One versus Two States: Jewish Progressive Voices

One of the distinctive differences between virtually all Jewish voices and various Palestinian perspectives is the contrast in the narratives of the two groups. The Zionist one is generally very positive, a development from the time of the Mandate and promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine when there were only 83,000 Jews in the land as opposed to 673,000 Arabs. Jews constituted only 12% of the population in 1922. At the time, Palestinians already claimed a right of self-determination and opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine or selling land to Jews. Palestinian discrimination was very explicit because Arabs in Palestine feared the Zionist enterprise and the prospect that unfolded over the subsequent century.

Although what happened was not inevitable – Arabs in Palestine could have welcomed Jewish return just as Canada after 1967 welcomed Third World immigration. They did not. Without rehearsing that history, the development of Zionism proved disastrous from the Arab perspective, culminating initially in the Nakba of 1948 (though some Palestinian intellectuals now date the Nakba back to 1922) and the flight/expulsion of 720,000 Palestinians from what became the new state of Israel. Whereas there had been 686,000 Jews and 1,300,000 Arabs in Palestine in 1947, in 1948 there were a million Jews in Israel and only 160,000 Arabs. [Jews and Arabs were all called Palestinian at the time.) 35,000 Jews had been expelled from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel. The story became worse for the Palestinians in 1967 when Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza, but that was a second moment of glorious victory for Jewish Israelis.

Since then, the effort to liberate parts or all of Palestine by the Palestinians failed. Jerusalem had long before been annexed by Israel. The effort to recover parts for a Palestinian state by peaceful means seemed “successful” with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, but that only turned out to be a cover for the huge growth of settlements and creeping annexation in the West Bank. At the same time, Palestinians returned to the use of widespread terror in 2000, driving many Israelis to the right and de facto support for the settlers. Increasing numbers of Palestinians and most Palestinian public intellectuals began to read the post-Oslo period as the third strike following the 1947-8 and 1967 disasters that befell the Palestinian people.

Ironically, many Jews on the liberal, progressive and radical left began to read the post-Oslo period also as a disaster for the Zionist enterprise, for Jews became occupiers of another people and their land. Instead of two states living side by side in peace and mutual recognition, the Palestinian entity in Gaza became a source of military threat as the West Bank undercut the liberal values of Israel. While liberals clung to the hope of Oslo, radicals rejected Oslo and Zionism altogether. The latter became a minor fringe group in the Jewish community. Progressive voices, though still a minority, more recently became split between those who remained loyal to the Oslo vision versus a much smaller cluster, currently led by the voice of Peter Beinart, who gave up on the Oslo vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and harmony. They opted for a unitary state.

In Jewish Currents of 7 July, Peter Beinart penned an essay called, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” that picked up a theme articulated by some Jewish intellectuals, like Ian Lustick, since the 1990s, advocacy of a unitary state for both Jews and Palestinians with equal rights. The position was echoed in Peter’s op-ed in The New York Times on 8 July 2020 entitled, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.” He proposed a Jewish home rather than a state in an equal state for members of both communities.

Beinart opened his essay with the following observation: “In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God” presumably because the loss of Israel would place Jews in existential danger. “(F)ear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.” The consequence: “the more deeply Israeli Jews have internalized a narrative of historic Jewish persecution, the less sympathy they have for Palestinians.”

That put Jews who questioned Israel’s existence and not just its policies and actions beyond the pale. And Peter was propelled to such questioning because Israeli statehood has come to mean “permanent Israeli control of the West Bank” as the Israeli government subsidized Jewish settlements on territory that Palestinians viewed as the land of their future state and where, in the interim, Palestinians under Israeli occupation or administration lacked “citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives.”  The criticism came to a breaking point when Netanyahu unilaterally announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Undercutting of democratic principles in a state that favoured Jews over Palestinians became too costly. Beinart announced that, “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.” Israel-Palestine is already binational. “The more equal it becomes, the more peaceful and democratic it is likely to be.” As Beinart described his own personal ideological development in the NYT op-ed, “I knew Israel was wrong to deny Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote in the country in which they lived. But the dream of a two-state solution that would give Palestinians a country of their own let me hope that I could remain a liberal and a supporter of Jewish statehood at the same time. Events have now extinguished that hope.”

The quest for a two-state solution had failed. Further, persevering with that goal has become just a camouflage to enable annexation to take place. Beinart claimed that he was not turning his back on Zionism but going back to first principles, first and foremost a goal of having a home in Palestine, not necessarily a state, and back even further, to the roots of rabbinic Judaism where a religion centred on the Temple was displaced by new rituals and priorities. Supporting a Jewish state would not be central to a Jewish identity. That new identity would equate Jewish liberation with Palestinian liberation.

Like progressive Palestinian voices, Beinart viewed the quest for a mini-state with full Palestinian sovereignty on 22% of the land of the 1922 Palestine Mandate had been a chimera. Israeli actions have made such a state impossible because it left less and less territory available for that state with each passing year and, nevertheless, insisted that Palestinians have less than full sovereignty. Israel would retain full control over security. The population of Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank grew from 365,000 in 2000 to 650,000 in 2020.  At the same time, the number of Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank administered by Israel declined from 500,000 to just over 100,000. Land swaps were never sufficient and the land on offer was mostly desert. Further, the issue of refugee return remained a scab over all the other issues.

Over the period, Palestinian support for a single state shifted from one-third of the population in 2011 to almost half in 2020. For Beinart, the issue is not how fanciful the goal is, but which vision – two-states or one state – can generate a powerful movement to bring about fundamental change. A fragmented even further reduced Palestinian state with limited sovereignty cannot harness that energy. That prospect will induce Palestinians to resume a program of violence with the prospect of mass expulsion as a response, a prospect fostered by a current policy of encouraging Palestinian emigration. Oppression will degenerate into ethnic cleansing.

Beinart offers the flag of equality as a substitute for independence and self-determination. However, this is not what young Palestinian intellectuals have in mind when they lift the flag of equality. They call for Palestinian self-determination as a substitute for current policies and practices. They are political fundamentalists. They call for decolonization entailing Palestinian refugee return and the explicit denial of any Zionist project. Instead, Peter cites the vision of Palestinian Israelis (Ayman Odeh of the Joint List) who demand equality in the same way Nelson Mandela did – equality for all citizens. But Beinart joins those young Palestinian progressive voices in characterizing the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for Israeli occupation.

Peter Beinart envisions, not a unitary state like South Africa with only one national identity, but a binational state wherein communitarian as well as individual rights are protected and given voice. Peter advocates a form of democratic bi-nationalism. Yet other Jewish progressives, like Jeremey Ben-Ami leader of JSpace in the USA (cf. “Don’t Give Up: Why liberal Jews must not abandon the fight for Israel’s future,” The New Republic, 8 September 2018) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah, remain unconvinced

In his essay, Ben-Ami focused on the drifting apart of the Israeli Jewish and American Jewish communities as American Jews largely remained liberal while Israeli Jews have gradually shifted to the right impelled by new immigrants, the hostility of neighbours and the intense right-wing nationalist religious campaign that systematically chips away at Israel’s fundamental democratic foundations. Hence, The Great Divide. Ben-Ami called on American Jews to sustain their involvement and counter right-wing illiberalism for a commitment to Israel is now the soul of the Jewish people. Rather than leave the ideological battlefield to right wingers with their own institutions, educational foundations, think tanks and politicians, he called for a renewed progressive movement uniting liberal Jews in the diaspora and Israel.

This means redressing a situation in which Israel’s pro-peace and pro-democracy camp does not receive the proportional support to counter the disproportional support American right-wing Jews offer Israel in funding, infrastructure, strategy and messaging aid. Ben-Ami called on American Jews to increase their support for the diminishing number of liberal Jews in Israel in the battle against ethno-nationalism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote an essay entitled, “How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism,” that was published in The Washington Post on 18 May 2018. Advocating a boycott of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. It is merely pressure on Israel to change its policies. Antisemitism is marked by the following:

  • Viewing Jews as insidious influencers, whether globalists or Zionists, behind world events
  • Using the word “Zionist” as a code for “Jew” or “Israeli” implying a global power structure while denying the existence of the state as an expression of Jewish identity
  • Denying a Jewish national history in Israel going back three millennia and characterizing Israelis as Nazis
  • Dismissing the humanity of Israelis by not caring about the dignity, well-being, concerns and self-determination of all people, including Jews
  • Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews.

Opposing these antisemitic tropes does not mean that one cannot insist that Israel live up to its human rights commitments.

The New York Jewish Agenda brought all three public intellectuals and activists together in a webinar on 26 July 2020 entitled, “Divided We Stand: Allies Debate the Two-State Solution.”  Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope and a founder of the New York Policy Agenda, chaired the webinar. Peter reiterated the thesis he has been developing over the last few years that the two-state solution on offer is a misnomer and a cover for a unitary state dominated by Jewish Israelis. Further, the two-state solution is no longer viable. Third, working for a unitary state in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights is not a utopian fantasy.

Jill Jacobs reiterated her emphasis on rights, including rights to citizenship, and the unravelling of the Occupation. She insisted, contrary to Beinart, that Palestinians are increasingly calling for a one-state solution. Jeremy Ben-Ami, contrary to Peter Beinart, insisted that the two-state solution was very much alive and needed people to push that agenda and not despair nor give in to the propensity to seek definitive answers. He challenged the view that despair over the impossibility and unworkability of a two-state solution would propel a one-state solution as a successor. He argued that it was faulty logic to characterize a two-state solution now as necessarily anti-democratic whereas a one-state solution would be democratic. He could not imagine a Knesset vote supporting the dissolution of Israel in favour of a unitary state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. Further, he stressed that a crucial factor in the direction of Israel is which direction American Jews support for the future of Israel.   

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state’s founders insisted that the new country “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture …” That vision has not yet succeeded. Some progressives want to press forward with greater effort. Others, such as Peter Beinart, now regard that vision as a chimera.

Are these the only two progressive visions on offer?

One versus Two States: Palestinian Progressive Voices

Before I deal with arguments of progressive Jewish voices on the issue of a one or two-state solution, I want to take up the position of intelligent, articulate and progressive American Palestinian public intellectuals as expressed in the 20 July webinar organized by The Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP). More specifically, I will review the views of Salem Barahmeh from the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, Amjad Iraqi from +972 Magazine and Dr. Yara Howari, Senior Palestine Policy Fellow of Al Shabaka (The Palestinian Policy Network). The webinar was entitled, “Palestine/Israel, Israel/Palestine – Imagining the Way(s) Forward.” As you will see, the views expressed are light years away from the official liberal position of America as evidenced in the Democratic Party platform. The Trump Plan is, of course, beyond the pale.

The moderator, Dr. Sarah Anne Minkin, put the discussion within the context of “more than 50 years of occupation and de facto annexation.” For her, annexation was not a future prospect but a past fait accompli on the ground. Salem Barahmeh enlarged on his view of the current debates among Palestinians on the future destination and goal of Palestinians since the PA, the PLO, the Joint List and even Hamas still officially support two-states in some configuration, though this position is now being challenged by proponents of one-state (again, in various iterations) and confederation (also in various iterations). Further, he reviewed means to achieve these goals in comparison to traditional tactics of a popular struggle, international pressure and UN diplomacy.

Salem claimed that the official voices are propelled by both economic and political self preservation that reflect the reality on the ground, including current public opinion polling which confirms that most Palestinians prefer a two-state solution. In Palestinian society, the majority is under the age of 30. They have grown up under a promise of a two-state solution but experienced only the expansion of settlements, occupation, de facto annexation and “apartheid.” Therefore, the reality is that there is one state now, contrary to the political rhetoric discussing two-states. The one-state solution is now a given. But that one-state is Israel. As a result, Palestinians express a desire for freedom and rights without any visible prescription on how to advance their cause.

Salem asked why. His answer was that Palestinians live under a one-party system where parties, the expression of opinions and creation of new organizations are all very much limited. There is no political system for engaging in political discourse to shape different visions for the future. Thus, the two-state solution predominates in public discourse without a competitor or the ability to specify what a one-state solution might look like founded on a social contract supporting freedom for all rather than the domination of Israel. If space is opened for that kind of conversation, the polls would dramatically change, he predicted. Current official political positions no longer reflect the reality on the ground. The goal should be freedom and rights underpinned by decolonization and justice. He did not offer a specific political configuration but, instead, insisted that it must be one that guarantees basic rights, freedoms and democratic values.

Amjad Iraqi was asked more specifically about Palestinian Israelis and how they understood their identity, their role in the body politic and how they re-imagined that role. Though the Palestinian Israelis make up a small part of the Palestinian nation, they occupy a very critical position in articulating and advancing a Palestinian vision for the future. First, they are, and are viewed by Palestinians, to be part of the Palestinian people. In comparison, Quebecois in Canada, though decidedly French, see themselves as a distinct people. Further, Palestinian Israelis have been at the forefront of the Palestinian national movement as political thinkers, activists, writers and artists. Mahmoud Darwish and Emile Shukri Habibi are examples. Especially since 1967, when the Israeli Palestinians could engage with their West Bank and Gazan cousins, they were able to play that role. The situation and their role strengthened the communal identity of Arab Israelis as Palestinian.

