Saturday, May 31, 2008

Take A Buck

As the curtain comes down on Ehud Olmert’s political career, others take the stage to explain why Israel’s political class seems to be so plagued by allegations of personal corruption. The most highfalutin so far comes from Yossi Klein Halevi, writing for The New Republic:

The reason is that Israel was founded by revolutionaries who replaced the cautious morality of rabbinic Judaism with a rigorous but ultimately transient socialist ethic. The refugees who came from the Middle East and Eastern Europe were too disoriented to offer a cultural alternative. When socialism waned, the society lost its moral certainties. No official ethos has replaced Labor Zionism. Add three more factors—the rise of consumerism, the constant threat of war and terrorism, and the ongoing occupation—and the strain on ethical norms becomes formidable.

The frustrating result, says Klein Halevi, is that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who has a reputation for integrity) will gain from this. “Her most notable achievement as foreign minister,” he says, “was negotiating the U.N.-sponsored ceasefire at the end of the war. That ceasefire has allowed Hezbollah to re-arm beyond its pre-war capacity, and last week's virtual takeover of the Lebanese government by Hezbollah is one more result of Livni's ceasefire.”

Presumably, a tougher leader than Livni is needed now, somebody who understands that narrow consumerism leads to softness, softness to appeasement, and so forth.

THIS IS NOT the place to deal with the silly idea that the cease-fire was either solely to Livni’s credit or her fault (or the even sillier insinuation that it was avoidable). It is Klein Halevi’s big notion—that the country seems in need of a new “official ethos,” that the decline of socialism has left selfishness, etc.,—that is worth our time, if only because it is so pervasive. It is, in the Israeli center, a disease that presumes itself the cure.

In the first place, nobody who’s experienced at first hand the decline of Israel’s old labor aristocracy, along with the rise of its youthful global business class, should doubt that this has been a good trade. Exposure to international and competitive markets, the standards of science-based entrepreneurship, the percolation of quality management ideas into Israeli companies (as different as Iscar and Cellcom), the spread of electronic commerce (cutting out all kinds bureaucratic transactions,) the blowback of cosmopolitan values from global corporations—all of these—have measurably improved Israeli civil society and the quality of life.

Anyway, dismissing Israel’s success at globalization as consumerism is itself a throwback to reflexive socialist prejudices which Israelis, and The New Republic, presumably, have left behind. My old moshavnik friends from Kfar Yehoshua have four children: one builds clean rooms for Teva, one develops software for Texas Instruments, one makes movies, another is an architect. I can report that their narcissism is not less (or more) under control than that of their parents.

But, clearly, it is not socialism that Klein Halevi is pining for. It is social solidarity per se: the idea that Jews must unite (“bringing together the Likud along with Kadima and Labor”) to fight Gaza and Iran and other enemies; unite to put (as Olmert allegedly could not) the Jewish commonwealth above private interests.

This is the kind of solidarity right-wing Israelis, like rightists everywhere, instinctively traffic in, the big family projected onto politics, the thing Hegel told us civil society outgrows, the patriotism Oliver North’s voice cracks over. The Jewish version is what Israeli centrists will also fall back on when they are feeling insecure and, not coincidentally, when they are hitting up Diaspora Jews for dough.

WHICH BRINGS US to the material cause of Olmert’s fall. If you want to understand why Israel’s politicians have seemed so slack about their spending habits and bookkeeping, you have to understand the ways Israeli public élites have been awash in the money of Diaspora millionaires at least since the time of Labor boss and finance minister Pinchas Sapir. Not just politicians, mind you, but Jewish Agency functionaries, university presidents, the heads of foundations and think-tanks, the heads of philanthropies, and so forth. Electoral politics are expensive and foreign Jews are sort of honorary Israelis, right? We need to build, and isn't their money, well, Zionist?

In recent years, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon—and now Olmert—have all been under investigation for taking big bucks from fawning big shots. And if corruption means bending yourself to play on their prejudices (tribal solidarity is one), so be it.

There is, after all, the corruption of politicians using their influence to help foreign donors make business connections or simply show-off. But there are also public intellectuals and government officials censoring themselves so as not to offend the sensibilities of philanthropists. Read in this context Nahum Barnea’s Yediot Aharonot column on Sheldon Adelson’s subvention of Shimon Peres’s most recent conference (presented and translated by the excellent Daniel Levy).

