Friday, October 30, 2009

The Law Of Return: 'Oh Learned Judge!'

Undaunted in his campaign to ferret out “anti-Zionists,” yet apparently wondering if his own powers may be faltering, Jeffrey Goldberg has called in his Balthazar, “the erudite Yaacov Lozowick,” to deal with a hard case:

"My impression of The Hebrew Republic thesis is that [Avishai is] talking about medinat kol exrachai'ah, the country of its citizens. This idea was formulated and mostly promoted by folks who were not only non-Zionist, they were anti-Zionist; it was a ploy to weaken the Jewish aspect of Israel until eventually the Jewish state would be submerged into its Arab environment. Yet Avishai isn't Azmi Bishara. I get the impression he's a caring Jew who is attracted to the medinat kol exrachai'ah idea because it fits so nicely into his broader Weltanschauung, the one that praises the European Union as the way of the future, the goal of human history and so on. On that level, he's non-Zionist because he's joining forces with a particular group of enemies of Zionism, even though he and they are using the same concepts for very different goals."

There is more to his letter. You cannot really understand the surreal quality of intellectual life in Israel today—the rhetoric you hear from talk shows to academic conferences—unless you take a moment to digest it whole.

Yet beyond the glib “impressions” of books unread, the illogic (“non” = “anti”), the cozy appeal to dogma (“the Zionist way”), the guilt by association, the condescending tone, the last-minute finessing of obvious contradictions (viz., “the Zionist way” that takes Israeli Arabs as a “constituency and responsibility”), even the yanking-in of hackneyed German to sound, well, “erudite”—beyond all of this transparent demagogy—is a common claim that requires a moment’s thought.

It is that people who argue Israel should be a state of its citizens cannot believe Israel should be a “Jewish state.” Presumably, “state of its citizens,” medinat kol exrachai'ah (actually, this should be ezrakheha), is an idea that originated with “enemies of Zionism” such as Azmi Bishara.

And here I thought the principle that a democratic state’s legitimacy derives from the just consent of the governed was older than that. I also thought it was the counterpart to an argument about human nature and human limitations, you know, a moral argument reasonable people since Kant have had some trouble refuting. Wow, it is actually only a Weltanschauung our kids and other “poor, deluded dears” pick up along with a Eurail pass.

Had Lozowick actually read The Hebrew Republic, rather than merely forming an impression of its thesis, he would know that its point was to clarify just how a democratic state could retain a Jewish national character; how to protect its cultural distinction without violating ordinary standards of human rights. I am no Emile Zola, God knows. But imagine someone saying that Zola's case for equal treatment for Jews in the Republic was discredited by the fact that Jews had demanded it before him; that the case "originated" with enemies of the French nation. (Come to think of it, it is not so hard to imagine such people, is it?)

By the way, I interviewed Azmi Bishara at length in the book, and though I took issue with him on many points, Bishara shared with me his abiding respect for the work of Achad Haam, Zionism’s most influential early writer, who was trying to explain how the “Hebrew national atmosphere” created by Zionism was the only way, really, to create a state of its citizens that was also a Jewish state. The replacement of the Law of Return with an immigration law that gives preference to refugees from anti-Semitism, but conditions citizenship on naturalization to Israeli identity, not J-positive blood, is just one reform that is overdue.

A FINAL WORD to Goldberg. Look, Jeffrey, people we know in common tell me you are “good company,” and given your delight in identifying yourself as a teenage acolyte of Shomer Hatzair, I suspect that, had we met under different circumstances, and though you are closer to my son’s age than mine, we would probably have become what writers call “friends.” Hell, we might have traded nostalgic, knowing glosses on why Borochov’s slavish borrowing from Plekhanov actually caused him to misunderstand how Jewish workers in the Pale would suffer from the rise in the “organic composition” of capital—or was it just that the Shomer Hatazir shaliach in your hometown served better pizza than USY?

In any case, I am humbly asking that you stop. The claims you continue to make about me—that is, “anti-Zionists” like me—are too silly to be worth anyone’s time, but the reach of the Atlantic website is too important to ignore. If I do not respond, it may seem that your take-away is true, or plausible, or at least worth repeating.

Nor is this 1909, when calling someone anti-Zionist meant you were merely a part of a fascinating debate on how Jews survive “modernity.” It is 2009, and calling someone anti-Zionist tends to type him as opposed to the very existence of Israel or a Jewish national home of any kind. Given the constellation that runs from Hamas to the Oxford Debating Union, the epithet can do a person harm.