Modern communications and social media strengthened this trend. Palestinian Israelis hold onto the remnants of Palestinian nationhood within Israel, an identity that “Israel is still trying to erase.” They also have a nuanced and deep understanding of Jewish Israeli-Palestinian relations since they know the Hebrew language and Israeli institutions. They know the fears and aspirations within which Jewish Israelis operate. They can, thus, better envision how to live alongside Jewish Israelis. 

Dr. Yara Howari zeroed in on the issue of decolonization and liberation as the critical framework for understanding the political framework of the Palestinians and their future. The narrative of an anti-colonial struggle, however, slowly began to change in the seventies in favour of creating a state building network that, de facto, effectively drove the struggle away from decolonization and liberation and the view of the Zionist project as an effort of colonization in favour of capital gain and individual rights. Decolonization brings about the repatriation of indigenous land and life. Decolonization is NOT a metaphor.  Educational advocacy and scholarship is just that. The quest for social justice and cultural sensitivity is incommensurable with decolonization.  In contrast to the metaphoric view of decolonization, there are serious material aspects. They entail the return of indigenous sovereignty.

This approach is not widespread because this solution is very difficult; it is not an easy fix. As well, as a whole and encompassing framework, it calls into question current dominant Palestinian frameworks focusing on a discussion of securing allies, support for patriarchy and even white supremacy. Issues of equity and reparations must be raised. When decolonization discourse is applied to the issue of refugees, a key part is the return of these refugees and restoration of the lands taken from them. This is totally at odds with the Jewish Zionist agenda and the Jewish law of return. In contrast, the Palestinian right of return is a fundamental right and an essential part of decolonization.

Why has Israel fragmented Palestine? To prevent decolonization. Amjad claimed that Israel does not have a Hamas problem; it has a Palestinian problem. Israel avoids that issue by practicing divide and rule. In response, the method of Palestinian resistance has to be examined in that light. In Gaza, the vast majority are refugees uprooted from their land. Further, Israel constantly and continuously controls Gaza to both divide Palestinians from one another and to undercut any agenda of repatriation.

Justice requires not simply the removal of the 2007 blockade, not simply creating a Palestinian state, but pulling down borders altogether and ensuring full return and repatriation of refugees. Israel opposes not only a violent struggle by Palestinians, but even a non-violent struggle as exemplified in Israel military conflict with the 2018-2019 non-violent Gaza border protests entitled “The March of Return.”

When Salem was asked about the current character and goals of the PA and the PLO, he called the PA a subcontractor to Israeli occupation. The PLO has also been hollowed out. Different Palestinian communities have different priorities – justice and equality for Israeli Palestinians versus statehood for West Bank Palestinians. Lifting the siege for Gazans and return and restitution for the refugees. There is no system for creating a common identity and agenda. The political system must be rebuilt. The PA is a write off. The question is how to make the PLO legitimate and democratic and end fragmentation and isolation by reversing the state building enterprise. The PLO, since it is viewed as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, is the natural instrument. The project entails legitimizing the PLO once again and making it representative and democratic since the political project of the truncated Palestinian state is over. Under the PLO banner, the Palestinians must once again be mobilized.

Equity and justice will be central to that movement. Equality is not just a right to vote nor just equality before the law. Attention must be paid to the pay gap between men and women. Non-representative institutions behind centuries of oppression must be dismantled. The same program applies to the USA. America was built on white supremacy. Equality needs to be accompanied by justice which requires dismantling the old order. The settler regime must not be legitimized.

The positions can be summarized as follows:

  • De facto annexation
  • Israel trying to erase Palestinian identity
  • Israel is currently a one-state solution
  • Israel practices a divide and rule program
  • An apartheid regime
  • The bankruptcy of the Palestinian Authority propelled by self-preservation in a one-party state and serving as a subcontractor to Israeli occupation
  • The hollowness and obsolescence of the PLO
  • The historical ignorance and imaginary blindness of those Palestinians under 30
  • The denial of freedom and rights to the Palestinians
  • No arena to engage in debate and discourse over a one or two-state solution

Proposed Program

  • Decolonization and justice
  • Real rather than metaphorical decolonization focused on an authentic program of repatriation of indigenous land and life and not just sensitization by the other
  • Resurrection of a new, rededicated PLO that is both the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people, the sole representative of the Palestinian people and democratic
  • End fragmentation and isolation
  • Creating a common identity for all Palestinians and a common agenda
  • Removal of the blockade from Gaza
  • A democratic one-state solution with each citizen having one vote
  • Economic as well as political equality and equality before the law
  • Palestinian Israelis (PIs) must consolidate their identities as Palestinian
  • PIs must continue to serve as interpreters of Israelis and Israel
  • Palestinian refugee right of return is sacred and essential
  • No borders, enclaves, special access roads

There appear to be a number of both conceptual and practical problems. While preaching equality for all its citizens, Jewish and Arab, only the Palestinians are permitted a national voice, not Jews for Zionism is, by definition, a movement of colonization. If Israel was engaged in de facto annexation, why is the country so divided about annexation? If Israel’s goal is to erase Palestinian identity why is that identity reinforced by not including Palestinians as full members of the Zionist enterprise? Why are Palestinian Israelis recognized as a separate community? Why does Israel support Oslo and formally a two-state solution? – as a cover for creeping annexation.

If Israel is indeed an apartheid state, why are Palestinian Israelis even given the right to vote, to be governed by the same laws and subjected to the use of separate hospitals, washrooms and park benches? Why are there no “pass laws” for Israeli Palestinians? Even if Palestinians are discriminated against on where they can live, why are there no controls in dictating where Palestinians live and work? Why are Israeli Palestinians not subjected to widespread torture? Why are they represented in the Knesset? Why are Palestinian Israelis not denied passports? It is one thing to denounce Israel for practicing discrimination and for systemic racism; it is quite another to brand the country as an apartheid state. Why does the Supreme Count have a Palestinian judge? Why are there Palestinian diplomats, albeit far too few? How can the head of surgery in a hospital or a department head in a university be a Palestinian? None of the above answers mitigate criticisms of the occupation of the West Bank.

If Israel is currently a one-state solution, why all the debates and pushback against annexation? Why the open debates in the press and among Palestinians and between Palestinians and Israeli Jews? If the PLO is to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people, how can it be democratic at the same time for that would mean toleration for various voices and a variety of institutions competing for leadership? If the Palestinian right of return is sacred and essential, and if all people throughout the world, why is there no right of return for all refugees? Why have no refugees of a different ethnic group anywhere returned as of right but only with military force – the Tutsi to Rwanda 1990-1994.

In the end, why is Palestinian nationalism celebrated by Jewish nationalism and a belief in Jewish self-determination denigrated if Palestinians and Jews are to be treated equally? Isn’t the fundamental contradiction one of calling fro a single state with all its citizens, Jews and Palestinians given equal rights, only a Palestinian perspective is adopted?

One or Two States: The Democratic Party Platform

Given the brouhaha resulting from Peter Beinart’s shift to supporting a one-state solution, I want to set that proposal first within the context of the Democratic Party policy platform rather than Trump’s strong partisan support for advancing the right wing agenda in Israel. In the next blog, I will then turn to discuss Palestinian progressive voices on the issue before I deal directly with the views of progressive Jews.

In three paragraphs on Israel in the 2020 draft platform of the Democratic National Committee of 15 July 2020 and released on 23 July, the U.S. Democratic Party took a tiny step to assuage the convictions of its progressive wing. The draft platform was approved yesterday on the 27th of July by the full platform committee of 187 members. The amendment to include a reference to “occupation,” that is, formally recognizing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, failed. The vote was 34 for the amendment and 117 opposed.

The 2020 platform specifically includes support for a “two-state” solution. “We support a negotiated two-state solution that ensures Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state with recognized borders and upholds the right of Palestinians to live in freedom and security in a viable state of their own.’

The 1916 platform endorsed security funding for Israel. The 2020 program supports $3.6 billion in annual aid to Israel. “Democrats believe a strong, secure, and democratic Israel is vital to the interests of the United States. Our commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself, and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding is ironclad.” Progressives wanted military aid made conditional on the cessation of settlement activity, but they did not succeed in amending this proposition. There is no mention of conditionality or consequences that would follow the infringement of Palestinian human rights.

The 1920 platform more explicitly opposes annexation, as requested by former US national security officials, but provides no penalties to be imposed if Israel took such an initiative. The 2020 platform opposes “unilateral steps by either side — including annexation — that undermine prospects for two states.” What if a partial annexation takes place that is accompanied with a link to support a Palestinian state (perhaps very truncated) alongside Israel? U.S. goals in the region remain amorphous without indicating in any concrete way how they can be achieved or imposing conditions on the parties for negotiating a settlement even though polls show 56% of Americans support conditionality.

The 2016 program included a ritual condemnation of settlement expansion. So does the 2020 platform even as expansion continued steadily between 2016 and 2020 and in the decades prior when expansion of settlements was repeatedly opposed. However, on this issue, the progressives made a gain in branding the settlement expansion as “illegal under international law.” This is contrary to the position of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo who announced that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are no longer considered to be in breach of international law. In the Democratic Party platform, the opposition to settlements was “balanced” by an opposition to “incitement and terror” as well.

The 2016 platform opposed BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign led by Palestinians. So does the 2020 platform. It opposes “any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.” The last conditional clause is an addition to the previous phrasing in the 2016 platform.

The 2016 platform included a reference to the defence of Palestinian human rights. The 2020 platform is much more expansive in supporting Palestinian rights to a state of their own, that is to collective as well as individual rights. Further, the draft platform aspires to restore US-Palestinian diplomatic relations and renew financial assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Trump Administration ended almost all forms of aid to the Palestinians.

The 2016 platform did not follow J Street’s recommendation to include recognition of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. The 2020 platform draft reads: “We believe that while Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations, it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided (my italics) city accessible to people of all faiths.” Trump’s initiative recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will not be reversed if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

The 2020 platform did not follow J Street’s recommendation to include a reference to occupation. Instead, it reiterated the 2016 platform with the same omission. Though J Street will continue to lobby for its inclusion at the convention, there is virtually no chance of success.

As with the rest of the Democratic Party platform, the progressives on many issues were only able to attain very minor gains. They even failed to get support for the widespread favoured legalization of cannabis. On other issues, the changes were more radical; they did get support for Medicare for All. However, with respect to the paragraphs on Israel, there were no equivalent large successes as there were on the medical insurance issue.

What is clear is that, excepting a few rhetorical gestures towards the progressive position, the Democratic Party remains firmly in the liberal camp based on the following key policies:

  • support for a “two-state” solution
  • a commitment to the security of Israel
  • support for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel
  • a commitment to the human and collective rights of Palestinians
  • restoration of US-Palestinian diplomatic relations
  • renewal of financial assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza
  • opposition to expanding settlements
  • defining Israeli settlement activity to be in breach of international law
  • opposition to annexation
  • opposition to Palestinian incitement and terror
  • opposition to the BDS movement

All proposals implicitly include:

  • the safeguarding of Jerusalem (and other?) holy sites
  • continuation of the Jordanian administration of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex

Note, just as support for a one-state solution and for a confederation, support for a two-state solution has many iterations. The traditional one was support for two states with the Green Line of 1967 as the dividing line, modified by equivalent mutually agreed upon land swaps to retain, in rough terms, the proportionate division of the land into 78% Israeli and 22% Palestinian. Various previous Israeli proposals envisioned Israel annexing the large settlement blocks resulting in only 11-19% of the West Bank land going to the Palestinians, depending on the plan on offer. The Trump Plan (Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People) was also a two-state solution, but with the Israelis getting even a greater percentage of the West Bank – roughly 85% of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Though this would double the land under the administration of the Palestinian Authority compared to Oslo, Palestinians would end up with only 15% of the land.

The proposed Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Virtually all Jewish Israelis now living in Greater Jerusalem (200,000) and in the West Bank (450,000) would fall under the authority of the Israeli government. That would include 17 Jewish enclaves that would be surrounded by the Palestinian state. (26 Palestinian enclaves would be surrounded by the Israeli state.) Israel’s borders would expand from 366 km. to 1191 km., posing a significant problem for the IDF and the Israeli border guards. The border would be three times the length of the Lebanese, Jordanian and Egyptian borders combined. 150,000 of the three million Palestinians in the West Bank would have to be given Israeli citizenship. Numerous separate access roads to enclaves would have to be constructed. Palestine as a state would exist as about six contiguous clumps centred on Gaza and the major cities in the West Bank (Jericho, Jenin and Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Jerusalem). Only 7% of Jerusalem would be assigned to the Palestinian state and Palestine could have Abu Dis, a section of East Jerusalem on the other side of the barrier wall, as its capital.

There are clearly a variety of iterations of this division into two states varying primarily by the percentage of land going to either side. Any clear-eyed analysis of the Trump plan would conclude that it is unworkable, quite aside from being totally unacceptable to any Palestinian faction as well as a good part, though not a majority, of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem who favour a one-state solution. Abbas completely rejected the Trump Plan stating, “Jerusalem is not for sale, all our rights are not for sale and are not up for bargaining.” Hamas was even more scathing in its denunciation.

