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

Defining Antisemitism: Part II – In Defence of IHRA

The right is reactionary. Its propensity is to adopt resurrected older positions in a slightly new package. Hence, the antisemitism of the right most resembles traditional antisemitism based on stereotypes of Jews and recognizable tropes. The left is “progressive” dedicated to reinvention and creating new frontiers. These include new frontiers not only of social justice and the advancement of peace, but also reconstructing old hatreds in new forms. That is why Thomas Friedman anticipates that “Anti-semitism will flourish under the guise of anti-Zionism.”

To be anti-Zionist is not to be antisemitic. But anti-Zionism can be a cover for and a new way of expressing antisemitism. How can we tell the difference? We do know that when the bundists and communists fought against the Zionists for supremacy in the ideology of Jews, that was not antisemitic. When the ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jewish congregations opposed Zionism, they did not do so because they were antisemitic. Why then paint current leftist anti-Zionists with the antisemitic brush?

Reasons offered include:

  • The internecine fights within the Jewish community were precisely that – debates among Jews themselves and not attacks “from the outside”;
  • The ideological debates within the Jewish community were about the heart and soul of how the history of Jews was to be understood and constructed, what the current priorities should be and what the future of Jews should look like; in contrast, current leftist anti-Zionism – and to repeat ad nauseum, this is not to be confused with criticism of Israel which is fully legitimate – is about linking the current behaviour of the realized product of Zionism, that is, the Jewish state, with its illegitimacy;
  • The narrative constructed by the alleged antisemites wearing a mask of anti-Zionism has the same intention at the extreme in both cases – extermination, in the case of this form of anti-Zionism, the elimination from the face of the earth of what has emerged as the heart and soul of Jewish community solidarity with Israel;
  • The proposed narrative is not simply critical of Zionist behaviour but, like antisemitism, insists that this criticism goes much deeper into the core of the very nature of Zionism, just as the old antisemitism depicted that which justified hatred as inherent in the Jewish character;
  • The proposed narrative not only offers a very different historical tale, but it is one that depends on fundamental distortions and misrepresentations of what actually took place in history; these include:
  • Zionism not only benefitted from the protection of imperial and colonial regimes but was and remains at heart a colonial enterprise;
  • Representing Zionism as a return of an indigenous people to their homeland – a proposition that is at the heart of Zionism – is the real misrepresentation since:
  • Jews according to their own history have always been invaders of Palestine;
  • There is a gap between being indigenous and return after about two millenia;
  • Arabs have never objected to those Jews who were and remained in Palestine over those two millenia from staying in Palestine;
  • The invasion of Palestine by modern Zionists was not only at the expense of the local population, but all along intended to displace and replace that local population;
  • The eventual state that resulted is an apartheid state, that is, one dedicated to ensuring that the Jewish community not only remains separate from the rest of the population, but subject to a different set of laws, and, further, laws that ensured that Jews retain their superior authority and power;
  • The state of Israel is inherently expansionist;
  • The above mischaracterization flies beyond criticism and entails demonization.

What does Derek Penslar fail to recognize in the above critique? Derek wrote: “I have found it difficult to invoke the IHRA definition [when giving expert testimony] because of its strong implication that highly critical but factually accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic. A clear distinction between conspiratorial fantasy and demonstrable reality, between unhinged and fact-based (even if intemperate) language about Israel, would make it easier for me to demonstrate the presence of the former, which is actionable, and to set aside the latter, which is not.”

But this is precisely the issue. The IHRA definition provides absolutely no obstacle to presenting highly critical but accurate information in any forum. Where is the strong implication that it does? In fact, the implication is the reverse. Criticism not based in fantasy but in fact should and must be respected and welcomed. Not one example in the illustrations offered suggest that they are cases of “fact-based” criticisms.

Since antisemitism entails animus against Jews, which Derek takes to be the core of antisemitism, anti-Zionism must as well. But there is no necessary connection between the two. In fact, when antisemitism morphed into the new form of anti-Zionism, it left animosity for Jews as individuals behind and replaced it with animosity towards Jewish nationalism and not even just Jewish statehood. That is why, “There are a great many people in the world who bear no animus against Jews but are troubled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” But they are not just troubled by the treatment of Palestinians – I am myself, as are a majority of Israelis – and that does not make them anti-Zionist antisemites. The latter emerges when Zionism is characterized as inherently demanding the mistreatment of Palestinians. In any case, even antisemitism does not entail ascribing malice to the anti-Semites, only a result that may sometimes be a product of malice.

Further, even fact-based accounts can be antisemitic in both the traditional sense and the metamorphosis variety of anti-Zionism. As experts in communication will tell you, placing a factual tale in juxtaposition to another story will colour the other story. Thus, a colleague of mine who was a refugee from Chile analyzed a leading Chilean newspaper and its stories before he was forced to flee. A leading newspaper was a strong apologist for the junta government. My colleague showed that stories of violent crime were always juxtaposed with efforts of the opposition to modify the criminal law. The stories of the violent crime and the stories of campaigning for justice reform were both true, but the effect of the juxtaposition was to associate efforts at legal and prison reform with being “soft on violent crime.” This is true of antisemitic anti-Zionism. If stories of children killed as collateral damage in a war initiated by Hamas are juxtaposed with Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank, then the two become first associated and then identified, even though the first may be legal but very regrettable while the second can be illegal and doubly so because they are intentional and not just inadvertent acts.

Advocating boycotts and disinvestment is perfectly legitimate. However, doing so to characterize Israel as an illegitimate state and a product of a deformed and evil nationalism is not. On the latter grounds, one can expect a fierce and bitter battle against BDS, which would be far more modest in the case of many who adopt a boycott and divestment strategy to reinforce a message critical of Israeli behaviour. If anything, IHRA should be criticized as insufficient because it does not attend to BDS and does not make the above distinction. In fact, IHRA does not indicate which positions should be vehemently opposed since it exists for purposes of identification but also, contrary to Penslar, for policy formulation.

David Hirsh in a parallel list of criticisms made an additional interesting point that the defenders of the JD position were akin to the defenders of BDS. BDS in its original intention intended to use the BDS campaign not only as a way of criticizing Israe,l but as a way of delegitimizing Israel. But when commentary is used just to express criticism and not to demonize, that is proof that one should not oppose BDS even if its original intent, and much of its effort, had the goal of delegitimization. Derek employs the same illogic in reverse re IHRA. When IHRA criticizes surface appearances of critics of Zionists, its real intent is to expose such forms of criticism as illegitimate.

Hirsh wrote a book in 2017, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, that takes up the issue of having double standards that the IHRA definition raises, that Michael Walzer also criticizes but with which Derek takes issue. However, the problem is not, as Darek characterizes it, one of concentrating on the heinous behaviour of one form of nationalism, Zionism, while ignoring all others, but also that Zionist nationalism deserves extraordinary treatment, namely its elimination. The Fathom book, In Defence of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, in the David Rich essay, shows that the definition does nothing whatsoever to do away with legitimate criticism of Israel but merely points out illegitimate criticisms that skate on the thin ice of antisemitism.  

Thus, explosive issues emerge in the practical world of politics. For example, in Canada, the Green Party MP from New Brunswick, the only member of Parliament for the Greens east of British Columbia, Jenica Atwin, crossed the floor to join the Liberals. Why? Because Atkin challenged the Green Party leader, Anamie Paul, on her position on, of all issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!” Atwin had written. On 11 May she tweeted that Ms. Paul’s statement on the battle between Israel and Hamas, which called for de-escalation and a return to dialogue, was “totally inadequate.” She added, “I stand with Palestine! There are no two sides to this conflict, only human-rights abuses! #EndApartheid.”

Given her views, why would she join the Liberals? Why would the Liberals accept her? That remains perplexing. As former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, current president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, commented, “I’m disappointed and concerned by the news that MP Jenica Atwin has crossed the floor to join the Liberal caucus, given her inflammatory one-sided and divisive rhetoric during the recent conflict between Israel and the terror group Hamas.”

But the consequences within the Green Party were not perplexing. Noah Zatzman, a senior advisor to Paul, responded three days after Atwin opined on the Gaza War expressing solidarity with Zionism. He accused Atwin of discrimination and antisemitism. For that position, Zatzman took a great deal of flak and had to back down from his position, especially following a petition from Quebec Green Party members. However, that is the crux of the matter. On the one side are those who would deny Jews the right of self-determination in Palestine. On the other side there are those who insist that such a position is not antisemitic, and could not be, since many Jews hold that position.

“Fatah spokesman and member of its Revolutionary Council Osama al-Qawasmi said that Israel should stop using the allegation of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism against the world criticism of the apartheid regime it imposes on the Palestinian people and its colonial occupation. He said in a statement that the majority of Jews in the US and other countries criticize and condemn the Israeli occupation and its apartheid regime. ‘Are those Jews also against Judaism and Semitism?’ he questioned.”

In contrast to that position, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar had asked Secretary of State Blinken about how there could be accountability for war crimes, committed by Israel or the US or even Hamas for that matter, if justice was not available within Israel and if the US did not support the ICC as an alternative route to obtaining justice. “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”

Nancy Pelosi rebuked Omar for equating the behaviour of Israel, Hamas and the Taliban. 12 House Democrats questioned Omar lumping Hamas in the same category as Israel and the US and put out a statement claiming that Omar was equating these groups. This behaviour was considered heinous. But they never went so far as to accuse her of antisemitism. Yet her director of communications tweeted, “If she mentions accountability for war crimes committed by Israel, she’s antisemitic.” The accusation of antisemitism, based on the evidence available, could not be supported. But the controversy did show that the term, antisemitism, could be weaponized not only by defenders of Israel, but inappropriately against those defenders.

These domestic conflicts that arise over Israel could be made clearer if we make a clear distinction between those who criticize Israel but support its legitimacy and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination versus those who seek to delegitimize Israel, demonize the country and, in the end, deny Jews the right to self-determination and right of Israel to exist.

The latter is the core of anti-Zionist antisemitism.

Defining Antisemitism: Part I – A Re-introduction

DYumna Afzaal, 15, left, Madiha Salman, 44, centre left, Talat Afzaal, 74, and Salman Afzaal, 46, right, were out for an evening walk when they were run over by a man who police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. The nine-year old son who was seriously injured is not in this picture.