And I write from the gate at JFK, returning (legally, but warily) to Jerusalem, embattled enough by the fear that Sidra’s and my home will soon be swept up in a kind of Balkan tragedy, with bloody-minded fanatics on both sides demanding allegiance, and "experts" like Lozowick only too eager to choose sides. My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, if not that law. I have enough on my mind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hebron Letter: A Good Man

This, from my old friend David Shulman, who is continuing his campaign of witness in the south Hebron hills, still led by by the indomitable Ezra Nawi:

No settlers anywhere nearby, no soldiers, nothing will happen today"— Ezra keeps reassuring our Palestinian friends on the cell phone as we drive down to south Hebron in the early morning. By the time we reach our meeting point near Samu'a, a good group is in place: some twenty Palestinians and another eight or nine Ta'ayush activists. Most of the Palestinians belong to Samu'a, and the fields we are heading toward through the wadis belong to them, though they have no access to them any more. The "illegal outpost" of Asael, one of the uglier and more malignant in this area, has stolen them.

Ezra seems in good spirits despite the handing down of his sentence on Wednesday, three days ago. Judge Eilata Ziskind, who had already found him guilty of assaulting two Border Policemen in February 2007—a trumped-up charge, in my estimation—sentenced him to a month in jail, a fine of 750 Israeli shekels, another 500 shekels to each of the allegedly traumatized policemen and, the real killer, a six-month suspended jail sentence, in force for the next three years, to be activated any time Ezra is arrested again for "unlawful assembly" or similar heinous crimes. She clearly wanted to neutralize him for the coming years. In addition, she used the occasion to read out a moralistic sermon about orderliness and democracy. "Freedom of expression," she said, "is not the freedom to incite and take actions that prevent or disrupt police work… Democracy cannot allow this, for if the law enforcement system collapses, anarchy will reign and democracy and freedom of expression will be no more." It's more or less what one could have expected. After all, one wouldn't ever want to disrupt, by non-violent protest, the work of the police or the soldiers, not even when they come to knock down the rickety hovels of Palestinian shepherds as they did that day at Umm al-Khair. Ezra threw himself in front of the bulldozers, thus delaying the demolitions by a few minutes—an excellent reason, no doubt, to send him to jail. If you don't, anarchy may reign.

Maybe the appeal will quash this verdict. The international campaign clearly has had an effect. In the meantime, it's business as usual; it will take much more than this to stop Ezra Nawi. So here we are in the sun-baked fields of Samu'a, in the mid-morning sun, just below Asael. I have to say these fields don't look too promising. There was little rain last year, and the land seems terminally dessicated, almost beyond redemption. 'Id, walking beside me, can see at a glance that even the thorny bushes they call natj have remained untouched for a long time by the goats who usually feed on them. Apparently, the settlers have driven the shepherds off. The few goat droppings he can see, with his farmer's eyes, are very old. The only fresh droppings are from the wild gazelles that roam these hills: recently 'Id saw a herd of twenty of them, magnificent in these open spaces on the edge of the desert. To make these fields arable again, they will have to be cleared of stones and rained upon; the first task, a forbidding one, is ours. I glance over the first plot, at the bottom of the hill; at a conservative estimate, some 10,000 rocks, of varying shapes and sizes, will have to be pried out of the clay and re-instated as a terrace that will stand up to the water that will, hopefully, come pouring down the hill when the rains do start. By comparison, Sisyphus had an easy time.

We begin working with pick-axes and our bare hands, and as always there is the joy of doing it and especially of seeing the rightful owners of this land returning, at last, to care for it. I'm especially moved watching a middle-aged Palestinian woman working, face partly covered, hands heavy with thorns and stones, beside me. Of course we can't remove all the rocks, but the plot is looking more inviting by the minute, and soon we drift to the next terrace up, and the next one, getting closer at every step to the outer perimeter of the settlement on top of the hill. Naturally, we haven't gone unnoticed. A heavy-set settler in his Shabbat white is staring down at us, and beside him there are soldiers, first only a few, then more and more, and in less than an hour, with the horrid sense of inevitability that so often signals human folly, they are clumsily descending in our direction. They are proudly waving the piece of paper that can only be the order declaring this area a Closed Military Zone.