By the way, Adelson also funds the think-tank that Klein Halevy works for. Bibi Netanyahu happens to be Adelson’s favorite politician. Funny, how when Klein Halevy discredits Livni—also vaguely ridicules the cease-fire with Hezbollah, calls for a nationality unity government, etc.—he is borrowing Netanyahu’s lines. Funny how, in all of his talk about politicians hampered by charges of personal excess, Klein Halevy doesn’t find the space to tell readers that Netanyahu was virtually hounded from office during 1998 by similar charges; that he has recently been fighting the claim that he spent something like 130,000 NIS on a six-day trip to London to plead Israel’s case during the Lebanon war (you know, the one Tzipi Livni so naively ended).

LOOK, I DON’T mean to pick on Klein Halevi, who can in any case take care of himself. I have myself run an Israeli entrepreneurship program lavishly funded by the American mogul, Sam Zell, and know something about trimming my sails. My point is Barnea’s, that bad apples generally come from bad barrels. The problem is not that Israelis consume but what Diaspora Jews have swallowed—and the institutional codependence their money has engendered. No doubt, the problem will be sorted out at the AIPAC convention, now starting up in Washington.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Connect The Dots # 6: Tell Me Who Your Friends...

One. From Jodi Kantor’s Page One article in the New York Times, entitled “As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts”:

“Novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished. Among many older Jews, and some younger ones, as well, he has become a conduit for Jewish anxiety about Israel, Iran, anti-Semitism and race… Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler.”

Two. Rumors? American Jews not related to Sherry Ziegler, but who have a worried cousin with access to a “forward” button, will have received an email link last February to a column written by Jerusalem-based novelist Naomi Ragen:

“If I had a Rabbi, for example, who publicly supported and honored a despicable racist, I'd change shuls. Mr. Obama's distancing himself [from Louis Farrakhan] , even during a political campaign, has not included either changing churches or spiritual leaders. In light of this, the fact that Mr. Obama's father and step-father were both Muslim, and that he spent part of his childhood in a Muslim school in Indonesia perhaps should begin to concern us.”

Three. If I had a Rabbi who...? From another Naomi Ragen column, written for Arutz Sheva, the West Bank settlers’ media site, on the March 23, 2006; Ragen was ruminating on the approaching Israeli election:

“The coalition of the National Religious Party and the National Union, with Effie Eitam, whom I deeply respect...”

Four. The words of Effie Eitam, whom Ragen “deeply respects”:

"We will have to do three things: Expel most of the Judea and Samaria Arabs from here... We will have to make another decision, to remove the Israeli Arabs from the political system. Also here things are clear and simple: We have raised a fifth column, a group of traitors of the first degree, and therefore we cannot continue to approve such a hostile and great presence inside Israel's political system… The third thing: We will have to act differently than everything we have known so far opposite the Iranian threat. These are three things that will entail a change in our war ethics.”

Five. Barack Obama, from Dreams From My Father, published in 1995, discussing black nationalism and Louis Farrakhan:

"Among the handful of groups to hoist the nationalist banner, only the Nation of Islam had any significant following: Minister Farrakhan’s sharply cadenced sermons generally drew a packed house, and still more listened to his radio broadcasts. But the Nation’s active membership in Chicago was considerably smaller—several thousand perhaps, roughly the size of one of Chicago’s biggest black congregations—a base that was rarely if ever mobilized around political races or in support of broad-based programs. In fact, the physical presence of the Nation in the neighborhoods was nominal, restricted mainly to the clean-cut men in suits and bow ties who stood at the intersections of major thoroughfares selling the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call.

