Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The 'Jewish Home' Attacks Israeli Academics

Jewish Home Leader, and Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is not coincidentally head of a party called “Jewish Home,” is pushing a “code of ethics” for Israeli academics to prohibit political opinions being voiced in class, including “specific positions in a known public dispute.” The code would also forbid universities from partnering with political organizations that advocate any form of boycott (including, according to government precedent, the boycott of settlements and of Ariel University, situated in the West Bank), and authorizing universities "to establish a unit that would monitor political activity" on campus.

The ostensible targets of this code would be professors who foist specific party affiliations on students, though I have never met a professor who’s done this. But the real target of Israel’s government is the justifiable, inevitable affinity of academic communities for liberal principles in general.

In part, academics’ affinity for liberal ideas derives from their being intellectual nonconformists: we emphasize personal freedom, we’re skeptical of appeals to the pack, we believe that minds grow, and we support secular principles over the coercive faith traditions.

But the greater reason for this affinity is that the modern university is inherently a liberal institution. To keep a democratic republic going, you're always going to have to move against the current. The university is the place you learn to swim, not so much in what you learn, but how you learn. Personal freedom, skepticism, erudition, rules of evidence, equality, secularism—you might as well be describing the very foundations of the classroom experience. It is meant to incubate doubt and mentoring and merit.

It is a radically liberal society in microcosm.

Continue reading at Haaretz:

Monday, June 5, 2017

How The Six-Day War Changed Israel's Mind

Fifty years ago today, on June 5, 1967, we awoke to the news that the war we had dreaded was begun—and decided. I was eighteen, had just finished my freshman year at McGill, and was living with my father, who had been a Zionist leader in Montreal during the nineteen-fifties and had recently married an Israeli woman. During the previous month, grim reports had come to us in rushed calls from Tel Aviv: Israel’s mobilized reserves were baking in the Negev Desert; seaside hotels were being converted to makeshift hospitals. In April, there had been conflict with Syria over the headwaters of the Jordan River; in May, President Nasser, of Egypt, brandishing new Soviet arms and claiming to support Syria, expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. By early June, Jordan’s King Hussein had thrown in with Egypt. We knew that the Israeli military would strike. I heard that students were contacting the Israeli consulate and volunteering—not to fight but to help with the summer harvest. On June 3rd, I surprised myself by doing the same. On the morning of the 5th, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The rest, as my father put it, with uncharacteristic swagger, would be “a mopping-up operation.” Unopposed in the skies, Israel conquered Jerusalem on the 7th and rolled into the West Bank. By the 11th, it had taken the Golan Heights, from where Syrians had fired on the Hula Valley. I got to Tel Aviv on June 14th, to work, but mainly to celebrate.

Nothing prepared me for a country so close to general euphoria. I lived with my new stepsister, who had married my cousin (seven years later, both would die in a terror attack), and, as soon as he was demobilized, we rushed to Hebron to buy blown glass, as if the West Bank were an exotic vacation spot that had suddenly opened to us. Drivers on the highway cheered the sight of a captured Soviet truck. Jingoistic songs played on the radio, and dark jokes circulated (“How many gears on an Egyptian tank? Five: one forward, four reverse”). The jauntiness was shadowed by grief: nearly eight hundred Israeli soldiers and more than eighteen thousand Arab soldiers had died in what would be called the Six-Day War. Two years ago, the writer Amos Oz released previously censored portions of tapes that featured interviews conducted with Israeli soldiers; tormented, some confessed that the “mopping up” had included killing Egyptian prisoners of war.

On June 28th, I drove to Jerusalem in a straining Citro├źn Deux Chevaux with a paratrooper friend. Improvised memorials to fallen soldiers—piles of rock, a rifle, a helmet—sat undisturbed. We arrived at the Mandelbaum Gate, dividing Jewish West Jerusalem from the Arab East, expecting to be stopped and interrogated. But we found no barrier and no guard. My friend turned on the radio, which broadcast only the anthem “Jerusalem of Gold” and a looped announcement that the city, just a half hour earlier, had been declared “united.” Few of us considered the significance of the moment. Jordan had excluded Jews from the Old City and the Western Wall; we thought that might had made, of all things, right. Now Israel was annexing East Jerusalem and several neighboring Arab towns, creating a capital of more than forty square miles, incorporating two of Islam’s most revered mosques, the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and sixty thousand Arabs—a third of the city—who would not be Israeli citizens. When, five days ago, the Trump Administration announced that it would not, after all, move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to this capital, it was refusing—like all other governments and previous U.S. Administrations—to accept as accomplished fact what neighboring Arab countries and major world religions considered a provocation. On that day in 1967, the occupation had begun.

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mahmoud Abbas, The Trump Administration, And The Politics Of Peace

Donald Trump met Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem today, a twofer for a President intent, as the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, put it last week, on visiting “homelands and holy sites” and expressing “his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” Reading prepared remarks, in a Presidential palace outfitted with the trappings of sovereignty, Trump told reporters that he’d work with Abbas on “unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy.” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister and a settlement advocate, probably spoke for most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last November, when he declared that, with Trump’s election, “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” Today, in Bethlehem, it was prolonged.