Yesterday, I was in London Ontario. In that city, on Sunday evening at 8:40 p.m., a twenty-year-old in a black pickup truck, Nathaniel Veltman, ran down a family of Muslims out for an evening stroll waiting to cross the street at the intersection of Hyde Park Rd. and South Carriage Rd. in northwest London. A spontaneous memorial has popped up at the site around a lamp post. A vigil, in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Doug Ford and London mayor Ed Holder all attended, was held there last night to honour the victims. Others are welcome to send their condolences or sign a condolence book at the London Muslim Mosque at 151 Oxford Street, a five-minute drive away. The family attended that mosque and the father was an active member and attendee. The nine-year-old boy, who was not killed and who is in hospital in critical condition, attended Islamic school there.

The act was an unequivocal attack on the family because they were Muslims. This was Islamophobia plain and simple. Leaders of the Muslim community in Canada are calling not only for prosecuting the alleged killer to the fullest extent of the law, but to defining Islamophobia as a specific hate crime and launching a very pro-active program to combat Islamophobia. As Dr. Hassan Mostafa, a board member at the Islamic School, noted, the murder shattered the sense of safety and security of Muslims anywhere in Canada, particularly if they dress traditionally as Muslims. In a Quebec City mosque, six people were massacred in 2017.

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, expressed the widespread response that the killings were “absolutely horrifying.” It is people’s worst nightmare when people are attacked for the manner in which they pray to God, their dress or how they look. For example, the Toronto chapter of the Chinese National Council compiled a list of 1,150 acts of anti-Asian racism last year and this year, there have already been 891 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes as of mid-day 17 March, an almost 700% increase over the previous year. There was a 717% increase in Vancouver last year compared to the previous year. In Georgia recently, a man was charged with killing 8 people at a massage parlour in an act of gratuitous anti-Asian hatred.

Evidently B’nai Brith, which tracks antisemitism in Canada, had to counteract rumours that the killer in London was Jewish, thereby indicating that antisemitism was already compounding the horrific Islamophobic act. “The Jewish community and B’nai Brith want our Muslim brothers and sisters to know that we are with you in this struggle, and we will not be silent.” However, there is almost always a political dimension to hate crimes. There is the politics of the pandemic with respect to anti-Asian hatred. In the case of antisemitism, the connection exists between hatred of Israel, not just criticism of Israel which is definitely in itself NOT a hate crime. In the words of the columnist, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the connection between politics and ethnic or religious hatred, is now inseparable. The emerging prospect of a one-state solution in the Mideast conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not only blowing up the region, but “the Democratic Party and every synagogue n America.” “Unless we preserve at least the potential of a two-state solution, the one-state reality that would emerge in its place won’t just blow up Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; it could very well blow up the Democratic Party and every Jewish organization and synagogue in America.”

That is why Friedman argued, contrary to my blog yesterday, that more effort and energy should be put into reviving the two-state solution. “(W)ithout any viable hope of separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states for two peoples — the only outcome left will be one state in which the Israeli majority dominates and Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be systematically deprived of equal rights so that Israel can preserve its Jewish character.” I, on the other hand, have argued that now is the time for beginning with ensuring equal rights for Palestinians and Jews in Israel rather than depending on a political solution to have that consequence.

What then should be the connection between the politics of Israel and the age-old hatred of antisemitism? This is the question that the controversies over the definition of antisemitism have circled. Friedman anticipated that unless progress is made on the political front, “Anti-semitism will flourish under the guise of anti-Zionism.” (26 May 2021) This is the question over which I wrestled in almost ten blogs in April and May before being distracted by the recent Gaza War. This is the question to which I want to return today and in tomorrow’s blog.

The controversy has largely centred on the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism which is very widely being adopted by states and organizations as a guide to collecting data and developing policies to counteract such efforts. 200 academics signed a counter definition, the Jerusalem Declaration, as a replacement for and/or development of the IHRA definition to which they levelled a number of criticisms. In today’s blog, I will try to offer a fair summary of the position of two of those academics, my colleagues Derek Penslar and Michael Walzer, before clarifying my own position on the question tomorrow. Fortunately, the debate has been carried forward in a series of contending positions by eminent spokespeople in the journal, Fathom.  

Derek Penslar. Michael Marrus and Janice Stein, all colleagues of mine from the University of Toronto, all also very highly esteemed academics covering Jewish intellectual history, the Holocaust and international politics respectively, edited and published a landmark volume focused on one of the world’s “most ancient and diffuse hatreds,” Contemporary Antisemitism: Canada and the World back in 2004. They then noted the reappearance of antisemitism “in disturbing new ways and in unexpected strength.” They inquired into the strength of the resurgence, its character and the appropriate response. Since then, the debate has grown both more widespread and more intense.

In April of 2021, Derek Penslar wrote an explanation of “Why I Signed the Jerusalem Declaration: A Response to Cary Nelson.” Derek acknowledged the resurgence of antisemitism and the link between hatred of Jews and hostility towards Israel. His arguments and criticisms of the IHRA definition can be summarized as follows:

  • The IHRA definition was developed for data collection, not policy formulation.
  • The IHRA definition has been invoked to “restrict the free and open exchange of ideas beyond the necessity to protect public safety and prohibit discrimination and harassment.”
  • IHRA sections on the nature of antisemitism lack clarity.
  • Judgments on critical discourse with respect to Israel “assumes guilt rather than innocence.”
  • The criticism of the application of double standards to Israel is misplaced.
  • IHRA carries a strong implication that highly critical but factually accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic.
  • An appropriate definition requires a distinction between conspiratorial fantasy and demonstrable reality, unhinged versus fac-based critiques.

Does the JDA more clearly distinguish between speech critical of Israel that is not antisemitic versus that which is? The definition must make clear that proponents of the boycott against Israel, of alternatives to the two-state solution and fact-based evidence of Israel’s past performance are not antisemitic. For Derek, “combating antisemitism should be part of a general commitment to protect civil liberties and act against racism.” Derek favoured “decentering, not replacing, the IHRA definition.”

Michael Walzer, a highly esteemed philosopher, has for many years also written on antisemitism. In October 2019, the wrote an essay published in Fathom on “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism” in which he charged anti-Zionism with being very bad politics but was not in itself antisemitic. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Further, anti-Zionism was historically a position of many Jews. Their ideological rigidity and moral insensitivity should not be mistaken for antisemitism.

Walzer took the position that, “You cannot separate religion from politics; you cannot set up a ‘wall’ between church or synagogue and state, if you don’t have a state. Zionism was from its first days an effort to begin the process of disentanglement and to establish a state in which secularism could succeed.” He offered three versions of Jewish anti-Zionism:

  1. those who insist that Jews who are secular supporters of Israel are not Jewish;
  2. those who deny that there is a Jewish nation and claim that non-religious Jews are simply mistaken;
  3. Jews should not become nationalists because such nationalism deforms the soul.

However, Walzer in his wide-ranging attack on anti-Zionism, is not being antisemitic himself in declaring that Jews holding this position are also not antisemitic. Within that frame, he does argue that Jewish anti-nationalism, focused only on Jewish nationalism, is also not antisemitic as much as he considers such a position to be both politically flawed and hypocritical. Only then does he get to the heart of the matter – the declaration that amongst nationalist movements, Israel is a colonialist settler state that necessarily displaced over 700,000 Palestinians. In other words, Jewish nationalism is illegitimate because its success depended on both the cover of colonialism and the displacement and replacement of indigenous Palestinians. But is that position antisemitic?

Following his trenchant criticisms of anti-Zionist Jews and others, particularly on the left, Walzer then levels his own extensive critique of the behaviour of contemporary Israel much more than the founding of the Jewish state. For current state policies discriminate against Israeli-Palestinians in housing, education, infrastructure, and engage in lawless settlement activity in the West Bank, violence against individual Palestinians and, perhaps worst of all, the use of anti-Arab incitement to consolidate right-wing rule.

Finally, Walzer turns his intellectual guns on the critics of Israel and accuses them of engaging in the application of double standards, the very basis of criticism that Derek Penslar sees as illegitimate. What is clear is the even greater irony of it all, a historian (Derek Panslar) employing largely conceptual arguments and a philosopher (Walzer) largely relying on arguments rooted in actual history. Walzer, in criticizing the defenders of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, uses that frame to launch a wide-ranging attack on both theoretic and concrete critics of Zionism without declaring that they are antisemites. Pensler concentrates his barbs on the defenders of the IHRA definition.

In my defence of the IHRA definition, however imperfect, against these very different arguments and approaches, I will argue that, with all their bluntness, both the Penslar and the Walzer positions ignore analysis of the core central issue in the debate – whether the depiction of Israel as a colonial settler apartheid state engaged in ethnic cleansing is or is not antisemitic. And how is antisemitism akin to Islamophobia and anti-Asian racism, but also distinctly different?

Governing After War – The Case of Israel

Part II: The New Priorities

There is and ought to be a new emphasis on domestic Palestinian relations in Israel while the prospect of peace with the Palestinians not living in Israel is bracketed. This new emphasis should go along with two others:

1. new initiatives on secular-religious relations;

2. a renewed emphasis on Israeli Jewish-Diaspora relations (not dealt with in this blog).

But the most important switch entails taking advantage of the new opening in changing the relations between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

It has been said that the support of Mansour Abbas, a 47-year-old dentist in private civilian life, and his four party members from the United Arab List for the Israeli government is not unprecedented. After all, in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour Party rule was about to collapse, Arab Party support for the government saved that government in 1993. However, while it is true that Rabin was the first Israeli government to rely on Arab Party support to remain in office, and while that situation has not been repeated since, the situation is not the same as the current support of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List support for the imminent new government in Israel.

In 1992, Rabin took power with a majority of 9 seats:

Labour       46

Meretz        12

Hadash        3

Mada            2

Shas            6

Total           69

This was a substantial majority. The problem came in 1993 when Shas withdrew its support in September after Rabin signed the Oslo Agreement. The government survived because the joint coalition of Labour and Meretz had 58 seats, but a majority support in the Knesset because the two Arab parties, Hadash and Mada, would not support a no-confidence motion which meant that the most support for defeating the government could be 57 seats. Rabin had a de facto majority of one, though he did not have a majority of Knesset seats in his coalition.

The difference between then and the current situation of the prospective coalition of eight parties is not only that the coalition includes left, centre and right-wing parties, but one Arab party as well, Ra’am. Most importantly, unlike 1993 when Arab support came from outside the government, Arab support from the United Arab List is an integral part of the government agreement. Arabs for the first time, as parties as distinct from Arab individuals, are part of the government. The other Arab Party, the Arab Joint List with six seats, is outside the government, but two of the six have informally agreed not to vote non-confidence in the government so the new Bennett government will be faced with only 57 non-confidence votes. Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, announced that he will not support the incoming government, but it is not clear whether he would support a no-confidence motion. On the other hand, of the three parties that make up the Arab Joint List – Hadash, Balad and Taal – there is the possibility Ahmed Tibi would also lead his two seats to join the coalition.

