Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Promiscuous' On The Beach

The paperback edition of Promiscuous is now out. Books get published but not much advertised these days; so forgive me for doing what authors once counted on publishers for. I'd be grateful if you shared this post with just one other person who you think would enjoy the read.

Writing the book was a labor of love: I meant it to be a playful gloss on, and companion to, Portnoy's Complaint, which was among the books that changed my life--but not only mine. I am gratified that a good number of reviewers got the point and thought it worked. Here, following, are some excepts from what they had to say.

Here, also, a link to an unedited interview I did for Australian Broadcasting, which was the best I did in the months after the book was released. And also this text of a lecture about Portnoy and Roth I gave recently in Jerusalem, which summarizes the book's major claims and gives a sounding of its voice. First, some reviews:

"The meditative approach of Avishai’s study, framed by his informed and engaging style, pays homage to Roth’s novel. Promiscuous is an engaging companion to Portnoy’s Complaint – as well as an important contribution to scholarship – and dispels Avishai’s concern that ‘readers like books about books about as much as they like a cousin’s snapshots of Prague’."
— Tom Ue, Times Literary Supplement

“Avishai (whose intellect and wit well serve his friend Roth) is a perceptive literary and historic guide to the Portnoy phenomenon and the passionate response the novel engendered. . . . Erudite yet playful. . . . Highly recommended.”
Choice, American Library Association

"A spirited engagement with the 1969 breakthrough novel that brought Philip Roth both renown and notoriety. . . . Avishai ventures far and wide over literary, philosophical and other cultural touchstones, providing a context for Roth's novel that encompasses James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Jackson Pollock, and Judd Apatow. Avishai proves both an informed and engaging guide to the novel and its legacy."
— Kirkus Reviews

“A very serious and very funny book about a very serious and very funny book.”
— Jerome Chanes, The Forward

“Bernard Avishai has written a spirited, loving, richly insightful appreciation of Portnoy's Complaint as cultural phenomenon, generational totem, instinctual liberation, and, above all, stupendous work of art. A marvelous book for anyone who wishes to relive and to understand the thrill, scandal and triumph of Roth's comic masterpiece.”
—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 

“An affectionate, attentive, rumbustious meditation on Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which also provides a robust, opinionated history of twentieth-century American Jewishness, sexual politics, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, skepticism and joking.”
Hermione Lee, President, Wolfson College, Oxford University, Author of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton 

“This is the best thing on Roth yet written. Avishai’s breezy, intimate style is propelled by considerable scholarship, not only locating this breakout novel in Roth’s life and work, but building a launching pad for Avishai’s own dazzling cultural, intellectual, religious, and psychoanalytical explorations. Promiscuous proves Roth to be our boldest, best, and brightest fiction writer.”
Robert Brustein, Founder, American Reporatory Theater

“How can one make a text so notorious, so unrelentingly charged, even more unique than it already is? It is to Avishai’s great credit that, in many respects, he lives up to this task, not least because his prose teems with unbounded passion. He offers keen insight into a novel that one would think has exhausted further possible excavation from critics and readers alike.”
— Sam Kerbel, Tablet

“I was there. I read Portnoy—eagerly, with both hands!—the week it came out. And let me tell you, Avishai nails it. He explains it, re-explains it, plumbs the depths and jokes and gives backstories I was too ignorant and giddy to notice. And not just that: Promiscuous kept the smile on my face from start to finish.”
—Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

Monday, June 24, 2013

Finally, Getting Down To Business

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column 

“We come from the field, and we’re feeling the pressure; if we don’t make progress toward a two-state solution, there will be negative developments for the Israeli economy. We’re already noticing initial signs of this. The future of the Israeli economy will be in danger.” This, reportedly, is the message delivered last month to Prime Minister Netanyahu by a member of a group of prominent businesspeople, just before they met, on May 26, with Palestinian counterparts in Jordan under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

The group, organized and led by legendary high tech investor, Yossi Vardi, and Veritas and Sadara general partner, Yadin Kaufman, also included Shlomi Fogel, the owner of Ampa, Ruth Cheshin, from Teva’s board of directors, Shmuel Meitar, a founder of Amdocs, Benny Landa, a founder of Indigo, and Rami Levi, owner of supermarkets and a cell phone company (and probably Israel's largest employer of Jerusalem Palestinians).

