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

Balak, Balaam and the Israelites– Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Moab is the mountainous tract of land on the east side of the Dead Sea currently in Jordan. In the Torah, Moab was the product of incest of Lot with his oldest daughter. (Ammon was the product of incest of Lot with his youngest daughter.) (Genesis 19:37-38) King Sihon, the ruler of the warlike Amorites, drove the Moabites south of the river Arnon. It is there that God renewed his covenant with the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land and it is there that Moses died.

Before the Israelites took on the Canaanites, they made sure their rearguard was protected and, without entering Moab, “they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the land of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon.” (Judges 11:18) The Israelites conquered Sihon’s Amorite kingdom.

It is no wonder that the Moabite king was wary of the Israelites even though they were distant cousins and spoke a variation of the same Semitic language. Further, not many years earlier, the Egyptians conquered Moab (the huge statue at Luxor erected by Rameses II lists Moab as a conquest in the 13th century BC). It is possible that the Moabites regarded the Israelites as an advance guard for the Egyptians. “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22:5) However, the Israelite God had forbidden an Israelite conquest of Moab. The Israelites merely wanted safe passage across the Moabite territory.  

Balak was the king of the Moabites. He feared for his own kingdom given that the Israelites had defeated a much more powerful enemy. In fear and dread, he called together the elders of Midian. Needing divine help, Balak summoned the prophet Balaam telling him that the Israelites were arrayed against him. He asked Balaam to curse the Israelites who were too mighty for Balak, for whomever Balaam blessed is blessed and whomever Balaam cursed is cursed.

Balaam asked God’s counsel. “God said unto Balaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.’” (Numbers 22:12) When Balaam refused Balak’s request, the latter sent his envoys a second time promising Balaam great honours. This time, without even consulting God, Balaam outright rejected the entreaties of the plenipotentiaries of Balak. The latter upped his game and for a third time sent a request carried by the most honourable members of his kingdom promising great rewards and requesting that he curse the Israelites. Once again, and without consulting God, Balaam not only rejected the request but clearly stated that he could not and would not accede to the request for ALL the gold and silver in the kingdom. However, he did agree to seek instructions from God and invited his guests to stay overnight. Thus, he revealed his weakness. He had already been given clear instructions by God.

“And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: ‘If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.’” (Numbers 22:20) Balaam did as he was told and mounted his ass in the morning to travel to see Balak. The three incidents with the ass followed. Except, something came in between. God had initially given his conditional permission. But then, “God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him…”(22:22) If God permitted Balaam to go in the first place, why did He get angry when He did. Why did His angel get in the way of the ass?

23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side.

25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.

27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.

Three times the ass refused to go forward, first going sideways into the field, then crushing Balaam’s leg against a wall when the ass tried to squeeze forward and a third time the ass simply squatted on his haunches. Each time Balaam beat his ass, but to no avail.

30. And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto?’ And he [Balaam] said: ‘Nay.’

The ass said that she did not deserve a beating. Balaam contended that she did because he had been humiliated, so much so that if he had had a sword, he would not just have beaten the ass; he would have killed her.

31. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

32. And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me;

33. and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

The ass had turned away from the angel with the sword and saved Balaam’s life.

34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: ‘I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.’

35. And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, ‘Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Balak now felt humbled rather than humiliated. If you want me to, he said to God, I will return and abandon my mission. N0, God, said, go forth and repeat only the words I tell you to say.

Why did the ass see the angel but Balaam did not? How could an ass speak and Balaam not be taken aback? And why three incidents in which the opportunities for the ass to move grew narrower and then impossible to traverse? Why did Balaam finally see the angel after he struck the ass three times? What is the meaning of the ass’s reprimand of Balaam? Why, when God instructed Balaam to only say what God told him, did the instruction have to be repeated at least three times?

Assuming that critical theory is correct and that the story of Balaam and his ass is an insertion into an older story, the questions still remain. It is not as if the contradiction between the two tales did not stand out.

One explanation is that the second story of Balaam and his ass was needed to cut Balaam down to size, to expose him, not as a trusted prophet of God who happened not to be a Hebrew, but an individual not able to see an angel that his ass could see. Balaam, the famous foreign prophet, was totally incapable of understanding God’s intent, only his words. Hence, he was cruel to that ass and needed the message to be reinforced a second time.

But why? One further explanation: the two stories belong to two different periods of the history of Israel, as attested by the linguistic differences, the first to a confident, imperial, universalist and humanist period of David and Solomon and the second to a xenophobic inward gazing Israel of the Second Temple Period.

I suggest that there is more to the juxtaposition of the two tales. The first is a tale in the old manner of a prophet who hears and is instructed by God and is willing, even in the face of a royal command, to do God’s bidding. The second is a satire of the first tale, akin to the Jonah story, in which Balaam, the interpreter of dreams who can hear oracles and prophesy, cannot even see what an ass can see. He who would disobey his king cannot now even get his ass to obey him. How would or could he ever have the strength of character to curse a nation that had just defeated the most powerful king in the region or, in turn, be worthy of blessing that nation?

There was a dynamic change; Balaam learned that he was ignorant, that he was human-all-too-human and could finally understand why he had to obey God’s orders. This issue is not simply the different cultures that may have been the source of the two stories or the contradictory intentions of the two stories when they are parsed apart, but the meaning when the two are conjoined. Balaam learns his lesson from his own ass which he was ready to kill.

Three times Balaam is asked to go on a mission for the king. Three times Balaam urges his ass to go forth and beats the ass when she does not. Now, three times will Balaam be asked by the king to curse the Israelites as the two stood together on the height overlooking the Israelite encampment. Three times did Balaam offer a sacrifice, even though Balaam clearly told the king that he could only speak the words God put into his mouth. Three times in three different locations Balaam blessed them instead.

“How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated.” (23:8) The second time, “Behold, I am bidden to bless; and when he hath blessed, I cannot call it back.” (23:20) But the third time, the spirit of God came upon him, Balaam’s eyes were opened and instead of being a ventriloquist’s puppet, he said, “How goodly are they tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (24:5) “God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.” (23:8) Further, Balaam reversed the target and said that anyone who cursed the Israelites would themselves be cursed. Even when that enemy was his own king.

Balaam thus was transformed from a reputed prophet, but one who could not see God’s messenger nor refrain from beating his ass out of frustration, and became a true prophet who cursed the enemies of Israel. Further, he could now truly prophecy.

“I watch him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth.” (24:17)

But there was a cost to the Israelites as well. They intermarried with the Moabite women and began to worship Baal as well. Thus, what turned around and cursed Balak when he wanted the other cursed, now turned around and cursed the Israelites who had been blessed by an Other.

The Israelites had still not learned to take responsibility for themselves even though they had travelled in the wilderness for forty years – even as a foreigner had moved from celebrity but not divinely inspired prophet to one humiliated and proven an ass by his own donkey and then into a redeemed prophet who was inspired by the spirit of the Lord and could engage in true prophesy.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part I: Donald Trump’s Racist Tweet

I have tried to put Donald Trump back in the closet where he belongs by focusing on other issues, mostly historical and theoretical. The main topic had to do with various views of Jews beginning in the sixteenth century. Why, then, should I think of Trump when, just moments ago, looking over the Georgia Strait from the front deck, I was watching a very young deer traipse over the rocks and plunge into the cove for a swim. Donald Trump won’t stay in the closet. If even someone as inconsequential to his role as myself dares to ignore him, he seems to up his game. But nothing he has said thus far, including such obscene beliefs as grabbing women by their pussies, has outraged me more than his recent tweet on four Democratic congresswomen.

By now, I am sure that everyone in the world is aware of what he said, but I reprint his tweet here as a reference.

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted,

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”

Unlike Lindsay Graham, Trump did not call them communists. Further, as even a few Republicans embarrassingly noted, the first proposition is an outright lie. However, even the vociferous Trump critic, former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, simply called the comments “deplorable and beneath the dignity of the office” but did not brand them as lies and racist.