The Trump plan, contrary to the advertisements for itself, is not a viable path to Palestinian statehood. There is no realistic two-state solution on offer acceptable to both sides. Given the large numbers of Jewish settlers and the position of the Palestinians as well as a majority of Israelis at the present time, the traditional version of the two-state solution encompassed by the Democratic Party platform is equally unrealistic. Hence, the widespread declaration that the two-sate solution is dead. Nevertheless, its ghost haunts international diplomacy as well as both Israeli and Palestinian political discourse. Is there an alternative to the dream of a peaceful, democratic and demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel?

On Restrictions and Fairness – Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei

We are the end of Numbers, the Book of BeMidbar. We are at the end of a series of revolts in which command and control were at odds with demands for recognition and equal status. Does the final portion of the book add any additional insight into the Jewish view on the issue of the principle of equality creating problems for the principle of recognition of distinctions?

There are three stories told at the end of Numbers. First, there is the narrative about the land allocated to the Levites. Secondly, in the midst of this story, there are the laws about sanctuary cities concerned with murder and manslaughter. In the third and final story, the issue is about the marriage of daughters who inherit their father’s land because there are no brothers.

Unpack the three stories beginning with the last one first. The Israelites wanted to keep the land allocation to each tribe in line with the proportionate numbers in that tribe. In the name of fairness, it had already been ruled that, in the case of the five daughters of Zelophehad, when there were no male heirs, the female children could inherit the land. Previously, they could not since only males were counted in the census. Without such a revised rule of inheritance, this meant that, if the father died, his lineage would be severed from his clan.

However, with the new rule, lest that land be lost to the tribe when these women marry, restrictions were placed on whom they could marry – only members of their own tribe. To ensure fairness to female children when there were no males, they were allowed to inherit land. Now, to ensure fairness to the collectivity – in this case a tribe – the choice of spouses was restricted. Otherwise there was a fear that if these daughters married outside the clan and, thereby, joined another clan, there would be a diminution in this case in the holdings of the Manassites. The issue was ensuring fairness by imposing restrictions when the freedom granted individuals in the name of fairness had negative consequences for the tribe, for the collectivity. An adjustment was made by means of a positive sum game.

However, restrictions could have been imposed which enhanced unfairness, For example, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, traditionally a ban was placed on women plowing the land when they gained ownership. The result of ceding control over plowing meant that the female heirs had to share a significant proportion of their crop to sharecropping plowmen. Sometimes these plowmen are former husbands who marry women who own land, then separate or divorce, and finally, then use this device of demanding large payments for their roles of plowmen, a role reserved for males, to wrest control over the surplus value of the land. When women gained rights to land, the benefits were easily reversed by other perverse restrictions.

In the story of the allocation of land to the Levites, we know that all the other tribes had been given land but not the priests. Were they to rule and judge disputes among the non-Levites and serve as caretakers of rituals in service to God while they were also dependant and subordinate to the other tribes when it came to their material existence? God instructed Moses to assign specific towns to the Levites even though they have not been allocated an area of either Canaan or the land east of the Jordan River. They were assigned forty-eight towns along with the pasture around those towns, two thousand cubits on each of the four sides.

Taking a chunk of land from each of the other eleven tribes in proportion to the numbers in that tribe and reallocating it to the Levites ensured the material independence of the Levites. That is, by taking and limiting the land of each tribe even further, the independence of the Levites was assured. Again, restrictions and limits were imposed on others to enhance equality without diminishing the distinctive recognition given to the Levites.

In the third story, six of the forty-eight towns assigned to the Levites, three on each side of the Jordan, were designated as sanctuary cities. What is a sanctuary city? It is a place where individuals obtain safety and freedom. For example, Bologna was a sanctuary city at the end of the Middle Ages; serfs gained their freedom once they got within the city walls. The collectivity also gained in a positive sum game because Bologna had lost half its population to the fourteenth century Black Plague. The serfs became artisans. In the time of the Israelites, a sanctuary city was one in which someone found guilty of manslaughter, that is, the unintentional killing of another, could find safety from the desire of an avenger to kill him.

An action deliberately intended to kill another or a negligent one resulting in death because of the choice of instrument to hit another – the cop holding George Lloyd in a choke hold – is murder, not manslaughter. Only a person who commits manslaughter could have safety in a sanctuary city and only if he or she did not leave the boundaries of that city. The priest in charge of that sanctuary city would make the determination. Thus, in the name of fairness to those who commit manslaughter, restrictions were placed on where and whether vengeance could be carried out.

In Torah study last week, Rabbi Splansky focused on the issue of recognition in relationship to the plague rained down on Israel. The plague, like COVID-19, was a random killer, though people with certain underling conditions at an older age seemed the preferred targets. These victims very often died alone, usually not surrounded by family and friends. They could have been anonymous. In spite of their numbers, or perhaps because of their relatively large numbers, they became a sideshow. One might say that the greatest evil of a pandemic is the anonymity of the many who die versus the recognition given to first responders who save them.

Quarantine, isolation, restrictions on the movement of individuals were imposed to guarantee as much as possible the health of the whole. The restrictions included forbidding relatives and friends from attending the dying. There were no funerals in any ordinary sense and practice. There were no real shivas. For many, this was the most intolerable, almost even worse than the death itself.

Entry restrictions were also placed on the country as a whole and even parts of the country. Sick individuals with symptoms were isolated. The freedom and rights of mobility were limited for the sake of the collectivity. Individual restrictions resulted in collective benefits.

There were social long-lasting repercussions of the choices made. When the Black Death resulted in the economic and demographic collapse throughout Europe in the fourteenth century, the shortage of labour meant that wages went up, that serfs gained the freedom to become urban artisans, that the landed gentry suffered financially from falling food prices as a result of excess produce while having to pay higher wages. At the same time, other individuals, onetime serfs who were now better off working as artisans in an urban setting, could leave their land and holdings to all their children instead of just the eldest child. (Cf. Lawrence Wright, “Crossroads,” The New Yorker, 20 July 2020) Pandemics result in radical changes in recognition and the allocation of resources in terms of fairness. This was also true of the plague that took place before the Israelites entered the Promised Land.

In our contemporary pandemic, perhaps refuges and displaced people have suffered the worst, not only from the crowded conditions in camps that fostered the spread of the virus, but because of the significantly reduced opportunity for travel and the ability to find sanctuary in another place.  Restrictions imposed on individuals can result is greater inequality and unfairness. Restrictions may also be imposed on individuals to enhance greater fairness and equality. The former seems to be the result of inadvertence and neglect. The latter seems to be the result of deliberate changes in the social system.

That is what happened to the Israelites. Restrictions were imposed to enhance fairness. And these followed the devastation of a plague which wiped out 4% of the population of the Israelites. One commentator wrote, “BeMidbar’s closing scene’s tenor is of ungenerosity and limitation of the other. It seems to be motivated by fear and greed, and to lead to restrained freedom and restricted action.” I read the three final stories in the very opposite way, not as products of fear and greed, but as initiatives to rewrite the social contract to create a different balance between freedom and restrictions. These were exercises in social adjustments to bring a better balance between the restrictions imposed on individuals in order to ensure greater fairness in society as a whole.

As a result of COVID-19, what changes can be anticipated in the fabric of society to rebalance restrictions on individual freedom to enhance the health and wealth of society as a whole? Barbados, for example, has acted to invert the pattern of greater and greater mobility restrictions. Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley noted that, “Covid-19 has placed a severe strain on people’s mental wellness…(on the other hand) The sunshine is powerful. The seawater is powerful. They’re both therapeutic in ways that are hard to explain. And we felt that, why not share it?”

The government introduced the “Barbados Welcome Stamp” to allow visitors to stay on the Caribbean island visa-free for up to one year. Hopefully, this would attract remote workers, especially with the removal of the local income taxes as an incentive, taxes that normally kick in after six months. Surely, working remotely on a beach is more attractive than self-isolation in a small apartment. Lifting restrictions can enhance both individual freedom and greater collective well-being and equality when reconstructive initiatives are taken in the face of disaster.

Will America continue the mindless anti-rational and empirical incompetence that fosters and is rooted in selfishness, self-centeredness and greed, or balance restrictions with greater fairness and equality based on new rules that strengthen community bonds?

Colum McCann Apeirogon

During the first decade of this century, I produced and was the host of a Canadian one-hour television show called Israel Today. Of the 26 shows we made each year, 16-18 were shot in Israel. During the 2003-04 TV season we broadcast a show featuring Yitzhak Frankenthal. His 19-year-old son, Arik, was kidnapped and murdered in Gaza in 1995 when he was a soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). In 1995, Yitzhak Frankenthal founded Parents Circle – Families Forum for Israeli parents who had lost children in the conflict. By 1998, Parents Circle initiated Dialogue Encounters with Palestinian parents and the organization became a bi-national one that brought together the bereaved parents, both Israeli and Palestinian, who had lost children in the conflict. The organization arranged meetings between the two groups to share stories and to use their shared sorrow to advance reconciliation and peace. The organization also supports projects to advance that objective.

A number of documentaries were produced about those encounters. One was Within the Eye of the Storm (2011). It told the story of the journey of reconciliation of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, both members of the Parents Circle. Both had lost daughters in the conflict depicted in moving painful detail in the novel. The book, however, does not trace the development of the relationship between the two men in any linear fashion. Rather, it is like a circle, no, rather a spiral that goes in and out of their relationship over the years.

On p. 417, McCann defined an apeirogon as “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides” from the Greek, apeiron, to be boundless, to be endless, to which is added the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

As a whole, an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle, but a magnified view of small pieces appears to be a straight line. One can finally arrive at any point within the whole. Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible. At the same time, one can arrive anywhere within an apeirogon and the entirety of the shape is complicit with the journey, even that which has not yet been imagined.

A wall separates most of the West Bank from Israel proper. Further, Rami Elahan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, are supposed to travel on separate roads in the West Bank much of the time, but they often take the same road when travelling to a meeting together in Beit Jala. Smadar and Abir, their respective daughters, never met, but their deaths, truly tragic deaths, in the conflict eventually brought Rami and Bassam together to reach across and through the walls built to sustain and hold back their common grief.

Per refers to risk. What a risky and original form McCann gives to the novel in spectacular, splendiferous prose intermixed with paragraphs of lists, of long lists. For example, suddenly we encounter out of the blue the name, “Solitaire,” and then a list of 36 other names for the same card game. McCann does not have to spell it out. Its all there. Solitaire is a card game generally played alone. As much as one can share one’s grief, as much as one can learn to love one’s enemy, in the end you are alone with that pain. You are alone facing your future with the weight of that past. Sharing the grief lessens the pain but never eliminates it. But obsession with that solitary pain leads to the opposite of reconciliation.

There are over a thousand variations of the game, solitaire. Within any one game, solitaire does not quite have an infinite number of variations. However, there are far more than I can count. You can play with the cards that fate has dealt you. The tableau is not one of war against another player but a struggle to live oneself, to win with the cards fate has served up to you.

In solitaire, after you shuffle, you lay down seven cards in a row with the first one on the left face up and the rest face down. Then on top of the face down cards, lay down six in a row with the first face up covering the previous first face down card. You repeat this a total of seven times from left to right until each of the piles, varying from one to seven cards, has one face card up.

In descending order of value, red cards go on black and black on red, sixes on sevens, twos on threes and jacks on queens. If there is a blank space, a king may go there. If there is an ace, it is put in a row above the tableau. When you exhaust all possibilities with the deck as laid out, you begin to play the cards you have left in your hand. The ultimate goal is to separate the deck into four ascending piles above the tableau with an ace of each suit at the bottom and the remaining members of the suit on top in ascending order. Thus, the game is split between putting opposing cards, the bottom dominant and the one on top a lower card, in the main tableau and the cards is four separate suits in a new row in ascending order. In the main tableau, lower is upper and upper is lower.  The ultimate path entails eliminating the initial tableau of seven piles and creating four piles of the same family with the highest card, the king, on top.

Parents Circle is an effort to reverse this propensity to collect cards in separate tribes or suits. The slogan could be drawn from E.M. Forster’s Howards End, namely “Only connect.” This novel is a very original effort to capture in prose the dynamic of this effort to overcome the propensity towards the solitary and the separation into tribes in an imagined universe, which has a very real complement, and to develop links and threads of a reconciled world of peace. It is, by definition, utopian, but what is depicted is very real and the very opposite of a utopia. Instead of turning the imagined world into our real world, the novel makes the very original effort of trying to make the worldview it depicts as real as possible while avoiding the least hint of propaganda. Instead of an intractable conflict Bassam and Rami demonstrate by their lives that the conflict can be managed and overcome on an interpersonal level.

Private and public life are interwoven and not segregated. History as the remembrance of things past always become part of the present moment so time must be connected as well as dots in space. The effort results, not in homogeneity, not even in an alliance of differences, but in a pastiche made up of small digestible pieces. Rami Elahan is an Israeli. Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian. Rami Elahan is a religious Jew. Bassam Aramin is a religious Muslim. They truly learn not simply to tolerate one another, not simply to live side by side, but to love one another and make the other an intimate part of their own lives.

