Leadership and Dissent: Chukat-Balak Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

In this week’s parashat, there are at least five possible vignettes to comment upon:

  • The laws of the red heifer to purify a person in contact with a corpse
  • Moses strikes a rock to obtain water for the people and God bans him from entering the Promised Land
  • The death of Aaron
  • Balak and Balaam – the latter’s blessing rather than cursing of the Israelites
  • The punishment of the plague for consorting with Moabites and the murder by the vigilante, Pinchas, of one of those men and his consort.

I want to comment on the second story because of its outstanding significance for the history of Jews and the ethos being passed onto them, the revelations about the character of Moses, but mainly for the continuation of the discussion of the theme of dissension that has run as a very important thread through the volume. The other tales will be treated as borders to this central narrative.

As readers may recall, in last week’s commentary, I summarized the series of dissents culminating in the rebellion of Korah as follows:

  1. Dissent at being excluded from religious rituals because of contact with a corpse; resolved by a pragmatic substitute.
  2. Hobab, the Midianite, intended departure; resolved by promising an equal share of the bounty of the Promised Land and equality of treatment under the law.
  3. Riots and fires set by a petulant people over restricted food availability that makes Moses exasperated; resolved by delegation of some of Moses responsibilities re meting out justice and by more food for the people.
  4. Rebellion of Miriam (and Aaron) over Moses’ exclusive access to God and position of first among the leadership; resolved by punishment of Miriam – she becomes leprous and is excluded from the community for a week.
  5. The dissent of ten of the twelve tribal leaders re the possibility of invading the Promised Land because of the strength of the inhabitants and their fortifications; resolved by God ensuring the rebels that they will not enter the Promised Land and making the Israelites stay in the desert for forty years until everyone over 20 dies out and is thus unable to enter.
  6. The rebellion of Korah and his followers and their challenge to Moses’ rule; resolved by the earth swallowing up the rebels and their families alive.

We now have the culmination of that series of rebellions. It starts with a complaint by the people that, in addition to the absence of adequate food, they have no water – a legitimate complaint on the face of it. The Torah then said that both Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces” (20:6), that is, made an error in judgement. What was their error? God appears and speaks to Moses instructing them to take a rod and before the whole community order the rock to yield water. Moses assembles the people before the rock and addresses them: “listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10) Moses strikes the rock twice and it yields water.

Moses in then punished for “disobeying God’s command to uphold His sanctity by means of the water.” (20:24; 27:14) Moses’ punishment – he is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Jonathan Sacks wrote: No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time. Yet he was not destined to enter the land to which he had spent his entire time as a leader travelling toward. Why?

Was Moses punished because he lost his temper, as Maimonides suggested. For not adhering to the mean, according to the Rambam following Aristotle, for moderation in all things was the highest virtue. And Moses failed to be even tempered. Was Moses punished because he had lost his faith in Divine grace and relied on hitting the rock rather than simply repeating God’s instructions? Though Moses continued obediently to fulfil his duties, he himself never understood why he was punished and instead blamed the people, insisting that it was because of their petulance and impatience that he ended up suffering.  

Moses made an error in judgement. Several errors in fact. Moses called the people rebels when this time they were simply registering a legitimate complaint. He referred to his, not God’s getting the water from the rock. Third, he contemptuously addressed the people with a sarcastic rhetorical question. Fourth, instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it, not once but twice, presumably taking out his anger at the perceived effrontery of the people and his own continuing frustrations with the burden of leadership all these decades. In other words, Moses blew it.

God was furious and accused Moses and Aaron of lacking trust in Him. Where was the lack of trust? It was not as if God raged at the Israelites; He gave his instructions to Moses calmly. It was not about whether God would or would not produce the water from the rock. It was about their failure “trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” (20:12) (See also 20:24 and 27:14 re blaming Moses for his disobedience of God’s command to uphold his sanctity by means of the water.”) The reference is to “we,” not God getting the water out of the rock, and then Moses behaving indignantly in rage and frustration rather than in faith and trust, hitting the rock rather than simply giving it instructions.

The illegitimate action here is not that of the complaining people or of jealous rivals. Moses and Aaron are at fault. They are at fault for their mistrust of God. They are at fault for unfairly disparaging the people. They are burnt out as leaders.

The Ghost in Hamlet tells Hamlet, “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.” (Act 1 Scene 5) He expected Hamlet to listen very carefully to his observations and reflections, to his instructions and warning. God also expected Moses to listen to Him carefully. But by this time, Moses had lost the art of reading his people. He never had the oratorical art of addressing them. But now he has lost the art of listening attentively even to God. (Cf. 23:19) Moses is spent. He is exhausted. He cannot do his job anymore. If Moses does not trust God, if Moses does not trust his people, if Moses is racked by rage and frustration, it is time he retired.

Moses was not prevented from entering the Promised Land because he was egotistical and relied too much on himself; he was not guilty of the sin of pride. Nor was Moses’ action an illustration of the limitations of the central theme of Judaism, the rule and centrality of law and the adumbration of the need and coming of Jesus as Luke claimed. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (24:27)

Nor was Moses, following in the footsteps of Korah, guilty of being a rebel against God and deliberately disobeying His commands. This is, perhaps, following Rashi, the most common and frequent explanation. Certainly, Moses did not obey God when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it but there is no indication that the disobedience was deliberate, was intentional. Rather, it seemed thoughtless.

Not pride, not disobedience and rebellion in themselves, not an inability to rise to Christ’s sanctity! Moses was characterized by his humility. Even when he was punished by God, Moses continued in his role as His faithful servant, led his people and continued to serve God. However, he blamed them for his punishment. After all, the Israelites first revolted against Moses in the desert by the waters of Meribah. There, following the cries and complaints of the people, Moses struck the rock and it gushed forth water. “By the waters of Meribah, they angered the Lord and trouble came to Moses because of them.” (Psalm 106:32) Moses saw this new incident as a repetition of the one in the desert so Moses struck the rock twice instead of just once.

Moses and God had the power to produce water. Here, the question is about God’s sanctity, which was not the issue of the waters of Meribah.  The issue of the recent demonstrations of Black Lives Matter has been the sanctity of non-white people and their quality of being holy and sacred like any other human. The issue here is not about profane power but about the sacredness of God. What is that sacredness that Moses profaned?

God is not an infinite all-powerful Being but a Becoming. God is He who shall be. God is He who reveals himself over time and within time, within history. Moses disobeyed God’s command to uphold His sanctity because Moses simply interpreted the current situation as identical to the one in the desert beside the waters of Meribah. However, history had moved on. Time had moved on. Moses was no longer the leader of fearful slaves in flight from Egypt but of a large band of warriors ready for battle.

Moses did not have to strike the rock. He just needed to pass on God’s instructions. He needed to reserve his strength to strike his enemies. He needed to read the situation he faced. He needed to listen to God. (23:19) This time, the problem was not one of exercising or delegating power, but of exercising that power with words of realism and reason rather than magical history and a nostalgic repletion of the past. In one of the other vignettes in this portion, Balaam wanted his prophet, Balak, to attend, to listen to him. But Balak had heard even an ass tell him that he was blind to what was going on. He had to wake up and smell the roses. He had to learn to listen to God, not Balaam. He did. Moses did not. Moses was still stuck in the glories and pains of the past. Moses could speak and no longer stutter. He no longer had to perform magic tricks and strike rocks. He needed to be prepared to strike enemies, even former allies like the tribe of Hobab and his father-in-law, the Midianites. Moses had to demonstrate a new kind of responsibility and a new kid of ruthlessness.

The sanctity by means of water is the sanctity of change. Water is not merely a bodily requirement. It is holy because it sanctifies change, sanctifies a God who reveals himself over time and for a particular time instead of having a perfect eternal essence. Heraclitus wrote, “In the same river we both step and do not step, we are and are not” (Ancient Philosophy, 20). [He did not write, as Plato claimed, “We cannot step twice in the same river.”] For, in Moses’ case, there are two very different waters and two very different requirements of holiness.

At the same time, there is repetition and continuity. The trick is to figure out what is the same and what is different. Moses failed in that responsibility, failed to listen, failed to see and failed to translate what he heard and saw into appropriate action. Moses was still in touch with the dead corpse of the

Israelites and had not really learned the meaning of the ritual of the red heifer which would have freed him from such an attachment. He was no longer dealing with a tribe of slaves inculcated in absolute obedience and fear but a people of the frontier who had absorbed the lessons of freedom. Moses had not learned the art of political persuasion.

However, why was Moses not allowed to enter and be buried in the Promised Land? Was that not dealing too harshly with him? I believe it was. But that is because there was no longer anyone to give boundaries to God. After all, that is what Moses often did – but on behalf of others. There was no one left to take on that responsibility for him. Miriam was dead. Aaron was old and feeble and totally passive. And everyone with ultimate power – even God – needs boundaries. Everyone who provides leadership needs another leader to temper any propensity to authoritarianism. Moses’ greatest failure was his failure to recognize his responsibilities to God, his duty to argue with God, his assigned task to insist on limitations on behalf of the people on God’s power.  

It is for that failure that he received such an extreme punishment – extreme for him.

Defunding the Police: Part IV, Policing and Racism

Under the pressure of racism to resist the results of the Civil War and the rise of blacks, both in the north and the south, policing entered a different stage of ineptitude, widespread corruption and partisan politics when police forces were politicized and made instruments of corrupt party machines, facilitated because the control of police had been left in the hands of local authorities. Police were not public servants so much as political operatives.

Then the police under the pressure of the Progressives were professionalized (1920-1980) and new technologies, such as patrol cars and two-way radios, were introduced. A new emphasis was placed on rehabilitation as well as prevention by means of humane treatment of the mentally ill, creating healthy working conditions and building decent public housing. Social problems were to be dealt with positively. But this model came to be identified with detached bureaucracies and a cold enforcement mold. In the 1980s, efforts were initiated to replace the model with the idea of community policing.

In all of these stages of so-called reform, the mixture of the French, British and the German models increasingly favoured the German. However, tackling underlying causes shifted over time and never embraced the most fundamental underlying cause of all, the economy and the mal-distribution of resources. Further, abstract norms that provided guidelines borrowed from the British model seemed to be observed more in the breach. Offences against those guidelines were publicized rather than obedience to them enforced.

Each of the stages of transition was triggered by widespread public discontent and upheaval and special committees to look into reforms. Thus, the era of the inauguration of community policy got its boost from the increase in crime, the anti-Vietnam War protests and President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) and the Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. As well as unfair economic distributive practices in employment, housing and educational opportunities, the Kerner Commission identified racism as an underlying cause of many of the 1960s riots. Police were accused of inadequate training and accountability, brutality and harassment, and disastrous community relations traced to police estrangement from the communities they served. Finally, here was a commission, one in a long series, but the first to call out both racism and economic inequality. But the Kerner Commission and its recommendations were ignored.

However, the Kerner Commission was the exception in its conclusions and only the norm in the failure to implement recommendations. In Watts in Los Angles in 1965, six days of riots and burning followed the arbitrary arrest by 27 squad cars of police of several brothers and the mistreatment of their mother near their home followed by the arrival of thousands of national guardsmen. In Newark and Detroit in 1967, thousand of militarized police and national guardsmen suppressed protests and arrested thousands. Selma, Alabama offered another example of extreme police violence.