The senior officer, bearded, young, opaque, reads it out: "By the authority legally vested in me, etc. etc." He gives us exactly ten minutes to desist from our subversive activity and to disappear. Well drilled in these rituals, we argue with him. If this is a CMZ and we are supposed to leave, we say, then why do those settlers on the hilltop get to stay? Ah yes, "by the authority vested in me, those whom I allow to stay can stay. You now have nine and a half minutes." Amiel leaps to the occasion. He carries with him, always, the text of the Supreme Court's ruling that local military commanders have no right to declare these closed military zones whenever the whim strikes them, and above all they are prohibited from using this mechanism to keep farmers away from their lands. Amiel reads out the text of the court's decision. The officer is utterly unimpressed. "You have eight minutes left."

We go back to work, and now each rock I pry from the recalcitrant soil seems to have some special meaning, as if defiance, however quixotic, were imprinted on it. The Palestinians also accelerate their pace. As always, the South Hebron hills are a good place for unexpected encounters. One of the soldiers, smiling, suddenly greets me by name. I don't recognize him at first, in his fancy-dress costume—helmet, uniform, rifle—but he tells me his name: Spartak, a former student. He studied Sanskrit with me, wrote a very good M.A. thesis. I haven't seen him for some years, but I announce at once to whoever wants to hear: "I don’t mind being arrested, but only if Spartak carries out the order." It would be nice to hear his views on the task he is engaged in. "Seven and a half minutes." By now a genial policeman whom we know well from many such occasions has also turned up and announced, in his mild-mannered way, that by refusing to leave the CMZ we are committing a crime, hindering a public servant in discharging his duty (shades of Judge Ziskind). I figure this merits a response, so I say to him: "And what about those settlers? Their very presence here is a crime by international law and by any ethical standard." He smiles and nods. To my surprise, he agrees with me. "True," he says, "but that's not relevant now." "How could it not be relevant?" "Six minutes left before we start making arrests."

You remember what Priam said to Achilles, how he kissed the hand that had killed his son, and how the two of them wept together, Achilles remembering his old father, and how the whole huge war and everything that had been said or sung about it suddenly seemed so futile and foolish and unbearable, a world empty of anything remotely like glory but suffused by shame. You remember how you didn't really want to get up so early this morning and go off to South Hebron because it all seems so futile, and now that today is over it still feels futile and yet strangely beautiful, as if some intimate chord had been struck even if no one could hear it, even if you could barely hear it yourself. Maybe, you might think for a passing moment, it's beautiful because it's futile—but actually you don't believe that. You remember how when you were driving down this morning there were ragged children playing ball by the roadside and the ball rolled onto the highway and Ezra stopped the car right there in the middle of the vast desert and waited for them to cross over and retrieve their ball safely, and you thought: it's a small, everyday gesture, hardly worth noticing in the midst of the madness, but this is the act of a good man.

Friday, October 23, 2009

American Jewish Power: A Clarification

In a previous post, I wrote this:

In other words, the key to AIPAC's emergence was a Manichean view from America; the fight against the Evil Empire, or since 9/11, the clash of civilizations. In this drama, Israel became cast as America's biggest regional aircraft carrier. AIPAC has succeeded by staying close to American hardliners, arguing against pressuring Israel (to give up territory, to stop settlements, etc.) for the same reason a basketball coach will not foolishly demoralize his slightly brazen power-forward. At the center of the argument was a way of thinking about American hegemony in a dangerous world.

YOU CAN SAY that AIPAC was misguided, that it’s even become a pernicious force, but you can't deny that it got its strategic premises ordered properly. One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want. One has to start with America's foreign policy strategy and then apply its logic to the Middle East. Crucially, this means building coalitions with non-Jews as well, as any watcher of FOX News can see.

In response, Philip Weiss has written a long, thoughtful post taking issue with the statement that "Congress will care what Jews want." I won't try to reproduce his arguments; you can read them here.

What I should have said, perhaps, is that Congresspeople cannot respond to Jews, or indeed, any ethnic or national sub-group in America, apart from the ways they are presumed to inform or contribute to the common good of Americans as a whole. Jews are powerful, alright, but (much as Phil shows) because of the ways they enrich America's view of itself. This must also be true of the ways Jews inform foreign policy decisions. I thought the point was self-evident; with interest group and identity politics so second nature these days, the point is sometimes lost.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goldberg: The Last Word (At Least From Me)

A couple of days ago, Jeffrey Goldberg explained why he was disinclined to associate with J Street, in spite of his sympathy for a two-state solution:

So I'm comfortable in many ways with J Street's basic worldview. On the other hand, I don't think the group has put forward a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like. This might be because, in addition to having progressive Zionists as members, it also has anti-Zionists (these are the types who are happy with Stephen Walt's tragic endorsement of the group) and it's obviously very hard to put forward a positive vision of a Jewish Israel when some of your important supporters -- Bernard Avishai comes to mind -- don't even believe in the idea of a Jewish state.

