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

Obedience and Responsibility: Parashat Re’eih Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

Chapter 11, verse 26 of this week’s portion begins as follows:

26 Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. כורְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה:

The first word is re’eich רְאֵ֗ה)), translated as “See” or “Behold.” A blessing or a curse is something you hear. It is not viewed. The text does not mean to instruct a reader to look at something so much as attend to it. But that expression has its own ambiguity. An instruction to attend to something may mean, “go see that it is done.” But a blessing and a curse do not at first glance seem to be something you are instructed to realize. However, the sense is that God has set before the Israelites two alternatives. The first is a blessing and entails obedience to God’s commandments. The alternative is a curse that falls into place if the blessing is not followed with obedience to God’s commandments. What is on offer is an instruction to act in a certain way.

Obedience to commandments is the blessing. The curse is disobedience, failure to follow them, more specifically, “to follow other gods which you did not know.” The instruction is not about seeing visually but about attending and getting on with a specific action. It is about paying attention, understanding and behaviour. It is about listening for the ring of the great cosmic telephone and answering by paying attention to the call of the Divine in each of our lives. Obedience is the blessing. Disobedience, or a failure to obey, is the curse, a curse that leads to following the path of other gods. Following other gods is not a cause of being cursed but a consequence.

Why should obedience be a blessing? If God gave humans the power to choose, if God gave humanity free will, is it not a paradox to insist that obedience is a blessing? Why not an instruction to take responsibility for your actions? But that is just what the call of the Divine is. God lives within us. As the great Talmud scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who died last Friday, wrote, by thinking deeply about the words we encounter and use in our lives and what their deeper meanings are, we both refine ourselves and discover God’s purpose forourselves.

To travel on that path, we do not even have to faith in God. We only need appreciate His works. We do not have to have faith in Shakespeare, let alone love him, to appreciate and love Othello.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Maimonides explains why: If we had no free will there would be, he says, no point to the commands and prohibitions, since we would behave as we were predestined to, regardless of what the law is. Nor would there be any justice in reward or punishment since neither the righteous nor the wrongdoer is free to be other than what they are.” (“Freewill: Use It or Lose It Va’era 5778)

Free will is contrasted with fatalism, not with obedience. One is free to choose, but only one alternative, the path of obedience to God that is a blessing. One is fated if the economics of class determine one’s path. One is fated if the traumas of childhood determine one’s path. One is fated if the psychological dispositions etched in our brains determine our choices. Any of these or all of these in some combination may be predictive of how most of us will behave, but all that means in religious terms is that we are not blessed since we allow fate to rule what we do rather than the follow the spirit of God via God’s commandments.

There are non-moral pressures within us and in our environment and personal histories. But they are not determinants of our behaviour. If we let them become so, then we are cursed. We are blessed if we are able to rise above them in the sense of coming to some self-consciousness that they are there but, nevertheless, we choose to follow the path of obedience to God’s will. Freedom is not doing whatever you like but opting for choice and creativity versus fatalism. “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases.” (12:3)

What then is God’s will? Is it any better than various forms of fatalism? Why is it blessed but the other paths cursed? Why do those other paths inevitably lead us to idolatry and worship of gods we do not know? The answer to the latter is simple and straightforward. Without free will, our paths will be determined by forces we neither know nor understand but only, in the end, help raise them to the status of idols as in allowing the advertising industry to determine our choices and make us slaves to consumerism, or in allowing the quest for security and the power to ensure it govern our political lives so that we end up governed by the laws of the jungle.

Free will is not the absence of constraint on what we choose to do but the freedom to choose the constraints of a divine will versus falling into the constraints of non-divine forces and turning those forces into divinities as the Greeks and Romans did.  The first is a blessing. The latter is a curse. The latter insists in the end that freedom of choice is an illusion and a delusion and, ipso facto, that we are cursed. We are free to choose not simply anything, but between two dichotomous options – slavery to economic, political, psychological or various other worldly forces, or bondage to an other-worldly will as expressed through divine commandments.

Obedience to an other-worldly command does not mean ignoring the fears and desires that drive our most primitive behaviour, the emotions and passions that constitute our psyches or even the logic of utilitarian understanding that allows preferences to be determined by weighing pros and cons, themselves deeply shaped by our primitive fears and our more sophisticated passions. Quite the contrary. It entails a responsibility to know them. It entails understanding the patterns of the past that confined people to the prisons of these forces or the ones that freed us to arise above them. It entails understanding how God, how the spirit of freedom and creativity revealed itself over the course of history as it dealt with wrestling with curses and embracing blessings.

Most paradoxically, it means recognizing that even if God is the expression of freedom, even God can be cursed. Even God can follow the wrong path. That must be true if we are made in the image of God. God can fail. Man can fail. But sanctity is achieved by responding to failure with efforts to overcome our errors.

If God is free to be mistaken, then if we are instructed to obey God’s commandments, how can we be sure that those orders do not simply appear as a blessing but end up as a curse? By getting to know God. We can never fully know the roots of our fears, of our passions and of the twisted logic of our minds. We come to know them best, not as determinants of our behaviour, but as forces with which we wrestle as we try to choose our path. Choosing that path requires getting to know how God used His freedom to wrestle with the forces of nature, with the laws of nature that governed the world of chaos.

And as we get to know God, as God reveals Himself to us over time and in time through the narrative of the interface between freedom and fate, as we get to know how fate repeatedly defeats God in the latter’s efforts to express the spirit of a free will, we learn how, in turn, God learns from those defeats, rises above them to impose a spiritual will to rule over the forces of fatalism and naturalism. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, humorously mused, “responding to the pull of the Divine in our lives is akin to answering a great cosmic telephone.” Answering, Seeing, beholding, attending entails a conversation not blind and silent obedience.

What Jews have learned at the core is that it is through the rule of law that one consolidates such victories. That is why we have obedience to divine commends. Obedience to the rule of law and the rule of law is the path of freedom to rise above our fate. For through law, we construct a human world of freedom and justice.

And it is a human world not just a Jewish world. There is a blessing recited when looking on at 600,000 gentiles. Gentiles may insist of choosing blessings over curses. Gentiles can certainly listen to and talk with God.

Freedom is not a given but a gift. Freedom is not an absolute, is never a categorical imperative, but always a conditional. The difficulty is to work out how conditions modify the imperatives. We need only look south of the border to see how these hard-won expressions of freedom are so easily endangered and possibly lost if we forget the core of the battle. Freedom is an achievement. We must fight to realize it. We must fight to maintain it. And when we see that we are slipping backwards into different forms of fatalism, we must embrace each other’s hands and arms so that together we can lift ourselves out of the quicksand of idolatry.

We need the repeated ritual of washing our hands to remove the germs that threaten us. We need to learn to distance ourselves to prevent the spread of economic, social, psychological and political viruses and to embrace and hug one another within our bubbles of trust. We are commanded to see this day that which is unseen and poses the greatest threat, to make visible what is invisible. We are commanded continually to test and retest to ensure that we have not fallen into the embrace of fatalism. And we have to engage in tracing out the tendrils that either wrap around and strangle us or, alternatively, connect us with others engaged in the same task and without whose help we would not be able to resist the forces of fate. Those latter tendrils must be nurtured, protected and their growth facilitated.

The latter requires the institutionalization of practices whether in our legislatures, in our courts or in our communal ritual practices. We must come to understand how, for a Jew, lighting candles on Friday evening can help reinforce freedom so that we see and enact the world of blessings and resist the world of curses.

COVID-19 and the Ethics of Data Sharing

Verisimilitude: The Law, Policy and Ethics of Covid-19

There is an excellent article in The New Yorker (17 August 2020) on, “How China Controlled the Virus: Teaching and Learning during the pandemic,” by Peter Hessler based on his experience as a teacher of non-fiction writing in Chengdu University. As part of that article, he provided some insight on how China handled the problem of information sharing in managing the pandemic.

China – like Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and New Zealand – had an excellent record in handling the virus. The country may to some degree not have been fully transparent in sharing information about the virus in early January, but that was certainly not the pattern by early February when the spread of the virus was first declared a pandemic.  It is difficult to assess to what degree the Chinese policy of data management effected the excellent record China exhibited in controlling the virus but it undoubtedly played a very important role.

It may or may not be true that, “Current, timely, and complete epidemiological data are an absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, precursor to developing an effective response to the pandemic.” (Amir Attaran* and Adam R. Houston, “Pandemic Data Sharing: How the Canadian Constitution Has Turned into a Suicide Pact,” Verisimilitude, Chapter A-5, 91) But China’s experiencer tends to support such an interpretation.

China’s main strategy relied on a total and complete lockdown by the central state and the provinces whenever and wherever an outbreak was detected. Further, using widespread and quick testing, anyone with a positive result was whisked off to be quarantined in a government-run or supervised centre for a minimum of fourteen days. The same was true of all travellers from abroad. Other than returning Chinese citizens, China closed its gates to virtually all foreigners.

