Power and Accountability: Parashat Shof’tim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

It is surprising to many to read how excellent a guide to politics the Book of Deuteronomy is. Parashat Shof’tim is at the heart of biblical political theory which roots politics in the rule of law and the rule of law in the pursuit of justice. “Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) The U.S. Constitution mirrors precisely this precept. The people of the United States are constituted to form a more perfect union and “establish justice” to “insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” (Preamble U.S. Constitution)

The slogan of the Donald Trump regime has been, “Make America Great Again” and definitely not make America one again. There is no political biblical imperative to pursue greatness.  The slogan of the Joe Biden campaign is, “Make America whole again.” The object should be to unite the nation, not sew divisiveness. The object should be to provide a sense of normalcy not disruption and chaos. That requires attending to the security of the population (including domestic security from police violence), promoting the welfare of society and the liberty for all.

Yes, welfare. America must be a welfare state. The government is obligated to take care of the health and the education of its citizenry and ensure that the members of society have the jobs and the economic opportunities to do that. A society with thirty million unemployed does not do that. A society in which the government fails to provide strong leadership in defeating the coronavirus does not do that. A government that allows over 170,000 of its citizens to die in a pandemic to date does not do that. A government with 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the deaths resulting from a pandemic does not do that. A President who attacks and tries to remove the protections of The Affordable Care Act does not do that.

The more perfect union is a goal not a given. It presumes imperfection. It presumes that leaders will err. As Barack Obama said in his Wednesday evening speech, “I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal and more free.”

But the Constitution also presumes that politicians will be accountable for their errors. The most significant characteristic of the Trump regime is the refusal of Trump to acknowledge let alone take ownership of the many mistakes he has made and the gross inadequacy of his government. The president is accountable to the people not the people to kowtow to the president’s will.

In the spirit world of Donald Trump, in the fabulist world to which he belongs, participants can attend rallies protesting the wearing of masks or taking tests. Everyday people “can be reborn, leaving their world behind and subscribing to a new collective truth. This is where they find fellowship with other people who are upset enough about the same things, who hold the same fears and frustrations. This is where isolation ends, where communion begins.” (Leah Sottile, The New York Times) This is where freedom can be worshipped and fairness can be trashed, where lies can be spread and accountability ignored, where the Three Percenters and the followers of Q’Anon hang out and where a New World Order purportedly imposed on them can be resisted, where idolatry is the temper of the time. This is where we find Boogaloo and the expectation of an immanent cataclysm and even a new race war. The movement is anti-government, anti-law and anti-authority of any kind. They assemble purportedly to resist unconstitutional oppression. In the name of freedom, they subvert the rule of law and even the Constitution they supposedly proclaim to defend.

In Deuteronomy, in contrast, the president or the governing judges must “govern the people with due justice, with mishpat-tzedek.” (12:18) However, the bipartisan report of the Senate on Russian interference in the American 2016 election showed that the head of the Trump election campaign took bribes. Trump himself very recently retweeted part of a Russian campaign against Joe Biden. The current activities of the government in voter suppression, in opposing mail-in ballots, in falsely claiming that the system was subject to widespread fraud is clear evidence of an intention to bias the election rather than ensure fairness as obligated by Deuteronomy.

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God has given you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:18) There must be fairness in the selection process and fairness in the administration. “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes.” (16:19)

In accordance with the biblical injunction to select a king to rule over yourself, that king must not be a foreigner imposed on the people but one who comes from the people. According to the American constitution, he or she must be born in the United States or of parents with American citizenship. Only a non- king, only a pseudo king who is not from the people, would falsely challenge a rival for not being eligible. Hence, birtherism. Hence the charge that Barack Obama was not born in the USA. Hence the suggestion that Kamala Harris who was born in the United States but of parents who lacked citizenship at the time was not eligible.

The Americans in the 2016 election did not heed the advice to be wary of false prophets. They elected a diviner who insisted that COVID-19 would simply disappear. They elected a soothsayer who refused to face up to the facts and the rampant epidemic racing across the land. They chose a president who had more confidence in sorcerers than in scientists. They elected a leader who praised right-wing activist and GOP nominee in Florida, Laura Loomer, who boasted that she was a “ProudIslamaphobe,” who calls Muslims savages and contributed to the conspiracy site, Infowars. She claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre and the Parkland mass shooting were both hoaxes, a claim, which according to G.T. Lewis, a GOP candidate from Connecticut whose brother was murdered at Sandy Hook, made Loomer unacceptable as a GOP candidate.

But Donald Trump welcomed her victory as a candidate. Voters for Trump failed to heed the advice to “let no one be found among you who…is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits.” (18:10-11)

The ruler chosen by the people must be a man or woman of the people and not be one who has dedicated his life to amassing personal wealth (the ruler shall not “amass silver and gold to excess.” Deuteronomy 17:17) and use his political position to protect that wealth and increase it. The Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8) of the U.S. Constitution prohibits federal officeholders from receiving any gift, payment, or any other thing of value from a foreign state or its rulers, officers, or representatives. But that is precisely what Trump’s minions did. And what Trump himself did. He did not need to conspire with the Russians to corrupt the American election. He needed only to openly benefit from that corruption. Trump went beyond that and welcomed the assistance.

While Deuteronomy advises that a ruler keep a copy of Deuteronomy, and specifically the political maxims guiding rule, by his or her side so that its contents might be regularly consulted (17:18), it does not advise the use of the volume as a prop for a photo-op in front of a church. What matters is reading the volume for guidance not holding the closed book aloft and upside down while your militias and federal officers club peaceful demonstrators.

“The one constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us — regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have — or who we voted for. But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for; fought for and died for.”

The king should be humble and not arrogant insisting that he is wiser than all his generals and advisers. If he fails as a ruler, he must be removed from office. Even before his term is up, he can and should be removed. Section four of Article II of the Constitution allows a process of removal from office “on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” And when legislators, such as American senators, subvert that process, they too must be removed from office at the next election.

Barack Obama, uniquely for an ex-president, finally laid into his successor. This is not a normal Convention. Times demanded the custom of courtesy be set aside. Donald Trump has been an existential threat to democracy and to the Constitution. Obama had hoped that Trump would rise to the task but had utterly failed — “and didn’t really even try.”