The major and unprecedented breakthrough is that an Arab partly is part of the coalition. As a senior figure in Ra’am opined: “The responses to the move are positive and give us credit, but this is the first step in a long journey to changing the reality that excludes us from the circle of influence.” Fauzi Abu Toama, an activist non-party Arab Israeli from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, opined on the same line: “This is a historic moment since the founding of the state in the government’s relations with Arab citizens. The success of this move could be a significant turning point for the future and status of Arab citizens and their integration in the circle of decision-makers.” 

Mansour Abbas’s party did not, however, get any ministries as did the other parties. But in return for its participation, Ra’am did receive the following concessions:

  • Abbas was a signatory to the coalition agreement. (Contrast this with Benny Gantz’s secret deal on behalf of the Blue and White Party with the Joint List – there is no written documentation of that agreement available.)
  • Abbas will attend in the future, and he did attend the meeting of all eight parties in the new coalition on 6 June at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv.
  • Ra’am will chair the Knesset Interior Committee
  • Mansour Abbas will be a Deputy Interior Minister. (Naftali Bennett, in addition to being Prime Minister over the next two years, will also be Interior Minister.)
  • The status of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev region will be regularized.
  • There will be no home demolitions in the next four years and the 2019 Kaminitz law banning illegal construction will be annulled.
  • The budget would include $1.6 billion for infrastructure projects in Arab towns and cities and for crime prevention.

Most importantly, an Arab – from a village, no less, the mixed Druze, Muslim and Christian village of Maghar near the Sea of Galilee of Galilee – played a key role in putting an end to Netanyahu’s vigilante treatment of Arab citizens of Israel.  

All of the above are historic breakthroughs. The precedents set are of historic significance, a fact recognized by all. As Meretz Chairman, Nitzan Horowitz, tweeted, “Change is on the way.”  The the inclusion of Arab citizens of Israel in the decision-making and power centre of the country is unprecedented. These changes are important in giving a lie to the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state. In South Africa, apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means “separateness”, or “the state of being apart”. There is a fundamental difference between legally being forced to live apart and choosing to live apart. These moves are of absolute historic significance for Israel because they demonstrate the intention of inclusion of Palestinian Israeli citizens who constitute 21% of the population as an integral part of governing the state. Even more significantly, it was the current Prime Minister and soon to be leader of the opposition who initiated the move to make Ra’am part of the government. The revolutionary step has broad-based support in spite of the loudness of some critical vocal critics.

These initiatives are very important in tackling the recent outburst of Arab-Jewish violence, particularly in mixed Israeli-Jewish towns and cities. Arab rioting within Israel is not unprecedented, in spite of propaganda to the contrary. When Rabin promised to break bones in the first intifada, he was referring to violent protests not only in the occupied territories, but in Israel proper where some Arab protests against the government turned violent. The difference in 2021 is that the rioting was not simply against government policies; there was civil society mob violence against civilians. They were pogroms rather than protests. Further, there were Jewish mobs persecuting Arabs as well as Arabs attacking Jews.

A number of Jews have been subsequently indicted for a violent mob attack on an Arab driver in Bat Yam and six others in the Said Moussa assault. In Nazareth, Israeli police allegedly beat Arab detainees after their arrest and then denied them medical treatment. The current government has focused its primary attention on Arab-against-Jew violence. The security cabinet authorized deploying border police to mixed cities and towns for the ensuing three months “for the good of safeguarding the public order”. Shin Bet in an extraordinary move announced that, in light of the escalation, the agency would deploy Shin Bet officers to serve alongside Israeli police inside the cities to stop the violence between Arabs and Jews.

The goal of the police campaign is “to restore deterrence and increase governance in designated places in the State of Israel, along with maintaining the personal security of Israeli citizens.” But why the almost exclusive focus on Arab areas? Palestinians are Israeli citizens as well. Protests by Palestinian citizens were met both with police violence and vigilante attacks by Jewish extremists. 2,248 have been arrested with the vast majority of them Palestinian Israelis. An estimated 200 have been Jewish. 

The reality is that in some cases, rioting was instigated by the arrival into an Arab area of Jewish fascists. Thus, in Hof Hagali (Upper Nazareth), Mayor Ronen ordered that barriers be erected at the entrance to the city to prevent entry of Jewish troublemakers from outside. Several busloads of Jewish extremists were turned back. There were no riots there. Systematic preventive action in advance in the deployment of police and municipal workers prevented any clashes. Similarly, after the fact, in Lod Abbas met with the family of Hassouna who had been killed. He then visited the site of one of the three synagogues that had been torched by rioters.

The other area in which revolutionary new initiatives can be expected is in the sphere of secular-religious relations. It has to be emphasized that secular and religious are not two different groups. The vast majority of Israelis, both Jewish and Muslim, are different admixtures of Western enlightenment values and traditional religious practices and beliefs, unlike North America where the numbers in each camp are developing in self-enclosed silos. Though the coalition agreement provides for no new initiatives in controversial secular-religious disputes, there are other areas in which innovation can be expected.

The easiest is perhaps the resurrection of the agreement on the Kotel, the Western Wall, in which different sections of the wall will be reserved for male-only worship while another section will allow for mixed groups of male and female to worship. On the other hand, there will be no introduction of civil marriage in Israel. Since Haredi parties are not part of the coalition agreement, why is this the case? It is because Ra’am is an Islamic party opposed to non-religious sanctioning of marriage and, in the coalition agreement, it was agreed that there would be no initiative taken to change the status quo.

However, the area where major changes can be expected is in Haredi education. Avigdor Liberman has perhaps been the most outspoken critic on the leniency towards the Haredi population with respect to an absence of any requirements for a core curriculum in secular subjects. There are some Haredi schools where no secular subjects are taught at all, at least in the Israeli schools, not the ones in America. There are others in which secular subjects are taught but the core secular curriculum is not supervised or legitimized by the government. Liberman if he were Education Minister vowed to change that. As Finance Minister, he perhaps has even more clout to ensure that Haredi education educates the children so that they can become economic contributing members of a modern society. In that effort, ironically, he will be supported by many young Haredi who have been critical of their own leadership for its failures in this area (as well as others).

There is a link between the issues of belief in religious-secular relations and the disbelief that burst out over the tension and violence between Palestinian and Jewish citizens. Both issues are ultimately more critical than what happened in Gaza even though those riots in Lod, Acre and Jaffa relatively involved minimal absolute numbers. For both issues are mainly about civil society. The primary emphasis of government must be the protection and development of civil society and not foreign affairs. At this time when progress on peace with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank offers virtually no openings, activist efforts can best focus energy on reinforcing the developments of a democratic society, most importantly, on expanding opportunities for full membership for those Palestinians and those ultra-Orthodox Jews who remain uncommitted to the Israeli project.

Governing After War – The Case of Israel

Part I: The Wrong Foundation

In this and the next blog, I want to discuss a new foundation for governing Israel to guide the new Israeli government on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In this first blog, I want to review the proposal of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) for such a foundation as a foil for my own proposal found in Part II, tomorrow. IPF broadcast a webinar (it is accessible from a recording on their site – https://israelpolicyforum.org/live/) called “Realistic Reset” setting forth its foundation. The program began by expressing regret and compassion for those who died in the recent Israel-Gaza War and Susie Gelman, the host, insisted that we not resign ourselves to the inevitability of violence and the prospect of peace. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot, indeed, must not be ignored.”

But that is precisely what I am going to do in this blog – bracketing an emphasis with the pursuit of a two-state solution. I will review the immanent likelihood of the new government in Israel and the implications, first, for Israeli domestic policy, secondly, for foreign policy and only last and very sketchily, non-citizen Palestinian policy. This does not mean that I accept that violence is inevitable, that the conflict is never-ending and that nothing can be done to avert another round. Rather, I am convinced that the road to peace with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank runs first and foremost through Israeli domestic policy, primarily with Israel’s Arab population, and then through its foreign policy. Both of those directions of effort, if they succeed, I am convinced will have profound effects on the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There was a second emphasis of the Israel Policy Forum webinar – the critical role of the U.S. After four years of one-sided pro-Israeli policies, it is undoubtedly true that the there will be a shift in emphasis coming from the U.S., especially given the development of a pro-Palestinian voice among “progressives” in the Democratic Party. However, I do not expect that shift to make a critical difference and expect the Biden administration to continue its deep and strong support for Israel and its efforts to ensure the security of Israel while continuing to relegate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a back burner. Rather, it will be the shift in domestic politics that will make the greatest difference.

IPF adopted the traditional liberal advocacy posture of more balanced support for both Israeli and Palestinian self-determination – in other words, a two-state solution – even if that objective is seemingly out of reach today. In contrast, I suggest that relegating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner, a process well underway before the recent Gaza War, and which has received considerable blame for the outbreak in the Gaza violence, should be continued and reinforced. It is not that I am unappreciative of the experts, the thoughtful analyses and the educational resources the IPF brings to the table, but I do believe putting a continuing emphasis on peace is a mug’s game.

IPF admitted there would be no easy fix, especially after the troublesome policies of the Trump administration. The prospect and support of the US for annexation of large parts of the West Bank was found particularly troubling. However, my argument will be that the make-up of the likely new government of Israel will necessarily take annexation off the table. It is no longer immanent even if the creeping occupation of significant areas of the West Bank by 460,000 settlers makes the pressure for such a prospect greater, especially with the continuing decline of the Palestinian populations in those areas.

Trump cut off all aid to the Palestinians. Biden, as a stopgap measure, restored the aid the UNRWA. The Trump administration threw the Palestinian diplomatic delegation out of Washington and, with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the U.S. embassy to Israel, it also eliminated its diplomatic presence for the Palestinians. The Biden administration is on its way to restoring a diplomatic presence for Palestinians either in Ramallah or, more likely, in East Jerusalem. IPF pushed a platform with four legs:

  • Strengthening America’s support for Israel’s security
  • Rebuilding ties with the Palestinians
  • Continuing the work of the Abraham Accords and promoting continuing Israeli integration into the region
  • Restoring a political horizon for a two-state solution.