Now Goldberg denies that "anti-Zionists" like myself are actually keeping him away from J Street's conference. We would know this, presumably, if we had read a different one-line blog post, in which he says, with obvious sarcasm, "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this conference" (which, in context, if you follow his link, reads like "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this circus"). Then, en passant, Goldberg explains his evidence for my "anti-Zionism."

On the more important question of Zionism and anti-Zionism, all I think I need to say is this: Avishai, the author of a book called "The Tragedy of Zionism," believes that Israel's Law of Return should be repealed. This is the law that grants Jews anywhere in the world to claim citizenship in the newly-reconstituted Jewish state, which was meant to be a refuge for persecuted Jews. The law is the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence. I don't think I was being "vicious" in pointing out that Avishai's conception of what Israel should be is very different from the mainstream Zionist position. By the way, J Street's position, as officially enunciated by its head flack to me, is that the group's core mission is to preserve Israel as a "Jewish democracy." Though maybe I should ask J Street if it believes the Law of Return as currently written and implemented is undemocratic.

This is unworthy of Goldberg's talents. It would also be unworthy of our time if Goldberg were not a well-regarded journalist, burying those talents under cozy prejudices that are shared widely among decent American Jews; people who do not have the time Goldberg has to get things right or think things through; people who look to Goldberg to give them direction.

1. Yes, I wrote a book called the Tragedy of Zionism in 1985. William Appleman Williams wrote a book called the Tragedy of American Diplomacy. This did not mean he was opposed to American diplomacy. Tragedy does not mean catastrophe except, perhaps, to tyro reporters covering car accidents on the local news ("This is Shannon Williams reporting from the scene of the tragedy.") Tragedy means we cannot fully undertand the implications of our actions.

The Tragedy of Zionism argued that the Zionist revolution put up a kind of scaffolding in the Palestinian Yishuv, institutions that made great sense in their day, but which were never taken down when the state was organized. In effect, Israel has continued for the past 60 years as two Jewish states: a democratic, Hebrew-speaking civil society (the real triumph of historic Zionism), and, encased by this "Hebrew republic," an heroic settler-state that, covering itself in neo-Zionist rhetoric, gives material privileges to certified Jews, and requires an official rabbinate to certify them.

I argued that this embedded settler state threatens the coherence of Israeli democracy and, thus, the survival of Israel, given the understandable alienation felt by Israel's one-fifth Arab minority. Tragedy, you see, does not come from doing the wrong thing but the right thing too long. I won't say more about this here; readers of my blog posts surely know the arguments by now.

2. Since Goldberg brought this up, let's look at the Law of Return in this context, a perfect example of an institution that fit its day and is now both unnecessary and inflammatory.

Let me be clear: it makes sense for Israel to have an immigration law that gives (what Canada calls) "landed immigrant" status to anyone who can show that he is a refugee from anti-Semitism; or even give preference to someone who can explain to an immigration officer why he reasonably counts himself a member of the historic Jewish people. All western democracies have had messy criteria like this (i.e., claims about persecution, quotas based on ethnicity). The point is, they also then have a process of naturalization, so that citizenship is granted only after immigrants learn the language and culture and civil laws of the country.

The Law of Return, which grants immediate citizenship to anyone who can prove to a rabbi that he is Jewish according to Halacha, or has a one Jewish grandparent (i.e., anyone Hitler would have called "Jewish"), precludes the idea that citizenship requires naturalization: that Israeli identity is something that can be learned, acquired. It makes a nonsense of the idea that Arabs or any other minority can be Israeli. Leave Brookline, get on a plane, poof, citizen.

This law, in other words, makes the idea of an inclusive Israeli nationality (a patently Jewish nationality, that might assimilate others) impossible. Goldberg says he cannot see "a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like." He might if he opened is eyes to precisely what I'm talking about; to standards that are second nature to people all over the Western world. Why not simply bring Israel up to code? The notion that the Law of Return is "the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence" is so much bond-dinner blather. The law made sense for a revolutionary time of ingathering. It makes no sense for a multi-cultural, global Hebrew (that is, Jewish national) democracy.

