars interviewed give a very rich context for the Hasmonians' revolt, and for the ultimate collapse of their regime, which, I dare say, no Hellenized Jew, from Philo to Maimonides, Herzl to Henny Youngman, would have cared to live under. The final word goes to Youngman, who said that the miracle of Hanukkah is actually recurrent: "You eat a latke and it burns for eight days."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Skin In The Game

'Circumcision' by Jackson Pollock
A couple of days ago, Sidra's and my family celebrated the brit milah, the ritual circumcision, of her new grandson, and all of us future grandparents were given a moment or two to say a few words. One set of grandparents (there are three) are enlightened German Protestants who have more or less embraced Tel Aviv--their eldest son, who also spoke, quoted movingly from Lessing's Nathan the Wise--yet circumcision, so we Jewish sets knew, could not be easy for them to witness, let alone justify.

This was not the first time we thought about the subject. My own son Ben and I struggled with moments quite like this over the past four years, awaiting the births of his and his wife's two children, who turned out to be (adorable!) girls. I tried to find the words to explain why the brit meant something to me, but was taken off the hook by persistent X chromosomes.

And since we've just marked the death of Christopher Hitchens, I might add that you do not actually have to be faced with a brit in the family to reflect on its meaning. Some of the most compelling parts of God Is Not Great were his reflections on circumcision as a form of child abuse, "genital mutilation" (though the book, admittedly hilarious, mostly seemed like the effort to discredit love by detailing every bad marriage one could think of). My friend Danae Elon made a wonderful film about her and her husband Phillipe's second and third thoughts about the circumcision of their three (adorable!) sons. As I say, the practice is simply interesting.

For what it's worth, here are my two minutes of reflection on the subject. I invite comment:

For those who are experiencing a brit milah for the first time, rest assured that those of us who have been to many remain fascinated, at times skeptical, a little queasy, pained as well as elated. Does this act, first attributed to Abraham, not violate the most natural instinct we have around a newborn, which is to protect him absolutely? Abraham, after all, was capable of treating his sons with, let us say, fervor. Why has this ritual remained so cherished, indeed absolute, while so many other ancient commandments have fallen into eclipse?

Some say it is because the brit mila is ancient and one dare not break a chain others have died for. Such claims tear at the heart, but torn hearts are a counterpart of freedom. If chains were themselves reason enough to preserve old ways, we would still be sacrificing doves to quell feelings of guilt. 

As for claims of ancient hygiene, I leave that to ancients hygienists. 

Most Jews, of course, assume that this is a primordial act of covenant, precisely a kind of sacrifice, which marks our commitment of our children to the Jewish people and its mission. But this begs the question in a way. For most Jews also believe that the covenantal mission unfolds as life and history unfold. The commitment is to inherited principles, not to inherited genes. 

What deeper meaning is implied here so that Jewish parents, generation after generation, swallow hard and perform this act? How does the back of the mind take in the brit milah so that certain Jewish sages thought the lessons so indispensible they suggested how men are born imperfect and the circumcision makes us whole? 

The question is too big for a moment of grace. But let me suggest a direction—and it takes us back to torn hearts and the sad secret of freedom. The poet Robert Bly once said, “A man’s wound is his genius.” There is a way this ritual infliction of pain is an act of parental love, and arguably divine love—that is, love of human beings as we truly are, without—dare I say, childish?—illusions. 

For parents who commit this act cannot but feel the beginning of an acknowledgement that will grow over time: that it is not our role merely to protect our children but to expose them; to introduce them, affectionately yet at times strictly, to the stings of the world, which are everywhere, and are the real prompts for their maturity and autonomy—thus the deepest sources of their happiness. You don't have to have Sophie Portnoy for a mother to know that, eventually, protection is the ultimate form of child abuse.

Saint Paul said, following Jeremiah’s admonition, that we ought to circumcise the heart. I have had both circumcisions, of flesh and of heart, and I can report that the latter one is far more painful. But who among us would live our lives over again without the pains that instructed, fashioned and liberated us?

The part of Paul’s theology I love most suggests that the divine proved truest by becoming flesh to suffer with us, thus to truly know us. I like to think the divine is here today, as It was when God slyly instructed Abraham to circumcise his sons, tenderly implying what rabbis have also said, generation after generation, that there is nothing so whole as broken heart. Welcome, little one to our people’s covenant to explore, without cover, this poignant, magnificent world.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I knew him fairly well in the early eighties, before he really became Christopher Hitchens. He had just arrived from England, smart, left, a little earnest in a New Statesman way, or at least that was the pose, which worked wonderfully well on a University of Toronto political philosophy Ph.D. like myself. He had followed my writing on Israel and the conflict in the New York Review, he said, and so called me to ask (quite boldly, and charmingly, I thought) if I would introduce him around.

