Don’T Look Up – a movie review

Don’t Look Up – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I first watched the film a week ago. I claimed to have walked out after watching one-third of the film. My wife claimed that I had only seen 20% and, on that basis, could not criticize the admiration and love my two youngest children had for the movie. I went back to watch the rest and discovered that I had, in fact, watched almost exactly half the film – one hour and eleven minutes of two hours and eighteen minutes. I believe I was right in insisting that one need not feel compelled to watch an entire feature – or read and entire book – if the part covered already puts a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Quit reading or watching. Except if you want to write down a scathing review.

The film has a studded cast –

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, the astrophysicist in whose lab the giant comet or death star is discovered that is characterized as a death star for it is huge and heading directly towards earth.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dr. Mindy’s graduate student, Kate Dibiasky, who actually discovered the comet

Meryl Streep plays President Orlean of the United States as a an over-the top politician concerned only with ratings and escapist solutions.

Rob Morgan is Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe as the sincere NASA scientist who provides the gravitas and official seal of approval to the Mindy-Dibiasky claim.

Jonah Hill plays Jason Orlean as Meryl Streep’s top political advisor. The role is deeply beneath either his comic or dramatic capabilities.

Cate Blanchett is Brie Evantree, the co-host of a sensationalist interview show that exploits the news of the deadly comet to enhance ratings as she wallows in banality.

Adam Mckasy co-authored the script with Kevin Messick and directed the movie. The film was released for streaming on Netflix on the day before Christmas.

One quickly senses a harangue rather than an acute biting satire, a film that in its structure self-destructs long before planet earth is destroyed. The movie is celebrated by those who admire it for skewering the state of American politics and the marriage of celebrity culture and technology. But the movie is neither insightful nor subtle, but the graphics in the latter part of the movie make it then eminently watchable. This attempt at a screwball satire is a flagrant flop, a mess of a movie that nowhere understands the very essence of satire. Sledgehammers are not part of the armory of satire.  Nasty it may be, but not deplorable. And it is hard not to link these two. McKay certainly fails. Instead of debasing, defiling and destroying the targets of its satire, they are simply presented as ridiculous with no apparent – I stress apparent – protection of civility. Ridicule is reduced to jeering. The film lacks acuity and is not at all incisive.

Sure, there is corporate greed. Sure, there is a pompous political quest for popularity.  Media are presented as amoral and there is not an ounce of culture in the whole film that can serve as a cover for all the venality.  The cynicism of the smug and simplistic writing and direction comes across as more worthy of satire than even the targets in the film. Finally, what begins as a feeble attempt at satire evolves into a traditional disaster movie with the doom overwhelming any smiles let alone laughter.

Look at where the film begins. Not with the reaction to the news of the death-star, but with its discovery by a graduate student – a plausible start to a disaster movie but irrelevant to a satire where the object satirized must be front and centre. In the next act, when the news is greeted by the political powers, not as an immanent threat but as a message to be massaged to reduce fear, as a distraction from scandal as well as an opportunity to make money, we are presented with the target of the satire, but already undressed and naked with no effort to convince us of why such political staging or economic pursuit has any substantive appeal.  

I have no bone to pick with McKay. The Big Short was incisive and everything that Don’t Look Up is not.  Why? Because in The Big Short, the audience begins in the dark and is enlightened by the movie. In Don’t Look Up, the audience never sees how dark the sky is until it is lit up by the fiery tail of the comet.  We never see the cover of darkness but are only introduced to having contempt for that to which we are exposed – but we probably held those views before we even saw the film.

Just as it is important to understand why we are blind to what is in front of us, it is also important to understand the supreme failure of Don’t Look Up by revealing the core of how satire works. It is not enough to look down on the world; it is important to use satire to see through the clouds of dust that obscure what is going on.

In a satire, the characters are one dimensional rather than having fully rounded personalities. Further, the characteristic of that which is targeted allows that individual to be described as a superficial liar, someone caught up in a popularity contest, a dishonest individual or a bigot. There are as many targets as there are despicable characteristics in humans and social impediments to a healthy, functioning society. Satire belittles what others esteem. However, it is important to display the esteem first to unveil it as just a cloud obscuring our vision.

Satire, as Northrop Frye wrote, is militant rather than friendly irony. The bullets are verbal witticisms based on “the sense of the grotesque or absurd”. But where is the wit in the film? The social targets are manifold, to be belittled and diminished as a threat by the force of exaggeration. Criticism is too tame a word for satire which should be caustic, corrosive and acidic, aimed at dissolving and destroying the institutional practices which resist reform. Satire provides a comical universal solvent that eats away at anything in its path.

Unlike invective, which tries to destroy by heaving boulders, satire eats away at its target in a steady but scathing and very sharp tearing apart of the fabric of its object of denunciation. Satire must be both barbed and biting. Satire gnaws away at the surrounding cover to put in sharp relief the flaws engraved on the body politic. If a tattoo engraves the ridiculous and the cliché on the body, satire attacks the flesh to reveal the remainder in sharp relief. Satire is to denunciation what guerilla warfare is to inter-state battles. The mob attacks on the Capitol in Washington of 6 January 2021 are assaults; satire uses rapiers rather than flagpoles and mace, guns and truncheons. For examples of satirists, one thinks of Juvenal and Horace, of Swift and Rabelais.

A common stance of satire is the apocalyptic. The world as configured is destroying itself. The targets of satire are the hypocrites responsible for that self-destruction. To uncover the hypocrisy, the apparent sincerity and goodness of the target must first be put on the screen before the grotesqueness is revealed. Before individuals are revealed as monstrosities, their apparent bona fides must first be tabled before the attitudes and mores behind them are exploded into delusionary and gigantic hallucinations. Reality is revealed to be a fantasy. We ingest our dose of satire to attack our constipated characterization of the world so that the satire serves as an emetic and turns constipation into diarrhea – or, in actual practice, logorrhea, that is, verbal diarrhea.

In the film, Don’t Look Up, however, it is the comet that breaks into fragments before it crashes into and destroys the earth which goes up in a cosmic blast rather than being dissolved into scattered particles. Instead of the frame, the apocalypse becomes the substance.

Responsa to Sergio

I thank everyone for the feedback. It is very satisfying to read that I am read and that readers enjoy even as some disagree with what I write. Unfortunately, I lost the ability to send out blogs; I could not figure out the system – hence the delay and sporadic effort when some of you received some blogs but most did not. The format sent out this week indicates that I still have not mastered my old system. My apologies.

Two examples of critical feedback

michaelmendelson commented on Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

On 19 March 2003, the US and its allies invaded Iraq. The UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion. In May, Sérgio Vieira de …

The UN Security Council did not agree to the invasion of Iraq…what do you mean by the word ‘sanctioned’?  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/16/iraq.iraq TheUnited Nationssecretary general, Kofi Annan, declared explicitly for the first time last night that the US-led war on Iraq was illegal. Mr Annan said that the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN security council or in accordance with the UN’s founding charter. In an interview with the BBC World Service broadcast last night, he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: “Yes, if you wish.” He then added unequivocally: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” Mr Annan has until now kept a tactful silence and his intervention at this point undermines the argument pushed by Tony Blair that the war was legitimised by security council resolutions. Mr Annan also questioned whether it will be feasible on security grounds to go ahead with the first planned election inIraqscheduled for January. “You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now,” he said. His remarks come amid a marked deterioration of the situation on the ground, an upsurge of violence that has claimed 200 lives in four days and raised questions over the ability of the interim Iraqi government and the US-led coalition to maintain control over the country. They also come as Mr Blair is trying to put the controversy over the war behind him in the run-up to the conference season, a new parliamentary term and next year’s probable general election. The UN chief had warned the US and its allies a week before the invasion in March 2003 that military action would violate the UN charter. But he has hitherto refrained from using the damning word “illegal”. Both Mr Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claim that Saddam Hussein was in breach of security council resolution 1441 passed late in 2002, and of previous resolutions calling on him to give up weapons of mass destruction. France and other countries claimed these were insufficient.  

Thanks very much for the feedback.

