The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender

Incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”

 

 

 

 

Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.

 

10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part V: Feedback to Blogs on JSpace

Rather than writing up the rest of the program, I thought it would be better to provide feedback on my comments thus far. I did leave early in mid-afternoon and missed the fireworks with the Jewish Defense League (JDL).

JDL picketed and then one of them barged in, yelling “I want to see what the faces of kapos look like!” He was escorted out by some members, the hotel manager, and the police who had provided extra surveillance. The JDL had planned their protest for 4:00 pm when Peter Beinart was scheduled to speak on the importance of raising the progressive Zionist voice…making a difference…and where do we go from here? Ironically, the session JDL interrupted was the panel on challenging antisemitism and anti-Zionism, moderated by Yoni Goldstein and with panelists from CIJA and Ameinu, and an orthodox journalist from Tablet magazine.

The police advised Karen Mock to tell the people to leave via the mall to avoid the protesters and not to engage them. Regretfully, the JDL thugs stood outside both exits to the hotel and harassed JSpace participants. Many felt very unsafe. Afterwards, Peter tweeted: “A bit weird when Jewish Defence League showed up + police had to escort me to my taxi. But fascinating to experience JDL, a phenomenon I had thought was consigned to Jewish history. Like meeting followers of Shabtai Tsvi.”

Selections from some e-mail responses to my blogs:

Thank you, as usual, Howard for these wide-ranging and incisive and substantive blogs. 

I enjoyed the conference. 

Good Intellectual food for thought.

I am not sure it is as diverse a Space for opinions as painted.

Although this response may be premature, I must add, albeit briefly, that if progressive voices should be negotiating for a two-state solution based on “facts on the ground,” and those facts have shifted significantly to the advantage of Israel, then what possible incentive would Israel have to ever negotiate at all?  Sharon’s “facts on the ground” strategy has worked beautifully, and at this point, will deprive the Palestinians of any geography remotely resembling a state.  If Israel continues to pursue this strategy of death by a thousand cuts, we can be assured of one thing only: the peace process will have no chance whatsoever. The left has been played – yet again – believing that everyone’s good intentions would lead to a two-state solution and a just result.  Now we’re simply picking scraps up off the corpse, which is not exactly a hopeful metaphor.  Perhaps the American Jewish left will finally grow a spine, turn off the spigot of funding, and begin to use the financial leverage it may (or may not) have. 

Too “left:” It was too much of a “left” consensus on issues without any contrarian voices. 

Not diverse.

There were many well-meaning people at the Conference – their hearts are in the right place; on the other hand, self-indulgent “feel-goodism” may be a disservice to Israel in the neighborhood in which it lives.

I think overly wishful thinking at the conference and the generation of “feeling warm and fuzzy” (however virtuous) may have come at the expense of balance, historical accuracy, Zionism and realism.

Dialogue is a means not a value.

No speaker countered the assertion that BDS is not anti -Semitic; surely, one can have a “safe space“ and a more balanced view or, at least, one speaker to counter that BDS Is not anti-Semitic.

Beinart focused exclusively on the occupation Itself without explaining that it is not the cause of the conflict but rather the result of the conflict,

Israel does not seek war and all its actions in war have been defensive, the ultimate 70 year plus of Palestinian rejectionism and maximalism, the fact that half the PA budget in foreign aid goes to pay terrorists families without apology and continues without hesitation, the impossible security situation of Israel, the lessons learned from unconditional withdrawal in south Lebanon and Gaza, the intractable and abhorrent views and actions of Hezbollah and Hamas and their aggression and, finally, UN Res.242-all but ignored

Are they non-Zionist or conditional Zionists?

Beinart and his unrelenting hectoring for seemingly unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel and then “You’ll be perfect and we’ll love you!” Peter B. Also ignores the Talmudic and “Maimonidesian” (?) call for self -defence as a paramount virtue In protecting life while citing other biblical claims to support his position.

I believe in a two-state solution, but not one based on the 1967 borders. As long as the Palestinians fail to show a clear willingness to accept Israel’s right to exist and reflect it in its textbooks for example, there is a fat chance that they will get anything remotely close to what they want based on those borders. The longer they take to figure this out and keep on clinging to their rejectionism, the smaller the dimensions of their ultimate territory will be, the lesser number of token refugees will be allowed to return and their chances to claim East Jerusalem will become more and more remote. I would venture that it is totally unrealistic to expect Israel to remove any established settlements in area C, or that it will have much success in removing any other settlements on its own initiative. Also at this point we should be talking more about sovereignty rather than annexation in the West Bank, although you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that sovereignty is but a first step towards ultimate annexation. The so called “creeping annexation” has more to do with facts on the ground than with the complicity of Canadian Jews, who have hardly any leverage to influence the unfolding of events in the West Bank one way or the other.

As far as wine labeling goes, the precise listing of country of origin may respond to specific negotiated agreements in trade treaties. I personally would not mind having some information stating that the wines in question are imported from Judea (or Samaria) under Israeli sovereignty, just to rub it in and reflect the reality that Palestine is not a country but merely a territory waiting to acquire formal status as a country. I agree that people should be free to decide whether they want to buy those wines or not based on their convictions or their taste. And I can assure you that if those wines are good, they will sell regardless of any boycott as they will benefit from the extra publicity, even if it is considered by some as bad publicity, making them even more marketable among those who do not care about the boycott.

I guess I totally disagree with Israelis who support an unequal status for Israeli Palestinians. I believe in equal status for all Israelis, regardless of their religion or identity. And I also believe that Arabic should not lose its official status and all Israelis should be forced to learn that language as well.

Palestinian leadership must bear much or most of the burden for this state of affairs.

Anecdotally, I will tell you over a year ago, I met with Raja and asked him point blank if he accepts Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people? In very quick response, he said “no”! That was telling and an eye-opener! And hardened my views. And I lost all trust.

Peres, in my view, was quite reflective of the Israeli soul/buried consensus when he said, “we don’t wish to rule another people.” 

By the force of Palestinian rejection and maximalism and security imperatives, Israeli rule over the Palestinians has become normalized.

The second intifada it seems and Palestinian obstructionism and deep unyielding resistance to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has made “occupation” go from periphery to mainstream over the years, particularly with Bibi. 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Abraham as an Iconic Model: Lech L’Cha Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

I am surprised often by the interpretations of many rabbis of Torah texts. Lech L’Cha is particularly open to being treated as a Rorschach test in at least three ways. First, some rabbis believe that we have to have a clear purpose in life so that our decisions and skills, our aptitudes and interests, our talents and the benefits bestowed to us by our parents, are put to best use. These attributes are treated as resources that must be exploited with maximum efficiency. We are commanded to determine in advance and as soon as possible what really matters to us so that our blood, sweat and tears can be utilized to best achieve what we aspire to become.

That means that we must not only clarify and articulate our goals in life in advance of the decisions we make, but we must develop a methodology that allows us to determine which decisions are most in accord with our goals of self-development. For some, that means trusting our gut instincts. For others it means allowing ourselves to be guided by our conscience. For still others it means listening to the message God has for us. I could go on. Each rabbi who opts for instructing us to define the person we want to be in advance may offer a different methodology or mixture of methods.

