Saturday, September 24, 2011

Deep in the Amazon

Stellar local journalism by the Allentown Morning Call reveals rather brutal working conditions at the local warehouse. Things are rough in that section of Pennsylvania right now, which means is perfectly happy to plow through an ever-rotating mass of temporary workers lured with the promise of a full-time job, then put through a blistering pace until they can't keep up and are fired or quit (or simply are injured).

Friday, September 23, 2011

UCI Students Convicted for Disrupting Speech

Last year we talked about an incident at UC-Irvine where various students affiliated with the university's Muslim Student Union disrupted a speech being given at the school by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. UCI ended up suspending the MSU (the suspension was originally for a year, but this was reduced on appeal). But the students were also criminally charged under a California statute which prohibits "willfully disturb[ing] or break[ing] up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character", and have just been convicted.

Eugene Volokh analyzes the statute and its application against First Amendment doctrine and thinks it is constitutionally permissible as a legitimate time, place, and manner restriction.

Project Runway Power Rankings!

Oliv(i)er's departure last night left us with seven designers remaining. And while many are excited to see him go, let's be fair -- the last few challenges have not played to his strengths. I mean, that was two straight weeks with models who project into three-dimensional space!

Anyway, roughly halfway through the season, where do the designers stand in this viewer's humble opinion? Read on to find out!

(1) Viktor: After an iffy start, he's found his groove and become one of the strongest and most consistent designers on the show. A few of designs (particularly the gown which should have won the prints challenge) have been nothing short of stunning, although much of the time he's simply standing out amongst a weak field. Still, he seems to be in excellent shape to make Fashion Week.

(2) Anya: The fan favorite (as well as my own), I firmly believe that if this was Project Runway: Season 11 she'd be running away with it. Anya clearly has the most natural eye for design of any of the designers, and the strongest point of view that has lead to some truly beautiful garments. But while her sewing skills have mostly held up, we saw the first stumble this past challenge, and remains possible she could unravel (figuratively and literally).

(3) Josh M.: I know, I know -- I find him obnoxious too (though his too-obvious crush on Anya is adorable). And frankly, I don't think he's that good. But he does have some intriguing ideas, it's just an inability to edit that does him in. The cynic would say that if you throw enough details and features and flaps and pockets on a garment, of course some of them will be interesting (if only by accident). I say that I see some genuinely neat stuff on his outfits that signal a real point of view.

(4) Anthony Ryan: Another fan favorite, but annoyingly inconsistent, and a lot of times too safe. In client-challenges, Anthony Ryan seems to excel in giving the customer what he or she wants, which is a mixed-blessing, since clients often don't want something too cutting edge.

(5) Kimberly: Another extremely inconsistent designer. She's had several looks that demonstrate a real flair for design, but others that were just "wtf" moments. What's odd about Kimberly is that even though she typically does have good construction, I often don't feel like that's a strong suit, probably because sometimes the concept is so off-kilter that even making it "well" will still look bad.

(6) Bert: Bert started this season as the loveable curmudgeon, transitioned into a pure villain, and has since swung back to being (mostly) loveable. Good for Bert for showing genuine character growth! Unfortunately, Bert's design aesthetic doesn't lend itself to this show. He knows how to sew, and he knows how to work with clients (surprisingly enough, given his crotchety attitude), but he rarely makes looks that have any "pop", and that's going to catch up with him sooner rather than later.

(7) Laura Kathleen: Ugh. I don't see what the judges see in her. Laura Kathleen thinks she is so hot, and she's so not. Her designs are unified in being boring and off-the-rack; her avant-garde look was basically a dull prom dress. She doesn't have any major strengths as a designer that I can see, and she's exceptionally catty to boot. I hope she goes home and soon.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Will Palestine Be a State For All Palestinians?

This is a distressing interview published in Lebanon's Daily Star. Abdullah Abdullah, Palestine's ambassador to Lebanon, informs us that Palestinian refugees will not be given automatic citizenship in any newly created Palestinian state. This applies to Palestinians living in surrounding countries (including Lebanon), but also to Palestinians living in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza (that is, in the territory that comprises the to-be-created Palestinian state):
The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state, an issue that has been much discussed. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” he says. “But … they are not automatically citizens.”

This would not only apply to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan or the other 132 countries where Abdullah says Palestinians reside. Abdullah said that “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”

Abdullah said that the new Palestinian state would “absolutely not” be issuing Palestinian passports to refugees.
The right of return that Abdullah says is to be negotiated would not only apply to those Palestinians whose origins are within the 1967 borders of the state, he adds. “The state is the 1967 borders, but the refugees are not only from the 1967 borders. The refugees are from all over Palestine. When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game.”