"I would occasionally pick up the paper from these unfailingly polite men, in part out of sympathy to their heavy suits in the summer, their thin coats in winter, or sometimes because my attention was caught by the sensational, tabloid-style headlines (CAUCASIAN WOMAN ADMITS, WHITES ARE THE DEVIL). Inside the front cover, one found reprints of the minister’s speeches, as well as stories that could have been picked straight off the AP newswire were it not for certain editorial embellishments (Jewish Senator Metzenbaum announced today…). The paper also carried a health section, complete with Minister Farrakhan’s pork free recipes; advertisements for Minister Farrakhan’s speeches on videocassette (Visa or MasterCard accepted) and promotions for a line of toiletries--toothpaste and the like—that the Nation had launched under the brand name POWER, part of a strategy to encourage blacks to keep their money within their own community…

"...It was this unyielding reality—that whites were not simply phantoms to be expunged from our dreams, but were an active and varied fact of our everyday lives—that finally explained how nationalism could thrive as an emotion and flounder as a program. So long as nationalism remained a cathartic curse on the white race, it could win the applause of the jobless teenager listening on the radio, or the businessmen watching late-night TV. But the descent from such unifying fervor to the practical choices blacks confronted every day was steep...

"What in the hands of Malcolm had once seemed a call to arms, a declaration that we would no longer tolerate the intolerable, came to be the very thing Malcolm had sought to root out: one more feeder of fantasy, one more mask for hypocrisy, one more excuse for inaction. Black politicians less get gifted than Harold [Washington] discovered what white politicians have known for a very long time: that race baiting could make up for a host of limitations. Younger leaders eager to make a name for themselves upped the ante peddling conspiracy theories all over town. The Koreans were funding the clan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. It was a shortcut to fame, if not always fortune; like sex or violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market.

"Just talk. Yet what concerned me wasn’t just the damage loose talk caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists…it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions… [W]e seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased even as we sank into further despair.

"The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan—didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity of race or of culture could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited."

Suggestion: As more worried Jews hear rumors spread by writers for Arutz Sheva , they might want to keep in mind, not only Obama's doubts about Farrakhan, but about letting "our collective psyche go where it pleased."

(Picture: Getty Images, From the Wall Street Journal)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Turkish Delight

The most important thing about the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations is not that they are happening but where they are happening. A few months ago, President Shimon Peres addressed the Turkish parliament in Hebrew. Turkey has meanwhile enlisted Syria to keep Kurdish national radicals from creating havoc on its border. Now Turkey—a state led by an Islamist leader who is committed to both a secular commonwealth and deepening ties to the European Union; not coincidentally, the strongest, most globalized, most diversified economy in the Islamic world, and its most advanced military power—has positioned itself as an even-handed mediator between its two neighbors.

The fact of Turkish impartiality should itself be seen as an achievement, not for Israeli diplomacy, exactly, but for the endurance and global reach of Israel itself. But Turkey’s message could not be clearer, even hard-headedly humane: it is time for regional peace; we can get there now. If the Turks did not think so, they would not be toying with our expectations or risking their political capital.

To the Syrians the Turks are saying (more or less): “The old struggles against Zionism and colonialism are a bore; you can cozy up to Iranian mullahs and risk another Lebanese war spinning out of control, or become a part of what is happening in the Gulf and the rest of the world; the American-European model of economic federation and collective security is the only sane way to both honor cultural (religious, national, etc.) differences and yet move away from a dusty poverty. The Sovereign Wealth Funds of Dubai are waiting.”

To the Israelis the Turks are saying: “You and we can be partners in leading the region to economic success, military stability, and more liberal (if not quite western) values; we can bring NATO in to keep the peace in Palestine, Turkish water to turn the Jordan Valley into a garden, and Israeli intellectual capital to fertilize start-ups from Amman to Damascus. We can help you find a bridge to the Islamic world, indeed, helping you helps us find our bridge to the EU. We can even talk to Sarkozy about his idea of a Mediterranean union. But you’ve got to get over the outdated idea that land, and prevailing in a vendetta war against Palestinian extremists, will bring you peace. It will only bring you Bosnia.”

BUT THE SECOND most important thing about the negotiations is that they are happening. I was not among those who believed it wise for Ehud Barak to pursue the Syrian track in advance of Palestinian “final status” negotiations in the late 1990s. Common sense suggested that any peace negotiated with Syria would fall apart if the violence between Israelis and Palestinians kept getting worse. Besides, the Israeli center had common sense and would be loathe to give up the Golan Heights—which have come to symbolize everything from early warning stations to excellent Cabernet; land that a thousand young men died for in various wars to protect the dazzling Hula Valley—for the sake of the Syrian promise of peace where there could be no peace. Few were surprised when Barak pulled out of the negotiations just when they were poised to succeed.