For example, discernment can be named as the magic key. “Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking.” Simply put, it is a continuous sorting out of our priorities and our decisions, in this case, by means of our intuition. Instead of reliance on God’s word and God’s instructions, self-reliance is advertised. The surprise comes when this process of self-actualization is equated with making the world a better place, “safer and more compassionate,” even though ego-centric methods have often been criticized for failing to recognize our responsibility for mending the world.

Who is chosen as the exemplar of this dialectic process of discernment and decision-making, of self-reflection and reaffirmation, of self-examination and self-definition but Abraham. Yes, Abraham, even though there is not a single clue in the Torah that Abraham is the epitome of introspection and has given himself over to self-examination in order to acquire the power of positive thinking. In any case, why should the means of self-examination be equated with some duty to “know thyself.” And where do we read in the text, Lech L’Cha that we have such a duty, presuming, of course, that we know what such a duty means.

In the American Protestant tradition, know thyself is equated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that knowing thyself is getting in touch with the God within. In fact, Emerson wrote a poem named by the Greek phrase, “Know Thyself.”  In this belief, knowing oneself is knowing the God who lives within each of us and takes a unique form and expression. The one God has an infinite number of variations in articulating the truth and we express that truth when we are true to ourselves, true to who we are meant to be.

However, the least acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature instructs us that know thyself has as many interpretations as the phrase is meant to have expressions. For example, know thyself might be equated with moderation in all things rather than trusting our instincts because our instincts and passions might lead us to excess. When Oceanus advised Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, knowing thyself meant knowing one’s limitations, recognizing boundaries and locating oneself in the world’s great order.

Socrates, of course, is the one most identified with the advice to adopt discernment with the slogan, “Know thyself.” But even for Socrates, the phrase was viewed as equivocal even by Plato, his foremost interpreter. In the dialogue Charmides, for Critias, it meant moderation and knowing your place in the world. In Phaedrus, however, the message is “don’t waste your time.” Concentrate on what is of value and do not get caught up in playing video games. In Protagoras, the maxim suggests spending one’s life in self-examination rather than in deeds and actions, that is, figuring out what “know thyself” means. In Philebus it seems to mean that in order to understand another, which is the goal, one needs to first understand oneself.

Know thyself may mean do not be intimidated by parents or peers to doing what is not best for you and your self-development. Especially, do not be a slave of the opinions of the mob. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes thought that knowing the other, knowing how all humans fundamentally behaved, was the best route to knowing oneself.  In Alexander Pope’s words, the proper study of oneself is to study mankind.

If one is a contemporary member of the Republican Party, “Know thyself” may mean knowing the group to which you belong and the group to which you must appeal to win their votes and get elected. Business, fiscal and social conservatives, white male working class former Democrats, iconoclastic anarchists, and then whom you need to add on to get a majority. Knowing thyself and being true to oneself is simply knowing the best vehicle to achieve victory.

The problem is that even if we could settle on one of those meanings, Abraham seems to be least identifiable with any of them. His is a journey into the unknown. He is not one who defines his destiny and works out the best route to achieve it. How are you to become a father, not of one nation, but of nations? How are you as a man married to a barren woman to become the father of multitudes? But there is not even an indication that Abraham is even capable of articulating such questions let alone answer them. He may be called to a greater purpose, but this result is seen as a result of God’s efforts and following God’s instructions rather than determining in advance by yourself who you want to be and how you must become the person.

Is heeding your call knowing yourself? I suggest not in this case. For Abraham, whether in dealing with threats to himself and to Sarah, whether in relationship with his nephew Lot, whether handling or mishandling the relationship between his concubine and his wife, and then, most of all, in following the instructions by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there may be, as Kierkegaard claimed, an expression of absolute faith, but there is little if anything to indicate self-critical acumen.

Further, even if the lesson is heeding one’s call as a stretch in the interpretation of knowing thyself, his is not a hero’s journey, for Abraham seems to exhibit more cowardice than bravery. There is not even an indication that he did or even could calculate the route from Ur to Canaan because scholars cannot even figure out the route he traveled, certainly not if that route was to be as direct as possible.

Finally, if the lesson of Lech L’Cha is to know thyself, who is the self one is to know, that of Abram or Abraham? The very change of name seems to indicate that there is no essence to Abraham but that, through God’s dubbing him with a new name, he is to be resurrected as a different person. Abraham isn’t someone who becomes what he truly in essence was, but one who becomes who he shall be. He has the essence of divinity, if that can be called an essence without contradiction, for he, like God, shall be who he shall be. His journey is not only a trip into the unknown but the journey is made to discover who he should be and is not taken because he knows who he must become. It is a voyage of self-discovery.

Further, for a religion that insists we must remain in touch with our past, the lesson of Abraham is that one realizes oneself by jettisoning all connections to that past and charting a new course. It is finding a new home in a new place with all the perils that entails. And unlike the voyage of Ulysses, it is not one from which he will return in ten years. There is no return.

That also may mean that the Torah itself is not a guide to the perplexed but itself a voyage of discovery, a voyage that reveals a God, not of perfection, not an all-knowing God, not an all-powerful God, but a God who reinvents Himself as He responds to what He does and what He learns. Meaning and purpose are not predefined but defined by the voyage itself. For a religion that teaches us to honour thy father and thy mother, the story of our foremost forefather is a tale of a man who abandons his father and trades him in for a new, a non-earthly father who lacks any material substance. God says, “Go forth,” and Abraham and Sarah go forth without questioning the choice of location or the reason that they should become refugees from the land of their father whom they will never set eyes upon again. There is no indication that Abraham’s father supported him in taking the trip and every reason to believe he would have opposed it.

Abraham is promised that he will become a father of many nations and, more significantly, that he will have many children. But why would Abraham accept either wild proposition as true, especially the latter when his wife was barren and seemingly very unlikely to bear a child? Is that simple acceptance a sign of being governed by the maxim, “Know thyself”?

Abraham and his progeny should become a nation. That is the promise and the imperative however incredible it is. However, what that means is that Abraham does not have a national identity. Identity is not a given but a discovery, initially with Abraham as a person, and subsequently a discovery of who we are as a nation and a debate over what that identity is and should be. Does the narrative even teach us that we ought to listen to our call even when we do not define our purpose but discover and refine it as we go along? It is not as if we were “meant to be” something, but that the meaning and destiny are discoveries and not points of departure.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Abraham as an Iconic Model: Lech L’Cha Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

I am surprised often by the interpretations of many rabbis of Torah texts. Lech L’Cha is particularly open to being treated as a Rorschach test in at least three ways. First, some rabbis believe that we have to have a clear purpose in life so that our decisions and skills, our aptitudes and interests, our talents and the benefits bestowed to us by our parents, are put to best use. These attributes are treated as resources that must be exploited with maximum efficiency. We are commanded to determine in advance and as soon as possible what really matters to us so that our blood, sweat and tears can be utilized to best achieve what we aspire to become.