3. Which brings me to Goldberg's last dig: that my views are "very different from the mainstream Zionist position." Since I have chosen to live mostly in Jerusalem, I am not sure what mainstream position I have to belong to, well, belong. I consider myself a cultural Zionist in the tradition of Achad Haam, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion; I think everything was worth it just to get Yehuda Amichai's poetry. Anyway, some rightist jurists, like Ruth Gavison, have problems much like I do with the Law of Return, as Ben-Gurion had problems with the persistence of all Zionist institutions after the movement so obviously succeeded in achieving its goals.

Yet the sheer superficiality of Goldberg's dig does not render it harmless. Israel's future is not unchallenged and its citizens are not without real enemies. To call people anti-Zionist in this context is a way of announcing they are traitors to living, struggling fellow citizens, in my case, students and friends I love. It is like calling someone unpatriotic or anti-American.

Back when I published The Tragedy of Zionism, the guardian of the mainstream du jour, The New Republic, reviewed the book and put on its cover, "Jew Against Zion"--in consequence of which I was subject to a blackballing in Jewish organizations (and most mainstream media) of the kind alleged "Reds" had been subject to a generation before. It was shameful for the magazine's editors to have engaged in this kind of thing then. It is shameful for Goldberg to engage in it now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ezra Nawi, Jailed And Fined

I have written about Ezra several times before. The verdict is now in. Read it and weep.

Apropos the grim realities of occupation, which many American Jews refuse to view apart from their sense of the Jews' suffering at the hands of European others, yesterday's snipe at me by Jeffery Goldberg comes on the heels of his column celebrating Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." As it happens, my wife, the Hebrew University literary critic Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, wrote the following letter to the Atlantic in response, which they chose (at the last minute) not to publish. She wrote this:

I find Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Quentin Tarantino (“Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” September Atlantic) troubling because it unapologetically valorizes stereotypes of Jews to, of all people, Jews.

The enduring image of the victimized Jew in Western culture was indeed earned by a long history capped by the Holocaust, but the reality of Jews exercising power—financial, cultural and, in Israel, political and military—is what has defined Jews in the last fifty years. Yet we are being asked, in the film and in Goldberg’s presentation of it, to accept that the most adequate expression of Jewish power is vengeful and brutally violent. As if the Elephant in the Room is not the fact that Jews actually use sovereign power, among other things, to maintain a settlement regime and an occupation.

Tarantino claims that all his Jewish friends love the film. Goldberg acknowledges fantasizing that “when I came out of the screening room…I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank—and possibly the East Bank.” What kind of dots are being connected here? Are we really being asked to believe that the daily humiliation of Palestinians is somehow belated revenge for Nazi atrocities? Does Goldberg not know better?

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Jerusalem, Israel

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jeffrey Goldberg's Absurdly Cheap Shot

I am just about to board a plane for the US, so I am unable to answer this remarkably ill-informed (and, under the circumstances, vicious) shot from Jefferey Goldberg: the idea that he cannot go to the J Street conference because "some of [its] most important supporters -- Bernard Avishai comes to mind -- don't even believe in the idea of a Jewish state." I would simply ask readers to consider this post, or this, or this interview. Or just watch this lecture on You Tube. Goldberg has, alas, started to speak about "the idea of a Jewish state" a little like the way FOX News celebs talk about "America." Complexity is for sissies. Very sad. When he was at the New Yorker, his work on the settlers was the best there was.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

J Street And World Order

J Street calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace"; the "therefore" is implied. And the priority given to "pro-Israel" in the branding suggests, what most commentators reasonably assume, that J Street aims to give a home to American Jews who, comfortable with identity politics, suppose their anxiety about Israel constitutes a kind of secular Jewish identity; but Jews who also think that successive Israeli governments have hurt Israelis (and, by association, Jews everywhere) with settlements and a repressive occupation--you know, Jews who poll as "progressives" and have felt that Jewish leaders in Washington do not speak for them. (I have assumed something like this case myself.)

Though he downplays this gracefully in various public appearances, J Street's extraordinary Jeremy Ben-Ami obviously means "pro-Israel, pro-peace" to compare favorably with the stance of AIPAC supporters: increasingly rightist American Jews who will favor attacks on Iran if necessary, continued occupation if necessary, and who look to the Israeli government to say what's necessary. These AIPAC Jews, Ben-Ami reminds us, are only a quarter of American Jews; but they've captured the high ground on Capitol Hill for a generation.