Much has been written about the Trump Administration’s growing desire to conceive that state from the region in, rather than from the conflict out. Yesterday, in Riyadh, Trump reportedly agreed with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to hold a peace summit, with Netanyahu, Abbas, and Jordanian and possibly even Saudi representatives in attendance. There is also much discussion about the vulnerability of Netanyahu’s government, due to the ongoing criminal investigations (he is accused of, among other things, enabling close associates to profit from Israel’s procurement of naval vessels) but also to the threat posed by coalition partners like Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which would rather topple the government than accept concessions—particularly a prospective Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem—under U.S. pressure. But Palestinians have a politics, too, which usually gets only cursory attention. Abbas has an ongoing rivalry with Hamas, but other challenges besides; if the Trump Administration procrastinates, or expects significant new concessions from him, Abbas’s staying power is similarly uncertain.

Abbas is eighty-two, with a smoking habit, and he has no designated successor. He is the head of the Fatah movement and was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. (As a Palestinian friend told me, Abbas is in his twelfth year of a four-year term.) He won with more than sixty per cent of the vote. Yet polls now show that more than sixty per cent of Palestinians want him gone. His achievements—two rounds of peace negotiations with Israel, first with Ehud Olmert, in 2008, then with Netanyahu, in 2014; securing non-member observer-state status for Palestine at the United Nations, and Palestinian standing with the International Criminal Court—are shadowed by suspicions that P.A. leaders engage, if only by necessity, in a form of collaboration that occasions financial corruption and undermines Palestinian honor.

“Despite some shrewd diplomatic moves, the reality on the ground is bitter, muddled,” Sam Bahour, a prominent business consultant in Ramallah, told me. Ordinary Palestinians resent what they see as a “defunct political system, no parliamentary elections since January, 2006, and police brutality, especially against Hamas supporters.” Some P.A. officials have managed the flow of aid to monopolistic enterprises that provide perks and inflated salaries to friends and family—reportedly including Abbas’s son. According to the Times of London, European Union auditors can’t account for nearly two billion pounds in aid distributed between 2008 and 2012. But the World Bank reports that about thirty per cent of Palestinians are categorized as unemployed, and youth unemployment in Gaza is nearly sixty per cent. Abbas has also appeared powerless to prevent new Israeli settlements, military aggression, and the siege on Gaza.

None of this means that Hamas is viewed as the necessary alternative. According to Khalil Shikaki, the director of Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, leads Abbas in Presidential polls forty-nine per cent to forty-four. This seems more a barometer of frustration, though, than an endorsement of Hamas ideology. The Islamist group rarely polls above thirty per cent in parliamentary elections, while Fatah polls above forty. Hamas violently expelled the Fatah leadership of the P.A. from Gaza, in 2007; it has since refused to renounce terrorist acts against Israel, or to recognize Israel’s legitimacy—even in the group’s recently revised charter, which accepts a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Among the public, Hamas’s tough talk and missile attacks excite general pride but also a fear of fatal recklessness, particularly given the horrors in Syria. “For older Palestinians, Damascus feels next door,” the veteran West Bank journalist Danny Rubinstein told me. “They focus on normal life. They’ll overlook a lot—corruption, even collaboration—to keep things from descending into chaos. But what do young people overlook?”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trump's Administration Wants A Regional Deal--And Can Outlast Trump

JERUSALEM — President Trump leaves for the Middle East on Friday. The trip’s objectives, his national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has told reporters, is to “broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends” and to pay his respects to the “homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.”

Mr. Trump will begin in Saudi Arabia, with which his administration is nearing consummation of a $100 billion arms deal; he’ll meet with leaders of the Arab League — America’s “partners,” as General McMaster says — whom he’ll encourage “to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to Al Qaeda to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos.” In Jerusalem, Mr. Trump will “reaffirm America’s unshakable bond to the Jewish state” and in Bethlehem, “express his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” American leadership is necessary to “move the region toward the peace, security and stability that the people there so deserve,” General McMaster said.

Let’s strain to ignore the latest reasons to question Mr. Trump’s fitness for office or, indeed, his survivability in it: the firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director, the intelligence leak to Russia. General McMaster has laid out the policy lines of a Republican administration that is just beginning its four-year term. To be sure, the approach has been enigmatic so far. But that may be an advantage, since progress toward those goals does not depend on the president alone.

Read on at The New York Times

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Book About THE BOOK

It has been five years since I published Promiscuous, my labor-of-love about Portnoy's Complaint.  Books about books are normally about as compelling as your cousin's snapshots of Prague. I tried to make this book seriously fun, while answering a deceptively simply question:

Who is really the object of the satire?

Parents? Adolescent sexual cravings? Jews? Bourgeois self-possession? Psychoanalysis? Orthodoxy-in-general? The reader?

My thanks to the "Tel Aviv Review" podcast for giving me the chance to revisit all of these questions, and especially to Dahlia and Gilad for raising good ones of their own.

The publisher's page, is full of information, reviews and blurbs. The most interesting reviews are from Tablet, The Forward, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Oh, and you can order Promiscuous here.    