But such thinking is outdated. Achieving a peace treaty with Syria may in fact be the only way to get the Palestine negotiations unstuck. Unlike 1999, we all know what the Palestine deal looks like. The problem is implementing it. The Syrians are now key to funneling Iranian arms, funds and diplomatic support to Hezbollah and Hamas. When Israelis say that they can’t deal with Mahmud Abbas, or implement any deal arrived at because he is weak, what they really mean is that they can’t hope for stability as long as the Syrians are acting like Iranian proxies and backing Palestinian rejectionists. What if they stopped doing this? The deal on the Syrian front is, as Olmert says, easier to achieve and implement.

As for Olmert surviving the latest investigation to shepherd the deal through Israel’s political landscape, his personal prestige is hardly (shall we say) indispensable. Indeed his lack of prestige may even become a drag on a plan which would be better brought to conclusion by Barak, now defense minister, and Tzipi Livni. For an excellent, if patchwork story on the political prospects of the deal, see this from the truly indispensable Yossi Verter in the current Haaretz.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tragedy And Ashes

When it comes to the matter of an Iranian bomb, Israeli citizens feel both utterly threatened and mostly silenced. What can ordinary voters and critics usefully say about this? Think of America in the 1950s, in the depth of the Cold War. There was no other form of military power that depended so much on expert engineers, policy strategists, and high military officers—and on revolving political leaders who were hostages to secret recommendations. When Israeli professionals say, “We need to preempt their first-strike capability” (as in Iraq or, more recently, in Syria), who dares to contradict them?

Reticence will not end here. Let's imagine the unimaginable: Iran gets the bomb. If the ultimate goal is deterrence—as it must be—ordinary Israelis will all have a stake in a perfected, secret infrastructure they have no part in designing; an infrastructure that can both survive a first-strike and retaliate against the attacking state; a piece of the state apparatus just unsecret enough to make any potential attacker believe it exists. (Presumably, this is what Israelis already have.)

Whatever else they feel, therefore, how can Israelis not feel a kind of silent gratitude for the highly skilled people who do this work? And let's return to the current situation. How—when Israeli intelligence professionals now tell us that an Iranian bomb must be preempted, by military attack if necessary—can ordinary Israelis object? Do not even disarmament advocates like Jonathan Schell insist that Iran’s trajectory to getting a bomb is clear and imminent, whatever the US “intelligence estimate”? How could Israelis not wish for some partnership of Israeli and US forces to just get on with a strike if current diplomacy fails?

THE PROBLEM COMES when other considerations assert themselves. We presume, and intelligence reports confirm, that a) no military attack can be really effective against Iran’s widely dispersed, underground facilities, b) the Iranian government has the petro-dollars to replace what might be destroyed, with even greater secrecy and determination, and c) the immediate consequence of a presumably insufficient attack would be to unite virtually all Iranians behind an otherwise unpopular regime, and unleash revenge attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf and around the world.

So it is impossible not to feel deeply anxious and seriously thwarted. Words like holocaust roll of the tongues of military strategists, but intuitively we know that they are playing a three-dimensional chess game and an attack feels like checkers. What, if not attack, should our leaders be doing? What are ordinary citizens supposed to think?

THERE IS ONE thing you can count on certifiably tough leaders to deliver in a situation like this, and that is a tough speech. From Bush, Rudy and Bibi (increasingly also from McCain), we will hear much about Munich, the dangers of appeasement, and the need get them before they get us. Harvard's Law Review, we will be assured, is no place to learn life's hard truths.

Mind you, these leaders are not actually advocating an attack. They are insisting that anybody who really cares about Israel will entertain an attack—that anybody who, on the contrary, speaks about engaging with Iran is selling Israel out. It is not their strategy that we are supposed to flock to. That brought us Iraq. It’s their (what do American pundits call it?) values: the idea that they care enough to imply a bond of blood; the insinuation that they hate their enemies subtly.

Read my lips, “Never again.”