Suspects in the June 1964 abduction and murder of one black and two Jewish civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (we named three co-op houses in Waterloo after them), in Neshoba County, Mississippi were released from prison. It took 41 years before Edgar Ray Killen, the Klu Klux Klan leader who orchestrated the “Mississippi Burnings,” to be arrested and eventually sentenced to three consecutive 20-year prison terms.  No one was punished for the murder of Medgar Evans and Violet Liuzzo.

The inquiries that followed protests and riots yielded almost identical results. A very few, such as the 1968 Kerner Commission mentioned above, blamed systemic racism, economic discrimination in housing, employment and the injustice system caused in part and grossly exacerbated by the brutality of the police. (Cf. Stephen M. Gillon, “Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.”) But most inquiries blamed agitators and civil rights workers no matter the amount of precipitating injustice and the violence of the police followed by almost identical recommendations and very similar inaction.

Initially, professionalization was identified with alienation and estrangement. In other words, the professional model of policing came face to face with the same problems identified at the core of current community policing practices. Community relations to replace public relations became the inadequate initial response, but this approach soon gave way to community-oriented policing.

Instead of the racial and ethnic conflict being undermined, a new emphasis was placed on the partnership of the community and the police. Though supposedly improving police-minority group relations and strengthening the principle of equal protection under the law as operative guidelines and goals, there emerged too many sensational examples in which community policing model undermined such goals. Neighbourhood watch programs were invaded by vigilantism intended to keep strangers (blacks) out of communities. These activities sometimes extended to individual assaults on innocent civilians. Further, team policing to replace professional detachment became a method of inculcating a police culture of cops under siege and an emphasis on a common self-protective ethos. Don’t rat on your fellow officers.

Though supposedly improving police-minority group relations and strengthening the principle of equal protection under the law as operative guidelines and goals, there emerged too many sensational examples in which the community policing model undermined such goals. Neighbourhood watch programs were invaded by vigilantism intended to keep strangers (blacks) out of communities. These activities sometimes extended to individual assaults on innocent civilians. Further, team policing to replace professional detachment became a method of inculcating a police culture of cops under siege and an emphasis on a common self-protective ethos. Don’t rat on your fellow officers.

The German model was revived wherein crime fighting is viewed simply as one aspect of maintaining law and order in society. Setting and supervising food and food packaging standards, psychological services to the mentally ill, health services to drug addicts, all become part of an overall approach to public law and order. That shift entails close cooperation among many agencies and an effort to shift some responsibilities police have assumed to other bureaucratic units. However, unless the mal-distribution of goods and services is tackled, redistribution of efforts will be as likely to fail as happened in both the community policing and the professional models.

The results were generally the same. In North Minneapolis in 2015, Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, was shot by a white officer who was eventually not even charged. In 2016, in nearby St. Paul, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man was stopped by police for a broken tail-light and shot dead in front of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. This time, Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer was charged, but he was acquitted. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was but one in a long list of unjustified killings of black men by police officers.

Why? In Minneapolis,

  • Black unemployment is twice that of whites
  • Only 25% of blacks owned their own homes compared to 75% for whites
  • The median income for blacks is half that of whites
  • Blacks were nine times more likely to be arrested for minor offences, earning a police record and almost a guarantee of unemployment
  • A pattern of discrimination and persecution of black police officers
  • The emergence of a culture of impunity.

But the results thus far were not identical to previous incidents of unjustified violence by white police officers against blacks. The event had been videotaped. The officer who committed the murder was charged, not just with manslaughter but with murder. His three fellow officers were charged with abetting the crime. Protests, and a few riots, broke out right across America and around the world. White protesters generally far outnumbered black ones. Further, instead of protests turning into initial riots, assaults of property and wide scale theft were replaced almost entirely by peaceful protests. Instead of more commissions, initiatives were taken to reform the police, to reallocate funds from them to specialized intervention units for mental health problems and, in a few cases to dismantle police forces and replace them by security and safety services.

I venture a prediction, however. Community policing will increasingly be replaced by the equivalent of charter schools through the creation of private associations identified with common goals and strategies. These will be able to hive off public surveillance, look after the interests of the group, co-opt and protect members. The self-interest of individuals will become subsumed within a larger organization in which individuals will receive recognition and status through the role they play. The cost will be a loss of privacy as a public unit closer to home takes on the responsibilities of overseeing all activities – whether one wants to cut a tree down or add a garage to one’s home. Thus, the robust and activist state functions will be increasingly assumed by local organizations, but they will be even more impotent in dealing with the inequities produced in the development of global capitalism and the inevitable victims that result.

Systemic racism and the police as the face of such a system of structured inequality will be gradually replaced by systemic reification of classes and divisions between natives and foreigners. The definition of a crime will be tremendously broadened while the impotence of any supervisory or accountability system to prevent poverty or undermine the underlying sources of crime will become further exposed. Individual liberty will be further limited for the sake of community solidarity. Policing as an ethical power of the state to provide limits and boundaries to civil society will take on a more general meaning rather than being the preserve of a specific paid force with the legal power to use violence to enforce community standards.

The injustices will remain.

Defund the Police: Part III, Historical Developments in America

In 2016, the Sherwood Park neighbourhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin erupted in three nights of violence after a fatal police shooting of an African American. In April of this year, 25-year-old Joel Acevedo died from blunt force trauma to the head a week after he was put in a chokehold in an altercation at his own home by an off-duty policeman, Michael Mattioli, who was charged with reckless homicide, was suspended from the police force but still received a pay check.

Why Milwaukee rather than Minneapolis or Ferguson? Milwaukee is considered America’s most racially segregated city and ranked as the worst place for black Americans. Critics claimed that lack of equity in health, wealth and education destroyed black lives. A half century ago, sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination, 200 nights of marches demanded an end to housing discrimination. Milwaukee has repeatedly been characterized by systemic racism, gross economic inequality and very troubled police-community relations. In the current context following the murder of George Floyd, the city’s mayor and police chief have both commended the demonstrators in Milwaukee for the peaceful nature of their protests while condemning those responsible for the rioting, arson and looting at night.

Officials follow the Hegelian model and trace the problem to gross economic and social disparities. Milwaukee has the worst gap in academic success between blacks and whites. Half the city’s African American children live below the poverty line. The tension between the police and the community persists in spite of police reforms that introduced new training for police and made cops wear body cameras. When did things go so wrong? The historical outline below only provides a general overview and no one police department fits precisely into the stages, the three different models of policing and the corresponding eras depicted.

In the last blog, I indicated that the French model of policing in the eighteenth century and then under Napoleon in a military-administrative state was based on social control and maintaining order in a sovereign nation state. The British and German models shifted the emphasis to different aspects of civil society. However, in all three cases, the maintenance of order and/or the protection of persons and property largely depended on “educating” citizens to discipline themselves and support law and order. Theoretically, the force of the state would not be needed to discipline individuals to serve a collective purpose. Instead, the individual would be trained to discipline his or her own body either as part of an administrative-military state, or as part of an economic welfare state or, finally, as part of a civil society in which each individual sought his or her personal happiness and satisfaction.

In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin promoted the French model. While stressing self-criticism and self-improvement to inculcate virtuous citizens to serve the state and its institutions, the institutions would, in turn, help forge those citizens so they could be loyal and serve the state. To combat the lack of safety on the streets of Philadelphia and its alleged higher crime rate, that he blamed on the passivity of the Quakers in dealing with violence, Franklin advocated a preventive police force with watchmen who would target trouble-makers, rogues, vagabonds, malefactors and anyone they suspected of evil intent.

With the revolution, sovereign power and legislative authority had been placed in the hands of the people who, in self-government, minimized the role and need for the state in the quest for “frugal government” yet, at the same time, supported “invasive intrusions” by a powerful police force. Over the following decades, the combination of frugality towards the institutions of governance and empowerment of the police resulted in social movements of resistance and revolts. The policing of the suspect “idlers” and “vagrants” meant incarceration, assignment to work gangs and labour for private contractors. This was not a philosophical justification for either a preventive or a reformed police force.

For the imported French model, the issue was not the formation of individuals who could contribute to the creation of wealth or, at the very least, train individuals to use their labour to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, the indigent and the slothful had to contribute to the “harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order of that system, which God and nature have established in the world,” (Franklin) which included ensuring that the populace retained the proper respect for the status and authority of the police. Keeping the populace whose lot in life was poverty required taming the lions and the tigers while teaching obedience and subordination through inculcating civility and decency as norms of behaviour. “To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures in concurring with the Deity; ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for laziness, and supports for folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and nature, which perhaps has appointed want and misery as the proper punishments for, and cautions against as well as necessary consequences of idleness and extravagancy.”

Poor relief and policing were two sides of the same coin opposed to both the laissez-faire of Jeremy Bentham or the welfare state of Hegel. Further, Franklin believed that “certain groups of people were less inclined to toil than others, less inclined to engage in productive labour thereby creating a natural division between the idle and industrious classes which determined the power relations in a polity. Native Americans, for example, were “naturally” less inclined to submit to the discipline of work and industry and live in cities. African Negroes, he contended, enjoyed a wandering, careless life, making them unsuited to living in civilized society.

Charity, philanthropy and the promise of salvation, either religious or civic, were the instruments to induce participation in the workhouses for the poor. Compare that to the proposals in Jeremy Bentham’s Pantopican letters (“Pauper Management Improved”). Since labour was necessary for a productive society and since the poor evidently lacked the virtues of self-discipline, Bentham recommended privatizing indentured work for a National Charity Company, modelled after the East India Company that would have absolute authority over the “whole body of the burdensome poor.”  

These two French (Franklin) and Bentham archetypes and rationales for policing models were different again from the Hegelian one. When the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office could not provide adequate protection for its citizens, the Milwaukee Police Department was founded in 1855 when the city was already known for its high crime rate and the widespread presence of gangs of thieves. This was the same time that the St. Louis Hegelians consolidated as a group to advance Hegelian ideas. They were led by Henry Conrad Brockmeyer (1828-1906), a Prussian, and William Torrey Harris (1835-1909), a New Englander educated at Yale. They focused on social and political problems, individuals assuming responsibility and the need for reform inspired mainly by Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. Economic injustice was seen to be at the root of the disorder in the cities in the mid-west.

By the 1880s, the reforms set in motion by these Hegelian ideas were undermined and then destroyed by the introduction of a political spoils system. In 1878, the new mayor, John Black, appointed Daniel Kennedy, a fellow Democrat, as police chief and he in turn fired 25 Republican patrolmen as the police force was turned into a corrupt arm of the equivalent of Tammany Hall in New York. This was the same time that, in the face of the failures in social reform, the St. Louis Hegelians dissolved as a group and turned their attention towards individual interests and moral advancement based almost solely on education. It is then that they were most influential in shaping the ideas and concerns of the American pragmatists. The first phase in the development of policing in the United States, in particular, Milwaukee, had shifted from a concern with economic and political reforms to eliminate the underlying causes of bad police/community relations, to a second phase, the politicization of the police as part of a spoils system.