Three of the four women, of course, were born in the U.S.A.: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) was born in New York – her parents are from Puerto Rico, part of the United States; Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) was born in Detroit of Palestinian-American parents; Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), an African-American, was born in Cincinnati. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) is the only one who was born abroad, in Somalia. She came to the United States as a young child and was made a citizen as a teenager. The parents of two of the four were born in America. All four are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and together are referred to as “The Squad”.

Once upon a time in America there was a widespread belief that it did not matter where you or your parents came from. If you were a citizen, you were entitled to all rights as a citizen. You were entitled to criticize the government, to put forth different ideas and to engage in debate about the future of the country. Once upon a time in America, and continuing into the present, it does matter if you are black or Latino. Despite progress, discrimination based on race remains widespread. Only racists say, “Go back to where you came from.” “Making America Great Again” means getting rid of browns and blacks, or, at the very least, denying their rights and returning the United States to its deeply racist past.

Trump does not, however, seem to be offended by Asians. After all, as Marc Short, Vice-President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, said on “Mornings with Maria” on Fox News in response to a question about Trump’s offensive tweet, “Trump can’t have “racist motives” because he appointed Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation.” Chao is a naturalized American from Taiwan who arrived in the United States at 8 years of age. The fact that she served as Secretary of Labor in Bush’s cabinet, the fact that she has had a distinguished career in government – she previously served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan – as well as the private sector, the fact that she is married to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, since 1993, may have nothing to do with her appointment. What counts for Marc Short is that she is a non-white in a cabinet consisting mainly of white old men.

Responding to the storm Trump had produced by his remarks, at least among Democrats and Independents, on Monday Trump did what he usually does, project his worst failings on others. On Monday morning, he tweeted, “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said. If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.” He spews racism and accuses those whose criticisms he would stifle as racists.

Further, Trump justified his racism by his support for Israel and to deflect critics. Not only has he achieved a new level of explicit racism, but he also raised the politicization of Israel to a dangerous height. By using support for Israel as an excuse for racist comments and to deflect criticism from his vile tweets, he set a new marker for the politicization of Israel in American politics. Israel was turned into a code word for evoking criticism of the other from his supporters. As disagreeable as I found the comments of a member of “The Squad” on Israel – for example, Tlaib supports BDS and unfairly criticized Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Risch for their anti-BDS legislation telling Rubio and Risch that they “forgot what country they represent” – the comments were not antisemitic. However ill-informed, they were well within the bounds of civil discourse and disagreement. Trump’s comments were not.

Trump portrayed the Congresswomen as “unpopular and unrepresentative.” The truth is that all four are very popular and very representative of their districts. They are unpopular and unrepresentative of the Republican Party. These were the results for each of the Congresswomen in the midterm elections:

Congresswoman % of vote Firsts re Congress
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez         78.2 youngest woman ever elected
Ilhan Omar 78%  first Muslim, along with Tlaib
Ayanna Pressley 98.3% first black elected in Mass.
Rashida Tlaib 84% first Palestinian-American

In the Democratic primaries, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley defeated long-serving progressive male Democratic members of Congress, Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano respectively.

Pressley called Donald Trump “a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “It is unfortunate that he feels the way he feels about people of colour in this country, about immigrants in this country, naturalised citizens or not, and it’s time to move on from him and his conception of an America that we have tried to move past for a long time.” Rashida Tlaib’s uncle, Bassam Tlaib, who lives in the West Bank, called the president’s comments “a racist statement meant to target Rashida because she has Palestinian roots.”

Ilhan Omar explained Trump’s bigoted rhetoric as an effort at distraction from much larger issues, like “the constant human rights violations and the policies that are detrimental to our existence in this country and the harm that he is causing on a daily basis to our constitution.” Others suggest that the monsoon of tweets on the subject was designed to shift eyeballs away from the Jeffrey Epstein investigation and prosecution. Katie Johnson accused Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein of having solicited sex acts in 1994 from her at sex parties held at the Manhattan homes of Epstein and Trump back when Johnson was just 13 years old. There are rumours that in the raids on the Jeffrey Epstein estates, the photographs and videos obtained implicate Trump in child sex activity. Tiffany Doe evidently corroborated Jane’s allegations. She has allegedly given sworn testimony that she met Epstein at Port Authority; she was hired to recruit other young girls for his parties. Trump, who in 1994 had known Epstein for seven years, attended those parties. Trump knew that Doe was only thirteen. 

Others assert that the US president believes that divisive and nativist rhetoric is his best chance of clinging on to the White House. Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted, “Trump launched his political brand 8 years ago saying the first African American President was born in Africa. It has always been about racism, and the fact that this has ever been a controversial thing to say is part of the problem.” Trump launched his presidential ambitions on the birther allegations by questioning Obama’s birthplace.  

Eugene Scott of The Washington Post opined yesterday morning that, “his campaign will feature the same explosive mix of white grievance and anti-immigrant nativism that helped elect him. Trump’s combustible formula of white identity politics already has reshaped the Republican Party, sidelining, silencing or converting nearly anyone who dares to challenge the racial insensitivity of his utterances. It also has pushed Democratic presidential candidates sharply to the left on issues such as immigration and civil rights, as they respond to the liberal backlash against him… At the core of the strategy is Trump’s consistent drumbeat of equating the white European immigrant experience with the American ideal, setting those on his side of the divide against the politically correct elites, outsiders, immigrants or non-whites who he implies are unfairly threatening what is good about the country.”

David Brooks of The New York Times gave the latter theme priority of place. The target was not consolidation in the Republican Party – already achieved – but defining the Democratic Party as radical. “Trump has a vested interest in keeping the progressives atop the Democratic Party, and he powerfully influences that party. When Pelosi tried to marginalize the squad, Trump issued a racist tweet against the squad’s members. Democrats responded predictably, and the squad was back as the party’s defining element.”

Whatever the explanation for the vile and reprehensible torrent of tweets, at the core, telling a fellow American to go back to her own country is overt, conscious and deliberate racism and not simply subtle and unconscious conditioned behaviour. It does appeal to his racist base – mainly white, male, ageing, and generally lacking any post-secondary education. Trump is simply an educated and rich racist.

The House of Representatives Tuesday evening properly condemned Trump for his racist tweets. By a 240-187 vote, split largely along party lines, the House “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” The outrage and the vote evidently had NO impact of Trump’s overall approval rating according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

To Be Continued – Part II: Trump’s Historical Record on Racism

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Yoke of Sacrifice: Parashah Chukkat Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Why did the Israelites have to spend 40 years in the wilderness? I was brought up to believe that the reason was that they still were drenched in the slave mentality that they had when they were in Egypt. It took two generations to wash out the residue of a sense of submission and dependency and thus enable them to take on the tribes of the Promised Land and defeat them.

This macho explanation seems on the surface to make psychological and sociological sense. Further, such an interpretation is consistent in many ways with this week’s parashah. After all, God instructs Moses and Aaron to obtain a red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Those who must offer their bodies and blood in the war that is inevitably coming must not have experienced the yoke of slavery. Instead of a golden calf to be worshipped by the mentally enslaved, this rare and perfect specimen must be burned and sacrificed and its ashes kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing.”

Why do the Israelites have to cleanse themselves this way? Why does contact with a corpse make them unclean, whether it be the corpse of someone who died a natural death, died of a disease or whether the individual was slain in battle? “If a person becomes unclean and does not cleanse himself, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Sanctuary of the Lord; the sprinkling waters were not sprinkled upon him. He is unclean.” (Numbers 19:20) So instead of the golden calf being an idol of worship, the ashes of a red heifer “shall be for the Israelites a perpetual statue.” 

Why have ashes of a pure red heifer that has never been yoked to a plough serve as a statue rather than a golden calf? Precisely to get men to face their humility rather than their pride. For from ashes dost thou come and to ashes wilt thou return.

This is the backdrop of the portion which continues in chapter 20 on a seemingly very different subject – the complaints of the Israelites to their leader Moses about the scarcity of water. We read the same refrain – why did you bring us here into this wilderness without water so that we and our cattle may die? The wilderness is an evil place without seeds, fig trees grapevines or pomegranate trees. Then we read of the famous scene where Moses takes his staff, hits a rock and from it water gushes forth. And the equally famous rejoinder of God to Moses, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12) Moses will not be allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land. What was Moses error? He asked the congregation, not whether God would let water flow from the rock but whether we (Moses and Aaron) can draw water from the rock.