I brought him to a meeting of the Dissent Magazine board at Irving Howe's apartment (this is what "around" meant to young, left, earnest, writers) and we kept in touch sporadically the way one did back then, before email and free long-distance. Once I hit my own professional turbulence, after I published The Tragedy of Zionism, and took refuge of a kind at the Harvard Business Review, we pretty much fell out of touch. In 1991, we debated about the first Gulf War at Wellesley College--he was against it, I was for it, neither of us really knew what we were talking about--then went out for a drink and that was pretty much that.

The last time I saw him was most memorable, however.  It was sometime in the mid-nineties and he was hitting his stride. MIT's Phil Khoury invited him to give a public lecture about the Palestinians, about which we knew considerably more.  The talk was simply masterful, fueled by periodic sips from a flask. Not a word was out of place, not a thought was wasted. I confess to being a little dazzled by how carefully he marbled the talk with his wit.

But this presented a problem. How could I trump such a performance with my expression of appreciation. We had been sort-of friends. I didn't want to fawn like a fan. I wanted to receive him as would befit the moment. So when he came down from the podium, I took his hand in the middle of the crush of colleagues and told him, in what I thought a moment of inspiration: "Christopher, when I hear you speak, I become aware of latent homoerotic urges." Without missing a beat, he took my chin in his hands and kissed me passionately on the lips. I simply burst out laughing. He allowed only a little mischievous smile, like that of killer. I told him, "Okay, I give up."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Netanyahu's 'Alignment' Of Law In The Territories

Ever since the occupation began, Israeli citizens traveling in the territories, in effect, carried the protections of Israeli criminal law on their backs, irrespective of place.The army could stop you, or declare that certain locations were "closed military zones" (where civilians could not enter). But otherwise, whatever civil freedoms an Israeli had in Israel, he or she had in the territories.

If you disturbed the peace, say, or stole something, or attacked someone, and an army unit caught you at it, the officer in charge could detain you, of course, but had to remand you to the local Israeli police, which alone could arrest you and press charges.

And if you were arrested, you could appeal for justice to Israeli civilian courts, which ran by strict rules of evidence, and tended to apply the Law of Human Dignity (the closest thing Israelis have to a Bill of Rights) broadly. Under the cover of these protections, arguably, settlers and hill-top youth often got away with serious crimes. The rightist attacks on the army have certainly been a kind of turning point for public opinion here, something like Joe McCarthy's attacks on the army were.

So last night, the Netanyahu government announced new regulations in the occupied territories meant--so it was  reported with a certain satisfaction in Israel's liberal press--to manage the conduct of right-wing Jewish settler youth engaging in violence against soldiers, "price-tag" attacks on mosques (the "price," in this case, is exacted against Arabs when the government enforces the law and tries to evicts settler), and random attacks on Arab farmers adjacent to settlements.

What has Netanyahu done? Henceforth, army officers will themselves be able to arrest and incarcerate Israeli citizens in the territories, bring them before military courts. These will then have the right to hold them more or less indefinitely under administrative detention procedures governed by the emergency regulations inherited, with certain modifications, from the British Mandate.

Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the way the army operates in the territories knows that Palestinians have been subject to precisely these legal processes virtually from the start of the occupation. Now the same standards will apply to Israelis. As one high official in the prime minister's office told a journalist friend of mine, to date there have been two sets of laws and procedures in the occupied territories, one for Arabs, one for Jews. Now the two "have been brought into alignment." Only fair, right?

CAN WE PLEASE take a deep breath and pay attention to what is actually going on here? Let me repeat the changes introduced yesterday. Army officers will be able to arrest Israeli citizens in the territories. They will be able to haul citizens before military courts. The courts will then have the right to sentence them or hold them more or less indefinitely under administrative detention. Given the recent history of the Jewish people, it would be tactless to call these procedures fascist. So let's just say Costa-Gavras would see a pattern.

Yes, this will make it easier on the army in dealing with rightist fanatics. But peace groups have been rallying and protesting settlements in the territories for years, and organizers like Ezra Nawi are a fixture in the South Hebron Hills, often clashing with IDF patrols. More and more, IDF units in the West Bank are commanded by officers who are either sympathetic to the settlers or actually from settlement families. Who will these regulations likely be used against most often? Where has the army been most often challenged if not at places like Nabi Saleh and Bili'in?

Nor has Netanyahu made any bones about his determination to use these new regulations against the left, too. Tonight, he told a Likud gathering, at which some expressed anger at his treatment of the settlers, that any attack against the army in Bili'in would be treated the same way Jewish fanatics would be treated. No kidding.