That means that we must not only clarify and articulate our goals in life in advance of the decisions we make, but we must develop a methodology that allows us to determine which decisions are most in accord with our goals of self-development. For some, that means trusting our gut instincts. For others it means allowing ourselves to be guided by our conscience. For still others it means listening to the message God has for us. I could go on. Each rabbi who opts for instructing us to define the person we want to be in advance may offer a different methodology or mixture of methods.

For example, discernment can be named as the magic key. “Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking.” Simply put, it is a continuous sorting out of our priorities and our decisions, in this case, by means of our intuition. Instead of reliance on God’s word and God’s instructions, self-reliance is advertised. The surprise comes when this process of self-actualization is equated with making the world a better place, “safer and more compassionate,” even though ego-centric methods have often been criticized for failing to recognize our responsibility for mending the world.

Who is chosen as the exemplar of this dialectic process of discernment and decision-making, of self-reflection and reaffirmation, of self-examination and self-definition but Abraham. Yes, Abraham, even though there is not a single clue in the Torah that Abraham is the epitome of introspection and has given himself over to self-examination in order to acquire the power of positive thinking. In any case, why should the means of self-examination be equated with some duty to “know thyself.” And where do we read in the text, Lech L’Cha that we have such a duty, presuming, of course, that we know what such a duty means.

In the American Protestant tradition, know thyself is equated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that knowing thyself is getting in touch with the God within. In fact, Emerson wrote a poem named by the Greek phrase, “Know Thyself.”  In this belief, knowing oneself is knowing the God who lives within each of us and takes a unique form and expression. The one God has an infinite number of variations in articulating the truth and we express that truth when we are true to ourselves, true to who we are meant to be.

However, the least acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature instructs us that know thyself has as many interpretations as the phrase is meant to have expressions. For example, know thyself might be equated with moderation in all things rather than trusting our instincts because our instincts and passions might lead us to excess. When Oceanus advised Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, knowing thyself meant knowing one’s limitations, recognizing boundaries and locating oneself in the world’s great order.

Socrates, of course, is the one most identified with the advice to adopt discernment with the slogan, “Know thyself.” But even for Socrates, the phrase was viewed as equivocal even by Plato, his foremost interpreter. In the dialogue Charmides, for Critias, it meant moderation and knowing your place in the world. In Phaedrus, however, the message is “don’t waste your time.” Concentrate on what is of value and do not get caught up in playing video games. In Protagoras, the maxim suggests spending one’s life in self-examination rather than in deeds and actions, that is, figuring out what “know thyself” means. In Philebus it seems to mean that in order to understand another, which is the goal, one needs to first understand oneself.

Know thyself may mean do not be intimidated by parents or peers to doing what is not best for you and your self-development. Especially, do not be a slave of the opinions of the mob. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes thought that knowing the other, knowing how all humans fundamentally behaved, was the best route to knowing oneself.  In Alexander Pope’s words, the proper study of oneself is to study mankind.

If one is a contemporary member of the Republican Party, “Know thyself” may mean knowing the group to which you belong and the group to which you must appeal to win their votes and get elected. Business, fiscal and social conservatives, white male working class former Democrats, iconoclastic anarchists, and then whom you need to add on to get a majority. Knowing thyself and being true to oneself is simply knowing the best vehicle to achieve victory.

The problem is that even if we could settle on one of those meanings, Abraham seems to be least identifiable with any of them. His is a journey into the unknown. He is not one who defines his destiny and works out the best route to achieve it. How are you to become a father, not of one nation, but of nations? How are you as a man married to a barren woman to become the father of multitudes? But there is not even an indication that Abraham is even capable of articulating such questions let alone answer them. He may be called to a greater purpose, but this result is seen as a result of God’s efforts and following God’s instructions rather than determining in advance by yourself who you want to be and how you must become the person.

Is heeding your call knowing yourself? I suggest not in this case. For Abraham, whether in dealing with threats to himself and to Sarah, whether in relationship with his nephew Lot, whether handling or mishandling the relationship between his concubine and his wife, and then, most of all, in following the instructions by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there may be, as Kierkegaard claimed, an expression of absolute faith, but there is little if anything to indicate self-critical acumen.

Further, even if the lesson is heeding one’s call as a stretch in the interpretation of knowing thyself, his is not a hero’s journey, for Abraham seems to exhibit more cowardice than bravery. There is not even an indication that he did or even could calculate the route from Ur to Canaan because scholars cannot even figure out the route he traveled, certainly not if that route was to be as direct as possible.

Finally, if the lesson of Lech L’Cha is to know thyself, who is the self one is to know, that of Abram or Abraham? The very change of name seems to indicate that there is no essence to Abraham but that, through God’s dubbing him with a new name, he is to be resurrected as a different person. Abraham isn’t someone who becomes what he truly in essence was, but one who becomes who he shall be. He has the essence of divinity, if that can be called an essence without contradiction, for he, like God, shall be who he shall be. His journey is not only a trip into the unknown but the journey is made to discover who he should be and is not taken because he knows who he must become. It is a voyage of self-discovery.

Further, for a religion that insists we must remain in touch with our past, the lesson of Abraham is that one realizes oneself by jettisoning all connections to that past and charting a new course. It is finding a new home in a new place with all the perils that entails. And unlike the voyage of Ulysses, it is not one from which he will return in ten years. There is no return.

That also may mean that the Torah itself is not a guide to the perplexed but itself a voyage of discovery, a voyage that reveals a God, not of perfection, not an all-knowing God, not an all-powerful God, but a God who reinvents Himself as He responds to what He does and what He learns. Meaning and purpose are not predefined but defined by the voyage itself. For a religion that teaches us to honour thy father and thy mother, the story of our foremost forefather is a tale of a man who abandons his father and trades him in for a new, a non-earthly father who lacks any material substance. God says, “Go forth,” and Abraham and Sarah go forth without questioning the choice of location or the reason that they should become refugees from the land of their father whom they will never set eyes upon again. There is no indication that Abraham’s father supported him in taking the trip and every reason to believe he would have opposed it.

Abraham is promised that he will become a father of many nations and, more significantly, that he will have many children. But why would Abraham accept either wild proposition as true, especially the latter when his wife was barren and seemingly very unlikely to bear a child? Is that simple acceptance a sign of being governed by the maxim, “Know thyself”?

Abraham and his progeny should become a nation. That is the promise and the imperative however incredible it is. However, what that means is that Abraham does not have a national identity. Identity is not a given but a discovery, initially with Abraham as a person, and subsequently a discovery of who we are as a nation and a debate over what that identity is and should be. Does the narrative even teach us that we ought to listen to our call even when we do not define our purpose but discover and refine it as we go along? It is not as if we were “meant to be” something, but that the meaning and destiny are discoveries and not points of departure.