The message is disquieting; the messengers are the ones we've been waiting for. As I argued in The Hebrew Republic, the spine of any successful peace movement has to be Israel's businesspeople, concerned about global isolation, not (or not only) Israel's liberal intelligentsia, concerned about the corruption of democracy. For ordinary Israelis, but especially young people, the only compelling rival to the claims of Greater Israel, which by now seem second nature, are the claims of Global Israel, which are learned at first hand.

Those latter claims are, or should be, threefold: the opportunity cost of conflict, the dangers to high tech of isolation, and the novel facts of new, networked economies--in short, a political economic vision. The businesspersons' group seem willing to advocate for the first two. About the third, let us just say we need more work.

First, the opportunity cost of the conflict, which is not widely appreciated. Indeed, many foolishly claim that the Israeli economy is not only unharmed by the occupation but may actually gain from it. Some on the right—including Prime Minister Netanyahu, reinforced by sympathetic polemics like Start-up Nation—claim that Israel’s war economy, heavy on high-tech military organization and R&D, engenders technologies that seed the country’s lively start-up culture. Others, especially on the left, assume that Israel’s consumer and telecom corporations are happy to have a captive market of an additional three million consumers.

Most, in short, look at Israel’s fairly steady rates of growth and compare those rates to the OECD average. They understand that the country’s current austerity crisis and high, chronic inequality are burdensome. Yet they refuse to believe that peace would make much difference.

What both sides fail to understand--something Rami Levi no doubt understands--is that Israelis who are not in the start-up world are paying a heavy material price for this conflict, since Israel is not growing nearly as fast as it could have been, especially in food processing and retail, tourism, and construction--the medium tech industries that would be partners for short-term Palestinian economic growth if the occupation were lifted and investment from Jordan and the Gulf would pour in. The OECD average, in this sense, is almost entirely irrelevant to what Israel is, namely, a large, technologically advanced urban hub—a kind of city-state—networked to the global system on the one hand, and to Palestine on the other.

Israel's growth rate, as Stanley Fischer has insisted, is actually not nearly fast as it could be, or enough to outpace the social tensions prompted by persistent inequalities, between Israeli Jews and Arabs, especially. Fischer, departing the Bank of Israel, added his voice to the business delegation, calling for seriousness about peace. No, compare Israel's growth to some average of Singapore, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Berlin, not to some average of Ireland, France, and Greece. (Stay tuned: a project I'm co-leading at Dartmouth is planning to do just this.)

But, then, what of high tech? Is it not true that high defense spending, and the defense posture generally, is good for technology businesses? This brings us to the second point, the dangers of isolation. To some extent, of course, high defense spending, the team-based problem-solving of the IDF, the 8200 intelligence unit, etc., seed new technologies.

But for the most part, technology businesses have to build relationships with global customers: they have to become solutions companies for problems defined by the product development plans of global technology and medical corporations. And unless Israelis sell apps, software packages, components, or devices that are so exotic, powerful and unique that nobody else can supply them, global corporations will increasingly shun Israel start-ups the way Spanish crowds shun visiting Israeli basketball teams. Already, Indians and Indian companies are proving far more important to Silicon Valley than Israel.

Third, and perhaps most important, Israeli business leaders--the natural leaders of Global Israel--understand the nature of the new economy, which young Israelis experience but can't necessarily find the words for whenever they fly from Ben Gurion Airport or flip on one of their three or four screens. Israel's business leaders, in other words, have the moral responsibility to define what a two-state peace must really look like, given the indispensability of economic growth to both states, and the new drivers of growth which businesspeople perceive more clearly than old school officials, politicians and journalists. Are they exercising it?

Alas, on this point Vardi et al have been reticent, not just "so far," but in the way they've crafted their mandate. They have defined themselves merely as a "pressure group," to highlight the importance of a two-state solution, but not a group to describe what a solution might actually look like. Vision, they say, is the job of the political leadership. Really?

On the contrary, high tech and other business leaders need, urgently, to spell out the political implications of the world they live in and embody. They must advocate for the very thing their photo ops in Amman implied, infrastructural integration and political interdependence. I have argued here before that security must be re-envisioned in terms of the new urban "fragility." Similarly, the peace process has become a great bore because political leaders have failed to acknowledge two states in 2013 cannot look like the states of 1948, when the area was sparsely populated with agricultural villages and collectives, and rivalries erupted over hilltops.