The problem, of course, is that the first has always been a bipartisan US policy, the third is just the policy of normalization by another name and the fourth is simply rhetoric since restoring the political horizon for a two-state solution ranges anywhere from new initiatives in the peace process to all quiet of the Gaza and West Bank fronts with no significant initiatives in either direction. Only the second effort veers radically and dramatically away from the Trump administration of not only ignoring but undercutting US-Palestinian relations. Further, there is no indication that such efforts will make any great difference to the results of the pre-Trump administration policies. It is as if the Americans cannot and will not recognize that the US is now a side rather than central player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

When IPF tried to understand the instigation, the push for what it called “the latest flare-up” in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship after seven years of relative calm, the focus remained on Gaza and not on the far more significant Arab-Jewish clashes in Israel’s mixed cities and the relative quiet in the West Bank, in spite of the war in Gaza. Further, the claimed previous calm on the Gaza front was truly relative since shooting off missiles had been a regular feature of the past Hamas activity and its militant allies. The big difference in the onset of this Gaza-Israel conflict was twofold: seven missiles were set off at the same time; second, they targeted Jerusalem. Israel had been waiting in full readiness when the opportunity was ripe to launch an all-out attack on the military build-up in Gaza. The Jerusalem missile attack simply provided the opportunity.

Nickolay Mladenov contended that there had been “a very long period of quiet in Gaza.” According to him, Hamas miscalculated the response of Israel, and Israel had made mistakes with the provocations at the al-Aqsa Mosque, in the eviction efforts at Sheikh Jarrah and in the security efforts at Damascus Gate at the Old City. However, Mladeno conceded that Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to cancel the Palestinian election was probably the most proximate cause, even though most interpreters insisted that this was simply Hamas’ excuse for instigating the war and directly challenging Israel; Hamas used the situation to advance its political position among the Palestinians and assume the leadership from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. The firing off of the missiles was clearly intended to escalate the conflict, but not nearly to the extent of the result.

Israel, on its part, had its own agenda:

  • stop security threats from Gaza for, at least, a number of years and reassert security control
  • establish zero tolerance for missiles
  • eliminate as many terror tunnels as possible
  • expose the fact that such tunnels ran 7.5 metres under UNRWA schools
  • end incendiary drones and balloons being sent from Gaza across into Israel
  • obtain the return of two Israeli civilians, one Bedouin and one Jewish, both mentally challenged, as well the bodies of two soldiers held in the 2014 war
  • stabilize the economic situation in Gaza, the most difficult of all, because that is not how the victimization card works for Hamas and there is no one in Israel that I know of politically, intellectually and morally brave enough to take up this challenge
  • to diminish the confidence of Hamas and its support from the Palestinian community, but the reverse happened since Hamas is much more confident and the PA weaker
  • one unintended consequence, but one that has emerged, was the emerging weariness of donors supporting Gaza once again saddled with the terrible costs of rebuilding Gaza
  • there was one intentional goal with respect to donors – ensuring that money for humanitarian aid does not go to Hamas; no longer would suitcases of cash from Qatar be allowed to be imported into Gaza

There was almost no possibility that the aftermath of the war would bring an end to Hamas’ corruption even if money donated by donors did not go to Hamas. Would it be possible for Hamas and the PA to form a technical government of national unity that could negotiate peace? This a possible outcome, intended by neither side, but nevertheless unlikely. The most likely consequence and the most undesirable one by far is that Hamas gained mastery of the political and economic narrative.

One other consequence, but not of the war itself, has been the strengthening of democratic politics in Israel. After four elections in two years, it looks like Israel will have a stable government going into the future, a least for a time. There is no parallel outcome on the Palestinian side. The democratic deficit with respect to no elections for 15 years does not seem to be on the verge of ending.

However, as long as the new dominant emerging narrative on the Palestinian side remains one of deliberate conquest and displacement, colonialism and repression, apartheid and discrimination, by Jews, and given Israel’s government of unity that runs from right to left, there can be neither any significant initiative on this front from either the Palestinians or the Israelis. Even if one for some strange reason appeared, there is no way to reconcile the newly emerging dominant narrative with a two-state solution. Why would the proponents of this narrative, including a strain of critical Jews and Israelis who have adopted it, celebrate and support normalization with the Arab states and its expansion when, in the new narrative, this simply makes room for increasing the spread and grasp of colonialization?

Yet the last is the major piece of good news emerging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, sometimes you have to make an existential choice – adoption of the new colonialist narrative or pushing normalization. You cannot do both. For normalization is, from the perspective of the new dominant narrative among Palestinians and critics, just a sign of victory for colonialism.

In other words, expect the impasse on the peace front to continue. That does not mean expanding settlements and undermining the eventual possibility of a two-state solution. That means that the US can at best have modest ambitions with respect to the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Shira Efron, however, believes there is an opportunity that has emerged as a result of the outcome of the recent Gaza War – the prospect of strengthening the Palestinian Authority which can be promoted. Martin Indyk, at least, recognizes that with Naftali Bennett as Prime Minister and the other hawkish Israeli politicians in the cabinet, with the strongest proponent of annexation and strongly opposed to a two-state solution as Prime Minister, the best prospect is a freeze not an advance on this front. Since the reform of the PA and restoring its leadership does not seem realistically to be in the works, what non-cynical option is available?

What then is the alternative? Michael Koplow also does not believe that Biden is willing to get bogged down in the ephemeral pursuit of a two-state solution, especially with the growth of the “progressive” critics of Israel within the Democratic Party. The Gaza War, irrespective of the consequences, has certainly not made a two-state solution more viable or urgent. I, however, do not think that, given the new Israeli government, that even small steps on this front will be possible. However, at least progress on human rights for Palestinians, particularly Israel’s own Arab citizens, is congruent with both the Biden administration and the new unity government.

This is the clue that there are other possibilities on the domestic policy front. I will expand on that and then try to reconcile this emphasis with new openings in dealing with the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza in my next blog.

Prophecy in the Twenty-First Century: Parsha Shelach

There is a controversy currently underway in the aftermath of the most recent Gaza War. On the one hand, there are Israelis who accuse Netanyahu and Gantz of cowardice, of holding back and of failing, once and for all, to go into Gaza, dislodging Hamas, disarming the Palestinians and eliminating Gaza as a threat to Israel. From the left wing, “progressives” are denouncing the military response altogether. The seven missiles sent against Jerusalem that triggered the war were just responses to the excess use of force by the Israeli police in the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as to the other practices, such as in Sheikh Jarrah of evicting Palestinians from their homes.  Israelis did not use enough force. Israelis used far too much force. Which portrait is correct?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in his writings has stressed two very different roles for the prophet:

  1. As God’s spokesperson, to deliver God’s message to the Jewish community;
  2. To serve as spokesperson of his people and advocate on their behalf before God.

The two roles have the same standard of measurement – the Covenant God made with the people of Israel. When addressing the people, the prophet must remind them of their obligations under the Covenant and the consequences to them if they are not fulfilled. When addressing God as an advocate for his people, the prophet must remind God of His obligations to the people under the Covenant, however wayward the people have been, and the consequences, this time, both to God and His chosen people if God does not keep His side of the bargain.

As Yitz described it, the great crisis between these two roles came in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. And God’s decision – soon retracted – that He was going to abandon the Israelites to their own fate and begin to create a new nation from a core, the core of Moses and his family (Exodus 31:10-14) Moses rejected the offer unequivocally and insisted that God live up to His side of the deal He had made. Moses was sticking to the fate of his people.


י  וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’
יא  וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָה יְהוָה יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה.11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said: ‘LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, that Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
יב  לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה; שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ.12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people.
יג  זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ, וַתְּדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם, אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲכֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם; וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי, אֶתֵּן לְזַרְעֲכֶם, וְנָחֲלוּ, לְעֹלָם.13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou didst swear by Thine own self, and saidst unto them: I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.’
יד  וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ.  {פ}14 And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. {P}

It is not often that we see God repenting for what He had said. This happens again in this week’s parashah. When the spies return from Canaan with the warnings of ten of the twelve spies concerning the wrath and formidable force the Israelites would face if they crossed into Canaan, the people panicked. They trembled to their very toes. And they implored Moses to stop and turn around.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

There’s battle lines bein’ drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind

(It’s time we)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs
Mostly sayin’, “hooray for our side”

(It’s time we)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

(We better)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

The key verse is the following:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

The fear was both of the enemies they faced and of God’s wrath if they hesitated from facing their enemies. That was real paranoia.

Moses had handled God’s wrath with diplomacy. But when he witnessed firsthand, not the people’s fear, but the joy with which they danced when they had turned their backs on God. Moses, in an absolute fury and fit, broke the tablets of the law that he had brought down from the mountain and rebuked the people. Previously, Moses had quietly but firmly stood up to God. This time, he lost it. Furious beyond measure, he gathered the Levites who went through the camp killing 3,000, .5% of the total population. It was a slaughter.

What does Rabbi Greenberg focus on when he came to the returning spies?

In this parashah (as at the Golden Calf), Moses holds up the banner of a religious role model and leader. The prophet is ready to give his life for the people. To be religious is to be ready to give one’s life for others—not to seek exemptions from danger on the grounds of being devoted to Torah. The prophet does not simply judge the people in God’s name. The religious leader brings the people’s needs and concerns to God and, sometimes, asks for different instructions. The prophet does not lay the blame on the people, and he will stand with them and even take punishment with them as he tries to sustain them through failure or loss of nerve.

Moses had learned patience. Moses had learned to understand the people’s fears and to turn them around. But then why did Moses take his wrath out against the spies? Why? After all, they had reported back accurately what they had seen – giants burying their own dead. But they also offered their interpretation that the Israelites were akin to inyenzi, to grasshoppers, compared to the giants. It was not like the extremist Hutu branding the Tutsi as inyenzi who need to be exterminated. The Israelites branded themselves.

They saw but they were blind. They suffered from mindblindness, not in what they saw but how they interpreted what they saw.

What about the present? What about the reports back if the IDF invades Gaza by land? This is a case where the authorities in charge of Gaza declare with their words that the Jews should be eliminated from Palestine, all of Palestine. This was not a case of projection of what they saw into how they were perceived by the giants. They merely took seriously the actual words of Hamas. Further, the Israelites were not afraid of the Palestinians in Gaza but calculated that if they went in with a land force, three consequences would inevitably follow:

  1. They would suffer a significant number of casualties.
  2. Afterwards, they would be burdened with the occupation of Gaza.
  3. The wrath of the world would increase rather than recede as the memory that the Israelis had killed far more Gazans than the Gazans had killed Israelis faded from memory.

The spies who returned from Canaan to advocate no invasion were wrong, not because they saw giants, but because they saw themselves as inyenzi, as grasshoppers. In contrast, the intelligence services that advocated no invasion of Gaza were correct because they acted like true giants and saw no need either to conquer the Palestinians in Gaza and certainly not of exterminating them. Limiting the capacity of Hamas and its allies to kill for another decade was sufficient.