Any legal change this potentially dangerous eventually proves, well, dangerous. Surely the relief we feel at watching the government finally take on the worst of the settlers ought not to obscure the suspension of civil rights. Such changes are always justified by the fight against disorder. More soon.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Euro And The Wealth Of Nations

Francisco Goya - Peasant Carrying a Woman 
As euro leaders struggle to save the zone, and global hedge funds reckon whether the Merkel-Sarkozy fix is a five foot leap over a six foot pit, the unresolved question most economic journalists seem focused on pertains to near-term bond auctions:

Will Mrs. Merkel finally agree, not only to the purchase of even more southern European debt by the Central European Bank, but to the issue of a "Eurobond" guaranteed by the collective of euro zone member states (read, German taxpayers). Will she, that is, finally try to get her voters to shake off the inflation nightmares of Weimar and use the German government's current revenues to, in effect, subsidize the ongoing deficits of, say, Spain, much the way Ontario--albiet, through more transparent "equalization payments"--has historically subsidized Quebec? Will the European federation become fiscally united, controlled, real?

These are good questions, but are they really the right ones? Clearly, if the southern countries do not grow more quickly, subsidies of this kind would be unsustainable into the future, even for Germany. How does imposing more fiscal controls on southern states allow them to create more real wealth? Yes, keeping today's southern European consumers buying is as important to German factories operating as American consumers are for Chinese factories. And if Germans were not on the euro, whose value is being depressed by bail-outs of poorer member countries--if, say, Germany was still on the DM--a VW Golf made in Wolfsburg would sell in Tel Aviv for what an Audi does now.

Nevertheless, the best question in deciding whether saving the euro makes sense at all should be this: Under what scenarios are the southern economies most likely to grow? Who will be starting, owning, and profiting, from what businesses? In that context, would not Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc., be better off with their own currencies? Would they not become more competitive if they could simply devalue them? 

No, they would not. 

 THIS SEEMS THE right time to reiterate the point I've made before, that the euro implies an economic vision of a networked world no sane leader of a developing country dare retreat from. The euro is a way of understanding the future; the case against it is chasing the past.

The argument for allowing the euro to retreat from the southern European countries is still widely made. If poor and still essentially developing counties like Portugal and Greece had their own currencies, they'd be able to weather fiscal crises (i.e., unsustainable national debt, ongoing deficits, sovereign bonds at junk-bond rates of interest, etc.) simply by devaluing. 

In this way, so the argument goes, they would become more competitive. Why? Because their exports would become cheaper. As I've said, development economists as different as Paul Krugman and Martin Feldstein take this axiom for granted. The euro, in this view, has proven a kind of hammerlock that rich European countries like Germany and France now have on them, a kind of monetarist scold sitting on their shoulder, and advantaging—wait for it!—German exports. 

But what exactly would southern European countries be exporting more cheaply with devalued currencies of their own? To think that they would be able to devalue themselves out of crisis assumes a world of 1950, not 2010--a world in which companies-qua-factories made most of what people needed (toothpaste, tires, pencils, typewriters; things anybody could learn to make with imported recipes, formulae, and blueprints)--and local companies could get a leg-up on imported consumer goods if local labor costs could be driven down relative to more developed countries. In this world, the game is “import substitution.” Devaluation cheapens, first and foremost, people. 

Really, however, does any seasoned economist or business executive really think this is the world we still live in? Today, production of consumer goods is in a world ecosystem whose drivers are science and advanced design: a changing complex of know-how, advanced information technologies, networks and supply-chains, global branding, financial instruments—indeed, a globalized system that rewards the tech-savvy initiated while punishing those left behind. 

If Portugal and Greece have a hope of developing, it is by getting the direct foreign investment of Volkswagen, Phillips, Bayer, Thomson, ABB, GE Capital, Samsung. It by getting Apple and Google to expand design hubs in Madrid. It is most of all in getting globals to invest in local enterprises that might be drawn into their supply chains. The key is not cheap labor but rich brainpower, the climate that will cause globals to inject the DNA of various businesses into the commercial life of southern European states.

The path to development is not devalued money in the hinterland, but intellectual capital from the metropole. Why would globals invest directly in economies where currencies were constantly spiraling down? How would they negotiate wage contracts or buy new real estate for its plants when imported goods (that is, its employees’ most favored goods) were constantly rising in price, kicking off new rounds of inflation and real estate bubbles? How would they react when local assets lose, say, 20 percent of their value overnight in a devaluation? 

Rather, southern European countries need to be slowly improved and integrated into northern economies over a generation. All need to become both importers and exporters in a true division of labor, like Adam Smith's hunters of beaver and hunters of deer. Countries outside the euro zone, like Israel or Argentina, have had the same problem, of course, but they attracted direct investment by more or less pegging their currencies to the value of the dollar. Why should not southern European countries achieve the stability globals need by staying on the euro instead?