OK, THERE IS a vague strategic argument behind the aggressive posturing. The attacks from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza and Syria are bound to come in any case, they tell us, and they will come more certainly and more recklessly behind an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Recently, Haaretz’s Shmuel Rosner dutifully reproduced this argument (without much examining it) in his blog,

One knowledgeable observer was using this baseball metaphor yesterday. The Iranians have players waiting on all three bases. Hamas on first, Syria on second and Hezbollah on third. All they need now is the grand slam homerun - a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran that will send them running around the bases for home.

But none of these base-runners have hesitated to act against Israel or Israeli interests in the past, and with no nuclear umbrella. And it is hard to see how one could threaten to incinerate Tel-Aviv and not threaten to irradiate Gaza. When you look at the history of the Cold War, it seems that the opposite argument can be inferred: that once you have nuclear powers facing off against one another, as in Berlin or in Cuba, they tend to restrain their proxies for fear of being dragged into a nuclear exchange.

Of course there is another, even weirder claim lurking behind this one, which is that Iranian leaders would actually welcome a nuclear exchange. They are fanatics, bent on world conquest. They have sacrificed so many young people in the war against Iraq, that they would willingly accept losing, say, Teheran and Qom just to get rid of Israel. To believe that you have to believe what Richard Pipes argued about the Soviets in the 1970s, when he was plumping for the MX missile: that Russians lost so many people in World War II that cities (human life, etc.) meant less to them than they typically meant to us. (Come to think of it, to believe about Muslims what we used to believe about Commies you ought listen to Richard Pipes’s son.)

But what, as MIT's Barry Posen asks, could Iran really expect from a nuclear exchange? What other than "tragedy and ashes?"

ANYWAY, EXPOSING THE fatuity of hawkish rhetoric does not solve the underlying problem. The prospect of a nuclear Iran in a Middle East that seems headed to Bosnian-style violence is not a happy one. How long before Egypt and Saudi Arabia insist on becoming nuclear powers, too? How long before one suicide bomber, or one missile around Ben-Gurion Airport, ignites the kind of tit-for-tat that will bring apocalyptic results?

Which brings me to two points, humble citizens' points, not fully developed here, but worth considering in light of the lessons of the Cold War. The first is that the only way we can hope to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb is to get them to agree to international inspections and rigorous nonproliferation agreements. And the only way we can hope to move them to cooperation of this kind is to put Israel’s own nuclear program on the agenda.

I do not doubt that Israel pursued nuclear military technology in the 1950s and 60s in order to preclude a real threat to its very existence from the Arab world. The question is, are there now no ways to guarantee Israel’s existence in an overall peace process (say, by inclusion in NATO) other than an independent nuclear capacity? Why not rededicate ourselves to comprehensive, regional non-proliferation?

Second, even if Iran moves toward a bomb, even if the peace process continues to stall, we should hold our fire and revisit the logic of containment and détente: wed patient diplomacy to compelling economic forces. President Shimon Peres held a conference on “facing tomorrow” in Jerusalem this past week, in which he declared that Iran is the past, while Israel is the future. Let us think more along these lines.

Peres meant by this, and he was right, that the capacity to survive the forces of globalization, oil or no oil, means learning to interact with the science and management that one finds in the West and in the global economy more generally. Libya is now learning this lesson. So is North Korea. As long as we keep the peace in the region, we are in a game Islamists cannot win. When we are dragged into asymmetrical wars, with terrorists and terror regimes, we are in a game we cannot win.

Iran, too, has a middle class that wants to rise. Why should not President Obama shake the Iranian president's hand, if only with the same tactical vision with which Nixon shook Mao's? Why not rob Iranian leaders of their chance to claim Muslim humiliation and victimhood? Why not, in any case, raise our sights?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Brand Managers

I was a guest on NPR's call-in show On Point last week, along with Israel's hilarious young writer Etgar Keret. We spoke our minds. Eventually, a caller asked the inevitable question, something like this: “Why are your guests going on about the deficiencies of Israeli democracy when it is so clearly the only real democracy in the Middle East? Israel suffers existential threats. Shouldn’t we be celebrating Israeli democracy rather than criticizing it?”