Yet putting things this way--"pro-Israel, (therefore) pro-peace"--may be underestimating both AIPAC’s achievement and J Street's opportunity. For AIPAC actually became influential in Washington because it defined itself at a critical time not as "pro-Israel, pro-(well,) toughness" but as "pro-freedom, (therefore) pro-Israel." AIPAC's claim may have been wrong but the sequence in the rhetoric mattered.

And, increasingly, it will matter for J Street as well. If the upcoming J Street conference succeeds--as it almost certainly will--it will launch J Street into an orbit that does not simply revolve around how various Jewish demographics fight out their differences over Jewish "interests." It will put J Street squarely in a debate about America in the world.

IT MAY BE hard to remember this now, but the post-war American State Department, from George Marshall to George Kennan, was institutionally opposed to Truman's decision to recognize Israel or support it thereafter. State remained wrapped-up in the need to secure America's oil interests in the Gulf, and through the Kennedy administration was mainly concerned about preventing Israel from developing nuclear weaopons. (I go into this at length in this recent Nation article.)

For its part, AIPAC was founded in 1953 to advance support for the infant Israel in the Congress; and AIPAC remained puny through most of the 50s and 60s. Yes, Israel's prestige rose immeasurably after it beat back threats from its neighbors in 1967, defeating Soviet clients. But then, Israel's assumed military superiority, buttressed by American jets, made lobbying in its behalf seem more or less superfluous. Lyndon Johnson was (like Truman) influenced by Jewish liberal friends like Abe Fortas. When Nixon came into office Israeli diplomats like Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin were all that was needed; Henry Kissinger was so sure that Israel would make short-shrift of any Arab attack that he asked the IAF to intervene in Jordan's behalf during Black September 1970, and even rebuffed Soviet efforts to start a peace process in the summer of 1973.

AIPAC became prominent only during the aftermath of the 1973 War; a bloody war that shocked American Jews of all kinds into action; a war in which Kissinger had to mount a huge airlift and a nuclear alert to save Israel from a stalemate, arguing (plausibly, after the Jordan intervention in 1970) that Israel was, after all, America's key strategic asset in a fight against Soviet Empire. AIPAC embraced this formulation and extended it, supported by budding neoconservative circles, and influential senators like "Scoop" Jackson. Eventually, AIPAC even used it against Kissinger when he tried to pursue detente or pressure Israel to surrender territory in the Sinai in 1975.

In other words, the key to AIPAC's emergence was a Manichean view from America; the fight against the Evil Empire, or since 9/11, the clash of civilizations. In this drama, Israel became cast as America's biggest regional aircraft carrier. AIPAC has succeeded by staying close to American hardliners, arguing against pressuring Israel (to give up territory, to stop settlements, etc.) for the same reason a basketball coach will not foolishly demoralize his slightly brazen power-forward. At the center of the argument was a way of thinking about American hegemony in a dangerous world.

YOU CAN SAY that AIPAC was misguided, that it’s even become a pernicious force, but you can't deny that it got its strategic premises ordered properly. One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want. One has to start with America's foreign policy strategy and then apply its logic to the Middle East. Crucially, this means building coalitions with non-Jews as well, as any watcher of FOX News can see.

Indeed, what J Street really represents--what progressives argue for--is not just support for Israel as such, but for a globalist strategy in which Middle East peace is a key pillar; a strategy of collective security agreements, regional alliances, and international peace-keeping; of patient engagement over the unilateral use of force; of recognition that offering access to economic development and cultural freedom over time is hard power (I hate the term "soft power"); indeed, of the power to attract, not only the power to deter. It means diplomatic containment, not foreign invasion and counter-insurgency. It means what, say, Chuck Hagel calls "realism."

It is within this logic that America’s urgent search for regional Middle East peace is "pro-Israel"--but also pro-Palestinian, pro-Jordanian. Which means that J Street will become a focus for a coalition supporting goals that would make President Obama worthy of his Nobel: deescalation in Afganistan, containment of (not an attack on) Iran, building cooperation with the EU.

This larger coalition is only beginning to get mobilized. General Jones's agreement to come to the conference suggests the administration will be counting on it. Once a healthcare bill is enacted, and the fear of dissipating the solidarity of its Congressional supporters passes (does Obama really want to pick a fight with Joe Lieberman now?), expect the will of this administration--and this coalition--to be felt powerfully in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Outlines Of The Mentor State

In my last post, I told the story of taking my old BMW to Dave Marshall’s garage in New London, New Hampshire; of the novel opportunities for entrepreneurial growth the new technologies have bestowed on him. I suggested the ways he was keeping up his end of a new social compact, and I ended the post by suggesting also that there was another side to this compact, a novel role for government—which I’ve nicknamed “the mentor state”—whose responsibilities to the commercial ecosystem we are just beginning to understand.