The corruption of police departments in America influenced by the English model (without the norms of the “bobbies”) continued to focus on abstract governing norms and an emphasis on property and personal protection. The police forces constructed on that model were taught to utilize intrusive and even punitive measures to restore social order much more than providing a main line of defense against deviants and lawbreakers. As a result, here again the maintenance of public order became more important than the prevention of crime. In fact, it became a recipe for the police to become criminals themselves.

The corruption of the police forces through patronage that succeeded the noble ideals of either the German or the English model of policing became intolerable. Reforms were introduced across the land to professionalize the police force, either by hiring private firms to patrol one’s property or changing the way police were appointed, trained and deployed. But the new emphasis on police patrols to apprehend offenders and deter lawbreakers was soon determined to be ineffective and very costly.

“Community policing” became the new battle cry for reform in the 1960s to 1980s. A return to the London “bobbie” model was called for. It did not just mean taking cops out of patrol cars and making them walk the beat so they could get to know the members of the community. It meant extending their work from simple law enforcement to promoting the common good by serving as community social workers and engaging in cooperative and interactive relationships with the members of the communities in which they served. It is precisely this “overreach” that has currently come under fire. Police are criticized because they do not have the skills or training to act as psychologists and social workers. Personnel trained to use force to apprehend criminals should not and cannot be used to tackle underlying social causes and engage in prevention.

One of the results – police activity became more visible and more open to public accountability. At the same time, police operations were more likely to be identified with community crime prevention through aggressive maintenance of order when engaged in problem-oriented policing. Thus, it is ironic that today, Oregon, that was at the front end of community policing reform, is now at the core of taking back community protection from the police. In 1990, the Portland police department published their definition of community policing.

“’Community policing is based on a philosophy which recognizes the interdependence and shared responsibility of the police and community in making Portland a safer, more livable city. It is a method of policing which encourages a partnership that identifies community safety issues, determines resources, and applies innovative strategies designed to create and sustain healthy, vital neighborhoods. Community policing will coordinate with efforts being made by private, non-profit, and public agencies to bring a comprehensive approach to Portland’s problems of crime and disorder. Community policing reflects the values of: community participation; problem solving; officer involvement in decision making; police accountability; and deployment of police personnel at a level closer to the neighborhood.”

Generalities displaced specific instructions. Broad goals identified more with social work, but NOT economic reform, became the focus so that the police became even more reactive and impotent in dealing with underlying causes. Efforts were made to expand community policing and create partnerships between the police and health authorities, for example, to create safe injection sites and distribute clean needles. But these only created greater confusion for the police who had been charged with enforcing anti-drug laws. The problem-solving preventive approach that replaced police professionalism as a reactive model in dealing with crime ended up subjecting the police to even greater criticism given the inherent contradictions in their mandate.

Thus, the philosophy of policing underwent several important transitions from the era when policing first became a paid position that replaced the earlier amateur and largely voluntary policing in which police earned a percentage of taxes collected or fees, with a corresponding widespread inequality and injustice. The enforcement of criminal law became subservient to the application of civil law, whether that law emphasized the recapture of slaves as property, the collection of taxes, the payment of fines or the payment of rent.

No matter what the stage of development, no matter what the original model of policing, police forces were constructed on contradictory demands that could not result in a coherent, effective and just model of policing. By the sixties and the seventies, injustice became the norm in dealing with violence against blacks. So did a culture of impunity and the tendency of policy officers to initiate violence and justify such actions with bogus claims. Even minor infractions by blacks risked police brutality, especially if subservience was not communicated.

Defund the Police: Part II, The Philosophical Roots

On 27 August 2016, in response to the Ferguson riots in Missouri, David Byrne wrote a scholarly article, “The Hegelian Roots of Black Lives Matter.” It eventually appeared in the American Thinker. (https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2016/08/the_hegelian_roots_of_blacklivesmatter.html) The article was published in Theoria: A Journal of Political and Social Science (61:141: 5-29) It suggested that attempts to reform the police have deep philosophical roots. They do. Understanding those roots can help us understand the reform movement and its goals.

Whatever the demands and whatever the outcome, it seems clear that policing will once again soon undergo some radical and fundamental changes. This is far from the first time that radical revisions in policing have followed indiscriminate deaths and widescale protests. The last major shift was from a professional model to an emphasis on community policing that began in the sixties civil rights movement when protests as well as riots targeting racial injustices focused attention on the sources of racial discrimination and systemic racism in police forces in America. These pressures for change culminated in the 1980s. However, at the very beginning of the modern era when police departments were founded, community policing had been the norm. Those responsible for the maintenance of law and the protection of life and property were the citizens themselves who served on a voluntary level as constables and justices of the peace, though sheriffs might be hired and paid.

In the American south, policing entailed slave patrols of white volunteers to capture escaping slaves. In the West, the frontiersman and the Indian killers predominated. In the North East, the neighbourhood patrol backed up by paid watchmen predominated. Clearly, the local needs and norms of the society determined the mode of organization of policing and its functions. But not the philosophical premises which came from abroad, specifically Europe.

Police were first introduced as an instrument of the state in the eighteenth century in France, but modern policing did not begin until the nineteenth century in Britain and Germany when the police were first envisioned as primarily part of civil society to protect property and persons rather than just an instrument of the state to enforce public order. In France, police had meant government and the passage of special regulations to ensure public order even more than the protection of individual lives and property. In Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s 1765 Encyclopédie, police was defined as “the art of providing a comfortable and quiet life” to all the Earth’s inhabitants, especially city dwellers.  

Institutionalizing police as an instrument of government centered on an authority who possessed regulatory, judicial and enforcement powers to keep order. It was instigated by the 1660 plague and food riots in France. France had lost one-third of its population (one million deaths) in the epidemic of 1628-31 that itself had its roots in the devastating Black Death caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis beginning in 1348. Epidemics plagued society. Disorder followed. By the time of the French Revolution, there were 3,000 troops in Paris assigned to keep order led by commissioners and inspectors who accepted bribes to top up their minimal pay.  

My personal experience with the French model of policing in a modern dress took place just outside of Versailles in 1977. I had picked up my eldest daughter in a Volkswagen camper van in Britain where she had finished a concert tour (she was then a flautist) and we had travelled across to the continent. We stopped to refill the gas tank before we got to Paris. The attendant filled the tank and I offered him my visa card to pay.

He did not recognize a Canadian visa card and insisted I pay cash. I had not had a chance yet to purchase French francs. (The Euro clearly had not yet been introduced.) He asked me to wait while he made a telephone call. I presumed it was to someone who could authorize payment. We waited ten minutes. A police van arrived and a platoon of 16 police officers with their batons piled out of the back. They certainly communicated a police presence designed to deter crime and preserve public order. My daughter spoke French and got into an argument as I collapsed beside the VW van in fits of laughter watching this keystone cop event. Eventually, unable to resist the verbal assaults of a Canadian teenager, the police retreated and advised the attendant to accept my visa card.

I could not imagine such an event in England from where we had come or Germany towards which we were heading. Philosophers in Britain and Germany entered the picture at the beginning of the nineteenth century opposed to the French model and the concept of a militarized government police force charged primarily with keeping public order. Both countries favoured a police force primarily focused on civil society. These reforms also coincided with urbanization and the great expansion of cities.

Besides the French, there were two major schools of thought: the German school, Policeiwissenschaft, in which the main function of policing was the promotion of the economic well-being of the community and the establishment of the core elements of a welfare state as a means of preventing crime.  The other British one was led by Jeremy Bentham, the great English utilitarian philosopher. I will refer to the three visions as the French, British and English models.

At the very end of the eighteenth century, along with the police magistrate, Patrick Colquhoun, Bentham wrote a philosophical disquisition to form the basis of two Parliamentary Bills intended to reform the policing of London, on the one hand, and the whole Thames basin on the other. (Cf. Writings on Political Economy, Volume III: Preventive Police, ed. Michael Quinn.)

Since 1791, Bentham had led the crusade against the transport of criminals to New South Wales in Australia in favour of the progenitors of our penitentiaries based on a philosophy of preventive policing. Previously, criminals were supposedly deterred by facing either exile or capital punishment for a wide variety of crimes. The continued presence of the police would now deter crime. The Thames River Police prevented the theft of cargo in the busy London port and the Bow Street Runners operated on land. Sir Robert Peel became the foremost advocate for implementing Bentham’s ideas and, in 1829, established the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Peel became the father of modern policing in Britain and London police were called “bobbies” in his honour. To overcome the heated opposition and the fear that police would become an arm of the state to control citizens, as in France, he offered the following principles to guide the governance of a police force:

  • The purpose of the police force is to prevent crime and maintain order.
  • Police depend on the approval and trust of the public to effectively do their jobs.
  • The ultimate goal of policing is to achieve voluntary compliance with the law in the community.
  • Police must be unwavering in their duties and adherence to the law, maintaining impartiality and avoiding the temptation to be swayed by public opinion.
  • The use of force and physical control is to be used as a last resort, only when other forms of persuasion have failed.
  • Police officers must remember that they, too, are members of the public and that their purpose is to serve and protect the public.
  • The true measure of the effectiveness of any police force is not the number of arrests or police actions taken, but the absence of criminal conduct and violations of the law.

At the time that Peel was forming his London police force, George Wilhelm Hegel was writing his Philosophy of Right in Berlin. In the Third part dealing with Ethical life, civil society was viewed as the link between the family and the state, the sphere in which the individual was “torn” from his or her family and recognized as a self-subsistent person. Civil society was divided into the system for taking care of needs – the economic system – and the administration of justice, including rights and the legal system on the one hand, and the police and “The Corporation” on the other. The function of the police was to ensure security, the safety of persons and property. Further, the individual had duties as well as rights. And the organization of the economic sphere had a direct bearing on establishing a balance. For if the distribution of wealth is skewed to the rich and the general part of society is impoverished, disorder and discontent will result.

In Bentham, the role of the police could be governed by a self-contained set of guidelines to deter crime. In Hegel, this was not possible since the definition of crimes and challenges to public order varied with economic, social and political circumstances. The justice system was an external system and organization “for the protection and security of particular ends and interests en masse.” Thus, the ethical principles that emerge will reflect the character of civil society and cannot be independently established.

Success, as stated above, was measured in each case by the prevention of crime (defined by Hegel as a “subjective willing of evil”) and by bringing those who threaten that safety and security to justice. The police do not derive their authority from the internal “natural” order of civil society, as in Bentham, but in performing on behalf of society a supervisory and preventive ethical power that, in the end, resides in the state.

The difference between Hegel and Bentham is that in the latter’s utilitarianism, the function of prevention is guided by universal norms. In the Hegelian schema, there is “no inherent line of distinction between what is and what is not injurious…or between what is and is not suspicious, or between what is to be forbidden or subject to supervision and what is to be exempt from prohibition, from surveillance and suspicion.” That is determined by custom, the spirit of the constitution, contemporary conditions, the crisis of the hour, etc.

