Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Didn't see this coming.

My first thought was, I'll be honest: too soon. But as Jonathan Adler, Robert Naiman, Steve Benen, and many others have noted, the Peace Prize is often as much about encouraging a "prospect" than it is about rewarding prior accomplishment. The goal of the Nobel is to create and foster momentum for changes they like to see (in the case of Obama, nuclear non-proliferation seems to be the heavy hitter), rather than waiting until the finish line has already been crossed. And the Nobel committee chair seems to have given the award in that spirit.

The second thought, though, was about the symbolic meaning of the award. I've cautioned against giving too much weight to symbolic victories, and I'll do so here as well. But, particularly in the foreign arena, I've talked about its importance as well, and I think it is noteworthy. The fact that President Obama seems to be an inspirational figure to many people worldwide is an asset of tremendous value to the United States worldwide. It is part of what is allowing America to slowly, painfully, reassert its moral authority to lead in the wake of the Bush administration. His election was a window into America's soul, and the world liked what it saw -- that we weren't going to keep electing Bushes year after year.

In a global community, it matters what your neighbors think of you. The Nobel Prize, if nothing else, is a symbol that our neighbors think well of us -- that they are proud to live in our neighborhood. That's a good thing, no matter how you slice it.

UPDATE: You'll note a pattern in the "world reactions" to Obama's victory. He gets congratulations from everybody except the President of the International Federation of Human Rights, Iran, Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban. Both the IFHR and Iran were actually somewhat neutral (the former wanted the prize to go to a Russian activist, the latter saying it is "not upset" -- but clearly not thrilled either). The last two, obviously, were apoplectic.

UPDATE #2: Meanwhile, in Israel and Palestine reaction is mostly positive. Prime Minister Netanyahu, President (and fellow Nobel laureate) Shimon Peres, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all had warm things to say, as did chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat. In addition to the aforementioned Islamic Jihad, Hamas was displeased with Obama winning the award, and a chilly reception also went out from Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud), who called the decision "very strange".

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Saban to Buy al-Jazeera?

Egyptian-born, Israeli-American media tycoon Haim Saban has reportedly put in a bid to buy half of the popular Arab television network, al-Jazeera. Iranian mouthpiece Press TV has also picked up the story, albeit unsurprisingly playing up the "sleazy Jew" and "Israeli propogandist" angle (Saban has moved considerably right-ward in recent years, but still is predominantly affiliated with Labor in Israel and the Democrats in the US).

In all seriousness -- while I doubt that al-Jazeera can maintain credibility with the Arab world while having an Israeli owner, there is a tiny, tiny sliver of me that hopes instead that this would help build a bridge of understanding, rather than a simple flight of fancy. Unfortunately, I don't know what changes, if any Saban would institute at the network (which could be anything from an uncritical line to the Israeli government -- which I doubt -- to a renewed focus on cross-cultural dialogue and understanding), and I do know that agencies like Press TV and their ideological allies will work to insure that any green shoots that do develop from this project are crushed under a torrent of "the Zionists control the media!" rhetoric.

Via Norm.


My new fall(!) WIP post is up, on Christopher Serkin's provocative proposal abolishing the general ban on disturbing pre-existing land uses through regulation.

Painted Donkeys

Gaza City's zoo lost its only two zebras to hunger during the Gaza war. The animals were extremely popular with area children, but were too expensive to replace. So the zookeepers got novel: they hired a painter to paint black and white stripes on two donkeys, making them approximate the real thing.

The article reports that many Gaza children, having never seen a real zebra, enjoy their local "variant". Nonetheless, this strikes me as a worthy fundraising endeavor. Whatever thoughts one has about Cast Lead generally, one thing we can agree on is that the zebras didn't do anything wrong -- nor did the children who attend the zoo. While not minimizing by any means the importance of either of staples, or of structural and systematic change (in this case, the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace side-by-side with Israel), I think that, in conflict arenas particularly, it is also especially important to preserve the little pleasures and quirks of life: insuring that children have access to zoos, parks, playgrounds, and the like. It is these small things that often can serve as surprisingly effective bulwarks against radicalism and despair.

Somebody more knowledgeable about the workings of these things should set up an account to get the Gaza zoo two zebras. I can't imagine it is that expensive, and it's the least we all can do.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Private Investigation

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sick of guns finding their way onto his streets, launched an undercover operation regarding the gun show loophole. The loophole exempts private sellers at gun shows to sell weapons without conducting the normal background check. However, the law also stipulates that they can't make the sale if they have reason to believe the buyer would fail the check.

Bloomberg's agents, skipping subtly entirely, simply told the sellers they'd fail the background check. And wouldn't you know it if most of the sellers didn't care a whit!

Steve Benen compares this to the ACORN videos and asks when we're going to see 24/7 Fox coverage and Congressional hearings. I'll tell you when: it's when a Democratic Congressman (Alan Grayson?) gets on TV and says "the next time your Grandma is afraid to walk home at night because of some thug patrolling the street with a pistol, remember that House Republicans think the real outrage would be if that criminal was unable to buy it."

Unfair? Sure. Symmetrical? Definitely.

Do We Want That?