Part IV: JSpace – Defending Israel and J’Accuse

In the morning of the first full day of the JSpace biennial conference this past weekend, we heard an opening address by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul-General in Toronto, Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and interim head of the Liberal Party; both offered qualitative talks. Bob Brym, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Rabbi Uri Regev, an advocate of religious liberty in Israel and CEO of an educational-advocacy group, Hiddush, gave very different quantitative talks on stats in Canada and in Israel respectively. Qualitative talks from an Israeli and a Canadian and quantitative talks from another Israeli and another Canadian – this is called balanced programming. Especially when it was complemented by a video address from Dr. Hussein Ibish who had to cancel at the last moment because of a health problem in his family. Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington as well as a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and The National.

Galit Baram, as a highly regarded and experienced Israeli diplomat with a Master’s Degree in American Studies, is well known to Canadians and also well known for her ardent opposition to the BDS movement and would never attend a JSpace meeting if it directly or indirectly supported BDS. Her talk, however, addressed the regional and international context in which Israel currently finds itself. Iran came up first for obvious reasons. The current Iranian regime is committed to Israel’s destruction and purgation from the Middle East. But Iran is also a threat to Arab regimes in the Middle East and a prime sponsor of terrorism, creating a congruence of interests between those regimes and Israel As she zoomed from a quick summary of the status of the peace agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan into the more proximate situation of the Palestinian-Israeli situation and, more specifically, the negotiations based on land for peace, she did not pronounce those negotiations as brain dead as I did.

However, she might as well have. For there continues to be a sustained program of demonizing Israel and assault on Israel’s human rights record when, compared to any country in the region. Israel stands head over heels higher than any other country in the region on human rights issues, LGPTQ most specifically. There is, in reality, no country in the Middle East that comes close to Israel’s record for defending and upholding human rights. Though mouthed by an Israeli diplomat, no reasonably objective observer could argue with her on this topic. At the same time, Israel faces missiles from Gaza, stabbing and ramming attacks to create a context in which Israelis are not only reluctant to offer further concessions even as they see light at the end of the tunnel, not through the political process, but through civil society cooperation in such areas as sports, education and culture.

Baram also addressed the issue of equality for Palestinian-Israeli citizens or Arab Israelis and was optimistic given the increasing numbers of Palestinian doctors and lawyers and the recent requests for cooperation with the Israeli police to stamp out violence in Arab villages and towns. Given the record tourism to Israel, the stellar performance of the hi-tech sector and the open arena for debate and discussion in Israel, she painted an optimistic picture of Israel in spite of her initial remarks about the dangers from Iran. What I found interesting was her omission of any discussion of Israeli-American relations, of the embassy issue or of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

Bob Rae directly addressed the issue of progressivism related to liberalism, both concerned with the disempowered and alienated in society. More specifically, he zeroed in on a liberal definition of democracy in terms of minority rights rather than majoritarian rule, in terms of upholding the rule of law as distinct from arousing populist passions. In that context, he complemented Baram’s position on the international efforts to demonize Israel unjustly. Rae specifically cited two widespread myths about Israel, first that its problems were insoluble and everlasting and, second, that Israel could survive and thrive without some adult supervision of the region, increasingly absent with the retreat of Trump’s America from that role in the Middle East. As was the case for Baram, Rae saw a sphere of agreement open between the Israelis and the Palestinians and believed that the conflict could be managed though not resolved. But that required consequentialist calculations rather than the impulsive “thinking” and reactions of populists like Donald Trump.

Ibish made the point that Israel was no different than any other state in the region for those states were all multi-cultural and multi-ethnic with different internal mixtures and internal conflicts. Politics required the creation of a context in which all these various peoples could live together in peace. The position that there was no answer to the Palestinian-Israel conflict would mean that there are no answers to similar conflicts in the rest of the Middle East and around the world. At the same time, a growing belief among Israelis that they could now ignore the Palestinian issue now that the situation had become relatively quiescent had to be debunked. For as long as Palestinians lacked citizenship in a state, Israel would never be able to settle into a regular status in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Ibish declared the traditional, not any, two-state solution as dead. It was no longer available. Yet there was no other solution but a two-state one that recognized self-determination for both peoples. As he envisaged it, not only for Israel but for Iraq and Syria, the vision of a uniform powerful state based on the exclusive predominance of one ethnic group was also dead and Middle Eastern countries would have to envision more decentralized forms of government. That decentralization would have to be radical. Though he could not specify its character in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or define a process for reaching it, he envisaged a peace process in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis would each have their own state, but there would be joint governance at a higher political level than that of each of the two states for reconciling the needs and interests of both parties.

Bob Brym shifted the focus to Canada and attacked some very different myths based on his 2018 survey of Canadian Jews (2018 Survey of Jews in Canada  

https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/project-documents/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada—final-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2994ef6_2 Robert Brym, Keith Neuman and Rhonda Lenton) The survey was a joint enterprise of Environics Institute for Survey Research, the University of Toronto and York University.

Brym said that the survey addressed issues of identity, values, opinions and experiences of Jews in Canada. He unequivocally claimed that, contrary to a great deal of popular belief, Canadian Jews were not more conservative than their American counterparts in their approach to Israel. Though he noted in his report that these questions received the least attention in Canada by scholars compared the extensive studies in the USA and UK, this survey was an effort to remedy that situation. One result: the destruction of a number of myths about Canadian Jews. For example, contrary to widespread belief, Canadian Jews are not more conservative than those in the U.S. As an illustration, a similar majority of Canadian Jews were critical of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. The comparisons were made easier because the Canadian survey closely followed one by the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews.

As one radical shift – while once Canadian Jewish practice of religion almost exclusively defined a Jewish identity, this was no longer the case as only one in three Canadian Jews consider religion as central to their identity. Only 6 in 10 believe even in God or a universal spirit. Jewish identity is now about culture and ethnicity as well as religion. Surprisingly, these ratios are more or less consistent across generations.

However, Canadian Jews do differ from American Jews in a number of respects. The community is more cohesive. Intermarriage is far more common in the U.S. The ability to read and/or speak Hebrew is more widespread in Canada as is visiting Israel. However, the Vancouver Jewish community more closely resembles the characteristics of the Jewish community in the USA. These are important differences given that the Jewish community in Canada is approaching or is already the second largest diaspora community in the world.

An interest in Israel occupies only a central rung in the ladder of concerns for Canadian Jews. The top rungs include leading a moral and ethical life, remembering the Holocaust and celebrating Jewish holidays. Only 4 in 10 believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. However, “almost half (48%) of Jews in Canada say they are very emotionally attached to Israel.” Three in ten are somewhat attached, the same figure for Americans, But only 3 in 10 Americans are very attached.

More importantly, on this issue, there is a distinct difference according to age – younger Canadian Jews are less likely to consider that caring about Israel is an essential feature of their Jewish identity. However, on an even lower rung is Jewish observance and attending synagogue, but in America, Jews are half as likely to belong to a synagogue compared to Canadians. Only half of American Jews, compared to 80% in Canada, make financial contributions to a Jewish organization.

Brym in his talk concentrated on the link between Canadian Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel. As he wrote in his report, “Canadian Jews have a strong connection to Israel.” A large majority express an emotional attachment and have spent time in the country. Eight in ten have visited Israel at least once and four in ten have been there at least three times. Of these, one in five (20%) report having lived in Israel for six months or more, so 16% of all adult Jews have lived in Israel for at least a half year. Travel to Israel is most prevalent among Jews who are Orthodox/Modern Orthodox, but the attachment is common across the population, especially among Jews under 45 years of age and those with a post-graduate degree.