In other words, norms of policing are always subject to revision relative to the time and place. Further, policing for Hegel had an additional problem. Supervision of the police was to be conducted with as little public knowledge and visibility in civil society as possible. This also meant that police operated surreptitiously, invisible to the public eye so that individuals would not recognize that they were being “policed”. In his Addition to his book on rights, Hegel showed how prescient he was and included the following: “As a result of this presence of accident, of personal arbitrariness, the public authority acquires a measure of odium.” Further, the public authority tends to be accumulative, drawing everything possible under its ken.

That is why you need constant oversight and care. For the actions of individuals may theoretically always be wrongful depending on what is considered injurious and what is not. Can a child open a cap? Does a photo promote child molestation? The public has a right not to be led into harm’s way, to be defrauded and, hence, even the mode of production and packaging of goods must be supervised and ordered. Then, as a result of the clashes between the needs of consumers and the rights and interests of producers, overall control is necessary “to diminish the danger of upheavals.”

Clearly, the Benthamite (English) and Hegelian (German) positions overlap in stressing deterrence. But the Hegelian emphasis in the fundamentals of the economic order in ensuring fairness, on oversight because there can be no permanent ethical norms for these vary over time and circumstances, on the inevitability of police incrementalism and accumulation of the opprobrium of the public, offered a very different trajectory for the establishment of police forces.

Of the three alternatives, the French, the English and the German, which philosophical position did America adopt?

Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement

Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement

by

Howard Adelman

Reforms in policing were proposed in Ferguson, Missouri following two weeks of protests and riots that began on 10 August 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Just as these days, curfews were instituted and police squads were deployed to maintain order. Just as these days, that “uprising” raised questions about the relationship between the police and African-Americans in Missouri and the rest of the country.

As the Washington Post observed this past week, a consensus has now emerged concerning the existence of systemic racism in American policing and other facets of American life. Long time organizers of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are trying to extend its momentum beyond the popularization phase. Activists sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demand policy changes that once seemed far-fetched, including sharp cuts to police budgets in favour of social programs and greater accountability for officers who kill civilians.

25 percent of blacks shot and killed by police in the U.S. in 2015 over six months were in the midst of a mental health crisis. “It’s now something where the Mitt Romneys of the world can join in, and that was something unimaginable back in 2014. That is the result of six years of hard work by people who are in the movement and have put forward so many discussions that really changed people’s hearts and minds,” said Justin Hansford, who was an activist in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest after the police killing of an unarmed black teen there.

What was different in 2014? The incident of the shooting was not captured on videotape. Further, the rioting and vandalism took place in response to 150 officers appearing at the peace protest in riot gear; the militarized police overshadowed the peaceful protest. In the confrontations, innocent protesters were fired upon, journalists were harassed, tear-gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, their cameras destroyed. Video captured a SWAT car rolling up to an Al Jazeera team and taking them down, refuting the claim that the police had simply asked them politely to move.

There was a third major difference. President Barack Obama was in office. He issued the following statement: There is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” In 2014, the president was on the side of the protesters yet the police repression was far worse and instigated the conflict. However, the central difference was the rise of routine videotaping of police brutally beating black men.

The BLM movement, that had been sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, got a singular boost because of the aggressive response to the Ferguson protests in 2014 and then a powerful heave upwards with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis in May of 2020.

In 2014, Wilson claimed that he had confronted Brown following an assault and robbery of a convenience store. In the struggle, Brown was wounded and fled. Wilson gave chase. When Brown turned to confront the police officer, the latter shot and killed him. Bystanders claimed that Brown had turned, raised his hands to surrender, said, “Don’t shoot,” and was then shot. A grand jury refused to indict Wilson. More protests and riots followed in the week after that announcement on 24 November. The Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defence. However, in their investigation of the police department, the DOJ concluded in March of 2015 that the Ferguson Police Department had engaged in systematic discrimination against African-Americans.

In Milwaukee on 30 April 2014, Dontre Hamilton was killed by police officer Christopher Manney. Manney was not charged, but he was fired. Further, thereafter, Milwaukee police were equipped with body cameras. Dontre Hamilton was mentally ill and sleeping in a park when he was confronted by Manney who tried to frisk him. Hanney purportedly began to wrestle and claimed that Hamilton got hold of his baton and began hitting him on the neck when he shot him. He hit Hamilton 14 times. Peaceful protests followed.

In the single year that followed, 29 unarmed African Americans were killed by police in America.

Date 2014NameAgeCity  State
     
11 August  Ezell Ford                         25Los AngelesCA
20 November Akai Gurley28BrooklynNY
22 NovemberTamir Rice12ClevelandOH
2 DecemberRumain Brisbon34PhoenixAZ
30 DecemberJerame Reid36BridgetownNJ
2015    
8 JanuaryArtago Damon Howard36Union CountyAK
4 FebruaryJeremy Lett28TallahasseeFL
15 FebruaryLavall Hall25Miami GardensFL
28 FebruaryThomas Allen34WellstonMO
1 MarchCharly Leundeu Keunang43Los AngelesCA
6 MarchTony Robinson19MadisonWI
9 MarchAnthony Hill      27DeKalb CountyGA
12 MarchBobby Gross35WashingtonDC
19 MarchBrandon Jones18ClevelandOH
2 April  Walter Scott50North CharlestonSC
15 AprilFrank Shephard41HoustonTX
22 AprilWilliam Chapman18PortsmouthVA
25 AprilDavid Felix24New YorkNY
5 MayBrendon Glenn29VeniceCA
15 JuneKris Jackson22South Lake TahoeCA
25 JuneSpencer McCain41Owings MillMD
2 July   Victor Emanuel Larosa23JacksonvilleFL
12 July Salvado Ellswood36PlantationFL
17 July Albert Joseph Davis23OrlandoFL
17 July Darrius Stewart19MemphisTN
19 July Samuel DuBose43CincinnatiOH
7 AugustChristian Taylor 19ArlingtonVA

Of course, deaths of black young men at the hands of the police do not only take place when the young men are being arrested. Death and torture take place when they are so disproportionately incarcerated. Between 1972 and 1991, at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city’s predominantly black South Side. (Laurence Ralph, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence) Shackled to steaming hot radiators, beaten, electrocuted by means learned in Vietnam and raped with sex toys to extract confessions that help send them to prison and even death row, beating and torture became part of the police culture in Chicago. Torture had been inflicted routinely, particularly at the hands of a Viet veteran, Commander Jon Burge, until he was fired in 1993. As a result of the 2009 Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, and in spite of the “ostrich approach” of many police officers who did not participate in the torture but were inevitably part of the cover up, this pattern was acknowledged in the 2015 reparations legislation for those victims, with claimants in line currently numbering 543. 410 miles to the northwest of Chicago we find Minneapolis.

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police that was videotaped, very large peaceful protests took place around the world for at least three weeks with some rioting and looting, especially in New York City, in the first few days. There was not only an insistence by the multi-racial crowds that, “Black Lives Matter,” but there were also calls to defund the police. For some this meant dissolving the police department altogether and replacing it with other institutions.

Most of the BLM activists have lobbied for the last six years, not to dismantle police departments, but to spend less on policing and more on housing, health and social work, such as in Sweden, where funds were shifted from the police department to a mental health ambulance service, or Scotland where funds were shifted to a violence reduction unit with officers deployed to defuse conflicts. The activists wanted to shift funds from the police department to other agencies that were better trained and equipped to deal with family disputes, domestic violence or mental illness and stop the trend towards the militarization of police departments.

Three choices for change face police departments. They can attempt reforms that will enable the removal of “bad apples” and the prevention of excessive force, such as the use of chokeholds. Police departments can also be subjected to investigation by independent bodies so that the regulatory process is applied impartially without favoritism. Second, funds can be shifted to other departments more suited to performing functions like intervening in family disputes, dealing with substance abuse and mental illness. Third, Police Departments can be disbanded to get around the stranglehold many police unions have on efforts to instigate police reform and regressive racist and bullying culture that has infected some police departments.

When Senator Kamala Harris wants “to reimagine how we do public safety in America” and defunding the police, she does not mean abolishing the police, but taking funds that total almost one-third of municipal budgets and reallocating those monies to educational, social welfare and health resources. On the other hand, Joe Biden is an advocate of police reform rather than financial reallocation, arguing that police need more funds for better training and for equipping police with body cameras. He would allocate $300 million more to police departments nationwide.

Donald Trump, while paying lip service to reform, is not only opposed to all three types of changes, but insists on characterizing the reform and defund movements as efforts to dismantle police forces. Public safety would otherwise be endangered. “Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there, and sometimes we’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently, but I say 99.9 — let’s go with 99% of them — great, great people, and they’ve done jobs that are record-setting,”  This is based on the claim that there is no systemic racism in police forces in America even though two-thirds of Americans are now convinced that there is, up from one-third at the time of the Ferguson protests.

This is not and has not been just an American problem. This past month alone, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous black Canadian woman in Toronto on 27 May of 2020, Chantel Moore, an indigenous Canadian woman in Edmundston New Brunswick on 4 June 2020, and Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old man with schizophrenia in Mississauga Ontario on 24 June, all were shot and killed at the hands of police in Canada. This past week, though his brother, Christian, was acquitted, Toronto police officer Michael Theriault was convicted of an off-duty assault in the brutal 2016 beating with a metal pipe of black 19-year-old, Dafonte Miller, who lost an eye as a result of the beating. In addition,  Dafonte also suffered a broken orbital bone, bruised ribs, a broken nose, and a fractured wrist.

Which of the four options described above do you support – a few symbolic acts, some substantive reform, reallocation of police budgets or dissolution of police departments as they currently exist and replacement with police services with a different culture? Alex Neve and France-Isabelle Langlois of Amnesty International advocated a mixture of the last two options, “All of this requires broad and time-bound consultations about community-led proposals that reimagine and propose new, transformative approaches to upholding public safety and setting and apportioning police budgets in ways that end racism and uphold human rights. Now is the time to advance this agenda of change.” Which direction would you choose? To answer that question, it might help to have a deeper knowledge of the philosophic roots and longer history behind the debate.

Dealing with Discontents: Rioters, Rebels and Plagues

Parashat Korah Numbers 16-18

In these past weeks, one cannot help but get the impression that the Torah, and particularly numbers, is concerned with the politics of managing discontent. However, the book starts with structural order and organization, applying those to the immediate environment, taking a census and the management of sacred icons, in particular, the Arc of the Covenant. These are the two poles – rebellion, discontent and dissension versus unity and the priority of solidarity and community.

In dealing with the first, with divisions, the tale in Numbers moves from administrative organization to exclusions, its causes and conditions, first from the tribe and then from a marriage, and then voluntary exclusions that are self-imposed, such as the abstinence of the Nazirites. But the volume always turns its back on denial towards donations and gift giving.  

With respect to the theme of dissension, chapter 9 paints the first sign of dissent. Though being near and tending to the sick and dying may exemplify the greatest virtue, men who had been near a corpse were excluded from the Passover offering. Moses turns to God and God offers a substitute sacrifice. The accommodation seems to satisfy the dissidents. The Israelites then receive their marching orders. And we are then returned to a new interpersonal story, the one between Moses and his brother-in-law. Hobab, son of Jethro (Reuel), the Midianite. Hobab announces that he is leaving, going back to his tribal homeland. Moses persuades him to stay by offering him the same portion as everyone.  Treatment of everyone equally with justice is the main positive thesis.