Of course, PA policy on this matter is not set by their Ambassador to Lebanon. Still, this is extremely troublesome on several levels. In terms of the desire to resolve the conflict, it is notable that the Ambassador explicitly is disclaiming that as an objective or a result of attaining statehood. In this, he echoes right-wing Israeli sentiment that the Palestinian movement is not fundamentally about attaining self-determination, but about obliterating Israel as well. Meanwhile, from a human rights framework, the Ambassador's position maintains and ratifies the stateless status of millions of Palestinians, including many which would be under the jurisdiction of the new Palestine. That sort of callousness should give everyone pause.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Different Speeches for Different Audiences

Apparently, "the left" is disappointed with President Obama's UN speech, which focused primarily on chastising the international community for its obsessive focus on Israel and its deliberate apathy towards that state's security and legitimacy needs. They wanted to see a more aggressive push by the President towards restarting negotiations.

Whatever. First, the Obama administration has hardly been quiet about pushing for a return to the negotiating table. I'm not sure why it was particularly important that he lay out a 12-point plan before this particular body. Much like how the President's pressure on Palestinians apparently doesn't count because it wasn't sufficiently public, apparently it is valid practice to ignore the administration's tireless efforts to return the two parties to the negotiating table because it is merely being plastered over the front page of every newspaper in America, rather than at the UNGA.

But more importantly, forums matter, and this was a speech that the UNGA diplomats needed to hear. The fact of the matter is that one of the major obstacles to a just peace between Israel and Palestine is that a substantial portion of the international community rejects in principle basic things like "Israel shouldn't be destroyed" or "it's bad when suicide bombers blow up cafes in Tel Aviv". That norm has been for too long unchallenged, and it is a great thing that the President took it upon himself to break that streak. While Avigdor Lieberman's approval fills me with shame, it is notable that President Obama gave what Ha'aretz is calling "probably the warmest pro-Israel speech ever given at an annual UN General Assembly meeting by any U.S. president, bar none." This is a body that doesn't hear many such speeches, and it needs to.

Not every forum is like the UN, of course. Not every relevant location to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a place where Israeli concerns are systematically marginalized and the Jewish people are routinely denigrated. In other places, it is the Palestinians who are marginalized and ignored, and in those places people need to be informed of the legitimate aspirations and true suffering of the Palestinian people. And in other locations, the problem isn't really lack of awareness of either side's plight, but a simple need to get people back in a room together. And in those places, that's the message that should be sent.

But the UN is a specific audience, with a specific character flaw that needed to be picked out. It's not the only thing President Obama should do, but in this forum, before this audience, it was the right speech at the right time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Puzzle of Obama as Not Pro-Israel

NY Mag has a good and much-talked about article up on President Obama's struggles to be seen as "pro-Israel", even though by any objective metric he has been a stalwart supporter of the Jewish state. President Obama has leaned upon Israel, this is true, but he has also leaned upon the Palestinians as well. Moreover, Obama's pressure on Israel has in my view clearly been in support of policies in Israel's own interests anyway (the settlements are catastrophic for Israel from both a moral and strategic perspective). His outlook on the conflict mirrors of that of many prominent Israelis, most notably opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

But therein lies a large part of the problem. President Obama's positions are perfectly within the Israeli mainstream. But they happen to be reflected by the party out of power. The current Prime Minister and Obama do not see eye-to-eye. It is easy to cast personal and political tensions between the two as tension between America and Israel.

I actually think David Bernstein has a solid read on this. I don't think that Obama was actively trying to bring down Bibi's coalition (though I don't think he would have shed any tears if it had happened), but I agree that President Obama's avowed "anti-Likud" standpoint is going to be problematic when Likud is in power. President Obama is clearly correct that "pro-Israel" and "pro-Likud" are not the same thing, but the potential for political awkwardness is obvious.

Bernstein also notes the rise of Israel as a central part of conservative domestic political mobilization as something President Obama didn't anticipate. I think this is right as well, but I think Bernstein elides a critical part of this story. The effort by the GOP to turn Israel into a partisan wedge necessarily implies that there will be a concerted effort by GOP operatives to cast President Obama as anti-Israel regardless of whether the attack is fair or not. That's how politics works, of course -- it is not as if virulent Obama opponents are going to come out and say "hey, he's got a point." They are going to try and find an avenue for why whatever it is he's advocating represents bad policy by a bad president who should be defeated. The conservative critique, in other words, doesn't flow organically out of policy disputes, but is political theater promulgated by political opponents who hate Obama far more than they love Israel.

The most obvious example of this was Noah Pollak, who in 24 hours did a complete 180 on his beliefs about what policies were good for Israel after realizing the opportunity to launch an attack ad against the President. This helps illuminate part of President Obama's sin: he is guilty of caring about Israel enough to actually have opinions about it, and try and promote them. People like Pollak, on the other hand, appear to be complete mercenaries when it comes to Israel -- they don't have actual beliefs about what is best for Israel, they just have a political calculation about how to use Israel to hurt Obama. Others explicitly urge that to be "pro-Israel" is to lack any such beliefs -- a standpoint which is frankly bizarre. If I told you I cared deeply about America and its future, and you said "Oh really? What policies do you support?" and I replied "oh, it doesn't matter to me -- whatever the current government decides, I'll just support that", you'd be right to challenge just how deep my commitment runs. Caring about something means having opinions about it.