This may seem a reasonable, even innocent, complaint. It actually sharpens the differences between how Israelis view their fate and how American Jews view theirs by means of Israelis.

TO A GREAT many American Jews (the reasons are too complex to pursue here), Israel has become the necessary hero, the vicarious nationality, the white rook supporting America’s white queen. Israel is, more and more, their brand to be managed. Democracy, in this context, has become a common synonym for good. When the caller insisted that Israel was admirably democratic, she was really insisting that Israel is worthy of American support.

The explicit premise here is that axes of evil are poised to strike—and strike Israel first. The implicit one is that gentiles will never much like Jews and don’t need new excuses to throw us to the wolves.

THERE ARE ISRAELIS who speak this way, of course; the next time Bibi Netanyahu is interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, you’ll see a master in action. But for most Israelis, Netanyahu included, the performance of Israeli democracy is even more urgently a pragmatic problem. It is not just a public relations challenge. Their lives depend on it.

For Israel is a country that is fragmented in serious ways, a plural society that is not quite pluralist. Etgar Keret tenderly observed that Israeli buses do not run on the Sabbath, and the orthodox influence is growing, yet an Israeli drag queen represented the country at the Eurovision song contest. Is this stand-off really sustainable without deep constitutional protections? (It is not.)

More important, to say that the discriminatory features of existing constitutional law alienate the country’s Arab minority is not to favor Palestinians in some popularity contest. It is a call for reforms that will preserve Israel from disaster. An intifada driven by the frustrations of Israeli Arabs will bury the two-state solution and open the door to wholesale ethnic cleansing, as in the Balkans. To question the health of Israeli democracy is to invite a diagnosis, not a slur.

The point is, democracy is not some victory lap Western peoples, fattened on capitalism, eventually allow themselves. It is a way of keeping the peace. The question of whether Israeli democracy works well enough will fascinate educated Americans and may embarrass some American Jews but, most important, it points to whether or not Israelis can solve their internal frictions nonviolently. And internal threats are more “existential” than anything Iran can inflict—about which more in my next post.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New York Post Post

To understand Israel at 60 years old, think about the conundrum of educated Israelis in their forties and fifties: the professional, scientific, and entrepreneurial elites who increasingly run the place...

Read the whole article from the New York Post.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

New Israel Fund: Webcast On Religion And State

Consider this NIF webcast. Any of the speakers, Naomi Chazan, Gershom Gorenberg, Jafar Farrah, and Francis Raday would be worth your time; together, they will produce the kind of conversation you deserve but will never get in the best of our media.


Irving Howe once quipped that it’s nothing to make an enemy: the trick is to keep one. Marty Peretz has mastered this trick so famously, and with so many, that complaining about his new attack on me will seem like special pleading. But one insinuation needs a response because it might be mistaken for fair criticism. Marty writes of me:

Poor preening boy. He needs to have the approval of Tony Judt and the rest who believe that justice is only done when the Jewish state is maximally endangered.

In fact, I have never met Tony Judt, though I have great respect for him, as does any reader of modern European history. Nor do I think he is cavalier about Israel's very existence. At the same time, I do not at all subscribe to Judt’s call for a unitary, binational state, which he advanced, however tentatively, in his widely discussed article in the New York Review. I've already explained my hopes for a two-state solution in this blog. I also presented the following rejoinder to Judt's argument in The Hebrew Republic:

[Judt’s] article caused an immediate sensation among educated IsraelisIn part, this was a defensive response to Judt’s stinging, and not exactly misplaced, criticism of Israel’s legal structure. But the real problem was Judt’s extrapolation from that structure to a misty future in which Jewish national life would be inconceivable—a move that has echoes in Zionist history