Numbers 9:14 “And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”

Numbers 15:14-15 “And when throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord – as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time and throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord.”

Hobab, however, was not the only one who was discontented. Fires were set in the midst of the community by God. The burning and the looting were destructive expressions of discontent. The people then really cried out and the fires died down. However, the discontent had spread. The riffraff complained about the food – no meat, only manna. The Israelites had turned into regular whiners.  Moses could not take it. He asked to resign. God intervened and reorganized his duties so that the role of the courts and handing out judgments was transferred to 70 elders, 6 from each tribe, less Eldad and Medad. At the same time, God eased the cause of the discontent by providing plenty of meat. Provisioning by the welfare state in its earliest and simplistic expression became the norm.

Eldad and Medad began acting like prophets. While everyone expected Moses to be upset, he was not. However, when his older sister, jealous of Moses’ primacy, supported by Aaron, uttered a racial slur against his second wife, a Cushite, Moses called both Miriam and Aaron out. And God remonstrated them for not recognizing the uniqueness of Moses. Presumably, that is why Eldad and Medad could act like prophets but never be ones, while Miriam and Aaron were chosen as well as Moses by the Lord, but not to be Moses’ equal. Inequality in performance and duty was a reality but equality of treatment was an aspiration. Again, the punishment of exclusion from the camp is imposed, this time on Miriam. Even royalty cannot be spared from the hand of the law.

Then there is a much bigger rebellion. While all twelve princes of the tribes sent out to scout the land report back on its bounty, ten of them also report that the inhabitants who live there are formidable and protected by walled cities. Instead of infusing the people with courage, they depressed the morale. There could be no invasion. This time the punishment was widespread and extreme. Other than Caleb and Joshua who tried to inspire the people, the other leaders and all the members of the tribes over 20 years of age who gave into their fears were denied the right to enter the land and had to wander in the desert for forty years, though initially God threatened not to fulfil his promise to the Israelites at all. As was His pattern, God backed down in the face of incessant complaints, but only partially.

Korah is a different story of dissent again with even greater stakes and even more insightful revelations of the Torah political theory of rebellion and dissension versus solidarity and survival. Further, the punishment for the dissidents is extraordinary. Korah, a Levite and two descendants of the Reuben tribe lead 250 Israelites, including chiefs and men of repute – this was not a rebellion of the street – to challenge Moses and Aaron in their leadership roles. Like Miriam’s reprimand of Moses, the rebellion is instigated in the name of equality of status. Why are the two, Moss and Aaron, granted superior recognition?

The key is recognition by God, as was the case with the much more minor case of Miriam’s dissent. The Levites, though not priests, already had a superior status in the Tabernacle. Further, Dathan and Abirman would not even come to talk to Moses about their complaints and differences concerning Moses lording it over them. This time the rebels were not exorcised from the community. Rather, the community deserted them and left them isolated in their tents. As they emerged with their wives and children, they are swallowed up by the earth and destined for Sheol (Hades?). They with their wives and children are buried alive and vanish from the congregation of Israelites. Fire burned up the rest of the 250 rebels.

However, the Israelites were upset with Moses over what happened lest they too be subject to extreme punishment. They railed against Moses and Aaron. And once again God threatened to wipe them all out. But Moses and Aaron pleaded on their behalf and “made expiation for the people” as the plague spread among them. After 14,700 had died from that plague, much more than the 8,500 who have died from the Covid 19 plague in all of Canada, Moses and Aaron managed to isolate the community from further devastation.

Note the initial act in God’s dealing with Korah – burying him and his family alive, far worse than being burned alive by fire or killed in a plague. They die in the most unnatural of deaths to validate the leadership of Moses and Aaron as their own claims are vitiated. There is neither a slow death from a virus nor even a swifter death by fire, but one where their death cannot be observed and their process of dying mourned. Instead, the death itself is unseen and unlamented. There can be no bedside visits. And Moses and Aaron are given no chance to intervene as they do with the plague.

As we know from the current Covid 19 pandemic, plague is synonymous with separation, isolation and, to some degree, exile from the community. In the case of Korah and his partners in rebellion, they are isolated as well, but the community separates itself from them and, in effect, goes into a form of exile. Albert Camus understood this phenomenon. For the safest place in a plague is in a remote place – like the hamlet in south-central France, Panelier, where he fled in 1942 when both his lungs contracted tuberculosis, and where he wrote the bulk of his novel, The Plague, or the city of Oran in Algeria where Camus’ wife found refuge.

However, the hamlet was not only a refuge from a “plague.” It was a refuge for Jews, 3,500 of them, fleeing the hand of death that would be inflicted by the Nazis. They were issued fake papers and given recognition as French. The Korah parashat is much more a story of salvation from the plague and salvation from the wrath of the universe than about the horror inflicted on Korah.

The parashat concerns the politics of solitude, the awful solitude and isolation of being disappeared versus the survival solitude of retreat from the fires and rages and storms of civilization to live for another day. As one fled the invasion of the disease even more than the invasion of the Nazis, there was suffering – food deprivation, long lines at stores to purchase items needed for survival and even, to some degree, one’s freedom as laws are introduced to force certain behaviour, such as wearing masks, to protect the rest of the community.

In Camus’ novel, a front-line health worker is both the narrator and, in one sense, the hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux (Camus’ version of Moses), a narrator based on a doctor in real life, Doctor Paul Riou. Like Moses, he was fearless and humble, totally lacking in pride even as he served his “divinely” ordained mission. Nor did he have an ounce of resentment against his enemy upstarts. It was as if he was immune from the virus of envy that plagued his critics and the dissenters in the community. Rather than a novel of powerlessness and existential absurdity, the allegory is really an expansion of the Korah story. Those who would organize attacks against the Nazis, the Korahs of the world, with the inevitable reprisals, are not the heroes but rather become the ones swallowed up by the Nazi killing machine.

Though these are stories of envy and enmity, rivalry and historical election, of isolation and exile, they are also stories of human solidarity. For that is Korah’s ultimate sin. It was he who set himself apart from the community while Moses was set apart by history and always retained his ultimate loyalty to the people and solidarity with them, especially when the community was threatened by forces beyond his control. The moral issue is about self-effacement versus arrogance and egoism, identification with the ordinary even when cast by history into extraordinary roles, kindness, empathy and consideration of others versus any self-interest or personal ambition. At the same time, Moses was not a pacifist. The treatment of Korah was not non-violent but, in fact, violated the most fundamental human obligation, to sit by the bedside of a loved one and offer succor and comfort. Moses was human-all-too-human as a leader. Korah aspired to be a hero.

The story of Korah can be read as a story of punishment, but also as a story of rescue, as the story of Moses in the continuing saga of his dedication to the rescue of the Jewish people. It is a story of solidarity even more than rebellion.

The Plot Against America

A week after aviation pioneer, Major Harold Geiger of the U.S. Army crashed his Airco DH.4 de Havilland plane in Pennsylvania, Charles Lindbergh (“Lucky Lindy”), at the age of 25, flying the “Spirit of St. Louis” from New York, landed in Paris thirty-three and a half hours later to a cheering crowd of 150,000, completing the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on 21 May 1927. Lindbergh was a believer in eugenics. In the same month as that famous flight, the U.S. Supreme Court (“Buck v. Bell”) had permitted the forced sterilization of “unfits” and Louis B. Mayer, just two days before the Berlin Stock Market crash, organized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that would consolidate the new age of visual communications that began the process of turning novels into prequels for movies and television series. Philip Roth, the great American novelist, predicted that reading novels would become cultic as contemporaries over the following century gradually lost the ability to concentrate, focus and offer the devotion required in reading and books became a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era.  

Just after Lindbergh’s famous flight and just before his enormous New York ticker tape parade, Henry Ford, perhaps the most famous antisemite in America, produced the last Tin Lizzie, the famous black Model T Ford. Ford would become Vice-President in Lindbergh’s imaginary presidency in Philip Roth’s creeping apocalyptic and precautionary novel, The Plot Against America.

Charles Lindbergh became a great American hero. His autobiography, We, was a best seller. President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the first Distinguished Flying Cross. Invited to tour the German aircraft industry in 1936, Lindbergh reported to the American government that Germany was “now able to produce military aircraft faster than any European country; possibly faster even than the United States.” Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Goering on behalf of Adolf Hitler on 18 October 1938, when earlier in the same month Germany annexed the Sudetenland (one-third of Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement formally ceding the territory to Germany and the German government required German Jews to have “J” stamped in their passports. In 1940, Hitler would name Goering Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich).

On his return to the U.S. in April of 1939 just following the American recognition of the fascist, Francisco Franco, as the Spanish Dictator, just following Italy’s invasion of Albania and the Dutch government opening of Kamp Westerbork, a refugee camp for German Jews but built with Jewish community funds, Charles Lindbergh became an activist and isolationist and revealed explicitly that he was also a white supremacist and an antisemite. He became the leader of the America First movement. Joe Louis had just become heavyweight champion of the world.

“We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” So Lindbergh wrote in Reader’s Digest in 1939. In a speech that Lindbergh delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, he said that the “greatest danger to this country lies in their [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

These words are repeated in a broadcast that Herman Levin listens to at the beginning of the 2020 six-episode series, The Plot Against America, on Crave and HBO TV based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name.  Levin in that same episode watches a newsreel that cites a poll, a real 1939 Roper poll that sums up American opinion on Jews just when World War II had begun, a year after Kristallnacht. “Only thirty-nine percent of the respondents agreed that Jews should be treated like everyone else. Fifty-three percent believed that ‘Jews are different and should be restricted. And ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”

Even though Franklin Roosevelt won the 1940 election in a landslide and Lindbergh never did run against him, Philip Roth’s imaginative alternative history in his novel, The Plot Against America, was not so farfetched. According to the great historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., according to Philip Roth, “there were some Republican isolationists who wanted to run Lindbergh for president in 1940.

Neither was Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first famous 1959 short debut novel that I read avidly when I wrote my first play, Root Out of Dry Ground, divorced from historical reality. The novel was also about a Jewish youth questioning the values, morals, religious sensibilities and identities of third generation North American Jews. That was my reality. Roth was five years older than I was. He was also a brilliant writer. I was not. Further, I have been a terrible prophet, whereas Philip Roth proved to be very prescient. (As well as The Plot Against America, read, for example, The Human Stain, that dealt so insightfully with American identity politics.) Roth died in 2018.

Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, the central figure in the series) was a Jewish fictional insurance agent who lived in the Weequahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey where Philip Roth grew up. Herman has a wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), the name of Roth’s mother, and two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and, yes, Philip who was also born in 1933, the year of Philip Roth’s birth. Sandy (Sanford) was the name of Philip Roth’s older brother. Herman was also his father’s name. One presumes that Roth’s father was as passionate and full of conviction as Herman and that his mother was the solid steel backbone of the family with the common sense and realism of the character in the series.