One additional issue became clear; the Israelites were not a strong enough and disciplined military force to take on the Edomites who refused to allow Israel to cross through their territory. The evidence piles up that time was needed in the wilderness to turn them from slaves into a fighting force.

Further, Aaron too will die in the desert because he did not acknowledge God as providing the water. Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and gave them to his son, Eleazar; Aaron died on Mount Hor. Then the Canaanite king of Arad warred on the Israelites and took a captive. However, the Israelites prayed to their God and He destroyed the Canaanite cities and consecrated them for the Israelites.

As the Israelites march on and complain bitterly of their situation, God this time sent a plague of snakes, serpents to bite them and they died. But Moses made a rod with a snake wound around it that bore a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius which is used to cure a bitten Israelite from a bite.

Their wandering continued – from Oboth to the wasteland that faced the Moabites, to the stream of Zered and on the other side of the Arnon. Again, the Israelites sent a message to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through their lands. Again, they were turned down. But Sihon went a step further and attacked the Israelites. This time, the Israelites turned on the Amonites and slew them and captured their cities.

Does this not seem proof enough that the tour of duty in the wilderness was intended to turn the Israelites into a formidable fighting force? The Israelites went on from victory to victory.

The dilemma with this interpretation is that it leaves too many puzzles unexplained. First, why is the scene where Moses strikes the rock with his staff to bring forth water followed by the explanation that the Israelites were too weak as a military force to engage in a conflict with the Edomites who would not let the Israelites cross their territory? However, this was their 40th year of their sojourn in the wilderness. If not then, when? Further, immediately after they go on the war path, they beat one tribe after another.

There is an explanation. This story did not take place in the 40th year but in the first year when they began their sojourn in the desert. The story of Moses striking the stone with his staff to bring forth water was told before – in Exodus (17:1-7). Then, the people complained to Moses over escaping slavery only to bring them to a desert where they would die of thirst. If this were the fortieth year of their wandering, why would they still be complaining about being misled in their escape from slavery? The wilderness of Zin would appear to be the wilderness of Sin referred to in Exodus. Further, the place where the water gushed forth was named “Waters of Quarrel” (Mei Meribah) [or “Testing of Quarrel” in Exodus] symbolizing the Israelites quarrel with Moses.

Why tell the story again here? It is to make a different point. The issue is not simply that Moses and Aaron this time were punished for taking the credit for bringing forth the water. Moses and Aaron broke faith with God. (Deuteronomy 32:51) They took credit. They stood on their own feet instead of simply following orders. And they paid the ultimate sacrifice for their disobedience, but a sacrifice necessary if the Israelite army was to act independently, creatively and as a unified force. For the Israelites were now powered by a self-confidence and morale based on a unified polity.  

The story is about giving birth to a new kind of Israeli as symbolized by the breaking of a membrane and waters gushing forth as when a woman is ready to give birth. Miriam died at the beginning of the story with no comment on the significance of her life and death. Moses and Aaron were left to die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. This in itself suggests that the Israelites were about to embark on a new cultural order, not dependent as before on absolute rulers. The old order dies and gives way to the new. Did it mean that they were no longer dependent of an absolute patriarchal order?

Rashi explained the repetition of the event (and not just the story) as arising because Miriam had died and it was because of Miriam, the one who saved her brother by floating him on the water, that the Israelites had water. When she died, once again water became scarse. I do believe Miriam has a key role in interpreting the portion, but not as an explanation why water became scarce. She did die in the wilderness of Zin where the miracle of the water gushing from the rock took place.  

The overwhelming evidence suggests that this was the same story about the same event, but one given a very different twist when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. And it will be about a feminine principle and not about the need to socialize men to be macho rather than slavish. Further, they battle unlike any army I have read about. They politely ask for permission to pass through a territory and guarantee that they will not steal a single animal. They engage in war only when passage is denied. They not only surrender the greatest strategic benefit of all – surprise – but they clearly signal that they do not want war. Not very macho!

Further, this portion continues the pattern of the Torah of giving very short shift to the death of heroines and almost no attention to their burial in contrast to how the tales of the great men’s deaths and burials are recorded and, as well, in contrast to post-biblical accounts of women’s deaths, such as those told by Philo and Josephus.

Finally, it is questionable whether the Israelites had a slavish personality in the first place. In fact, I would claim that a major theme running from Exodus to Numbers about the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness is about their grumbling and complaining, about their dissent and willingness to say it as it is rather than buckle under and simply obey the commands of their authoritarian leaders and God. The story of the snakes offers another example.

“YHWH sent saraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6) The people surrender and express once again their regret. In criticizing Moses and God, they were out of line. Once again Moses is asked by his people to intercede with God. Once again, God relents. He tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent coiled around a rod. It can be used to heal people who are bitten. It is the same icon that the Israelites will have come to worship in the time of King Hezekiah (Kings 18:4) but one that Hezekiah would destroy. (But that is another story. How did a symbol of health and healing become an object of idol worship to which sacrifices were offered?)

In Egypt, serpents were symbols of life and healing, of monarchial rule and protection. In ancient Greece, Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was rescued by his father from the womb of his mother Coronis before she died. Asclepius was identified by the staff he held with the serpent wound around it that became the symbol of medicine. The story told in this week’s portion links the Garden of Eden story where the serpent of poisonous tongue is reduced to a slithering figure on the ground. Contrast this with the resurrection of the snake to a position among the gods and rulers to serve the most humanitarian of purposes, bringing life back to a person on the verge of death.

I suggest that this tale of fertility, of healing, of the resurrection of the snake from being regarded as a sinful danger, of sexual temptation, offers a critical element in interpreting the portion. Moses is transformed before he dies from a ruler who governs by division and divination to one who serves as a healer bringing the people he led together. This is what made the Israelite army powerful. It was unified and not divided by factions. It was not a murderous band, however much destruction it brought, but its goal was civility and peace. In sum, it was not a macho army.

Like Asclepius, Moses was a baby rescued from death. The Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. However, they were suffering from a serious problem of morale. The root of the problem – dissent was not tolerated. The leadership did not recognize others with a different voice and perspective as worthy of respect, as worthy of a hearing. How better to heal this deficiency than by telling the same story from a different perspective, but this time where the ultimate dissent and sacrifice was paid by the two highest leaders.

Eve recognized sex. Eve was not just a material projection of Adam’s body but an independent being. Adam had to learn that he was embodied, that he was not simply an instrument to continue God’s role in creation by naming and classifying things. Adam needed a heart. It is at the end of the wilderness tale that the Israelites finally come to recognize they have a heart, that their survival depends much more on their feelings towards one another than any military prowess. Further, it was Eve through procreation that ensured the continuity of human life. Yet that role in procreation was seen as punishment for she brought forth new life in pain.

Like Asclepius, Moses too would learn the art of healing, of bringing together by recognizing and listening to the other just as Asclepius acquired his medical knowledge and wisdom by observing the snake. Moses would give the Israelites his final lesson – the importance of willing sacrifice if a powerful and creative polity was to develop.

Attending to the inclusion of Marion as the foundation of the parashah, attending to the symbolic meaning of the twist of bringing water from a rock by striking it with one’s staff, allows the punishment of both Aaron and Moses for not recognizing God as the exclusive source of everything, to make real sense. Moses and Aaron effectively rebelled. They had to be punished. However, their sacrifice made all the difference in transforming the Israelites.

Hence the importance of the red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Its ashes must be kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing,” as a perpetual statue. Dirty water as a perpetual statue!!! Further, how can dirty water be used to purify another? And why is that other made impure by contact with death and with dirty water?