The problem is that Kofi Annan was silent on the issue in 2003 except for indicating a week prior to the invasion in March of 2003 mild criticism. Only in 2004 did he make the statement to which your referred where he declared explicitly that “the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council and declared the war to be illegal. The US had sought support for its invasion by the UNSC and it was clear that at least France and probably China and Russia would veto a resolution of support. But a survey of other members indicated that military action was contrary to the UN Charter, but did not declare it illegal at that time. The Brits argued that the invasion was sanctioned by Res. 1441. But though the Americans seemed poised to get a supermajority to support its initiative, the U.S. did not want to face an open revolt by three of the permanent members. When the UNSC did not condemn the invasion, one school of thought argued that, in light of 1441, the UN had given implicit support and by its silence gave de facto approval.

Howard

Howard – thank you for this. I did not even know that a film had been made about SdM.

According to the reviews, it is a pretty bad movie. Too bad.

Your rendition of the plot misrepresents his role in creating a peace settlement in East Timor. Sergio headed UNTAET, which was established on 25 October. Indonesia had already recognized East Timor’s independence on 19 October, and on 15 September had agreed to the UN sending a multinational peace-making/keeping force (INTERFET) to the island, led by the Australians.

(I met SdM when he was ‘viceroy’ East Timor. He had many critics among the Timorese for not letting them take over the political reigns right away, instead of having a UN stewardship. After all, they had fought for independence for many many years).

I was going to write to you about another (and more interesting) item:  Last week I saw an interview on BBC’s Hard Talk with Philippe Sands, an international lawyer with expertise in international criminal law. He discussed the philosophical and political tensions between genocide as a crime and crimes against humanity. The former invests rights and dignity in the group, the latter in the individual. He explores the concern that the former may undermine the latter. “His book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (2016) has been awarded numerous prizes”.

Now, that is something I should like to see you write about!

Hope you have a good 2022 and, above all, good health!

astri

Astri Suhrke

Associated Research Professor

Chr. Michelsen Institute

Bergen, Norway

Astri:

I have ordered the book on genocide and crimes against humanity, will read it and get back to you.

Thanks for the feedback and corrections.

Be well and have a good year.

Howard

Here is one example of an uncritical feedback from Dr. Joseph Wong.

Thanks Howard for writing this piece.  It gives me more perspectives on viewing world politics which is a survival of the fittest game.  A lot of horrible things were done but they were done, but people were given various sorts of excuses justifying the merciless actions.

I have always wondered why people who swear they are Christians and follow the teachings of Bible, can do exactly the opposite.  Throughout history, there have been more wars caused by differences in faith than almost any other the

Is this the evil inside the human body?

Joseph

I also received quite a few welcomes for my return.

Three SAMPLES

Thanks, Howard. So important to remember.

Oneil

HOWARD!!!

I was just thinking about you, wondering where you’d been! 

Now I can read your latest offering to see if you answer that question!  🙂

Happy New Year to you, Good Sir!

Yours,

Mark Thibodeau

a friend via Milton Zysman

Glad you are back.  

J. David Cox

My blog will not appear with the old frequency. You may welcome that.  There are several reasons. First, I no longer sleep just 4-5 hour a night. Though I sleep in 2-3 hour tranches, I find I now need 9 hours sleep each day. That has severe repercussions on my writing time, both the time I can devote to it and when I write. When I first wake up at 2:30 or 3:00, I can only sustain about an hour of writing instead of my past practice of writing 4-5 hours every early morning.

Second, we are moving. After 55 years living on Wells Hill Avenue in Toronto, we sold our house. We are moving to Vancouver Island. We bought a house next door to one of my sons in Cobble Hill. Though we leave our house in mid-February, we will not get to the West Coast until the end of April.

Third, the move itself is onerous as many of you know who have tried to cull a lifetime of accumulation.

We are looking forward to the change, even though this past December there was a switch in weather patterns with Toronto being relatively warm and relatively free of snow while the island was cold and received several large dumps.

But who cares! Young grandchildren are a very strong magnet.

Have a good and healthy new year.

Howard

Sergio Part II – the Biopic

The movie, Sergio, premiered at Sundance in 2020 and is now streamed on Netflix. The biopic could have been about the tension between Paul Bremer (played by Bradley Whitford) and Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Maura, another Brazilian). Instead, Paul Bremer III was shifted in the film to a caricatured and peripheral role. The film could even have been about the revelation of the harmony as well as tension between Gil Loescher, played by Brian F. O’Byrne, who had just arrived to meet de Mello before the blast took place. Instead, other than being very tall, the personality of Gil in the film had little in common with the soft, caring and scholarly sensibility of the real Gil. Instead, the Gil in the film was a composite of several members of de Mello’s team – of which, Loescher was not even a part. The film could have been about de Mello’s deep concern for Loescher’s well being, in spite of his own precarious state. There was some allusion to this, but it was slighted and marginalized.

In the film, Sérgio was played by Wagner Moura; he had portrayed Pablo Escobar, a very different personality in the Narco series. Moura was superb in this very different role, always dressed as a dapper diplomat who even put the French diplomats, renowned for their attire, to shame. De Mello was appropriately played as a combination bleeding heart and tough and blunt talking realist. The latter quality made him stand out among the world of international diplomacy. For de Mello substituted charm and a broad smile for the equivocation and amorphous speech that often characterizes all diplomacy.

The film highlights some of his accomplishments. No spotlight is concentrated on any one of them to reveal why he had been so successful in each case. In fact, his work in Bangladesh, Sudan and Cyprus for refugees was ignored. The story focuses on much of what he did through flashbacks as he lay trapped under the cement, but not how he did it; just that he did it. For the film is ultimately a romance between he and Carolina Larriera, played beautifully by Ana de Armas.  We get to see how they met, fell in love and the promise of their life together that was aborted. The history of his reputation as a womanizer of the highest order was ignored in the process.

Carolina was an Argentine economist who worked in establishing microfinancing, especially for women in conflict zones. The two met when Sérgio served as the United Nations Transitional Administrator in East Timor during the period 1999 to May 2002. This is well portrayed in the movie. Sérgio induced Carolina to work with him when he was posted to Iraq and many of the scenes focus on her desperate attempt to get help and rescue him from the blown-up Canal Hotel. Left out is the pain she herself suffered in being cancelled from the list of those who were saved and excluded from the ceremonies in which he was honoured in favour of his wife, Annie Personnaz, a Cuban French assistant at UNHCR in Geneva from whom he was not officially divorced even as his civil union the Carolina had been widely acknowledged. But his pension and estate went to his estranged wife. That part of the story might have distracted from the romantic version of de Mello.

I knew virtually nothing of his relationship to Carolina or the latter’s posthumous collaborations in Brazil to honour Sérgio, another item missing in the film. What I, and most others who came in contact with de Mello, knew was de Mello’s attraction to women. He did not seduce women. He did not need to. He loved them plain and simple, some more than others. But he was a lover rather than seducer of women. That element of Sérgio’s personality was also left out of the narrative portrait by Greg Barker, not only in this film but in the 2009 documentary of the same name by the same director consisting of interviews with de Mello as well as original archival footage. The script for the 2020 biopic was actually written by Craig Barton who had penned the dialogue for Dallas Buyers Club. He did as excellent a job as he had in the that previous film, but supported by using archival footage to replicate the original dialogue, narratives and quotations, often using Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World.  But the script’s strength is not in the portrayal of conflicts over power and policy, but in grasping de Mello on an intimate plane.

I recall Sergio telling a group of us enjoying late night wine after a day of meetings in Chicago about the nature of international diplomacy and the need to sacrifice one’s family life for the sake of humanitarianism. I even recall him telling us in a very blunt but self-deprecating way about his failure to recognize his youngest son, Adrien’s, allergy to shrimp, an incident actually portrayed in the film. Travelling on the international diplomatic circuit means long periods of time away from your family. It should be no surprise that the children of diplomats in such roles grow up alienated to some degree from their father (or mother, as the case may be). However, in that conversation, one could not fail to notice the depth of love Sérgio de Mello held for his two sons. This is captured well in the film. One would not know from this self-deprecating story that when he worked in Geneva, he left work everyday promptly at 5:00 to meet his son after school.

