Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sunday Clearinghouse

Getting some tabs off my girlfriend's computer before I leave for Chicago tomorrow.

Reversing its previous stance, AirTran has apologized to a Muslim family kicked off a plane for discussing where the "safest" place was to sit. The family was cleared to fly by the FBI, but AirTran still refused to rebook them.

There are a bevy of international law analyses floating out there of Israel's Gaza operation: An overview written prior to the attack by Avi Bell and Justus Weiner, Eric Posner, Kevin Jon Heller, and Marko Milanovic. The most important things you can draw from them, collectively, are:
(1) The legality/morality of Hamas' attacks on Israel have little bearing on the legality of Israel's response, and vice versa;

(2) Most lay commentators don't know what "proportionality" means in the context of international law; and

(3) Determination of whether Israel is, in fact, violating international law in the current operation depends on a lot of facts that most of us simply do not possess. Speculation on either side of the question tends to simply mirror pre-existing political commitments and works to obscure more than it illuminates.

Norm Coleman is not thrilled with how the recount is progressing.

The Worst Americans of 2008.

Massachusetts police are balking at enforcing the state's newly relaxed laws on marijuana, which make it only a civil offense. The reason appears to be less a belief that pursuing marijuana users is a waste of police time, and more a protest against the new lenient law, which they view as fatally flawed.

No Space for Apostates

I read this article by Jeffrey Goldberg, about the most extreme, fanatical wing of the Israeli settler population. Though published in 2004, I have no doubt many of these people are still alive today and have not moderated their views in the slightest. As I read it, I found myself disturbed, quite a bit more so than I expected, and I tried to put my finger on why that was.

Obviously, a big part (and the part that was quite "expected") was the simple fact that these people are, in the name of Judaism, advocating policies that are sick, brutal, inhumane, and -- flatly -- evil. Let's be blunt: by the time you get to this end of the settler movement, these people are just as bad as Hamas. I don't make that statement glibly. Why is Hamas bad? Because they see it as their religious obligation to murder all the Jews, whom they see as sub-human scum. And the settlers? They say the same thing about the Arabs -- calling them "Amalekites". That's a statement fraught with implication: Biblically, Jews are commanded to exterminate the Amalekites, wiping them clean from the face of the earth. The near-universal rabbinical rule for centuries has been that there are no more Amalekites, and thus the commandment is moot. But several settler leaders have tried to argue that the Palestinian people are Amalekites, and are explicitly urging Israel to commit genocide (the only thing they're pulling back from is outright extermination, but genocide, definitionally, includes efforts to eliminate a group "in part").

Beyond that particular statement, there is plenty else to detest about the settler movement: the harassment of Arab children, the violence and property damage put out against Palestinian homes and farms (in direct violation of Jewish law), the anti-democratic desire to impose a Biblical theocracy, the honoring and praising of Jewish terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, the cavalier way they are willing to martyr their children in pursuit of their agenda -- it'd be easy to go on. The point being this: Read the words of these settlers, and there is nothing distinguishing them from a group like Hamas. They are equally theocratic, equally colonial, and equally genocidal. As Jews, we need to be willing to say that forthrightly, or else we have no moral credibility to criticize Hamas or anyone else.

Now obviously, that should be distressing for anyone to read. But to note the existence of these people isn't to say they're mainstream. Goldberg's article focuses on the most radical fringe, but he also points out that just how much of a minority they are. 75% of Jewish settlers, Goldberg claims, have primarily economic motivations: they liked the open space and the tax breaks they got from the Israeli government (arguably the #1 all-time bone-headed Israeli government decision). Though generally solid conservative voters, they are not fanatics and their attachment to the West Bank and Gaza (this was prior to the pullout from the latter) is not ideological. By contrast, 25% of the settlers (about 50,000 people) are where they are for religious reasons. And of these, only a medium amount are "fanatics" in the sense that they subscribe to the above views. Given that the Israeli settler population is itself only a small fraction of Israel's Jewish population, which in turn is only a portion of the overall global Jewish population, and you get some perspective back. These groups do have outsized influence in Israeli politics, true, but that's more a function of them being very well organized and mobilized, and the coalition nature of Israel's parliamentary system which benefits small, cohesive interest groups.

So, if these folks are really just a tiny minority, what accounts for that extra dose of distress I felt upon reading the article? It's not that I'm under the delusion that their views are shared by the majority of Jews (inside or out of Israel) -- I know they're not. Rather, it's because I'm not convinced that these radical men and women would be wholly without a place in the American Jewry. They wouldn't be agreed with, most wouldn't even sympathize with them -- but they wouldn't be kicked out. They could still make it in the front door. And that alone is intolerable.