The novel by dwelling in the minutiae of both men’s lives attains a sweep of epic proportions. Instead of a vision of transcending the conflict, the conflict is portrayed in all its immediacy and horror as the effort to harmonize while it delivers pin pricks into the divisions. Walls, roads, rituals and emotional barriers force on the two men an environment of division and separation which invades every minute of their daily lives, but also challenges them to surmount those barriers. In September of each year, Parents Circle puts on a Blood Relations Project sponsored by Satchi and Satchi where both Israelis and Palestinians donate blood collected by natural type and not by nationality. The blood is used to save lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. “Can you hurt someone whose blood runs through your veins?”

In his historic 2011 Middle east speech, Barack Obama said that, “We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, ‘I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.’” For the conflict has a face. It has many faces, faces that are brought together so that they can recognize one another as individuals with passions and pains, with collective losses and collective visions of the future.

Bassam Aramin enters the story as a teenage rock thrower, a terrorist, who, in his seven-year prison term evolved into both a Fatah leader and a student of the Holocaust, studies which he subsequently pursued as a graduate student after he was released from prison. For understanding the other and meeting the other face to face requires knowing the collective past of the other that haunts the present. The novel is not about the numerous awards and public recognition the international community has bestowed on Parents Circle but, rather, the interpersonal recognition that one Israeli and one Palestinian give one another as their separate histories of personal and collective pain are exposed to the light of day.

Gideon Moshe Sa’ar, an Israeli Likud Education Minister and Minister of the Interior between 2003 and 2014, a period during which most of the events in the novel take place, banned the activities of Parents Circle from the Israeli school system because, “The education system supports messages of peace, conciliation and dialogue, and promotes pluralistic discourse, but there is no room for comparison between terror victims and terrorists.” The novel shows that terrorists and Israeli soldiers can both give birth to victims. By touching one another through their shared pain, they can transcend military self-defence and terrorism to forge a brotherhood and sisterhood of appreciation and genuine love. With McCann’s pen, the fixidity of nouns become the dynamism of verbs as birds “scissor” their way across the skies of Israel in an annual migration between Europe and Africa of millions of these beautiful flying creatures.

The novel is a masterpiece that touches the spirit as few novels can and do, transcending binaries and the division of the cards into suits.  It does not offer the truth but very many truths in an atmosphere of confusion and ambiguity. It serves up intelligent analysis alongside compassion not simply as a reflection of the people portrayed but as itself an instrument of reconciliation and peace. Grief is on display but it is never exploited.

The book is divided, not into an infinite number of straight lines, but into a thousand and one dark nights of the soul, each with its own very brief chapter of a paragraph or of several pages. The book is made up of a shattered Apeirogon with the novel performing the magic of knitting together very disparate pieces like the candy bracelet that appears and reappears throughout the novel. Apeirogon is about per, about risk, the risk of the high wire acrobat, the Frenchman Phillippe Petit, who once traversed a high wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and, in the novel as well as in real life, when he crossed the longest tightrope ever strung on an incline between West and East Jerusalem across the Valley of Hinom, the Ben Hinom Wadi to Mount Zion, in 1987 just before the First Intifada erupted. The stunt was called, “Walking the Harp: A Bridge for Peace.” The soaring ambition of Petit and of the birds who traverse the landscape is what McCann performs with the novel. It does not propel itself forward like an average novel but pauses and recovers its balance. What is lacks in momentum it more than makes up for in moments of deep feeling.

High wire acts are insufficient. Bassam’s and Rami’s efforts are very grounded and far less sensational. What they do not do is offer a thrill but rather a lesson in patience and sensitivity. The novel is not given to excessive moralizing. There is not one pithy maxim like Forster’s “Only connect” that I can remember. Without sententiousness, the novel nevertheless is a moral force of its own in true homage to the efforts of the two main protagonists of the noel.

I had finished this review when one of my readers sent me his own review of the novel not knowing that I had just written a review. With his permission, I have added that review as an appendix.

Michael Greenstein

After reading the 1,001 sections of Apeirogon, I find that the easiest way of entering the novel is at its very centre, where the stories of Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin coexist in a specific symmetry. Despite the juxtaposition of their lives and the murder of their daughters in the two 500 sections, this central reading is not necessarily the only way of approaching Apeirogon, a novel where fact and fiction interweave at the margins to challenge any central vision. The author of Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann masterfully spins history, structure, and meaning.

In his “Acknowledgments,” McCann acknowledges that this is “a hybrid novel with invention at its core.” His hybrid novel may be approached from a number of different angles and levels. If one balances the “Acknowledgments” with the “Author’s Note” that precedes the narrative, then its hybrid nature links with Rilke’s image of “widening circles that reach out across the entire expanse.” Moving in from these margins, McCann begins with “The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog” and ends with “The hills of Jericho are a bath of dark” (457). The parallels between Jerusalem and Jericho are blurred by the fog of war; the bath metaphor has the potential to cleanse, but the reality of the region is far bleaker. McCann attempts to release what has been locked in among the hills.

Rami motorbikes through the fog, shifts gears, and observes a flock of birds: “Two answers for one swerve” – – a phrase that captures the essence of hybrid Apeirogon, which is full of swerves, each one with its set of answers. As characters travel, birds fly, their peripheral wings offering one view of stages in the theatre of war, their bird’s-eye perspective offering another, above the hybrid fray. Half a billion birds migrate along the Middle Eastern superhighway, their “ancient ancestry” highlighting the claims of “European rollers, Arabian babblers,” Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. Birds cover the cover of Apeirogon in a pattern of countably infinite numbers from dust jacket to fly leaf. Hold section 1001, the spine of the book, a single sentence that tells the story while the surrounding pages flap. Inside the Cremisan monastery where characters pursue peace, the reader discovers “within their stories another story,” particular and universal.

The 1001 sections vary in length and subject matter, but each is connected to the overall structure. Consider the transition from birds to slingshot: in section 3, birds are targets of young stone throwers, and section 4 launches into the history of the ancient sling, which is the “size of an eye-patch.” Invoking an eye, the author reminds us of the centrality of perception in conflict. Israel may be seen as David in comparison to the larger Arabic Goliath throughout the Middle East; on the other hand, with its nuclear power it may be considered a Goliath compared to its neighbours. Section 5 begins at the edges of battle, a reminder of the importance of edges, margins, and peripheral vision encroaching on meaning. Children shoot turtle doves and quails that are blinded, force fed, and baked in clay ovens.

Innocently victimized birds segue to the ritual of Francois Mitterrand devouring ortolans eight days before his death. If the ortolan represents the “soul of France,” then what are we to make of the French soul with this decadent ritual? On the one hand, Mitterrand declares that “the only interesting thing is to live,” and afterwards he fasts for eight and a half days until he dies; on the other hand, he covers his head with a napkin to inhale the aroma and to hide the act from the eyes of God. “He picked up the songbirds and ate them whole: the succulent flesh, the fat, the bitter entrails, the wings, the tendons, the liver, the kidney, the warm heart, the feet, the many head ones crunching in his teeth”(6). McCann’s anatomization of the scene captures the philosophies of carpe diem and mea culpa – – the guilty gluttony of haute cuisine. This evisceration testifies to the victims of suicide bombings.

Less a stream of consciousness or flight of fancy than a tissue of connectivity, McCann’s ornithological technique segues to a white blimp rising over Jerusalem.
The airship, nicknamed Fat Boy Two, surveys every single licence plate on the highway, including Rami’s yellow one. Blimp, drone, or panopticon points to the overarching visual apparatus of Apeirogon where each of the 1001 sections is linked. The camera work is carefully calibrated in geometrical patterns. Consider, for example, “amicable numbers”: these recur in sections 220 in the first and second halves of the hybrid. Moreover, the number 220 is itself a rare example of an amicable number esteemed by mathematicians. The only other amicable number is 284, and sections 284 in the book are marked by blank squares that fold over the pages. Edges or margins delineate blank spaces. Amicable numbers suggest the amicable relationship between Rami and Bassam, as well as the proper divisors which are somehow meant to add up.

“As if those different things of which they are compressed can somehow recognize one another”(98). Mutual recognition is not just between Israeli and Palestinian causes, but also between the reader and the situation in the text. Prison guard Hertzl retrieves Bassam’s badge 220-284 and hangs it in his office in the Mathematics Department at the Hebrew University where he works on “harmonic integration,” a badge of McCann’s writing.

Some of the 1001 sections consist of only one line. “Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides” (82). Yet section 181 is immediately echoed and expanded in 182: “Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity,” and again in section 417. Further elaboration of the title appears in the second half: “From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk …. an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle …. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.” (417). This complex structure includes Philip Glass’s experimental opera Einstein on the Beach (397), as well as John Cage’s musical project, As Slow as Possible (375). Philippe Petit makes a cameo appearance, crossing the great divide of the Hinnom Valley (150); similarly, McCann’s high-wire act connects Israeli and Palestinian sides.

“Ramifications” (107) extends Rami’s name, but more accurately derives from the Latin root for branch. Olive branches abound in Apeirogon, testing borders and boundaries, shades and shapes. Borges, Rushdie, and countable others migrate across McCann’s aviary. “The rim of a tightening lung” is another refrain that focuses on the importance of perimeters in the act of reading, and the pain of all pandemics.

Vigilante Justice – Parashat Pinchas: Numbers 25:1 – 30:17

Loyalty was at stake. Israeli men were not only consorting with Moabite women, but also sacrificing to the Moabite god, Baal-peor. God was furious. He instructed Moses to impale the ringleaders in full view of the Lord. Moses instructed his officials to go even further and kill not just the ringleaders, but every single male who began to worship Baal-peor.

Nothing was initially said about Midianite women. After all, Moses’ first wife had been a Midianite. His father-in-law, Jethro, had been a Midianite priest and greatly contributed to the Israelite system if justice. Jethro’s son, Hobab, was a key scout in guiding the Israelites to the Promised Land. When an Israelite male went off to a bedchamber with a Midianite woman (Zimri, a Simeon “prince,” and Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain), the presumption was that the Midianites had become allies of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson and a priest, went in and stabbed both of them, through their bellies with the same spear.

However, Pinchas was not punished for killing two people who were not accused of worshiping another god at the time, seemingly only enjoying intercourse outside of marriage. Pinchas killed them without instructions to do so, and went beyond God’s orders to target only ringleaders. Instead of being punished for his fanaticism and extremism, as a result of Pinchas’ vigilante action, the Israelites were rewarded with a cessation of the plague after 24,000, or about 4% of the population, had died.  The reward for moral purity is evidently physical purification.

Further, God said that if it were not for the zealotry of Pinchas, He would have wiped all the Israelites from the face of the earth, a threat to which God reverts to time and time again. Pinchas the zealot and his descendants as priests personally received an additional award; they were guaranteed God’s friendship and support for time immemorial; they inherited the priesthood for all eternity. Priests were forever branded as the arch defenders of moral purity and cancel culture. Finally, God issued the order to assail and defeat the Midianites, not just the Moabites. God insisted that the Midianites were also worshipers of Peor. Was this possibly a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Was God justifying and rewarding Pinchas for his zealotry rather than the text offering any substantive explanation for that vigilante action? After all, Balaam, who was also targeted for extinction, had turned to praising God and the Israelites, but evidently to no avail.

Other than the huge commendation of what on the surface seems an extremist immoral action in the name of moral purity, there is another puzzle. By chapter 31, the Moabites seem to have been forgotten and God instructed the Israelites to “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites.” (Numbers 31:1) A thousand men are recruited from each of the tribes. Led by Pinchas, the twelve thousand slew every single Midianite male, including the five kings, as well as Balaam, the prophet who had praised the Hebrew God. “The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.” (Numbers 31:9) They burned their cities to the ground. And the Israelites did not suffer a single fatality.

Was Moses satisfied? Did he greet the military victors on their return with open arms and acclaim? No. He reprimanded them. But not for any reason liberals might approve of. Moses was angry because, “You spared every female.” (Chapter 31:15) The women were blamed for seducing the Israelite men. And, therefore, for striking the Israelites with the plague. Moses instructed the returning soldiers to kill all the male children and to slay all the Midianite women who had consorted with Israelites. Then they could cleanse themselves outside the camp for seven days. Only the Midianite virgins were to be saved and would be left alive, presumably to become enslaved.

God seemed to clearly endorse this action for He then gave instructions on how to divide the booty. Moses then made a deal with the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, and gave them the towns of Gilead and all the land east of the Jordan for raising cattle as long as those tribes provided shock troops to conquer the rest of Canaan without expecting any further reward. Those tribes first went on to defeat the Amorites on the east side of the Jordan River.

This is a tale about sexual dalliance with foreigners, backsliding in religious faith, personal vigilante action and murder by a zealot and the endorsement of mass murder that amounted to genocide. This was all in the name of worshipping God, following His instructions and serving Him faithfully as well as gaining ownership of the land through conquest.

Is there any other way to read the tale that is less unappetizing? Nehama Leibowitz was critical of Pinchas’ violence, his impetuous acting “on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all of the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in the Torah.” (Studies in Bamidbar, 329). Pinchas took “the law into his own hands.” This lack of due process and unilateralism “constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angles.” Why did God reward rather than punish Pinchas?