Aaron and Moses lose their purity by getting their hands dirty. They take responsibility onto themselves and suffer the consequences. Just as the clothes in a washing machine are cleaned by making pure water dirty, so do Moses and Aaron become dirty in order to cleanse the Israelis and turn them into a unified polity. They remove dissension by becoming the dissidents themselves. Thus, they teach the Israelites what it really means to both recognize another as other yet deeply and truly invest in and sacrifice for that other.

This is what the process of expiation, cleansing and purification is about. That is how sins are really washed away. It is we who must sacrifice for the mess God left, for it is God, who is disembodied, who had not yet learned what it meant to be embodied and to love another, and how that reciprocal love was so very critical to creating an effective polity. Moses and Aaron serve as the scapegoats to pass along this lesson. After all, the red heifer is a female. No more blaming others. Recognize others and take responsibility for what you do. Water is the means to wash away our mindblindness even if it means that the water of purification becomes dirty in the process.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Annexation versus Expanding Sovereignty in the West Bank

Is the extension of sovereignty identical with annexation? Further, since settlers as Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli law and most of the territory is already under Israeli administrative and security control, what difference would the initiative make? What effect will the initiative have on the American Peace Plan? A number of other questions follow. What are the variations in any extension of the sovereignty initiative? How would the initiative be received by:

  1. Palestinians;
  2. Egypt and Jordan which have peace agreements with Israel;
  3. Other Arab, particularly Gulf, states;
  4. The coalition of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in opposition to the Gulf Arab states, with some support from Turkey;
  5. Moderate Arab states such as Morocco;
  6. Europe;
  7. Russia;
  8. China;
  9. Middle powers like Canada;
  10.  The international legal regime?

There is a difference between annexation and the gradual extension of sovereignty. Most importantly, annexation cannot be gradual. It usually follows occupation and entails the unilateral joining of a conquered territory to the territory of the conqueror. “Conquest and annexation are not synonymous either. The latter term is used within and outside (my italics) the context of armed conflicts, to designate a unilateral decision adopted by a state in order to extend its sovereignty over a given territory. In many cases, the effective occupation of a terra nullius was followed by a declaration of annexation in order to incorporate the territory under the sovereignty of the acquiring State. In the context of armed conflicts, annexation is the case in which the victorious state unilaterally declares that it is henceforth sovereign over the territory having passed under its control as a result of hostilities.” (See Marcelo G. Kohen’s 2017 essay, “Conquest” published in the collection edited by Frauke Lachenmann and Rűdiger Wolfrum, the editors of The Law of Armed Conflict and the Use of Force.)

Complete sovereignty follows annexation. Annexation asserts legal title. But extending sovereignty does not entail annexation. Sovereignty may be extended by degrees and over time. In contrast, either a territory is annexed or it is not. The unilateral annexation of territory of another state, whether it was Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Ethiopia by Italy in 1936, is generally regarded as illegal. But what if the territory has not been allocated to a recognized state? And what if the territory annexed was not conquered as such but acquired in a defensive war?

Under Israeli constitutional law, Israeli law, and, therefore, sovereignty, can be extended to new territories via:

  1. Ministerial decree if the land is located within mandatory Palestine/Eretz Israel – the Israeli cabinet decided to annex East Jerusalem in 1967, a decision ratified in 1980 in “Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel;”
  2. Legislation if the land never was part of Mandatory Palestine, as was the case with the Golan Heights in 1981, which, unlike Bibi’s April election pledge, applied to the whole geographic area of the Golan, including all the Druze villages, as distinct from the extension of sovereignty over the West Bank that presumably would apply only to specific Jewish municipalities.

On the other hand, the extension of sovereignty can be gradual. When one country conquers another, the conquering nation exercises sovereignty over the conquered territory. No annexation need occur. The degree of sovereignty extended is variable. Extending Israeli law to cover Israeli citizens living in the West Bank is an extension of Israeli sovereignty. That is already the case with residents of “legal” settlements and certainly all settlements in Area C. Extending Israeli domestic security to cover Areas B and C is another extension of Israeli sovereignty. Extending Israeli domestic administration to cover Area B and C is a further extension of Israeli authority. Israel already controls the external security over the whole of the West Bank and effectively over Gaza, though only with respect to the control of air space, access by water, limitations on fishing rights and access by land from Israel.

Extending sovereignty is usually carried out by an executive decision though it may be backed up by legislation. Annexation requires legislation. Bibi did not promise to annex Israeli blocs in the West Bank but gradually increase Israeli sovereignty over the blocs. While extension of sovereignty over blocs in Areas A and B makes sense in the meaning that it can be comprehended, what could the extension of sovereignty mean in the case of Area C if not annexation?

Between 2016 and 2018, a number of private bills in the Knesset attempted to extend the application of Israeli law to: a) specific settlements; b) the Jordan Valley; c) all settlements. In other words, shifting from a cabinet decision to legislation entails a gradual increase in sovereignty even if there are no changes on the ground. The difference is that legislation unequivocally translates the gradual extension of sovereignty approaching virtual annexation through de jure and not merely de facto action, even when de facto decisions actually extend Israeli law. Extending laws by legislation sends a message of permanence. It is very significant in symbolic terms.
 
But it is not only symbolic. If areas are annexed by legislation, it is incumbent upon the party that exercises sovereignty to offer citizenship to the residents of the area. Israel did this with the Druzim living on the Golan Heights. Bibi’s announcement, even though unarticulated, makes if fairly clear that there would be no offers of citizenship extended to Palestinians, if only because the targeted areas for extending sovereignty include only Jews who are already citizens of Israel.

 
Why did Bibi not include all of Area C which is 60% of the West Bank? After all, of the original 500,000 Palestinians that were living there in 1967, there are likely less than 150,000, perhaps only 100,000, left. Offering citizenship to up to 150,000 Palestinians might be perceived as good public relations, but it would clearly put a one-state solution totally on the table.

More significantly, the gradual extension of sovereignty does not explicitly contravene the Oslo Accords, which specifically forbids changes in the permanent status not agreed to by both Palestinians and Israelis. If Israel, through unilateral legislation, effectively annexed Israeli-occupied municipal enclaves, it would be an official declaration that Oslo was dead. Oslo may no longer even be on life support, but no authority has yet declared that it is brain dead. Creeping annexation, an oxymoron, is really another name for the gradual extension of sovereignty, even though it is not annexation per se. However, the salami method of extending sovereignty reveals that the end goal is annexation. If Israel does not change the status of any areas in the West Bank by legislative acts, then Israel could continue the pretence that there has been no annexation. Further, even if the extension of sovereignty takes place as a result of legislation, Israel could argue, not very convincingly, that the Palestinians living next to these municipal areas still could theoretically create their own state even though their mobility rights might be very restricted.

But why at this time? Unlike the Golan, Israel cannot explain the move to be a result of war – there is no intifada currently underway in the West Bank – or even a significant security threat as existed in the Golan. One reason might be that the move for extending sovereignty would engage wide domestic support and muted international opposition while outright annexation might arouse both the international community as well as a very significant part of the Israeli electorate.
 
Did Bibi concede in advance the demand of the Union of Right-Wing Parties representing all the settlers, especially the national-religious ones (Shas and UTJ), that extending sovereignty gradually would be part of a deal to form his government? Bibi’s extension of sovereignty initiative was widely viewed as an effort aimed at galvanizing support among his nationalist base and right-wing allies, which it evidently did, but possibly at the expense of Bennett. In the negotiations with his allies in the new prospective government, it is not clear what promises he made to them concerning this issue, but the extension of sovereignty was certainly believed to be one of the promises that he made. When asked in that TV interview on 6 April on Israel Channel 12 why he had not annexed Israeli settlement blocs, most specifically Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion, Bibi replied, “Yes. We will go to the next phase to graduallyextend Israeli sovereignty in the areas of Judea and Samaria.”
 
That answer stirred up greater consternation among part of the Israeli public and around the world. Bibi added that, “I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements.” Bibi added three further clarifications. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.” He also added, “We will control all of the area west of the Jordan River.”

The plan in outline then included:

  • Imposing sovereignty on outlier settlements as well;
  • There would be no uprooting of anyone, either Palestinian or Israeli;
  • There would be no transfer of sovereignty to the Palestinians, even in Area A where the Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for administration and domestic security and Area B where the PA is responsible only for internal administration;
  • Israel would continue to control the whole of the West Bank.