Only the business leaders Vardi's assembled have the moral prestige to sketch out this vision and take it mainstream. As long as young Israelis fail to envision a plausible peace, they will fail to embrace the steps necessary to move to it, including demanding an end to the settlement project.

Israel and Palestine--it cannot be stressed enough--exist in a globalized, networked, densely populated, urbanized land. Negotiations over two states must anticipate moves toward greater integration--hence, confederated arrangements--both to mitigate the fears each side has of the other’s “self-determination” and provide a framework for each economy to grow.

The jurisdictions these states would exercise would encompass much more than police, education, civil law, and cultural affairs--what the Palestinian Authority has hypothetically exercised under the Oslo Agreement. Rather, these jurisdictions also would cover water and sewage, bandwidth and telecom, health delivery and control of epidemics, labor law, certification and integration of tourist services, banking and currency controls, roads and bridges, railways, construction standards, and technical university certification.

Vardi and his group should be arguing for this vision, two nations, but one urban infrastructure; for shared, or confederative, jurisdictions to help Israel and Palestine work cooperatively and grow reciprocally, just as their joint conference implies. (One member of the Vardi group told me off-the-record that there is a kind of consensus to support the plan former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas advanced: a cooperative security arrangement, a cooperative custodian for the old city of Jerusalem, two capitals but one municipality, an international commission to oversee Palestinian compensation for confiscated property, etc. All of these plans presuppose confederative solutions of one kind or another.)

The point is, only businesspeople can argue with the necessary authority for such new styles of cooperation, which are inexorable, that is, if we are to avoid violence and war. Vardi, an admirer of McLuhan, often tells us that the medium is the message. In this case, however, the messenger is the medium. Just say what you are and how you work.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great War From The Ground Up

I have spent the last couple of months making my way, several pages a night before sleep, through Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, his eloquent, humble (though not modest), somewhat bloodless account of commanding American forces through North Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and VE Day. I picked up the book for 50 cents last summer, read the first few pages when I got back to New Hampshire in March, and gradually became absorbed. Now, I am on a kind of Eisenhower tear.

The events Eisenhower describes are of almost unimaginable human cruelty. Yet Eisenhower's voice remains reassuring and sane (actually, so much the voice you want to read to you before bed): the strategic commitments, the command of divisions, the management of personalities, the insistence on unchallenged command, the logistics, the respect for the power of the journalists and the opinion of citizens who read them, the carefully channeled indignation when required to discipline subordinates, the businesslike contempt for "the German"--all in all, a sense of what Camus called "common decency."

What you don't quite get, however, is a vivid sense of what Eisenhower's soldiers faced, though there is no doubt from his writing about visiting battlefields after the fact that the suffering he knew he was ordering men into weighed on him in prospect about as heavily as historians would wish in retrospect. His "veneer of callousness" (as he wrote Maimie before D Day) was crafted.

Anyway, it is with Eisenhower's book in mind that I am now reading the just-published book of my old friend, Charles Glass, The Deserters: The Hidden History of World War II, which seems to me Crusade in Europe's surprising complement. If Eisenhower's book provides an unexpectedly humane view of the war's end from the headquarters of the Supreme Commander, Glass's brings us an unexpectedly humane view from the the platoon, the psyche, and the brig.

I won't try to recapitulate the various stories Glass tells compellingly. (You can get a taste from this poignant conversation with "Fresh Air"'s Terry Gross.) I will say that Glass in his own way unpacks the horror of the war, and of war in general, with a kind of magisterial detachment, tact, and factual concreteness worthy, ironically, of Crusade in Europe. As with Eisenhower, Glass's decency and humility serve his subject well.

I will note that most of the soldiers whose careers Glass chronicles were by no means cowards.  Most had fought bravely, and for the very values Eisenhower intended; deserters were not lacking in passion or inspiration. These men were, for the most part, simply pushed (for reasons beyond Eisenhower's and Marshall's control, actually) beyond human endurance. To see why 50,000 Americans deserted is to see the war from the ground up in a way, I suspect, Eisenhower would have condemned but understood. Understandable--not the same as right.

Incidentally, Glass has been a war correspondent for most of his adult life and at times narrowly escaped death himself. He also escaped a Hezbollah kidnapping. His own bravery, and contempt for moral cowardice, should not be doubted; his latest report from Aleppo, a city he loves, is a model of how to describe the Syrian tragedy. Glass, much like Eisenhower, I dare say, has always intuited that, once guns fall silent, it takes more courage to advocate keeping them silent than to open fire once again.