Thus, the biopic is not only a love story about he and Carolina, but about he and his children and about he and the people he worked with and for, and about his love of life. But most of all, it is a story of his love for his work and his absolute dedication to the UN and internationalism. It is not, however, a film about his thought processes. From watching the film, you would never learn about the contents of his 1974 PhD thesis, The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society or of his “second” 1985 doctoral thesis, Civitas Maxima: Origins, Foundations and Philosophical and Political Significance of the Supranationality Concept.

In the first thesis, he set out to demonstrate that philosophy was not detached from human affairs lacking any human touch, but was a foundation for empathy and compassion, a position drawn from his studies of Henri Bergson and the “romanticism” of Schelling. In the second thesis, he tried to provide philosophical depth to the internationalism of the UN and men like Dag Hammarskjőld, an international diplomat who had become Secretary-General of the UN and was also killed in office when his plane was shot out of the Congo skies. Sérgio tried to provide both intellectual depth and witness to the three supranational virtues that Dag had defended – “independence, integrity and impartiality.” Sérgio both in the film and in real life, was the epitome of all three.

What does not really emerge in the film is de Mello’s arrogance and self-confidence that lay behind his charm and smile. Everyone knew that de Mello was destined to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN, particularly since Sérgio never disguised his vaulting ambitions. But Sérgio was not personally ambitious. He did not want the role because of its title and prestige, but because of what he believed he could do with it. De Mello was deeply convinced that, in the face of the world-wide conflict, repression and impoverishment, only the UN and its associated international agencies could offer the humanitarianism needed. One wonders what he would say about the failures of WHO in the face of the covid-i9 plague.

But it is not just the cosmopolitanism of the UN that he celebrated. For the UN was also the forum where national interests clashed, but also where they were united to pool resources, identify common interests and serve the higher purposes of peace and security among nations. De Mello was as much an inter-nationalist as a cosmopolitan.

When he was Director of the Asia Bureau and refugees were still flowing out of Indochina almost ten years after the plight of the Boat People became a uniting force for people across the world, it was de Mello that led the negotiations between Vietnam, the UNHCR, first asylum countries and resettlement countries concerning the repatriation. There had been a recent upsurge in the outflow of refugees from Vietnam. Among ordinary people as well as international officials, a new vision that played down resettlement and emphasized repatriation had asserted itself. “Voluntary” repatriation was seen to warrant the highest priority as “the natural solution to the refugee problem” in the words of UNHCR High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Hocké (1986), the forty-seven-year-old Swiss national who had been nominated by UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to become the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Hocké took office with very high expectations for he had come from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and wide field experience in Lebanon, Jordan and Vietnam.

Hocké initially seemed prescient. For the long decline in the refugee exodus from Indochina reversed itself in 1986 as the population of the refugees in camps in Asia began once again to increase. With the declining willingness of Western countries to continue their resettlement process and regional solutions in countries of first asylum off limits, repatriation emerged as the only alternative to tackling the problem.

After over a year of shuttling between various capitals around the world, in 1988, based on the commitment of the Vietnamese government to improve its relations with the West, Sérgio de Mello negotiated the 16 June 1988 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) that reaffirmed the resistance of local countries of first asylum to settlement and reversed the 1979 pledge of Western countries to resettle the Indochinese refugees. (900,000 had been resettled to that point, about 22% to Canada.) After all, the U.S. had openly embraced compassion fatigue and no longer considered the Vietnamese fleeing to automatically qualify as refugees. With the agreement of the Vietnamese to no longer send returnees to re-education camps, the Vietnamese government agreed to an “orderly” – a euphemism for compulsory – return of the “refugees” or economic migrants, except for those who could prove a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Arthur Helton, an American refugee colleague, denounced the agreement as one aimed at stopping the refugee outflow. Yet, later, he would join de Mello in Iraq and die alongside him in the rubble of the Canal Hotel. This was simply another indication of the success of de Mello’s charm offensives as well as his prescience and realism in accepting the fact that Vietnamese refugees could now return in safety without being persecuted. By 1992, the outflow of refugees from Vietnam had dropped from 70,000 in 1989 to 41 in 1992. At the same time, the UNHCR, now under the leadership of Sadako Ogata, repatriated 360,000 Cambodian “refugees” from camps in first countries of asylum in accordance with the Paris Peace Accords that had been signed under international political pressure on the various Cambodian political factions.

But that charm did not always work. Sérgio tried to win back the favour of Hocké after the latter had been forced to resign as a result of a revolt of employees (of which de Mello was not a part) and their leak of documents showing that, just when the UNHCR was slipping into deficits and the U.S. was cutting back contributions, Hocké was upping his flights from business to first class and writing off other personal expenses on the UNHCR’s purse. When Hocké packed up his belongings, de Mello never came by to say goodbye. Hocké never forgave a perceived disloyalty and betrayal. However, these interpersonal squabbles and moments of bitterness, particularly in the relationship of Paul Bremer and Sérgio de Mello, are not part of the film. After all, de Mello is presented as a universal success story in spite of his own self-criticisms of his own limitations and failures.

Further, given the new and increasing antipathy of the U.S. to the UN and other international agencies, it is a marvel that de Mello managed to keep such good relations with the Americans, especially Paul Bremer. After all, when UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar sought to appoint Dayal, his chief of staff, to become the UNHCR High Commissioner, John Bolton, President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for international organizations and, subsequently George W. Bush’s controversial ambassador to the UN, opposed the appointment, preferring a political appointee from a rich country rather than a career civil servant with a great deal of field experience. Dayal, a fifty-five-year-old Oxford-educated Indian national, had worked at UNHCR from 1965 to 1972 and understood that the agency was struggling. He was eager to see it bailed out. In response to Bolton’s undermining his appointment, Dayal was livid and resigned from the UN. Perhaps that also would have been the fate of de Mello if he had been, as expected, nominated to be UN Secretary-General.

We will never know definitively what we lost or whether that loss was inevitable in any case.

Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

On 19 March 2003, the US and its allies invaded Iraq. The UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion. In May, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. an international diplomat, reluctantly, and under enormous pressure, took a short leave of absence from his role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to act as the Special Representative to Iraq for Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations.

While there was very broad opposition to the invasion, both Islamicists on the right and radical socialists on the left went much further and denounced the UN for legitimizing “Washington’s indefinite subjugation of the country” in order to control its oil. When Sérgio declared that, under the circumstances, the UN would have to work with the invading authorities, those same critics of the UN as a cover for the U.S., accused the UN of painting over the crimes of the US and its allies. After all, de Mello had said that the U.S. was de facto the governing authority of Iraq and, therefore, “Working with the Authority is part of the rules of the game. They are responsible for the administration of the country until there is a new order.”

However, Sérgio as Annan’s pro-consul had a radically different view how the new order was to be brought about in comparison to Paul Bremer III, President George Bush’s pro-consul in Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Bremer had been named to his position in the same month as de Mello. The latter was anything but a mouthpiece for the U.S.

The two men had overlapped much earlier as well. Bremer attended the Institut d’études politiques de Paris from 1966 to 1968. In the same period, de Mello was at the University of Paris writing a PhD in philosophy under Professor Vladimir Jankélévitch, a student of Henri Bergson. Jankélévitch was chair of Moral Philosophy at the Sorbonne and an authority on German idealism, especially Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling who had been a student of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and a roommate and close friend of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel when they were both students, though later Schelling became a severe critic of Hegel.

Professor Jankélévitch had participated in the 1968 Paris protests, one of the few professors at the University of Paris to do so. Sérgio was a participant in the student demonstrations that brought down the de Gaulle government and left him with a scar on his forehead when he graduated from the Sorbonne in 1969. Bremer, in contrast, came from and supported the establishment.  

Whereas de Mello pursued his diplomatic career through the UN system, Paul Bremer did so in the American foreign service, including as an assistant to Henry Kissinger in the Republican administrations of the 1970s and in the 1980s as Executive Secretary and Special Assistant to Alexander Haig until Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands in 1983. In 1986, Bremer became Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism. After a period in the private sector, he returned to public service to take up the appointment to Iraq in 2003. He had directly experienced the ravages of terrorism for, while in the private sector, his office in the North Tower was just above where the plane crashed into it in 2001.