Fiction can be reality. One cannot watch the protests of Black Lives Matter, one cannot help watching the antics of Donald Trump and his trust in his own instincts and pseudo-science, one cannot watch Donald Trump’s Jewish convert of a daughter, Ivanka, and his modern Orthodox son-in-law, Jared, attending state dinners and bathing in the celebrity lights, as the rabbi and Beth’s sister, Evelyn, both do in the novel and the TV series, and not identify with the crisis in America depicted by Roth. We binge watched the series over the last three evenings. It is a terrific production. It is relevant. It is devastating.

If Lindbergh was an American Firster, Herman Levin is a die-hard American. But the latter shares with Lindbergh, and with both Herman’s sons as well, a nostalgic longing in their quasi-secular Jewish home. At one point in the series, Herman stands up in a restaurant to challenge an antisemite and, in a beautiful voice, croons the sweet memories of Paul Dresser’s late nineteenth century ballad “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” though Herman has evidently never been to the heartland of America, Indiana in this case, and ostensibly fears and rejects its values. Herman at the beginning of the series donates money to a Jew who comes to his door to ask for money for the Jews of Palestine. His nephew, Alvin, calls Palestine the homeland of the Jews. When his son Philip (Azhy Robertson) innocently asks about that claim, his father, Herman, answers by insisting that America is their homeland. The series is about Herman and his family discovering that the claim is not quite true. According to Herman’s brother, Monty (David Krumholtz), Lindbergh’s leadership allowed the anti-Semites in America to “crawl out from under their rocks.”

In the series, the racists do just as they did in Charlottesville; they marched carrying lit torches and Nazi symbols and shouted, “Jews will not replace us” as they protested the efforts of Blacks to remove statues of defenders of slavery, former Confederate leaders. The American Firsters have critics but also those who serve as apologists and enablers when they support Trump, just as Bess’s naïve sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and the mellifluous and obsequious Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) became shameless self-serving allies of the Lindbergh administration in the mini-series.

I have a question for my readers though. Why is Sandy, the older son and budding brilliant sketch artist, such a critic of his father? Why is Sandy a quasi-admirer of Charles Lindbergh? Is it because his sketches try to nostalgically preserve what he sees? The portrayal came across as thoroughly plausible, but I could not connect his visual artistry with his political blindness. He does serve as a foil for his cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), the impetuous, energetic and very committed activist totally opposed to Nazis and fascism. Is there a connection between his visual but non-creative acuity, which Alvin expresses through the new technology of radar, versus Sandy’s skills? Why does Alvin possess prescient political insight, on the one hand, and Sandy mindblindness on the other?

Perhaps my puzzle is compounded because the novel, like Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, is, in good part, about historical change overwhelming ordinary people, while the David Simons and Ed Burns TV series The Plot Against America, is more about celebrating the blessings of democracy.

The Looming Annexation in the West Bank

The annexation of parts of the West Bank is looming in many of the senses connoted by that adjective:

  • The prospective political move, even if the first step is limited, is considered massive by both supporters and opponents of the move;
  • The announced timing for the initiative for 1 July is imminent but it may be just a symbolic declaration;
  • Annexation is as yet indistinct in at least three ways:

a) Extending sovereignty, not annexation, is promised; there is a debate over whether the definitions of each of the terms is a distinction without a difference; much of the discussion has been about extending Israeli sovereignty, that is, extending Israeli law to those areas of the West Bank where Jews live to displace the current mixture of military, Jordanian and Ottoman law; annexation is about defining borders not just extending the rule of law [see Einat Wilf in the current issue of Mosaic where he argues that annexation in the West Bank is about fixing the final borders of Israel]; in any case, extending sovereignty may be a final step towards annexation, but is not identical to it;

b) The U.S. has not submitted its final map for its peace plan that is intimately intertwined with the annexation prospect;

c) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself not presented his final proposed map to his political leadership partner, Benny Gantz, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabi Ashkenazi;

  • The annexation proposal has become politically magnified as well as threatening, not only to parts of the Western and most of the Arab world, but also to Benny Gantz himself as Netanyahu has allowed rumours to circulate that he will dissolve the partnership on one pretext or another, call an early election and ignore the agreement that, if he does call an election prematurely, Benny Gantz will become Interim Prime Minister, this at a time when Netanyahu and the Likud are more popular than ever before;
  • Though most of the defense and intelligence leadership, both existing and retired, seem to be convinced that going ahead with annexation in any of its proposed forms is a real and unnecessary security risk, both Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2007 to 2011, and Benny Gantz, the current Defence Minister, Alternate Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff of the IDF from 2011 to 2015, appear to support some version of annexation; 
  • The PA may not survive past September;
  • The proposal, for a number of reasons, including the phenomenal convolutions of any of the interim maps, is akin to viewing something through a glass darkly.

We know that 1 July is not a firm date. We know that if and when the annexation or extension of sovereignty proposal is submitted to the Knesset, it may propose implementation in stages. We know that the proposal may initially include only the large Jewish populated areas of the West Bank, namely only those, like Ma’ale Adumin, near Jerusalem, but perhaps also Gush Etzion and Ariel and even Modi’in Ilit and Givat Ze’ev, that is, the urban areas with most of the Jewish population in the West Bank. Blue and White Knesset members have tried to promote a staged annexation along these lines. Further, Netanyahu may limit the extension of Israeli law and sovereignty since the U.S. reputedly will only support annexation if Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agrees with the initiative which he now appears to have done.

To make things even more complicated, the Yesha Council of the settlers (Mo’etzet Yesha, in Hebrew the acronym for Yehuda Shomron, Aza – Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council – the umbrella organization of municipal councils of the West Bank Jewish settlements) is busy amending the Trump peace plan with alternative road routes that would not isolate the Jewish settlements. In other words, we know how amorphous the proposed political action is at the same time how threatening it appears even if it only takes place in stages. Whatever the details of the plan, a slippery slope is created when the principle opposing a unilateral move by either side is breached.

The threats come from many directions, including the U.S. where the Democrats in the House of Representatives are working on a resolution to unanimously condemn such a move, meaning that Israel will have an opponent to annexation in the White House if Joe Biden is elected in November. Or is that so clear? For one, Biden will be preoccupied with other issues of central concern to the U.S. and he might want to balance a rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear deal with a softer voice on the rights of the Palestinians.  Or he might find that taking on the Saudis over the war in Yemen leaves little diplomatic and political capital available for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The disposition to avoid being tough on Israel goes back decades. Biden declared himself a Zionist almost thirty years ago, even though first elected in a state that was less than 1% Jewish. He has always supported direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis and mostly blamed the Palestinians for the failures in those negotiations. He criticized the Goldstone Report on Gaza and insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets from Gaza.  The general line in the Democratic Party is to defend Israel’s right to exist and to self-defence while diplomatically supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing, to different degrees, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Joe Biden is unlikely to offer any creative innovation – if that is possible – on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will continue to pay lip service to an increasingly unlikelihood of the older version of a two-state solution and verbally oppose annexation. U.S.-Israeli mutual interests go too deep and include defence, support for Israel as a democratic state, intelligence cooperation, joint training and technology sharing. Biden is not likely to innovate, though he may and he could, invite greater involvement by the international community, particularly the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner. The bottom line is that annexation for its critics will not enhance Israeli security but will, on the contrary, undermine it. Shany Mor in Mosaic argues that pursuing annexation means missing other critical opportunities, particularly with Arab states.

The real political policy conflict in America on Israel/Palestine is being fought on the local level between progressive and moderate Democrats. The most prominent fight is between Elliot Engel, a 16-term Democratic congressman and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, versus a strong challenger, Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. As of this morning, Engel appears to have lost. From the other direction, freshman Ilhan Omar in Minnesota is fending off a Democratic primary challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, backed by the pro-Israel wing of the party. But the latter has only a half million dollars in campaign funds compared to Omar’s $3.4 million. Omar is expected to win in the August primary, though this year she only won the endorsement of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer Labor Party with 65% of the delegates. Nevertheless, the drift in the Democratic Party seems clear – a more critical stance against Israel and greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. After all, Representative Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, a severe critic of Israel, easily won her primary in New York’s 14th District.

Most Democrats support Israel but most also are opposed to Israel’s settlement and especially its proposed annexation policies. More importantly, under the pressure of increasing numbers of progressive delegates and candidates, there has been a noticeable shift towards greater support for the Palestinians and stronger criticism of Netanyahu, criticism enhanced because Netanyahu aligned himself so strongly with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The key issues may become discrimination against Palestinians and enhanced support for Palestinian rights to self-determination.

At the same time, the majority of Jews in the U.S. also seem to be opposed to annexation, though Yitz Tendler in the Jerusalem Post (18 June 2020) contended that a majority of engaged American Jews supported annexation, as evidenced by the votes in the World Zionist Congress where the annexationists won an 80 to 69 win. However, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) came out with an equivocal statement a month ago to gloss over diaspora divisions. The motion stated that it would be a mistake to allow annexation of parts of the West Bank should the initiative affect Israel-U.S. relations. But most non-engaged Jews oppose annexation.  In Canada, 58 prominent Jews who are strong supporters of Israel urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak out in opposition to annexation. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism in the U.S., expressed the belief in a webinar yesterday and in an article penned with Rabbi Hara Person (“Urge the Israeli Government Not to Carry Out Unilateral West Bank Annexation”) that this maximalist initiative is a turning point in Israeli-Jewish/American-Jewish relations because the annexation is unilateral, breaches the rights to self-determination of the Palestinians and is allegedly an immense step towards making Israel a non-democratic state in order to retain its Jewish character. Israel risks losing its moral stature, risks losing its position on the moral high ground when it surrenders, in spite of or because of Palestinian non-cooperation, holding out the prospect of a Palestinian state.

This has been a phenomenon around the world. This past shabat, the story is read about the 12 Biblical spies sent to assess the prospect of the Israelites acquiring the land of Israel. 10 reported back that the task was too formidable. (They are generally taken to task by most rabbinical interpreters.) There are a host of prognostications about the dangers of annexing parts of the West Bank, not just a military danger, but even more of a political and ethical one to Israel’s democracy. They include the following list just sent to me by the New Israel Fund of Canada:

“This letter [a full page ad in Ha’aretz] is another piece of a concerted global effort to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a move which would severely damage Israel’s democracy and make the unequal and discriminatory legal system in the West Bank formal and permanent. Examples include:

  • 400 Jewish academics, including NIF International Board President Prof. David Myers and NIFC Advisory Council members Prof. Mira Sucharov and Prof. Derek Penslar, signed a letter denouncing unilateral annexation as a “crime against humanity”.
  • 40 leading British Jewish figures sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the UK stating that unilateral annexation would pose an existential threat to Israel.
  • 58 former Canadian ministers and diplomats, including NIFC Advisory Council member and former Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen, called on Prime Minister Trudeau to show stronger resistance to proposed Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
  • Over 250 international law scholars sent a letter to the Israeli government condemning Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank as a flagrant violation of international law.
  • Over 220 former IDF commanders and generals signed a letter calling upon Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to prevent the government from taking any unilateral annexation measures.”