Why the surprise? Variations of this had always been the policy of the Likud. On 31 December 2017, 1,500 delegates to the Likud Party Congress unanimously required Likud elected officials to “take action to facilitate unlimited construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty over all the liberated settlement zones in Judea and Samaria.” 

Bibi’s announcement was immediately (mis-?)interpreted by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki as an intention to declare sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank. He held out the prospect that this would be a move to a one-state solution which would mean that Bibi would be faced, in Malki’s words, with “the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians.” But Malki’s figure included Palestinians in Gaza; the announcement did not include any intention to extend sovereignty over Gaza.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem previously annexed by Israel have been eligible for Israeli citizenship since it was annexed decades ago, even though, in the last few years, bureaucratic obstacles have been placed in the way of Palestinians applying for such citizenship. The actual number of Palestinians affected by Israel extending sovereignty into the West Bank would only be 2.8 million. Bibi ruled out ethnic cleansing since he promised that no one would be uprooted.

The announcement implies the extension of sovereignty only over Israeli blocs rather than a specific territory, even the whole of Area C. In depicting “outlier” settlements, this seemed to include Israeli settlements in territory under Palestinian security and administrative control. But what about the roads and infrastructure that link the settlements to one another and to Israel?

Whatever the interpretation re the extent of the sovereignty, it is widely believed that any effort in this direction would put the final stake in the possibility of a two-state solution because the move would make the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state impossible, especially since Bibi announced that no sovereignty would be transferred to the Palestinians, which he claimed would “endanger our existence.”
 
Given that Donald Trump had recognized a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and, much more recently, Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a further assumption was made by many that Bibi had conferred with Trump on the extension of sovereignty plan and, further, that Trump had promised his support.

Perhaps Putin as well had extended his quiet endorsement given Russia’s need to gain greater support for its own initiatives in annexation.

 
To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part V: The Palestine Economy

By the Palestine economy, I refer primarily to the West Bank and only to the parts of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Gaza will receive only a cursory attention. As suggested in yesterday’s blog, that economy is under severe strain. Each and every individual in the West Bank is affected. The impact can be illustrated by a story that appeared in the Times of Israel yesterday.

Ahmad, a 31-year-old resident of Nablus, is a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces. He is a father of two. In June, his salary totaled US$700. This was after Israel decided in February to withhold tax rebates equivalent to the amounts the PA paid the families of security prisoners and terrorists killed by the IDF and border police. Abbas decided to shoot itself in the foot by refusing all tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the PA until the cuts were restored. Those revenues totalled half of the income of the PA. The effect on Ahmad – a decline in his salary by 20% or US$140 per month. For others in less critical roles, salary cuts may have been as much as 50%. Jafar Sadaka, a reporter for the PA’s official news outlet Wafa, said Ramallah cut his salary from NIS 4,000 to around NIS 2,000 or US$560 per month. There are insufficient funds even to pay rent and put food on the table.

Add to these indicators the rise in unemployment, especially among the young, the decline in manufacturing and retail sales that have put many businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, and it is an understatement to say that there is an economic crisis in Palestine.

Another factor in the decline in revenue to the Palestinian Authority has been the cut in monies allocated to the PA and Palestinian refugees by the Trump administration. When the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas boycotted President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt. However, diplomatic efforts are currently underway to bridge the rift between the U.S. and the PA. Majid Faraj, head of PA security services, is leading the rapprochement following backroom exchanges. Economic pressure has forced the PA to come on bended knees to restore communications with the U.S.

Whatever the failures of the Bahrain workshop for American diplomacy, this might be counted as a success. For the results in Bahrain were far worse for the PA as it was clearly deserted and left to stew in its own juices by its major Arab allies and supporters. The gloom that resulted added to the previous despair that was a product of the abandonment of militancy since efforts to protest the Israeli occupation were met with harsh responses; the protests set the Palestinians back even further. Meagre achievements did not justify the loss in human lives.

Greenblatt’s message to the Palestinians: “The Palestinian leadership must internalize that the success of the conference in Bahrain shows that there are those who believe in peace and in the ability of the Palestinian people to create a good and prosperous economy with the help of many investors. This is an opportunity that the Palestinian leadership must not miss.” Will they or won’t they?

Given that the Europeans have been political pygmies in advancing economic peace in the Middle East, the EU has tried to offset its political weakness with large investments in infrastructure. One project to use wind farms to both generate electricity as well as solve the serious shortage of water has entailed investing 100 million euros ($112.8 million) over the last three years in this project. As the EU has stated its goal: “this project aims at ‘supporting the Palestinians’ right to water. Water is a right just like dignity and freedom. We choose to stand by this right, and we choose to be with the Palestinians in their long journey until we reach an independent Palestinian state.”

France and the EU may try to stand tall on a pile of euros, but the reality is that there has been a decline of 50% in economic aid to the Palestinians over the last six years. |In any case, a political resolution must go in tandem with economic initiatives and cannot be viewed as a separate goal. Otherwise, the EU is making the same mistake as the Trump administration.

In spite of Bahrain, temporary relief might be coming from the Gulf States. In May, Qatar promised to send $50 million in grants and $250 million in loans to the PA over the next 12 months. However, a finger in a dike will not prevent a flood, contrary to myth.

What a contrast to the early optimism and economic improvement following the Oslo Accords! What happened? For the following, I have relied on some Israeli economists, but mostly on the report of Dr. Mohammed Samhouri, a former senior economist of the Palestinian Authority and fellow at Brandeis University in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies. (“Explaining Failure: How Palestinian economic potential was denied during Oslo”, July 2019)

The PA is just 25 years old. Samhouri traces the stages of the increasing economic anemia of the West Bank. Last year, Palestine had a very meagre economic growth (0.9%). This year, there will be a severe decline. Oslo was premised as much on economic development as on the political negotiations. In fact, the stability of PA political institutions was seen as a magnet for attracting economic investment when combined with the negotiated economic arrangement between Israel and the PA known as the Paris Protocol.

Samhouri argued that it was not the economic plan that was faulty. Instead, he located the failure in the “wider political, security and territorial context.” There were three: “(1) the restrictive nature of the political and territorial arrangements t. Instead, he at were negotiated between Israel and the PLO; (2) the deterioration in political and security conditions during the 1994-2019 period; and (3) the Israeli system of constraints, complex and multilayered, that was imposed on the access and movement of Palestinian people and merchandise trade in and out of WBG.”

Israeli security was premised on restrictions and control. Palestinian economic development was premised on the free flow of capital, labour and goods. The two premises were incompatible. The most obvious example was not only the tripartite division of the West Bank under Oslo with Areas A, B and C under different or combined authorities, but the division of the areas under PA control into a fragmented economic terrain of disconnected towns and villages.

Further, according to Oslo II (Chapter 2, Article XI.3.c), Israel’s temporary control over Area C did not end in July 1997 as intended. Instead of a gradual transfer of responsibilities and authority to the PA, the creeping extension of Israeli sovereignty began, initially to control the movement of people and goods in part in response to the series of suicide bombings in Israel in 1996, but also through the confiscation of private Palestinian land, ostensibly for security purposes, the expansion of Israeli settlements and the building of Israeli-only road connections.

By 2000, the tipping point had been reached with the failure of the Camp David Summit. The Palestinian economy began its downward spiral, propelled by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. By 2002, Israel occupied all of Area C and began the construction of the separation barrier largely on West Bank land. Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza completed in September 2005 led to the election and coup by a radical Palestinian political party, Hamas. Israeli and Western reprisals followed and reinforced a deep schism in the Palestinian polity. The faith of Israelis in the peace process, never very hardy at any time, began a downward slide to match that of the Palestinian economy.