If Bremer was steeped in the need to counter terrorism, de Mello had long trained as a peacekeeper and conflict mediator while also becoming an expert on refugees. I first heard of him and was strongly advised to meet him, when I went to Lebanon to write up my report on the numbers made homeless by the Israeli invasion in 1982. Sérgio was then Senior Political Officer for UNIFIL and DPKO in Lebanon. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross at that time and I only learned much later that he had regarded the Lebanese UN mission as one of its greatest failures. For there, the UN was so restricted in what it could do, it was effectively impotent. He reappeared in my intellectual horizon again when he headed the Asia Bureau of UNHCR from 1988-1990 after I had become deeply involved with the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada and had founded the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. But, again, we never met at that time.

I had heard about his toe-to-toe meeting with the Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, whom he had known at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his appointment as UN envoy to Cambodia from 1992-1993, he was determined to “talk to the devil” and not just international statesmen. I finally did meet him in 1993 in Sarajevo when he had become head of Political Affairs for UNPROFOR and I was undertaking my study of repatriation of refugees resulting from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. It was, however, only to shake hands. However, the next time we met – two or three years later – was when I and Astri Suhrke had completed our study of the international involvement in the Rwanda genocide and Sergio was the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the Great Lakes Region. I cannot remember why I had not interviewed him during the study, but when we met, it was totally evident that he had not only read our report but had read it carefully.

The nineties was the decade in which humanitarian intervention reached its apogee and, under Canadian leadership, was formalized in the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect in the twenty-first century at the same time as the UN emptied it of every meaning by including the Chinese amendment that humanitarian intervention could only take place with the consent of the country targeted. Sérgio de Mello had celebrated the “New World Order” that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, but would soon become snagged in the political barbed wire that prevented any meaningful intervention. What was begun at the end of the twentieth century, especially following the impotence of the international community in the face of the Rwanda genocide, disintegrated in the emergence of renewed world rivalries of powerful states at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

We witnessed not one step forward and two steps back, but a rapid retreat into brutality and cruelty made much worse by the new style of insurgent warfare and proxy wars that took the place of the old world disorder. De Mello in his 1985 thesis had espoused an international system based on affirmative action, universal values and mutual respect for differences, but the river of history was flowing in the opposite direction as utopian ideals disintegrated in the face of irregular insurgencies, roadside explosive devices, human bombers in markets and bars pioneered by Palestinian terrorists, drone and distant warfare and the perfection of accurate bombing from the air. Sérgio de Mello had argued against Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that, with neo-liberalism, we had reached the end of history. Instead, Sérgio offered case studies of peace processes that involved NGOs, official and recognized mediators properly coordinated and sequenced negotiations, a myriad of technical experts attached to the negotiations, and, most difficult of all, the intervention of leaders from powerful countries at critical points in the process of peacemaking as well as long term commitments to rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Sérgio de Mello was right, of course. History continues to wend its way through our lives upsetting them in unpredictable ways. But the change of course of the river of history has not gone in the direction de Mello adumbrated.

However, like Immanuel Kant at the time of the French Revolution who had authored the essay “Perpetual Peace,” de Mello had been on the side of the peacemakers and on the side of reason. He pursued his synthesis of realism and idealism, both in theory and in practice, but, in the end, one had to admit that his view of utopia had also bit the dust, or rather, the concrete blocks of history. And he had been trapped by those cement slabs.

Subsequently, I learned more about our hero when I was working on early warning with the former head of the foreign service in Kenya. Sérgio de Mello had played a crucial role in the peace negotiations between Frelimo (Frente da Libertacao de Mocambique) government and Renamo (Resistencia Nacional de Mocambique). My Kenyan colleague, with Sérgio’s introduction, had travelled for 11 days up-river in a canoe to meet the Frelimo leaders. I learned that Sérgio de Mello, who had represented the UNHCR in Mozambique from 1975 to 1977, had been critical in setting up the encounter because he had known the Frelimo leadership personally.

The mediation resulted in the signing of the Rome Agreement in October 1992 (sometimes called the General Peace Agreement – GPA). Over the following three years, and with the aid of a major UN peacekeeping operation and continuing international mediation, the two armies were demobilized and reintegrated into a unified national army. Free competitive elections were held. A new constitution was adopted. A program of national reconstruction got under way. A fragile but sustained peace took hold. Sérgio de Mello had helped build the foundation for all of these steps towards peace and reconciliation.

Sérgio Vieira de Mello had taught my Kenyan colleague another lesson. For Sérgio had always treated the employees at the front desk in hotels as well as the cleaners and other employees of the organizations in which he worked with the greatest respect, remembering their names and asking after the welfare of their families. I witnessed this directly when my Kenyan colleague and I entered a hotel in Addis Ababa and he engaged the front desk staff in conversation, even though it meant that we were ten minutes late for our meeting with the American diplomats.

Contrary to the radical critics who want to put Bremer and de Mello in the same bed, the two men were radical contrasts in both personality and policy. Bremer was no sooner appointed by Bush when, on 23 May 2003, he issued Order Number 2 dissolving the entire Iraqi army and releasing 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers into the unemployed sector, thereby providing fodder for the upsurge in Iraq against the American-led invasion while leaving the country without a domestically-rooted security force. While de Mello had a record of negotiating with insurgents leading to peace agreements, Bremer was a hawk who enormously exacerbated the security situation in Iraq employing widespread repression.

Matters were made worse when Bremer initiated the de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi civil service to eliminate the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But when Iraqi politicians were put in charge of the process, they proceeded to use the program to get rid of political enemies and fire thousands of teachers who were not political supporters. This was precisely the path that de Mello would have strongly opposed given his record of working with both insurgents and local citizens in constituting their own government instead of the American imperial system imposed by Bremer.

But de Mello never got the chance. De Mello had set up his UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel deliberately outside the heavily guarded Green Zone within which the American established their security. He was convinced that the UN had to be and be seen as distinct from the Americans and not under American control. Security was poor. Three months later, on 19 August, a terrorist truck bomb was set off at the hotel killing 21 UN workers, including de Mello, and two others, and injuring hundreds.

That is where much of the movie takes place – with de Mello trapped under a huge slab of cement along with Gil Loescher, a 6’ 7” colleague of mine from the refugee scholarly community who had just arrived, not to work for the UN as de Mello’s adviser – as portrayed in the movie – but as a member of Open Democracy to attend a meeting with Sérgio. Gil had co-authored with John Scanlan Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door; 1945 to the present that had become the definitive historical account of American refugee intake policies and programs initially built on an anti-communist ideology. As James Milner, a colleague at Carlton, wrote, Gil unveiled the political dimensions of refugee policy underlying the legal framework.

The seven members of the UN staff in the outer office where he had been waiting were all killed by the explosion. Gil too was trapped nearby. In the movie, he and de Mello touched hands. However, as I heard the story, they were only in voice contact, though it was de Mello who used his cell phone and directed the rescuers to where Loescher was trapped and hanging upside down – a position that probably saved him from bleeding to death.

Loescher had to have both legs amputated in the extraction – an incident portrayed in the movie. Gil survived until April of last year. His daughter, Margaret, a film student at the time, made a documentary on her father a year later called, Pulled from the Rubble. As Gil noted, a red line had been crossed in the use of violence. Humanitarian and human rights workers had also become targets of terrorist attacks.

Trapped by cement, that also cost Gil his legs, this also provided a metaphor for de Mello’s life, trapped between his idealism and role as an international diplomat and the imperial oppressiveness and bungling of the Bush regime that had led the world to war under false pretences of Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. The world of international politics was polarized between the stony and humane indifference of the radicals and extreme terrorists – whether on the right or left who painted de Mello with the same brush as Bremer – and the military might of imperial America. Sérgio de Mello, trapped between them, was murdered.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qaeda Islamicist terrorists, assumed responsibility for the cement truck blast loaded with a 500 pd. aerial bomb and many explosives left from the Iraq War. Al-Zarqawi did so not only because de Mello was allegedly in bed with the Americans, but because Sérgio when he had been appointed UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor (UNTAET) had pulled off the East Timor independence after Indonesia had invaded and fought an imperial war of its own in this former Portuguese colony. Sérgio de Mello had managed to get the Indonesian government not only to accede to peace after almost two decades of war and over 200,000 Timorese killed, but induced the military government to issue an official apology.  Al-Zarqawi saw the problem in simple black and white terms – de Mello had facilitated the loss of an Islamic-run territory that was destined to be part of the Islamic Caliphate.