These radical settlers -- for all their Bible thumping and theological fury -- are insults to the Jewish religion. They spit upon holiness and make a mockery of Jewish tenets. They are heretics. And the Jewish community needs to treat them as such.

Obviously, there is very little I can do to affect this. I'm not even sure how the Jewish practice of excommunication works, and I'm reasonably confident that it's not a lay endeavor anyway. Plus, I'm a Conservative Jew -- a "Hellenizer" as they would say -- I don't carry any theological credibility. Indeed, I doubt that Jews -- excuse me, pseudo-Jews -- of this caliber would even pay much attention to the modern Orthodox movement in America.

Even still, the symbolism would matter. At this point, it's not about convincing these fanatics that they are "wrong". As I've been told so many times and in so many words, it's impossible to negotiate with terrorists such as these. The goal isn't even to make them question whether or not they are acting "Jewishly". They are sure they are, I am equally sure they're not, and neither of us are likely to budge.

The objective is to make a clean break. These people are not part of my community. They can't be, if we're to make any claims of being a community worth associating with. Part of belonging to any community group is defining who you're not. There's a reason Jews are so vigorous in asserting that "Jews for Jesus" are not Jewish. As far as we're concerned, definitionally you can't be Jewish and believe that Christ is the Messiah. It doesn't matter that only a few people believe that, and they won't be convinced by our protestation. The symbolism matters.

I think that, likewise, we need to assert that definitionally, you can't be Jewish and believe that it is justified to slaughter the Palestinians wholesale, or keep them in a perpetual state of colonial subjugation where they can't vote or even move freely. It doesn't matter that only a few people believe that. The symbolism matters.
I suggested that he try to imagine himself in the place of a Palestinian. “You’re a Palestinian, you’re here, you have your farm, your grandparents are from here, and-“

But Moshe interrupted me. “Stop being Jewish!” he yelled. “Stop being Jewish! Only a Jew would say, ‘Imagine yourself as a Palestinian.’ Could you imagine a Palestinian imagining himself as a Jew?”

With due pardon, I have no intention to stop being Jewish. He, on the other hand, is free to leave any time he desires.


Some selected excerpts from the article:

Two Arab girls, their heads covered by scarves, books clutched to their chests, left the Cordoba School, and were walking toward the yeshiva boys.

“Cunts!” one of the boys yelled, in Arabic.

“Do you let your brothers fuck you?” another one yelled. I stopped one of the students and asked why he was cursing the girls. He was red-faced, and his black hair was covered with a blue knit skullcap.

“What are you, a goy?” he asked.


I asked her how she could let her son play amid the barbed wire and soldiers and barricades, and with snipers in the hills above.

“Hebron is ours,” she said. “Why shouldn’t he play?”

“Because he could get killed,” I said.

“There’s a bullet out there for each one of us,” she said. “But you can always die. At least his death here would sanctify God’s name.”


Cohen brought up the story, from the Second Book of the Maccabees, of a God-loving mother of seven boys, partisans in the Jewish revolt against Hellenistic rule twenty-two hundred years ago. The boys were called before King Antiochus, who ordered them to eat swine, as a loyalty test. The sons refused.

“Do you know what the Greeks did to these boys?” Cohen asked. “They ripped out their tongues and boiled them alive.”

Just before the last son was martyred, the mother gave him a message to deliver in Heaven: “Go and say to your father Abraham, ‘Thou didst bind one son to the altar, but I have bound seven altars.’ “

After the seventh son was killed, the mother threw herself off a roof. The Talmud says that, on her death, a voice was heard from Heaven, singing, “A happy mother of children.”


In 1988, Levinger killed a Palestinian shoe-store owner in Hebron. Levinger told the police that he was defending himself from a group of stone throwers. He served thirteen weeks in an Israeli jail for the killing. He told me once, “I’m not happy when any living creature dies-an Arab, a fly, a donkey.”

In the Israel he envisaged, Levinger said, Arabs would be allowed to stay only so long as they “behave themselves. Foreign residents”-Levinger’s designation for Arabs-“will be allowed to stay in Israel if they follow our laws and don’t demand privileges.” He added that they might vote “for mayors and such” but not for Prime Minister. He did not believe that the Arabs would acquiesce to such an arrangement, and that is why he advocated “transfer”-a euphemism for mass expulsion. “Whoever hurts Jews will be expelled,” he said.