What then is God’s message to the Jewish people in this moment of trial by fire? Hold your fire. Be moderate even when, in the name of human rights and progress, your enemies see you as extremists. Be modest in your goals. How do we know this is the true message of God? We do not. But we do know and can verify that the Israeli intelligence services were not reporting back inaccurately, not only what Hamas and its allies were saying and doing, but reporting accurately. More importantly, the estimate of their own capacities and abilities to respond were more or less accurate. And where they were not, there was a determination to make corrections. The Israelis are not suffering from mindblindnesss when it comes to Gaza.

By and large, Israel behaved appropriately.

Part II: Truth, Empathy, Justice and Peace –

Four dimensions for managing and possibly resolving violent conflict

As I have written, the debate has shifted for the critics of Israel – from two nations competing for the same land in which the division of the land arrived at was unfair and unjust to the Palestinians, to a different narrative of an oppressed group denied self-determination by an repressive colonial and apartheid regime that perpetuates injustice, both by denying Palestinians the right to self-determination and by the unequal and unjust treatment of even its own citizens who are Palestinian. The source of the violence in both cases is injustice, just differently characterized in the two accounts.

Justice then is the necessary condition to ensure a sustainable peace. On the other hand, peace is supposed to be a necessary condition for attaining true justice. Justice and peace, in this view, are symbiotically related, each dependent on the other, although they refer to different spheres. Justice, that is social rather than just legal justice, is concerned with minimizing inequality. Peace is concerned with minimizing violence. Inequalities foster violence and violence benefits those who have little interest in human rights.

The realistic but positive option is to increase the justice for both groups in the expectation that the prospect of violence will be reduced. However, the problem is not that simple. When Israel removed its settlements and its military from Gaza in 2005, the justice for Palestinians was purportedly increased in that self-determination was now in their own hands. As well, the Israelis left behind an economic infrastructure that could be used to improve the living standards of the Gazans. But Hamas won the election in Gaza, deposed the Palestinian Authority from any role and introduced a more repressive regime. Further, after the evacuation, instead of turning the greenhouses left behind by the settlers into thriving production centres, they were dismantled.

This, of course, does not prove that there is no correlation between improved justice and improved prospects of peace. But it does suggest that there is no necessary link between the two. They are independent elements of a society, sometimes working in cooperation for improvement, but at other times, as in the case above, injustice increased with the withdrawal of the military. Further, with increased independence and self-determination, Gaza became a centre for attacking Israel on a major scale on four different occasions – 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and 2021. Violence increased significantly with an increase in Gazan self-determination.

There was and remains a reason for that. There is a gap between the increased justice the Gazans gained and the increased sense of the injustices of the past when 720,000 refugees fled, and the Palestinians lost their lands and homes. Thus, the perceived and felt net sense of injustice rose even though, in any objective measure, the justice in terms of self-determination increased.

Is there a correlation between increased sense of injustice and an increased propensity to engage in violence?  Even in that sense, when repression sets in, there is often a decline in violence because the new regime may be so repressive that violence of all kinds declines except for that committed by the regime itself. In sum, there is no necessary connection between improvements in justice and a decline in violence. These are two independent variables. Look at it another way. Right wing commentators have suggested that the 2021 Gaza War broke out precisely because Iran was seeking a revived nuclear deal with the US. Iran unleashed its minions in Gaza to stir up trouble and offer a warning signal to America about what could happen if the US continues to reinforce a pariah status for Iran.

In parallel to the relationship believed to exist between the degree of injustice and the degree of violence, there is a general belief that an increased understanding of the perspective of the other will enhance the prospects of peace. But when commentators study the thought processes and beliefs of Hamas leaders and understand how powerful the antipathy to Israel is and that they truly intend, as their charter states, to work to dismantle and destroy Israel, Israel is prone to increase its ability to respond militarily to deter a resort to violence by Hamas. In some situations, enhanced empathetic understanding of the beliefs, emotions and thinking of the other can be correlated with enhanced violence.

If we examine the correlation between truth and the use of violence, the more acutely a nation understood the real nature and intentions of a regime like Stalin’s or Hitler’s, the more resolved the nation was to recognize that “peace in our time” was an unlikely prospect and that one had better prepare for war. They say that truth is the first casualty of war. But it may be truer to say in some cases that truth can be the first and primary cause of war and the resort to violence.

My point is simply that there is no necessary connection between truth, between empathy and between injustice and the prospect of peace and war. Further, there is no correlation between injustice and empathy. Even though one’s initial judgement is that there would be. After all, if one can get inside the head and heart of another and more acutely recognize the injustices that others suffer, one would think that increased empathy would be correlated with an increased desire to bring greater justice to that other.

It is possible, however, that if one gets to understand the injustices experienced by another, one may become more determined than ever not to get into the position of the other, and, even more dangerously, decide to reinforce the repression of the other in fear of what the freedom from repression might bring in a backlash from the other. All this does is attempt to destroy false correlations without providing any substitute.

That is because I cannot find regular correlations between and among these various values and individual cases. Instead, I suggest that conclusions not be drawn on the basis of expected correlations, nor on the basis of only one or two of the above dimensions. Instead, one should conduct a detailed case study to ascertain how degrees of violence, degrees of justice, degrees of empathy and degrees of truth all interact to result in the net possibility of increased or decreased violence. The case analysis should yield what can come out of different combinations and what cannot emerge.

Eliminate the can’t, the impossibilities from one’s consideration and focus on the realities. Then of the much more limited set of possibilities, analyze what the effects of different elements and their combination are likely to be. Taking into consideration the realistic alternative possibilities, choose the option you most prefer to promote and which levers are most susceptible to affecting the outcome and how your own position can help tip the balance one way or another.

If we use the Gaza-Israeli conflict as an example and one key element in the larger Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the factual analysis, it becomes clear that the closer one studies the case, the clearer it becomes that inconvenient facts are being ignored and that other facts are simplified beyond recognition. More often than not, the prescribed framing of the narrative even determines what is believed to be the case rather than what is the case.

Further, when empathetic reenactment enters into the equation, the prospect of Hamas doing anything besides possibly harassing and threatening Israel, no matter what degree Israel reduces the pressures on Gaza to prevent the import of military equipment, then one cannot help but arrive at a decision that a policy of enhanced controls, and, hence, enhanced injustices on the Gazan people, is the most likely path of reducing the prospect of violence. In fact, the clearer Israel communicates the message that it is ready to resort to the use of violence to deter Hamas, the less likely Hamas will be to resort to violence itself.

This is particularly true if there is no political gain to be expected from bystanders driven by sympathy rather than empathy, driven by a repugnance against violence, driven by a deep-seated sense of injustice that they are willing, indeed eager, to set aside inconvenient facts that may challenge such a position of naivete. Ironically, in the pursuit of peace and justice, such bystanders may be complicit in enhancing violence rather than diminishing its prospects.

I am not suggesting that realism is the answer, that an opposite simplification, such as all nations are determined in their policies by the protection of their own interests and that a hard-hearted approach is necessary. Hamas could change. The PLO did, perhaps insufficiently, but it did change. So did the attitudes of the countries that entered the Abraham process of normalization. Counties must be ready to adapt quickly to these changes which enhance the prospects of peace, the prospects of reducing injustices, the prospects of enhancing the understanding the other. The bottom line requires a detailed attention to the truth in any situation and the avoidance of eliding the truth, distorting it, underplaying it and otherwise not paying it the greatest respect – often the consequence of an overriding a priori picture that enhances mindblindness rather than insight.

Truth, Empathy, Justice and Peace –

Four dimensions for managing and even resolving violent conflict

In this blog I will illustrate how, implicitly and explicitly, evidence is piled up to show Israel fostering violence and how injustices and humanitarian mistreatment contribute to the perpetuation of violent conflict, particularly by Israel. But each of these specific claims, while usually not false in themselves, cumulatively create a false and highly selective narrative that presents, upon critical examination, a false portrait in the media war. In the next blog, rather than displaying the four concepts as complementary, I will further elaborate on the tensions between and among them that, in reality, undercut the prospect of peace. I will make an even stronger claim that it is only by addressing those tensions and conflicts among these basic moral conceptions that a path can be found that will, in the end, result in peace.

Look at the following stories published in various outlets and collected by the Foundation for Middle East:

VIOLENCE PERPETUATED BY JEWS

Four Jews charged with terrorism after allegedly stabbing Arab in Jerusalem, Times of Israel

“Prosecutors filed terrorism charges on Sunday against four Jewish men accused of stabbing an Arab man in a Jerusalem market two weeks ago, seriously wounding him. The victim, 25, was at his place of work — a burger restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market — when he was stabbed ten times by his assailants. He was rushed to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in the city, where doctors found that a knife wielded by one of his assailants had torn open his lung and liver.”

During the Gaza Flare-up, Israel Killed 27 Palestinians in the West Bank. He Was One of Them, Haaretz

“A resident of the Fawwar camp, Hussein Titi, went up to his roof to watch troops leave after they’d snatched his neighbor. Titi peeked out – and was shot dead.”

Hamas calls for ‘day of rage’ in West Bank over Al-Aqsa incursions, Al Anadolu

“Palestinian resistance group Hamas on Tuesday called for rallies in the occupied West Bank on Friday to protest settler incursions into the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Palestinians decry new West Bank restrictions on movement in wake of protests, Middle East Eye

“Residents of Palestinian villages say Israel’s army is besieging them in order to allow settlement expansion and deter protests.”

Settler crime and violence inside Palestinian communities, 2017-2020, Yesh Din

“Relations between settlers and Palestinians often echo Israel’s system of control over the Palestinians, with its hallmark hostility and sense of superiority. Attacks by Israeli civilians against Palestinians and their property are commonplace throughout the West Bank.

See also:

APPEALS TO INJUSTICE

The versions of the narrative in pictorial terms provided in the previous blog are complemented by conclusions about justice and injustice. The injustice in not about Hamas using its donations to build terror tunnels and rockets or to aim those rockets at Israel, but about the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that is alleged to be the source of the injustices visited upon the Gazan Palestinians. As Zaha Hassan wrote in an essay called, “Can There be Freedom, Prosperity, and Democracy for Gaza?” “Securing the rights of Palestinians in Gaza is required now. The United States should prioritize ending the Israeli blockade and restrictions on Gaza. Israel’s isolation of the Strip and its approximately 2 million inhabitants prevent Palestinian national reconciliation, guarantees recurring episodes of high-intensity violence, and condemns Palestinians to inhumane conditions. It also indefinitely thwarts a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the PLO—a U.S. policy objective—buying Israel the time and political space to cement its sovereignty over the West Bank.” The injustices are all the fault of Israel and its prime international backer, America.