Eisenhower commanded greater military power in Europe than anyone since Napoleon, but he did not seek glory. He knew very well that FDR's decision to keep his hero and mentor, George Marshall, in Washington meant credit for defeating "the German" would be his. Yet he was embarrassed, he writes, when French crowds hailed him after the liberation of Paris. As president, it became even clearer how little glory Eisenhower thought there was in war, which once peace was established had to be prevented almost at all cost--which led to his thwarted efforts to bring Khrushchev to "detente" before the concept gained currency.

Eisenhower's only obvious moral cowardice was keeping silent while McCarthy, that permanent crusader, was skewering Marshall. He had senatorial yahoos of his own to deal with and other senators whispering in his ear about electoral pragmatism. Eisenhower, who rolled back the gains of the Suez War of 1956, finally sent marines into Lebanon in 1958. People now rallying to Syrian intervention might want to consider what good that did--or just consult with Glass.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Women: Talk To The Wall

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column. 

When I first got to Israel, just after the 1967 war, and then through much of the 1970s, the Western Wall carried its grandeur with a disarming humility. It was a warm, softened, empty-cream space, implying a revered history, but inviting you to project your emotional state, something like what I imagine an empty canvas was to Mark Rothko.

The night my son was born, in June, 1973, I came to the Wall to speak with my parents, by then dead, but available in the crevices. You prayed, if that's the word; but your homage was as personal and idiosyncratic as the note you shoved into it. Pick-up minyans were scattered around, but they mainly left you alone; nobody seemed to own the place other than the municipality of Jerusalem and Jews-in-general. The plaza in front of the Wall was something like a shrine, but not much like a shul. When the Camp David Accords were finally signed in 1979, Teddy Kollek invited Yehudi Menuhin to play there on a cold windswept night. We rushed to celebrate the peace at the place of commonwealth.

I don't remember when things changed there; in a way, everything changed when Menachem Begin and his forces had taken over in 1977, but the transformations were not dramatic at first. I do remember that, by the end of the 1990s, I stopped going or taking visitors there, except to visit the archeological digs. Anyway, I go to the Wall today with the same defensive anxiety with which I walk into Mea Shearim. Hating what the Wall has become is a touchstone of identity.

And it is this oppressive atmosphere at the Wall that the Women of the Wall are presumably trying to loosen up. The Orthodoxy that prevails there must make room for other, more spacious Judaisms. Women, in this view, are the perfect foil for Orthodoxy: they are always the objects of male intimidation, a symptom of primitive religion; in contrast, they enjoy egalitarian services in Reform Judaism. So the Jewish state should not privilege Orthodoxy over Reform at the Wall any more than privilege Orthodoxy regarding conversion abroad. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that the Women of the Wall are justified in expecting equality at a public space

Ah, but then how to divide up the space, when women wearing a tallis or reading the from the Torah so offend the ultra-pious men crowding at the stones? Enter Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who has weighed in with a compromise--one North American federations endorse. An "egalitarian" space will be opened at Robinson's Arch, so that the Wall will, in effect, be made to expand. Women, say, may organize a bat-mitzvah there, and even wear a tallis (though tfilin are still up in the air, I believe). Women may be called to the Torah, presumably, but out of Orthodox sight.

Too little, too late? Apparently not. The leader of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, a former progressive member of the Jerusalem city council, who has received death threats, seems on the verge of accepting a version of the compromise. She aims, she insists, to further "pluralism"; "We made history," she said. Live and let live. "This is about more than our holiest sites," write Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick; "To us, this dispute is about a juncture between a narrowing, hardening Judaism and the promise of Sinai. We are fighting for Sinai."

Now, I have boundless respect, and not a little affection, for Anat Hoffman. I do not underestimate the courage shown by all Women of the Wall and fully understand the depth of their liberalism and determination to make a stand. But I confess the fight they've taken on seems to me pretty nearly a complete missing of the point. A liberal's conception of tolerance presupposes what we once affectionately called "the Enlightenment." The idea of "proximity to holiness" concedes to Orthodoxy the very game at which liberals lose by default. Nor does one advance pluralism in Israel by arguing for equality of privilege in a jurisdiction the government of democratic society has no business exercising in the first place.