Moshe Feiglin, a Likud activist who lives in a West Bank settlement and heads the Jewish Leadership bloc within the Party-he controls nearly a hundred and fifty of the Likud central committee’s three thousand members-believes that the Bible, interpreted literally, should form the basis of Israel’s legal system. “Why should non-Jews have a say in the policy of a Jewish state?” Feiglin said to me. “For two thousand years, Jews dreamed of a Jewish state, not a democratic state. Democracy should serve the values of the state, not destroy them.” In any case, Feiglin said, “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.”


I asked who was destroying the olive trees. The destruction of fruit-giving trees, even those belonging to an enemy, is considered a grave sin in Judaism. But the only subject that concerned Liebman was Joseph’s Tomb.

“What is an olive tree compared to the burial place of Joseph, the son of Jacob?” he said.

To the farmer who supports his family with the tree, I said, the tree is important.

“But the farmer is an Arab,” Liebman replied. “He shouldn’t be here at all. All this land is Jewish land. It is meant for the Jews by God Himself.”


In “War and Peace,” a book about the senior Rabbi Kook’s beliefs, Rabbi Samson wrote:
When the day comes for Israel to radiate its full power, there will be no room for usurpers who try to push the Jewish people aside… . All of the masqueraders who claimed to possess a monopoly on truth, whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, communism, capitalism, and all of the rest, will be exposed as empty flasks. When Judaism reaches its historical maturity with the return of the Kingdom of Israel, its holy culture will dominate the entire world psyche.


We sat for a while on the rocks. Orange-winged starlings flew above us. “God won’t allow a Palestinian state to come into creation. And, if it does, He’ll destroy it. God has placed the Arabs in the way of the Jews to test our resolve.”

Israel’s problem today, Rabbi Samson said, is that its Army refuses to fight in the manner of the ancient Jewish generals. “The Torah doesn’t see a difference between civilians and the military. Until the Jewish people realize that we are fighting a nation that has vowed to destroy us, our mission won’t be completed. If we were willing to kill their civilians, this war would be over in a week.

“I don’t think mercy is playing its correct role here,” he went on. “If the military operated without consideration for civilian deaths, think about how many lives would have been saved! In any case, their children are born with Molotov cocktails in their hands. These are a people as unfeeling as jackals.”


Some settler leaders see in the Palestinians the modern-day incarnation of the Amalekites, a mysterious Canaanite tribe that the Bible calls Israel’s eternal enemy. In the Book of Exodus, the Amalekites attacked the Children of Israel on their journey to the land of Israel. For this sin, God damned the Amalekites, commanding the Jews to wage a holy war to exterminate them. This is perhaps the most widely ignored command in the Bible. The rabbis who shaped Judaism could barely bring themselves to endorse the death penalty for murder, much less endorse genocide, and they ruled that the Amalekites no longer existed. But Moshe Feiglin, the Likud activist, told me, “The Arabs engage in typical Amalek behavior. I can’t prove this genetically, but this is the behavior of Amalek.” When I asked Benzi Lieberman, the chairman of the council of settlements-the umbrella group of all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza-if he thought the Amalekites existed today, he said, “The Palestinians are Amalek!” Lieberman went on, “We will destroy them. We won’t kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism.”

I heard similar talk from Effie Eitam, a hard-edged former general who leads the National Religious Party, a coalition partner in Sharon’s government. Eitam, who is Sharon’s housing minister, said, “I don’t call these people animals. These are creatures who came out of the depths of darkness. It is not by chance that the State of Israel got the mission to pave the way for the rest of the world, to militarily get rid of these dark forces.” Eitam told me that he believes there are innocent men among the Palestinians, but that they are collectively guilty. “We will have to kill them all,” he said. “I know it’s not very diplomatic. I don’t mean all the Palestinians, but the ones with evil in their heads. Not only blood on their hands but evil in their heads. They are contaminating the hearts and minds of the next generation of Palestinians.”


“The situation of Hanukkah is with us,” Haetzni said. Hanukkah, it should be remembered, commemorates not only the Jewish defeat of Israel’s Greek overlords but the defeat of Hellenized Jews by the Maccabees. “Now the clash is very, very near,” Haetzni said. “The battle is about Jewish identity. The battle is about Judaism.”

Friday, January 02, 2009

We're Coming For Ya'

The Washington Post has an article up detailing the "concern" conservative activists have over Barack Obama's advisers. You see, they're liberal. And that's scary. To conservatives, anyway.
"It is disturbing," said Roger Clegg, a conservative opponent of Lee's appointment who is now watching the Obama advisers at the Justice Department. "The transition team as described to me was made up of nothing but people on the far left. Though Obama is more moderate, that makes you wonder what kind of advice the president is given, and what range of choices he'll be given when it comes time to make appointments."