In addition to the opposition within Jewish ranks, the Arabs are certainly opposed. This is not a reference to the enemies of Israel – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – but to developing allies of the Jewish state. The most prominent spokesperson from the Gulf States was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, who, last Friday, in both a video in perfect English and in an op-ed in Hebrew in the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, speaking directly to Israelis, warned against annexing any territory in the West Bank. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” Yesterday, in his interview at the webinar run by the Israeli Policy Forum, he also expressed his concern with the mood of the street that could threaten the security of Arab regimes.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has refused to take any telephone calls from Netanyahu. The Jordan/Iraq border is viewed by many in the Israeli defence establishment as a much more important security border than the Jordan River and its security is threatened by annexation. Abdullah warned that, “Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead to ‘a massive conflict’ between his country and the Jewish state and did not exclude the possibility of suspension of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel if it proceeds with annexation.”

On the other hand, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash of Abu Dhabi, while disagreeing with Israel over Jerusalem and on the Palestinian issue, called for increased cooperation and open lines of communication with Israel and decoupling the Palestinian issue from mutual benefits in other fields. At the same time, Abu Dhabi opposed the plans for annexation. Clearly, for Abu Dhabi, though staunchly opposed, annexation would not spell the death of the recent rapprochement with Israel. “This unilateral step is illegal, undermines chances for peace and contradicts all efforts made by the international community to reach a lasting political solution in accordance with relevant international resolutions,” according to UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Understandably, the most severe Arab critic is Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. He threatens to cease security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and even possibly administration of the West Bank itself. He does so without promising to resume peace negotiations if plans for annexation are cancelled. He has already cut off all cooperation and communication, including cooperation on stemming the COVID 19 pandemic, and Israel has not passed on the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA. On the other hand, it does seem odd, even paradoxical, that the Palestinians can only declare a state following negotiations, but Israel could unilaterally annex 30% of the West Bank to expand its state.

Many Israeli defence and intelligence officials would dearly like to avoid Israel assuming responsibility for policing the Arab areas of the West Bank and do not believe that risking cooperation with the PA is reasonable given the likely downside. Abbas claimed that under the threat of annexation, he was absolved, “of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.” Is he just shooting his own nation in the foot? Is he destroying or resurrecting the moral and humanitarian commitment of the United States to Palestinian self-determination by undermining the security relations with Israel and the U.S.?

Only the European Union (EU) threats do not touch on Israeli security because there is little muscle behind them, even though the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The EU only said that the 27-nation bloc would not recognize the annexation and not that relations or cooperation agreements would be endangered. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has expressed grave concern and alarm when the Palestinian Authority told the IICC that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would annul the Oslo Accords and all other bilateral agreements.  However, though the harm to public relations with the Europeans may be a risk worth taking for the right in Israel, is the potential of much more serious harm on all other fronts worth it?

So where is the gain, the annexation critics ask? The situation has been relatively stable for the last few years. That answer is clearer than the proposal. It secures Netanyahu’s legacy. Even though it does not satisfy the settler organizations, which demand annexation of all of the West Bank and the fulfillment of Menachem Begin’s 1977 promise to annex the entire West Bank, it does fulfil promises both Netanyahu and the Likud made in the last election to annex sections of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century.” Presumably, or perhaps not so presumably, Netanyahu, who is traditionally risk averse, has concluded that the gains far outweigh the risks and that Israel will have no better opportunity than when Donald Trump is President of the United States. Based on the precedent of the annexation of East Jerusalem, Eugene Kontorovich, Director of George Mason University’s Center for International Law, makes the argument in detail in the current issue of Mosaic.

But look at the cost. For the first time in a major initiative involving security, the defence and intelligence apparatus of Israel has not been involved in making the plan or even been consulted. There has been no risk analysis attached to the plan. For such a significant move, the lack of process and a government-led study is astounding. In the past, the IDF always led the process, but in this case, the IDF has been marginalized. Even if sovereignty is extended to all of the 30% of the West Bank mentioned, it will mean a decline of security control of an additional 30%, for Israel now controls 60% of the West Bank. Israeli direct security control will be cut in half. The IDF and the intelligence services will have fewer resources to deal with the Syria, the Lebanon and the Gaza borders. There is also the risk to Israeli-diaspora relations, to U.S.-Israeli relations if Donald Trump loses, to the emerging friendships with the Arab Gulf States, to a virtual ally, Jordan, and to the security arrangements with Abbas in the West Bank as the IDF is preparing to handle anticipated riots and even the resumption of an intifada while Hamas has resumed shooting rockets into Israel.

I have not weighed the cost for Israel itself. The cost is not a risk of losing public support, for a majority of Israelis now support annexation of the large Jewish population centres in the West Bank. The cost is possibly to the long-term character of Israel. For the move will heighten the support among Palestinians for a one state solution, propelled in part because Netanyahu, contrary to his earlier position in 2009, promised his Likud faction that no government that he leads would ever recognize an independent Palestinian state even in principle. And, if Israel is to remain democratic and not become a version of an apartheid state, a one state solution will mean either that Israel absorbs 2.9 million Palestinians as citizens or it loses its character as a democratic state. The latter option seems to many as the more likely prospect, though many on the right argue that limited Palestinian autonomy will avoid both of these alternatives. Many even support this new version of a two-state solution which has the great advantage of removing veto power over a peace agreement from the Palestinians while, at the same time, demonstrating that non-cooperation only leads to future deals that are less generous.

Even though only 4% of the Israeli Jewish population think of annexation as a priority issue, the majority support the initiative because no one, neither Jew nor Palestinian, is forced to move. Both sides would have the next four years to negotiate permanent borders and the actual boundaries of sovereign political realms. Though there are dire warnings about a renewed intifada, most Israelis doubt it will take place since nothing on the ground will really change, except the legal framework under which the settlers live. However, certainly there is significant risk. For what real gains?

As with all things Israeli, only the future will tell for sure.

The Looming Annexation in the West Bank

The annexation of parts of the West Bank is looming in many of the senses connoted by that adjective:

  • The prospective political move, even if the first step is limited, is considered massive by both supporters and opponents of the move;
  • The announced timing for the initiative for 1 July is imminent but it may be just a symbolic declaration;
  • Annexation is as yet indistinct in at least three ways:

a) Extending sovereignty, not annexation, is promised; there is a debate over whether the definitions of each of the terms is a distinction without a difference; much of the discussion has been about extending Israeli sovereignty, that is, extending Israeli law to those areas of the West Bank where Jews live to displace the current mixture of military, Jordanian and Ottoman law; annexation is about defining borders not just extending the rule of law [see Einat Wilf in the current issue of Mosaic where he argues that annexation in the West Bank is about fixing the final borders of Israel]; in any case, extending sovereignty may be a final step towards annexation, but is not identical to it;

b) The U.S. has not submitted its final map for its peace plan that is intimately intertwined with the annexation prospect;

c) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself not presented his final proposed map to his political leadership partner, Benny Gantz, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabi Ashkenazi;

  • The annexation proposal has become politically magnified as well as threatening, not only to parts of the Western and most of the Arab world, but also to Benny Gantz himself as Netanyahu has allowed rumours to circulate that he will dissolve the partnership on one pretext or another, call an early election and ignore the agreement that, if he does call an election prematurely, Benny Gantz will become Interim Prime Minister, this at a time when Netanyahu and the Likud are more popular than ever before;
  • Though most of the defense and intelligence leadership, both existing and retired, seem to be convinced that going ahead with annexation in any of its proposed forms is a real and unnecessary security risk, both Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2007 to 2011, and Benny Gantz, the current Defence Minister, Alternate Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff of the IDF from 2011 to 2015, appear to support some version of annexation; 
  • The PA may not survive past September;
  • The proposal, for a number of reasons, including the phenomenal convolutions of any of the interim maps, is akin to viewing something through a glass darkly.

We know that 1 July is not a firm date. We know that if and when the annexation or extension of sovereignty proposal is submitted to the Knesset, it may propose implementation in stages. We know that the proposal may initially include only the large Jewish populated areas of the West Bank, namely only those, like Ma’ale Adumin, near Jerusalem, but perhaps also Gush Etzion and Ariel and even Modi’in Ilit and Givat Ze’ev, that is, the urban areas with most of the Jewish population in the West Bank. Blue and White Knesset members have tried to promote a staged annexation along these lines. Further, Netanyahu may limit the extension of Israeli law and sovereignty since the U.S. reputedly will only support annexation if Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agrees with the initiative which he now appears to have done.

To make things even more complicated, the Yesha Council of the settlers (Mo’etzet Yesha, in Hebrew the acronym for Yehuda Shomron, Aza – Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council – the umbrella organization of municipal councils of the West Bank Jewish settlements) is busy amending the Trump peace plan with alternative road routes that would not isolate the Jewish settlements. In other words, we know how amorphous the proposed political action is at the same time how threatening it appears even if it only takes place in stages. Whatever the details of the plan, a slippery slope is created when the principle opposing a unilateral move by either side is breached.

The threats come from many directions, including the U.S. where the Democrats in the House of Representatives are working on a resolution to unanimously condemn such a move, meaning that Israel will have an opponent to annexation in the White House if Joe Biden is elected in November. Or is that so clear? For one, Biden will be preoccupied with other issues of central concern to the U.S. and he might want to balance a rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear deal with a softer voice on the rights of the Palestinians.  Or he might find that taking on the Saudis over the war in Yemen leaves little diplomatic and political capital available for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The disposition to avoid being tough on Israel goes back decades. Biden declared himself a Zionist almost thirty years ago, even though first elected in a state that was less than 1% Jewish. He has always supported direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis and mostly blamed the Palestinians for the failures in those negotiations. He criticized the Goldstone Report on Gaza and insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets from Gaza.  The general line in the Democratic Party is to defend Israel’s right to exist and to self-defence while diplomatically supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing, to different degrees, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Joe Biden is unlikely to offer any creative innovation – if that is possible – on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will continue to pay lip service to an increasingly unlikelihood of the older version of a two-state solution and verbally oppose annexation. U.S.-Israeli mutual interests go too deep and include defence, support for Israel as a democratic state, intelligence cooperation, joint training and technology sharing. Biden is not likely to innovate, though he may and he could, invite greater involvement by the international community, particularly the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner. The bottom line is that annexation for its critics will not enhance Israeli security but will, on the contrary, undermine it. Shany Mor in Mosaic argues that pursuing annexation means missing other critical opportunities, particularly with Arab states.

The real political policy conflict in America on Israel/Palestine is being fought on the local level between progressive and moderate Democrats. The most prominent fight is between Elliot Engel, a 16-term Democratic congressman and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, versus a strong challenger, Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. As of this morning, Engel appears to have lost. From the other direction, freshman Ilhan Omar in Minnesota is fending off a Democratic primary challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, backed by the pro-Israel wing of the party. But the latter has only a half million dollars in campaign funds compared to Omar’s $3.4 million. Omar is expected to win in the August primary, though this year she only won the endorsement of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer Labor Party with 65% of the delegates. Nevertheless, the drift in the Democratic Party seems clear – a more critical stance against Israel and greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. After all, Representative Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, a severe critic of Israel, easily won her primary in New York’s 14th District.