However, deep political divisions exist among Canadian Jews over Israel. Only a plurality, not a majority, endorse the Canadian government support for Israel. But it is not clear whether this failure of support was because the government was not critical enough about Israeli government actions or too critical. The young and more liberal-minded (Reform, Reconstructionist) are more critical of the settlements, but only a minority regard settlements as illegal. Liberal Jews place greater blame on the Israeli government for failing to negotiate with the Palestinians. That is also an indicator of a breach with the differences among Israeli Jews. For they are less likely to see the settlements as the barrier to a peace agreement.

The bottom line for Brym is that progressives could envision a great deal of room for growth among younger and more liberally-minded religious Jews. Further, Jewish youth were not more alienated, but wanted a greater connection with their identity, though 3 in 10 do not give voice to their criticisms. One area of criticism is Israel’s absence of freedom of religion.

The declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel
passed on 14 May 1948 declared that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion (my italics), conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Israel fails to meet this standard and, in effect, earns a grade of 0 in the realm of freedom of religion, particularly in the discrimination against Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal Jewish streams. It especially discriminates against secular Jews.

To be recognized by the state currently, all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by religious authorities of state-recognized religious communities to which both members of the couple belong. Jewish Israelis can only legally marry through the Chief Rabbinate, while the religious authorities for the Christian, Druze and Muslim populations regulate the rites of marriage and divorce in their respective communities. Israel does not have a legal framework for civil marriage or divorce, same-sex unions, marriage between two individuals who belong to different religions or for marriage when either of the two partners is registered as “having no religion.” Israel lacks marriage freedom because of the extortion of the Jewish Orthodox.

Rabbi Uri Regev, as an advocate of religious liberty and religious pluralism, as a lawyer who, among his Supreme Court victories, got the Supreme Court to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed abroad, roots his campaigns for religious liberty on the above Declaration as well as on the following statistics, most taken from the 2019 Israel Religion & State Index and post-election survey and an earlier 2016 survey:

·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
  • only 14% of Jews and 16% of Arabs would support such marriages if one of the partners converted;
  • 72% of ultra-Orthodox and 62% of Orthodox view Arab citizens as a danger to the state;
  • while 58% of secular and liberal Jews oppose the expulsions of Arab citizens, a majority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox support expulsion.

Not only is there no freedom of religion in Israel, but the intolerance of others extends to the political arena and the equal status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

Part III: Reflections on JSpace

Peter Beinart is another very well-known activist and writer who appeared on the initial panel. A Rhodes Scholar and former editor of The New Republic, he is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University in New York, a senior columnist for Haaretz, a CNN regular, and writes for The Atlantic and a plethora of other publications. In his writing and his commentaries, he has been preoccupied with America’s abetting of the Israeli occupation and the settlements in the West Bank as well as the rise of ethno-nationalism around the world. As he proudly states, he attends an Orthodox shul with a mechitzah (a partition dividing men and women during a service) and sends his kids to a Jewish day school – “my children go to Jewish day school and Judaism is the center of my life.” In 2012, he wrote a very controversial article advocating support of a boycott of the settlements. I have commented occasionally on some of his writing in my blogs.

In his opening remarks, he lamented the support of the organized Jewish community for Trump’s actions on Israel and expressed the conviction that the greatest danger to Israel and the Jewish people came from the alignment of Netanyahu with new “partners,” the new autocratic leaders of Hungary and Brazil and numerous other states. Jews would, in the end, he believed suffer from the bitter fruit of the oppression unleashed by these populist leaders. The flirtation with ethnic nationalists led directly to the Pittsburgh shooting since the original objects of hatred of the killer were illegal migrants whom Trump had assailed. And it was only a short step to characterizing Jews as the organizers of the caravans of Central Americans trying to cross the US/Mexican border. The denigration of Palestinians in Israel, he opined, was parallel to the marginalization of minorities by Trump and his acolytes.

If you read Peter even infrequently, you will find that his current obsession, as with many if not most American journalists, is with the Trump phenomenon, a Trump who ridiculously wants to buy Greenland while engaging in other embarrassing actions, most of which run against American interests, as in the withdrawal from Syria. He follows the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination and current American foreign affairs, much more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump and the GOP both now wallow in paranoia even though they are in power. I cannot recall if he ever called Trump a racist, as I have done, but he has certainly written about Trump stressing race, ethnicity and religion rather than citizenship and civic values at the same time as the GOP insists that nothing is racist. Beinart seems to cheer the new shift to the left of the Democratic Party indicated by Nancy Pelosi’s launch of the impeachment inquiry and the initial seeming preference for inspiration over caution.

Again, if you follow Peter’s writings, it is evident that he is profoundly moved by the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I have been to the West Bank many times and dealt with Palestinians but never had the same response he did. That may be because I have spent a great deal of time in different refugee camps around the world. “(T)he first time I [Peter Beinart] went to the West Bank it was a shattering experience. The only thing I could imagine that could be similar for an American would be going to visit the Jim Crow South. When you see people living under the control of the state with no rights and they can not become citizens or vote for the control of the state that controls their lives, they do not have free movement, the need a pass to move from city to city, and they live under a military legal system. The consequences are more brutal than we could imagine sitting here.” For Beinart, the real core issue seems sometimes to be Palestinian self-determination and, at other times, “the absolute denial of human

[individual versus collective]

rights.” I believe he views the two as inter-dependent.

In my talk with Peter afterwards, he saw no hope for peace coming from within Israel alone, but viewed peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as only possible if the U.S. Government used its economic and political leverage to pressure the Israelis. But what about the Palestinians? For most Jewish Israelis, in spite of the criticisms of Netanyahu, are distrustful of Palestinian intentions given the past record that I summarized in yesterday’s blog, the belief is that Palestinian rejectionism goes very deep. Beinart did not tackle that issue.

Raja Khouri spoke second. He is the Founding President of the Canadian Arab Institute, an Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, a member of Human Rights Watch Canada, and co-founder of the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group. Though born in Lebanon and identified as an Arab-Canadian, he refers to himself as a Palestinian. He is a strong believer in dialogue. He champions diversity and inclusion, cultural bridge-building and human rights. He is opposed to the use of violence as a tactic. He tried to communicate why Palestinians in the diaspora were understandably frustrated with the Jewish community when the Jewish establishment appeared as such uncritical supporters of Netanyahu’s policies.

His two stumbles in his presentation were instructive. Raja supported the right of Canadians to boycott Israeli products produced in the West Bank and deplored the efforts and pressure the established Jewish community brought against the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, to reverse its stand on rejecting wines produced in the West Bank as being labeled “Made in Israel.”