Three wars with Gaza, 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014, followed as Gaza became a base for rocket attacks on Israel and the latter responded with a tighter and tighter economic squeeze involving the closure of commercial crossings and the shrinking of the sea areas in which Palestinians could fish. The economic blockade was eased when Hamas prevented its militias and that of other groups from engaging in terrorist acts and tightened when missiles and, more lately, fire balloons were sent across the border against Israel. For twelve years, the economic blockade of Gaza was either enforced or eased in response to the behaviour of the radical leadership in Gaza. Gaza, thus, also served as an object lesson for the West Bank Palestinians and the international community as well as Israel.

The election of Hamas in Gaza was followed by the effort to reignite the peace process in a summit in Annapolis Maryland in November 2007, an EU-led pledging conference that committed $7.7 billion for investment in the West Bank, the strengthening of security coordination between the PA and Israel and the easing of Palestinian movements between West Bank urban centres. However, the economic improvements were feeble and short-lived. A West-Bank first policy became just another in a long series of failed efforts to solve political problems with economic band aids.

The West Bank economy remained structurally weak with an overloaded and inefficient public sector, endemic corruption and a dependency on outside aid that soon began to decline. A one-third unemployment rate would sometimes be offset with joint Israeli-Palestinian entrepreneurial partnerships, but never in sufficient amounts to offset the economic disruptions of a dysfunctional Palestinian governing apparatus and Israeli settler expansion and additional fragmentation of the intra-Palestinian transportation and communication systems.

As Samhouri documented, the economic indicators are terrible:

  • decline in manufacturing by about one-half
  • severe drop in agricultural productivity by more than two-thirds
  • decline in private investment
  • private investment largely goes into residential construction, retail trade and services
  • decline in internal capital formation by two-thirds
  • decline in merchandise exports by 20% while remaining concentrated in low value-added products
  • increased dependency on the Israeli economy; 83% of exports go to Israel
  • use of foreign aid to offset budget deficits versus capital and infrastructure projects.

Samhouri traced the decline to:

  • Military occupation
  • A faulty foundation in the Paris Protocol that resulted in a lopsided pattern of dependency and restrictions
  • General insecurity for economic investment resulting from an unresolved military conflict
  • Singular dependency on Israel

“After researching the Palestinian economy for several years, we are convinced that its links with the Israeli economy were the most important factor in determining the course of its economic development. The formation of these links and the nature of the labor, goods, and capital flows between the Palestinian and Israel economies, were determined almost exclusively by Israel.” Israeli economists Arie Arnon, Israel Luski, Avia Spivak, and Jimmy Weinblatt

  • Restrictions on mobility resulting largely from Israeli constraints that reduced supply capacity and increased transportation costs while preventing economies of scale
  • Limitations on access and utilization of Palestinian land and water resources and on the ability to, import raw materials and machinery
  • Inability to freely reach regional and international markets 
  • Lack of access to resource-rich Area C (60% of the West Bank) at an estimated cost of $3.4 billion and $800 million in tax revenues
  • Lack of access to the Jordan Valley where the development of agriculture could create 100,000-200,000 new jobs
  • Lack of access to the resource rich Dead Sea
  • The construction and expansion of Israeli settlements where employment opportunities were offset by further restrictions
  • The construction of the Separation Barrier that created a seam zone (9.4% of the West Bank) of agricultural land inaccessible to Palestinian farmers
  • Restrictions on the use of modern telecommunication equipment
  • An absence of Palestinian fiscal, monetary, exchange rate, and trade policy tools
  • The severe restrictions on decision responsibility that will cramp any enterprise, whether private or public sector

This past record provides an object lesson in why one cannot separate transactional initiatives from solid progress on the political and military fronts and, further, why political agreements must be properly thought through to assess the impact of agreements on the economic sector. The lesson posed by Greenblatt’s challenge is that even if the PA submits to the behemoth of the U.S.-Israeli partnership, no significant breakthroughs will be forthcoming on the ground unless political and economic approaches are viewed synergistically. Further, it is crucial that the right formula for their marriage be found and that the mistakes of Oslo not be repeated.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part IV: The Palestinian Response to the Extension of Sovereignty

On 22 December 2014, a new non-partisan movement called Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) was founded. It represented more than 150 retired high-ranking security officials from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Mossad, Shin Bet and the National Police. CIS called upon the Israeli public to encourage Israel’s political leadership to embark on a regional effort in cooperation with the Arab Peace Initiative in order to advance a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on the principle of “two states for two peoples.” Recently, this group seemed most concerned about the impact of the extension of sovereignty promise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the current cooperation between the Israeli and the Palestinian security services.

In 2014, former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo worried about “the threats against us on the one hand, and the government’s blindness and political and strategic paralysis on the other.” He continued: “Although the State of Israel is dependent upon the United States, the relationship between the two countries has reached an unprecedented low point. Europe, our biggest market, has grown tired of us and is heading toward imposing sanctions on us. For China, Israel is an attractive high-tech project, and we are selling them our national assets for the sake of profit. Russia is gradually turning against us and supporting and assisting our enemies.”

Five years later, how the situation has radically changed. The relationship between the USA and Israel has reached an unprecedented peak of cooperation at the same time as Israeli policy shifted further to the right and bolder right-wing initiatives were undertaken that were backed by the USA. In spite of that, there are no EU sanctions in the works. In fact, the EU is desperately seeking ways around enhanced American sanctions against Iran. Israeli cooperation with both China and Putin’s Russia has grown. 

Five years ago, Pardo added, “Our public diplomacy and public relations have failed dismally, while those of the Palestinians have garnered many important accomplishments in the world.” In fact, the reverse has turned out to be true. Israeli diplomacy has secured unprecedented successes with Egypt and the Gulf states. European voices have remained relatively muted. And Russia has served as a mediator between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Turkey. At the same time, the influence of Palestinian diplomacy has stalled in most places and declined precipitously in Washington. Although the Palestinian Authority achieved a number of breakthroughs in the United Nations and within international agencies, for the last few years progress on the Palestine project has stalled.

However, the voices of both the PLO and Hamas have grown on university campuses in the West, particularly in the U.S. “They are hothouses for the future leadership of their countries. We are losing the fight for support for Israel in the academic world. An increasing number of Jewish students are turning away from Israel. The global BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel, which works for Israel’s delegitimization, has grown, and quite a few Jews are members.” On the other side, in official political circles on both the state and federal level in America, efforts to advance the BDS agenda have been made illegal.

What is clear and less controversial is that the Oslo process, instead of moving both sides towards a resolution of the conflict based on two states for two peoples, has been undermined and inverted to serve as a cover for practices that disempower Palestinians in the West Bank. The Oslo Accord has more recently been interpreted as a “capitulation agreement” given the consequences that followed the signing. Israeli dominance has increased and the sovereignty accorded the Palestinians, though increased in some respects, has diminished overall.

The reason the Oslo Accords are now interpreted as a failed framework is because the steps taken on the ground have advanced Israeli sovereignty without penalty or consequences. Palestinians have become more politically vulnerable as the security situation in the Middle East has pushed greater cooperation between Israel and a number of Arab states. At the same time, both Europe and the international community have demonstrated the relative impotence of the members of these two groups. Distorted and mis-applied language, such as the French ambassador to the U.S. depicting Israel as an apartheid state, and denunciations that misdescribe and miss their target, such as the objections to Bibi’s policy of expanded sovereignty as annexation, are all signs of desperation rather than avenues for a more constructive approach.

Nothing recently has signified the impasse that has developed as much as the recent Bahrain conference ostensibly designed to push the parties towards an agreement, but revealed as an empty gesture, especially since neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority was in attendance. Under the cover of pseudo-diplomacy, Israeli efforts to extend sovereignty in areas of the West Bank have proceeded unimpeded. Ever since 1948 when a transactional approach was first proposed as the foundation for resolving the Palestinian refugee situation, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created to use economic development initiatives to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Iraq, America continues to push unrealistic solutions for a problem that seems impervious to either a two state solution or a one state resolution with the recognition of two nations with equal rights as part of a single state. Disconnected dreams and possibilities disguise and cloud the reality of an unbreachable chasm. Americans once again dream of replacing political with economic leadership for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.  