Pinchas is clearly an unusual priest, much more a man of action, indeed of rashness, rather than a man of reflection. He does not await the rule of law and the adjudication of the sinners who consorted with the Moabite women but, instead, was a vigilante who took the law into his own hands. Further, he was very impetuous. For the idolater and fornicator, Zimri, was bold in displaying what he was up to and took the Midianite woman into the tent to bed her in front of Moses and the whole congregation. A commentator even suggested that Pinchas in his zealotry threw Moses’ words right back at him – “One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by jealous avengers.” More importantly, Pinchas did not ask Moses for permission for what he was about to do. He just went into the tent and thrust the spear right through their two bellies.

However, this is not the case of the full war against the Midianites. That action follows God’s instructions. Then there is no unilateral vigilantism. What is the connection between Pinchas in the individual action ignoring the chain of command and, in fact, in being disrespectful to Moses, and, in the second case, of the full scale war against the Midianites acting only under orders but in the same absolutely violent matter, only this time on a collective scale?

Even as an impetuous action, Jewish commentators tend to applaud his extremism. Except! Except! Rabbinic commentators are a clever lot. See Talmud Y’rushalmi 9.7 which claims that Pinchas acted “against the will of the Sages.” How do you turn praise into criticism? One way is to asset that if the action was simply good, there would be no need for praise. Thus, the praise must have a different meaning. It was ironic. A man beats up a rabbinical student and another man sarcastically congratulates him for beating someone half his size. God’s irony is verified by God’s action – rewarding Pinchas with the eternal priesthood. It is as if God were saying, “If you are so righteous, if you are so high and mighty, then you, like Prometheus, are condemned to doing the same thing for the rest of your life. Not only you. But all your descendants until eternity. The reward becomes a punishment.

According to this inverted interpretation, the very absurdity of the latter promise is further evidence that the portion is ironic. If the comment and compliment had been straightforwardly sincere, then Pinchas would have been made a Brigadier-General, not a priest, at the very least second in command to Joshua whom God instructs Moses to name as the new commander and leader of the Israelites. In contrast, God made Pinchas a priest, inherently supposedly a man of peace, as Aaron had been, rather than a warrior. But Pinchas was a warrior for purity and zealotry.

Certainly, the inverted interpretation is clever. It is often tied to situational ethics that describe the Israelites as living in spiritual and existential peril, not only from their exposed position, not only from the age and weariness of their leadership, but for their apostasy. Radical change and quick action was needed. But this is a liberal apologetic uneasily married to an ironic interpretation. Except such an ironic interpretation makes no sense of the tone of the section or of the other passages. There is simply no sense of irony or sarcasm in the text. Pinchas did overstep his bounds. He did go a step further than even Moses and, in the process, ignored Moses altogether and acted unilaterally. But God certainly seemed pleased with Pinchas even though God had not instructed Pinchas to act that way. 

Was Pinchas righteous in the other direction, for taking the matter into his own hands, for breaking the behavioural norms and becoming a disrupter who forges a new and more radical militant ethos needed by a bunch of ex-slaves in order for them to become real warriors? The right thing really appears to be doing dirty deeds. Moses, even though he one ups God, does not one up Him enough. Moses is not ruthless enough, further proof that he no longer has the guts (חוּצפָּה), the chutzpah to lead the Israelites. He can mouth strong words and commands but does not take the responsibility for punishment into his own hands.

This section is not about the endorsement of peace or even about legislating the rules of just war. It is about all-out-war against male children and non-virgin women. It is about turning the Israelites into genocidaire for the sake of God. One can read the portion with the inverse meaning to satisfy one’s modern liberal conscience, but only by misrepresenting the divine and erasing how far God evolved and developed over the centuries. We are sill in the very early days of nation building.

Pinchas does not listen to any moral or practical reasoning. Pinchas does not allow any moral sensitivity to get in his way. Pinchas does not engage in any consequentialist thinking. He acts. He just acts, driven by his fury and self-righteousness. The only conscience he demonstrates is one that demands absolute loyalty to God and absolutely no loyalty to any other human, including Moses. He does what he feels he has to do without reflection, deliberation or presumably any qualms.

Pinchas is like the impatient screamers involved in current identity politics, tired of pussyfooting around or offering abstract gutless homilies. Moses is simply considered full of empty rhetoric, incapable of action. What is needed is someone who can plunge into the mud and wrestle with the unscrupulous other side on their own terms. Only, in Pinchas’ case, he is not urging the thought police on by his protests and actions, but challenging the thought police and insisting by his actions that extremism in the defense of Judaism is a duty, not an aberration. Pinchas has no time for conflicted liberals like myself.

Whether it is Jewish survival or the survival of the planet, Pinchas might argue, finger wagging and lecturing from the sidelines are useless. You have to get into the muck and exercise your will or wrestle on the same level with those who do so in the name of fairness and justice. No more wallowing in reasoned and subtle discussion. Action! That’s what God’s creativity is about for zealots. Pinchas, pen and chas, means lest we fall into sin. Pinchas means that “he had pity on my face,” that he acted to save the Israelite people from embarrassment before the eyes of God. Murder was justified in the name of spiritual purity and the survival and expansion of the Israelites.

Words are intended, not for debate, but for changing the world. And for changing the world in the direction of moral purity rather than free expression. This was certainly the view of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli physician who murdered 29 Muslims and injured another 150 in the massacre in the mosque in Hebron. It was the view of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This is the extreme rationale used to justify impassioned and barbarous behaviour in defence of one’s own beliefs.

It is also a rationale used to justify pre-emptive action rather than dithering, as in Israel’s pre-emptive strike in 1967 against the Egyptian military and its airfields, against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, just recently, against the Iranian Natanz uranium nuclear enrichment facilities. However, actions rather than words in the UN are also used to justify “irregular” settlement activity in the West Bank.

Further, the principle of fairness applies only to victors who must distribute the spoils of war in proportion to the population of each tribe. Even women, but only Hebrew women, must be treated fairly when it comes to their rights of inheritance. Given this evolution in political and legal theory, it should be no surprise that many if not most liberal commentaries focus on female egalitarianism and tend to ignore the issue of Pinchas’ zealotry and role in genocide.

Long live moral righteousness, zealotry, the quest for moral purity, and the effort to drive out and even murder heretics. Praise or surrender to mob cancel culture that puts equality on a pedestal – but equality within a restricted sphere for the former slaves demanding their place in the sun. Glory to moral purity rather than celebrate free expression. This is the meaning and message of Pinchas and no amount of twisted and clever exegesis can cover that up.

Bob Rae – Canadian UN Ambassador

On Monday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Bob Rae would become Canada’s new ambassador to the United Nations. One might have expected that the appointment would have been met with universal cheers given Bob Rae’s stellar career, especially against the backdrop of Canada’s failure to gain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. But it was not to be. Paul Wells, an award winning (three gold National Magazine Awards and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing) political pundit and Maclean’s Magazine commentator, wrote, “It’s possible to admire Bob Rae’s contribution to Canadian public life and, at the same time, to notice that other countries normally send people with far more diplomatic experience, and far more United Nations experience, than he has.”


Paul Wells is indubitably one of the foremost experts on Ottawa politics. He wrote several books on the Harper regime – (2006) Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism and (2014) The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006. He has been a columnist for The National PostMaclean’s and The Toronto Star, largely covering the federal political scene. He even covered Alan Rock’s career when Rock was a short-term ambassador to the United Nations. He does know the names and ages of current ambassadors from many of the European countries because they are mentioned in his article. This knowledge of Europe was facilitated by his spending a year reporting from Paris as Maclean’s Europe correspondent covering Germany, Poland, the UK, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But that does not make him an expert on either the UN or what Canada requires in an ambassador to that organization. It may be that his well-known hostility to Justin Trudeau may have pushed him to extend his criticisms beyond the boundaries of his knowledge and expertise.

In Wells’ view, Rae, at 71, is too old. Secondly, he is not a career diplomat with the credits and credibility that such experience brings to the position. Third, Bob Rae is not a woman; the ambassadors to the UN from both western countries that won temporary seats on the UN Security Council, Ireland and Norway, were both women. Fourth, for Wells, a key factor in success at the UN is not what you know but whether you have mastered the UN rule book. Finally, the major key is who you know. “[The UN is] an infernally complex place. The rule book is as thick as the Manhattan phone directory, and much depends on whom you know.”


Wells admires other countries, such as Germany, which normally send people with far more diplomatic and UN experience than Bob Rae has. Christoph Heusgen (67) is German’s UN ambassador and is also Angela Merkel’s longest-serving and perhaps most influential foreign-policy advisor. Who you know includes not only the personnel at the UN, but the head of your own state. An intimate and close relationship with the PM is evidently a must. For Wells, there are “other people who have worked far more closely with their country’s leaders than Rae has actually worked with Trudeau.”

To evaluate Trudeau’s appointment of Bob as UN ambassador it is important to input the context within which the decision was made, Bob’s qualifications, the demands of the job, and the alternatives available. Further, it helps if the evaluator has some intimate knowledge of the working of the UN. I do have some going back to my scholarship on the 1947 founding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), my involvement with refugees, especially the Indochinese, my internationally sponsored co-authored report on the UN and western countries initial decision not to intervene in the Rwanda genocide, my research and recommendations on humanitarian intervention and my organizational work in Africa on early warning systems – all of which involved coordination with the UN to different degrees.

Clearly, the context of this appointment has to be set against the background of Canada’s very recent failure to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. According to Stephen Lewis, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1984 and 1988 and reputedly Canada’s best ambassador to the UN ever, “The Trudeau government’s superficial foreign policy hamstrung its diplomats and caused Canada’s defeat in the first round of voting for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.” Canada used to be a leader in peacekeeping; it is no longer. Canada used to be a leader in refugee policy and, more particularly, in the resettlement of refugees; it is no longer. Canada was a leader in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and Stephen Lewis, in partnership with Prime Minister Mulroney, were Canada’s standard bearers. There is no issue on the international stage on which either the current Prime Minister or the current UN ambassador from Canada, Marc-Andre Blanchard, have led the charge.


Blanchard was for six years Chairman and CEO of McCarthy Tétrault, one of Canada’s largest national law firms before he was named UN ambassador. He had far less experience as an international diplomat than Bob Rae, though a claim could be made that he knew Justin Trudeau better as the former head of the Quebec Liberal Party and for his service on Justin Trudeau’s transition team following the 2015 election. A week before the UN vote for membership on the Security Council, Blanchard emerged into the limelight with his letter to all UN member and observer states concerning Israel’s announced plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank on land where Israelis live. He took the typical moderate and widely internationally supported position that such a move would be “contrary to international law” and would undermine the two-state solution. He criticized the letter signed under the auspices of Just Peace by 1,000 Canadians opposing Canada’s election to the UN Security Council seat. “(W)e respectfully ask you to reject Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. As you choose seats on the Security Council between the bids of Canada, Ireland and Norway for the two Western Europe and Other States, the UN’s historic contribution to Palestinian dispossession and responsibility to protect their rights must be front of mind.” Blanchard claimed the letter was full of “significant inaccuracies” and mischaracterised Canada’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He did not document what they were.


For his milquetoast response to one of the most contentious issues on the current international stage, Blanchard was criticized by both the supporters of the Palestinian cause and the supporters of Israel. Canada was accused by the pro-Palestinian supporters of:

* Ignoring the majority of Canadian public opinion
* Being hypocritical in not strongly condemning Israeli plans for annexation given Canada’s harsh criticism of Russia for annexing Crimea
* Isolating itself against world opinion on Palestinian rights at the UN
* Voting against more than fifty UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights that were backed by the overwhelming majority of member states
* Siding with Israel by voting “No” on most UN votes on the Question of Palestine in December

* Voting the wrong way on UNRWA and on illegal settlements
* Refusing to abide by 2016 UN Security Council Resolution 2334 calling on member states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied in 1967”
* Extending economic and trade assistance to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise
* Justifying Israel’s killing of “Great March of Return” protesters in Gaza
* Seeking to deter the International Criminal Court from investigating Israeli war crimes

* Threatening to cut off ICC financial support
* Not standing in the way of Canadians who fight in the Israeli military
* Protecting Israeli settlement wine producers
* Saddling Palestinian organizations to Canada’s terrorism list
* Adopting a definition of antisemitism that includes targeting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians
* Minimizing any criticism of Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories
* Conducting bilateral ministerial delegations with Israel
* Entering into a free trade agreement with Israel
* Ignoring Israeli new settlement construction
* Ignoring human rights violations against Palestinian citizens of Israel
* Remaining silent on the issue of child prisoners held by Israel
* Refusing to condemn Israel’s repeated allegedly savage attacks against Gaza.

Quite a list! In sum, Canada, they claimed, has consistently isolated itself against world opinion when it comes to Palestinians while Ireland and Norway mostly voted in support of the Palestinians. Canada’s stated opposition to annexation and unilateral initiatives were not viewed as significant, especially since Trudeau had generally ignored the issue until early June. The critics claimed that, “Canada’s staunch support for Israel has been one reason why they haven’t gotten a UNSC seat in the past” and why it should not be given a seat in the present.