THE MERKEL-SARKOZY agreement puts the EU in the right direction, then. These leaders mean to put in place judicial actions, decision-making structures and regulations that override national sovereignty so that no member can go on cooking their books. Meanwhile, and under the radar, richer European countries will be transferring wealth and critical know-how to the south for the coming generation, much as West Germany did for East Germany.

The lesson here is not just for Europe. The relationship between Germany and Spain is not that different from the one between Massachusetts and Mississippi. In a networked economy, poorly paid, ill-educated people are no longer any advanced democracy's competitive advantage. The knows have to find a way to teach the know-nots. A common, stable currency is the place to start.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Any Friend Of Sam's...

Walid Abu Rass
I have spoken often of Sam Bahour in this blog and in various published articles. Sam and I have been friends for five years, collaborated on a number of articles ourselves and have been working together closely in recent months with the office of the Quartet on developing management education for young Palestinian entrepreneurs. Today, Sam sent around the following appeal to his friends, which I reproduce verbatim and with sadness:
Where's my friend?
By Sam Bahour  
My friend is Walid Abu Rass. He is the Finance and Administration Manager for the Health Work Committees (HWC, at www.hwc-pal.org), one of the largest community health service providers in the occupied Palestinian territory. HWC serves over 500,000 patients/beneficiaries per year! More on HWC in a second.
I had not seen Walid for a while. We are both knee deep in Palestine’s daily rat race. About two months ago, Walid and his HWC colleagues called for a meeting of their circle of friends. They sought assistance. HWC was going through some financial hard times, especially with the financial crisis in Europe, where many of their donors are based.
Given it was close to the end of year, a season when I usually donate some time to assist a community based organization to fundraise, I offered to volunteer. Walid was my counterpart. During the past weeks, we were in daily phone and email contact, and every few days we met up to visit a potential local donor. Progress was being made. We then started to plan, with a few others, an end-of-year fundraising raffle. Plans were coming together, and there was excitement among the team and staff that we were taking our fundraising needs to our local community to compensate for the loss in European institutional funding. This is even more significant since HWC does not accept funding with strings attached (“conditional donor funds”), so they have to struggle just to keep the doors open in this tainted donor-driven market.
For nearly a week I was emailing Walid with no reply. This was not like him. He and I nearly live behind our keyboards. The deadline for the raffle details was rapidly approaching and if we did not get started, we would miss the end of year opportunity for fundraising. I started to think Walid was mad at me for some reason. I rethought our last few weeks of working together. There was absolutely nothing there to cause him to just ignore my calls; after all, I was his volunteer counterpart.
Then, last night I learned why Walid stopped replying to me. On November 22nd, Israeli occupation soldiers arrived at his home at 1:30 A.M. Walid lives in Ramallah with his wife, Bayan, and two daughters, Mais, 13 years old, and Malak, 4 years old, who were all frighteningly awakened during his arrest. Walid was taken into custody and transported in the bone chilling cold of the night to Israel’s Ofer Military Detention Center where hundreds of Palestinians are detained, the vast majority with absolutely no knowledge of why.
The Israelis have been arresting Palestinians nightly for years now. Israel releases a few hundred prisoners in a media frenzy and then, the same night, starts to refill its prisons, a few Palestinians at a time. Although, as per the Oslo Agreements, the Palestinian side is responsible for security inside the Palestinian cities, Israeli armed forces routinely—read nightly, every night—enter the cities in their armored vehicles in the middle of the night and arrest a dozen or so Palestinians from their homes. Walid was merely the latest victim of this kidnap-by-night strategy.
The routine then goes something like this. Within eight days he will be brought before an Israeli military “judge” for the sake of processing only, not deliberating. The entire kangaroo court then, without sharing the reason why the Palestinian detainee is being held, flashes the security card to justify not sharing information on why they have acted against a specific individual. Then the court slaps a six month Administrative Detention Order on the detainee. That means you sit in prison for six months for no reason at all. Walid has already been given just such an order.
Your wife, your children, your work, your end-of-year fundraising campaign, your 500,000 patients/beneficiaries, your life, all abruptly stop. Then, usually, that six month order gets extended a few times before you are released. Walid is not unacquainted with this Orwellian mess. He previously spent nearly five years in and out of detention, never once being charged with anything!
The Health Work Committees association is registered as a not-for profit organization with the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior and also has a Jerusalem registration since they work in Jerusalem as well. HWC employees over 300 persons and operates 14 clinics throughout the West Bank, providing primary health services via these health clinics, mostly in areas not fully covered by the Ministry of Health. HWC also has a community development aspect of their work and operate the following: Jadal Center for Culture and Social Development, Nidal Center (providing health education to East Jerusalem schools), Community Development Plan, Oasis Rehab Center, Community Based Rehabilitation, and the Elderly Care Nursery and Kindergarten. One of the success stories of HWC is its partnership with the Dunya Women's Cancer Clinic.
All of these activities need health care administrators, of which Walid is one. At a time when the Israeli closure system is making life hell for Palestinians, especially those living in marginalized areas or areas directly affected by the Separation Wall, HWC is needed more than ever. Likewise, at a time when international organizations, like USAID, have dramatically cut funding and laid off staff from their heath care programs (such as Flagship) as punishment to the Palestinians for pursuing membership in UNESCO, HWC’s services are needed more than ever.
The era of silence is over. Also, over for me are the slogans that can’t be operationalized. Yes, we want all 5,000 or so Palestinian detainees released. Yes, the policy of administrative detention is inhumane and must end. However, these slogans, although needed at times, must be matched with action items. Each life being destroyed by the Israeli revolving door policy of detainment is a person with a name and a family and a job. And when the person is my friend or colleague, I refuse to swallow the fact that Israel has carte blanche to act above the law. Help me get Walid back to his family and his desk so we can get back to the work of improving the Palestinian health care system.