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Silvers

At the end of 1973, just after the October War, I was a graduate student in Jerusalem and wrote a long, vexed political essay on the war; I had no idea who might publish it, but I wanted very much for I. F. Stone to read it. On an impulse, I sent it to Robert Silvers and asked that he pass it along. A couple of weeks later I got a telegram the size of a letter, asking me, with astonishing courtesy, whether I had “placed the piece,” and if not, whether I would “consider” the New York Review. (I did.)

By the time I met Bob, in the fall of 1974, I had done three more pieces for the “paper,” as he called it. I’d begun to learn—from a dozen long-distance conversations, cigar-perfumed galleys, and packets of clippings that would show up in my mailbox almost daily—that I had a lot to learn, not only about my subject but about choosing my words, which seemed increasingly indistinguishable from my comportment in the world. I had, by then, the disquiet of an orphan and a father; what seemed to him the routine indulgences of writers seemed to me extraordinary mentoring. When we finally met for dinner, at Patsy’s, in New York, the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser was in tow, auditioning me for a spot in the club of Jewish seriousness. I must have passed, because the next morning Bob asked me whom else I would like to meet. I answered, hardly thinking, Philip Roth and Noam Chomsky. The next morning, Roth was scrambling eggs for me; three days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky was explaining discriminatory Israeli land law.

This was how things proceeded for the next ten years; during my twenties and early thirties—during which I was drifting between North America and Jerusalem, academia and journalism—I produced twenty more articles. I had finally finished a doctorate, but writing for Bob had become the closest thing I had to a profession. The subjects of our conversations widened: to Jordan, terror, Arthur Koestler, the people of the book transformed into the people of the book review. I moved from Israel to New York in 1979, and Bob provided a letter to help with my mortgage; the next year, he helped me get a job at the M.I.T. Writing Program. Things continued pretty much this way until 1985. They ended, rather abruptly, when I published my first book, The Tragedy of Zionism, the rationale for which he could not really understand, and which I was too young and tangled to fully explain. Why revisit the history of Zionism, or explain Israel’s democratic deficiencies, to cover the triumphs of the settlers and Likud? We never spoke about, or even acknowledged, the rupture; that would have been uncivil, mawkish. But the assignments and calls ended. I took a real job, as an editor myself. Love stories don’t end well when one kisses and the other gives the cheek.

Yet love it was. There is a patch of road in Connecticut, between Boston and New York, where the highway sign says “Roberts Street / Silver Lane,” and, for many years, the flash of the words as I’d drive took me to a moment of longing. There were few days when I did not catch myself remembering where I learned how to say this or cut that; I still imagine his handwriting in my margins. After HBO made a documentary about Bob a couple of years ago, I finally wrote him, tipping my heart: “What sticks above all is the voice, your voice, which I heard in the best part of myself over the twelve years I wrote for you, learning something about grace and precision in almost every encounter. I am now not young: a grandfather. Still, it was thrilling to hear that voice again last night, as I watched the film. I just want you to know that I am thinking of you with gratitude—and always will.” The answer was predictably gracious, generous, deflecting sentiment, ending, as always, with “My best.” It was.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Netanyahu: The Art Of The Finesse

Wednesday was supposed to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s day—the first time, during his nearly eleven years as Prime Minister of Israel, that a Republican President greeted him at the White House. Not only had he outlasted Barack Obama but he’d seen the election of a candidate who, during his campaign, seemed to have bought Netanyahu’s pitch. As President-elect, Donald Trump tweeted against the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of settlements in Palestinian territory, promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and nominated a hard-line settlement supporter to be his Ambassador to Israel.

Things did not work out as planned. On Monday night, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national-security adviser, who was expected to amplify Netanyahu’s claims of an Iranian threat, resigned. Washington was in tumult over reports of Flynn and other Trump advisers’ communications with Russian intelligence officials. Netanyahu himself arrived compromised by personal scandal and political strain. He is the target of three criminal investigations, and an indictment in any of them could force his resignation, much as corruption allegations forced the resignation of his predecessor and rival Ehud Olmert, in 2008. The most serious of these accusations has undermined his support in Israel’s security establishment, which he purports to represent. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been cornered by zealots in his coalition, who had assumed, with his encouragement, that Trump’s election would allow them to freely pursue the settlement project, unhindered by talk of a Palestinian state.

Much has been made of Trump’s remarks Wednesday about the prospects for a two-state solution. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said at his joint press conference with Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.” Many saw this as a victory for the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition, but Trump’s remarks were contradictory at times, and complicated for Netanyahu. “Trump said ‘compromise,’ criticized new settlements, said we have ‘to agree,’ “ Mohammad Mustafa, the head of the Palestine Investment Fund, and a confidant of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, told me. “These sound like positions Israel needs to hold for the two-state solution to succeed.” He added, “But it is obvious that, if we are to have a sovereign Palestinian state, we need to move away from this state of ambiguity as soon as possible.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Witness For The Prosecution: UNSC 2334

A kind of debate with legal scholars who, in effect, are acting as the current Israeli government's defense attorneys.  It was sponsored by the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, which gave us, among others, Chief Justice John Roberts.  I did my best.

Link to the Podcast