The motive for the bombing – other than the connection to the Americans that is only slightly referenced – is left out of the movie so that de Mello’s work in East Timor, recollected as he lay under that heavy slab of cement, is orphaned and never directly linked to the terrorist attack. Nor is the fact that, although the Americans were in charge of countering the terrorism, they had not taken any initiatives to protect the UN. In spite of the bravery of American first responders, the film offers a clear critique that the efforts of the Americans to rescue the UN officials was half-hearted and delayed and, thus, possibly partially responsible for de Mello’s death. After all, Bremer had viewed de Mello – accurately – as a critic of US policy and performance even as Sérgio tried to work as best as he could between the American-led coalition and the Iraqis.

Bremer was also a target of the terrorists. Returning to the highly fortified Green Zone on the Baghdad Airport Road, his convoy was hit by mortars and gunfire, with the rear window of his official car blown away. As bullets flew, Bremer and his deputies ducked below their seats. Sérgio de Mello could not duck under that cement; it crushed him.

The Power of the Dog

Based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is the title of a new movie directed by Jane Campion and just released on Netflix where I saw it. Campion first came to prominence with her fantastic film, “The Piano” released in 1993. Instead of a mute woman dispatched to New Zealand to marry a wealthy landowner in that classic of twenty-eight years ago, we see a confident proprietor of an inn (Rose Gordon – Kirsten Dunst) become a quivering, frightened woman when she married a relatively rich cattle rancher in Montana – though the movie was shot in New Zealand where Campion was born. Instead of a young daughter, the woman has a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who creates beautiful, intricate and delicate paper flower arrangements out of napkins for the tables on which he waits. He is a devoted son who has vowed always to protect his mother.

Like “The Pianist,” lust lurks so well below the surface in the film that it is not always clear where the source lies or who is the target. But left in the present is the saddle and spurs of Phil’s mentor, Bronco Henry, and a large white handkerchief with his initials that Phil carries stuffed in the front of his pants. As he pulls the handkerchief out and inhales deeply through his nose, we quickly learn why Phil evades washing. Philip is tough as nails, uncouth and unkempt, full of both malice and malevolence; he also smells. When he does bathe, it is not in a bathtub like his brother George, but in a mud bath in the wilds. He washes the mud off in a dive in a clear, freshwater pool.  But the glen is hidden. And the filth is not just dirt and mud. Phil is only seen naked in his sacred private place in the woods. He returns to civilization to “diss” his brother and call him Fatso.           

The cause of Rose’s evisceration is not her husband, who is star spangled solicitous, but his verbally cruel brother and co-owner of the ranch. Phil has the sharp tongue of a snake fueled by a raging and bitter anger – of what we do not know and never learn definitively from his inscrutable character. Even though on the surface he is a marauding presence, behind the scowls and steely stares lies an opaque personality. But we suspect the problem is his self-identity. He intimidates. He rages. He is a marauding menace. He looks at those who displease him with snake eyes. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank – wearing spurs, chaps and even a soiled cowboy hat.

George (played with superb self-control by Jesse Plemons), on the other hand, is quiet and taciturn and neat-as-a-pin, dressed in a suit even when on the cattle drive. George is the one who marries the young widow, Rose. George admires his wife’s piano playing – though it is clearly not good even though she once accompanied silent films                                                                         

In contrast, Phil plucks away at a banjo and (spoiler alert) well into the movie demonstrates he is a mean player. But his playing took me back to the foreboding of the five-string banjo played in the film, “Deliverance.” Rough in his ways and tough in his manner, we gradually learn of his hidden and tender side – (again, spoiler alert). He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college. He is cultivated even though he harasses Rose and castrates bull calves with his bare hands. He is a stopped-up volcano ready at any moment to blow his top. But he does not. Instead, he educates the woman’s teenage son and cultivates his friendship after spending the first half of the movie mocking his effeminate ways. And he makes a gift for him – a lasso out of strips of rawhide.

The tension between the wild west, the rough unforgiving hills that surround the dry-as-dirt ranch, contrasts with the elegant home with its drab dried clapboard exterior but an interior of dark wood paneling, with both bookcases and animal heads against the walls. We could be in an old castle in Germany.

But this a frontier movie, not one of the open west and of freedom, but of a claustrophobic, melancholy repetitive and boring life seething with repressed libidos that take their pleasures at the end of a cattle drive in a house of pleasure filled with drink and dancing. The cowhands seem playful and full of camaraderie and their persecution of the effeminate son is relatively benign. However, it is all immersed in a sand sea of loneliness.

The shots are iconic. The cowboys walking in a broad and almost straight line – not just walking – striding. These and the wide expanse shots of nature contrast with the close-ups on the rare flowers shown in the movie.  But the give away takes place when Phil suddenly befriends Peter and learns quickly that Peter can read the clouds. Peter sees and describes a cloud formation that looks like a growling dog. And the stage is finally set for Peter’s rage at the mistreatment of his mother to creep out as he dons his plastic gloves (did they have plastic gloves in 1925?) and cuts away his own strips of rawhide from a steer that had died of anthrax.

Phil had fed Rose with a toxic diet of disdain and dismissal, reducing his sister-in-law to a helpless alcoholic poisoned by Phil’s resentment. Her son slyly and surreptitiously delivers his revenge. It is a furtive consummation of a slow but rising burn and an ironic twist on restorative justice.

But who is the dog? Phil? Does Peter see Phil in the form of a menacing cur? A clue can be found in the source of the phrase in the title of the film. Verses 13-19 of Psalm 22 read:

13 Great bulls have surrounded me; the mighty ones of Bashan encompassed me. יגסְבָבוּנִי פָּרִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים אַבִּירֵ֖י בָשָׁ֣ן כִּתְּרֽוּנִי:
14 They opened their mouth against me [like] a tearing, roaring lion. ידפָּצ֣וּ עָלַ֣י פִּיהֶ֑ם אַ֜רְיֵ֗ה טֹרֵ֥ף וְשֹׁאֵֽג:
15 I was spilled like water, and all my bones were separated; my heart was like wax, melting within my innards. טוכַּמַּ֥יִם נִשְׁפַּכְתִּי֘ וְֽהִתְפָּֽרְד֗וּ כָּֽל־עַצְמ֫וֹתָ֥י הָיָ֣ה לִ֖בִּי כַּדּוֹנָ֑ג נָ֜מֵ֗ס בְּת֣וֹךְ מֵעָֽי:
16 My strength became dried out like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my palate; and You set me down in the dust of death. טזיָ֘בֵ֚שׁ כַּחֶ֨רֶשׂ | כֹּחִ֗י וּ֖לְשׁוֹנִי מֻדְבָּ֣ק מַלְקוֹחָ֑י וְלַֽעֲפַר־מָ֥וֶת תִּשְׁפְּתֵֽנִי:
17 For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, my hands and feet. יזכִּֽי־סְבָב֗וּנִי כְּלָ֫בִ֥ים עֲדַ֣ת מְ֖רֵעִים הִקִּיפ֑וּנִי כָּֽ֜אֲרִ֗י יָדַ֥י וְרַגְלָֽי:
18 I tell about all my bones. They look and gloat over me. יחאֲסַפֵּ֥ר כָּל־עַצְמוֹתָ֑י הֵ֥מָּה יַ֜בִּ֗יטוּ יִרְאוּ־בִֽי:
19 They share my garments among themselves and cast lots for my raiment. יטיְחַלְּק֣וּ בְגָדַ֣י לָהֶ֑ם וְעַל־לְ֜בוּשִׁ֗י יַפִּ֥ילוּ גוֹרָֽל:

The great threatening bulls are like a lion. So are the dogs – not “the” dog, singular.  The bulls and dogs “surround me.” I cannot escape and I am torn to pieces – bones, sinews everywhere competing for the torn fragments of my clothes. In extreme fear, my tongue clings to my palate as the mouth of someone in extreme distress becomes like a root out of dry ground with no saliva left to wet his mouth. He can only taste the dust of death. His heart melts. These are verses of a horrible nightmare located in Bashan in northeastern Jordan.