Consider contacting your local Israeli Embassy and/or the following to demand his immediate release. Reference his name, Walid Abu Rass, and his ID # 9-9702819-6. Judea and Samaria Region Office of the Legal Advisor P.O. Box 5 Beit El, 90631 via Israel Tel: +972-2-997-7071 Fax: +972-2-997-7326 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Office of the Prime Minister 3 Kaplan Street PO Box 187 Kiryat Ben-Gurion Jerusalem 91919 Fax: +972-2-651-2631 or +972-2-670-5475 E-mail: rohm@pmo.gov.il or pm_eng@pmo.gov.il Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Defence Ehud Barak Ministry of Defence 37 Kaplan Street Hakirya, Tel Aviv 61909 Israel Fax: +972.3.691.6940 Email: minister@mod.gov.il

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Phoning It In

Marc Steiner's program is remarkable in the freedom he gives his guests to develop their arguments. He asked me to elaborate on the Harper's article, which I did yesterday by phone. I am grateful for the invitation, and hope the program is as rewarding for listeners as it was for the talkers. Listen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Political Rumors Worth Following

Here are two rumors worth noting, one Israeli, one Palestinian, each with potentially big political significance.

1. The first has to to do with Netanyahu's decision to call a snap Likud primary for late January. The superficial explanation is that he wants to take advantage of his current strength in the Likud, or the complacency of the rank and file, or both, and renew his mandate in case a government partner moves to break-up the coalition and he faces an unexpected election.  But the (slightly obnoxiously) shrewd Hanan Krystal, Israeli radio's closest thing to Bill Schneider, has an intriguing alternative explanation:

Krystal says that Netanyahu's move is aimed to preempt Barack Obama, whom Netanyahu thinks will be reelected. After November 2012, so the argument goes, Obama "will put away the carrot and take out the stick." (Presumably, Leon Panetta's shot across Netanyahu's bow at the Saban Forum, which has rattled America's connoisseurs of victimhood, has put things in focus.)

So Netanyahu, Krystal thinks, will call a general election himself for the fall and win a new mandate before Obama wins his. Implicitly, Krystal is suggesting (something I've believed for some time), that Israel's opposition parties, Kadima and Labor, have one card to play in any future election, and that is the fear of international isolation trumping the fear of regional siege (especially since international support is Israel's only hope for withstanding regional siege).

If the Israeli election is scheduled for the spring of 2013, and opposition leaders like Livni, Mofaz, and Yachimovitch have several months to rail at Bibi for screwing up relations with Washington, they'll have a fighting chance to defeat him. In that context, the energies of last summer's street demonstrations can also be channeled, since economic growth depends on continued global integration.

2. There has been a lot of understandable anxiety in the West following the announcement that Salam Fayyad will be forced out as the Palestinian prime minister. The fear: Fatah and Hamas are trying to achieve a "unity" government of professionals and technocrats, to preside until new elections in the spring, and Fayyad is unacceptable to Hamas. Arguably, this is an indication of Hamas's rising power, a portent of a new government to be led by hard-liners less loyal to Abbas.

But sources in Ramallah tell me that rumors, which have generally proven true, suggest a different story. The next prime minister, they say, is likely to be Mohammed Mustafa, the current CEO of the Palestine Investment Fund. His name has reportedly been approved by Hamas. He is, if anything, even closer to Abbas than Fayyad ever was, regularly accompanying Abbas to Washington, and even to the White House.

Mustafa, a former World Bank official, has run Palestine's sovereign wealth fund (formerly "the billion dollars Arafat kept in his mattress") with transparency and vision. He's invested in telecom, housing, and new businesses. He is a man of exceptional talent and genuine humility, which I've had the privilege of learning at first hand. He is in many ways chairman of the board of Ramallah's entrepreneurial and professional class, and certain to continue to work toward unity mainly through (where possible) economic integration with Gaza.