When a case was detected, an army of tracers had been trained and a team was sent to track all contacts and contacts of contacts. The team was immediately notified of results of tests and, whatever the time of day or night, it had a maximum of eight hours to complete its tracing. The action had to be decisive. The reporting had to be very detailed. And the whole operation had to be highly disciplined. Clearly the Chinese placed an extraordinary emphasis on data gathering.

Further, the data gathering was highly centralized. At its peak, there were 400,000 to almost half a million contact tracers who worked under the authority and direction of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control with about 125 tracers as a median assigned to each of the 3,000 disease control districts within the country. However, in Wuhan alone, there were ten thousand tracers.

If a tracer missed a case after knocking on doors and the virus spread as a result, the tracer was called in, reprimanded, and subjected to a program of “re-education.” There was a feedback loop built into the system when it concerned this basic information. At the same time, the issue of the distribution of masks, of distancing, of limiting the size of group gatherings were all left to local authorities. There was a clear division of responsibilities between comprehensive data gathering and management of cases and operational management to minimize spread.

One might have thought that China, with all its software programmers, might have come up with a high-tech model of doing tracing. In fact, a number were proposed. Tenent received a proposal to correlate where returning students came from, the routes they used for return and incidence of positive cases. Another initiative combined G.P.S. data and artificial intelligence to send messages to mobile phones alerting an individual if he or she were in close proximity to a person who tested positive.

But neither these nor other high-tech models were ever fully developed or deployed. Instead, old fashion door knocking, and interviews were the primary method, with initial information fed to the disease control centres by neighbourhood committees. Community watchfulness (social spying ???) and notifying authorities were considered ethically acceptable. Hi-tech methods that endangered rights to privacy were, surprisingly to a Western observer, evidently rejected precisely on protection of privacy grounds.

The results were spectacular. While the United States up until two days ago reported over a half million cases out of a world total of twenty million, half of that total in the last month-and-a-half, China has kept its total case load down to less than 85,000. Further, since mid-March, the number of new cases has been very low. When there have been several sporadic outbreaks, as in the Beijing wholesale food market, they were very quickly brought under complete control by strict lockdown measures. Out of almost three quarter of a million deaths worldwide until now, 166,500 have been in the U.S.A. There have been less than 4,700 in China. By the sixth week of the official pandemic, American deaths exceeded that of the number of Chinese deaths and by week fifteen, America reported twenty times the number of deaths. The differences just became wider and wider.

Current, correct and comprehensive data collection on cases, contacts and community spread were requisites. If America suffered from chaotic leadership at the centre that just as often undermined the efforts of local officials, Canada was not that much better. “(N)early two decades after data sharing proved a catastrophic failure in the 2003 SARS epidemic, epidemiological data still are not shared between the provinces and the federal government.” Why? “This is largely due to a baseless and erroneous belief that health falls purely within the jurisdiction of the provinces, despite the Supreme Court of Canada’s clear conclusions to the contrary, which has misled Canada to rely on voluntary data sharing agreements with the provinces that are not merely ineffective, but actually inhibit data sharing.”

Canada lacks a centralized authority to ensure the comprehensive collection of basic data and the administrative operations to make the collection complete and accurate. Under the Statistics Act as well as the legislation governing the Public Health Agency of Canada, the central government has full authority to collect that data in a timely manner. America chose a chaotic system. Canada chose a quasi-anarchic system with significantly better results than the United States, but much worse than those of China. “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.” (p. 92)

According to the authors of the chapter on the ethics of data sharing in Verisimilitude, “The most fundamental problem is that epidemic responses are handicapped by a mythological, schismatic, self-destructive view of federalism, which endures despite being flagrantly wrong.” Though federal/provincial relations are indeed a complicating factor, I do not believe it is the core problem. Instead, Canada, whether on the provincial or federal level, has not exhibited a disciplined determination to put in place the means to collect the data and effectively control the disease. That should be centralized and complete with a minimum of loopholes. Operational mechanisms to mitigate spread – in contrast to controlling it – can be left to provincial and local authorities.

Where comprehensive lockdowns were called for in Canada, moderate lockdowns were instead chosen. There was no determination to crush the pandemic. Certainly, the reluctance of provinces to share data or to do so only as it suited each province, may have been a factor, but it could have easily been overcome if the federal government had opted for more extensive closure methods correlated with more comprehensive methods of collecting and verifying data. However, in the false illusion of protecting individual rights, the federal government held back, not as much as President Trump, but enough to ensure the pandemic remained a prevailing though reduced threat.

The chapter documents the history of Canadians acting with one hand tied behind its back with very negative consequences for public health. The authors argue that, “There is no uniformity in the quarantine or physical distancing rules of provinces,” but, as the China case demonstrates, the localization of such mitigating factors is relatively inconsequential. On the other hand, comprehensive and uniform programs for screening are critical. So are programs for tracing. For these activities to be effective, they did not need so much to be well coordinated as to be delivered effectively and comprehensively by a central authority.

When “the World Health Organization (WHO) demanded epidemiological data from Canada about the scope of the epidemic, particularly in Toronto. Canada had no way to fulfil this demand, because a jurisdictional fight broke out and Ontario refused to share its epidemiological data with Health Canada. So little sharing occurred that Health Canada had to glean data from Ontario’s press conferences!” But the problem was not that provinces should share data with the federal government, but that the federal government must assume the responsibility for both collecting the data and controlling and squashing the spread.

“If a greater spirit of federal-provincial cooperation is not forthcoming in respect of public health protection, Ontario and the rest of Canada will be at greater risk from infectious disease and will look like fools in the international community.” But therein lies the problem – a reliance of coordination and cooperation between levels of government rather than disciplined and comprehensive leadership from the centre to which citizens are encouraged to assume responsibilities themselves.

As the article notes, international law demands such behaviour on the part of the central government. “Canada must share epidemiological information with WHO, including: … clinical descriptions, laboratory results, sources and type of risk, numbers of human cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed.” The issue must not boil down to voluntary interjurisdictional sharing between provinces and territories and the federal levels, but federal initiative and action in the documentation of epidemic diseases and the determination to erase all new cases, to which the collection of key information on cases and spread is critical. Canada follows the lead of the U.S., though in not nearly as extreme a form, in far too much respect for voluntarism and too little reliance on responsibility and discipline. The authors are correct. What is required is “mandatory federal law—not just failing, voluntary agreements.”

This is both legally permissible as well as an ethical imperative. “The Public Health Agency of Canada Act permits the Governor in Council to make regulations respecting ‘the collection, analysis, interpretation, publication and distribution of information relating to public health,’ subject to parts of the Department of Health Act, and in turn the Statistics Act.” Mandatory scientific and comprehensive testing and tracing are ethical obligations to save lives and prevent suffering.

Goodwill is not reliable. Will that is good is.

Late Breaking News – 13 August 2020

On Thursday last week, Canada’s international pandemic surveillance and risk assessment system issued its first alert since going silent on May 24, 2019. The alert focused on signs of human-to-human spread of a novel tick-borne bunya virus.
 
The move follows a recent Globe and Mail investigation that reveals how the Global Public Health Intelligence Network’s (GPHIN) main mandate was shelved in favour of a domestic focus amid changing government priorities. Before going silent last spring, the system sent more than 1,500 alerts about potential outbreaks including MERS, H1N1, avian flu and Ebola over the past decade. The Globe also reported that the Auditor-General intends to investigate lapses in decision-making that curtailed GPHIN’s capacity, leaving Canada unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak.
 
But this restart was not accompanied by any official announcement, and the system is not yet back to its original capacity.

Hope or Fear as the Basis for Peace

A few minutes after 6 p.m. in Beirut on Tuesday, church bells clanged and the call to prayer rang out from mosques in a joint mournful vigil. Exactly a week earlier, a huge explosion, triggered by the ignition of around 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the city’s port, devastated much of the Lebanese capital, killed at least 171 people, wounded thousands and left more than 300,000 homeless.” (Ishaan Tharoor and Ruby Mellen, The Washington Post) Was the blast the inflection point that tips Lebanon into total collapse?

The explosion not only reverberated through Lebanon but through Israel as well. Israelis are raising funds for their northern neighbour. The flag of Lebanon was projected onto the City Hall in Tel Aviv. Not all Israelis feel compassion for the suffering of the Lebanese. Former MK, Moshe Feiglin announced that he hoped that Israel was behind the massive explosion at Beirut’s port. He declared it a “gift from God” and said that he was glad it was Beirut and not Tel Aviv.

Most Israelis, I am sure, including most settlers, right-wingers and those living along the northern border, were ashamed of the words Feiglin uttered that expressed such a deep lack of empathy. If suffering ends with three strikes and you are out, Lebanon has just been hit with a fourth strike on top of its economic implosion, political crisis and the spread of COVID-19. Well it is the fault of the Lebanese alone. They have chosen corrupt governments, misrule and political leaders who show no indication that they accept responsibility for the dire straights in which Lebanon finds itself. They have allowed the country to go to rack and ruin and half its population to fall below the poverty line currently.