Before the founding of the state, when socialist internationalism was still in vogue, certain left-Zionist parties—most notably, the Hashomer Hatzair—argued for a binational state with the Palestinian “proletariat.” They assumed most Jews would be socialists living in pioneering kibbutzim, and that their novel national culture would be protected by a kind of cloistering. You find that forlorn hope in the early writings of Noam Chomsky. Various intellectuals in pre-state Palestine, such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes—the founders of the Brit Shalom movement—argued for a quite different form of binationalism, in effect, a liberal state with two distinct populations, which would continue to co-exist under the aegis of the British mandate. Yet you still find serious Western intellectuals (not only Judt, but the late Edward Said, Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, and others) who have thought it useful to revive the vision, or some version of it. Binationalists who argue in this vein seem to regard the problem as one of creating a melting pot here, Jews and Arabs living in a common society, each community presumably speaking a nicely accented English.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Israel’s centrist élite assumes people who speak of binationalism are simply trying to reset the clock to 1948 and reintroduce ideas which call into question the very logic of launching Israel in the first place [This keeps Israelis] from seeing beyond vague claims for binationalism, which they loathe, to federalism, which they need

Judt is a great historian. But there was, ironically, little sense of history in his attack on Zionism, such as the urgent need for the Zionists to have settled a million holocaust refugees in 1948, something the Arab part of a binational state would never have agreed to. Nor does Judt have any obvious affinity for Hebrew culture. He is an eloquent defender of the European Union, but he does not seem to take for granted defenses of national life in Israel which are common among all European member nations.

Why, after all, could not Israel end exclusive privileges for Jews as individuals, and for the Jewish religion as an established state religion, and yet privilege Jewish national culture—by maintaining an official language, or focusing on Jewish history in the national school system, or investing in public institutions like the Israel Museum or the Hebrew University? The Montréal I came from was the product of the Quiet Revolution. Was it not obvious that Québecers—a French majority, but living on an English continent—were justified in taking urgent action—consistent with accepted standards of human rights, but irritating to English Montrealers—to preserve their national culture—things like compulsory French education, compulsory French signs, a holiday on St. Jean Batiste Day when the rest of Canada celebrated the tie to the English crown? Would not Israelis be obviously justified today in taking action to preserve their national culture?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Affirmative Action

Israel advances the status of a young man by taking his disadvantages into consideration.

Monday, May 5, 2008

After The Fall

Israeli journalists are pre-celebrating Israel’s sixtieth with a big, compelling story, yet another police investigation of Ehud Olmert. But their tone, this time, is subtly different from the past. The reports of interrogation (of Olmert himself, former staffers, etc.,) are less sassy. Ministers are keeping their counsel instead of rushing to Olmert’s defense. There are confident leaks that the “situation is grave.” The police seem to have got their man—anyway, if their case is not bullet-proof, it is they who should be investigated for doing this to the public, of all times, now.

So reasonable people are preparing themselves for the possibility that Olmert will soon have to resign. This would be bad news—and good.

FIRST, THE BAD. I have not hidden my personal fondness for Ehud Olmert, which makes me completely unremarkable. Olmert is a likable, glad-handing centrist, a poster-child for Israel’s rising professional and entrepreneurial élites, who has cultivated Western journalists and back-and-forth Israelis like myself for years. But this is not personal. It is business. Waiting in the wings, liking the polls, is the worst government imaginable, a Bibi Netanyahu coalition of Likud’s hardest-liners, back-to-the-Land-of-Israel cultists, ultraOrthodox claustrophiles, Russian reactionaries and oligarchs, and General-opportunists. Resignation could bring the demise of the Kadima Party, as former Likud people scurry back to the fold.

True, Olmert’s prosecution would be a tribute to Israeli democracy, in a way—to the rule of law and the procedures for electing what’s next. But new elections would almost certainly bring to power the most antidemocratic coalition in Israel’s history, just at a time when negotiations with the Palestinian Authority hang by a thread, a new administration is coming to Washington, and Israel’s own Arab minority is inching toward wholesale alienation. I am not sure Israel could take five more years of this. I am sure the West, Arab moderates, etc., cannot take five more years of this Israel.

THE GOOD NEWS, however, is that there is an obvious replacement for Olmert, who has always stood a much better chance of holding Kadima together by the force of her popularity. I mean, of course, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, a straight-talking, very bright, and evolving politician (profiled here by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen).

Livni, unlike Olmert, was not tarnished by the 2006 Lebanon fiasco. As Akiva Eldar implies, she might well revive Kadima and draw new, younger forces to it. She is also more likely to advance the peace negotiations (which she nominally runs), or at least bring them to the national agenda. She provides Labor’s doves a leader to rally to while their own leader, Ehud Barak, continues to posture as the new Ariel Sharon, the IDF’s real commander, the scourge of terrorists. She could add the leftist Meretz Party, which said it would never join a government led by Olmert after Lebanon.