 

That injustice extends to the permanent residents of East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority (PA) may be unable to provide social security at all for the Palestinian residents of its territory, and certainly, Hamas cannot. But when Israel denies such benefits to Palestinians as well as their spouses, intent in their actions on the destruction of Israel, this is written up as an example of supreme injustice. “The National Insurance Institute has suspended the social and medical benefits of at least 11 political activists and former prisoners who live in East Jerusalem. These benefits are also being denied to their family members.”

 

Israel kills Palestinians with mental illness through impunity. My cousin-in-law was one of them, Middle East Eye

“Muhannad Tawfiq Abdelhadi, who lived with schizophrenia and was often found wandering in confusion through his Gaza neighbourhood, was shot dead by Israeli forces near the border fence.”

Killing with impunity: Israel’s undercover units in Palestine, Al Jazeera

“…These undercover units have also been involved in the sweeping arrest campaign of Palestinians currently being carried out in northern Israel, following protests there against the deaths in Gaza and the violence in occupied East Jerusalem over Palestinians being expelled from their homes.”

Occupation forces attack protesters in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, WAFA

“Israeli occupation forces on Saturday evening assaulted dozens of Palestinian protesters and solidarity activists as they were demonstrating in the occupied Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in support of its citizens who are facing an Israeli threat of eviction from their homes. Witnesses said dozens of Israeli police officers physically assaulted the protesters and attacked them with teargas and pushed them away from the entrance of the neighborhood, which has been sealed by the occupation authorities for more than two weeks.”

APPEALS TO SYMPATHY

Thus, claims of injustice are used to insist that peace is undermined through these alleged injustices. The same happens with empathy, but that empathy is more in the version of sympathy which is used to argue that peace is undermined by a lack of sympathy for the greatest victims and the converse arguments is made that greater sympathy must be encouraged for victims to foster peace.

International Scene

Israel losing US perception battle as Palestinian sympathy grows, Al Jazeera

“Last month, as Israel carried out an 11-day bombing campaign on the besieged Gaza Strip and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Strip, fired rockets back, something important was shifting halfway around the world. For the first time in a long time, Israel seemed to be losing ground in the battle of perception in the United States as lawmakers questioned their government’s pro-Israel policies.”

Statement of the Special Rapporteur – OPT – Michael Lynk – UN Human Rights Council Special Session (May 27), UN/Office of the Human Rights Commissioner

“…What we have witnessed in Gaza these past few weeks haunts the conscience of the world. Approximately 240 Palestinians killed, the majority of whom were civilians and at least 63 who were children. Almost 2,000 were injured. There has been massive property destruction. All of this at the hands of one of the best equipped militaries in the modern world. Rockets from Palestinian armed groups have killed 12 civilians in Israel. Many Israeli civilians have lived through a state of fear and suffered damage to their properties. Along the way, the strict prohibitions of international humanitarian law which bind all of these combatants have almost certainly been breached.”

Palestinians say 19 families massacred by Israel in Gaza, Al Anadolu

“Israel has committed massacres against 19 Palestinian families during its 11-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Health Ministry said on Sunday. A ministry statement said that 91 Palestinians were killed in these massacres, including 41 children and 25 women. According to the ministry, 21 members of the Al-Kawlak family were killed in an Israeli onslaught on Gaza City, including eight children and six women. ‘The Abu Auf family lost nine members, including a child and five women in an Israeli bombardment of their house in Gaza City,’ the ministry said. The ministry added that six members of al-Tanani family, including four children and a woman, were also killed in an Israeli airstrike on their home in the northern Gaza Strip.”

Jerusalem

Israeli police run over child in Jerusalem for flying Palestinian flag, Al Anadolu

“A 12-year-old Palestinian child was run over by Israeli police in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood for placing the Palestinian flag on his bicycle while riding to a nearby grocery to buy bread. ‘I was on my bike to buy bread when three Israeli policemen chased me because I put the [Palestinian] flag on the bike,’ Jawad al-Abbasi said in a report he provided to the Hadassah Hospital where he has been receiving treatment.” (Video)

 

Israel detains more Palestinian citizens as arrest campaign enters second week, Middle East Eye

“On Monday, Israeli police arrested more than six Palestinian citizens of Israel, the latest round up in a campaign that has seen 1,700 Palestinians picked up since early May, according to a committee monitoring the situation…The arrests are part of the Israeli police’s mass arrest campaign, called ‘Law and Order’, which began on 24 May after two weeks of protests in mixed cities against Israeli settlement policies in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The Arab Emergency Committee, which was formed in the wake of the protests in early May, said it has documented that, in addition to the arrest of 1,700 Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, there have been 300 related cases of assault. Around 100 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been arrested daily since the campaign began, the committee said, and some of them were released later.”

Also see:

Facebook’s AI treats Palestinian activists like it treats American Black activists. It blocks them. (Washington Post)Jewish and Palestinian Mobs Dueled in Israeli Towns — but the Crackdown Came for One Side (The Intercept)

The result of all of the above is that Palestinians win the media war and, further, the reinforcement of the belief that it is in and through the media that the outcome of the war will be decided.

THE MEDIA WAR

Netanyahu attempted to block social media, says Israeli press, Middle East Monitor

“The Israeli prime minister attempted to shut down social media after Israeli-national Palestinians held protests against Israel’s attacks on East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip under blockade

Israel-Palestine: The double standard in American newsrooms, Al Jazeera/Listening Post

“News coverage in the US of the Palestine-Israel conflict has always favoured Israel but that is beginning to shift. The question is – to what extent and will it last?” (video report)

Israel’s Brutal Month With the Democratic Party – and Its Impact on Public Opinion, Haaretz

“The past several weeks has seen an unprecedented focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Democratic Party, with rival blocs increasingly unafraid to nail their colors to the mast.”

Agence France Presse fires Palestinian journalist in West Bank, Middle East Monitor

Agence France Presse (AFP) has sacked its Palestinian correspondent in the West Bank, the journalist’s union said yesterday. Nasser Abu Baker lost his job apparently after the agency came under ‘Israeli diktats’, said the Syndicate of Palestinian Journalists, “mainly due to his involvement in the issue of seeking to bring occupation leaders before international courts for their crimes against his fellow Palestinian journalists.’”

Israel extends detention of 2 Palestinian journalists, Al Anadolu

“An Israeli court on Friday extended the detention of two Palestinian journalists detained by police in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem. Solicitor of Palestinian journalists Jad Qadmani noted the Israeli magistrate court in West Jerusalem extended the detention of Al-Qafiyah television reporter Ziynet al-Halawani and cameraman Wahbi Mekkiye at the request of the prosecutor’s office. He told Anadolu Agency that Israeli police brutally attacked the journalists and footage of the attack was presented to the court. ‘However, the court decided to extend the detention period of the two journalists for a few more days,’ he said. The journalists were detained while on duty late Thursday. Mekkiye was beaten and sustained injuries while police tried to detain him.”

Also see:

In tomorrow’s blog, I will offer an analysis of the tensions between and among the four conceptions and how they may be resolved to foster peace.

Truth and Falsehood

In addition to peace and justice, which most observers assumed were lost in the battle in the recent Gaza War, not only empathy but truth as a fourth dimension must be introduced to measure and assess the Gaza-Israel story for a “balanced” report. In the new predominant narrative of Palestinian loss and exploitation and of Jewish usurpation, oppression, displacement, replacement and apartheid, a map circulated and was published in The New York Times supposedly showing how “Historic Palestine” had been taken over by Israel. “As a technical matter, the map is a confusing mélange of images: it includes something that did not exist (Palestinian control over all the territory), something that did not happen (the proposed United Nations partition) and something odd (pre-1967 occupations by Jordan and Egypt are depicted as Palestinian-controlled).” (Glenn Kessler “The dueling histories in the debate over ‘historic Palestine’,” The Washington Post 28.05.2021)

Images are supposedly far more powerful than words. Another example of misleading and false imagery also was provided by The New York Times. In its 26 May 2021 edition on the front page appeared a story headlined, “They Were Only Children” with thumbnail photos of 69 youths under 18 years of age – 67 Palestinians and two Israelis, one Arab and one Jewish – killed in the 11 days of conflict of Israel versus Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The representation, other than intended to touch our sympathetic heart strings, was misleading in the following respects:

Mischaracterization:

  • Child soldiers of 16 and 17 are not innocent children and some were definitively killed as militant participants; the Israeli actions were depicted as an offensive operation when they were a defensive response to militant provocation;

Causation of Death:

  • All 67 Gazan children were not killed by Israeli bombs since a number of Gazan rockets fell short and landed in densely populated Gaza;

Immediate Causation of War:

  • The immediate proximate causes of the war were the instability in the Israeli government that seemed to be on the verge of being resolved with the installation of a right, centre and left anti-Netanyahu coalition, at the same time as Abbas cancelled the Palestinian elections on the pretext of Israel’s failure to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority in providing voting opportunities in East Jerusalem post offices for East Jerusalemites, giving Hamas an opportunity to rain rockets down on Jerusalem in ostensible response to the troubles at al-Aqsa Mosque but, more immediately, the opportunity for Hamas to leap ahead as the leader of the Palestinian cause;

Intermediate Cause of the War

  • Netanyahu’s policies of supporting Palestinian displacement in Jerusalem, his undermining of Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority in favour of Hamas, and his alliance with evangelicals and the American right while allowing a rift in the Democratic Party between Progressives and Liberals to deepen and widen, limiting Biden’s leverage to short-circuit the war and take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the back burner of simmering animosity where he preferred to leave it to the front burner of explosive violence;

Longer Term Cause of the War

  • Netanyahu’s neglect of the peace process in favour of peace with Arab states that bypassed Palestinians. Presumably to leave them in the dustbin of history while Israel pursued creeping annexation;

Distorted Consequentialist Analysis:

  • Though two Israeli children were killed by Gazan missiles, the article did not discuss the psychological trauma on Israeli children hiding in safe rooms for 11 days as over 4,400 missiles were fired from Gaza but only the “post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fear and anxiety” of the Palestinian children;

Distorted Analysis of Accountability:

  • The role of Hamas in initiating the rockets sent to Jerusalem while attributing the deaths of Gazan children to Israeli airstrikes;

Absence of Reference to Expected Defensive Actions

  • These include the failure to build bomb shelters for civilians in Gaza, to ensure children were collected in facilities clearly identified as such for the Israeli military, the failure to ensure children were not near possible military targets and, the biggest failure of all, the failure to make sure missile launching sites were not near civilians;

Authentication and Verification Procedures:

  • These were not included if they were carried out at all;

Absence of Context:

  • Did the children die as a result of proximity to militant targets, as in the case of the death of fifteen-year-old Muhammad Saber Ibrahim Suleiman, whose father, who was targeted, was a commander in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, or children inadvertently killed as a result of shrapnel or of the collapse of buildings when terror tunnels were exploded;

Absence of Reference to Israeli Warnings:

  • As was its practice, in an example offered, were warnings issued by Israel about the attack on the building that went unheeded?