The Psalm is famous as a prophetic anticipation of what happens to Jesus, especially with the words of verse 2, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (See Matthew 27:46) However, as Hebrew scripture and commentary, the reference is not seen as being about a Jewish messiah but, rather, a reference to King David (though Rashi believed it was to Queen Esther) who has lost touch with God and lost his or her way. The verses are about lost faith and the feeling of being torn to pieces in that state.

If you have seen the documentary One Of Us about the 2% of Hasidim who leave the fold and escape into the secular world or, at the very least, the non-Hasidic world, you get a sense of the meaning of the loneliness, the feeling of being like a worm when you are mocked and ex-communicated. The only salvation according to the Psalm is return, tshuva, full acceptance of divine sovereignty and total submission to His will and, therefore, the will of the community.

Who fits that experience in The Power of the Dog? One might think it is Peter for isn’t he the one shunned and seen as other by the cowboy community? Though Peter is shunned by some and surrounded by those who open their lips and shake their heads, Peter is not the one who blasphemes, who has lost his way. It is Philip. It is his excruciating loneliness we feel in the film. Peter is always loved by at least his mother, secure in his mother’s womb and at her breasts, and later in the film, by Philip himself. Only Phil remains isolated and unattached. And, in the end, it is Phil who is persecuted for his sins. Peter is simply the avenging angel. It is Peter who possesses the power of the dog. It is Phil who, in spite of the brave and blustery front he puts on, feels torn asunder and ex-communicated even as he, like King David, continues his arbitrary monarchial rule. He remains very far from salvation. For God no longer speaks to him. He has lost his faith and his way. The only one Phil worships is Bronco Henry in whom he has an idolatrous faith.

But could it be Rose who is attacked by the power of the dog? After all, it is the prophetess Esther (5:1), when she stands in the inner court of the king’s house and then in the chamber of idols, who is abandoned by God. It is Rose who descends into the depths of alcoholism and who is abandoned by the divine presence. It is Rose who suffers from inadvertent sin rather than any sin committed against another. It is Esther who called Ahaseurus “dog” and calls out to save her soul from the sword and not only from the power of the dog.

But the reference in the film could be to both Phil and Rose. Phil suffers the anguish of a broken spirit and dies without redemption while Rose is redeemed and recovers from her alcoholic fog. Philip is both the power of the dog who also cowers secretly in fear of his very different version of the power of the dog, the dog who turns out in the end and surprisingly to be Peter.

Watch the movie.

Part II: Possible Negotiating Options re Iran

After months of stalled negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), the Raisi administration has finally agreed to resume nuclear talks with six world powers in Vienna from 29 November 2021. The U.S. will have observer status. The Islamic Republic, emboldened by the defeat of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and its own responses in the form of major nuclear advances, is now expected to use its hard-earned leverage to bargain on sanctions relief, release of frozen assets, and guarantees for Washington’s full compliance with the pact. Biden is both unwilling and unable to provide such full guarantees.

My last blog painted a rather grim prospect of any success arising from the negotiations that are about to resume with Iran. To review, the reasons are many. First and foremost, Iran has adopted an approach to the talks that go beyond the even maximalist openings of traditional Middle East negotiations. (See the 14th November editorial of President Ebrahim Raisi entitled “Operation Sanctions Defeat.”) Iran wants:

  1. All sanctions lifted, including those imposed for terrorism and human rights abuses as well as for nuclear non-compliance;
  2. Negotiations must only deal with lifting sanctions;
  3. Not only are missile technology and nuclear weaponization off the table as well as support for terrorism, but so are further concessions on nuclear enrichment;
  4. Iran is not only demanding complete sanctions relief but compensation for the effects of America withdrawing from the JCPOA;
  5. Verification must be in place – not of Iran’s reduction in its nuclear program, but of America’s actual removal of all sanctions; the process must be supervised;
  6. Washington must provide satisfactory guarantees that it will not renege on the deal as Donald Trump did in 2018;
  7. There must be penalties for failures by America to observe the terms.

The U.S. position remains unclear on the guarantees it could provide for the nuclear agreement. However, Biden is unwilling to remove the extensive sanctions imposed by Trump, though, by administrative fiat, he has made some of them moot as a gesture to build some confidence, though Iran has a past history of treating gestures of flexibility as signs of weakness.

The U.S. did release a joint statement with Germany, France and the UK on the sidelines of the G20 in Rome indicating that Washington was ready to return and stay in full compliance with the deal as long as Tehran does the same. However, the Iranian approach turns the talks topsy turvy to focus on America as the non-compliant agent. Further, some of the demands are virtually impossible to satisfy. For example, even if the agreement were to be raised to a treaty status requiring a two-thirds support by the American Senate, that is no guarantee that the U.S. could not abrogate the treaty or the President undermine its application by administratively failing to follow the requirements. There is no way to provide complete guarantees and highly unlikely that even a treaty could be forthcoming. Nevertheless, in order to advance the negotiations and offer confidence building measures, President Biden in a reverse direction is not enforcing the application of many of the sanctions.

The irony, of course, is that when the United States through administrative practices offers gestures to reverse the Trump policy of maximal economic pressure and Iran counteracts by demands that are more maximal than ever, such a dovish American approach is undermined. Support for the Biden initiative for renewal, amendment or substitution for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is also weakened.

If one listens to or reads commentators steeped in security analyses, hopes for a renewed agreement diminish starkly. However, if you listen to scholars or commentators from the peace negotiating, arms reduction or peace camps, prospects may also seem dim, but they focus on opportunities to advance the negotiations rather than cloud their vision with pessimism. This is true even though the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) reported last week that their negotiations with the Iranians failed. In diplomatese, the talks were “inconclusive.” They did agree to continue talking. With Iran-US posturing in preparation for the 7th round of the Vienna talks, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) co-hosted a panel discussion titled on “Prospect of Iran Nuclear Talks” in collaboration with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) to examine the potential scenarios facing the negotiators to salvage the nuclear deal.

In the 2015 JCPOA agreement, Iran agreed to limit enrichment, permit effective inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. Since Trump cancelled America’s participation in the agreement and since his defeat, America by administrative fiat has provided limited sanctions relief. But Iran has openly enriched uranium well past the 3.67 limit to 20% and even 60% purity, the latter well within the range of providing nuclear material for a bomb. Further, Iran repeatedly interferes with the inspectors, subjecting them to humiliating bodily searches, refusing to provide access to previously unreported sites where uranium particles have been identified, replacing damaged cameras and denying access to automatic monitoring devices.

The IAEA is not the U.S. It is an independent international body to which Iran has obligations. Undermining the IAEA reinforces the impression that Iran after five months of delay is just stalling for time. Iran may simply be entering the sixth round of talks to buy more time.

What options do the negotiators have to deal with Iran? Iran wants the snap-back privileges granted to the US in 2015 JCPOA eliminated. Iran seems highly unlikely simply to endorse a renewal of JCPOA. As indicated above, under JCPOA, there is no legal way that America can provide guarantees to bind the next administration. However, changes could be made. The West could concede that only by a majority vote of the negotiating states could the snap-back provisions be initiated. There could be an agreement that snapback could not be implemented by the decision of one country. Costs could be imposed on failures of states other than Iran to live up to the agreement instead of making Iran carry the burden of ensuring no deviance from the terms of the agreement.

Even if no changes were agreed upon and the JCPOA merely reinstated, the agreement will never work if Iran continues to undermine inspections. In fact, if the right to inspect is not fully restored by the next meeting of the IAEC board in February, the IAEC can be expected to reprimand Iran – not that this would likely influence Iran’s behaviour, but it would undermine the global effort of Iran to improve its public image.

The reality is that there is unlikely to be a JCPOA2. More likely, but still improbable, there could be a series of interim agreements. After all, through American actions, the pressure of sanctions is receding. Further, the U.S. has never punished China for buying Iranian oil. In October, tankers delivered 170,000 tons of crude oil unaffected by the sanctions regime. The price of that oil over the last half-year has soared from $26 to $76 a barrel. Last month, Iran earned $90 million from oil sales and an estimated $1 billion for all of 2021. Yet Iran still needs and demands access to its frozen assets, and, even worse, compensation. Perhaps a series of interim agreements might suffice in place of JCPOA2.