“I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever.”

As another presidential aspirant put it, “America is a democracy, not an autocracy or dictatorship. A hostile Congress for six of Obama’s eight years as president did whatever it could to stymie his policies and programs.  However, in spite of the race haters and obstructionists, particularly Republican legislators and right-wing extremists, by the end of his second term, President Obama left America and the world far better off than when he came into office.”

“Trump’s amateurish and uncaring mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, while seeking always to blame others for his tragic failures, has resulted in more than 170,000 American deaths and a wrecked American and global economy. Trump’s chaotic handling of the pandemic made America the global leader in coronavirus cases – in excess of five million, at the time of this commentary. The US economy is devastated, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, hundreds of thousands of businesses suffering significant economic losses, and tens of thousands of businesses permanently shuttered.”

Read Deuteronomy. As Hillary Clinton pleaded, “Don’t make 2020 another woulda coulda shoulda election.”


In Praise of Women

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Susan B. Anthony on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. At the same time, Donald Trump has been actively and openly involved in suppressing the vote by opposing mail ballots with the false claim that mail ballots are subject to fraud and by trying, unsuccessfully in the end, to sabotage the American postal service. The 19th amendment is known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment because Anthony was found guilty in 1873 in New York State of illegally voting in the 1872 presidential election.

The 19th Amendment of the American Constitution was introduced in Congress in 1878 by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent of California. It took over 41 years for it to finally pass when Tennessee became the 36th state ratifying the amendment. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Canadians should know that their historical record was slightly worse. Women’s suffrage was granted in the three prairie provinces in 1916, by the federal government in a partial way in 1917 and fully in 1918. By 1922, all provinces except Quebec had granted suffrage to women.

After I finished premeds and began my first year of medical school in 1957, there were 16 women in our class of 160. There was a 10% quota for women. Our class was the first one at UofT’s medical school to elect a female student as class president. She was from Egypt. When we returned from the summer break in the Fall of 1958, she had not returned. She had died during the summer. She had become pregnant and sought a back-lane abortion. She contracted blood poisoning. Abortions were then illegal. In fact, so was the sale of birth control devices.

In 1936, Dorothea Palmer had been arrested in Ottawa and charged with advertising birth control, then a criminal obscenity under the Criminal Code of Canada. She was acquitted because the judge ruled that education about and distribution of contraceptives was a social good. Twenty years later, as the CAMSI (the Canadian Association of Medical Students and Interns) rep for my first-year medical class, I believe I was the first to use National Film Board documentaries to teach medical students at UofT about different methods of birth control. We have come a long way since then, not only with respect to abortion and contraceptives, but the majority of students now studying medicine at UofT are women. In 2018, 57% of acceptances were female.

We have also come a long way to the third day of the Democratic Party Convention in the U.S. The star of the first night was Michele Obama. The stars of the third night were Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. But the night was awash in female speakers. The emcee for the evening was once again a woman – Karry Washington who set the tone for the evening – “We are fighting for the soul of the country.”

Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton were all lead speakers culminating at the end of the evening with the address of Kamala Harris. Most of the attention of commentators was focused on Barack Obama’s very unique direct attack on Donald Trump and his all-out support for Joe Biden. (I will refer to that speech in tomorrow’s blog.) Further, this was the first evening devoted to substantive policy planks. The issues discussed – gun violence, climate change, childcare, immigration and the separation of children from their parents – were all powerful appeals, especially to women voters.   

In the 116th Congress, of the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives, 198 are Republican of which 15 are women (7.5%). 232 are Democrats and 90 of them are women – 39%. (There is 1 Libertarian and there are 4 vacancies.) The Democratic Party has become a party for minorities, for women and for educated voters. Gabrielle (Gabby) Dee Giffords, who was a member of the House of representatives from the 8th congressional district in Arizona from January 2007 to January 2012, was featured on the issue of gun violence. She was shot in the head at close range on 8 January 2011, a day after my 73rd birthday. Because of her serious brain injuries, she did not run again. But in the 2020 Democratic Convention she was able to make a powerful appeal to introduce legislation to ban assault weapons and to close the loopholes on background checks.

A wide variety of young girls, and women spoke on the devastating affects on families and often to their American-born children because of Trump’s campaign to deport undocumented migrants. Many have lived for years in America, worked and paid taxes. Featured was a US Marine whose wife was deported to Mexico and separated from her children. Donald Trump as president was accused of using the weight of his office to attack the vulnerable, to undermine the long tradition of America welcoming the homeless in pursuit of the quest for freedom and economic security. Of the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the Democratic Party National Convention featured two families of immigrants and their suffering as a result of the Trump harsh policies.

11-year-old Estela Juarez’s father, Temo, served in both the Marine and the National Guard. Her mother, Alejandra, came to the U.S. 22 years ago as an undocumented migrant. Estela was born in the U.S. and was, therefore, an American citizen. In 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement confiscated Alejandra’s Mexican passport and coerced her into self-deporting. Estela spoke directly to the TV audience. “My dad thought you would protect military families, so he voted for you in 2016, Mr. President. He says he won’t vote for you again after what you did to our family. Instead of protecting us, you tore our world apart.”

Donald Trump’s total lack of empathy in contrast to Joe Biden’s was a powerful theme of the evening and this episode was used to show that this flaw in his character had real world consequences for families. Jessica Silvia (she has spina befida) and her sister, Lucy Sanchez, were also featured addressing the audience in English as her mother, Lucia Sanchez, spoke in Spanish and described her ordeal in getting into the United States to save the life of her baby daughter. A number of the speakers referred to Trump’s policies that put children in cages and separated them form their families.

Donald Trump is reputedly a populist. But he was pictured as saying in reference to these illegals that, “They’re animals.” He treats them like animals; they are not eligible to receive medical assistance if they contract COVID-19. He appeals to that segment of the American public that wants to prosecute businesses for hiring aliens but he does not do that even though almost 70% of swing voters favour such action. He would have to prosecute his own businesses. Instead, he goes after undocumented aliens many of whom have been in the U.S. for years. He does so even though a clear majority of Americans favour landing them unless they have criminal records.