But Lebanon, a country of 7 million, has received and holds 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanese have responded to the explosion with a strong sense of solidarity and community at the same time as the absence of efficacious institutions have become so apparent. It is a paradox. There is another. Lebanon has refused to grant the vast majority of Palestinian refugees citizenship or even the permanent security of a right of residence. On the other hand, its generosity towards refugees is only rivalled by that of Jordan, a poorer country with a slightly smaller population which hosts a minimum of 1 million registered refugees and countless others who are not registered.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has led a worldwide effort at providing aid. 300 million has been pledged, but this will only cover the need for humanitarian assistance, not development. The main Lebanese grain silo was destroyed in the blast. The World Food Program is shipping 50 metric tons of flour to stave off starvation. After all, Lebanon imports 85% of its food needs. In addition, the cost of rebuilding the port, the infrastructure and the homes of 300,000 Lebanese who lost their residences to the explosion will cost billions. Who will pay? Who will help? The Gulf States are no longer willing to foot the bill to restore Lebanon. They were already burnt twice.

Further, this is a country which is not even controlled by its formal parliament but by Hezbollah backed by Iran and determined to exterminate Israel – though it is extremely cautious in undertaking an action now that might trigger a full scale war. One would not be surprised if very few Israelis felt deeply about the suffering of the Lebanese. But most do, in spite of the threat on their northern border. Lebanon has 160,000 rockets aimed at Israel which no Iron Dome could protect against if the rockets were fired in short succession. Lebanon has been on such a self-destructive path since the multi-billionaire Prime Minister (five times between 1992 and 2005), Rafic Al-Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 that one could reasonably have doubts that any fear of mutually assured destruction could really serve as a deterrent.

Yet most Israelis conjoin their bleeding hearts with policies rooted in fear rather than hope, rooted in minimizing risk rather than maximizing a possibility for reconciliation. And this is the real choice Israelis face when they approach the prospect of peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank. Their security concerns are up front and centre and their hopes for a shared homeland tied together in a confederation and divided into two states representing the two ethnic groups is seen to belong to a dreamscape. They have the example next door of different religious groups trying to share a single state and turning it into a wasteland for plunder and exploitation by each group. How could one hope for a putative unity between Palestinians and Israelis who practice different religions, speak a different language and stem from different ethnic origins when people who are all Arabs are so divided?

Yet, under the auspices of Jewish Currents and the Foundation for Middle East Peace with Peter Beinart as the moderator, a webinar on a “Shared Homeland” was held yesterday with three guests: Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist and co-founder of “A Land for ALL/Two States One Homeland” promoting a confederation of two independent states – a Palestinian and Israeli one;  Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy who I have known for decades when he taught at Bir Zeit and when he became president of Al-Quds University when he also represented the PLO for Jerusalem; and Dr. Limor Yehuda, a legal scholar, currently a Fellow at Tel Aviv University. She founded “A Land for All” and wrote her doctoral thesis on multi-ethnic societies sharing a common homeland.

Meron Rapoport summed up the confederation idea in terms of five principles:

  1. Two independent states based on the 1967 border;
  2. Open borders and freedom of residence for all, including both refugees and settlers;
  3. Some shared institutions;
  4. A shared capital, Jerusalem, as an open city;
  5. Past injustices to be mended if and only if they do not lead to the creation of new ones.

I thought, however, that Sari Nusseibeh summed up the choice, more importantly, the conditions for making such a choice, very well. It meant that moral concerns trump security concerns. Without that priority, there is no possibility of creating a shared homeland. Of course, that is not sufficient. As Meron Rapoport noted, mutual understanding and shared narratives had to precede negotiations. As Limor Yehuda pointed out, there are extant precedents, foremost among them, the European Union that established the longest peace ever in Europe. However, her citation of Northern Ireland and Bosnia did not offer the same appeal. But once again, she stressed the key ingredient – mutual respect and recognition.

Confederation was claimed to be both more just and more realistic than either the simple two-state model or Beinart’s vision of a unitary state. In the confederation model, each group was allowed to express its communal right to self-determination, admittedly with the caveat that such assertions are subject to the recognition of how interdependent the parties to the arrangement are.

In addition to the problem of requiring a moral outlook to dominate security concerns for that path to work, the proposal seemed to stand in stark contrast to the example of Lebanon on Israel’s and Palestine’s doorstep. Further, it ignored the issue of spoilers and the fact that historically in both 1937 and 1947, similar proposals were considered but rejected by independent bodies representing neither party.

I have already dealt with Lebanon. But the problem of spoilers is much more insidious. On one side, many believe that in order for there to be peace in the region, the Zionist colonial and apartheid state must be dismantled. On the other side, there are those who recognize only Jewish claims to the whole of Palestine and insist that Palestinians as a distinctive national group are Johnny-come-latelies. Both groups of spoilers include many people willing to die for what they believe. Since it only takes a small minority of dedicated spoilers to undermine cooperation and spread fear and suspicion, security concerns re these spoilers has to take priority over an ethical and moral approach.

Finally, there is the argument that these proposals for confederation have been made many times before, most explicitly before the Peel Commission in 1937 and before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947. Independent examiners found more merit in the two-state solution than in a two-state plus solution in the form of a federation or confederation. But, at the same time, both examinations concluded that any solution would require some + to enhance the possibility of the two states living side-by-side in peace.

The dilemma in the end is not the dream or the aspiration, but the means of getting from A to B if the path requires morality trumping security. For, in order to walk that way, security against spoilers had to be a priority.

This paradox and impediment, however, does not make the two-state solution a better choice, especially currently when it is moribund.

I Know This Much To Be True – a TV Series Review

Why are good movies or novels or stories about twins also about truth, about transformation, about knocking one’s head against a brick wall in one’s efforts at survival and adaptation?

I watch many movies and TV series, but I am inspired to review very few of them. This is one. What finally pushed me to write on the series is that I finished watching the last episode the evening that I received a draft horror movie script from one of my sons who had never seen the series. The opening scene in his script begins with a monologue by an old man who says:

I… I know. I know what I’m about to tell you will probably shock you. And. I know you might not believe me. But. I give you my word that- That this is true. All of it. I am not a liar. And, well. This. This is my word.

I am a philosopher supposedly dedicated to the truth. However, I cannot imagine myself ever insisting that every word I utter is true. That can only be uttered by someone in a totally unbelievable horror film that is made convincing or in the brilliant conviction of a creative writer or director willing to cross over norms and assumptions. I cannot even imagine myself saying that I know something with an unquestioned degree of certainty. But the series I Know This Much To Be True ends on that note of revelation. It is a story of Job. It is a story, believe it or not, of a man who travels a very painful path to embrace the Christian revelation that his brother in his madness declared all along. And the acquired conviction is both totally unexpected yet entirely believable.

I Know This Much To Be True was a very long 1998 novel written by Wally Lamb. It was made into a 6-episode TV miniseries for HBO last year and first aired in May of this year. It is a heavy psychological drama, often difficult and painful to watch. The series is grim and relentlessly so with virtually no comic relief from the downward spiral of Mark Ruffalo who plays both Dominick and his twin brother, Thomas Birdsey, who is a paranoid schizophrenic and insists that Dominick cannot escape his presence because Thomas is Dominick.

There are tales of separated twins who are re-united. Such is The Lying Game by Sara Shepard, a tale of twins separated at birth and the quest of Emma at the age of seventeen when she learns of this to meet up with her long lost sister, Sutton, but who never shows up at the meeting place agreed upon.  There are tales of twins who are different in every way. This series is a tale of identity in difference. As Thomas plummets downward, Dominick himself exhibits more and more uncontrollable rage. Dominick follows a trail of unremitting distress and one tragedy after another. The series can almost be paced by a grave per episode. The decline is riveting. It is not a horror film, but one is horrified in watching it. The series is definitely not for everyone.

The performances by the other characters are a match for the brilliance of the lead role – whether its is of Dominick and Thomas’s passive and put upon mother – Connie – full name: Concentina Ipolita Tempesta (her family name) Birdsey, the family name bestowed upon her by her husband who marries her when she has infant twins. John Procaccino offers a stellar performance as the stepfather who is both cruel and cold, but provides a counterpoint of a wisp of increasing humanity as the film progresses.

There are a small host of odd characters, the oddest being Nedra Frank played by Juliette Lewis as an off-the-wall graduate student of Italian literature hired to translate a memoir Dominick inherits from his arrogant, self-centred grandfather, Domenico Tempesta, acted with absolutely stern verisimilitude by Marcello Fonte. Rosie O’Donnell is an outstanding delight and totally convincing as a professional but heartfelt social worker assigned to assist Dominick as he copes with his brother’s increasingly worsening schizophrenia. Credit for another outstanding minor role goes to Archie Panjabi, a woman, and a beautiful one at that, not a man, who plays Dominick’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rubina Patel. In spite of the psychological terrifying moments, I obsessively watched the series carried forward by the outstanding performances.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Pontius tells Hamlet, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” (1:3) But how can one be true to oneself if one had a divided self, one self that is raging angry at the burden imposed on himself by a twin brother who is himself divided, a paranoid schizophrenic. You may not be able to be true to yourself, but through the experience you may grasp a wisp of truth. This is not a film in the horror genre. It is horrific but not a horror film – think of the creepy twins standing at the end of the hall in The Shining.