B’nai Brith criticized Blanchard’s letter from the opposite angle for putting “in jeopardy this commitment both to Israel and to the search for a just and durable peace that allows Israel to live in full security with its neighbours.” Blanchard’s statement failed to point out the frustrations of the Israelis in dealing with the recalcitrant Palestinians, their rejectionism and their inability to accept the concept of a Jewish state. Blanchard’s letter was unhelpful in that it lacked balance in order to appeal “to a narrower audience critical of Israel and Canada’s Security Council candidacy.” Further, it contained an error, for the Nakba or catastrophe for the Palestinians refers to the 1948 and not the 1967 Six Days War.


However, much of the Third World not only openly failed to support Canada, but supported Ireland and Norway because the two countries are strong contributors to foreign aid and have continued a commitment to peacekeeping. Most of all, Canada was timid, not wanting to offend and, thus, not taking clear and unequivocal stands of a number of international issues.

There is another issue – Canada’s diplomatic personality. I personally recall being lectured by a senior Canadian diplomat when we were working on international issues together. I was told that I would never make a diplomat. (I believe that he was correct.) I had been trained to be a philosopher, to think in clear and distinct ideas. In contrast, diplomacy was based on equivocation, on finding words that allowed each competing side, using the same language, to give paragraphs very different meanings. Timidity and caution were considered diplomatic virtues, whether the issue is Taiwan or 5G technology from China. In contrast, such alleged “cravenness” was considered a weakness both by the Third World and by some Western developed states. Sanctimony and self-righteousness were ill-fitting complements to Canada’s actual actions, critics claimed.


Trudeau’s personal history of dubbing blackface as a teacher and of wearing Bollywood costumes on an official visit to India allowed other countries to mock him as a flake and a lightweight. At the same time, Canada is now on the wrong side of each of the permanent members of the Security Council, except perhaps France, so it lacked a champion. For example, America saw Justin Trudeau as admiring Fidel Castro.


Given this context, what are the specifications of Canada’s appointee as ambassador to the UN. Canada is and has been a leader on women’s rights, gender balance and female empowerment. Canada is the epitome of diversity and a strong defender of human rights. It is certainly a strong verbal supporter of fighting climate change. On the other hand, on the ground, the government has been a strong supporter of fossil fuel pipelines and in the air lets out twice the amount of Co2 as either Norway or Ireland. The problem is that Canadian performance does not match its statements. When Canada claims success and leadership in fighting COVID-19, as I will demonstrate in other blogs (see Taiwan), Canada has only been exemplary in comparison to the terrible American record, but generally was a failure or, at best, a middling success, in fighting the pandemic.


One can go back to Stephen Lewis as an example of what is required in a UN ambassador and Brian Mulroney’s bold move in appointing a New Democrat to that position. More important, Lewis had the trust of much of the Third World. Stephen Lewis, like Bob Rae, was not a seasoned diplomat. But he was a seasoned politician with extraordinary oratorical skills – like Bob Rae. When Stephen was ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1988, he chaired the Committee that drafted the Five-Year UN Programme on African. As chair of the first International Conference on Climate Change in 1988, he drew up the first comprehensive policy on global warming. As mentioned above, he was a significant leader in the fight against South African apartheid.

Lewis himself noted that in the June UN vote on UN Security Council membership, Canada “received fewer votes — 108 — than the 114 Canada won in 2010 on the first ballot, under Harper. Canada needed 128 votes, or two-thirds of the voting members of the assembly. Norway won 130 and Ireland garnered 128.” Clearly, there was something wrong that Canada’s so-called late entry – four year ago – into the Security Council sweepstakes could not explain.


Canada needs to demonstrate strong leadership on humanitarian issues of concern at the UN. It does not have to be a leader on the Israel-Palestine question on which Canada is in a poor position to provide leadership. However, Bob Rae served as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, interviewing the key actors between October 2017 and March 2018 to assess the violent events of August 2017 and afterward that led to more than 671,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar, to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that his security, political and humanitarian recommendations have had any uptake by the Canadian government, but his service, dedication and the content of his report certainly had a positive impact on Canada’s reputation in the rest of the world.

Good public relations was one positive outcome. However, Rae has been unable to be effective in pushing the international legal case against the perpetrators of the killing and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya or enhancing the security for Rohingya within Myanmar. He may have more impact on the efforts to improve the conditions for the Rohingya in Bangladesh and facilitate their resettlement since he was appointed Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues. On that ground alone, if Bob Rae can act internationally to improve the lot of the Rohingya, his appointment as UN ambassador for Canada is most welcome. Appointing a mid-level career diplomat to the post, as Paul Wells recommended, would not immediately engage the international community in diplomatic efforts to help the Rohingya and address the refugee crisis more generally.


Further, I believe that, unlike Paul Wells, Bob Rae knows that an ambassador does not have to be a master of the UN or the Security Council rule book. When I was involved with the UN, and I believe it is still true, the British ambassador to the UN was charged with mastering the rules of the UN and of the Security Council. Britain was respected by all the permanent members of the Security Council for ensuring that all the rules were upheld. Further, any experience with the UN suggests that its operations are not run by who you know. Brigadier-General Romeo Dallaire, when he headed the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, was intimately acquainted with his immediate boss in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The head of the Office of Military Affairs in the DPKO was also a Canadian general. It did not help Dallaire obtaining the knowledge about human rights abuses or the support for peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. That was not because the personnel did not know each other or Kofi Annan, the UN Deputy-Under-Secretary. They were all under severe economic and political constraints limiting their flexibility to initiate action. Those and other larger factors than who you know were the key determinants of policy as was the weakness of certain individuals, such as Cameroonian Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, the political leader of the peacekeeping operation. International civil service expertise in such departments as The Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions charged with protecting civilians and ensuring the rule of law re genocide was lacking. It is simplistic and misguided to suggest that who you knew was a key to understanding the failure of the UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide.

There are a myriad of reasons why Bob Rae is an excellent choice as UN ambassador for Canada. These include an understanding of international law and knowledge by acquaintance of key players, but neither of these are keys to success in the international diplomatic arena. Paul Wells is simply incorrect in his assessment. Commitment, knowledge, expertise, and diplomatic skills are much more crucial. And Bob Rae exemplifies these traits in spades.

Canada and COVID-19: June to mid-July 2020

In previous blogs, I tried to convey how, until the beginning of March, I had failed to take significant account of the dangers of the pandemic, but many, including several of my children, did not make that mistake. It flashed through my mind that when Noah was warned by God about the impending flood, he too was torn on whether the flood would indeed become a reality. Perhaps Noah’s children were the ones who convinced their father of the imminent danger.

It is not clear why some people believe while others distrust such warnings. Apocalyptic believers are seen to be true believers and conspiracy theorists while skeptics are very wary, but, in the case of the pandemic, the positions are reversed. Skeptics trust science and true believers trust QAnon or another dark and extremely skeptical source on the internet. Donald Trump is the lead destroyer of trust in science. In mid-July he ordered all hospitals to send their data on coronavirus to the White House instead of to CDC, insisting the administration would provide a “new faster and complete data system.” Why don’t I believe him?

One of the explanations of the “go slow” and cautious approach to moving forward with centralized organizing and enforcing preventive measures is that people may have an inborn (and, perhaps, healthy) tendency towards skepticism, at the very least about the severity of the upcoming disaster if not its actual arrival. Further, the very success of countries like Taiwan, Vietnam and even South Korea may have lulled people into complacency. On the other hand, when infections rose again in South Korea at the beginning of May following an ease of restrictions, many took away the wrong lesson – there was little benefit in introducing very strict measures. At the same time, this skepticism of government initiatives was not balanced but reinforced by true believers of the conspiracy theorist disposition who initially considered the plague to be a myth spread by the Left. When they could no longer deny the reality of the epidemic, they then interpreted it as a deliberate plot of the Left to bring down the Trump presidency.

Denial may also be reinforced because we fear dying alone. The news on COVID-19 was that patients died without being surrounded by loved ones. This fear and other factors tend to deform our objectivity, our analyses and also our ability to take action based on perceptions. We easily fail to take note of these anonymous sufferers and even their deaths.

A 50-year-old man from Chicago suburbia, whose death occurred in mid-April, was not discovered until the first week in May. This also happened to a man in Hawthorne, California who actually died at the end of March. Both had worked at an Amazon warehouse as part of the myriad of anonymous low-paid and evidently disposable worker bees in great demand as Amazon had been stimulated by the COVID-19 stay-at-home society to expand tremendously to deal with the rising consumer demand for delivered goods. Further, the disease became easier to spread in the more crowded working conditions. Half the workers in a picture of an Amazon warehouse at the time were not wearing masks. Amazon Vice-President Tim Bray evidently resigned over the issue of lack of protection for workers.

The Amazon rapid expansion was but the forward movement of the pressure to re-open the North American economy as quickly as possible, significantly more pronounced in America with its fewer protections, limited expansion of benefits for employees detrimentally affected by the pandemic, and widespread distrust of government providing a security blanket for its citizens. In Ohio, for example, employees who stayed away from work because of fear of contracting COVID-19 were denied unemployment benefits. In Canada, though a general consensus gradually congealed, and a Globe and Mail investigation published in July confirmed, the slow initial response was, in part, attributed to the fact that “Canada didn’t have a unified response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the effort was siloed as each province brought its own approach, leading to scattered and slow responses.” However, that same slowness and caution were of benefit in the re-opening phases.

Another factor pushing denial was false memory by the survivors of the sixties. In 1968, a flu epidemic (H3N2) led to 100,000 deaths in the U.S., mostly older people and more than died in the Korean and Vietnam wars together. The epidemic raged through Woodstock, hitting young people there in significant numbers. Yet there was no general panic or particular stress on putting in place significant steps, other than washing hands more regularly and thoroughly to prevent the spread of the flu. Friends of mine attended a Grateful Dead concert. The reason for the laxity at the end of the sixties was obvious even though the decade was noted for expanding the role of a caring government. COVID-19 was ten times more lethal than the 1968 flu with a mortality rate on average of 1% versus 0.1% for the flu.

In the face of this widespread denial, by 3 May, though infection rates were still increasing in the U.S., 32 states initiated reopening plans. As new cases rose each day to new records – 67,000 on 15 July – the decisions to re-open were clearly rash. However, it is unlikely they were influenced by the alternate strategy Sweden used, namely to allow the disease the spread naturally until herd immunity was obtained. The reason would not have been because Sweden had 3,250 deaths, most over 70 years of age, compared to Norway’s 400. For in reopening, many of the states such as Florida never did enforce social distancing as Sweden did. At the same time, Florida closed schools, which Sweden did not, and reopening schools was not part of the initial phases of reversing the very disruptive lockdown. Further, in Sweden large gatherings were restricted to fifty people whereas Florida permitted very large numbers to gather on some of its beaches. Canada, in contrast to both Sweden and the majority of American states was very cautious in initiating Phase I of its re-opening program.

Contrast that with the case of Russia which by the third week of May had the second-fastest rate of new infections of any country on the globe – 220,000 cases altogether, though only 2,000 deaths by the third week of May. Only America and perhaps Spain were ahead of the Russians in total cases. Putin, like Trump, lied. “The situation on the whole is under control…Russia looks much better compared with other countries.” Canadians did not believe either Trump or Putin; 81% supported keeping the Canadian-American border closed.

Canadian leaders at all levels did not lie to their citizens. They told it as they saw it and were advised by scientists. They erred on the side of caution when caution was the wrong side, but they did not slip into false advertising. On 12 June, child centres across Ontario were allowed to reopen, but only so long as certain conditions were observed, such as limiting occupancy rates in a “defined space” to ten, staff and children included. Opposition parties criticized government leaders for not being cautious enough, not consulting sufficiently and not providing adequate funding, especially paid sick leave and support for child care. 

These criticisms were mild. Politicians retained the trust of the population even though the trend lines were terrible. This enhanced their support even though their positive results were tepid. In contrast, in South Korea and Germany President Mon Jae-in and Angela Merkel reversed their falling support by providing imaginative, forceful and rapid leadership in combating COVID-19. Russia went in a different direction and began re-opening its economy when infection rates were still going up. Putin’s popularity began to noticeably drop. Russia seemed to be trying to keep up with the USA in the submission of the country to the disease.

What Canada and the United States lacked by the end of May was a comprehensive testing and tracing program. It took until mid-July for Canada to appoint Les Linklater, a former associate deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement, to oversee federal COVID-19 testing and tracing. Tracing was probably impossible in the U.S. because there were so many contacts for each infected person. But Canada’s restrictions remained in place in most areas of the country and comprehensive tracing as well as testing could have been in place much earlier. Contact-tracing or contact-notification mobile apps could also have been adopted as in a number of Asian countries. However, nowhere did we encounter what Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania did – widespread refusal of the population to follow state guidelines and even regulations. In contrast, China, more specifically, Wuhan, was testing millions of citizens per week. Further, unlike Russia or China without any real political opposition, or America with deep-seated animosity between Republicans and Democrats, in Canada, political leaders of all stripes by and large cooperated whatever their differences.

Another dimension emerged in May that explained in part Canada’s tardiness in fighting the COVID-19 crisis. For the first three months of the year, the virus was not seen as a crisis. StatsCan reported that, “Only three provinces registered more deaths than for the same period in 2019: Alberta (374 deaths), the Northwest Territories (5) and Prince Edward Island (2). And Prince Edward Island never had any COVID-19 deaths. (For a more in-depth discussion on facts and figures during a pandemic, see the record on line of the conversation between the Governor General and StatsCan officials near the end of June.)