If it is true that Hamas approved Mustafa, this only proves what is obvious but provisional, that the state-building efforts on the West Bank, however stymied by the occupation, provide Palestinians their only political horizon. Hamas has no choice but to go along. They are even less popular is Gaza than in the West Bank.

Fayyad was unacceptable to Hamas, according to this view, not because of what he stood for, but because his forces jailed (and allegedly roughed-up) Hamas people; many old Fatah leaders had no loyalty to him and lost certain economic plumbs under his administration. Besides, some of Fayyad's ministers were themselves charged with corruption.

Oh, and as for the Palestinian election scheduled for the spring, we can safely assume the opposite of what might happen in Israel, that the vote will not take place until after the American election. If Obama wins, and does take out a stick, Abbas will have a chance to prevail.  If Obama loses, or if hope for a two-state deal is lost, then expect Abbas to resign--and, election or no election, for the leadership of Palestine to fall into Hamas's hands like a ripe fruit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thought Experiment: Two Treaty Provisions

A thought experiment, my final word on the Harper's piece for now. Who among current leaders could possibly agree to, say, "permanent residence" for Jews in Palestine, or an international commission to deal with the Palestinian right of return? Is the approach in the piece realistic? I thought I might try to make things clearer, and more challenging, by posting suggested wording for the two relevant clauses of a final status agreement:

1. Subsequent to the establishment of the Independent State of Palestine and its recognition by the State of Israel...
a. There will be no exclusive civilian residential areas for Israelis in the State of Palestine.
b. Individual Israelis remaining within the borders of the Palestinian State shall be subject to Palestinian sovereignty and Palestinian rule of law.
c. Individual Israelis who have their permanent domicile within the Palestinian State as of [negotiated date] shall be offered Palestinian citizenship or choose to remain as alien residents, all without prejudice to their Israeli citizenship.
d. Within the agreed schedule for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian territories, the Israeli Government and its security forces shall maintain responsibility for the safety and security of Israeli settlements outside the areas of Palestinian security jurisdiction, pending the transfer of said areas to full Palestinian rule.
e. The parties shall establish the mechanism for dealing with security issues relating to Israeli citizens in Palestine and Palestinian citizens in Israel...
Right of Return
1. Whereas the Palestinian side considers that the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is enshrined in international law and natural justice, it recognizes that the prerequisites of the new era of peace and coexistence, as well as the realities that have been created on the ground since 1948, have rendered the implementation of this right impracticable [in most cases...] [State target number allowed to return]. The Palestinian side, thus, declares its readiness to accept and implement policies and measures that will ensure, insofar as this is possible, the welfare and well-being of these refugees.

2. Whereas the Israeli side acknowledges the moral and material suffering caused to the Palestinian people as a result of the war of 1947-1949. It further acknowledges the Palestinian refugees' right of return to the Palestinian state and their right to compensation and rehabilitation for moral and material losses.

3. The parties agree on the establishment of an International Commisssion for Palestinian Refugees (hereinafter "the ICPR") for the final settlement of all aspects of the refugee issue as follows:
a. The Parties extend invitations to donor countries to join them in the formation of the ICPR. b. The Parties welcome the intention of the Government of [neutral European country] to lead the ICPR and to contribute financially to its activities. c. The Government of Israel shall establish a fund for its contribution, along with others, to the activities of the ICPR. d. The ICPR shall conduct all fundraising activities and coordinate donors' involvement in the program. e. The ICPR shall define the criteria for compensation accounting for:
(1)  moral loss; (2)  immovable property; (3) financial and economic support enabling resettlement and rehabilitation of Palestinians residing in refugee camps.
f. The ICPR shall further:
(1)  adjudicate claims for material loss; (2)   prepare and develop rehabilitation and absorption programs; (3) establish the mechanisms and venues for disbursing payments and compensation; (4)  oversee rehabilitation programs; (5)  explore the intentions of Palestinian refugees on the one hand and of Arab and other countries on the other, concerning wishes for emigration and the possibilities thereof; (6)  explore with Arab governments hosting refugee populations, as well as with these refugees, venues for absorption in these countries whenever mutually desired.
g. The ICPR shall implement all the above according to the agreed schedule...
4. The ICPR shall be guided by the following principles in dealing with the "refugees of 1948" and their descendants:
a.  Each refugee family shall be entitled to compensation for moral loss to a sum of money to be agreed upon by the ICPR. b. Each claimant with proven immovable property shall be compensated as per the adjudication of the ICPR. c. The ICPR shall provide financial and economic support, enabling the resettlement and rehabilitation of Palestinians residing in refugee camps. d. The refugees shall be entitled to financial and economic support from the ICPR for resettlement and rehabilitation.
5. The State of Israel undertakes to participate actively in implementing the program for the resolution of the refugee problem. Israel will continue to enable family reunification and will absorb Palestinian refugees in special defined cases, to be agreed upon with the ICPR.