The first stumble occurred when he failed to distinguish between the right to boycott, and, more specifically, the right to boycott products produced in the West Bank but labeled “Made in Israel,” versus support for BDS. He asked whether members of the audience regarded BDS as antisemitic. Perhaps a dozen people raised their hand, though I suspect that belief was more widespread. No one offered a follow-up question about his identification of the right to boycott mis-labeled products from the West Bank and the efforts of BDS, which many commentators view as using the boycott simply to demonize Israel. Unfortunately, as with many panels, time ran out before anyone could probe this issue deeper.

The other stumble took place when he seemed to say that he was not anti-Israel but pro-Palestinian and was a supporter of a two-state solution, but refused to acknowledge and respect Israel given its pattern of behaviour. I was left with the impression, which I was unable to clarify in my discussion afterwards with him, that he accepted the reality of Israel’s existence but not its right to exist. He did not seem aware – at least this was my first impression, subject to correction – that many Jewish Zionists would regard him and his position as certainly liberal and fair, but also untrustworthy and without any depth of respect for Israel as a Zionist entity.

Shaqued Morag at 33 is the new current Executive Director of Peace Now. She was the third person on the panel. When I read about her before the conference, I thought she would speak about the effect of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian children, a core concern. However, on the panel, she was most preoccupied with “creeping annexation” of the West Bank when I am sure that she would be the first to say that it was not creeping but was storming ahead. For as Peter Beinart said in the discussion that followed the opening remarks, refusing to give Palestinians living in Area C building permits while expanding Jewish settlements is not simply creeping annexation, but simply a prologue to a program of annexation. However, in the slogan, “Choose Peace over land,” was she advocating removal of 450,000 settlers? Did this partially explain why Meretz had been reduced to a leftist rump?

As usual, the panel turned into an exercise in frustration as follow-ups were limited and I never found an opening to speak to her personally. I must say that, whatever her position on any matter, and whether I agreed or disagreed, she was dynamic without engaging in any demagoguery, was very clear thinking and articulate with very strong convictions but ones articulated with modesty and restraint. She will make both a strong impression as a lobbyist in the Knesset and an articulate and warm voice to reaffirm Peace Now’s position as a broad-based movement. She is clearly a strategic thinker and we will hear much more from her in the future.  For that discovery alone, it was worth hearing her.

The questions I was left with on which I hoped to get further clarification:

  1. Are Canadian Jews complicit in “creeping annexation”?
  2. If you believe in self-determination and independence, how can you endorse U.S. pressure as the mechanism to move Israel into a peace mode?
  3. Why is Israel characterized as the main, if not exclusive, obstacle to peace?
  4. Given the record of the past thirty years, how can dialogue and education be regarded as the major if not exclusive paths to peace, especially when the text books in Palestinian schools are so virulently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist?

If, as Raja Khouri cited, 72% of Israelis support an unequal status for Israeli Palestinians, what is the real chance of Israel becoming a truly democratic state with full and equal rights for its Palestinian citizens?  

Part II: Reflections on JSpace

These are reflections on JSpace Canada and not reflections on my thoughts on progressive Zionist movements as a whole. For it seems clear from the reports on the recent J Street conference in the U.S. that J Street has shifted clearly left and identified itself increasingly with that part of the Democratic Party willing to use the $3.8 billion dollars that the U.S. gives Israel annually as external leverage, not simply to urge, but to force Israel to shift course. (As you will read, Peter Beinart shares this position.)  However, JSpace is not J Street. The two are very distinctive organizations as I indicated in the previous blog. Further, their situations are radically different, if only because the Canadian organization operates in a country with very little leverage to influence Israeli policy.

“From Indifference to Making a Difference,” the title of JSpace’s fourth biennial conference, began this past Saturday evening. JSpace defines itself a pro-peace and pro-Israel. It could be a totally non-Jewish organization. But it is an organization of Jews for Jews. It is unequivocally a Zionist organization. Further, it defines itself as a changemaker, when my impressions, as you will see, in listening to what I heard, are that progressive Jews are wannabe changemakers who are relatively impotent at the present.

Look at the focus – an emphasis on human rights, democracy and peace at a time when the first two are under tremendous strain and the last is virtually dead in the water. Progressives in the U.S. generally seem unwilling to pronounce peace as out of reach because it still has a heart beat. Progressives in Canada generally believe the peace process is temporarily in a coma. But I believe that the peace process is brain dead. There is a propensity for progressives to believe that the Oslo peace process nevertheless should be kept alive, even if only on life support.

Is not that precisely the time when pro-peace platforms issues need greater support? Not if the peace process is based on the two-state solution rooted around the Green Line as the divider between Israel and a Palestinian state with mutually agreed adjustments. Not if the objective is making a difference. Not if the goal is to play a significant role as changemakers.

Part of the problem is the depiction of the present situation for Jews in the diaspora. Jews there are not “complacent” about Israel as the program suggests. They are not smug. They are not self-satisfied. They are not uncritical. They are, as in the case of the members of JSpace, in fact very much wedded to a critical and almost exclusively so, posture. Establishment Jews are ever fearful as well as proud. They are not indifferent. Even among Jews who tend to ignore Israel, many are embarrassed and that is not the same as indifference.

Do progressive Jews define pride in Israel as smug? Do these Jews define pride in Israel as uncritical satisfaction? Not at all. They proclaim great pride in Israel. But pride wedded to a critical (and oppositional) posture. However, if the core of how you define yourself is one of opposition rather than forging a path to victory, is this perhaps not one form of complacency, one form of not being tough enough on oneself and one’s attitude that will ensure that a movement will remain a superego on issues rather than a powerful id married to an upstanding ego?

Dr. Karen Mock, president of JSpace and a person I greatly admire, opened the proceedings. She did so with the recitation of what has become a norm in public Canadian meetings, an acknowledgement of our collective indebtedness to the first nations of Canada and, more specifically, the named nations once dominant in this land. Karen did so, not in a voice too frequently heard, one pro forma and empty of meaning and stated in a way that sends out a message that it is important that we get past this now-necessary but time-consuming ritual. Karen uttered the statement with force, with conviction and with compassion. And then she expanded on its importance in moving Canadians towards reconciliation with the early inhabitants of Canada, and, in particular, in Toronto, who were the dominant groups once on this land. It was a delight to hear the passion and conviction instead of a rote voice.

However, as I listened to Karen, I could not help reflect on whether there would ever be a similar gesture in Israel whereby Israelis acknowledged, in a spirit of reconciliation, that Palestinians were once the majority occupants of the land on which Israeli Jews are currently predominant? Not since “time immemorial” as depicted concerning the indigenous people of Canada, for Jews have a written record of when they arrived in Israel. But not for the indigenous people either, for their record of settlement of the land does not belong to a period so long ago that people neither have thought about it nor have a memory of it. They just do not have a written record, but their oral stories usually tell of their arrival to the land.

Israel is a return of Jews to a land that was once their land. The two situations are radically different. They are similar, however, in that the current dominant group in Canada and in Israel eventually recovered their land in good part through conquest, though initially they settled by purchasing their properties.