Indeed, the best scenario is not unlikely—not if the Bush administration supports it actively, and helps keep restless ministers (like former Likud defense minister Shaul Mofaz) bailing water instead of abandoning ship. It is that Livni and Barak will govern together for a year or so, and reconstitute the Israeli center, while putting the taint of corruption behind them. Only this will deny Netanyahu his second act. Something must.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Wasted On The Young

I am spending a good deal of time these days talking to Jewish undergraduates in various universities, drumming up interest in my newly published book. As always, the experience of speaking to young people is humbling. Their minds are as taut as their bodies. They have never heard of you. They give any published visitor too much deference, but the moment you say something they don’t understand, you can almost hear them thinking about their plans for later. Yet you also feel that when you connect, you are giving a meteorite a small shove, knowing that a light year from now it will have moved a great distance from where it might otherwise have gone on its current trajectory.

I wouldn’t miss these lectures. But one recurring pattern to their questioning gives me pause. Again and again, I present my case: that Israeli centrists cannot enjoy Hebrew globalization if they are mired in an ongoing war, that they’ll need to bring their democracy up to code if they hope to avoid an internal Intifada, etc.—the book’s array of “if-then” statements, algorithms justifying democratic life, ultimately. Again and again, the students tell me they agree with both the principles of action and the political dangers I’m describing, but then they ask: “Given the politics of the situation, in Washington and in Israel, how can we possibly get there? Aren’t you being naïve to talk about this future when you can’t show that we’ll realize it?”

NOW, I DO not mean to denigrate this response. Ought implies can, after all. But hearing this from, of all people, students on their campuses struck me as both odd and yet oddly true to the zeitgeist. They have time to gravitate toward their convictions. Who, when I was their age, could have claimed realism and also predicted the European Union, the fall of the Berlin wall, the bourgeois revolution in China, the triumph of the civil rights movement, women CEOs, the reciprocities of globalization, the success of Canada’s federation, married gays, or, indeed, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

I answered them: “You keep asking me, can I show you what will happen. That is the wrong question. The right question is, What is justice? It is not your responsibility to know the future. It’s your responsibility to know what’s right. Once you have a firm idea about what’s right, you’ll have a problem for the rest of your life, and that problem will be your future.”

This answer brought nervous smiles to some faces, but it was clearly not something most were accustomed to hearing. Right meant next. Pursuing virtue was a philosophical version of voting for “electability.” It felt slightly sad, the way management consultants preparing for a client's board meeting feel slightly sad.

SO I AM going to request a little favor from the readers of this blog. The next time a young person asks you, “What do you think is going to happen?”—not only about the peace process, about anything—tell them that you are only going to answer the question, “What do you think should happen?” Pass it on.

And while you’re at it, you might want to send them to this remarkable speech which President Jimmy Carter delivered to the Knesset in March of 1979, just before bringing off the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and written (though I did not know it at the time) by a man who would become my friend, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg. I felt proud for both Israelis and Americans when I sat in the Knesset gallery and heard it. I never forgot it:

Our vision must be as great as our goal. Wisdom and courage are required of us all, and so too, are practicality and realism. We must not lose this moment. We must pray as if everything depended on God, and we must act as if everything depends on ourselves.

What kind of peace do we seek? Spinoza said that peace is not an absence of war: it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, for confidence, for justice.

There is still no peace. He was right.

Israel At Sixty: The Transformation of Zionism

Israelis are already celebrating their 60th anniversary, recalling the heart-stopping moment in 1948 when a community of 600,000 Hebrew-speaking Jews, the sons and daughters of pioneering Zionists, brought the national home to independence: a state that the United Nations mandated to ingather survivors of death camps and other refugee Jews; a community that immediately found itself fighting a bloody invasion on three fronts. What is not much being recalled, alas, is the main reason the pioneers came in the first place. Their true heirs are now themselves fighting a three-front war, a culture war with urgent political fallout. They could lose it.

Read on, from the Forward.