Steve Benen complains, saying that the real story is "Barack Obama is actually going to have liberal advisers", not the mundane point that Roger Clegg finds them "disturbing". I dunno -- from a liberal perspective, it'd be tougher to get a better endorsement of Obama's picks than "they make Roger Clegg unhappy".

Who Knew?

One of the more appalling anti-gay memes put out by "pro-family" (gag) groups is the idea that homosexuality causes mental health problems. Of course, many of these groups refuse to accept that being gay isn't itself a mental illness. And they try and buttress this point by noting that gay teenagers have a significantly higher risk of, among other things, drug addiction and suicide.

Now, those of us with pulses could guess that an alternative hypothesis might explain this correlation: teenagers whom society says it is okay to hate are probably more likely to be depressed or suicidal. You treat people like second-class citizens, subject them to daily harassment, make their very name a synonym for something stupid or worthy of scorn, and, yeah, that's going to play tricks with a kid's head.

And lo and behold if a new study in the journal Pediatrics found that suicidal tendencies in gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers and young adults are strongly correlated to high levels of rejection by family members. Tolerance, it shockingly appears, is the best antidote to the mental health problems associated with being young and gay:
"A little bit of change in rejecting behavior, being a little bit more accepting," says lead researcher Caitlin Ryan, "can make a significant difference in the child's health and mental health."

Of course, the obvious corollary appears as well. The message groups like the FRC put out daily is a message that kills young men and women. I merely emphasize that to explain the searing antipathy I feel towards groups like this. They wield "morality" as a weapon, and they don't seem to care how many bodies they leave behind. It's sickening.


Claiborne Pell (1918-2009)

Former Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell (D), author of the famous college loan program that bears his name, died last night at age 90. A scion of one of New England's most prominent political families, Pell was nevertheless one of America's great advocates for persons of all backgrounds, classes, races, and orientations. He was a model for the best kind of Senator, and he will be missed.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Updates Ahoy

Hey all. Blogging probably will continue to be sporadic until at least Monday, when I'm settled back in at Chicago. But good news! I may have some exciting blogging information to share with y'all soon. So stay tuned, and have a happy new year!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions: Take 2009

First, let's see how I did last year:

Met: 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 11

Failed: 2 (but I have one that's nearly ready to go), 7, 8, 10

Pick 'em: 6

And now for next year's resolutions!

1) Put last year's "6" definitively in the "met" category (Met)

2) Make law review (Met)

3) Succeed academically in law school (Met)

4) Apply to graduate school (Missed -- but that was the right call)

5) Be more attentive to Jill (Met)

6) See Jill more often (Met)

7) Make peace with Hyde Park (Pick 'em)

8) Get the hell out of Hyde Park (Missed)

9) Learn to cook something new (Missed)

10) Write a publication-worthy paper (Met)

11) Have at least one major success with the blog (Pick 'em)

12) Find gainful summer employment (Met)

13) Don't ever again accidently start loudly singing in the middle of the law library because you have your headphones on (to add to the humiliation, it was Jay-Z and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love") (Met)

14) Score more converts to Firefly (Met)

15) Get at least one comment mentioned in the Comics Curmudgeon's "Comment of the Week" post (as either winner or runner-up) (Met).

Be safe, have fun, and hope everybody has a happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blago's Choice

Rod Blagojevich has announced his appointment for Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat: former Illinois AG Roland Burris. Kagro X has a good run-down of the various issues in play here, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's insinuation that he might not be seated. Burris, as far as I can tell, is a clean politician (both generally and specifically with regards to this controversy), but of course, he's tainted by the mere fact that he's associated with Blagojevich. The appointment also puts Democrats in a tight spot, as they may be faced with trying to deny seating to the man who would be the sole Black Senator in the entire body (for some reason, I imagine Republicans will find this significantly less awkward).

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Foolish and the Evil

Though my own posts haven't been bad, I think the folks over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money have probably the best package of coverage regarding Israel's latest operation in Gaza. One of the things I think they've done effectively is avoid some of the easy traps that obscure efforts to actually evaluate what Israel's doing.

Trap #1, emanating from the left, is the "disproportionality" argument. In international law, disproportionality is a term of art: It does not instill an obligation to match your foe only rocket for rocket. Proportionality is not measured against the precipitating action of the enemy which sparked the conflict, it's measured against the military objective the state is attempting to achieve.