Karen introduced the conference by depicting the thousands who recently packed the Tel Aviv plaza to mark the 24th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. (He was murdered on 4 November 1995 at the end of a pro-Oslo Accords rally at the Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv) Benny Gantz addressed the assembled crowd. The implication was that Gantz might be an honest heir to Rabin in the shift towards peace with the Palestinians. Karen also noted the hate speech that was leveled at Rabin and that has been directed at herself. The words “traitor,” Jewish self-hater and even Nazi are used by the radical right. These are the enemies of progressives, those who would shut down discourse and dialogue, not just between Palestinians and Jews, but among Jews themselves. 

However, why is it the Jews remember the assassination of Rabin and Palestinians do not? Because they regarded him as a welcome peace partner even if they also viewed him as symbolizing an unwelcome interloper. Yesterday, we recalled the evening of 9 November 1989, thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell. Which is the most powerful memory for Jews and others, the collapse of the Berlin Wall or the assassination of Rabin? That may offer a clue about mental priorities. 

Does remembering the assassination of Rabin mean that we believe the Oslo Accords are still alive? If they are on a life-support system and the left is unwilling to bury the corpse because they believe those Accords are the only window of light to a two-state solution, how can this be a path to making a difference? Is there another place that we can find a well of hope other than one based on the Green Line plus mutually agreed adjustments? Perhaps a two-state solution based more clearly on facts on the ground might be more realistic.

If one is truly critical, one might begin by acknowledging that the very terms of the Oslo Accords were used by the right to move away from the two-state solution as originally envisaged. If Area C of the West Bank is now occupied by 450,000 Jews and the Palestinian population that used to be even larger than those numbers in that area has been reduced to perhaps 115,000 to 150,000, how can one expect to return to the Oslo Accords of over a quarter century ago?

If you follow the J Street discussions, the organization is convinced that, since most of those 450,000 live proximate to the old Green Line, an exchange of land for these areas would do. The rest of the land would have to be given back requiring the repatriation of 115,000 of those settlers. Perhaps one-half who are economic settlers would return voluntarily with adequate financial incentives. But could Israel engage in a forceful relocation of almost 1% of its population. Look at how difficult it was to relocate 9,000 from Gaza? Further, would a public that is mostly now sceptical of Palestinian intentions politically back such a controversial decision? J Street implies that they might not and that American financial and diplomatic muscle could force them to do so.  

JSpace has not adopted a position on this issue to the best of my knowledge. It has adopted a position of freezing settlement expansion, but that is likely to be totally irrelevant except as a signal to the other side of a serious intention to engage in negotiations. The problem of progressives in Canada is not to move the indifferent to making a difference, but the problem of moving the passionate believers in the right of Palestinians to self-determination alongside the Jewish right to adopting a program that is relevant, realistic and one which reinforces a renewed peace movement rather than watching from the sidelines as one step after another is taken in retreat from that goal.

I must say, as impressive as the first panel chaired by our illustrious Norah Gold was, I walked away feeling more depressed, a sense reinforced by my talks following the panel with Peter Beinart and Raja Khouri, two of the three panelists at the first plenary session. The third was Shaqued Morag, Executive Director of Peace Now, who did give some hope as she depicted the support by Meretz, the left-wing Israeli party, for Gantz and the Blue and White because, though a centrist, he respected the right to dissent without labeling dissenters as traitors, because he believed in human rights and rights of minorities, and, most importantly, because he expressed his belief in equality for all of Israel’s citizens. 

The panel itself was, as advertised, impressive. Norah Gold, editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction, is the author of three wonderful books, the two novels, The Dead Man, that was just translated into Hebrew, and Fields of Exile, and a third book, Marrow and Other Stories, seven tales of the struggles of contemporary women, which won the 1999 Canadian Jewish Book Award. She is an organizational dynamo having founded the New Israel Fund in Canada as well as the founder, with others, of Canada’s JSpace, but is also a superb chair of a panel. Her questions to the panelists were pointed and invited substantive opening remarks. It takes a great deal of talent to run a panel like that in a very limited time, for the panel is intended to stimulate open discussion.

To be continued with an account of the panel speakers

JSpace and J Street

This past weekend I attended the fourth biennial conference of JSpace Canada, an organization distinctively different than J Street in the United States which very recently held its own conference. I will offer my impressions of the Canadian conference, but it may be helpful if I first introduce JSpace by comparing it to J Street, for both claim to occupy a position as progressive organizations in support of Israel favouring a two-state solution. Needless to say, this is my analysis of the similarities and differences; the leaders of each organization may differ somewhat from my detailed depiction.

As a preliminary, as you will read, the overwhelming current information on both organizations deals with the issue of borders, settlements, boycotts and civil rights, with JSpace clearly placing a greater emphasis on combating antisemitism and anti-Zionism.  Both J Street and JSpace presumably oppose the current efforts of the interim Israeli government to extend its sovereignty, presumably as part of creeping annexation, to both the Megilot Region of the Dead Sea in the initial move on the Jordan Valley and to include Efrat and Betar Illit within the auspices of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. Both oppose interference in the civil rights of Israelis and Palestinians critically reporting on activities of the Israeli government and the IDF in the West Bank, such as the very recent short term “arrest” of a B’Tselem researcher, Arif Daraghmeh from Tubas, photographing a protest against an “illegal” outpost.  These positions have to be assumed; the absence of noise on these issues of immediate and current interest should not be interpreted as reflective of the positions of the two organizations.

But what about taking a stand on longer term general issues, such as the on-again off-again Palestinian elections, now on again, but conditional on a very unlikely step, the Israeli government giving permission to the Palestinian Authority to set up ballot boxes in East Jerusalem? What about a stand on Iran’s role in supplying arms to both Hezbollah in the north and Gaza in the south, especially in the light of intelligence that Hezbollah since the second Lebanon War in 2006 has built up an arsenal of 150,000 rockets while the three wars with Hamas in Gaza were followed up by the Hamas regime rebuilding its armaments to an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 missiles?

What about the widespread conviction in Israel that since Arafat in 2000 rejected the Clinton and Barak proposals and Abbas subsequently rejected Ehud Olmert’s proposals along the same lines virtually granting the Palestinian Authority almost everything it demanded, and that in between the Second Intifada (otherwise called the Palestinian War) killed 1,000 Israelis, mostly as a result of attacks on civilian targets, and that these events were followed by the widespread Israeli convictions that Israel lacked a partner for peace? This was also the result of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and the forced removal of 9,000 Israeli settlers. Increasingly, Israelis came to believe that peace with Palestinians was more remote than ever?

What about the original “progressive” opposition of the Israeli left to the security fence to reduce the number and severity of terrorist attacks which largely worked by reducing the numbers killed from almost 500 to 14 last year, though now stabbings and car ramming have provided a very weak replacement? What about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem? What about the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights? I ask these questions not to set myself apart from the progressive political scene or any of the above positions but in the interest of comprehensiveness.

However, the differences that the organizations take on a much smaller list of issues are telling. J Street is an advocacy organization. JSpace is an educational organization. These two functions overlap, but there is a great difference between an organization determined to create a space where Jews (and non-Jews) from various progressive perspectives can learn and talk and an organization focused on influencing government policies as in the case of J Street, namely U.S. government policies directed towards Israel. Both organizations are pro-peace. Both organizations favour a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both accept the principles of mutual recognition and the legitimate rights of both peoples to self-determination, peaceful coexistence and security. Both oppose questioning Israel’s right to exist. Both oppose the BDS movement.