Most Democrats support Israel but most also are opposed to Israel’s settlement and especially its proposed annexation policies. More importantly, under the pressure of increasing numbers of progressive delegates and candidates, there has been a noticeable shift towards greater support for the Palestinians and stronger criticism of Netanyahu, criticism enhanced because Netanyahu aligned himself so strongly with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The key issues may become discrimination against Palestinians and enhanced support for Palestinian rights to self-determination.

At the same time, the majority of Jews in the U.S. also seem to be opposed to annexation, though Yitz Tendler in the Jerusalem Post (18 June 2020) contended that a majority of engaged American Jews supported annexation, as evidenced by the votes in the World Zionist Congress where the annexationists won an 80 to 69 win. However, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) came out with an equivocal statement a month ago to gloss over diaspora divisions. The motion stated that it would be a mistake to allow annexation of parts of the West Bank should the initiative affect Israel-U.S. relations. But most non-engaged Jews oppose annexation.  In Canada, 58 prominent Jews who are strong supporters of Israel urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak out in opposition to annexation. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism in the U.S., expressed the belief in a webinar yesterday and in an article penned with Rabbi Hara Person (“Urge the Israeli Government Not to Carry Out Unilateral West Bank Annexation”) that this maximalist initiative is a turning point in Israeli-Jewish/American-Jewish relations because the annexation is unilateral, breaches the rights to self-determination of the Palestinians and is allegedly an immense step towards making Israel a non-democratic state in order to retain its Jewish character. Israel risks losing its moral stature, risks losing its position on the moral high ground when it surrenders, in spite of or because of Palestinian non-cooperation, holding out the prospect of a Palestinian state.

This has been a phenomenon around the world. This past shabat, the story is read about the 12 Biblical spies sent to assess the prospect of the Israelites acquiring the land of Israel. 10 reported back that the task was too formidable. (They are generally taken to task by most rabbinical interpreters.) There are a host of prognostications about the dangers of annexing parts of the West Bank, not just a military danger, but even more of a political and ethical one to Israel’s democracy. They include the following list just sent to me by the New Israel Fund of Canada:

“This letter [a full page ad in Ha’aretz] is another piece of a concerted global effort to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a move which would severely damage Israel’s democracy and make the unequal and discriminatory legal system in the West Bank formal and permanent. Examples include:

  • 400 Jewish academics, including NIF International Board President Prof. David Myers and NIFC Advisory Council members Prof. Mira Sucharov and Prof. Derek Penslar, signed a letter denouncing unilateral annexation as a “crime against humanity”.
  • 40 leading British Jewish figures sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the UK stating that unilateral annexation would pose an existential threat to Israel.
  • 58 former Canadian ministers and diplomats, including NIFC Advisory Council member and former Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen, called on Prime Minister Trudeau to show stronger resistance to proposed Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
  • Over 250 international law scholars sent a letter to the Israeli government condemning Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank as a flagrant violation of international law.
  • Over 220 former IDF commanders and generals signed a letter calling upon Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to prevent the government from taking any unilateral annexation measures.”

In addition to the opposition within Jewish ranks, the Arabs are certainly opposed. This is not a reference to the enemies of Israel – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – but to developing allies of the Jewish state. The most prominent spokesperson from the Gulf States was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, who, last Friday, in both a video in perfect English and in an op-ed in Hebrew in the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, speaking directly to Israelis, warned against annexing any territory in the West Bank. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” Yesterday, in his interview at the webinar run by the Israeli Policy Forum, he also expressed his concern with the mood of the street that could threaten the security of Arab regimes.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has refused to take any telephone calls from Netanyahu. The Jordan/Iraq border is viewed by many in the Israeli defence establishment as a much more important security border than the Jordan River and its security is threatened by annexation. Abdullah warned that, “Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead to ‘a massive conflict’ between his country and the Jewish state and did not exclude the possibility of suspension of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel if it proceeds with annexation.”

On the other hand, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash of Abu Dhabi, while disagreeing with Israel over Jerusalem and on the Palestinian issue, called for increased cooperation and open lines of communication with Israel and decoupling the Palestinian issue from mutual benefits in other fields. At the same time, Abu Dhabi opposed the plans for annexation. Clearly, for Abu Dhabi, though staunchly opposed, annexation would not spell the death of the recent rapprochement with Israel. “This unilateral step is illegal, undermines chances for peace and contradicts all efforts made by the international community to reach a lasting political solution in accordance with relevant international resolutions,” according to UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Understandably, the most severe Arab critic is Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. He threatens to cease security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and even possibly administration of the West Bank itself. He does so without promising to resume peace negotiations if plans for annexation are cancelled. He has already cut off all cooperation and communication, including cooperation on stemming the COVID 19 pandemic, and Israel has not passed on the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA. On the other hand, it does seem odd, even paradoxical, that the Palestinians can only declare a state following negotiations, but Israel could unilaterally annex 30% of the West Bank to expand its state.

Many Israeli defence and intelligence officials would dearly like to avoid Israel assuming responsibility for policing the Arab areas of the West Bank and do not believe that risking cooperation with the PA is reasonable given the likely downside. Abbas claimed that under the threat of annexation, he was absolved, “of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.” Is he just shooting his own nation in the foot? Is he destroying or resurrecting the moral and humanitarian commitment of the United States to Palestinian self-determination by undermining the security relations with Israel and the U.S.?

Only the European Union (EU) threats do not touch on Israeli security because there is little muscle behind them, even though the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The EU only said that the 27-nation bloc would not recognize the annexation and not that relations or cooperation agreements would be endangered. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has expressed grave concern and alarm when the Palestinian Authority told the IICC that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would annul the Oslo Accords and all other bilateral agreements.  However, though the harm to public relations with the Europeans may be a risk worth taking for the right in Israel, is the potential of much more serious harm on all other fronts worth it?

So where is the gain, the annexation critics ask? The situation has been relatively stable for the last few years. That answer is clearer than the proposal. It secures Netanyahu’s legacy. Even though it does not satisfy the settler organizations, which demand annexation of all of the West Bank and the fulfillment of Menachem Begin’s 1977 promise to annex the entire West Bank, it does fulfil promises both Netanyahu and the Likud made in the last election to annex sections of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century.” Presumably, or perhaps not so presumably, Netanyahu, who is traditionally risk averse, has concluded that the gains far outweigh the risks and that Israel will have no better opportunity than when Donald Trump is President of the United States. Based on the precedent of the annexation of East Jerusalem, Eugene Kontorovich, Director of George Mason University’s Center for International Law, makes the argument in detail in the current issue of Mosaic.

But look at the cost. For the first time in a major initiative involving security, the defence and intelligence apparatus of Israel has not been involved in making the plan or even been consulted. There has been no risk analysis attached to the plan. For such a significant move, the lack of process and a government-led study is astounding. In the past, the IDF always led the process, but in this case, the IDF has been marginalized. Even if sovereignty is extended to all of the 30% of the West Bank mentioned, it will mean a decline of security control of an additional 30%, for Israel now controls 60% of the West Bank. Israeli direct security control will be cut in half. The IDF and the intelligence services will have fewer resources to deal with the Syria, the Lebanon and the Gaza borders. There is also the risk to Israeli-diaspora relations, to U.S.-Israeli relations if Donald Trump loses, to the emerging friendships with the Arab Gulf States, to a virtual ally, Jordan, and to the security arrangements with Abbas in the West Bank as the IDF is preparing to handle anticipated riots and even the resumption of an intifada while Hamas has resumed shooting rockets into Israel.

I have not weighed the cost for Israel itself. The cost is not a risk of losing public support, for a majority of Israelis now support annexation of the large Jewish population centres in the West Bank. The cost is possibly to the long-term character of Israel. For the move will heighten the support among Palestinians for a one state solution, propelled in part because Netanyahu, contrary to his earlier position in 2009, promised his Likud faction that no government that he leads would ever recognize an independent Palestinian state even in principle. And, if Israel is to remain democratic and not become a version of an apartheid state, a one state solution will mean either that Israel absorbs 2.9 million Palestinians as citizens or it loses its character as a democratic state. The latter option seems to many as the more likely prospect, though many on the right argue that limited Palestinian autonomy will avoid both of these alternatives. Many even support this new version of a two-state solution which has the great advantage of removing veto power over a peace agreement from the Palestinians while, at the same time, demonstrating that non-cooperation only leads to future deals that are less generous.

Even though only 4% of the Israeli Jewish population think of annexation as a priority issue, the majority support the initiative because no one, neither Jew nor Palestinian, is forced to move. Both sides would have the next four years to negotiate permanent borders and the actual boundaries of sovereign political realms. Though there are dire warnings about a renewed intifada, most Israelis doubt it will take place since nothing on the ground will really change, except the legal framework under which the settlers live. However, certainly there is significant risk. For what real gains?

As with all things Israeli, only the future will tell for sure.

Resurrection

Where have I been? I’m back. I have been resurrected. (See below.) I am resuming my blog.

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  • Speaking of health, the brief note below, an earlier version of which was sent originally to family members, serves as today’s brief blog and explains in part why I was incommunicado;
  • Tomorrow’s blog will be on annexation of the West Bank; I will follow it in subsequent days with a discussion of defunding the police;
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I Owe My Life to My Wife

I am not simply talking about the current and continuing care my wife provides. I am referring to the whole process since I became ill.

In early March, I suffered a cardiac arrest. Sudden heart arrest is not a heart attack. There were no warning signs. I just collapsed. That is, my heart stopped beating and blood was no longer being circulated by my heart to my brain and other organs. I was at the front door of our house beside my wife when I fell to the floor.

An estimated 95% of individuals with sudden cardiac arrest die within minutes, though some statistics are more optimistic. According to those figures, the average survival rate from a heart arrest outside a hospital is 10.6%, though only 8.3% survive with good neurological functions. That is because, when the arrest is witnessed, 1 in 3 victims survive.

My arrest was not only witnessed, but the person at the door who was talking to my wife had a friend waiting for him. That friend knew how to apply CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which he immediately did. Further, when my wife called 911, an ambulance happened to be only two blocks away. The paramedics were equipped with a defibrillator, applied an electric shock and restored the beat to my heart. Obviously, with every minute that passed, my chances of revival diminished greatly.

I, of course, had been totally unaware of what happened and only remember when I was operated on for 4.5 hours while a new pacemaker and defibrillator were installed. Effectively, my heart was rewired.

Since then, I have had no problems with my heart and my physical strength has gradually recovered. In fact, I received a perfect bill of health re my heart several weeks ago. My health problems were and remain elsewhere. I got a bladder infection from the catheter that was installed. The urine backed up and damaged my kidneys somewhat. Besides taking time to recover my strength, my time was spent mostly trying to recover from that infection and I ended up back in the hospital for almost a week. I am now awaiting another procedure at the end of this month which will recommend which operation should be tried to correct the problem with urination, though my kidneys are now okay. I am also rid of the discomfort and occasionally searing pain, so no pressure.

My most serious problem in recovery was being able to read and then write again. It really took three months. I am not fully there by any means, but I am determined to resume my blog. I hope you find my dispatches of some value.