One initiative Canada took, like virtually all other countries, was limiting travel to Canada. COVID-19 inaugurated the new age of low mobility. At first even Canadians could not return with their families if their wives and children were not Canadian citizens. Canada changed this policy, but did not lift a number of other restrictions that would allow travel, especially interprovincial travel, to move towards normalcy. However, other steps were taken concerning health screenings and compulsory wearing of masks. (Quebec in mid-July made mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces but placing the onus of enforcement on businesses.) These steps were not by and large perceived as an infringement on civil liberties.

Canada has not yet introduced immunity passports. Nor have airports increased their digitalized and automated check-ins and recognition software to facilitate touchless border crossings and contactless baggage checks. Airlines temporarily left middle seats vacant, but this step was abandoned fairly quickly during this period in response to economic pressures and an increase in cross-Canada air travel. By 9 July, Air Canada, WestJet and American Airlines all announced that they would no longer keep middle seats empty to enable physical distancing on their aircraft claiming that screening before boarding, the compulsory wearing of masks and the installation of HEPA air filters on aircraft were sufficient.

Canadians and government officials learned far more than lessons for mitigating contact and spread. For one, the fear of large deficits had evaporated. Ottawa projected a $343.2 billion deficit. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Canadians wanted the various levels of government to spend whatever was necessary to re-open and rebuild the economy. Canadians learned that their long-term care practices needed radical revision. Further, most Canadians wanted a political and economic program that would bring not only economic recovery but increased support (75%) for a reduction in inequality, especially by imposing a wealth tax of 1-2% of the assets of the rich. Canadians generally supported emergency business aid, wage subsidies and promotion of work-sharing, a regional relief and recovery fund and support for Ritual ONE, providing restaurants and food service providers with monies to transform their businesses to pick-up, expanding patios and decreased in-house patronage.

Canada had another benefit. Though Canadians participated in the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the numbers generally were not as large or the protests so sustained that the spread of the virus was significantly enhanced. Canadian protesters wore masks in larger numbers, and not only when threatened by tear gas. Police tactics and arrests, in turn, did not enhance the spread in Canada. By the beginning of July, the infection rates in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California, not to mention Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina, were rapidly increasing while they were declining across Canada, even in the epicenters in Toronto and Montreal. And the numbers were not going up, as Donald Trump claimed, because America was testing so much.

Even if the American system was infected with a widespread virus of misstatements and lies, led by the president, there was also confusion because of the lack of uniformity in collecting statistics and determining who actually died from the virus rather than another cause, or counting only deaths in hospitals, unreliable and sporadic testing until late in the spread of the disease, year-over-year comparisons of deaths when, because of the lockdown, homicides and accidental deaths significantly decreased. In spite of these confusions, Canadians generally continued to trust their governments and the leaders. At the beginning of July, “An overwhelming 76% say Canada’s public institutions responded well to the pandemic.” There has been no deliberate effort to conceal the ravages of the pandemic as there were in states like Georgia and Nebraska. We may have experienced undercounting and inadequate data collection but not outright deception.

By mid-June, the trend lines were clear. New cases of COVID-19 continued to decline. Death rates fell as did rates of hospitalization. Guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing, wearing masks inside and keeping bubbles to under ten were generally but not universally followed; 1 in 4 Canadians refused to wear masks unless compelled to do so. Other than the major cities – Toronto and Montreal and Windsor along the American border – phase 2 re-openings were initiated. Some initiatives were very questionable. In Ontario, the government introduced legislation to protect owners of long-term care facilities from liability. Pandemic bonuses were ended. However, by the end of June, the Canadian economy recorded 952,900 additional jobs over the previous month. Nevertheless, the Canadian economy was projected to contract by 7.8%.

Canada had not only been deficient in its policies towards long-term care facilities where 81% of the Canadian deaths from the virus occurred, we did a poor job in protecting guest workers from Mexico working on farms. As a Globe and Mail investigation published in July confirmed, the government accepted three-year-old housing plans when farms sponsored guest workers and stopped conducting housing inspections for six weeks at the outset of the COVID-119 crisis. Complaints were not dealt with in a timely fashion or, in most cases, with proper investigations. In Ontario, more than 1,000 migrant farm workers  contracted COVID-19; three men from Mexico died.

Canada was to be commended for its caution but not its preparedness. Independent Senator Chantal Petitclerc, who chairs the Senate Social Affairs and Science Committee, released a preliminary report highlighting areas in which governments have much groundwork left to cover in mitigating future outbreaks. However, Canada never deteriorated to the base level of the United States in mid-July when the President systematically set out to undercut his top scientist on epidemic control, Dr. Fauci, decried the media for lying about the pandemic and generally derided nay-sayers in favour of an illusionary optimism declared in opposition to all the American data. POTUS even cited a game show host as a supreme authority on the status of the pandemic.

Canada and COVID-19 – February 2020

James Somers ended his excellent article on how American engineers responded to the COVID-19 crisis, more particularly, the shortage of ventilators (“Breathing Room: Engineers take on the ventilator shortage,” The New Yorker, 18 May 2020) with a quote from Michael Ryan, the executive director of health emergencies at WHO. Ryan stressed the importance of speed. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”

Commentators have noted with favour the speed at which Vietnam, Taiwan and even South Korea responded to the COVID-19 crisis as a critical explanation of why their infection and death rates were so low in this pandemic. Canada, in contrast, I have suggested, acted with alacrity. One reason given for the speed of the response of the Asian countries is their experience with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. As a result of lessons learned from that new coronavirus epidemic that emerged out of Foshan, Guangdong, China, preparations were put in place for the future.

As Christopher Kirchhoff wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “Ebola Should Have Immunized the United States to the Coronavirus.” And even more acutely SARS in Canada, for Canada had its own SARS crisis. A Chinese woman returning from Hong Kong on 23 February 2003 died on 5 March. Eventually, 257 individuals in the Province of Ontario were infected.

The crisis in the ill-prepared Hoping Hospital in Taiwan where the hospital was sealed off with 1,000 patients inside in response to the SARS scare in April 2003 was an example of a panic reaction when there was an absence of preparation. Vietnam had a similar fright. A Chinese-American, Johnny Chen, carried the SARS virus to Hanoi where, when in the French Hospital, he infected 38 members of the staff. He died on 13 March.

The Asian states were determined never again to be caught unprepared. The COVID-19 crisis proved that they were not. Why was Canada seemingly caught unawares when it had its own terrible experience with SARS? Canada, too, had responded to the 2003 crisis with a provincial thorough investigation and a detailed report by Justice Archie Campbell and the federal government with the Naylor Report. The final report of the Ontario independent commission was completed in 2006. The Minister of Health and Long-Term Care made it public on 9 January 2007. The report documented how the SARS virus came into the Province of Ontario, spread and the inadequate response of the health authorities. The report documented the need to isolate and quarantine, to test and track contacts, how to work on treatments and vaccines, but the greatest stress and emphasis of the report was on the measures needed to protect public and health workers. Quality tested masks, gowns and other protective equipment had to be purchased and stockpiled.

Were these lessons learned and applied? What about the public reaction to a new epidemic scare? Were preparations in place. With the outbreak of COVID-129, some racist Canadians attacked Canadians of Chinese ancestry. Attention was also given to the airlift to extract Canadians from Wuhan. At the same time, public health research was referred to as supporting the Government refusal to ban travel. The federal government has decided to follow the WHO’s advice against travel bans. According to Health Minister Patty Hajdu on 3 February, “There isn’t evidence’ that they effectively contain viral outbreaks.”

Imposing a total travel ban on China was viewed as contrary to both Canadian foreign policy and a source of stimulating anti-China sentiment. China, in turn, referred to Canada as a bulwark of calm in response to the crisis. Andre Picard in The Globe and Mail on 4 February even questioned whether Canadians returning from Wuhan, in an unprecedented move, who were quarantined for 14 days at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, needed to be. He had clearly not read the Campbell Report and, it turned out, few had. Picard advised, “Canada hasn’t acted promptly, so at least it can do so smartly.” He argued that medically, quarantine was unnecessary but politically essential. “Politicians and public health officials have to be seen acting, even if their actions are not especially useful.”

However, the problem was not pretence but that officials were not acting sufficiently quickly and implementing what had been learned from prior experience. As Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s first chief public health officer and Deputy Minister of the Public Health Agency of Canada, wrote, in opposition to Picard at the same time, there was a dire need for public health specialists and expertise. “There are few things that focus the mind quite like the fear of contagion. With the emergence of a new coronavirus, the world is once again reminded of the outbreak of SARS in 2003.”

However, Butler-Jones insisted that, “Public health officials and governments across the country are responding quickly and diligently to the current outbreak, applying lessons from SARS.” If this were true, why the failure to introduce a travel ban? Why was there no systematic effort to document the poor state of our protective equipment and, more importantly, take action to redress the problem? Butler-Jones, while mentioning the Campbell Report, focussed on the federal Naylor Report response to the 2003 crisis which stressed communication, coordination and cooperation across jurisdictions.

After all, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Public Health Ontari0 were created in response to SARS in 2003 and that proved crucial in stopping the HiN1 pandemic in 2009. Since then, however, “many governments seem to have forgotten those lessons as changes since 2014 have diminished the capacity of public health to prepare for and respond to new and inevitable threats, as well as to carry out their mandate to protect and promote health and prevent illness and injury.” Government offices have been fragmented and depleted. Generic public servants have replaced specialists. Economic management rather than resource expertise were placed at the forefront.

However, changes in the make-up and organization of the Canadian civil service were not the only problems. For why were the experts complacent even in light of past evidence and reports. The University of Toronto by the end of the first week in February had established a steering committee of senior administrators and infectious disease experts who announced that, “the risk in Canada is low.” A more serious concern was stigmatization and discrimination.

There was another problem. Most observers have attended to the economic crisis that followed the COVID-19 crisis. However, even before the crisis in early December, Statistics Canada revealed the loss of a staggering 71,200 jobs, the worst month since the Great Depression. The monthly consumer confidence index slumped to its lowest reading in three years. The fear of a made-in-Canada recession became extant.

Canada faced a real firestorm – fear of an even greater impact on an already endangered economy, especially in the tourist and oil and gas sectors. Fear of domestic tensions with racist overtones. In place, there was a bureaucracy more concerned with coordination and communication than taking action. While China, Taiwan and Vietnam were promoting dedication and sacrifice, Canadian officials were reassuring its citizens that there was little to worry about even as the lucrative Chinese tourist industry (750,000 the previous year) died overnight. The fear was economic, not health. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist and physician with the University of Toronto, advised that. “Travellers need to be aware of where they are going, how they are getting there and know the latest [travel] restrictions, but they don’t need to cancel trips or stop thinking about future ones.”

Canadian tourists consoled themselves: “the decreased volume of tourists was a godsend as we encountered smaller lineups, less traffic and easier access to everything.”

Where was the real crisis in Canada located? – the Wet’suwet’en blockades that had brought the rail transportation system to an effective halt. Bruce Aylward, a renowned Canadian epidemiologist who led a team of experts to China to study the novel coronavirus on behalf of the World Health Organization, was still living in an echo chamber in which Canadians did not or would not listen to his insistence that an aggressive approach to managing and treating the disease was needed. By the end of February, Canadians began to fear that the new virus was past the point of being contained as Italy began collapsing both in terms of public health and in terms of its economy.

A woman in her 60s who recently travelled to Iran became the 5th person in Ontario, the 12th in Canada, with the coronavirus, and was at home in self-isolation. At the end of February, as the pandemic was about to assault Canada, there were still relatively few cases. However, epidemiologists saw what was coming. Instead of reassuring Canadians about the low risk, as they had largely been doing, they now urged immediate action, including:

  • Directives for walk-in clinics, policies on patient transfers and guidelines on the appropriate use of isolation rooms and masks.
  • Large-scale tests of people who visited clinics and hospitals to determine if and when the virus starts spreading in Canada.
  • Ensuring there are enough ventilators, an especially important treatment tool for people over the age of 65, who appear to experience the worst effects.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu changed her tune from reassurance to urging Canadians to prepare by ensuring they have an adequate supply of food and any prescription medications, and be vigilant about hand washing and staying at home when sick.

Why was Canada so complacent and passive as the COVID-19 crisis grew in January and came to world attention? Why did this complacency continue almost through all of February? We noted that the intelligence about contagious diseases had been tucked away in a small unit if the Defence Department. But defence itself as a whole had been grossly neglected. Canada was not only complacent about its security interests related to contagious diseases, but about all security matters, particularly those that arose in the Far East.

In a commissioned research paper by the Canadian Department of Defence, “A MAPPING EXERCISE OF DND AND CF ACTIVITIES RELATED TO ASIA PACIFIC AND INDO PACIFIC SECURITY, 1990-2015,” at a time when security concerns, diplomacy, and governance, non-state and state institution building, security concerns and dialogue, were all bywords, at a time when China was being acknowledged as a major full player in the region, and when Canadian soft as well as hard policy was pivoting to Asia, ”there has been a noticeable decline (my italics) in the Canadian presence, never mind leadership.” By neglecting our interests and opportunities, we undermined Canada’s security interests, now most apparently in the health field. Canada just does not, and did not, sustain or maintain its commitments even in areas central to our security concerns. The authors (David Dewitt, Mary Young, Alex Brouse and Jinelle Piereder) of the report in the article they published in International Journal in 2018 (Vol. 73:1, 5–32) entitled their piece, “AWOL: Canada’s defence policy and presence in the Asia Pacific.” They concluded not simply that Canada was asleep at the switch, but that Canada was just not there. Canada was absent without leave. In other words, complacency in Canada was a trademark rather than an aberration.

“Many factors combined to reinforce Canadian inertia. The lessons from SARS in 2002 had not been institutionalized. The Canadian administration had been hollowed out of expertise; administrators with a primary preoccupation with budgets replaced the experts. Stress was placed on cooperation and coordination rather than action and initiative. Canadian leaders feared Chinese and anti-China prejudice more than COVID-19. They were even more fearful of the already looming economic downturn and did not want to face the economic disaster that would result from the COVID-19 crisis. Diplomatic priorities with China in foreign policy also took priority. Initiative, entrepreneurship and action were effectively undercut until the crisis loomed like a huge monster before Canadian leaders.”

Canada and COVID-19: January 2020

Where does Canada stand in its handling of the pandemic crisis? The situation clearly is not as bad as America’s. Just past mid-May, Canada had 77,000 cases of COVID-19 with 5,782 deaths. Two months later, on 11 July, the country had almost 108,000 cases and 8,783 deaths compared to America with 3,236,000 cases and 134,572 deaths, up from 1,520,000 cases and 89,932 deaths on 15 May. The U.S. doubled its cases over the last two months and increased the number of deaths by 50%. The Canadian case load increased 40% and the number of deaths by 52%. Thus, while a great deal of attention has been paid to the horrendous situation in the U.S and Canada has seemed in good shape comparatively, a close look at the figures indicate that Canada is increasing its number of cases at half the American rate but its death toll at roughly the same rate.

The U.S. has a population of 328.2 million people while Canada’s has only 37.6 million. That means that in absolute numbers relative to population, Canada has suffered about half as much from the pandemic as the U.S.

U.S.Canada

Population328,200,00037,600,000
COVID-19 cases3,236,000108,000
Cases per 1,0001.28
COVID-19 deaths134,5728,783
Deaths per 100,00035.623.4

Thus, although our rate of increase in cases is half the American rate, in absolute terms we have less than 30% of the number of American cases though one-third fewer deaths on the basis of population. However, if the American record was not such a complete disaster, Canada’s record would look like a horror show.

This becomes clear if we compare the Canadian rate to that of South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

CountryCasesDeathsCases/1000Deaths/100,000

Canada107,5908,7833.323.4
South Korea13,479299.273
Taiwan4517.04.04
Vietnam3710.0040

In my accounts on Taiwan (more than half of Canada’s population), South Korea (1.5 times Canada’s population), and Vietnam (2.5 times our population), the number of cases over almost the same period, was 451 and 371 from Taiwan and Vietnam respectively and 13,479 in South Korea (versus 107,600 in Canada), while the number of deaths respectively were 7 and 0 with 299 in South Korea (versus 8,783 in Canada). There is no comparison between Taiwan and Vietnam compared to Canada. Even South Korea has been far more successful in handling the pandemic. It is only when Canada is compared to the United States that the Canadian record looks reasonably good.

Why is Canada’s record, as much as it differs from the American one, so much closer to the experience of the USA rather than Taiwan and Vietnam and even South Korea? If we focus on the differences between Canada and the USA, some of the reasons are obvious. Canada was led by a reasonably articulate leader who paid attention to scientists. America was led by a buffoon. By and large, on this issue, in Canada, the ruling party and the opposition generally saw eye-to-eye. Conservative premiers were as rational as the federal prime minister. The United States has a raucous large minority opposed to government. The Canadian public generally trusts government. Canada has a universal health system revered by Canadians; America does not.

But the differences go much deeper. The American right has a distrust of not only government, but of what it refers to as the deep state. As a result, there has been a much deeper hollowing out of government in America. The resulting chronic structural weaknesses and underinvestment in governance, compounded by Republican Party hostility to a federal bureaucracy, has meant that the capacity of the government to respond adequately to a health crisis had been severely compromised.

Further, the American media also made a difference. Daily, the media are caught up in Donald Trump’s antics and media distractions, treating his clownish performances as news. Instead of covering the president as a performer, he is covered as a politician when he is simply a corrupt narcissist who is often downright stupid. Except, the American press remains generally obsequious to the office even when the occupant of that office is a fool, all in the name of “objectivity.” The media avoids pressing a case of manslaughter as a result of negligence.

obsequious to the office even when the occupant of that office is a fool, all in the name of “objectivity.” The media avoids pressing a case of manslaughter as a result of negligence.

But none of this tells us why Canada, relative to the Asian country performances already analyzed, has performed so badly. Using my notes I took over the last three months, let me try to reconstruct and analyze the Canadian performance. Was Canada fast off the mark and, if not, why not? Did Canada develop a national strategy and a centralized authoritative agency to deal with the crisis? How did Canada handle the issue of providing adequate protective gear for its health professionals? What did Canada do about testing and about tracing in all its dimensions? Why did Canada opt for a lockdown and a stress on distancing and isolation? What has Canada done to advance treatment and a protective vaccine?

At the end of December, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia and soon identified a unique virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) went on an emergency footing. At the beginning of January as the news of the pandemic was creeping out of China, and the day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already created an “incident management system” and issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, Hubei province, the Canadian media was understandably focused on the 63 Canadians among the 176 people killed when Ukrainian International Airlines flight UIA 752 was shot out of the sky by the Iranian military just after the plane took off from Tehran Airport on 8 January 2020. Justin Trudeau’s suggestion, implying that the plane crash was partially the result of escalating tensions in the region between America and Iran, though undiplomatic, was perhaps understandable.

However, the existence of a possible very virulent virus was already extant. I have not written about Hong Kong or Singapore, but on 4 January, the head of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, Ho Pak-eung, insisted that the city implement the strictest possible monitoring system for a mainland mystery new viral pneumonia expecting a surge in cases during the upcoming Chinese New Year. The Singapore Ministry of Health on 4 January reported the first suspected case of the “mystery Wuhan virus” in Singapore, involving a three-year-old girl from China who had traveled to Wuhan. On 7 January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already created an “incident management system” and issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, Hubei province.

Further, media interest in Canada could have been expected since there were reports that China was silencing its scientists. Chinese authorities censored the hashtag #WuhanSARS. They began investigating anyone who was allegedly spreading misleading information about the outbreak on social media. On 10 January 2020, Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist and coronavirus whistleblower, started having symptoms of a dry cough. He was summoned to the Wuhan Public Security Bureau and forced to sign an official confession promising to cease spreading false “rumors” regarding the coronavirus. “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice—is that understood?” Li signed. “Yes, I understand.” On 12 January 2020, he started having a fever and was admitted to the hospital on 14 January 2020. He died on 7 February. Only then did the Canadian press take notice.

Why in mid-January was the Canadian media preoccupied with whether the Queen in Britain would allow Prince Harry and Meghan Markel to live part time in Canada and reporting virtually nothing about the virus? On 5 January, WHO had already published its first Disease Outbreak News for the world community on the new virus named novel coronavirus-infected pneumonia (NCIP), although, as yet, there was no risk assessment. By 10 January, WHO had issued a technical package of guidelines to countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases. Based on experience with SARS and MERS and known modes of transmission of respiratory viruses, the guidelines covered infection and prevention controls to protect health workers, recommending droplet and contact precautions when caring for patients, and airborne precautions for aerosol generating procedures. Two days later, China published and shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19.

On 14 January, based on the experience with SARS and MERS, WHO’s technical team suggested that among the 41 confirmed cases, some limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, mainly through family members, could be expected. WHO warned that there was a risk of a possible wider outbreak. Very significantly, over a week later a small specialized Canadian military intelligence unit (MEDINT) began producing warnings and analyses. There was no indication that the intelligence reports were being widely distributed within government at the time. I could find no evidence that these reports were distributed to the media.

Canadian military intelligence unit (MEDINT) began producing warnings and analyses. There was no indication that the intelligence reports were being widely distributed within government at the time. I could find no evidence that these reports were distributed to the media.

America was much further ahead. On 3 January, Dr. George Gao from China was on vacation in the U.S. with his family and briefed US CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield on the severity of the virus. Redfield was rattled. By contrast, in Canada, other “more serious” items appeared in the press which in retrospect are the height of irony. Several items stand out. Boeing very reluctantly stopped its production of the 737 Max jet and probably saved billions. Trump appeared before the World Economic Forum in Davos calling climate change advocates “prophets of doom” while he celebrated American oil and gas production that would soon enough result in over-production and a drastic drop in prices. Meanwhile, the Canadian government had won its case before the Supreme Court against B.C.’s rejection of pipeline expansion.

By the time President Trump’s impeachment trial had opened in Congress on 22 January, two days earlier the U.S. had confirmed its first cases of COVID-19, then called the Wuhan coronavirus. While Canada was preventing Meng Wanzheu of Huawei’s return to China and holding her for possible extradition to the U.S., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had an emergency response system and activated it. America authorities were advised to step up airport health screenings and Trump stopped all flights from China.

China had reported 453 cases and 9 deaths. Health authorities in China were given sweeping powers to initiate lockdown and quarantine prevention efforts. On 22 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) convened an Emergency Committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. By 30 January 2020, after a meeting in China to better understand the context and international implications as well as exchange information, upon their return, the Executive Committee of WHO reconvened and advised the Director-General that the coronavirus outbreak constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern with 7,818 confirmed cases, dubbing the risk assessment very high for China and high for the rest of the world. By then at very least, Canada should have stood up and taken notice.

On 16 January, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported its first case. Researchers from the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin developed a new laboratory assay to detect the novel coronavirus allowing suspected cases to be tested quickly. On 17 January, US CDC sent 100 border officers to three American airports to screen travelers coming from Wuhan, China. However, when Donald Trump was briefed by US HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the virus, Trump was more concerned with the question of when flavored vaping products would be back on the market. When US CDC learned from the Chinese on 10 January of the genetic sequence of the virus, it developed its own testing kit using three small genetic sequences instead of two used by Germany. Within weeks, the test kits were found to be defective because the third sequence, or “probe,” gave inconclusive results. CDC lost five weeks in developing its testing program.

By the time of Trump’s impeachment, and after 300 confirmed diagnoses and 6 deaths had been reported in China, the Chinese cover up the spread of a new coronavirus ended. On 21 January, the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Commission called for the public to be kept informed and warned that deception could “turn a controllable natural disaster into a man-made disaster.” In the U.S., on the day the impeachment trial began, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s foremost infectious disease expert, gave video news report on Voice of America.

Data was quickly accumulating on the rapid spread of the disease, human-to-human transmission and a rapidly increasing rate of transmission. China shut down Wuhan with a total quarantine on 23 January and suspended its public transportation. But while the American experts were issuing alerts, at the Davos Forum Trump assured everyone that America had the problem under control and that “its going to be just fine.”

The sense of the enhanced riskiness of this disease was growing by leaps and bounds. On 24 January, in Lancet, Chinese scientists established that people could be symptom free for a few days after being infected, thereby greatly increasing the rate of infection. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) ws strongly recommended for front line health workers. The disease had spread to Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Japan and Singapore when Canada reported its first case in Toronto on 25 January.

Governments should have been in panic mode. Gabriel Leung, Dean of the University of Hong Kong medical school, a world expert on SARS and viruses, offered nowcasts and forecasts of the coronavirus projecting that the true number of coronavirus infections was likely 10 time more than the official reported numbers and that draconian measures were needed to slow the progress. He predicted that the number of infections would exponentially peak in late April or May when there could be up to 100,000 new infections per day. The disease had spread to Austria, Romania, Ecuador, Fiji, Samoa, Poland, Mongolia, Switzerland, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Russia, Tibet, UAE, Brazil and who knew where else.

While senior officials in the U.S. were on top of the crisis with dire warnings from its intelligence agencies, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, initiated regular meetings and briefings on the virus, but Trump himself was dismissive. A senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, emailed public health experts in government and universities that, “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

As of 30 January, finally there was some substantive action in Canada. Air Canada halted direct flights to China following the federal government’s advisory to avoid non-essential travel to the mainland. In contrast, Trump’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, even as Trump downplayed the crisis, warned that the virus could evolve “into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” Azar, Redfield and Fauci supported the travel ban because it could buy some time to put into place prevention and testing measures. Little did they know or recognize that the time bought in February would almost entirely be wasted.

Meanwhile, in Canada, an op-ed appeared fearing the transportation cut-off to China would disrupt our agricultural trade with China. And the Canadian Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, not Donald Trump, was reassuring Canadians at the end of January that the risk to Canadians remained low. David McKeown, former medical officer of health for Toronto, advised Torontonians not to “let the coronavirus mutate into an epidemic of fear and panic.”

However, on 29 January, the House Committee on Health began to discuss the threat. Better late than never. But was Canada just late?