It is clear why Trump and the Republicans oppose the implementation of compassion in this case. They are overwhelmingly women-of-colour. They are already the fastest growing segment of voters in the United States. Since 2000, the voting-age population (CVAP) of women of color who are citizens has increased by 59 percent—a gain of more than 13.5 million potential votes They overwhelmingly vote Democrat. The Republicans adamantly do not want to add more to that total for that would condemn the party of Trump to permanent opposition. These women of colour turnout to vote in disproportionate numbers. They are now the backbone of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump is certainly not going to allow compassion to get in the way of efforts to diminish support for the Democratic Party, even if a majority of Americans favour such compassionate initiatives.

Over and over again, Trump’s lack of kindness, respect, civility and empathy was contrasted with that of Joe Biden. The tone shifted from compassion for others to survival of everyone in the segment of the Convention evening on climate change. The devastation to farmers, the floods and fires destroying homes and lives, were featured. But the challenge of environmental change was also presented as an opportunity to create high paying jobs in developing and operating the new technology.  Perhaps the Convention best reached younger voters by featuring Billie Eilish in a wispy white dress singing “My Future,” probably to counteract the widespread pessimism and even despair youth feel about their future in the face of climate change.

I can’t seem to focus
And you don’t seem to notice I’m not here
I’m just a mirror
You check your complexion
To find your reflection’s all alone
I had to go

Can’t you hear me?
I’m not comin’ home
Do you understand?
I’ve changed my plans

‘Cause I, I’m in love
With my future
Can’t wait to meet her
And I (I), I’m in love
But not with anybody else
Just wanna get to know myself

[Verse 2]
I know supposedly I’m lonely now (Lonely now)
Know I’m supposed to be unhappy
Without someone (Someone)
But aren’t I someone? (Aren’t I someone? Yeah)

I’d (I’d) like to be your answer (Be your answer)
‘Cause you’re so handsome (You’re so handsome)

But I know better
Than to drive you home
‘Cause you’d invite me in
And I’d be yours again

But I (I), I’m in love (Love, love, love, love)
With my future
And you don’t know her (Ooh)
And I, I’m in love (Love, love)
But not with anybody here
I’ll see you in a couple years

What an appeal to girls to love and appreciate themselves and have confidence in the future!

When Hillary Clinton spoke forcefully and without an ounce of self pity, her theme appropriately was redemption. “We’ll redeem.” We’ll redeem four horrific years. But she also stuck it to Donald Trump’s most sensitive spot and reminded everyone that she won the popular vote by three million votes. She remined voters that the Obama administration had left Trump with plans on how to manage a pandemic, but Trump not only failed to attend to the plan, but dismantled part of the government apparatus needed to implement the plan.  “What do you have to lose?” Trump had rhetorically asked in 2016. Hillary answered. Far more than even the most pessimistic of us expected. “Our health, our jobs, even our lives, our leadership in the world, and yes, our Post Office.”

Get out and vote. This was repeated over and over again during the evening. Biden and Harris “can win 3 million more votes and still lose. Take it from me. We need numbers so overwhelming Trump can’t sneak or steal his way to victory.”

Then there was the theme of violence against women (and children). Mariska Hargitay an advocate for sexual assault survivors, and other professionals testified. But the most compelling was one head of a national organization, Ruth Glenn, who had been a victim of an abuser.

When it came to pushing the Democratic Party policy, none could do it better than a policy wonk like Elizabeth Warren. She artfully dodged the traps set by journalist questions intending to get her to criticize Joe Biden. She was the spokesperson for the Democratic economic platform. She emphasized “plans to bring back union jobs in manufacturing and create new union jobs in clean energy.” But she spoke from an empty childhood care centre in Springfield Massachusetts that brought out her start as a teacher long before she became a Harvard professor. Daycare had to be as essential a part of the American infrastructure as roads and bridges. Biden and Harris “will make high-quality childcare affordable for every family, make preschool universal, and raise the wages for every childcare worker.”

However, the highlight of my evening was Kamala Harris and not even the speech by Barack Obama that I will touch on tomorrow. Not because she was engaged in pugilism and landing blows on Trump-Spence. For she all but ignored them. If she mentioned Trump once, I missed it. Instead, Kamala was introduced by her family members, by her formidable sister Maya and her up-and-coming niece, Meena, by her (step-) daughter and by the extensive blood and adopted family members who became part of her life.

She gave extensive and heartfelt tribute to her mother who raised her from the age of five and I could not help but think with gratitude of my own mother who raised three boys on her own. I ended the evening identifying with Kamala, appreciating her warm smile and determination rather than getting caught up in the details of the Democratic Party platform.

The whole evening was a tribute to women. I was struck deeply about how much I owe over the course of my whole life to them.

The Domestic Role of the Military in the USA

Spiraling Downwards Towards Authoritarianism

In 1949, U.S. military expenditures totaled 135,63B $US and rose to 633,56B $US in 2018, an increase of 470%. However, the value of the $US declined. A $US in 1949 was equivalent in purchasing power to $10.89 in 2020. If military expenditures had kept up with the declining purchasing value of the US$, the budget for military expenditures should have been 1,477,03B $US, slightly more than double its current total. Military expenditures could be said to have been more than halved in the last seventy years.

Except that trend was reversed under Donald Trump in 2018. The budget, which in 2015 declined and which held roughly steady in 2016 and 2017, was increased in 2018 from $60511B to $648,80B in 2018, an increase of 7.1%. However, as a percent of GDP, the increase was relatively more modest from 3.11% of GDP to 3.16% of GDP, a half point increase. However, a half point on a multi-billion- dollar budget still comes to $43,69B $US.

Authoritarian leaders, autocrats much more than oligarchies, love spending money on the military even when they are risk averse and even isolationist when committing troops for foreign wars. Bill Jordan in a recent article demonstrated that increased spending on armaments is a manifestation “of the links between militarism and the authoritarian turn.” It is also a signal of support for military-style rule, remembering that you do not have to be a military officer to favour that style of rule. You do not even have to favour any military conflict with other countries.  