Given the often heated reaction to this post, let me hasten to reassure readers, what I took to be self-evident, that the first responsibility of any democratic government (including the one we ought now to envision) is the cultivation of citizens; obvious things like the comparatively excellent public schools in New London, or the New London hospital, which enjoys a measure of municipal support, or land conservancies that make New London beautiful. Kant once said that all things, including people, can be seen as both ends and means; that as ends we have a dignity, as means we have a price. The first role of government is to attend to our dignity.

But unless we commit to socialism in the full sense, which has its own obvious pitfalls, we resign ourselves to the ways of market economies. Governments, Smith said (and who disputes this?), also have to “facilitate commerce in general.” They enforce contracts, protect property, inhibit monopolies, and build roads and bridges. How has the new economy changed, extended, the scope of government action? What will the mentor state do differently?

Actually, Dave's story suggests one of the most important new responsibilities—well, not exactly new, but novel in its importance—which Dave saw clearly, but makers of public policy usually see more dimly. In this particular case—Dave’s repair of my car’s computerized heater/air-conditioner—the federal government had acted some years before, largely behind the scenes, to determine critical standards upon which all mechanics like Dave now depend—standards it set deliberately, without waiting for market conditions to evolve them haphazardly. These standards opened the playing field for entrepreneurs like Dave, while the big car companies would have preferred no standards whatever:

EVERY COMPUTER IN every car is governed by specialized software. Cars are becoming bundled computers on wheels. Back in 1995, the EPA mandated that the “port”—the interface connecter—to the engine's main computer be of a standard size, so that every mechanic's “scanner”—a critical piece of diagnostic equipment—could be manufactured and programmed to handle all cars. (Think of how every personal computer's USB port is a standard size.) For the EPA, the chief consideration was empowering local garages to check cars for a yearly road-worthiness sticker, including compliance with state emission standards. But there were more important collateral benefits, which not all parties fully understood at the time.

To put things simply, were the hardware fittings for each car as proprietary as the diagnostic software, Dave could never have afforded the wide spectrum of appliances that he would have needed to serve all makes. The cost of hardware would have become (what business schools call) a “barrier to entry.” Imagine having to buy one computer for word processing, another for spread-sheets, another for browsing the web, etc.

But since, by law, the hardware fitting conformed to a mandated standard, Dave only had to purchase the BMW diagnostic software—not cheap, but cheap enough to allow him to compete with BMW dealers. (On the whole, software is always much cheaper than hardware, because—again, in business school jargon—the “marginal cost” of adding another customer is essentially nothing: make software for one customer and you've pretty much made it for a million.)

So Dave was able to buy a standard scanner and then supplement his purchase with a portfolio of custom software for most lines of cars. Mandated standardization unleashed a new competition to provide local excellence.

Government standards meant that the complex repair market, which would otherwise be stacked in favor of big dealers even after warrantees expired, could now include smart, independent technicians like Dave as well. The EPA did not presume to “regulate” competition in the diagnostic or repair industries. No bureaucracy presumed to control the provision of services. What the EPA did, rather, was precipitate a self-organizing system of repair-shop competitors, who themselves used the platform to overcome any barriers to entry and find their own ways to pursue distinct business offerings—services in which the EPA had an interest, and services like Dave’s, which the EPA had no interest in at all.

Indeed, the small-shop repair industry organized itself so well that, almost from the start, a partnership developed between two non-profit trade associations, which might have been at each other's throats: one representing repair shops like Dave’s, and the other, manufacturers and their dealers. By 2003, the Automotive Service Association (ASA) had reached an agreement with the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) on a series of standards to keep “after-warranty” repair open to smaller shops, where 70% of repairs are now done.

The quid pro quo for the manufacturers was an agreement that repair shops would not infringe on manufacturers’ intellectual property—the source code for automotive software, which the repair shops did not need to compete. This may seem a humdrum development, but it is hardly that: by comparison, cell phone makers agreed only this past January, and under pressure from the European Union, to a standard for charging handsets through the USB cable.

IN A SINGLE stroke, in other words, the government catalyzed a “cross-sectoral” partnership, a new kind of cooperation between the public and private sectors. Enforced standardization led to more voluntary standardization, which led to market efficiencies and personal opportunities. The government had inadvertently created not only new terms of competition for entrepreneurs, but demonstrated a new means of delivering a public good.