6. The Palestinian side undertakes to participate actively in implementing the program for the resolution of the refugee problem. The Palestinian side shall enact a program to encourage the rehabilitation and resettlement of Palestinian refugees presently resident in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, within these areas.

7. The PLO considers the implementation of the above a full and final settlement of the refugee issue in all its dimensions...

Of course no Palestinian or Israeli official could accept these provisions, right? Actually, I lifted them directly from the Yossi Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement of 1995, which was meant to serve as the basis for negotiation between Rabin and Arafat, but was tragically sent into eclipse by the Rabin assassination. Oh, and that's Abu Mazen as in Mahmoud Abbas, the current head of the PA, the man who is desperately trying to hold off Hamas with diplomatic movement and state-building; the man the current Israeli government and its hallelujah chorus in America--along with various pundits who think two-states are for "liberal Zionist" dinosaurs--seem eager to discredit.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 'Right Of Return' And Other Rights

At bottom, the question my Harper's piece tries to answer is deceptively simple and by no means relevant to the Palestinian right of return alone. It is this: how can a democratic state, a commonwealth of free citizens, be reconciled with the right of citizens, collectively, to sustain national distinction? How is an individual's right to conscience and property reconciled to a nation's right to draw boundaries, legal and geographical? The tension between these rights may seem tangential to Middle East violence, but if two democratic states are going to emerge here, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to come to a common standard for resolving it, for each other, but also for themselves.

Assume, as the piece does, that the Palestinians' most poignant claims are reasonable (and ignore for the moment whether some Israelis have similar claims): assume, that is, that the suffering and material losses of refugees need to be recognized and compensated, indeed, that the right of refugees to choose among various modalities for redress (including return to their lands and homes, "at the earliest practicable date" as stipulated in U.N. 194) must be realized as part of any final peace. Assume, further, that this right, which is inherently one of individuals and families, is of a piece with the right of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to live in a country in which they are equal to all other citizens.

How, then, do such claims stack up against, and work with, the most poignant claims of Israeli Jews--inherently a collective claim--that Jewish civilization should find new and modern forms, or at least not be extinguished; that Israel is and will continue to be the Jewish national home? How to honor the democratic individual, liberalism, in (to use the vernacular) a "Jewish state"? For that matter, how do the individual rights of people ordinarily considered Jewish, but who (like me) reject Halachic obligations, shape the laws of a Jewish state?

The answer I tried to offer is the one virtually all democratic states have come up with, which I discussed at length in The Hebrew Republic. Israel should of course be a state of its citizens, that is, guarantee equality and freedom of conscience, and search for many confederative relations with a Palestinian state where feasible and sensible. But all citizens of Israel should be educated in Hebrew, or to a working knowledge of it. Hebrew should be the default, though not the only official, language of the state bureaucracy (i.e., you must be able to speak write in Hebrew to work for it, though the state should offer help in Arabic and English to people who cannot) and the default language of work.

Practically, Hebrew should be the main language of state-supported high schools and institutions of higher education. It should be required on every sign. And so forth. In addition, the commercial calendar should reflect the practices of the most widely practiced religious observances: this means the right not to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and Friday for that matter, though people who do so voluntarily should not be forced not to. This is how virtually every EU country handles national claims and how Quebec handles its special status within Canada.

Palestinians should therefore endorse this basic Israeli national right as a quid pro quo for Israelis endorsing the Palestinians' individual rights, among them the right of return. Actually, both sides, if they aim to be democracies, have an immanent stake in both kinds of rights--and the ways these rights are made to complement one another. Palestinians should insist that, in endorsing Israel's right to sustain a Jewish national home, they are not thereby endorsing material discrimination against people who lack J-positive blood (as is currently the case). Israel must change: secular freedoms must be the standard all around (a point Fatah is trying to hold off Hamas with, and Israeli liberals should reinforce). Israelis, for their part, should insist that the right of return must be realized in ways that reflect the desire of Israelis to incubate Jewish linguistic and cultural difference. Where the two rights clash, confederative institutions may soften hard lines.

SOME WILL ARGUE that Hebrew language protection is not enough to make Israel "Jewish." I reject this. Language is not some inert instrument of communication merely signifying realities external to us. It is what we really mean by "nation," more formative than the shared territory that, historically was the key to enabling language itself to be shared. We ought to take for granted what everyone from Wittgenstein to Orwell (and, more recently, fellow Montrealer Steven Pinker) have taken for granted, that a language is a nuanced way of grasping one's most intimate relations and the stuff of the material world. 