An interim deal is colloquially known as “less-for-less”. In it, Iran would stop enriching its uranium further in return for formalizing sanctions now not being imposed and perhaps including other sanctions relief. Critics lambaste such a proposal as worse than returning to the JCPOA, especially since the money freed up for Iran from currently frozen funds could, and probably would be used to improve the weaponization program and Iran’s missile capabilities.

In contrast, the US-based United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) advocates tightening the economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. This entails increasing sanctions against both individuals and corporate entities trading with Iran or buying its oil. This would be a return to the maximal pressure under Trump which has already proven to be a failure. Yet Nikki Haley, who is on the UANI board, is a prominent advocate for such a policy direction.

Interim steps pose great risks for the West as Iran has enriched enough uranium to be within reach of becoming a nuclear power. It is already a transitional nuclear power. Further, unless the situation is stabilized and possibly reversed, one can expect increasing demands by Iran and increased momentum thrusting Iran into an all-out quest for nuclear weapons and militarization while Israel is compelled to retaliate through covert actions and possibly a direct attack. The risk is a tit-for-tat confrontation. The timeline for reaching even an interim deal becomes more difficult as the days progress and almost impossible the day Iran succeeds in becoming a full transitional nuclear power.

The problems on Iran’s part include the increased improvement and application of its centrifuges to refine more uranium even more quickly, the blockages to IAEA inspectors, the disarming of automatic methods of observation and the open production of more and purer forms of uranium in total breach of the JCPOA limits. Iran is, according to many estimates, already a threshold nuclear power capable of producing one bomb in 1-3 weeks, a second bomb within two months and a third before four months. The only core limitation is that its weaponization capacity is still severely limited – that is, the ability actually to build the bomb, install the optical equipment needed, trigger the chain reaction and place it on a missile warhead. These bombs could not be delivered to targets during the next two years but perhaps only a year-and-a-half. That timeline too is rapidly decreasing according to some experts.

Can the situation be stabilized instead of escalating? Is it helped by fruitless negotiations? Tehran has made it very clear that it has no intention of simply returning to the JCPOA. Iran will not accept any deal – neither a return to the original agreement nor even a limited agreement with fewer conditions – unless the United States first lifts all sanctions. Is Iran just posturing? The huge gap in positions makes the chance of a compromise remote. There are many mechanisms available that, in normal times, could assuage Iran, foster reciprocity and reinforce mutuality. However, it is a very uphill battle. Hope is no substitute for reality, especially when American economic incentives lack any balancing threat for non-progress in talks and Israel lacks a persuasive military strategy. Israel does have Jericho missiles that can hit Iran. But can their warheads penetrate Iran’s reinforced nuclear facilities? The failure of IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, to make any progress in his recent talks with Iran, even with respect to replacing damaged cameras, is an indicator that pressure points on Iran are shrinking every day.

Iran and the Nuclear Option

[I am resuming my blog, but intermittently rather than daily.]

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog departed London after his state visit. He came on a high-level mission to the U.K. to strengthen Israel-UK ties, reinforce the image of Israel’s commitment to tackling climate change, honour Jewish Olympians murdered in the Munich Olympic Games as well as a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ben Helfgott, who became a world weightlifting champion. But his most important reason was to send a clear and unequivocal message. Herzog declared, “I shall make clear that Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability and it expects its allies to be tough and assertive toward the Iranians, including in their dialogue with them. Israel makes this position clear to all its friends and, of course, makes clear that it reserves all options to defend itself.” Finally, he claimed that Iran was simply stalling and had no intention of reigning in its nuclear program. Iran is simply playing for time. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Studies, concurred in the view that the new Iranian government was more hardline than the old one. Iran was simply wasting time as it sought a shorter time gap for a breakthrough to becoming a nuclear power.

This past Sunday, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and Haaretz jointly sponsored a conference on Israeli national security. The conference with a star line-up of academic and political speakers focused largely on the nuclear threat of Iran to Israel. What was surprising to me is that, as I periodically glanced at the numbers watching, the peak audience was 270. When Senator Ben Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at the end, there were only 27 tuned in. Shocking! For such a high level and politically and militarily critical conference that was well publicized? Fortunately, it is available on the websites of both Haaretz and the UCLA Center for Israeli studies.

My impression was that the politicians and speakers shared an overwhelming consensus about Iran and its nuclear program. Benny Gantz, Israel’s Defence Minister, in his opening remarks, zeroed in on Iran’s quest to become a regional hegemon. But Iran presented a global as well as regional threat. However, the nuclear threat provided the umbrella for its conventional disruptive activities on the ground, whether with respect to maritime shipping, the democratic process in Iraq or the effort to make the regimes in Syria and Lebanon satraps of Iran. In addition to Assad and Hezbollah, all the satraps are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or ‘Etelaat’). The satraps include the Popular Mobilization Units/Shia militias in Iraq, the Ansar Allah/Houthis movement in Yemen, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to some extent, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, and in opposition, Israel seeks to forge alliances rather than develop proxies in the Middle East.

However, the nuclear threat posed the most significant existential threat to Israel. In contrast, for the U.S., Iran was a threat to international peace but not an existential one. Only Israel had been singled out by Iran for elimination. The U.S. could afford to allow Iran to become an almost-nuclear power. Israel could not. Thus, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, reiterated America’s longstanding insistence that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned against Iran being allowed to become a nuclear threshold country. The difficulties focused on forging a united front that would be both effective as well as furthering both the security interests of Israel and the peace policies of the U.S. in the Gulf. There was a shadow of darkness between the Israeli policy committed to Iran never becoming a power capable of producing a nuclear bomb within a short time frame and the American determination that Iran never become an actual nuclear power. A goal of “no daylight between the U.S. and Israel is a chimera. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, emphasized this difference but insisted that the Bennett government would strenuously avoid a public confrontation with the Biden government even though Israel could not tolerate Iran even becoming a potential nuclear power.

The facts are ominous. Iran has now acquired nuclear material purified to 60%, well beyond the 3.67% permitted under JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action negotiated by the Obama regime. Further, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 17.7 kg (39 pounds) of the material enriched to 60% fissile purity and eighty-four times the limit set under the JCPOA. When the isotope U-235 is enriched to 90% (now needing only a short time), with more efficient bombs, Iran will have sufficient to make almost 2 bombs and more than double the amount it had only three months previously. (“Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 64 kg of highly enriched uranium.)

Further, Iran already has a stockpile of over 210 KG of 20% enriched uranium. More ominous, Iran is now using its advanced much faster centrifuges to purify instead of the older models. In addition, Iran is now building centrifuges capable of operating at six times the speed of even its existing new array of advanced centrifuges. Iran will soon be able to make a breakthrough to nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks rather than a year. Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to its centrifuge workshop and the TESA Karaj workshop which manufactures parts for the centrifuges and nuclear enrichment machines.

The IAEA has had no access to Iranian nuclear sites or enrichment processes since February according to the agency’s chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi. Yossi Cohen, former head of Mossad, stressed that Israel could not afford to allow Iran to become a power with the capacity to make nuclear weapons let alone just prevent Iran from actually acquiring such weapons. The core issue was nuclear capability not just a nuclear breakthrough. Cohen insisted that Israel was still capable of crippling Iran’s nuclear program by military means. Israel recently launched its public relations campaign to emphasize that the military option is on the table, that it is developing military scenarios, making contingency plans and providing a budget. Is this smoke and mirrors or the promise of real action?

But how could such an Iranian capability be eliminated once the knowledge and technology are mastered? Only if its high-speed centrifuges are destroyed. Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons had to be eliminated, preferably through diplomacy but, if necessary, by the use of military force according to these specialists.  If negotiations provide the route, the sunset clauses of the JCPOA have to be greatly extended.  In its current form, the JCPOA was a sanctions relief deal not an agreement to end Iran’s capability of producing nuclear weapons. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani of Iran heading the Iranian negotiating team in fact insisted that the imminent resumption of talks would not be about the nuclear issue but about the lifting of sanctions.