Neither is this a great allegory like the tale of Jacob and Esau, two rivals who both want God’s exclusive recognition for their way of life – farmer or rancher/hunter. Their tale is not of their identity with one another but their total absence of identity even though they are twins. Stories of twins offer many variations on the identity and difference equation and of identity in difference and difference in identity. Rarely are twin stories used to reveal kindred hearts.

One clear exception might have been Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of Cyanee (Byblis), the absolutely gorgeous twin sister of Caunus. (IX:439-516) Smitten with her twin brother, Caunus, however, her entreaties were not reciprocated but rejected. (IX, 595-655) Caunus, appalled by the thought of incestuous love, flees. Cyanee follows and ends up driven mad and forever weeping, then changed into a spring or a fountain as the children of gods are transformed into features of nature.  

Quite aside from the literary gifts of wit and wisdom, soaring rhetoric and sound realistic descriptions, there are constants in the twin genre of fiction and myth, at least when they aspire to be classics. The narrative is always about a transformation that takes place against the will of he or she who is transformed. Second, there are laws of nature that determine both differences in identicals and the tragedy that ensues from either the effort to permanently separate identicals or, alternatively, makes them exact replicas. They are fated to live in dialectical tension.

Sometimes the tension is inverted to produce a comedy. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, identical twins are separated and the humour results when they are mistaken for one another. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare told the story of the twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated by a shipwreck but doomed to be “reunited”. Viola dresses as a man and Countess Olivia falls in love with him/her, but Viola as the male Cesario is mistaken for her brother and mayhem ensues. However, it is not just Shakespeare’s last comedy, but a haunted one, for Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, twin brother of Judith, had died a few years before he wrote the play in which he was “determined to smile again,” I believe, by resurrecting his son as a fictional persona.  

Sometimes tragedy occurs simply because twins in themselves create problems – of royal succession for example. In Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, when King Louis of France died, he had twin sons. King Louis XIV had his twin brother put into a locked iron face mask and imprisoned in the Fortress of Pignerol. It is a case of choosing absolute power through the absolute rejection of one’s identical twin by creating a false world in which a person is absolutely imprisoned from even being able to see or recognize himself.

Contemporary fiction does not offer these types of extreme opposition, though there are exceptions. Eldonna Edwards story in This I Know of Grace, whose twin brother died in childbirth, is a tale of a young girl who comes to realize as she comes of age that she has the gift of clairvoyance. Like I Know This Much To Be True, death of the twin, though at a very different age, allows Grace to be transformed into a woman who can recall her traumatic birth and who hears her brother’s voice that facilitates her remarkable insight or “knowing”.

Somehow, the magic of twins facilitates lines to be crossed – between fiction and fact, between the laws of natural selection and the rules of creative writing. In the movie, Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman, the troubled screenwriter who is a neurotic mess, as well as his brother Donald, an affable, carefree optimist. How does transformation actually work? How do you adapt a short story into a screenplay? How does an orchid adapt to its environment so that it can reproduce itself? How do the twin brothers transform one another? It was Ovid’s problem. It remains an issue in modern fiction always explored in the twin genre.

One more example – Barbara Kingsolver’s novel of colonialism and imperialism, married to fanatical fundamentalism – The Poisonwood Bible. Orleana Price shares with us the mishaps of the family saga when her husband, a Baptist missionary, stubborn and sanctimonious, determined and doomed, fanatical and foolhardy, took her and their four children to Africa. Leah, the supposedly intelligent twin, adores her father while her “retarded,” disabled and mute twin, Adah, sees through him as if were as translucent as a window pane. They tell the story along with their mother, older sister, Rachel, and younger sister, Ruth May. It is a tale of the horrors they encountered in the Congo of Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu. In this novel, the effort at transformation, at conversion to Christianity by an evangelical, is portrayed as a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, transformation does take place – not among the natives, but in the hearts and minds of the children, especially the twins and especially Adah. And in our view and understanding of her hidden wisdom.

When you watch a “twin” movie or read a “twin” novel, recall the twins that preceded it.

Is BDS Antisemitic?

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (acronym, BDS) is a Palestinian-led international campaign by the Palestinian BDS National Committee to promote boycotts and sanctions against Israel and encourage divesting from Israeli companies. There are Jewish activists supporting BDS so how can it be antisemitic? BDS claims to be supporting the rule of law of which Israel is in breach. Occupation of the West Bank is illegal; BDS targets occupation. Preventing the exercise of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return is in breach of international law. Treating Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as second-class citizens is a form of apartheid banned by international law, specifically the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. BDS would make Israel the epitome for breaking international law.

There is also a domestic lawfare conflict in the U.S. opposing the First Amendment defence of freedom of speech against the Fourteenth Amendment banning discrimination from even hiding behind the defence of free expression. Hence, re the latter, the claim that BDS discriminates against the Jewish people by denying Jews, and Jews alone, a right to self-determination. In response, the Palestinian BDS national committee claims that they do “not tolerate any act or discourse which adopts or promotes…antisemitism.” BDS affirms “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights principles rejecting religious and national-origin discrimination.”

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that promotes Israel Apartheid Week and supports BDS serves as the on-campus partner of BDS. Though less than 15% of American university students support an academic boycott of Israel, timing of votes on campuses, such as on the day before Passover – Tufts University, Pitzer College at Claremont – and other surprise efforts have resulted in a few victories – such as at the University of Michigan. Support for BDS and SJP has come from the prestigious Rockefeller Brothers Fund and even Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist anti-Israel organization.

For Judith Butler, the BDS platform is consistent with and derived from international human rights standards and, therefore, designating BDS as antisemitic means that those standards are antisemitic. The charge results from false “generalizations about all Jews,” presuming that “they all share the same political commitments.” But this is not the case. The charge results from shifting the meaning of antisemitism to denying Jews as a people the right to self determination. There is no collectivity in the world that claims that all its members support self-determination; some vocally oppose it. Nevertheless, the denial of that right to Jews, and specifically Jews alone, is characterized as antisemitism rather than simply discrimination against individual Jews. Omar Barghouti, BDS co-founder and spokesman, insists that Jews cannot have a state of their own – at least in Palestine. (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, 2011)

Critics claim that the advertised depiction of BDS is misleading for the goal of BDS is really to delegitimize Israel, in a double standard to deny Jews the right of national self-determination, and demonize Israel – the three D test for the new version of antisemitism. In doing so, BDS actively promotes antisemitism. After all, critics of BDS claim, the only people they object to having a right to self-determination are Jews. This is the core of the double standard critique. For Charles Krauthammer, “Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. To apply to the state of the Jews a double standard that you apply to none other, to judge one people in a way you judge no other, to single out that one people for condemnation and isolation—is to engage in a gross act of discrimination.” Then there is the comparison to the Nazis that go both ways – the boycott of Jewish businesses in one direction comparing Palestinian actions to Nazis and the comparison of Israeli military behaviour to that of the Nazis.

One response by Palestinians: we are not out to destroy Israel otherwise why would we insist in full equality between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. The program indirectly endorses the continuation of Israel as a state. That response is somewhat disingenuous. BDS calls Israel a colonial state and insists on the final liquidation of colonialism. BDS calls Israel an apartheid state and apartheid states must be ended. At the very least there appears to be a contradiction in its platform. Certainly, BDS claims that Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing, first of 720,000 Palestinians in 1948 from Israel itself and then, in particular, from Area C of the West Bank as defined by the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian population there has shrunk from 500,000 to an estimated 100,000 -150,000. There is no mention of Jewish ethnic cleansing of a total of 35,000 from East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1948.The Jews then were also called Palestinians. Only Israel, however, engaged in ethnic cleansing.

Further, there can be no negotiations with a colonial entity making the Oslo Accords themselves unlawful and of no bearing. Ending Israeli occupation applies to the whole land of Palestine not just the West Bank. The two-state solution is itself an unjust and illegal formula for peace between a colonizer and the colonized. The mighty hand of the oppressor must be removed in all of Palestine. It is incorrect to say that BDS only boycotts goods made in the settlements in the West Bank. (President Mahmoud Abbas from the Palestine Authority opposes BDS but supports the boycott of goods made in the settlements.) All Israeli goods and services are potentially targets of the boycott, but each BDS group is free to choose its targets on tactical grounds.  

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (my italics) of 2004 preceded and inspired the founding of BDS in 2005. Its greatest successes have been on university campuses. Of course, the roots of the alleged harassment go further back. Jaimie Kreitman, a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1980s  pursuing a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic studies, reported being “persecuted” for her Masters thesis in an environment that was toxic for Jews as a result of antisemitic rhetoric and beliefs. 

More recently, since President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning antisemitism on campuses, Jewish students at Columbia complained of systematic discrimination from tenured professors and anti-Israeli groups, including Justice for Palestine (a BDS affiliate) and Columbia University Divest. Recently, law professor Katherine Franke, advisor to the pro-BDS Jewish organization, “Jewish Voice for Peace,” tweeted, “Palestinian resistance 2 Israeli policy isn’t Islamic terrorism’ – it’s anti-colonial resistance.” She was refused entry to Israel for supporting terrorism. So were two other supporters of BDS, U.S. congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Franke complained about academic discrimination and the president of the university, Lee Bollinger, declared, “I think it’s wrong for a country to deny entry to a person because of her political beliefs.” Those beliefs included the dissolution of Israel. (For a good summary of the debate, see David M. Halfinger, Michael Wines and Steven Erlanger, “Is BDS Anti-Semitic? A Closer Look at the Boycott Israel Campaign.)  