Yet somehow this issue was not raised by anyone in the first two evenings of the Democratic Convention. It is clearly an issue, not only concerning the budget, not only concerning foreign entanglements, but in sketching scenarios for the transition from Trump to Biden. For on Monday Trump said that the only way he could lose was if the election were rigged. This has been just one in a series of remarks implying his intent not to leave office and go easily into the night. As a result of such remarks, in June 2020, the Transition Integrity Project (TIP) was initiated by a bipartisan group of 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts to ensure the horror of 1876 is not repeated, a scar on democracy that led to almost a century of Jim Crow.

As a result of TIP’s studies, the participants anticipated chaotic political and legal scenarios for the transition, each referring to a different way in which Trump is expected, by both legal and illegal means, to contest the results in an attempt to hold onto power. It is expected that he will be abetted by the Attorney General. The basic one is that the results of “electoral night” will not be respected. Trump will not concede, helped by the fact that there will still be very many ballots to be counted after election might because of voting by mail.

Lawsuits, propagandistic media campaigns and protests coming from all sides can be expected. TIF noted that, “Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results.” Without any analysis, TIF concluded that “recent evidence offers some reassurance, but it is inconclusive.” I presume TIF was referring to the refusal of the military to enable its troops to be used to put down peaceful protesters. I believe the fact that the House of Representatives avoided challenging the military budget may also have played a part to ensure the military remained neutral. This may also be part of the explanation for the absence of any criticism of the military budget thus far in the Democratic Convention.

On the Monday evening opening of the new style Democratic Party Convention, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders were the headline speakers. Michelle topped the evening with a powerfully passionate lamentation and indictment of Donald Trump for his incompetence, his character, his total lack of empathy and the economic and social consequences for American society.

Her expression of both grief and determination to overcome its source did not have the personal deep tug at our heartstrings as that of an earlier speech by Kristin Urquiza. Kristin virtually accused Trump of the manslaughter of her father, Mark Anthony Urquiza. Her healthy 65-year-old father “had faith in Donald Trump. He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouthpieces when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear, that it was ok to end social distancing rules and was safe if you had no underlying health conditions so that you would probably be fine.”

In late May, after the stay-at-home order had been lifted in Arizona, her dad went to a karaoke bar with his friends, A few weeks later, he was on a ventilator in hospital. Within less than a week he died with only a nurse in the ICU unit to hold his hand. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.” “Donald Trump may not have caused the coronavirus, but his dishonesty and his irresponsible actions made it so much worse.” “One of the last things that my father said to me was that he felt betrayed by the likes of Donald Trump.”

In his dying breath, Mark Anthony Urquiza indicted Trump for betraying him. Trump failed to provide leadership, consolation or any semblance of steadiness. Michele Obama generalized on that theme. “(O)ur economy is in shambles because of a virus that this president downplayed for too long. It has left millions of people jobless. Too many have lost their healthcare. Too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent.”

“Stating that black lives matter is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.” Michele Obama made clear that racism was front and centre even in the COVID-19 crisis. People may not hear me because “I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.” She continued: “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.” However, the most serious fear was that there would be an effort to suppress the vote and keep Trump in office. Things could get much worse.

Bernie Sanders preceded Michele. His speech was passionate as well. He went all out in support of Biden’s proposed platform. “Joe supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Joe will also make it easier for workers to join unions, create 12 weeks of paid family leave, fund universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds, and make child care affordable for millions of families. Joe will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and fight the threat of climate change by transitioning us to 100 percent clean electricity over the next 15 years.”

But Saunders also indicted Trump, not so much for his character flaws, not so much for his failure to act and for his dishonesty, but for his politics and his policies. Donald Trump is a “threat to our democracy…leading us down the path of authoritarianism.” Sanders was the only one on either of the first two evenings who pinned the tail on the donkey and unequivocally labeled Trump an authoritarian who would turn America from a democracy in favour of autocratic rule. Sanders quipped, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs.”

Clever! Pointed! But wrong. Not because Trump does not play golf while America burns up with the COVID-19 crisis and rampant systemic racism. This is all accurate. Nevertheless, it is wrong because Nero did not play the fiddle while Rome burned. First, Rome did not burn. There was a large fire in the city and the extent of it is debated given the various accounts of historians and observers at the time. The claim is also wrong because Nero never played the fiddle. It had not yet been invented. However, Bernie was correct in his major claim. “The future of our democracy is at stake. The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

A ruler who has authoritarian aspirations does not have to favour strong central power in spite of impressions to the contrary. Where the issue may be the health of your population, it is possible to be indifferent about centralizing power even in a pandemic when strong central leadership is needed. An authoritarian leader concentrates and centralizes power in his own hands because he is more interested in subjecting the behaviour of citizens to his (or her?) will and limiting the expression of freedom of anyone else when the expression of that will conflicts with his own. Thus, an authoritarian leader requires supporting players who are sycophants who will definitely not speak truth to power. Further, the exercise of informal power (executive orders) matters more than the orderly resolution of policy differences.

To that end, constraints on legislatures and the judiciary have to be put in place. Further, institutional devices have to be created to prevent the expression of citizens if that expression might challenge the authoritarian rule. Elections become increasingly fraudulent if they are held at all. Manipulation rather than choice will be the order of the day. The authoritarian leader favours large displays of leadership adoration because such a leader leads, not by persuasion, but by a different type of emotional appeal – to resentments, to hatreds, to divisiveness, and primarily by an appeal that turns citizens into mini-authoritarians. Therefore, there must be a segment of the population that is despised and not worthy of even participating in the adoration game. Identity politics is emphasized, not to ensure the redress of groups that suffered in the past, but rather to continue and enhance such oppression.

“Fearful people seek protection from powerful authority figures. No authority figure is more powerful than the sitting president of the United States, who oversees massive security resources. This is why so many observers worry that Trump’s motive in sending federal paramilitary forces into US cities was not to deter violence, but to provoke it.” (Eric Posner) However, past presidents like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush all exploited fears of domestic violence, usually in reference to urban crime, to enhance their victory chances as presidential candidates. But there was never any suggestion that they would resist leaving office in the face of an apparent defeat by voters.