The misuse of evaluative terminology

  • IDF firepower was represented as indiscriminate when, by all accounts, in this war they were marked by very accurate targeting, deaths were referred to as disproportionate, which they were if one uses the ratio of Palestinian children killed compared to Israelis or of British deaths from the blitz (only 40,000) compared to the half million Germans killed by allied bombs, whereas in just war assessments, proportionality refers to the amount of lethal force used relative to the military target and the risk to civilians;

Citing sources without evaluating the claims:

  • As in the above illustration.

The enormous asymmetries (not disproportion) in death and destruction to the two sides as well as in armaments and wealth are matched by other asymmetries which are often omitted from stories:

·        Hamas intends to wipe Israel off the map; Israel has no equivalent intentions re Gaza;

·        Hamas considers Israel totally illegitimate; Israel does not consider Gaza in that way;

·        Hamas engages in antisemitic tropes; though some Israelis do, Israel itself does not apply Islamophobic stereotypes to Gazans;

·        Hamas is an anti-liberal, anti-modern and undemocratic theocracy whereas Israel is a democratic relatively liberal state that embraces modernism, even though a portion of its own society is also anti-liberal, anti-modern and prefers an undemocratic theocracy;

·        Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, are characterized as a terrorist organization by most western states, but Israel is characterized as a state under constant threat of terrorism.

There is a greater overarching set of factors in weakening truth as a dimension for dealing with and understanding violent conflict, the questioning by postmodernist methodology of enlightenment rationality, objective neutrality to be balanced with the quest for legal equality of justice. Instead of a constellation of forces peculiar to a specific conflict being understood and managed, the operation of the world is characterized in terms of power struggles – white over black, colonists over the colonized – and the effort to perpetuate that power. All violence is rooted in this fundamental conflict and through this frame, all analysis must be filtered through the lens of power rivalry, thereby undercutting pluralism in the quest for objective knowledge. Claims to truth are merely claims to power and must entail competing narratives rather than the effort to establish an overarching single narrative.

The enlightenment is a fraud. Liberalism is a lie. The quest for objective truth is a chimera. We live in a world of oppression in which the oppressed are duty bound to use their energies to overthrow the oppressors. Thus, by definition, Israel as the much stronger party must be an oppressor. Oppression is the essence of Zionism. Liberal epistemology is an even bigger lie than liberalism, as are procedural rules and demands for consistency and coherence, but most of all, the principle of falsifiability. Liberals respond by declaring that the governing norm – all group relations are about power – is to be ruled out simply because there is no test that could falsify this. The response – the rule of falsifiability is but a tool for retaining power. In that effort, Israel is the junior colonizer  to America in the senior lead.

These assertions are a priori and not subject to refutation for they are ones in terms of which a proper analysis must be carried out. Any other rival overarching frame is but an effort in camouflage and deceit. Thus, not only must Israel be relegated to the ash heap of history, so also must be the epistemology of the enlightenment. Postmodernism does not accomplish this by winning the debate but by ending the debate altogether and discarding the practices that have been established over the last four centuries. Instead, subjective lived experience and emotional identification trump facts, trump empiricism and trump the search for objectivity.

Next: Connecting Truth and Empathy with Justice and Peace as Competing Categories for Depicting and Understanding Violent Conflict

Sympathy versus Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others. A good historian is one who can get inside the head and heart of an agent in history and intellectually and emotionally reenact what that agent is going through and the decisions made. Sympathy, by contrast, is an attachment to and identification with the feelings and thoughts of the other such that any critical discernment is set aside in favour of emotional identification. What we find now in a great deal of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinian position in the guise of empathy.

Not a day goes by now when I do not open my computer to multiple stories which provide blatant examples of journalist’s total sympathy with the Palestinian cause and almost exclusive blaming of Israel. That is, of course, Honest Reporting’s (HR) mandate. I expect bulletins from HR along these lines:

“On CBC News and CBC The National, Margaret Evans’ reporting was highly skewed against Israel, to the point that Israel was blamed almost exclusively for Gaza’s destruction, despair and deaths.”

“In The Toronto Star, Michael Lynk, the so-called “UN Special Rapporteur for the situation for human rights in the Palestinian territory,” created a false narrative of Israel as a pariah state, constantly breaking international law, in need of immediate opprobrium and an “occupier” of Gaza. Lynk’s narrative relied almost entirely on factual errors and extremely misleading statements.”

When you check up on HR, the statements are largely true.

S. Michael Lynk happens to be a Canadian now serving as the independent expert and Special Rapporteur for OHCHR (Commission on Human Rights) dealing with the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. His mandate is to investigate Israel’s violation of human rights, not those of Hamas. That is the first built-in bias. Second, his mandate applies to “Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967,” yet Gaza is included even though Israel withdrew from occupying Gaza in 2006 and the Gazan government indicated its independence in initiating wars against Israel in 2009, 2012, 2014 and most recently in 2021. Further, Lynk, as did Richard Falk before him, indicated his lack of independence and objectivity by joining in a petition, before he investigated, pointing to the “forced evictions of Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah in “Occupied” East Jerusalem “as the spark that set off a full-blown war.”

It certainly was one element, but how can one draw such a definitive conclusion without an investigation. My own previous articles summarizing the conflict over housing in Sheikh Jarrah as simply a matter of “forced evictions” is a travesty, at the very least, even if I and many others sympathize with the situation of those Palestinian families and disagree with efforts to evict them.

The collective letter went on to charge Israel with causing untold destruction to Gaza without any consideration of the role of Hamas, without an investigation as required, and when, in the case of Gaza, the territory is outside his mandate. Instead, the reference is to “indiscriminate” or “deliberate” bombing of civilians. The judgement is made about the disproportionality only by reference to the ratio of destruction, deaths and injured, not to the legal definition of proportionality relative to the military objective. Instead, without an investigation, without hearing a defence of the claims, without any analysis of the actions of the instigator of the war, the actions are asserted without qualification to be war crimes. In effect, Richard Lynk provided ample evidence that he was not independent, was not objective, was not operating within his jurisdiction and had allowed his understandable sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza to undermine whatever discernment and objectivity he might have possibly brought to the issue.

Margaret Evans, a CBC correspondent based in the London bureau, reported on the scene from Gaza Al-Wehda Street, lined with destroyed apartments and stores. She showed two apartments hit on the worst night of the bombing campaign. “a representation of the human toll” Dr. Ayman Abu abu-Alouf, the head of internal medicine at al-Shifa Hospital, died along with two of his children and his wife. The al-Kolak family lost 22 members. It is a bleeding-heart story deliberately intended to pull at the heart strings of anyone watching. The vast destruction in Gaza is captured in miniature. However, the conflict is not put within any context of Hamas policies and initiatives or even the facts that an estimated at least 25% of the destruction was a result of rockets fired off from Gaza but which fell short and landed in Gaza.

These are two examples, one of abstract principled appeal and the other of a direct sensory appeal to sympathy offsetting any responsibility for empathetically understanding the policies of Hamas or why a significant part of the population supports Hamas. These are unequivocal examples of sympathy trumping the responsibility for engaging in empathy. Of course, the responsibility for objectivity and truth are also sacrificed, but that is the focus of the next blog.

There are many other dimensions to the way in which sympathy trumped empathy as the reining methodology of dealing with the events that took place. Sympathy can be indifferent to truth, but empathy can also be at war with truth. Arno Rosenfeld wrote a story for The Forward headlined: “A spate of antisemitism reveals Jewish community fissures.” As I foresaw in my last blog, when empathy is at war with truth, the losers are members of the Jewish community brought to profuse tears by the stories and pictures to which they are exposed. This is the case even though incidents of antisemitism are rapidly increasing in frequency. A Jewish history and Holocaust scholar is murdered in the Ukraine. A Jewish man is punched on a Berlin street, one of 3 antisemitic incidents that day in the German capital.

Ben Samuels wrote a story in The Washington Post (26.05.2021) headlined: “These Young Jewish Staffers Are Bringing Their Disillusionment With Israel to Capitol Hill.” His stories and others bring up these repeated themes:

  • They went to Jewish day schools, attended Jewish camps and often went on birthright trips.
  • They were raised to be cheerleaders of Israel.
  • They grew skeptical as they learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • As they launched their careers, they either bracketed their concern for Israel or even became critics.
  • Whatever position they now take, they resent being raised on heroic and mythical histories and leave out evidence that most Palestinians did not leave voluntarily; rather, a great many were forced to depart.
  • There was a narrative, but no interrogation of how Israel came to be, yet they were taught to interrogate every word of Torah.
  • Each Gaza War created a “cognitive dissonance between what they’re seeing and what they’ve learned regarding how Israel can do no wrong.”
  • Killing Palestinian civilians seemed cruel, very disproportionate and did nothing to protect Israelis.
  • Education on human rights further compounded the emerging despair about Israel.
  • Misplaced charges of antisemitism against critics of Israel fueled the direction of disillusionment.
  • Creeping annexation in the West Bank (the expansion of settlements), Netanyahu’s support for Donald Trump, the affirmation of Jewish supremacy in the nation-state law, all added to the new “truth” that Israel deserved to be a pariah state.
  • The United Nations Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, all international institutions dedicated to the universal protection of human rights, indict Israel diplomatically and legally for being an abuser of rights.
  • The fundamental sin is that “Everyone deserves basic dignity and self-determination” and Palestinians are denied both and Jews are the cause of that denial.

Therefore, Jews join Palestinians and human rights activists in demanding that Israel be held accountable for human rights violations and demanding that Palestinians have the rights to peace and justice and that means self-determination.  The divisions within the Democratic Party over support for Israel grow wider and deeper. These Jews no longer accept the claim that Israel no longer occupies Gaza but left Gaza to its own devices and withdrew its settlements in August 2005, but through a blockade, effectively continued the occupation de facto. Even though it is difficult to reconcile Israel occupying Gaza and Gaza being able to shoot well over 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, in spite of labour leader, Merav Michaeli insisting that Israel is not in occupation of Gaza, these newborn or evolving critics of Israel point out that:

  • Israel controls access (even though Egypt controls one access from the south).
  • Israeli blockades Gaza on land, sea and from the air.
  • Israel controls the registry of names lest any unregistered person seek to cross into Israel.
  • Israel controls the electricity supplied to Gaza, the entry of humanitarian and development aid.