The BDS issue has infused the 2020 nomination process and 2020 elections in the U.S. In Missouri’s 1st district race, the longtime Democratic incumbent, William Lacy Clay, is running for his 11th term in congress. Cori Bush, a nurse and community activist, is his primary challenger. In her foreign policy statement, she declared that, “This is why nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important – and why the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent.”

If small groups of Jews support BDS on grounds of rights and freedom of expression in opposition to Israel as a colonial state, how can BDS be antisemitic? By moving the goal posts. Opposition to Jews prior to the nineteenth century was based on religion. Opposition to Jews in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was based on Jews as a race. Opposition to Jews as a people denied rights to self-determination now defines most antisemitic incidents.

Yet the University of Michigan professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student because the student was applying to attend a graduate school in Israel insisted it was not antisemitic. The professor claimed to refuse to write the letter for human rights reasons and that he was not antisemitic. Yet the university sanctioned him, for, “withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views.” He was criticized for violating the student’s rights and aspirations violating their academic freedom and betraying the university’s mission. He was not chastised for being antisemitic.

This definition of antisemitism as now encompassing anyone who denies the right of self-determination to Jews and only Jews is supported by a wide array of governments who directly target BDS for doing so: Ontario in 2016 in Bill 202, Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act, that dubbed BDS a “movement that promotes hate, prejudice and racism as did Britain which banned boycotts of Israeli goods by public authorities.” “The international boycott, divestment and sanctions (“BDS”) movement is one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel globally and is increasingly promoted on university campuses in Ontario. The BDS movement violates the principle of academic freedom and promotes a climate of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel speech leading to intimidation and violence on campuses. The BDS movement’s agenda is inherently antithetical to and deeply damaging to peace in the Middle East.”

These gestures were followed by those of; the Czech Republic and Denmark in 2017; the German Bundestag in 2019 directly called BDS antisemitic; Austria in February 2020. In America, 29 states starting with Illinois in 2014 and Tennessee in 2016 have banned BDS activities as illegal. On the other hand, Ireland, South Africa, Navarre state in Spain, Leicester City and Swansea in the UK, and Dublin all endorsed BDS. The European Court of Justice also found the supporters of BDS not to be antisemitic since the judgments made were expressions of “political solidarity with oppressed groups overseas” similar to the boycotts of South Africa in its heyday as an apartheid state.

But is BDS antisemitic? You may find its methods abhorrent and its goal of destroying Israel as a state repugnant, but in what sense can the supporters of BDS be said to be antisemitic? Deborah Lipstadt, the famous Holocaust historian who had her run-ins with Holocaust denier David Irving, said, “I do not think that any kid who supports B.D.S. is ipso facto an anti-Semite. I think that’s wrong. It’s a mistake. And it’s not helpful.” She adopts that position because she takes a traditional position on the meaning of antisemitism and does not extend that meaning to refer to the denial of the right of the Jewish people alone to self-determination. Those deniers denigrate Israel to characterize the country as illegitimate and a racist, fascist, totalitarian and apartheid state.

The new antisemitism attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel as the product of self-determination of that people by lobbying for economic boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Supporters of BDS are widely known to have harassed Jewish students who are supporters of Israel. The point is not primarily to hurt Israel economically, academically and culturally – that consequence has been akin to a pinprick – but to brand Israel as a colonizing and apartheid state unworthy of belonging to the community of nations. In defence, Israel uses the current revulsion against antisemitism to brand BDS. (See Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Ant-Defamation League, ADL, 2 June 2013 “An Open Letter on Academic Freedom and University Responsibility.) The result has been a war of negative branding to which protectors of the purity of the traditional definition of antisemitism take offence.

However, there are also consequences on the ground. “Israel has extended the detention of a prominent Palestinian activist for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. An Israeli military court near Jenin granted a request by Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, to keep Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian National BDS Committee, in detention for a further 15 days. BDS is viewed by Israel as a security threat.

There are also black humour moments. B’nai Brith charged a small restaurant in Toronto, Foodbenders, with antisemitism for posting a sign in its window, “ZionismNotWelcome”. Supporters of BDS charged back demanding that B’nai Brith’s charitable status be revoked for taking a political position and misusing the term “antisemitism. There is an irony in an ardently anti-Israel group arguing to protect the purity of the term, “antisemitic”.

The shift in the meaning of antisemitism has created a dilemma for organizations such as the National Israel Fund (NIF)  and J Street in the U.S. NIF declares that it will not fund organizations that “deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel” or fund BDS activities against Israel (excluding promoters of boycotts that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements).” However, an examination of funds allocated indicates in practice it does fund a number of such organizations, justifying such funding as only supporting the organization’s work on behalf of human rights.

The fight is not simply economic or political, is not primarily about rights to free speech versus discrimination. It is about negative branding between supporters of Israel as a state and those who oppose the existence of Israel.

Membership in the Jewish People

A major consideration in forging a peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the relationship between the diaspora of each of the nations to their respective homelands. In the case of the Palestinians, the relationship is best captured in a discussion of the right of return of refugees. In the case of Israel, the relationship is best analyzed in understanding the implications of Zionism, the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people. Once a State of Israel came into being, did the relationship of the diaspora, of tfutza, or the exile, galut,change beyond giving diaspora Jews the right to make aliyah, to migrate to Israel?

The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and Jacob Blaustein, the president of the American Jewish Committee at the time the state was declared, both understood that this was an issue and debated its interpretation and significance. The latest issue of the Israel Studies journal (25:3) took up that debate. Blaustein and Ben-Gurion opposed versions of Zionism that did not envision aliyah, immigration to Israel, as the ultimate goal of every Jew. They envisioned the eventual dissolution of the diaspora. Clearly this goes far beyond that of the relationship of members of the Palestinian diaspora insisting on a right of return, for refugees only, to their original homes, or, at the very least, to their homeland. However, in Ben-Gurion’s and Blaustein’s view, although return is an obligation and not just a right, nevertheless Ben-Gurion accepted that American Jews owed, as a primary duty, allegiance to the United States so that migration to Israel, though a moral obligation, was one determined by a decision of the individual.

Jews had a hierarchy of obligations. At the peak, they were responsible for being witnesses and advancing the redemption of all of humanity. Each Jew was then also responsible for the redemption of the whole of the Jewish people. Third, they have a moral and political obligation as citizens of the state in which they live both in the sense of loyalty to the state as a whole over and above personal ideologies and interests, and in the sense of national patriotism to the American nation as the prime example of a diaspora state. The second and third potentially could be at odds if the mamlachtiyut, loyalty to the state of an individual Jew, is divided.  Finally, each Jew had a moral obligation to his or herself to offer oneself, to sacrifice, to engage in halutziyut (pioneering) to forge a better world, to enhance the Jewish people, and to advance the Jewish and/or home state.

Others went even further and made a claim for primary loyalty for the Jewish heart. The Israeli poet, Natan Alterrman, in the year of my birth (1938) penned the poem, “On the Highroad.”

There’s a tinkling in the pasture and a whistling
And the field lies in gold till evening.
A hush of green wells,
My wide open spaces and a road.

The trees risen from the dew
Gleam like glass and metal.
I shall never stop looking, I shall never stop breathing
And I shall die and will keep going.

Even beyond the grave, Jews must use all their energy to advance the lofty vision of Israel. That duty and identification goes well beyond offering “material and moral support, warm-hearted and practical idealism.” The other side of the coin of his 1938 poem is one he wrote almost ten years later, after the partition resolution was passed by the UN in November of 1947, “The Silver Platter,” (מגש הכסף‎ magásh ha-késef). Chaim Weizmann had said that, “No state is ever handed on a silver platter… The partition plan does not give the Jews but an opportunity”. The Jewish People are waiting to receive the Jewish state, as the Israelites were waiting to receive the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai,  they see two youths, a boy and a girl, wounded and near dead with exhaustion. When asked, “Who are you?” they reply, “We are the silver platter on which the state of the Jews was handed to you.”

The Silver Platter Natan Alterman And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel

That is what is expected of the pioneers – blood, sweat and tears. And that is what the youth gave in the War of Independence.

That is the case even when diaspora Jews who are non-Zionists, owe a primary fealty to the state where they are citizens. When Ben-Gurion openly aligned with the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee (AJC), he adopted a pragmatic ideological opposition to imposing the obligations of Zionism on all Jews in the diaspora that on the surface seemed at odds with his belief in Israel as both a nation state and as a Jewish state acting on behalf of Jewry as a collectivity. This did not mean that Jews in the diaspora could not or should not act on behalf of Israel’s foreign policy, as, for example, on Iran. Ben Gurion favoured a strategic alliance with diaspora Jews oven at the risk of ideological capitulation.