Further, the results may be much closer than is expected now if an easy COVID-19 self-testing system comes to market as expected. If that is accompanied by protesters provoked by police to riot, then efforts to counter systemic racism will have a formidable opposition and Trump will have been handed his rallying cry.  There will be, as one writer opined, “a resurgence of white, nativist violence blessed with the power of the state and emboldened from the highest office.”

What is most distinctive about authoritarian power is the absence of any authentic authority and the substitution of whim, vague references and shifting positions. Authoritarians are inherently flakes. For in favouring the unpredictable, others are both knocked off their guard and forced to constantly keep their guard up. Information is made suspect so that fabulism can displace it. For the success of authoritarian rule depends on controlling the priorities, perspectives and preferences of the population. Competent officials displaying their expertise may be the best step to a demotion or actual firing. What counts is loyalty to the leader, not competence.

That is why an authoritarian leader is inevitably a liar. You cannot speak truth to power if there is a widespread distrust of truth and if you believe that people believe what they do to reinforce their own quest for power.  What one believes is arbitrary and not based on evidence. That is why magical thinking is advanced and others who oppose or might oppose the authoritarian leader are stamped with negative brands. Further, as part of resentment and negative identity politics practiced in authoritarian systems, it is no surprise that authoritarian leaders are racists and misogynists.

In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower ended his presidential term by warning the nation about the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. His remarks, issued during a televised farewell address to the American people, were particularly significant since Ike had famously served as the head of the allied forces in WWII. The military-industrial alliance has remained intact because neither party has taken on the challenge, including Bernie Saunders as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The height of irony may be that the partnership of both parties with the industrial-military complex may be the most important factor in preventing America from adopting authoritarianism even though they elected a president with an authoritarian personality and even though the GOP had adopted features of authoritarianism even before Trump entered fully into the political fray, a transition which allowed Trump to further deform the party into an instrument of personalist rule.

On the second evening, John Kerry revealed that Trump’s foreign policy had been a fraud. Bill Clinton brilliantly and succinctly skewered his economic accomplishments as a fabrication. In a gentle but forceful voice, Colin Powell, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, tore through Trump’s national security policy as one that was indifferent both to American forces and American security interests.

But the most important condemnation, in my obnservation largely ignored by commentators, was the speech of Sally Yates on Trump’s assault on the constitution. That day, the Senate Intelligence Committee in a bipartisan report released its fifth and final volume that documented Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election and the scurrilous and treasonous behaviour of his Campaign Chairman. Paul Manafort both shared confidential information with a Russian intelligence officer, Konstantin Kilimnik, and repeatedly lied to both Mueller and the Senate about his contacts and communications. Trump’s supporter for spreading lies, Roger Stone, was eventually pardoned by Trump. Manafort was dubbed a “threat” and Kilimnik “a grave counterintelligence threat.”

Sally Yates, however, was the one that fingered Donald Trump himself. He “trampled the rule of law.” Sally Yates served as acting attorney general at the start of the Trump administration but was unceremoniously removed from her post for refusing to implement Trump’s Muslim immigration ban because it was illegal, a position eventually upheld by the courts. Yates declared that, “From the moment President Trump took office, he’s used his position to benefit himself rather than our country. He’s trampled the rule of law, tried to weaponize the Justice Department to attack his enemies and protect his friends ”rather than standing up to Vladimir Putin,” Trump fawned all over him, a dictator still trying to interfere in American elections on behalf of Donald Trump. Further, given the machinations with the post office – efforts that have been stopped because of the huge backlash – Yates declared that Trump was “even trying to sabotage our Postal Service to keep people from being able to vote.”

Why did a non-partisan civil servant choose to speak so forcefully and explicitly at a Democratic Convention? “The future of our democracy is at stake.” Trump is an autocrat and, if left to his own devices, if by some fluke he is re-elected to be president for a second term, will undoubtedly take much bolder steps to subvert the constitution and turn American government into an authoritarian regime.

Tuesday evening, especially with the tale told by Jill Biden, Joe Biden was characterized as a man of integrity, a man of empathy, a man tough in dealing with enemies but open to taking into account differences with people across the aisle. He was portrayed as the very opposite of Trump – a true patriot, someone who had the back of the American military in which his own son served in contrast to Donald Trump’s sons, and someone in touch with the common people who celebrated the diversity of America as well as the ability of the many to come together and cooperate as one.

The roll call Tuesday evening for about an hour displaying that diversity with ordinary Americans from 57 states and territories paraded before the TV audience was brilliant. But it also raised my ire at CNN which went to a commercial break when Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois were being polled. When one is made angry at missing a voting poll, you know that the producers of the convention have done very well. Joe Biden officially became the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States. If they want to avoid authoritarianism, if they want to enhance American democracy, a good majority of Americans will support Joe Biden’s candidacy.

On Momala Harris

In our household, both my wife and I favoured Kamala Harris even when she was a candidate running against Joe Biden for presidential nominee to represent the Democratic Party. In the sweepstakes for the vice-presidency slot, while we thought every single one of the candidates was very qualified, we gave Kamala Harris the number one spot. And she was chosen. As we see it, not only for Vice-President but as a future president. She is only 55.

Why did I give her my Canadian non-existing ballot? She is unequivocally intelligent as indicated by her mastery of facts and assemblage of those facts into cogent arguments. But she was not an Alexa or a Siri. She had a wonderful warm smile.  

And what liberal minded individual would not be entranced by her family history. She is the daughter of two academics who met in graduate school, a mother from India and a father from Jamaica. Kamala Harris was raised by her mother since the age of five after her parents split. They divorced when she was seven. She also has a younger sister, Maya. The mother of those two daughters, Shyamala Gopalan, was a breast cancer researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. When Kamala was 12, her mother moved from Berkeley when she accepted a research job in Canada. Kamala, thus, has a strong Canadian connection; she graduated from high school in Montreal. Kamala’s mother died in 2009.