Imagine that Italian archaeologists dug up what were almost certainly the nails used to crucify Jesus, smuggled out of Judea in Roman times, and that the modern Italian state put them, properly, in a museum of antiquities; then imagine that a series of Italian governments, bowing to Vatican pressure, slowly turned this part of the museum into a shrine administered by papal officials. Now imagine that government coalitions, continuing to bow to the Pope, allowed prayer at the shrine, and the priests administering the site allowed this only by Catholics who had gone to confession every week for five years. Then imagine that Catholics professing liberation theology, or Evangelicals, for that matter, petitioned the Italian government, insisting that they, too, had a right to venerate the nails. Imagine that the Jesuit Curia in Rome offered a compromise, which the state accepted.

Would liberals (not to mention what's left of Jewry) in Italy argue that the petitioners furthered "pluralism"? Or would they say the petitioners were merely trying to gain recognition of equality for themselves in Christian precincts, without challenging state's right to be an arbiter in those precincts, indeed, that the Italian state was seriously debasing democratic standards by presuming to determine what a good Christian is and how people might pray?

My point, of course, is that a democratic Jewish state is a social contract in the Hebrew language--no more, no less. It is certainly not the impresario of religious "unity" or the custodian of whatever "Judaism" happens to be hegemonic at the moment. Nor is Israel a big congregation with a liturgy committee. The state's business, rather, is the maximization of liberty for its citizens, that is, the guarantor of an individual's conscience. Sharansky, the former prisoner for whose release radical liberals around the world were once mobilized, now thinks he's a regular Solomon, deciding how to divy-up state-endowed liturgical privilege. Shame on him.

The Wall should never have been turned into Israel's Great Synagogue. It should become again a precious ruin inflected by historical pathos, a place of spontaneity--also worship for people if they choose, but worship in voluntary association. If Habad acolytes want to pray on the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn home of their arguably dead Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that is their right. But even if Habad dominated the Brooklyn city council, they would not have the prerogative to determine how prayer might be conducted there.

Besides, satisfying the claims of any movement in Judaism means not honoring the religious imaginations of the majority, which is devoid of religious conviction. Haaretz reports that the latest Israeli Democracy Index survey, commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute from Chanan Cohen and Prof. Tamar Hermann, asked, “Do you feel that you belong to one of the denominations of Judaism and if so, to which one?” The survey found that 3.9 percent of respondents felt an affinity to Reform Judaism, 3.2 percent to Conservative Judaism and 26.5 percent to Orthodox Judaism. "The rest said they felt no connection to any denomination or declined to respond."

"The rest," if I'm doing the math correctly, is something like two-thirds of Israelis: people who consider themselves citizens of a Jewish state; a country whose national life has cultural roots in historic Jewish civilization but who expect no interference in their spiritual decisions. It is diversity itself that needs "pluralist" champions. Which, in a way, is also Judaism at its most valuable. My wife, Sidra Ezrahi, has written that Judaism flowered by approaching "holiness" through substitutes; that the great spiritual insight of diaspora Jews was the presumption that they could never touch the real thing. When it comes to the Orthodox (and their local champions), the Women of the Wall might as well be talking to one. But why, in God's name, compete with Orthodoxy in the worship of idols?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Two States: Starved For A Vision

When most people envision, however skeptically, a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, they imagine adding a Palestinian state to the Jewish one — something similar to redeeming the partition the United Nations intended in 1948. But Israel is no longer the state envisioned in 1948 — and not only because in 1967 it bit off, without quite swallowing, what was left of Arab Palestine. Palestine has no hope of becoming that kind of state either.

In 1948, the area was sparsely populated with agricultural villages and collectives and rivalries erupted over hilltops. Today, Israel and Palestine exist in a globalized, networked, densely populated, urbanized land. North of the Negev, Israel and Palestine, together, are approximately the size and scope of greater Los Angeles; under 10,000 square miles. Israel is more like a city-state, an arc-shaped Hebrew-speaking megalopolis of about six million Jews, from Beersheba to Haifa and on into the Galilee. Bending around this arc is a string of hybridized Israeli Arab cities, another million and a half people, many of whose residents percolate into the civil society, as professionals and merchants, and whose Arabic disrupts Israel’s urbane Hebrew culture hardly at all.