In an address to the Herzliya Conference (1/24/2007), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert argued for support of diaspora Jews in tracking Iran’s intentions, increasing international awareness of the threat Iran posed to Israel and mobilizing international support on behalf of Israel. Thus, although diaspora Jews owed a primary obligation of fealty to their home state, they also carried a burden of advancing Israeli foreign policy, particularly in the face of any existential threat, especially from Iranian development of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism.

Rwanda – Ethnic War, Refugees and Repatriation

Rwanda is a densely populated small state in the Great Lakes region of Africa where it meets East Africa in the Great Rift Valley. Because of the elevation, the climate is more temperate than tropical. Rwanda became known around the world in 1994 when, at the end of a civil war between Tutsi and Hutu, the Akazu Hutus led a genocide that murdered 800,000 Tutsi ad moderate Hutu in 10 weeks. Where Israel/Palestine has a population of about 12 million, half Jews and half Palestinian, Rwanda has a slightly larger population of 12.5 million. The land size is just over 12,000 square km., about twice the size of the Palestinian territories; the combined Israeli-Palestine territory is slightly over 20,000 sq. km.

Rwanda is also akin to the Israel/Palestine in its experience of decades of civil strife between ethnic groups, in this case between Hutu and Tutsi. There are two major differences, however. The two ethnic groups speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, have the same cultural practices and are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. In contrast, the Palestinians and Israelis speak different languages, Arabic and Hebrew, have very different cultural practices, and belong to two different religions – largely Muslim with some Christians on one side and members of the Jewish faith on the other. The main difference is in the proportions of the two groups. Hutus constitute 85% of the population while Tutsis are 14%. Yet since 1994 and before 1969, Tutsis dominated the political realm even though, since the military victory of the Tutsi-led invasion or return and the end of the genocide, Rwanda has advertised itself as consisting of a single national group , a unitary state.

In the 35-year interregnum when the Hutu rose from a subjugated group to rulers between 1959-61 and 1994, the Tutsi were persecuted. In the civil war which overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in 1959, 550,00 Tutsis were forced to flee the country over the next two years, mainly into Uganda (200,000) and Burundi (245,000). The Tutsi in exile demanded a right of return but were denied. About half of them supported the use of violence as a means of return, but a serious defeat in 1963 ended that effort for 27 years until a Tutsi led army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded from Uganda.

The victory of that RPF followed the genocide of 800,000 domestic Tutsi and moderate Hutu. It was followed by the exodus of over 2,000,000 Hutu refugees (the figure is usually grossly exaggerated) who mainly fled into the Congo. They did not demand to return. In fact, they were kept from making any such demands by the defeated Hutu Rwandan army that induced or forced many to flee. They only returned two years after the end of the war when the new Tutsi dominated army invaded Uganda in reprisal for guerilla attacks and decimated the remaining old army. Hutu refugees then voluntarily or under pressure marched back into Rwanda.

Thus, in both movements, the Tutsi return in 1994 and the Hutu return in 1996, there was no return as a matter of right but a return under force of arms. The new Rwandan government had set out on a policy of forging a single predominant nationality and leaving the Hutu/Tutsi divide in the ashes of history. Further, one cannot find a case of refugee return as a matter of right but only when accompanied by a victorious army.  (Cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation) How can there be rights with no instances of those rights?

Whether refugees return by right or under force of arms, there remains both the issue of restitution and reintegration. Given the goal of replacing the Hutu/Tutsi divide with a common citizenship and primary identity, how is that achieved. Rwanda set up ingando camps, really reeducation and indoctrination centres to alter the way Hutus had been taught to view Tutsis. While in the camps, the returned refugees wear military uniforms of the Rwandan army, live together and participate in shared activities. The government calls them solidarity camps engaged in civic education to facilitate reintegration. Among the very wide variety attending such camps, those that interest us include ‘old caseload’ and ‘new caseload’ returnees, ex-FAR soldiers and demobilised rebels (adult and youth ex-combatants), but also provisionally-released prisoners and those serving ‘alternative sentences.’

Andrea Purdekova from Oxford University in her 2008 article, “Repatriation and reconciliation in divided societies: the case of Rwanda’s ‘ingando’,” and in her 2011 Refworld article, Rwanda’s Ingando camps: “Liminality and the reproduction of power,” described the purpose of the camps initially as raising awareness of being a Rwandan (rather than a Tutsi or Hutu) and reinforcing solidarity through self-help. The re-education programs also took on the provision fo military training as a mode of politicization of the diaspora experience and transforming it into a new nationalism.

Can one imagine Palestinians attending an IDF-run reeducation camp intended to inculcate an Israeli identity in Palestinians, or PLO-run camps in which Israelis are persuaded to adopt a Palestinian identity, all in the promotion of one version of a unitary state or another? The promoters of the one state solution do not envision such a project. Jewish Israelis do not expect Palestinians to identify fully with the state and Palestinian promoters of one Palestinian identity for Jews and Palestinians do not go as far as envisioning Jews in the settlements and in Israel attending such reeducation centres.

Yet without a strategy of consolidation of a uniform identity (inspired by Maoist principles), no construction of a unitary state will succeed in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis will enjoy equal citizenship. The dreams of Peter Beinart, or Salem Barahmeh, Amjad Iraqi and Dr. Yara Howari from an opposite angle, will remain fantasies. Can you envision Howari indoctrinating Jewish Israelis into the conviction that Zionism all along was a colonialist enterprise and that it is incumbent on those Jews who want to remain and live in Palestine to identify as Palestinians? Even more than that, the culture of the camps accent discipline and respect of authority. For Israelis? The proposers of the unitary state do not even stretch their imaginations into a government-employed strategy of social re-engineering that would be required on a large scale.

Even with all the experience and thought given to re-education, the activities of an ingando are known to be fraught with suspicion and distrust even when the focus is on the next generation. Parents feared their children would be killed. The primary challenge of a re-educator is to overcome that fear in order to “open the reality of the country,” build confidence among people, and, most importantly, build a sense of national unity. Further, in spite of the rhetoric of such lofty goals, the real underlying purpose is to clean minds, detoxify them and substitute a new way of perceiving things. Old beliefs and previous ideologies must be erased and minds reoriented and “sensitized.” Without such a process, creating a unified identity is viewed as impossible. The view is that, unlike Israel, one needs a consensus to build a nation – and that is clearly articulated in the views of the Palestinian opinion leaders I featured. The PLO needed to speak with a single voice. The question is how a democracy and respect for multiple viewpoints can be erected upon such a foundation of re-education and the desire for a unified vision.

The Israeli culture encourages debate and difference as indicated by the dissidents I have highlighted. Bringing citizens into “accord” and stressing that “convergence is unity” would seem to be anathema to the Israeli spirit. The idea that one needs consensus to build a nation is inherently not a democratic foundation. Yet how else can one bring such different cultures that so distrust one another into sharing a common citizenship, the same ideas about history and, in the Palestinian vision, a common national identity? In fact, such ideological brainwashing encourages a repressed distrust even as it is advertised as getting to sort out differences and “see things the same way.” Instead of ethnic cleansing at one extreme, you have mental cleansing at the other end of the spectrum.

All this is just to say that neither Peter Beinart at one end of the unitary state thesis and Palestinians at the other end have thought out the implications of what they are recommending as a movement towards a unitary state. The Rwandans learned that a government of unity promoting a single overarching nationality requires abandoning certain attitudes and beliefs, creating a convergence of knowledge and opinion, and adoption of consensus on key topics such as history and government policy. Such an effort is incompatible with democracy. Yet the two-state solution seems to be dead-ended. A confederate state would simply institutionalize the distrust between the two peoples.

What then – simply accept that nothing can be done to advance a reconciliation agenda? I suggest that a program does suggest itself, one that does not try to sort out the polity for each group or the geographical boundaries of each nation’s state but recognizing that Israel is already a binational state and making it work. Launch a program to ensure that all Israeli citizens genuinely and more fully have equal rights. There should be no excuse for second class citizenship. Encourage Palestinians to develop their own communal sense of a national identity with the requisite instruments to advance such identification while remaining loyal to the Israeli state.

Further, instead of moving towards an Israeli identity for Jews, move to strengthen their Jewish identity both in Israel and the diaspora. That would mean making knowledge of Hebrew an expectation for all Jews. That would mean ensuring that Jews share a broad sense of their own historical literature and the route the Jewish nation has traveled over the centuries. That would mean strengthening much further the identification of all Jews with a state of Israel, a country in which they can feel unbridled pride.

Finally, it would mean respecting and treating with dignity Palestinians who are not citizens even as one tried to ensure one’s own nation’s security.

A stronger democracy, not a weaker one. A stronger Jewish nationalism, not a weaker one. And a stronger respect and recognition for the collective and individual rights of others who are not citizens of your own state. Be a better citizen of the world and allow time to find a path out of the political dead end of the present.

The One State Delusion and the Confederated State Dream

There are significant “progressive” voices both in the Jewish camp and in the Palestinian camp now pushing for a one-state solution. Much of the push admittedly comes from the failure of all efforts to bring about a two-state solution. This is also true of Jews in the diaspora and a majority of Jewish Israelis who will not cross over and opt for one state. A small part of the reason is that the dominant faction supporting a single state among Israelis consists of right-wing greater Israel advocates who want a Jewish controlled polity over all of post-1922 Mandate Palestine.