Maya, born after Kamala on 30 January 1967, is a political and legal star in her own right even though she had a child, Meena (a lawyer who graduated from Harvard), as a seventeen-year-old teenager. Maya is an American lawyer, public policy advocate, and television commentator for MSNBC. In 2015, she was appointed as one of three senior policy advisors for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Before that, for seven years, she had been Vice President for Democracy, Rights and Justice at the Ford Foundation. She chaired Kamala’s aborted run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Donald Harris, her father, is an emeritus post-Keynesian development economics professor at Stanford University. His research explored the “analytical conception of the process of capital accumulation and its implications for a theory of growth of the economy, with the aim of providing thereby an explanation of the intrinsic character of growth as a process of uneven development. From this standpoint, he has sought to critically assess the inherited traditions of economic analysis as well as contemporary contributions, while engaging in related empirical and historical studies of various countries’ experience.” Kamala certainly inherited her father’s concern with enhanced social equity.

Dan Morain described Kamala Harris as “a quick learner and gifted political performer with genuine star power.” She had been a protégée of Willie Brown, the former San Francisco Mayor whom she once dated. As a 31-year-old deputy district attorney from Almeda County across from San Francisco, she joined his campaign and whimsically dubbed him “Da Mayor.”

I also like her because she has been prescient in her choices. She was a very early backer of Barak Obama for president. She became a prodigious fundraiser for him. She had forged her fundraising network early when she supported Willie Brown and continues to have the Pritzkers (the Hyatt hotel-chain), the Getty heirs, the financier, Charles Schwab, and the Fisher family (Gap) in her corner. In the American plutocratic democracy, patrons in high places with deep pockets have always been an essential support for a Democratic Party candidate until Bernie Saunders proved that this was not a necessary condition for success as a politician.  

When she first ran for the office of a prosecuting attorney, she had already established a reputation as an outstanding lawyer. She ran on a liberal platform and opposed the death penalty. And she won with a greater percentage of the vote than any other Democratic candidate at the time, including Gavin Newson, the future Governor of California who then ran on the same ticket for the mayor’s position. Then she fulfilled her pledge by taking up the toughest case possible, the murderer of a police officer, Isaac Espinoza, with an AK47 when Espinoza ordered Hill to stop. The case was tough, not because getting a conviction was difficult, but because she opposed the death penalty for a cop-killer.

Hill was convicted of second-degree murder, got life in prison without a chance for parole. In the process, Kamala Harris had made an enemy, the powerful police union of San Francisco. Police Unions are not normal trade unions. They raise money for their favourite candidates, most often Republicans, though they are prone to hedge their bets. As William Finnegan described “The Blue Wall” in a recent New Yorker article (3-10 August 2020), “there has been a peculiar militance of many police unions….Very few of the officers involved (in violent crimes against mostly African Americans) face serious, if any, consequences, and much of that impunity is owed to the power of police unions.” (48)

Harris got to know the political force of a police union first-hand and would not kneel before it. This position was reinforced by the work of her sister, Maya, who researched and wrote (Organized for Change: The Activist’s Guide to Police Reform) on nationwide community-centered policing practices. In spite of strong opposition from the police, Kamala won office again in 2007. In 2008, she ran for attorney general of California. With donations and volunteer time, the police unions in California backed her opponent, Steve Cooley, a Republican Los Angeles County district attorney. A political action committee (pac) ad “spent $1 million-plus on an ad featuring Espinoza’s mother bashing Harris for refusing to seek the death penalty against her son’s killer.”

In the contest with Cooley, the latter declared victory when he was leading and went home to bed. The San Francisco Chronicle also declared his victory. But the Laweekly soon sported the headline, “Steve Cooley Kamala Harris vote results: Cooley declares victory, but Harris takes the lead.” When the vote was all counted, “Harris had earned a 74,157-vote victory, out of more than 9.6 million votes cast in an election in which tea party candidates won many offices. She had proven that she could win in the toughest circumstances. She also recognized a predator and an empty hack when she saw one.

Remember her performance in the Brett M. Kavanaugh Senate hearings. Remember her interrogation of Attorney General William P. Barr when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2019. Through her unremitting logic and questioning, she turned his feeble protestations that he did not undermine the Mueller Report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections into blithering nonsense.

Harris also proved in debates that she could quickly cut the legs from under an opponent with a swift deprecating crack or a biting question, as Biden would learn. Though generally risk averse, Biden was gutsy enough to choose a gutsy running mate who could represent the party for the next generation, who is forward-looking enough to disarm the progressive wing of the party and liberal enough to gain widespread financial and moral support from the Democratic Party mainstream. She is an excellent debater and can be expected to punch stiff upper lift Vice-President Pence into a corner where he will crumble from the effort to hold himself stiffly together in his subservience to Donald Trump. Further, Harris is deliberate and not rash, cautious rather than careless or carefree in her initiatives. In both intellectual acumen and her ability to make opportunistic assessments, she is an ideal partner for Biden.

Harris, of course, brings demographic balance to the team in three ways. She is an African-American who deliberately chose to go to Howard University even though her educational roots had been in a very different environment. “I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris has said. In fact, in choosing to go to Howard instead of the many ivy league colleges she could have attended, she already proved that she was a mature strategic thinker. She chose an institution that offered a high-quality education, but also a unique cultural experience immersed in diversity and, unusual for a university, deep family values. “I grew up in a community where there were many representations of diversity. Going to Howard, there were so many [Black people]! And they’re all in your age group, in your phase of life.” She learned how empowerment requires a solid community base. It turns out that her community base was one that favoured reform, that favoured change, that favoured progress, that favoured justice.

She is also an Asian-American. Most importantly, she is a woman. As a bonus, she was wooed by and married Doug Emhoff, a very successful entertainment lawyer, in 2014. His two children and her in-laws endearingly call her “Momala.” Kamala Harris married a Jew.

Biden and Harris will face enormous challenges after they win. The first will be taking office. Donald Trump is expected to go whining and complaining and using every trick at his disposal until he is dragged from the White House. He will leave the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravished the country like almost no other challenge as he pronounces repeatedly how well his administration is doing in controlling the virus. The economy is in a shambles. The country is deeply divided. Hopefully, the duo will also have the advantage of a Republican Party that will have imploded after the disastrous leadership of Donald Trump and the party’s supine subservience to him.