In the current situation, Israel responded to steady rocket fire from Gaza with a punishing air assault aimed at destroying the political and military leadership and manpower of Hamas. This is a legitimate military objective, albeit one clearly more far-reaching than Hamas' rocket fire. Nonetheless, so long as long as the military strikes are proportionate to the goal of the operation, proportionality is not breached. Most sources I've read indicate that Israel has done a stellar job in this instance minimizing civilian casualties -- most of the Gazans killed have been Hamas soldiers, policemen, or leaders. The attack was wide-ranging, but so was the mission. This is not a failure of proportionality, as the term is understood in international law. Of course, the technical legal definition of "proportionality" has nothing whatsoever to do with whether, all things considered, Israel's behavior is wise here. But the proportionality argument is mostly being deployed not as a strategic argument but a moral one -- attempting to allege Israel is a lawbreaker here. And that just isn't right.

Trap #2, flowing out of the right, is the "what does everyone else do?" argument. Most nations facing a persistent mid- to high-grade insurgency react with far more bloodlust than Israel is showing right now (Russia in Chechnya is the typical example). The story often is cast more personally -- how would the US respond to Mexican rockets falling on El Paso?

This obscures for the same reason the first trap does: it argues along the axis of why Israel shouldn't be seen as an evildoer, by comparing to other nation's facing the same dilemma. But this misses the point. The proper frame for looking at Israel's response isn't whether, in some cosmic sense, it is "justified" in attacking Gaza this way. The proper frame is asking "is this attack going to accomplish anything?" LGM's own military expert, Robert Farley, gives four reasons to be skeptical that anything good will come out of Israel's operation, while nonetheless noting that the operation itself has been quite discriminating and has done a good job minimizing civilian casualties. His arguments -- particularly the problems with "sending a message" -- make sense to me. We might still understand why the government is behaving "as expected", and we might affirm that, in terms of moral judgment, we shouldn't hold Israel morally liable for a super-obligation where other countries are given relatively free passes. But none of that requires us to answer in the affirmative the remaining (and to my mind, far more important question): Is Israel's response a smart one?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the contemporary discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine seems stuck on debating "right and wrong", instead "smart or stupid". Anti-Israel speakers are unsatisfied with the idea that the state is merely behaving unwisely -- they are insistent that it is a qualitatively evil regime that must be treated as such, even when such demands make it concretely less likely for the Palestinian people to receive their just due. Pro-Israel writers, responding to such rhetoric, devote their time to defending the moral appropriateness of any Israeli action, to the exclusion of any long-term considerations about whether it ends up helping or harming Israeli interests (not to mention the interests of a lasting peace and liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation). This is why I'm such a fan of J Street: They call for Israel to ceasefire, not because Kadima is now the Middle East's version of the Nazi Party -- but because, based on their considered judgment, they don't think that the operation actually gives Israel anything of substantial, long-term value, and instead simply entrenches the never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat that hasn't gotten anywhere for decades.

As I mentioned previously, the question of whether Israel is behaving unwisely wisely in this particular case is one that I am not qualified to answer (though Farley is, and he answers "no"). But the point is that restricting the field to merely "who is in the right", rather than stepping up to the plate and saying "what actions should Israel, Palestine, and every other relevant party take to the current situation that best advances its security interests, the prospects of permanent peace, and justice for the Israeli and Palestinian actors", is a discourse that doesn't actually help anyone. So what I'd like to see -- from America and from everyone else -- is a commitment to cool it with the moral hyperbolics which don't accomplish anything, and focus on what matters: the reasonable, concrete policy moves both sides can do to advance the cause of peace and justice.

Cross-posted to The Moderate Voice

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Remember This Trip

I'm leaving for Minnesota tomorrow. No more Carleton for me (though I plan to visit), but something even better: New Year's with the girlfriend!

Excitement city.

Top 10 African-American Political Thinkers

Because I like lists. Obviously, this is wholly subjective, and is my own special blend of "influential" and "correct". It also was created in the space of about five minutes:

Honorable mentions: Alain Locke, George Schuyler, Derrick Bell, James Cone, Kimberle Crenshaw

10) James Cone Huey P. Newton
9) Huey P. Newton Thomas Sowell
8) Thomas Sowell bell hooks
7) Marcus Garvey
6) Stokely Carmichael
5) Booker T. Washington
4) Malcolm X
3) Frederick Douglass
2) Martin Luther King, Jr.
1) W.E.B. Du Bois

A very diverse list, I think. You have liberals (King and Du Bois and hooks), conservatives (Washington and Sowell), nationalists (Garvey and Malcolm), Black Power enthusiasts (Cone and Carmichael), a communist (Newton), and the uncategorizable Frederick Douglass. Nice set.

UPDATE: This is why I need commenters -- to point out ridiculous oversights like bell hooks.