The irony, of course, is that left-wing progressives in the Palestinian camp have the same vision, but in an inverted dress. It will be a Palestinian state amongst which individual Jews will live with full protection for their individual human rights. They will have no collective rights. Jewish nationalism or Zionism will be attacked as a colonial enterprise from the beginning, deliberately developed to assault Palestinian self-determination or indigenous nationalism.

Yet there is and always has been a Jewish voice upholding the vision of a unitary state in all of Palestine, but neither a Jewish nor an Arab Palestinian one. Rather, it will be a bi-national state or a confederation of two peoples. The Foundation for Middle East Peace convened a webinar of those it called, “Jewish Israeli Thought Leaders,” two of whom were open advocates of a confederation, a third focused simply on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and a fourth, an active member of the Arab List who argued for Mizrachim identification with their Middle Eastern, mostly Arabic, roots.

The very positions they take indicate that they are indeed Jewish and Israeli thinkers but not leaders given the paucity of their followers in the Jewish-Israeli community. For example, Orly Noy, the last of the four listed above, is a member of B’Tselem’s executive board, translates Farsi poetry and prose and, most significantly, is an activist on the Balad Party, the Palestinian Israeli party that promotes Israel as a state for all its citizen. However, she advanced a very marginal position. She put forth a thesis about restructuring Mizrachi identity in Israel in favour of restoring their Arab identity. Yet she admitted that only 1% of Mizrachim support her position. She is a public intellectual but a lone voice as editor of Local Call.

Balad promotes a two-state solution, though she supports a one-state solution, but definitely not the one-state solution preferred by the Israeli right. That version, she claims, is intended to protect the colonial privileges of the Ashkenazim. “Since 1967, billions of dollars have been spent to impose this ‘two-state solution’ on the Palestinian people – which, it is important to point out, is only a solution to the Zionist failure to successfully colonise the whole country.”

Her basic narrative is that the Ashkenazim imported Mizrachi (the 850,000 were evidently not forced to flee Arab countries and even Iran), but looked down upon them. Likud, in contrast to the Labour Party, embraced the narrative of Mizrachi as “savages.” This offered the Mizrachi the opportunity to rise to the middle class in the settlements, which correlated with a condescension and distancing from the Palestinians below them. Thus, they were provided with ideological, economic and psychological supports for joining the colonial enterprise.

Don’t Mizrachi have equal rights with Israelis of Ashkenazi background? What about the Mizrachi who are prominent in government, the media, academia, culture, business, sports, religion and the military? Three Israeli presidents – Yitzhak Navon, Moshe Katsav and current president Reuven Rivlin are Mizrachi Jews. Many Mizrachi have served as Chiefs of Staff of the ID, supposedly confounding her claim that the Ashkenazim send the Mizrachi officers to do the dirty work in the West Bank. Orly admits all of this, but really offers a narrative of cooption in what is, for her, fundamentally a colonial enterprise.

Rachel Beitarie, Executive Director of Zochrot (“remembering” in Hebrew), has been a feminist and human rights advocate but her recent work has been focused on Palestinian refugees, their right of return and right to restitution. Zochrot has run a series of international conferences on the return of Palestinian refugees in 2008, 2013 and 2016. The conferences were not about whether Palestinians had a right to return. That was accepted as a given. The meetings were about promoting return and envisioning rehabilitation as part of a movement to promote Palestinians and Jews living side-by-side in a democratic an egalitarian society. As a first step, Jewish Israelis have to acknowledge the Nakba, recognize their responsibility and willingness to be held accountable for what happened.

Rachel claimed success in that Nakba is now part of Israeli political discourse but admits that broad acknowledgement of responsibility is still lacking. Why? Because Israel is a colonial state which still adheres to colonial concepts and practices. Peace requires decolonization as a prerequisite. She envisions an equal and joint Palestinian-Jewish society.

However, successive Israeli governments have denied any responsibility for the Palestinian refugees while Palestinians interpret the UN resolutions as conferring on those refugees a “right of return.” Israeli rejection of responsibility is based on its own interpretation of those UN resolutions, demographic, security philosophical and ideological concerns, the latter including the belief that Israel is a nation state for Jews and that the return of the refugees will distort that Jewish identity.

A workshop on “Israeli Perspectives on the Refugee Issue” held in Cyprus on 5-6 March 2014 confirmed an overwhelming consensus in Israel rejecting any right of return to Israel, a view that hardened further after the second intifada between 2000 and 2005, though, since the publication of Benny Morris’ studies, Israelis have increasingly acknowledged some degree of responsibility for the refugees while continuing the claim that the major parties responsible are the Arab countries that invaded the nascent state. In any case, the 720,000 refugees who fled were offset by the 850,000 Mizrachi Jews forced out of their homes in the Middle East.  A minority argued for very limited family reunification on humanitarian grounds.

While Orly was admittedly a lone voice in the wilderness for her views and Rachel expressed the views of only a tiny minority of Israeli Jews, support for a confederation was wider and deeper but still only included a smally minority of Israeli Jews. Meron Papoport of “A Land for All” and Dr. Dahila Scheindlin, who argued for a confederal solution, did not seem to base their opinions on a narrative of past colonizing but more on the practicality of confederation for the future given the inadequacies of either a one-state or a traditional two-state solution.

Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist, initiated a dialogue with Palestinian activist, and journalist Awni Al-Mashni. Together they initiated a movement to promote a confederation of two states, a Palestinian and an Israeli one which would be based on democratic principles applicable to all as well as freedom of movement in all of what was mandatory Palestine. What is proposed is not a binational state, but two nation states coming together in a confederation. In that way, both nations would have a homeland and could share a capital in Jerusalem while together ensuring security for both groups.

In a confederation, the member states remain sovereign while cooperating on security and economic development, both very difficult issues given past history and the huge discrepancy in GDP between Israel and Palestine. Though there are various degrees of cross relationships  and the distribution of powers, the polity is neither an international alliance, on the one hand, nor a federal system on the other hand with the main citizenship granted by the federal state. In a confederation, the equivalent of the federal authority remains weak. Its decisions generally require confirmation by each of the sovereign states that belong to the confederacy.

Nevertheless, as attractive as its proffered solution is in the abstract and in the face of the dead end that the two-state solution has encountered, (the number of Jews supporting a two-state solution dropped to a low of 43% in July of 2018), a confederal proposal has attracted supporters only in the thousands and not even the tens of thousands.  In contrast to Rachel’s position, Palestinian refugees would only have a right of return to a Palestinian state. Settlers would have residency rights but not citizenship in the Palestinian state, while Palestinian Israelis would continue to keep their Israeli citizenship. The plan is more in keeping with facts on the ground and has a joint vision in contrast to the one-state solution which has three radically different interpretations.

As Dr. Dahlia Scheindin argued, two peoples would both preserve their national identity and have a state of their own. Neither Meron nor Dahlia dealt with the historic difficulties investigations, such as the Peel Commission in 1937, encountered that turned the investigators against a confederation model. That idea was in central contention in the proceedings of the United Nations Special Committee of Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947 but UNSCOP ended up with a clear majority recommending partition. Though Meron mentioned Belgium as a positive precedent, he ignored the reality that Belgium was without a government for almost two years because of disputes between the two ethnic groups. Further, they never had a history of warring against each other for almost a hundred years. Finally, Belgium had the advantage of being a bi-national state rather than a confederation.

Neither Meron nor Dahlia speculated on whether the confederal model would be expected to evolve into a federal system within a single state as happened with Switzerland, the United States and Germany. Though the proposal took greater account of facts on the ground, it seemed not to be well thought out in terms of historical precedents and discussions, current models in operation and a realistic appraisal of future challenges and prospects.

Clearly, there are a number of voices promoting recognition for the other, equality and security for all in various iterations of a polity, but they seem to be based in most instances on abstract ethical principles rather than in the concrete experiences in history and contemporary politics. In any case, only Orly’s vision of a unitary state, at odds with her own Palestinian Israeli party, overlapped with the promoters of a Palestinian unitary state by Palestinian intellectuals on the webinar of the Middle East Policy Forum the previous week.

I would suggest a grounding in reality. The concrete experience of civil war resulting from conflicting identities and interests that results in refugees followed by repatriation and reconciliation might help. An examination of the case of Rwanda might have some lessons for the Israel-Palestine conflict much more than examples such as Northern Ireland.

The Rule of Law as a Necessary Condition of Jewish Existence

Deuteronomy Va-et’chanan; Chapter 4

The rule of law is rooted in ethics, whether it is the commandment to love another as oneself and show mercy to those in need, or Rabbi Hillel’s terse summation: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” But that is not how the parashat begins. You are commanded to obey the law in order to enter and occupy the Promised Land. Not for moral reasons but for political advantage and self-interest. Further, your survival depends not on ethical behaviour but on fealty to God and disdain of idolatry. (4:2-4) There is a third self-interested reason. Israelites should obey the law so that they may offer witness of their wisdom and discernment to the people of other nations.