Biden and Harris will not spend time gloating but will come out of the starting gate ready to tackle the problems head on. How will they handle growing inequality and the obsolescence of a great swath of the labour force as a result of robotization and computer intelligence moving from the factory floor to middle class offices? With Harris on the ticket, they will win. Harris has the intelligence and wiliness to handle that foul-mouthed lying racist demagogic amoral weasel who will be their main opponent. But will the two be able to lead America given the enormous challenges that they will face?

The initial attack to undermine Kamala Harris came quickly. Professor John Eastman, who teaches in the law school at Chapman University and who had been defeated in the California election in California in 2010 by an opponent who Kamala Harris trounced when she ran, questioned whether Kamala Harris was eligible to run for the office. He acknowledged that she was born in Oakland, but raised the question of whether she was eligible because she was born to parents who were not naturalized Americans when she was born. Newsweek, which had published the op-ed, soon had to apologize for putting out this new version of birtherism. It is, of course, unquestionable that Kamala Harris as a person born in the U.S., at least 35 years of age and a resident for at least 14 years, is eligible for the nation’s highest office as prescribed by the Constitution.

Article 2 of the US Constitution states: “no person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States” shall be eligible for the presidency.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment states: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” are US citizens.

Kamala Harris was without question born in the United States.

Nevertheless, President Trump immediately cited the piece and said that it was not just someone questioning her eligibility, but a smart law professor. It could be true, he opined even though the Constitution made it abundantly clear that it was not. But, of course, Donald Trump is not exactly a fan of the Constitution. Trump insisted that, “I have nothing to do with it. I read something about it. It’s not something that bothers me. … It’s not something that we will be pursuing.”

Asked if he actually believed she was ineligible when he raised the possibility, he replied: “I just told you. I have not got into it in great detail.” But Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser to the Trump campaign, immediately took up the issue on Cable TV. The new birtherism campaign was off and running. She went from Eastman raising the question to insist that raising the question itself made the answer an open one.

Harris’ parents were not citizens at the time she was born on 20 October 1964. But there is no question that any child born in the United States is unequivocally eligible. In legal circles, using sophistry as a substitute for reasoning, case law from the 19th century did raise the question of whether children born in the United States of non-citizens could be eligible. But the answer has been long settled. At least a half-dozen U.S. presidents have been the sons of immigrants. Is there any surprise that this version of birtherism will be made into a serious campaign issue only when an African American is running for office?

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was born in Calgary, Canada. Senator John McCain (Ariz.), was born in the Panama Canal Zone. George Romney was born in Mexico. Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona in 1909 before it became a state in the Union. In each case, their parents were American and that conferred citizenship on their children. The more interesting question is not about their eligibility to run for president, for they definitely were, but why birtherism was never raised as an issue for a white male Republican candidate.

As in the Obama election, birtherism will turn out to be just a distracting side issue. Just as Obama did, Kamala Harris will demonstrate that she has the stamina and the backbone to stand up to scurrilous hidden racism. Joe Biden responded with fury and a fierce critique of Donald Trump for giving any credibility to the false allegation. He claimed that Trump had resorted to “abhorrent” lies. However, it was the innuendo that was abhorrent. It was the refusal to deny the claim that was abhorrent. It is Trump who is abhorrent.

Israel and the UAE

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump, with Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) online, announced that they had reached a peace agreement. Donald Trump was given credit for brokering the deal as the agreement was announced following the three-way conversation between Netanyahu, Crown Prince bin Zayed of Dubai and U.S. president Donald Trump. The Israel-UAE deal is the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state. There has been a long gap, almost twenty-six years, since the last one between Jordan and Israel, the Wadi Araba Treaty, signed in 1994. The latter agreement has been under extreme stress following Israel’s announced plans to extend sovereignty into parts of the West Bank.

The Israel-UAE agreement is really a game changer in spite of Jared Kushner making the same claim. It will not lose that status even though a game changer in the very opposite direction took place the very next day on this past Friday. The United States suffered a totally humiliating and unprecedented defeat in the United Nations Security Council when the U.S. could only muster one additional vote, that of the Dominican Republic, and only after a great deal of personal diplomacy expended by Mike Pompeo in his visit to America’s one supporter. The Security Council refused to support America’s resolution to extend the arms embargo against Iran that expires in two months.

Israel’s negotiations had been underway with the UAE for some time. (For a record of the long history of contacts preceding even these negotiations, see Steve Hendrix, “Inside the secret-not-secret courtship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” The Washington Post, 14 August 2020.) Actual negotiations over the last few years were kept highly secret lest Iran try to sabotage the deal. UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, have been engaged in secret negotiations for over a year. The discussions were accelerated in June when Israel announced its plans to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank and when, at the end of June, al-Otaiba proposed to Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz that, “the UAE would agree to normalization with Israel in return for an Israeli announcement that West Bank annexation was off the table.”

Recall al-Otaiba’s unprecedented front page op-ed in Hebrew in Yediot Ahronot on 11 June. He said that Israel was an opportunity not an enemy. The only obstacle to better relations between the UAE and Israel was the planned annexation of the occupied West Bank. This was a clear signal to influence the Israeli debate on West Bank annexation while creating the opening for a UAE-Israel deal. Annexation would upend warmer ties with the Gulf states, al-Otaiba had warned.

In the oval office electronic hook-up, the two countries stated that they had agreed to exchange embassies and ambassadors, establish direct air flights between the two countries and enhance trade. As a quid pro quo for recognition, as described by Israel, Israel agreed to suspend, but not renounce, its plans for annexation as a concession to the United States and the Trump administration. Bin Zayed claimed that Israel had agreed to stop annexation. Al-Monitor erroneously opined that, “The announcement yesterday on normalizing ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s realization that he must abandon his annexation plan.” Though both depictions described the same action, each party gave it their own twist. Further, Trump reinforced bin Zayed’s position by insisting that annexation was now off the table.

The UAE agreed to invest in the Israeli initiative to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Citizens from the UAE would also be allowed to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Over the past year, the two countries had already been engaged in direct negotiations over water and energy. Shared interests in security and economic cooperation had provided the foundation for the agreement. However, bin Zayed referred to the deal as a “roadmap” rather than a full agreement on normalization.