But those similarities disguise very different perspectives and approaches. J Street is explicitly a political lobbying group. JSpace, in contrast, defines itself as a centre for a “discussion of social justice, peace and civil rights” determined to create a safe space where views from various perspectives can be discussed without rancour. Thus, while J Street is deeply embedded in American politics, JSpace tends to focus on civil society, offering speakers, panel discussions and briefings from informed personnel from various perspectives and invites representatives from all political parties to participate.

As an explicitly advocacy organization, J Street organizes and mobilizes progressive voices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means it has to take very explicit and detailed positions on a number of issues. JSpace can largely avoid that problem. Both are pro-Israel wanting a secure and democratic national home for the Jewish people. Both are explicitly Zionist organizations. But J Street, as an advocacy organization, mobilizes American voters to advance the interests of both the U.S. and Israel, while JSpace tends to define itself in terms of values rather than interests, primarily in terms of a respect for equality and human rights.  

A main difference is that J Street defines itself in opposition to the establishment voice in America on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, most specifically AIPAC, while JSpace views itself as a progressive voice within the range of Jewish organizations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. JSpace does not define itself as an anti-establishment organization. In contrast, J Street explicitly set out to transform the national conversation in America and give voice to what they believed was a majority view of Americans on the issue. JSpace, however, is precisely about creating a space for dialogue and discussion rather than seeking to determine that the government of Canada adopt specific policies.

Thus, while J Street is heavily involved in the debates largely within the Democratic Party, JSpace seeks to be involved in discussions with all the political parties in Canada. J Street engages in political campaigns; JSpace remains aloof from such activities. J Street seeks to open up political space for elected leaders to support specific policies. JSpace operates largely within civil society to create space for Jews and others to engage in dialogue.

A good part of the difference is that the U.S. government is a critical player, in fact, the most critical player other than the Palestinians and the Israelis in the efforts to resolve the conflict between the two groups. Canada occupies no such position. J Street seeks to shape policy. JSpace encourages discussions over issues.

That does not mean that both organizations have very different voices and different positions. Both are progressive voices within their respective communities. Both support a two-state solution, but J Street takes a very proactive position on issues and JSpace tends not to, except where there is a broad consensus within the Jewish community. Both organizations support diplomatic rather than military approaches to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but given America’s explicit financial aid to Israel, J Street also supports the use of American economic leverage to influence Israeli policy.

Karen Mock, the chair of JSpace, has stated that although “it is not a question of whether a two-state solution will be achieved, but when,” nevertheless, “it is not for us in the Diaspora to suggest that Israel makes concessions that compromise its security.” In contrast, J Street stresses the urgency of creating a two-state solution and has opined that, “the window of opportunity for achieving a two-state solution is rapidly closing” and that “the trajectory is trending against the two-state option thereby threatening Israel’s future.” In contrast, JSpace tends to stress the resistance of the Palestinian leadership that makes a resolution currently untimely; in its literature and on its website, the Palestinian role as an obstacle to peace seems to be underplayed by J Street.

JSpace, while critical of Israeli settlement policy as creating obstacles to peace and a threat to Israeli security, does not take the position of J Street that goes further and advocates dismantling from 25% to 50% of the settlements. JSpace opposes expansion of the settlements and takes no position on dismantling existing settlements.

One of the most controversial areas is the attitude of both JSpace and J Street to the BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) movement. J Street is viewed as less opposed to boycotts than JSpace. Is that correct? Both organizations are aware that BDS activities have roiled campuses. J Street has a detailed policy on BDS, much of it mirroring that of JSpace. Neither advocates boycott, divestment and sanctions. Both are explicitly opposed to the BDS movement because BDS is viewed as both opposing the two-state solution and the right of Jews to self-determination in their ancient homeland. Insofar as a two-state solution remains a possibility, BDS advocates a return to the pre-1967 Green Line. Some supporters of BDS have even engaged in antisemitic tropes.

However, J Street openly seeks to distinguish between efforts to label products produced in the West Bank as distinct from products made in pre-1967 Israel. Further, it not only advocates that this be done, but supports the right of any American to join in and engage in boycott efforts, particularly if, in conducting the boycott, it only applies to products made in the territory on the other side of the Green Line so that the distinction is maintained between efforts that undermine the interests of Israel and those which simply oppose the occupation.

JSpace, other than opposing BDS and supporting the right of individuals to determine what goods they buy and from where they are made, has no position on boycotts. Thus, as far as I know, it has not engaged in efforts at “honest” labeling, that is, efforts to ensure that individuals have the correct information to determine whether or not they wish to purchase goods made on the other side of the Green Line. This J Street demand for transparency applies to communal civic organizations which, in its view, have obligations to keep their members informed.

Further, since the official U.S. government policy prior to the Trump administration regarded all settlements as illegitimate, and, prior to 1981, as even illegal, if they were constructed on occupied rather than administered territory, J Street advocated transparent labeling was a required corollary of opposition to settlements. Further, J Street advocates reinstating the label “illegal” on West Bank settlements. Since JSpace simply opposed the expansion of settlements, it sees no need to advocate so-called correct labeling on products made by Israelis in the West Bank and nerver refers to settlements as either illegitimate or illegal though I believe many of its supporters probably hold that view. Thus, J Street in contrast to JSpace advertises itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace but also anti-occupation and not just anti-expansion of settlements.

What about efforts not to engage with BDS advocates or even encourage legislative actions to delegitimize, penalize or even criminalize BDS? J Street opposes such efforts. JSpace, as far as I know, has never taken a stand on the question, but seems explicitly to avoid inviting BDS spokesmen from advocating their position.

In summary, J Street is a far more activist organization with much stronger positions on anti-settlement positions and on boycotts compared to JSpace. Whereas J Street as a minimum urges American opposition to expansion of settlements, for JSpace this is its position rather than a basic starting point. Further, its position is an expression of belief rather than a basis to strongly advocate government policies. Thus, J Street applauded when the U.S. Obama administration refrained from using its veto to void a UN Security Council anti-settlement motion. J Street also advocates that U.S. Jewish community organizations end funding for projects and activities in settlements.

JSpace does not take the position of J Street that the pre-1967 Green Line remain the recognized separation between Israel and the territory it captured in the Six Day War and that adjustments can only be made based on negotiations. JSpace does not take the position that maps only be officially used which mark out that Green Line. JSpace does not take the position that a new border can only be established based on the Green Line with equivalent swaps mutually agreed upon.

As I relay my record of the discussions of the conference, I will go into further detail on JSpace’s views on these matters. Both J Street and JSpace celebrate democracy and self-determination by and for the Jewish people on its ancient homeland. J Street explicitly regards settlement activities as endangering the whole enterprise of Zionism and adopts the position that the U.S. has an obligation to save Israel from itself. JSpace takes no similar stance.