Language, moreover, is as human and formative as touching members of your family. It contains within its precincts the accumulated experiences, signs and detritus of a collective story. Spend a day with the OED, or the Even Shohan, dictionary. The word "civilization" must spring to mind. Language gives one direct access to a people's classical literature, myths, religious ideas, criticism, legal precepts. It gives identity, shapes the mouth and tongue and imagination. It is the background music of one's life, the dreamscape of sleep.

And Zionism at its most radical understood this. The idea of an independent state (so-called "political Zionism") was a minor chord from the start. It was not officially adopted as a goal until the Biltmore Conference of 1942. (It was formally rejected in 1931.) But the idea that building Hebrew-speaking colonies and cities would provide Jews the means to live as moderns, with individual liberties, and yet remain custodians of a Jewish civilization that would otherwise disappear--well, that was there in Zionism from the start.

I know I am repeating myself (I tell this story at length in The Tragedy of Zionism), but some things cannot be said often enough. This "cultural Zionism" inspired the people who called themselves Zionists from Achad Haam and Weizmann to Ben-Gurion to Yehuda Amichai. It is still the crucial fact of Israel. It is not gone because reactionary leaders or Halachic mullahs distort Zionist history, or just take Hebrew for granted. Any American Jewish visitor to Israel senses how out-of-it he or she is as soon as the novelty of Hebrew letters on the supermarket wears off.

AND YET, CRUCIALLY, the Hebrew language, like contemporary Israeli music, is inherently inclusive. A kid from Nazareth can groove on Matti Caspi. The Palestinian Arab Israeli activist, now in exile, Azmi Bishara, told me he owed his political education to the psychological subtly of Achad Haam. Similarly, the kid of a kid from Bialystok like myself goes to McGill and finds himself an heir of Thomas Hobbes. But he also lives, if he wishes, in Hebrew and Yiddish and French. Indeed, collective identity is only enriched by this kind of hybridization.

Nor is the Jewish religion, in all of its forms, diminished in a Hebrew-speaking state that does not privilege any religion. Acolytes of the Anglican religion in Canada are not impoverished because the Canadian state, in offering cultural protection of English, does not privilege members of the Anglican church. The Hebrew language provides a background, a framework, in which voluntary and self-funded Jewish congregations might thrive. But the state is not a person or a congregation. Where, if not in a Hebrew Republic, would an orthodox Jew rather live?

In short, the Hebrew language is the collective material upon which an individual citizen works his or her magic. It is the basis for freedom to, not just freedom from. It is the means through which Israelis construct fictions about one another, riff on the poetics of the Jewish past, innovate the art and technology that seeds the future. Sayed Kashua can use Hebrew to, among other things, mock the foibles of Israeli Jews and advance the equality of Arab citizens. But in the very way he uses Hebrew, with its inescapable allusions to Torah culture, and modern Israeli shtick, he is paying Jewish civilization an unprecedented tribute.

WHAT MY ARTICLE really aims to make vivid, then, is not just a psychologically necessary process (Israelis recognize Palestinians' rights to freedom and "return," Palestinians recognize Israelis' right to a national home) but an end-point in justice: two states, each committed to the equality of all of its citizens, each tied to the other in a host of confederative relations, but each recognizing the national life, the language and collateral culture, the other is trying to preserve.

These states would have to use confederative institutions to square circles where necessary: say, by allowing Jerusalem to remain united while serving as a capital for two states; or by offering a legal innovation allowing permanent residency but not citizenship, so that Arabs living in Israel who wish to educate in Arabic rather than Hebrew can do so, and vice versa. The territory in question is so small that such solutions are inevitable and feasible--unless, of course, fanatics on both sides simply bring us to a fight to the finish.

And I am reviewing these ideas because various bloggers have written to criticize the article yet seemed unwilling to engage the ideas themselves. Perhaps I might have made things clearer. But at least some of this criticism seemed less bothered with the article's ideas than with the chance to depict its author as an instance of a type. Does this kind of thing really advance our thinking?

One writer, apart from questioning my reporting skills, laments "liberal Zionism" (whatever that is) and its media power. Another comes to the defense of liberal Zionists "like Avishai" but with arguments and formulations that are not mine and I would never endorse (e.g., that Israel, as a Jewish state, "inherently privileges Jewish citizens over Arab citizens"). Yet another congratulates me for abandoning the two-state process, which any balanced reader could see I have not; and for offering confederative ideas, ostensibly "moving" closer to his own position, though I began advocating for these same ideas in various op-eds over twenty years ago, and even in this short New Yorker article in 1995.

I understand how radioactive this subject is. And writers are lying when they pretend not to like the attention. But things are pretty bad here now, and even if broad conceptions of justice cannot pull us out, ad hominem attacks certainly won't. If my argument is wrong--not just hopeless, or coming from the wrong mouth, or typical of a political type, but unjust--then I'd be grateful for refutations or refinements. Then again, if the argument is more or less sound, can we not talk about how to build on it?