Nevertheless, Trump said that he expected the final agreement will be ready and signed in Washington in three weeks. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen will lead the delegation next week to Abu Dabai to meet with Gulf leaders to fill in the agreement. Trump also observed that, “opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economies” would spur growth and forge “closer people-to-people relations.” Bilateral agreements in tourism, security, telecommunications, technology and healthcare can be expected to follow.

Though Trump received overall credit, three individuals in the administration were acknowledged for special credit in advancing the deal – Special Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, and US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Trump announced that this was but the first in a series of breakthrough events forthcoming. Bahrain is likely to come next followed by other peace agreements between Israel and Gulf States according to other White House voices. Oman has already cheered the agreement. Egypt joined the cheerleading squad.

The right in Israel has trumpeted the success. Instead of peace for land they had negotiated peace for peace. Peace with the Palestinians even as a goal had not been made a condition of the agreement. The Palestinian veto over any deal had been removed. Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, claimed that the deal, “takes away one of the key incentives for Israel to end its occupation — normalization with the Arab world. It basically tells Israel it can have peace with an Arab country in return for postponing illegal theft of Palestinian land.” 

Certainly, the Israelis had not conceded in moving back to the Green Line and evacuating settlements. Jerusalem was not divided nor had the Israeli government agreed even to recognize a Palestinian state as called for in the Trump Peace Plan. Except the other side claimed that Israel in taking annexation off the table had indeed exchanged land for peace. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett of Yamina, while welcoming the agreement as a great success and breakthrough, denounced the concession of suspending plans to extend Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu was accused by the Israeli extreme right of trading Judea and Samaria for flights to Abu Dabai. At the other end of the spectrum, left wing critics of Israeli occupation and supporters of Palestine criticized the agreement and claimed that de jure annexation may be suspended but de facto annexation would continue.

In fact, the prospect of a deal has been on the horizon for over a year. Since 2015 when the Iran nuclear deal had been signed, the Gulf States had been engaged in national security cooperation against their Iranian rival and perceived threat. Iran, of course, renounced the deal as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Turkey announced that the peoples of the region “will never forget and will never forgive this hypocritical behavior” by the UAE. Both the Palestinian Authority and Mk Mtanes Shehadeh of the Joint List joined in the criticism. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the tripartite US-UAE-Israel agreement “a crime by the UAE against Palestinians.”  Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Mubadara party, called the Israeli-UAE agreement a “stab in the back of Palestinians.” Surprisingly, even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, self-described as a “passionate defender of Israel,” also criticized the deal.

Almost all of Donald Trump’s American critics and opponents welcomed the breakthrough without qualification while trumpeting the concession on annexation. Joe Biden said that, “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave and badly-needed act of statesmanship. Annexation would be a bloody blow to the course of peace, which is why I oppose it now and would oppose it as president.”

Strong critics of Netanyahu also praised the deal. The Israel Policy Forum applauded “the historic announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will be normalizing relations. Israel’s broader acceptance in the region is good for Israel and good for American interests in the Middle East, and we hope that other countries will follow suit. We also applaud the announcement that in return for normalized ties, Israel will be suspending its plans to annex part of the West Bank, as envisioned by the Trump initiative. Annexation remains the single biggest threat to Israeli peace with its neighbors and its full acceptance in the region, and we call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove annexation as a policy option entirely rather than temporarily suspend its implementation.”

IPF went on to insist that as welcome as the agreement was, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained the major issue. A peace for peace that simply maintained the status quo was inimical and unjust to Palestinian interests. However, acknowledging that annexation had been an obstacle to peace was itself progress. Nevertheless, sidelining the Palestinians, making them observers rather than actors in forging peace, was itself a blow to the status of the PA. It was also certainly a clear defeat for the forces that demonize and would destroy Israel as a state in the Middle East. Instead, Israel has been increasingly recognized as an integral and recognized state in the region.

The biggest winner appears to be Benjamin Netanyahu. He conceded not one of his basic positions. He demonstrated unequivocally that peace with the Arab world did not depend on resolving the Palestinian issue and certainly not on promising a state for the Palestinians. The outside-in approach was the winner versus the inside-out strategy of the Oslo Accords. Perhaps Netanyahu had been correct all along – namely that given Israel’s strategic capabilities, economic might, scientific and technological know-how, success as the upstart and start-up nation, and the shared interests of Israel and the Sunnis, regional peace with most states in the region is inevitable.

Further, in only suspending annexation plans, he accomplished two goals at once. He found a route out of his inability to deliver, not simply on the 1 July date, but in the immediate foreseeable future. For Benny Gantz would not agree to it without a U.S. imprimatur. And the U.S. had made it abundantly clear that they would not approve the annexation plans unless Netanyahu agreed to recognize a Palestinian state on the remainder of the West Bank lands. Netanyahu had found a back door to escape an international as well as domestic embarrassment. As Ben Caspit commented, “The agreement with the UAE is a candy to dispel spreading bitterness, a pain relief tablet to ease the hangover plaguing Netanyahu’s electoral base since the heady White House event in late January at which the upcoming annexation was declared.” At the same time, Netanyahu did not concede or acknowledge the possibility of a two-state solution. Annexation remained a goal but not an achievable one for the present.

Others gave the credit to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defence Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. “Without them, there would not have been any official agreement with the UAE for the simple reason that they both took pains to block the annexation plans.”

Will annexation remain “an impenetrable impediment to normal and open relations between Israel and Arab states as Michael Koplow contends? Or by simply suspending and not renouncing annexation, did Netanyahu drive another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. After all, if Israel could not be induced to declare annexation dead, the likelihood of relocating the 450,000 living on the West Bank became even more problematic. The status quo of de facto rather than de jure annexation would remain.

Unfortunate as this may be, Netanyahu could mark up another victory for the right, one that would be supported by most of the left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 and the Ethics of Data Sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodwill is not reliable. Will that is good is.

Late Breaking News – 13 August 2020

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

Hope or Fear as the Basis for Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is BDS Antisemitic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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