Obviously, one can be genuinely pro-Israel and disagree with President Obama. But a sober look at political realities requires us to admit that a not-insubstantial portion of the political attack on Obama comes from those who have no discernible (or at least stable) opinions about Israel at all -- who view Israel as a useful rhetorical tool to bash the President and will happily mouth whatever position makes those attacks feasible at any given time. These people, of course, are no real friends of Israel at all, and as Robert Wexler boldly put forth today, it is Israelis who will "pay in blood" for it.

Mearsheimer's New Friend

I'm pretty skittish about the term "self-hating Jew". Remember that post I wrote about how self-loving Jews is a better moniker? Most of the time, it seems fairer and more sensible, and keeps the focus of the debate where it belongs.

But there are exceptions. Gilad Atzmon, for example, describes himself as a "proud self-hating Jew". So far from me to disagree. Anyway, Atzmon is one of the most vicious and vitriolic anti-Semitic writers out there today -- even stalwart anti-Zionists of the "[I] want the state of Israel to be destroyed" mold think he's beyond the pale -- and even the briefest perusal of his writings demonstrates a proclivity for attacking Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness with the fervor of a neo-Nazi.

So it is disappointing to see that, if Atzmon's publisher is to be believed, John Mearsheimer has endorsed Atzmon's new book. You can follow the links to see some of what that endorsement entails, with Atzmon approvingly quoting proto-Nazi Otto Weininger (himself an early Atzmon prototype) on the subject of Jews and Jewishness.

It has to be said that, deserved condemnations aside, there is something deeply tragic about this. The Israel Lobby, in addition to whatever moral problems there might be with it, was also a bad book on a purely scholarly level. And Mearsheimer has only slipped from there -- his list of "good Jews" was an appalling exercise, and this latest step towards the depths of anti-Semitic depravity is even worse. But once upon a time, Mearsheimer was an important international relations scholar. His theories on neo-realism were (and are) exceptionally important. Ironically, The Israel Lobby itself is virtually incomprehensible under Mearsheimer's own theoretical model (neo-realism posits that domestic lobbies should be descriptively irrelevant in international relations).

I don't mean to say we should forgive Mearsheimer simply because he was once important and had valuable things to say. But we should recognize the tragedy of the fall. It has been swift, shocking, and very, very ugly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bibi: Dumb or Wrong?

Tom Friedman has a column up lambasting Bibi Netanyahu for putting Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state at risk. Matt Yglesias says there's "an awful lot to agree with" in Friedman's column, but argues that he gives Bibi too much credit in attributing his postures to ignorance. Rather, Yglesias' argues, Bibi has made it evident that he has a strong substantive commitment to the settler project, and all the damage Israel's taking to its international reputation are costs Bibi is absorbing with open eyes. It's not that Bibi is making a "misstep" -- he's just made a calculation that his allegiance to settlements is worth growing international isolation.

I'll parrot Yglesias' words back: there's "an awful lot to agree with" in that. I do agree that Bibi is substantively committed to a vision of greater Israel that is in my view immoral and unsustainable. While he has some recognition that a Palestinian state will have to come into existence eventually, he doesn't really have any plan for it, nor does he have any qualms about gobbling up as much of the West Bank as possible before that day occurs. This is important to note, because while Israel has had leaders willing to make bold strides for peace, Bibi is not one of them, and that fact has to be part of any short-term appraisal of how Israel and Palestine got to the position they're in right now.

Still, I don't think it gets the whole story either. First, I'll reiterate my view that Bibi's primary motivator is neither ignorance about Israel's situation, nor ideological commitment to Greater Israel, but simply short term personal/political self-interest. Yglesias cites his decision to stay with Likud when Ariel Sharon broke off to form Kadima as proof of his status as an ideologue who is willing to gamble, but I think it is more consistent with basic political self-preservation instincts. Even while Sharon was part of Likud, Netanyahu was constantly sniping at him from the right--that's a large part of why Sharon packed up and left. Netanyahu would have had no credibility in Kadima and would have been marginalized if he'd tried to join. Leading Likud's rump faction was clearly his best move, and it did indeed pay off.

Second, Yglesias' point that Bibi knows and is willing to accept growing international isolation as a price to pay for settlements doesn't account for a key aspect of Bibi's worldview: that international isolation is simply a fact of life of Israel no matter what it does, and has little to do with the settlement project at all. Settlements are the current preferred rhetoric for folks who find it impolitic to simply say they dislike Israel as a concept, but they aren't actually playing any causal role. True or not (I think it's more true than Yglesias thinks but less than Bibi does), for someone who believes that "international isolation" is going to be a relative non-factor in one's analysis, because it isn't something that can be helped.

Finally, the fact that Netanyahu has, at times, recognized the need for a Palestinian state and respects Israel's democratic character indicates, to me, that settlement expansion is at the very least not his only ideological commitment. He is not just a National Union MK in drag. But I think he's simply too mentally weak to see the tension, and thus is attempting to delude himself that Israel can maintain its current path without consequence. It is a painful choice for Bibi, and sometimes when people are faced with painful choices they just attempt to put off choosing, covering their eyes to the dilemma in front of them. That, too, is part of what Bibi is doing.