Apropos yesterday's post, Hamas has indicated that reconciliation with the PA -- negotiations over which had been recently progressing at an impressive clip -- are now off the table unless Abbas apologizes for not supporting the Goldstone report. The problem is, I forget if that's a good thing or not.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

No Thanks

Mark Lynch has a sobering post up at the consequences of the Obama administration blocking the Goldstone Commission report before the UNHRC. The thought process behind it seems to be restoring some credibility with an increasingly skeptical Israeli population which, not unjustifiably, despises the committee with a fiery passion. Unfortunately, it appears to have backfired dramatically. The pressure Obama put on the PA to withdraw its support for the report has decimated their popular credibility with the Palestinians, dramatically enhancing Hamas and other dissident radicals in the process. At the same time, Obama appears to have gotten virtually no credit for the action by the Israeli people, who seem to feel entitled to the American shield in this regard.

And perhaps they are, in the sense that the US should act to shield all peoples (including Jews) from being unfairly targeted and singled out by biased international bodies. But when the US does that, it deserves to be recognized for it. Many Israelis seem to want to have their cake and eat it too -- continue to view Obama as some sort of anti-Israeli zealot while still viewing American protection of Israeli interests as par for the course. They can't have it both ways -- and when they try, it makes it virtually impossible to do the parallel work of building American credibility with the Palestinian people.

Homeless TV

A cool story about a Minneapolis program that gives homeless people job skills by having them produce a local-access television program. The show, in turn, raises visibility about the plight of the homeless and helps give them a voice. Synergy: it's a good thing.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Badass of the Week

Rukhsana Kauser, for "having the first Die Hard movie localized entirely within the confines of her living room" via fighting off six terrorists who came to her farm with just a hatchet (and the assault rifle she wrested away from one with her bare hands, natch).

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The All-Stars

The Israeli government is upset at a Norwegian public academic institution for sponsoring a lecture series on Israel that only invites its most strident critics to the stage (including several boycott advocates).
The seminar, whose first session took place last month, includes lectures by Ilan Pappe, who accuses Israel of perpetrating an "ethnic cleansing of Palestine" and by Stephen Walt, the coauthor of a controversial study on the effect of the Israel-lobby on U.S. policy. It has been described by prominent scholars as anti-Semitic.

Other speakers invited by NTNU Dean Torbjorn Digernes include Moshe Zuckermann, who in a January interview for Deutschlandradio - a widely-heard German program - said that operation Cast Lead cost hundreds of thousands of Gazan lives.

The members of the seminar's organizing committee - Morten Levin, Ann Rudinow Saetnan and Rune Skarstein - have all signed a call for an academic boycott of Israel. They also brought a few Norwegian speakers, famous for their critical view of Israel.

"There's no one on the panel with a neutral view of Israel, let alone anyone to advocate its position," a source from the Foreign Ministry said. "Usually we do not get involved with academic forums of this sort because it's a freedom-of-expression issue, but this all-star team of Israel-haters crosses a line," the diplomat added.

"The overwhelming majority [of Israeli academics] oppose Pappe and Zuckerman and are rarely if ever found in seminars in Norway," Ivri wrote.

Morten Levin from NTNU - a state-funded institution - replied to Haaretz's query on the allegations by saying the objective of the lectures is to "communicate to a broad audience a deeper research-based understanding" of the situation.

"This requires a critical and careful scrutiny based on standard scientific methods," he added. "Neither the Israeli state nor the Palestinian authority or Hamas will be defended. None of the lecturers will question the right of the Israeli state to exist."

Responding to speculations by pro-Israeli scholars that the seminars will be a prelude to a call on NTNU to boycott Israel, Levin said: "The organizing committee of the lecture series has no formal connection whatsoever to the organization working for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions."

The university's dean - who has called the seminar "praiseworthy" - did not reply to Haaretz's request to interview him.

Professor Walt, of course, has a blog, so I'd be fascinated to hear his thoughts on why he agreed to participate in this lecture series.

The other part of this, of course, is the academic freedom element. I tend towards a pretty strong stance in favor of academic freedom, extending not just to the ability to tackle controversial subjects, but perhaps even to tackle them in a completely biased and one-sided manner (though that is a closer call). If pressed, I would say that the organizers of this lecture series should not be obligated as a matter of law to give Israel a fair hearing, to tell both sides of the story, to give a forum to mainstream Jewish and Israeli voices (of which Prof. Pappe is certainly not). Of course, I'm immediately skeptical of the pure academic credentials of someone who alleges Cast Lead killed hundreds of thousands -- one hundred times higher than any credible estimate -- and academic misconduct, particularly in the pursuit of prejudice, should not be tolerated. But in general, I don't think the state should intervene just because even a public academic institution is sponsoring a biased presentation that is wrongful and hurtful to a vulnerable class of people, promulgating hate and prejudice, even (indirectly) threatening lives.

What we can do, and indeed are obligated to do, is call out the seminar for it is: prejudiced. We absolutely should not acquiesce to their framing that this is a dispassionate, "scientific" inquiry -- which implicitly indicates the old frame that the broad Jewish community lies outside universalist rationality, a parochial holdover from pre-scientific times that can and ought to be ignored in search of the bigger truth. Likewise, when someone partakes in a series such as this, they are signaling their disdain for the Jewish and Israeli community. They are indicating that they don't respect as humans or equals. They are, in a phrase I will defend, behaving in an anti-Semitic manner. And it is no violation of academic freedom to challenge them on that grounds.

People have the right to sponsor anti-Semitic events. We have the right to challenge them and call out their anti-Semitism, and that of the participants.