The relevance of this model to the delivery of healthcare should be self-evident. To deliver a “public option” the first priority is to subsidize people who cannot buy into any plan, private or non-profit. But the next should be standards for claims processing, disease monitoring, and digitizing medical records. If this is done, we will not need huge insurers, or a Medicare-sized bureaucracy, to gain efficiencies and create buying consortia for drugs and medical devices. If this is done, the non-profit cooperative idea might well work better than any other, for it will encourage the development of non-profit HMOs, specialized hospitals and clinics, and reduce the perverse incentives built into fee-for-service.

THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF the mentor state are too complex to do justice to here. But some things can be said. First, the mentor state must enhance the “network effect” of linked businesses, nationally and internationally, much the way corporate leaders now manage businesses through the development of their knowledge management platforms. This means tending to the platform directly: building out the platform’s hard infrastructure, making access universal, and mandating, where necessary, protocols for the platform’s software spine infrastructure. It will encourage “open source” where possible; it will build continuing systems of classification for vanguard science, the new “roads and bridges” of the knowledge economy.

It will reform the overburdened patent system, and define new protections, distinct from patents and copyright, for inherently shared forms of intellectual property. It will use public sector institutions to advance novel methods of compensation for “snips” of information which cannot be protected as intellectual property, but are everyday assembled into intellectual property.

Biopharmaceutical companies, for example, have over $28 billion tied up in research, and National Institute of Health sponsored labs have over $30 billion. Consider how universities, developers of bioinformatics platforms, etc., would benefit from (what they call) “common ontologies” for structured scientific findings—and especially in vanguard fields such as genomics and proteomics, where different researchers, coming from different frames of reference, are always calling essentially the same physical events by different names. It would be natural for the publically funded NIH to take the lead here, especially in the most advanced areas, where language for findings is least standard. Such systems of classification give a new meaning to roads and bridges.

Indeed, what about protection for “negative findings” that are by-products of ordinary work—information about things that don’t work. This kind of information is mostly trivial but not always. It is anything but trivial in life sciences, where eliminating candidate drug molecules from a biopharmaceutical company’s pipeline early on may save this company tens of millions of dollars. You cannot patent the fact that a particular molecule does not work, or is toxic, in mice at a certain dosage. But another company at the other side of the world would pay real money to find out about failed experiments elsewhere. The government will have to regulate how participation is promised and compensated and what information is withheld, much as the Security and Exchange Commission regulates audits.

Second, the mentor state will focus on the triangular challenge of cultivating human capital: education, healthcare and environmental decency, which corporations will not do. The mentor state will, however, pursue these goals in innovative ways exploiting the virtues of the platform itself. It will, as Michael Porter and others have written, set strict performance specifications, and prompt start-ups and chartered non-profits to compete on enacting technical specifications. It will thus catalyze cross-sectoral partnerships (like charter schools, teaching hospitals, eco-partnerships, etc.) to pursue the social good more efficiently than through direct government agency. It is peculiar that school choice (vouchers, etc.) are considered a rightist proposal, and single-payer health insurance is considered a leftist proposal, when both rely on this same reasonable logic.

Third, for people incapable of making the transition to knowledge work, the mentor state will invest in—and employ many thousands in creating—an environmentally sound educational and communications infrastructure for future generations. Our children will need many smaller and better schools, competing with each other to advance curricula. They will need many more small liberal arts colleges. They will need national service programs that teach them teamwork, diversity, and poise. They will need wireless networks, ecologically friendly trains, and more—even where private investors would earn only marginal returns. Our inner-city children will also need thousands of preschool centers, thousands of wellness clinics. The cost will be great, but not as great as the costs of not making timely investments in our citizens’ minds and bodies.

THIS MENTOR STATE will rise in fits and starts, but rise it must, and this is very good news for citizens and entrepreneurs both. It means that where life in the industrial factory once deformed people by requiring dumb, repetitive tasks, life in the solutions team elevates human skill, requiring deep literacy, curiosity, and a cosmopolitan heart. In the bounded logic of commercial markets, people are still means not ends: they have a price, not a dignity. But the fact that there is more to our lives than markets does not mean we should fail to consider how to make market society work as well as it can.

The good news is that—for the first time in the history of capitalism, really—life on the job will enhance the skills and means that engender democratic citizenship. Never before have human faculties been advanced by ordinary work. This is a relief, or would be, so long as we qualify people to work at all.