It is a fantasy. Interests can never substitute for resolving questions of a collective good, especially when the good envisaged by one side is so out of synch with the good imagined by the other side. What happens then? Israelis out of ideological conviction or strategic exhaustion now continue their march towards enhanced sovereignty leading to annexation of Area C of the West Bank while protecting settlements outside Area C. Palestinians fight a rearguard action to resist accepting a state truncated in its geographic base and its sovereign range and that seems more akin to a reserve for indigenous people in North America than a true sovereign state based on the self-determination of its people.

Palestinians know the situation is getting worse and worse for them as they try different options for coaxing the genie out of its bottle. They can read the polls that show the right wing almost certainly destined to retain control of the Israeli polity in the next election. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, advances will have gone too far for any significant reversal. And no one in the Israeli peace camp has anything but utopian visions to deal with a conflict deeply rooted in realpolitik. It does not help the Palestinian cause when Israeli breaches of human rights pale in comparison to the Palestinian Authority detaining 1,600 peaceful protesters during the last twelve months alone and Hamas arresting another 1,000 in just one month, March of 2019, in a context in which even a peaceful protest is virtually impossible.

The Palestinians in Israel cannot be left out of the analysis. At the same time as a Palestinian Israeli has become the head of one of Israel’s major banks, Arab Israeli members of the Knesset continue to demonstrate their absolute opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. Even Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, a Christian Arab, refused to sing the national anthem at the 2012 swearing-in of Justice Asher Grunis. Jewish Israelis will not recognize that they live in a bi-national state and Palestinians will not recognize the rights to a Jewish state while demanding absolute sovereignty for a Palestinian state. The contradictions are not just daunting. They seem insurmountable.

There is another factor serving as a propellant for the enhanced energy and determination of the Israeli right. The rise in antisemitism in Europe has not only pushed many French Jews into moving to Israel, it has strengthened the cause of ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state dedicated to providing a home for Jews fleeing insecurity elsewhere. American Jews continue to remain relatively immune to this fear, even though there has also been a rise in antisemitism in North America. 73% of Jewish Americans feel Jews have become less secure since Trump, a champion of Israel and a Bibi lackey, assumed office in these past two years. Antisemitic rhetoric and actual attacks on the ground have increased. The attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018 leaving 11 parishioners dead now serves as a symbolic signpost. Six months later this past March, an attack on a Chabad synagogue killed another Jewish worshipper.

These attacks and shouts of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville, reinforced by many more incidents of antisemitic vandalism, may have increased Jewish support for Trump even though he has been an apologist for the far right. However, these vents have not as yet enhanced resettlement numbers in Israel from America. But it has clearly put Israel as a sanctuary in a new light, especially with the rise in radical rhetoric attacking Israel from the left.

How can Palestinians cope with the tactic of Israel expanding sovereignty by small installments? How have they responded to the offer in the new Kushner initiative of 22 June 2019 of $50 billion and presented as a formal offer in Manama, Bahrain on 25-6 June? The monies would be dedicated to Palestinian economic improvement with the bulk of the funds allocated to the Palestinian territories and much of the rest used by Jordan and Lebanon in return for offering citizenship to Palestinians who lack such recognition but live within those states. With only mid-level bureaucrats rather than Ministers of Finance from the European states, and even low-level ministers from Egypt and Jordan, the Bahrain meeting lacked gravitas to match its glossy promotional rhetoric.

In May, the Palestinians had already announced that they would boycott the workshop, a boycott with the unprecedented backing of virtually all sectors of Palestinian society, most importantly in this case, in addition to all political parties and civil society organizations, business and trade associations as well as unions. The Palestinians could have attended and placed strenuous conditions on accepting the monies and perhaps influenced the shape of the political part of the peace plan to be announced this fall. But they had lost faith in the good faith of the U.S. The Palestinian Working Group on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon also rejected the offer. So did the Lebanese government which also refused to join the workshop. On 26 June, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced its rejection in Lebanon’s parliament. On 27 June before the Council of Ministers, Hariri declared, “Our constitution is clear and forbids resettlement and emphasizes the right of return.”

Why was Lebanon opposed? For the same reason it never offered the vast majority of Palestinian refugees citizenship over the past seventy years. Lebanon feared the political and social consequences of such a demographic shift and the threat to the sectoral balance among Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Further, implied offers to resettle some of the Palestinian refugees seem far vaguer than previous proposals and represent an even weaker base of burden sharing. The $6 billion offered was just not worth the risks to the fragile stability of Lebanon, even though the expenditures would improve Lebanon’s transportation infrastructure, trade network and tourism sector. Further, since $4.6 billion of that $6 billion came in the form of debt that would further escalate Lebanon’s ballooning indebtedness (currently 150% of GDP), the incentive seemed to be magical trickery rather than a genuine offer of aid. This was especially true since the rumour that had previously circulated was that Lebanon’s debts would be forgiven in return for offering most of the Palestinians citizenship. In any case, only 5 of the 179 economic projects proposed were for Lebanon.

The demographic fear seemed to be confirmed when Jared Kushner in a conference call with Arab media on 3 July said, “I also think that the Palestinian refugees who are in Lebanon, who are denied a lot of rights and don’t have the best conditions right now, would also like to see a situation where there is a pathway for them to have more rights and to live a better life.” The reality: the offer was far too meagre and too inconsequential and spread over too many years to offset the demographic risks. Kushner did not even seem to be able to make transactional diplomacy meaningful.

The Democrats do not have anything much better to offer. They simply seemed to be fixated on re-establishing the status quo ante. It is highly unlikely that they would reverse Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but the cuts to the PA and UNRWA might be restored as well as special funds for East Jerusalem hospitals and Jewish-Palestinian co-existence programs. In the American Senate in April, the Senate Democrats introduced a resolution to restore humanitarian funding for Palestinians. Democratic and Republican members of Congress met with top Israeli officials to push the two-state solution based on a demilitarized Palestinian state and direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, events on the ground seem to have bypassed traditional rhetorical references and processes as well as Kushner’s fancy brochures.

The reality is that there cannot even be any economic progress for the Palestinians as an independent polity unless transportation, communication, fiscal and trade restrictions imposed by Israel are lifted. Further, the February 2019 Israeli government decision to deduct part of the Palestinians’ tax revenues that Israel collects on their behalf that is used to support the families of terrorists combined with the subsequent refusal of the PA to receive any tax money unless Israel reverses n trade. bankruptcy.  

Economic initiatives to promote peace appear as a mirage for Palestinians.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: The American Response to the Extension of Sovereignty

Last week, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, together with White House so-called peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, appeared together in the bowels [well, not really the bowels, but I write this metaphorically) of the earth below Jerusalem, more specifically, below a Palestinian village, Silwan, just outside the walls of the Old City. Symbolically, Friedman and then Greenblatt smashed through the remaining rock membrane protecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Using a sledgehammer (actually, it was a small 10 pound yellow-handled one with a sharp edge used by archeologists), they broke through the last stone obstacle on the dig uncovering the ancient Pilgrimage Road to Jerusalem.

Needless to say, the wall remaining was deliberately left very thin. Trump, though recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though specifically not recognizing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, smashed any claim of Palestinians to the Old City as well as the neighbourhoods abutting it, at least very symbolically and with the world watching. Friedman, to prove that he was as learned about history and archeology as well as contemporary conflicts as his boss, Donald Trump, pronounced that the existence of the Pilgrimage Road, “lays all doubts to rest” of the Jewish claim for the entirety of Jerusalem. So much for the assurance by the Trump administration that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not pre-judge the outcome of which side would have sovereignty over the whole city.

To focus on the contemporary political significance, I avoid commenting on the scientific authenticity behind the archeological dig. The Pilgrimage Way was not only about Jewish rights in Jerusalem, but about the “spiritual underpinnings” and “the bedrock of principles” underlying the political foundation of America according to Friedman. Music for the ears of Trump’s evangelical base! 