Obey the law for political success as occupiers – occupation is not a dirty word – to survive as a nation and to serve as a witness to other nations of your ability to rule wisely and fairly. There are major conditions to be able to do this. First, observe carefully. “Take the utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Observe; do not manage your affairs based on wishful thinking or fantasy. Second, remember. Learn from what you see. There are lessons from experience that must be translated into memory. Memory is not myth. Memory is a living reality. Memory is the miracle that fosters renewal and rededication. Third, these lessons must be passed on to your children. Education is critical.

These are the three ethical and the three instrumental lessons of the enlightenment passed on at Mount Horeb.

The foundation for transferring those substantive and methodological foundation conditions is listening. Listening is a prologomena to even observing. Attend to the divine voice of the spirit as it unfolds and reveals itself in history. (4:10-14) That is the opposite of idolatry. That is the opposite of any effort to reify the divine spirit of revelation.

But are the ten commandments not cast in stone. Yes, but these are words of understanding articulated as norms. The are not the reification of a being. They are exemplifications of the rule of law and not the rule of an entity, whether man or beast. Submit yourself to the rule of law and the divine word and never to ephemeral apparitions frozen in concrete. Do not get sucked in by politicians who would sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. They are hustlers and charlatans. For if you surrender to such a reified image you will either face extermination or be cast out of the Promised Land. That will be the day of Tish B’Av.  

לב  כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ.32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג  הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה–וַיֶּחִי.33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד  אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֶיךָ.34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?
לה  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.35 Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.
לו  מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת-קֹלוֹ, לְיַסְּרֶךָּ; וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ, הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת-אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.36 Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee; and upon earth He made thee to see His great fire; and thou didst hear His words out of the midst of the fire.
לז  וְתַחַת, כִּי אָהַב אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ, וַיִּבְחַר בְּזַרְעוֹ, אַחֲרָיו; וַיּוֹצִאֲךָ בְּפָנָיו בְּכֹחוֹ הַגָּדֹל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.37 And because He loved thy fathers, and chose their seed after them, and brought thee out with His presence, with His great power, out of Egypt,
לח  לְהוֹרִישׁ, גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִמְּךָ–מִפָּנֶיךָ; לַהֲבִיאֲךָ, לָתֶת-לְךָ אֶת-אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה–כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.38 to drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day;
לט  וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת:  אֵין, עוֹד.39 know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.
מ  וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-חֻקָּיו וְאֶת-מִצְוֺתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לְךָ, וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ–וּלְמַעַן תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.  {פ}40 And thou shalt keep His statutes, and His commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever. {P}

Redemption will always remain a possibility. The people merely need – well not merely, but rather with strength and conviction – to return to the spirit of Egypt when the nation first learned to submit to the will of a revealing divine spirit. We must always act as if we were slaves in Egypt escaping from the rule of a despot for a covenant to be governed by the rule of law and bondage to a higher spirit. The covenant that God made then is with us here and now.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote that, “The secret of Jewish survival has been the incredible capacity of Jews to use the memory of tragedy to spur themselves to come back again and again after defeat.” Because the traditional two-state solution is now dead, or, at the very least, dead ended, does not mean that the quest for peace and reconciliation must be surrendered. Quite the opposite. We must renew our dedication, if not to find peace now, at the very least to exercise a collective responsibility not only for ourselves but for the other.

Walk the talk. Walk the path. Do not just grieve. Rebuild. Construct a polity built on the rule of law where rule is exercised with both wisdom and fairness. Show that when you rule over another, that rule will be carried out with love and respect. Do not denigrate the other. Correct and guide them as and only when necessary, but always guided by care for their well-being and their dignity. That is what it means to be holy. Be decent. Treat Palestinians as partners in creation and never as the devil incarnate. And always remember that you are part of one people responsible for such precepts articulated in the rule of law.

For countering COVID-19, isolation and separation may be prerequisites. Masking and distancing may be prerequisites. Testing and tracing may be prerequisites. However, in order to engage in such a combat, we must feel that we are all in it together, that we have a responsibility for one another. Jews must give witness to the challenge of communal responsibility that in turn requires an obligation of one Jew for another. All Jews are Israelis. And Israelis have a special responsibility to treat the Other with respect.

The Rule of Law as a Necessary Condition of Jewish Existence

Deuteronomy Va-et’chanan; Chapter 4

The rule of law is rooted in ethics, whether it is the commandment to love another as oneself and show mercy to those in need, or Rabbi Hillel’s terse summation: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” But that is not how the parashat begins. You are commanded to obey the law in order to enter and occupy the Promised Land. Not for moral reasons but for political advantage and self-interest. Further, your survival depends not on ethical behaviour but on fealty to God and disdain of idolatry. (4:2-4) There is a third self-interested reason. Israelites should obey the law so that they may offer witness of their wisdom and discernment to the people of other nations.

Obey the law for political success as occupiers – occupation is not a dirty word – to survive as a nation and to serve as a witness to other nations of your ability to rule wisely and fairly. There are major conditions to be able to do this. First, observe carefully. “Take the utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Observe; do not manage your affairs based on wishful thinking or fantasy. Second, remember. Learn from what you see. There are lessons from experience that must be translated into memory. Memory is not myth. Memory is a living reality. Memory is the miracle that fosters renewal and rededication. Third, these lessons must be passed on to your children. Education is critical.

These are the three ethical and the three instrumental lessons of the enlightenment passed on at Mount Horeb.

The foundation for transferring those substantive and methodological foundation conditions is listening. Listening is a prologomena to even observing. Attend to the divine voice of the spirit as it unfolds and reveals itself in history. (4:10-14) That is the opposite of idolatry. That is the opposite of any effort to reify the divine spirit of revelation.

But are the ten commandments not cast in stone. Yes, but these are words of understanding articulated as norms. The are not the reification of a being. They are exemplifications of the rule of law and not the rule of an entity, whether man or beast. Submit yourself to the rule of law and the divine word and never to ephemeral apparitions frozen in concrete. Do not get sucked in by politicians who would sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. They are hustlers and charlatans. For if you surrender to such a reified image you will either face extermination or be cast out of the Promised Land. That will be the day of Tish B’Av.  

לב  כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ.32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג  הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה–וַיֶּחִי.33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד  אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֶיךָ.34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?
לה  אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים:  אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.35 Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.
לו  מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת-קֹלוֹ, לְיַסְּרֶךָּ; וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ, הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת-אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.36 Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee; and upon earth He made thee to see His great fire; and thou didst hear His words out of the midst of the fire.
לז  וְתַחַת, כִּי אָהַב אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ, וַיִּבְחַר בְּזַרְעוֹ, אַחֲרָיו; וַיּוֹצִאֲךָ בְּפָנָיו בְּכֹחוֹ הַגָּדֹל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.37 And because He loved thy fathers, and chose their seed after them, and brought thee out with His presence, with His great power, out of Egypt,
לח  לְהוֹרִישׁ, גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִמְּךָ–מִפָּנֶיךָ; לַהֲבִיאֲךָ, לָתֶת-לְךָ אֶת-אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה–כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.38 to drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day;
לט  וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת:  אֵין, עוֹד.39 know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.
מ  וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-חֻקָּיו וְאֶת-מִצְוֺתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לְךָ, וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ–וּלְמַעַן תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.  {פ}40 And thou shalt keep His statutes, and His commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever. {P}

Redemption will always remain a possibility. The people merely need – well not merely, but rather with strength and conviction – to return to the spirit of Egypt when the nation first learned to submit to the will of a revealing divine spirit. We must always act as if we were slaves in Egypt escaping from the rule of a despot for a covenant to be governed by the rule of law and bondage to a higher spirit. The covenant that God made then is with us here and now.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote that, “The secret of Jewish survival has been the incredible capacity of Jews to use the memory of tragedy to spur themselves to come back again and again after defeat.” Because the traditional two-state solution is now dead, or, at the very least, dead ended, does not mean that the quest for peace and reconciliation must be surrendered. Quite the opposite. We must renew our dedication, if not to find peace now, at the very least to exercise a collective responsibility not only for ourselves but for the other.

Walk the talk. Walk the path. Do not just grieve. Rebuild. Construct a polity built on the rule of law where rule is exercised with both wisdom and fairness. Show that when you rule over another, that rule will be carried out with love and respect. Do not denigrate the other. Correct and guide them as and only when necessary, but always guided by care for their well-being and their dignity. That is what it means to be holy. Be decent. Treat Palestinians as partners in creation and never as the devil incarnate. And always remember that you are part of one people responsible for such precepts articulated in the rule of law.

For countering COVID-19, isolation and separation may be prerequisites. Masking and distancing may be prerequisites. Testing and tracing may be prerequisites. However, in order to engage in such a combat, we must feel that we are all in it together, that we have a responsibility for one another. Jews must give witness to the challenge of communal responsibility that in turn requires an obligation of one Jew for another. All Jews are Israelis. And Israelis have a special responsibility to treat the Other with respect.