And interfacing with this Israel is a Palestinian, Arabic state-in-the-making, increasingly integrated with the economic life of Amman. Indeed, if and when hundreds of thousands of refugees start pouring back into the area, much of the West Bank hill areas (and Jordan Valley) will look like,and have the urban density of, Amman. Demography is not simply about counting live births in "ethnic" groups. It is also about education and development, the distribution of professional classes, in short, the political economy of growth in a networked world, where inflow of intellectual capital is the key to creating wealth.

Israel has a GDP of about $250 billion; fully 20 percent of this comes from exporting technologically advanced solutions and components to Europe, the United States, and the Far East. Over the past decades, Israeli businesses have built intimate relationships with myriad global companies. Freedom has allowed them opportunities to develop talent, scope markets, import components, learn management, and so forth. They had a lot to learn after the 1980s, when the state- and Histadrut-dominated economy nearly collapsed.

Palestine, for its part, has a GDP of about $5 billion; and Palestinian cities need international donors to provide around $2 billion a year to pay teachers and police. And yet, Palestinian individuals hold over $8 billion in bank deposits (Jordanian Palestinians have well over $12 billion). But the banks can’t lend even half of those funds because there are not enough Palestinian entrepreneurs with plausible business plans to borrow money. The main obstacle to building an entrepreneurial base is the occupation, to be sure. There are not enough freedoms to develop talent, scope markets, etc. But an additional, urgent problem is a dearth of know-how in science and high technology — even in writing business plans, for that matter. Palestinian businesses could never get off the ground without leveraging relationships with Israeli investors and companies.

So statehood, yes; but independence as in 1948? On the contrary, only infrastructural integration and political interdependence — regionally and globally — will enable Palestine and Israel to grow fast enough to outpace their respective social problems and inequalities. About the importance of close security cooperation against terror undergrounds on both sides, what more needs to be said?

Housing stock and office space in Palestine, as in Israel, will grow up, not out. The flow of know-how and know-about into Palestine from Israel and Jordan will matter more to Palestine’s urban development than any financial capital it may receive from Western Europe or Gulf States. Consider this: Palestine graduates about 1,200 computer technologists a year, but those graduates will need to work on large-scale projects such as those found in the technology centers Israel has established for Intel, Cisco, and Google if they are to develop strong competencies. Israeli medical tourism, for its part, will be far more robust if it forges partnerships with Palestinians and Jordanians draws clients from Dubai and Qatar.

This inevitable interdependence has immediate political consequences; negotiations over two states should anticipate moves toward greater integration, hence confederated arrangements, to mitigate the fears each side has of the other’s “self-determination.” The jurisdictions these city-states would exercise encompass much more than police, education, civil law, and cultural affairs — what the Palestinian Authority has hypothetically exercised under the Oslo Agreement. Rather, these jurisdictions would cover water and sewage, bandwidth and telecom, health delivery and control of epidemics, labor law, certification and integration of tourist services, banking and currency controls, roads and bridges, railways, construction standards, technical university certification.

In effect, we would have one big system: two nations, but one urban infrastructure. And sharing these governmental responsibilities would help Israel and Palestine work cooperatively and grow reciprocally. In 2008, then Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas advanced a cooperative security arrangement. They also explored new confederative institutions for Jerusalem. They agreed the city would serve as two capitals but would be constituted as one municipality. What was that projected municipality if not a confederative institution? What was the projected international committee that would become custodian of the old city? A confederative solution could also establish an international commission to resolve the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

I am not suggesting either side is interested in abandoning national sovereignty nor that notions of holiness, or justice under international law, won’t matter. Both sides will want to build “their own state.” And I know that the very word “confederation” raises eyebrows. How would two peoples that seem to hate each other contemplate anything but separation? But confederative institutions are, historically, what peoples build precisely when they do not trust one another and their economic realities do not permit separation. That is how Canada and the European Union began. That is what the global economy portends for us all.

Besides, poll after poll indicate that majorities on both sides can converge on the terms of a deal, but even larger majorities do not believe the other side wants, or can implement, a solution. All are starved for a vision. In this sense, confederative institutions should not be thought of as a stroke of optimism but the reverse: a way of offering two despairing peoples a chance to slip the traps of the immediate past, and move together into the new political economy that awaits them. Of course, they can also resume the fight to the finish, as in Bosnia during the 1990s; Israeli settlers and Hamas leaders seem eager to do so. But this will leave us with no finish, only more dead and grieving and the same damn problem: not just the need to keep the past at bay but the present in sight.

A version of this article appears in the current Sh'ma.