This is asserted even though the United States controls all land crossings into Canada and has an economic stranglehold over Canadian economic development but no one, at least no one I know, would claim that the U.S. occupies Canada. The claim that Israel continues to occupy Gaza is accepted as truth and its denial is characterized as a lie.

However, the main issue is really the human rights of Palestinians. As Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote, “Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.” (25.05.2021)

The defence of human rights comes at the cost of truth. The threats to expel Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem along with the Israeli-provoked violence at the al-Aqsa Mosque, compounded by right-wing Israelis marching and chanting, “Death to Arabs,” offer abundant evidence that Israel is a systemic human rights abuser. The fact that Jews owned the land on which the homes were built, the fact that the court offered a compromise to the residents – stay on for life, but pay rent and acknowledge the ownership, is left out.

The violence on the al-Aqsa Mosque is purportedly all one-sided, at least in its instigation, even though a small but significant percentage of the “worshippers” were present to instigate trouble. Arabs marching and chanting “Death to the Jews” is omitted from any part of the story. There is not even a superficial effort at objectivity, only one-sided advocacy in the place of a reflective and thoughtful op-ed. Sack’s screed went so far as to suggest that Netanyahu “may have” instigated the rocket attack from Hamas on Jerusalem in order to cling to power.

Israel’s behaviour is characterized as lawless, ruthless and “reckless anti-Arab violence” contrary to Jewish ethics “causing mass suffering and killing innocent people.” All references to military targeting are omitted. And what are the sources of that authority: Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine which effectively trashes the tale of two nations in search of a nation-state in the same territory for a narrative of an invasive colonial enterprise determined from the beginning to repress and replace Palestinians in the land. And Human Rights Watch, which declared Israel an apartheid state, has now, effectively, endorsed this version of history. As one headline in Haaretz put it, “The Left Feels Palestinian Pain. It Must Also Recognize Jewish Fears.”

In my next blog I will take up the topic of truth as the last element to formulate a framework that includes peace and justice, empathy and truth to indicate the tensions between and among them and why all have to be brought into consideration to get a balanced and relatively accurate portrait of what is taking place.

On Prophecy

One of my sons was over visiting yesterday. During the conversation he mentioned one way he had of solving problems. He would project possible scenarios of how a situation would look like in the future. He gave as an example a projection for Israel in 2148 on the hundredth anniversary of the state. How would Israel look like and would it have tackled and resolved some or most of the problems that now afflict the state? He would envision different results, the merits and demerits of each and the steps needed to get to each one. In this manner, he could not prophesy an outcome in the sense of a prediction; he could take seriously the small steps needed to produce an outcome that he foresaw as both realistically possible and desirable. He would then focus his energies on those small steps and leave the vision of the future to history.

Is this prophecy? It does not sound like it. However, this is, in fact, the dominant mode in which improvements have been made in human history. Take health. Until two centuries ago, whether you study mortality rates among hunter-gatherers or our ancestors in the classical world, the average person lived only thirty-five years. This started to change in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of the curve starting to flatten, in Anthony Fauci’s memorable phrase, that flat line on mortality began to curve. More and more directly upward it went until the projections of life expectancy more than doubled.

Why? Not primarily because of eureka moments. Those were rare. But because of the slow and then more rapid introduction of such measures as vaccination. Because of the provision of clean drinking water and the installation of sanitary drainage and sewage systems. These developments over a wide swath of problems and ordinary human activities that resulted in death now produced an extension of our lifespans, particularly in the richer countries of the world.  

Anticipating a future where this could come about by slow steps of amelioration is not how we normally think of prophecy. In the biblical idiom, prophecy is a vision carried through a human about God’s intentions or promised outcomes, provided human behaviour followed one trajectory. That envisioning or prophetic projection was believed to happen because God was capable of addressing us directly or indirectly through signs and portents delivered through His chosen prophets.

There is, however, a naturalistic rather than supernatural explanation for foresight and adumbrating the future. God’s prophets are those who reveal small ameliorate steps that are cumulative and result in better times. Prophecy is naturalized and God’s prophets are grounded.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, (בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ ‎ — in Hebrew, literally “when you step up” or “when you ascend”). [Numbers 8:1 – 12:15], we read about how the departure from Egypt is to be memorialized in Passover and the ensuing journey out of Sinai of the Hebrews towards the Promised Land. But the people complain to God about the trip and Aaron and Miriam, for the first time, challenge Moses. This week’s portion is packed with both past history, prophecy and dissent.

Begin with the dominant narrative of the past. For Palestinians, the emerging primary Palestinian narrative of the arrival of Zionism to their shores and land is one of colonizing, conquest, oppression, repression, eviction and replacement; the Palestinians were in place and were invaded. The Zionist narrative, in contrast, is of Jewish return to their ancient homeland, a return that led to a conflict between two peoples seeking self-determination on the same land. There is, however, a Jewish narrative that parallels the emerging Palestinian one; it accepts that the Jews invaded and conquered the land and believes that the task is not yet finished.

The narrative of conquest, the narratives of displacement and replacement, necessarily means vanquishing the enemy no matter which side tells it. The narrative of idealistic settlement and restoring both the land and its ancient people to their former glory is totally open to the land being shared by two peoples who must work out how they will share the land. Currently, religious Islamic zealots are united with “progressives” who have adopted the narrative of conquest, oppression, displacement and apartheid as the dominant story, a narrative supported by religious and right-wing zealots on the Jewish side.

However, though there have been numerous wars, though there has indeed been eviction, the predominant narrative is one of peaceful settlement and of amelioration through small steps that have gradually taught the two competing communities to trust and rely on one another. The narratives of conquest and destruction of the Other are often associated with apocalyptic moments of transition. The narratives of amelioration are more often associated with numerous small steps of improvement.

The ancient narrative as constructed on Sinai is primarily about leaving a place that rejected the people as belonging there, initially through slavery, and then flight. The conflict had turned into a demographic battle with babies being killed on both sides. It is a story of deliverance, not of development.

The past construction of the narrative determined the limits of possible outcomes. From two peoples competing for the same piece of land, the solution envisioned could be a land divided between the two peoples. But when the narrative changed to one people persecuting and oppressing the other, the outcome entailed, on the conquered side, one of vanquishing the enemy, otherwise the people could never be free, combined with one of escape.

The revelation that Moses has on Mount Sinai is most frequently thought of as God transmitting His message through Moses as His spokesperson. But there is another way to view it that depends in large part on the predominant narrative governing the record of the past. If the emphasis is on the conflict with an autocratic leader who regards himself as a god, the transition is sudden, is dramatic, and is marked by departure from Egypt, both physically and metaphorically. It is an external change. But if the focus shifts from the autocracy of the other to the slavish mental way of thinking and behaving of those who flee, a process which turns an enslaved people into a people in quest of their freedom, then leaving slavery is not marked by crossing the Reed Sea, but a gradual transition over four decades of throwing off a slave mentality. The change is primarily internal.

There are two lessons here. The overarching one is that your vision of the future, without distorting the truth, dictates the dominant narrative we must present of the past. The underlying one is that details matter. If amelioration actually results from an accumulation of small changes, then it is the story of the accumulated changes that must get our attention. That means that Maimonides’, the Rambam’s version of what happened at Sinai, as most interpret him, must be rejected.  

In the still predominant interpretation of Maimonides’ version of events, in his eighth priniciple, in his supposedly stenographic interpretation of what happened and the role of Moses in it, revelation has only a heavenly source. The Torah itself is of divine origin and given to Moses by God in its entirety. As Professor Sam Fleischacker summed it up, “every letter of the Torah contains within it wisdom and wonders to whomever the Lord has granted the wisdom to discern it.”

In contrast, and a very different interpretation of Maimonides, the reference to God’s speech is metaphorical. It is equivalent to the saying that “such and such speaks to me.” This is not really a claim about speech, but a claim about identification and understanding. On the other hand, Maimonides still remains an Aristotelian who defines God as perfect and, therefore, as unchanging and, indeed, one incapable of change. For only imperfect things change to realize their potential. God as perfect cannot have potential and cannot change. This is a radically different view than the vision of God immanent in history and revealing Himself through the unfolding of history, including changing in response to the lessons God Himself obtains from that history.

And if we shift from the focus on God to ourselves, what does it mean that we are all akin to Moses on Mount Sinai. It means that we identify with Moses, we empathize with his openness to the Other that is not a projection of human imaginations of the divine as in Egypt. Instead, we are on Sinai because we accept in full the lesson that Moses heard, the lesson about the rule of law displacing the rule of an autocrat.

Second, prophecy is not about Maimonides’ elitism whereby, in order to hear and understand God, we must come as close to perfection as possible in our intellectual development, in our moral standing and in our physical capacity to avoid denigration by a focus on food or sex or the pleasures of the body more generally. One is open to revelation, not by transcending our humanity, but by expressing our humanity, that is, our love and care for others. Humanity is about caring and sharing. It is an affective much more than an intellectual enterprise. And it is one directed at the other rather than the perfection of the self.

God as a God of justice evolves from a dictator of unequivocal moral answers to a judge, an author and originator rather than an authoritative unquestioned source. That judgement must be tempered with mercy, with compassion and understanding. The revelation is the rule of law. Law is not the translation of what is revealed into rules simply that humans can understand. It is through the understanding of the rule of law that one comes closer to God. Moses is not only not a stenographer for God, neither is he a translator. He is a messenger concerning translation, and translation and interpretation as the core of the rule of law.

There is one last point. Unlike the Greeks, and Maimonides bowing before their idea that perception is ultimately knowing the Truth and that the Truth is itself a fixed point that we see, truths are themselves subject to gradual revelation and change. Truths deal with the dynamics of possibility, not the realization of certainty. The human aspiration is not to become an angel, but to struggle on earth to listen to and hear God in our everyday lives.

Torah is then not a presentation of ideal purity and a vision of perfection, but how any vision struggles for acceptance and realization. Rebellion against Moses, dissent even by his brother and sister, may have initially been dealt with by autocratic methods, but the resort to autocracy, the fall back on Egyptian modes of dealing with challenges is, in the end, why Moses cannot enter the Promised Land. He never learned how, ultimately, to extirpate the mentality of master and slave, lordship and bondage, that he had learned in Egypt.

Prophecy in this sense is the encounter with God in the dialectic weaving of our hopes and estimate of possibilities for the future with the narrative we present of the revelations of the past. It does not transcend history but is immanent in it. The issue is not whether God communicates with humans, but how He does so. Prophecy is then about what “can” be and then about how we will it to be. In small steps.