This sensational photo-op said more than a thousand diplomatic pronouncements. The smashing of the peace process was deliberate and blatant and lacked any indication of subtlety. It was intended to mark the recognition of the extension of Israeli sovereignty to all of Greater Jerusalem. Further, given the timing, the photo-op also signalled the American preparation for recognizing the extension of Israeli sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank. Would it be only the settlements in Area C or would the application of Israeli law also extend to Israeli settlements in Areas A and B, or, as the right prefers to call them, cities and neighbourhoods in Judea and Samaria?

Recall that at the time of Friedman’s confirmation hearings on 1 March 2017, tens of thousands of American Jews, hundreds of rabbis and major groups like the Reform Movement joined with J Street and all but two Democratic senators in making clear that Friedman’s right-wing views were dangerous and totally out of step with American values and decades of U.S. foreign policy. However, when David Halbfinger of the New York Times recently explicitly asked Friedman about American support for annexation, the latter responded: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” The evidence was overwhelming: extending sovereignty salami-like is understandably confused with annexation, though de facto annexation of Area C in the West Bank may be in the works.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, the Israel Policy Forum along with eight other Jewish American organizations, including five from the Reform and Conservative movements (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its Rabbinical Assembly, and MERCAZ, the Zionist Conservative affiliate, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, Ameinu and the National Council of Jewish Women), urged the administration to oppose West Bank annexation (my italics) in the face of a pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex West Bank territory. However, Netanyahu made no such pledge. Decoys should not be confused with real targets warranting comment and criticism.

The actual American diplomatic direction was confirmed by Jared Kushner. The author of the “Deal of The Century” and the organizer of the Bahrain Conference indicated unequivocally that the reference to “two states” will not be in the language of any proposed peace deal. “If you say ‘two states’ to the Israelis it means one thing, and if you say ‘two states’ to the Palestinians it means another thing. So we said, let’s just not say it. Let’s just work on the details of what that means.” And what it means, for Jared, is a very truncated state geographically for the Palestinians. What it means is a very truncated sense of sovereignty for a prospective Palestine.

The Democrats, at least those on the left of the party, were understandably critical. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley drafted a resolution that was co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, Tom Udall and Dick Durbin: “the policy of the United States should be to preserve conditions conducive to a negotiated two-state solution,” not a unilateral one-state solution abutted to a mini- and semi-Palestinian state. “Unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security.”

The problem is that there are no plans for annexation, unilateral or otherwise, of even parts of the West Bank. To repeat, the creeping extension of sovereignty is not annexation, but those efforts move inexorably towards annexation. Since there is no longer a two-state solution that is envisaged that would currently be acceptable to both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, there is no two-state solution in the traditional sense to harm.

Paradoxically, each of Israel’s steps at increasing sovereignty can be correlated with improved relations with many Arab, especially Gulf, states. Hence, the declaration that such moves will “harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors” rings hollow. Further, as far as these Arab states are concerned, Israel’s political moves have not seemingly harmed the country’s security. If anything, common security concerns vis-à-vis Iran have brought Israel and the Gulf states into closer security cooperation. And Israel’s democratic identity? Without full annexation, Israel is not inheriting a Palestinian population to which it is obligated to offer citizenship.

How can Israel’s extension of sovereignty to settlements in all areas of the West Bank be perceived as a threat if they do not amount to annexation? By mis-describing the problem, the criticisms miss their mark and the impact is significantly diminished. Focusing on the ostensible ultimate goal rather than the salami sovereignty expansion strategy, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer led a campaign to discredit the resolution as the above members of the Democratic Party misleadingly claimed that Netanyahu had promised to annex the West Bank. Misunderstanding the politics undermines intentions considered laudable by the left.

These Senators were not the only ones to misinterpret the Israeli government’s strategy and Netanyahu’s promise three days before the last election. Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg warned that, “if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.” The exaggerated claim was matched with the promise of a feeble punishment that does nothing to alter facts on the ground.

There has also been pushback from Republicans who reiterated their support for a two-state solution. That opposition ranges from strong supporters of Donald Trump, such as Lindsey Graham, to Republican Party critics, such as Mitt Romney. As the critics have said, “The incessant push for annexation [note, not actual annexation itself] has political consequences, and it is entirely the fault of the pushers, who won’t be satisfied until they have brought the calamity to pass.”

Dr. Michael J. Koplow, the Director of the Israel Policy Forum in Washington, callsthe salami method of extending sovereignty “partial annexation,” meaning that the moves taken are partial steps towards a goal of annexation. Rather than clarifying the muddle, I prefer to avoid characterizing what is taking place as annexation, however qualified, for when annexation is not in the immediate works, the likelihood is that the criticism will be compromised. Nevertheless, Koplow is correct in concluding that each new step in expanding sovereignty creates more obstacles to reversing the process. “Turning back the clock on the new political realities is going to be next to impossible.”

The nine sponsors of the letter to Trump of 19 April 2019 referred to above, though incorrect in focusing on annexation of the whole of the West Bank, were quite accurate in anticipating that the Netanyahu announcement will “lead to greater conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, severely undermine, if not entirely eradicate, the successful security coordination between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and galvanize efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that are intended to isolate and delegitimize Israel,,,It will create intense divisions in the United States and make unwavering support for Israel and its security far more difficult to maintain.”

There are two clear results of the effort to expand sovereignty to West Bank settlements, interpreted as stages in the move towards annexation. Such steps, even the promise of taking such steps towards annexation, undercut the bipartisan support for Israel. Second, these initiatives also divide the Jewish diaspora.

What seems clear is that the dividing line between right and left has become a chasm. The problem arises from the intention of extending sovereignty to settlements in Areas A and B in the West Bank. Area C is de facto almost under the complete sovereign control of Israel. However, extending Israeli law only to settlements in Area C would signal that Israel is ready to cede full sovereign control of Areas A and B, except for security, to the Palestinians. Netanyahu is explicitly unwilling to do this. Such a step would be a definite pause in the incessant expansion of sovereignty towards annexation. That is now unequivocally and undeniably a central plank of the Likud-led government. With the aid of Donald Trump, those efforts have been accelerated.

If true, it also means that the issue is no longer land for peace, but a choice between Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty. For Jews on the left unwilling to make such a choice, this will mean they will either withdraw from the struggle or adopt a resigned critical position as a marginal movement. Except in America. BDS will be able to increase its recruitment of North American Jews, especially on college campuses. And most American liberal Jewish academics will be torn as America’s unanimous legislative support for Israel, already displaying fissures, begins to develop a deep fracture line.

On the other side, the Israeli right is not stupid. The majority on the right recognize that they have little to gain by engaging in wholesale annexation. The risks are too well known and the benefits too few. That is why a continuation of salami tactics of extending sovereignty rather than legislating outright annexation can be expected.

However, if efforts are made to extend Israeli law to settlements in Area A and B, the political left is not stupid either. It can read the writing on the wall. As the goal comes nearer and the breaches of red lines more obvious, extending Israeli law to settlements in Areas A and B may serve as the tipping point to initiate a much larger process of American and American Jewish alienation from Israel. If, as expected, the Democrats are elected to both the presidency and even the Senate, the pitch of criticism of Israel can be expected to rise a number of decibels and cooperative arrangements threatened. This prospect may, in turn, fire up the right to provide even stronger support for Donald Trump and even convince some conflicted Jewish Americans to vote for him.

Obviously, there are far too many factors in play to engage in any reasonable kind of prediction. But the various possible scenarios are more or less clear. Profound events, depending on their character, could shift the weight easily from one side to the other. The right is probably prepared for such an opportunity. Is the left? In the absence of a Palestinian Authority deeply committed to peace, except possibly on terms unacceptable to most Israelis, the left lacks both direction as well as a set of strategies and tactics to reach that objective.

One final point. The imminence of a possible and even likely Republican defeat may embolden the right to take advantage of an American regime that is so fully onside. I suspect the issue to heat up considerably over the next year. I also suspect that the issue will cause tears in the fabric of the American Democratic Party as strong supporters of Israel in the party try to mute criticism while the activist base revs up for a more outspoken confrontation with Israel. It is possible that the support for BDS will spread beyond Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Watch the path that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes. Watch as the strident tone within both parties increases.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman