Thursday, February 14, 2019

America's Israel Policy is Primarily Dictated by Non-Jews. Therefore ... What?

Periodically, you see people on the internet take great pains to stress that America's Israel policy is primarily dictated by non-Jews -- usually (particularly if we're talking about conservative Israel policy) Evangelical Christians.

When this point is made, as it usually is, by Israel-critical sorts, it is often a means of stressing that opposing these conservative policies is not a case of being anti-Jewish, since it isn't Jews who are driving the policies to begin with.

It is a point often made in ragged fashion, without following through to its logical end-point. For example, people might use it to say "AIPAC drives the agenda in Washington on behalf of Christian donors" rather than "maybe AIPAC doesn't drive the agenda in Washington, it's now largely been surpassed by explicitly Christian 'pro-Israel' organizations whose agenda AIPAC is forced to react to, and our assumption that its AIPAC that runs the show is a legacy of an antisemitic assumption of Jewish control."

Still, the broad point is correct. American policy towards Israel is mostly a function of what non-Jews want it to be. That doesn't mean that there aren't Jews who, fortuitously, happen to overlap with this or that Israel-policy agenda. But they're fundamentally epiphenomenal.

One might think that the next step in the analysis would be "so let's start asking: what do Jews want us to be thinking about regarding Israel?"

But more often, the next step instead is "so therefore, we don't have to listen to anyone but ourselves on this issue!"

Put differently, these actors might recognize -- correctly -- that American Jewish voices are actually relatively marginal to the state of American discourse about Israel (it's worth noting that Israel itself plays a part in this marginalization). But they don't actually mind that marginalization or seek to rectify it -- if anything, they exploit it so that they can engage in their own discourse about Israel in American without feeling guilty about stepping on the Jews. They're happy to keep on going as they always have, impervious to critical Jewish perspectives (though happily relying on the epiphenomenal Jews who happen to already agree with them).

Recognizing that Jews aren't running the show in Washington (on Israel or anything else) is step one. Step two is empowering Jewish voices -- not to the exclusion of other salient perspectives (most notably, Arab or Palestinian voices), but as part of a larger recalibration of the debate so that those with the most at stake have the most influence.

If you think step two is redundant because we already hear -- overhear, if anything -- Jewish perspectives, then you haven't actually absorbed the lesson of step one. And if you think step two is problematic because you're afraid that elevating actual Jewish perspectives might conflict with your pre-established political agenda, then you just approve of the political marginalization described by step one. Either way, no one should be fooled by the play.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part 1: What if Israel Doesn't Agree to a Fair Peace Deal?

The working title of my dissertation is "Hard Thoughts" -- thoughts that we don't want to think, that challenge some deep-seated ideological or cultural prior that we have, but the consideration of which is tremendously important if a full and fair deliberative system is to flourish.

In that spirit, I'm thinking of starting a new series on "Unthinkable Thoughts". These are questions that I hate to ask, and whose answers are deeply uncomfortable for me, but which I've generally been able to get away with not asking because I've viewed their premises as sufficiently remote as to not require consideration. Now, by contrast, I think they're plausible questions that someone like me does have to think through.

That "plausible" is important to stress. For example, today's unthinkable thought is "What if Israel doesn't agree to a fair peace deal?" What if it's the case that Israel would reject even a fair deal put on the table?

In raising this question, I'm not asserting that I now believe "Israel will not agree to a fair peace deal." I'm saying that it is no longer unthinkable that Israel would so not agree, at least not without some degree of external pressure. It's a sufficiently realistic possibility that someone with my commitments has to reflect on it.

Of course, different people have different thoughts which are "unthinkable" for them. For me, some other questions I'm thinking of working through in this series include:

  • What if the Democratic Party "Corbynifies"?
  • What if a one-state solution becomes the only plausible solution?
  • What if leveraging antisemitism is the most effective way to advocate for Palestinian rights?

Some of you have thought the above thought for years -- congratulations. This is not an invitation for you to pass judgment on what should and shouldn't be a hard thought to think. If these thoughts come easily to you, then feel free to come up with your own unthinkable thoughts and contemplate them.

That said, I think I occupy a sufficiently well-populated ideological space within the Jewish community that I imagine some of these thoughts that have been unthinkable for me, are also starting to nibble at a good few of my peers as well. And so I hope that, if nothing else, this series provokes some renewed thought among that set.

* * *

So -- today's unthinkable thought is the prospect that Israel might not -- of its own volition, anyway, agree to a fair peace deal with the Palestinians. The proximate cause of thinking about this came upon reading a variety of people -- some earnest, some not -- asking what tactics the Palestinian people could use in order to pressure Israel for their own liberation if BDS (and, obviously, violence) were taken off the table?

I have some answers to that direct question, but what I want to focus on here is why that question I think has typically not been contemplated by many in the pro-Israel camp. Simply put, it is an article of faith among pro-Israel sorts -- and this is one of the rare things that still unifies left, right, and center pro-Israel sorts -- that Israel "wants to make a deal". They may be skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's ability to deliver, they may be pessimistic that Palestinian leadership will come to a table, but they are absolutely sure that if a deal was put forward, Israel would accept.

The reason why that article of faith matters is it suggests that the only thing standing in the way of a Israeli/Palestinian peace accord is Palestinian rejectionism. It's a step beyond the (fair) point that the failure to make a deal isn't solely Israel's responsibility -- of course it isn't, it takes two to tango. But this view posits that Israel bears no responsibility. Palestinians need to be pressured or induced into cutting a fair deal; Israelis are simply waiting for that pressure to bear fruit. If and when it does, Israel will sign on.

There's a historical narrative that supports this view -- starting from Israel's acceptance of the UN partition plan alongside Palestinian/Arab rejection, and moving through Camp David at the turn of the millennium. We know Israelis would make a deal because they have put forward such deals, and its been Palestinians who have said no.

Of course, Pro-Palestinian historians have a different take on this, but for my purposes I can accept it simply by observing that Israeli politics today are very different than they were in 2000, let alone 1948. So can we say, with absolute confidence, that if Abbas came forward today and said "okay -- we're ready to sign on the dotted line: compensation for refugees but no right of return, Israel keeps big settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for corresponding land swaps, Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem but Israel maintains control over Jewish neighborhoods," that this Israeli coalition would say yes? Really?

Absolute faith blinds us to troublesome reality. I mentioned this when Jonathan Tobin spoke of Benny Gantz saying settlement blocs (including some which could not remain under Israeli control under any reasonable peace deal) will remain Israeli "forever". Tobin said this proved that even the Israeli center doesn't see much hope in a peace deal "right now" or "for the foreseeable future". I pointed out that "forever" is quite a bit longer than "right now" or "the foreseeable future."

Maybe if the right opportunity presents itself, someone like Gantz will change his mind. Maybe he'll be able to bring 61 votes in the Knesset with him. I think it's plausible. But it's hardly guaranteed.

The fact is, there is no circumstance where a peace deal between Israel and Palestine will not require a leap of faith. And so there will always be a temptation -- even among people who say that they want a deal, even among people who in some sense genuinely do want a deal -- to step back from the precipice, and find a reason to say "no". Can we trust them? Will they follow through? Is this border a kilometer too deep or too narrow? Is that detail a dealbreaker?

Given all this, it may well be that Israel will not, of its own accord, accept even a fair deal if it were put out on the table. Which means it might need a little push. That doesn't mean they're the only party that might need pushing; but nonetheless, it is plausible that Israel will have to be induced into accepting a deal.

And that raises the question: what are the viable candidates for that "push"? What can justly be done, and what is a bridge too far?

These are uncomfortable questions -- and I don't think the right answer is "by any means, no matter the cost." But surely the answer also cannot be "nothing -- if a fair deal is on the table and Israel rejects it, then that's that." And given Israel's increasingly rightward tilt, I think we in the pro-Israel community need to start thinking through these questions sooner rather than later -- because if we don't, others will do the thinking for us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Max Rose is My Hero

Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from New York (and one of the real "out of nowhere" wins in the 2018 cycle), was one of the first members of the Democratic caucus to criticize Ilhan Omar's "Benjamisn" remark.

Then, when Omar apologized, Rose accepted the apology, observing that the best way to work with Omar is to work with Omar (Omar, in turn, thanked Rose for calling on her to do better).

And then he had a little thing to say to the gathered media hordes.
I do want to point out to all of you that when Kevin McCarthy said that it was Bloomberg and that it was Soros and it was Steyer pulling the strings behind the scenes, none of you camped out. And their caucus stayed united and had his back, and none of you called him out on that. So I just want you all to acknowledge that there is some hypocrisy going on there too, okay? That caucus can't be chickenshit in the face of antisemitism either. In the face of antisemitism we don't acknowledge party, in the face of any hate, any vitriol, we don't acknowledge party. So seriously -- you're not agents of the Republican Party.
You can feel free to inject that paragraph directly into my veins, because it's a point I've harped on for years. Rose's broadside, if only a little bit, has seemed to have moved the needle. He may well have finally prompted a little reflection on the double-standard that meets Republican versus Democratic antisemitism.

And if we're being honest, we in the Jewish community share a bit of the blame here. I stress "a bit", because one of the great fictions about American Jewish life is that discourse about American Jews is primarily a function of what American Jews want it to be. The patterns that characterize how people talk about Jews are not established by Jews, and they're strikingly resistant to disruption from Jews. In many ways, I'm dubious that the Jewish community could generate equal outrage about mainstream right-wing antisemitism even if were committed to it (a fact evidenced by the reality that many of us have been committed to it, with little success to show for it).

But still, there's no question that our communal institutions have played their part in propagating this double-standard. We do not hold mainstream conservatives to the same standards we hold mainstream liberals to. Too often, it seems like mainstream Jewish groups are good at three things:

  1. Paying very close attention to explicit far-right and neo-Nazi hate organizations;
  2. Paying very close attention to adjunct professors of media studies at Northwest Idaho State University who've endorsed BDS; and
  3. Paying very close attention to every word that comes out of the mouths of Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

That's not tenable. It's chickenshit. It illustrates the
sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” 
Remember what happened when the ADL did try to hold Mike Huckabee accountable for cavalier Holocaust comparisons? Did Huckabee apologize and try to make amends? Oh no -- he demanded the ADL apologize to him for their chutzpah, while darkly warning that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have."

Can you imagine if Ilhan Omar had taken that approach? If she had replied to her Jewish critics by demanding they apologize to her and then suggesting "Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have"? We'd have a collective rage aneurysm. But Huckabee, of course, gets away with it. Because we don't treat antisemitism on the mainstream right the same way as we do antisemitism on the mainstream left.

So let's be clear: there is antisemitism in America -- far more than many of us would like to admit. But the key difference between Democrats and Republicans isn't that one has an antisemitism problem and the other doesn't.

They key difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats are actually apologize when Jews express concerns about antisemitism in their ranks. Republicans almost never do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

It's My Birthday and I'll Roundup If I Want To!

Happy birthday (actual birthday, not blog birthday) to me!

I'm actually not doing anything in particular today, though Jill and I will be going to a hockey game this weekend. In a few weeks, we're planning to invite friends over for board games. If you're wondering "why in a few weeks, David?", the answer is I just had a Super Bowl party, and in typical neurotic millennial fashion I fear it's way too soon to ask my friends to voluntarily hang out with me in a party-like setting again.

* * *

David Roberts summarizes the Green New Deal proposal. He's pretty favorable towards it. So am I.

Weird headline aside, this is an interesting article on Israel's current state of play in Africa. In particular, Islamic extremists on the continent are starting to link their attacks to the Palestinian cause, which is in turn pulling African governments closer to Israel.

Much work needs to be done, but Israeli universities are at the forefront of supporting and integrating Israel's Arab minority, and deserve a ton of praise for it.

Partners for Progressive Israel, on the message that needs to be sent to both the right and left on Israeli and Palestinian rights

Antisemitic flyers at the University of Montana claim "Jews" are attacking the First Amendment.

On the antisemitic roots of the "Jews controlled the slave trade" canard.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Cruelty is the Point: SCOTUS Edition

In my roundup the other day, I included the case of an Muslim death row inmate in Alabama who had received a stay of execution by the 11th Circuit because the state was refusing to let his Imam be with him during his execution (the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain, who was a prison employee, in the room). I noted that Alabama appealing the stay -- but I almost didn't bother, since in my head I figured there was no chance the Supreme Court would get involved. Why would they? The stay was at most a minor inconvenience, the Establishment Clause problem seemed obvious and extreme, and there was no pressing issue here that demanded high court intervention to stop the case from proceeding at its own pace.

Shows what I know. In a 5-4 decision (over a brutal Kagan dissent), the Supreme Court vacated the stay and allowed the execution to proceed. The inmate had filed his challenge too late -- not that it was actually barred, mind you, the Court just decided of its own discretion that the inmate was dilatory and that therefore it wouldn't allow the 11th Circuit to hear the case (never mind that, based on the record available, it seems that the inmate filed his case in a perfectly timely fashion).

I have to confess, this rattled me -- more than I would have anticipated -- and I'm clearly not the only one. There are times when courts issue rulings I disagree with, and there are times that courts -- even the Supreme Court, with near-infinite discretion over its own docket -- are effectively compelled to step in and issue a decision in fraught circumstances where some people are going to be displeased with the outcome.

But this wasn't one of those cases. There was no need for the Court to step in here; indeed, it was a shockingly aggressive intervention in a case where the balance of equities seemed to run decisively in favor of the inmate. In this context, the Court's decision -- and the meager faux-technical rationale behind (that doesn't even seem to stand on its own weight) -- feels worse than wrong. It feels petty. It feels mean-spirited, and it feels cruel. And while there are many times where I disagree with this Court on important issues, it is rare that I've felt that they were cruel.

But that's what this decision was. I don't have a philosophical objection to the death penalty (though I have a welter of objections to how it is administered in practice). But I've always felt very strongly that it is important to treat even condemned inmates with respect and dignity -- that capital punishment does not license dehumanization. We're already locking them in a cage and then killing them, visiting further indignities upon them seems gratuitous. So whenever I see rabble-rousers start targeting "last meals", or a prisoner's few hours of "recreation time" because they're prisoners, they're the worst of the worst, I blanch. Such minor nods towards the continued humanity of the condemned are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition; they are part of what separates a justice system from unchannelled and unconstrained vengeance.

It should be needless to say that allowing a man facing execution whatever comfort and support he might get from a pastor of his faith is also part of that tradition: it is cruel -- obviously and needlessly -- to deny him even that much. Indeed, the obviousness of this point is why Alabama has a (Christian)  chaplain on staff and available to begin with. So to deny that small comfort to an inmate because of his Muslim faith represents such a striking departure from tradition and practice that it is hard not to see it as motivated by religious animus -- that Muslims don't deserve whatever comfort and pastoral care they might receive from their false clerics. Particularly in the wake of the Muslim ban decision, one could forgive those who now seriously wonder if the basic human equality of the Muslim community is acknowledged at the highest court in our land.

This decision is not a "great" decision. It sets no sweeping precedent, it's (nominal) basis on the alleged "delay" in filing means it doesn't even constrain future cases brought under similar facts. But in a way, its insignificance makes it worse rather than better. This was not a great case. It was a petty case. And the Court's pettiness in interceding is, in its way, far more indicting of its character than many far more jurisprudentially consequential rulings.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Fraud Squad! Roundup

In a meeting, I got a phone call from my bank about potentially fraudulent transactions on my credit card. Had I recently ordered $50 worth of fast food pizza? No, I hadn't -- and so the account is frozen, and presumably the charges will be reversed.

An hour later, upon returning to my desk, I had the bizarre joy of seeing a confirmation from Domino's promising me that my "pizza is on the way [to Houston, Texas]!"

Anyway, long story short: I'm getting pizza for dinner tonight.

* * *

Jenny Singer of the Forward interviews Young Gravy, a Black Jewish rapper (and GW student). It's a really interesting and worth your time (I'm saying that not just because I think I played a role in putting the interview together!).

I think I missed this when it came out, but a Texas court struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act's adoption rules this past fall, saying that act's preferences for Indian children to stay with Indian families was racially discriminatory against non-Indians. The Judge, incidentally, was Reed O'Connor -- the same guy who just struck down Obamacare. He's certainly setting himself up as the go-to-guy for tip-of-the-spear conservative judicial activism.

Alabama was all set to execute a Muslim inmate -- but refused to allow a Muslim chaplain to be present with him during the execution (they did offer a Christian chaplain, which unsurprisingly the inmate did not consider to be a satisfactory substitute). 11th Circuit stays the execution due to the "powerful Establishment Clause claim" (and plausible RLUIPA claim). Alabama is appealing to the Supreme Court.

A new poll finds that over half of Israeli Jews agree that the controversial "nation-state" law must be either abandoned outright or fixed to confirm the state's commitment to democratic equality for all citizens.

A Cameroonian official has apologized for threatening an ethnic minority group by comparing them to Jews in pre-WWII Germany, namely: "In Germany, there was a very rich community who wielded all economic power .... They (the Jews) were so arrogant that the German people were frustrated. Then one day, a certain Hitler came to power and put them in the gas chambers."

I have no takeaways from the Likud primaries except celebrating Oren Hazan's imminent departure from the Knesset. Goooood riddance.

Iraqi Jews commemorate family members who were "disappeared" by state secret police.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

What We Like About Each Other

Daniel Gordis has an interesting piece in Bloomberg about a co-existence program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area (which is inside the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem).

Aside from the substantive content of the piece, there were two tertiary elements that stood out. One is the notation that Gush Etzion had Jewish residents prior to Israel's establishment -- these Jews were expelled when Jordan took over the territory in the wake of Israel's independence war. Many of the current settlers in that territory descend from families which were forced to flee.

That sort of story is rarely raised. And to be clear, in a large sense for me it doesn't matter -- I've long maintained that part of a permanent settlement between Israel and Palestine will likely include a proviso that not everyone gets to live on the precise patch of land they'd most prefer, and that applies to Jewish families whose roots in Gush Etzion go deep as much as the descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled pre-67 Israel during the Nakba. But it is nonetheless a complicating narrative in a region where simplicity is too often craved, and I think that's important.

The other interesting portion came at the very end:
“I have another question,” an Israeli teenager asked her Palestinian counterparts at a recent meeting. “Is there anything about our culture that you actually like?”
The Palestinian kids were quiet for a moment, and then they laughed. “We love your music,” they said. Specifically Eyal Golan, an Israeli rock star who sings in Hebrew, but in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style. “We don’t understand the Hebrew; but we listen to him all the time; we know all the words by heart.”
The way this is framed by Gordis, one might think Golan -- an Israeli who sings "in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style" -- is appropriating culture that isn't his (think of consternation regarding Israeli Jews selling hummus, or wearing a keffiyeh). Yet as one might have suspected, Golan is himself a Middle Eastern Jew -- his family hails from Morocco and Yemen. So when he sings in a "Middle Eastern" or "Arabic-sounding" style -- that's his style. He has equal claim to as compared to any other person from Yemen or Morocco.

Anyway, as I said, these are tertiary points. The article is pretty light, all told, but worth a read nonetheless.