The original Mark Kirk (Rep.) and Robert Menendez (Dem.) amendment to the 2011 annual defence budget imposing sanctions on the economic lifeline of Iran received unanimous Senate support and was the catalyst for the 2015 agreement. But the JCPOA is just an agreement that allows subsequent presidents to change course and even abrogate the deal; it is not a treaty requiring two-thirds support in the Senate. And it is almost certain that Iran would not be able to secure a treaty that would prevent a Trump from abrogating the agreement.

In addition, the weaponization and militarization of its program also had to end as well. Iran has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit central Europe and eventually North America. The evidence suggests that Iran did not even want to go back to the flawed JCPOA even as Sima Shine, the head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, stressed Israel’s great fear that this would be the outcome of renewed negotiations. Iran is demanding not only the removal of ALL sanctions, including the sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations and its support of terrorism, but the payment of compensation for the past losses that Iran suffered as a result of those sanctions.  These claims were not just a bluff but an attempt at sneaking towards nuclear weapons with salami slicing tactics. First jump to 5%. Then 20%. Then 60% enrichment. The U.S. may not wish to join Israel in a military attack, but would it provide the logistic and diplomatic clout and legal right to defend Israel’s right to do so?

Doesn’t the position of the new Israeli Bennett government sound remarkably akin to the position of the Netanyahu regime? Yes, but with one major difference. Bibi made a fateful alliance with Trump and made the Democrats his enemy. The Bennett government through a diplomatic offensive is seeking to rebuild joint support across the aisle for its position. Bennett is committed to dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation. The Israeli intelligence and military establishment, in contrast to Netanyahu generally, agreed with Likud former defence minister, Moshe Yalon, that, “The Iran deal was a mistake; withdrawing from it was even worse” [my own position in retrospect]. The Israelis do not support a renewed JCPOA. They want a preventive program. They want to ensure that Iran no longer has the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons even as the political climate in the U.S. in the Democratic Party has shifted further away from support for Israel, particularly in the views of young people even within the Jewish community. But it is a shift of a minority within the Democratic Party. However, the shift is also taking place among young evangelicals as well according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The black cloud that hangs over closer cooperation on Iranian policy between Israel and the U.S. is the lack of progress towards a two-state solution and the successive failures of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Micah Goodman may advise shrinking the conflict, but the number of voices advocating alternative solutions, such as the one-state proposal of people like Peter Beinart or the confederation push of Ameer Fakhoury, director of the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al Salam), has increased.

At the same time, Iran has been attempting to paper over its differences with the Saudis and the other Gulf states, particularly over Yemen. It has already forged an agreement with the UAE that led to that country’s withdrawal from Yemen in return for immunity from Houthi attacks on its ports and shipping. But political movements in the Middle East have also undermined the Iranian position. In Lebanon, Hezbollah now confronts resistance in the streets. Hamas is openly negotiating for improved relations between Israel and Gaza. In the recent elections in Iraq, Iran’s influence considerably diminished.

On the other hand, Iran has significantly improved its connections with China and China has become increasingly dependent on Iranian oil as it flouts the sanctions openly. Last month, half of Iran’s exported 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil went to China. After the UAE, China has become Iran’s largest trading partner. China entered into an economic agreement with Iran to invest over $400 billion over 25 years. Further, as the U.S. continues to pivot to the Far East and disengage increasingly from the Middle East through military withdrawals and drawdowns, its leverage on Iran has diminished as well as any impression that the U.S. is willing to resort to military force to advance its position in that area of the world.

Iran also feels that North Korea has provided a lesson on how to resist America as it slices its way forward with its nuclear program.  After all, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya under pressure both gave up their nuclear program. They are both dead. In contrast Kim Jung-un remains alive and seemingly untouchable.

Take Biden’s resolve to prevent the militarization of Iran’s nuclear program and the reluctance of the American regime to threaten the use of military force let alone use it is consistent with his failure to enforce many of the economic sanctions on the books.  The regime of “maximal sanctions” is over. Further, unlike Obama, Biden no longer insists that “all options” are on the table. Further, Biden’s freedom to act is far more limited than Trump’s. However, Trump’s Iranian strategy, developed as a result of pressure from Netanyahu, had been an abject failure. If Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and failed to live up to its “red lines” with respect to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, Trump twice announced withdrawals from Syria, failed to take any action when Iran openly advanced its nuclear program and ignored the terms of the JCPOA, and failed to do anything when Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais Saudi oil-processing facilities on 14 September 2019. In the 12 May 2019 Fujayrah Iranian attack on an Emirati registered vessel, two Saudi registered oil tankers and a Norwegian registered oil tanker, the U.S., as the maritime police of the Gulf region, failed to respond. Trump was only willing to support a maximum economic sanctions program but without the backing of a credible military threat. However, he did order the assassination of Qasem Suleimani.

The U.S. Navy jointly with six other countries in the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) through its operational arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel, and the larger Combined Maritime Forces, is charged with ensuring freedom of navigation in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility where the Iranians have been involved in tanker hijackings. In June, Iran seized the tanker Winsome and the Oman Pride in Sohar. Last July (2020), Iran seized the tanker Gulf Sky in Emirati waters. However, in August, the U.S. Navy responded and seized more than 1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers. Iran responded in turn by attempting to seize other tankers.

Iran may not actually become a nuclear power. However, it may be sufficient to develop the capacity to be a nuclear power within a short timeframe.

In the meanwhile, Iran has tremendously advanced its conventional military capabilities. Its anti-aircraft defences have greatly improved, and its nuclear production facilities have become even more protected from an aerial attack as they have been buried even deeper. Its maritime military capabilities have certainly advanced. At the same time, it is not clear that any military action could significantly set back its nuclear program. Certainly, many U.S. strategic military experts have warned Israel that any military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be counterproductive leading Iran to speed up its nuclear program even more.

There is one additional significant change. Though not yet a major player compared to Israel, Iran has developed its cyber military capabilities compared to when the Stuxnet Worm attack seriously set back Iran’s facilities twelve years ago. However, Israel has also advanced enormously, not only on the cyber front – note the cyberattack on Iran’s Mahan Air on 21 November. Mahan Air has been a target of the West ever since the U.S. blacklisted the airline in 2011 for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and ferrying weapons and personnel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the air carrier claimed that it had “thwarted” the attack and that its flight schedule was not affected, messages sent by hackers to its passengers told a different story.  

Cyberattacks on Iran have become more frequent. In October, its gas stations were struck resulting in drivers joining long lineups for hours to get gas for their cars. Trains have been delayed and even cancelled as a result of cyber attacks. As an Iran openly committed to supporting terror in the region and the destruction of Israel approaches the nuclear threshold, the threat of Israel using military force may just be a mask to hide its enormous increase in capacity to employ cyber warfare.  At the same time, Iran’s ability to defend its nuclear program against cyber attacks has also greatly improved. Officials in the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have insisted that Tehran’s improved defences against cyberattacks means that Israel would not be able to cripple Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site as it did a decade ago. Iran is now employing its advanced centrifuges at Fordow in open defiance of the JCPOA. However, when military action, however limited, is fronted by cyber warfare and sabotage, perhaps the Israeli threat could be credible.

Thus, as Iran resumes its negotiations with the West on 29 November, pessimism clouds the discussions. Coercive diplomacy does not seem to be part of the negotiations. Iran continues its efforts to widen the gap between the American policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb and the Israeli policy of eliminating Iran’s capability of making a bomb. The latter goal seems like pie-in-the-sky to many American Iranian specialists. They seem willing to ease economic sanctions and simply freeze Iran’s nuclear program in place. On the other hand, some hope for a partial agreement, limited in both time and scope to get around the deadlock. Others call for a longer and stronger JCPOA. In that case, the Raisi government is likely to head for the exit and continue its efforts to obscure its clandestine nuclear program and prevent any meaningful inspections. The prospects for successful talks are very dim indeed. If so, the prospect of a military attack by Israel increases and cyber attacks will certainly escalate.

Defining Antisemitism: Part II – In Defence of IHRA

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

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

Reasons offered include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The latter is the core of anti-Zionist antisemitism.

Defining Antisemitism: Part I – A Re-introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governing After War – The Case of Israel

Part II: The New Priorities

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

1. new initiatives on secular-religious relations;

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

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

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

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

Labour       46

Meretz        12

Hadash        3

Mada            2

Shas            6

Total           69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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