Monday, December 27, 2010

Too Little Too Late

The AP reports on the proposal of two RW members of Likud, Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor, which calls for a limited withdrawal from parts of the West Bank that the government knows will be part of a future Palestinian state. The AP thinks this is newsworthy in part because these are two right-wing members and allies of Netanyahu, and the largest RW party. Typically such proposals come from Labor or Kadima.

Which is what is so depressing about this. Pretty much any honest non-fantasy-land inhabitant of the world who looks at Israel and the Occupied Territories today can see the existential demographic problem that faces the Jewish state, and can recognize that this is not the sort of problem that will get better with time or neglect. Every government, right or left, has recognized the necessity for a Palestinian state of some kind. And still nothing happens, because it is harder and harder to get the Israeli people on board for any immediate action.

It is important to recognize the tremendous strides that have been made in winning over Israeli politicians to the idea that there must be a seprate Palestinian state. What was once just the platform of the Left now claims adherents of center and right-wing parties. Last year, Netanyahu, the last major holdout, also advanced his concept of Palestinian autonomy/statehood. A solid majority of Israelis believe it is the only way to solve it. Every year, new adherents discover the problem and push for action, such as MKs Meridor and Eitan. And yet, time is running out and we remain practically just as far from instituting the obvious solution.

The problem is that we have convinced the politicians, but not the citizens of Israel of the desperate need for action. Netanyahu still cannot make serious advances with the Palestinians because his coalition will be destroyed by the intransigent far-right parties that cannot ever agree to withdrawal. Netanyahu knows that if new elections are forced, it's very possible that a new right wing will take power. Netanyahu and Likud, once fortresses of the right, will join Sharon and Kadima, along with Barak and Labor, in the new center-left. It is this paradox that creates an increasingly "larger Left" every Knesset (in terms of parties that embrace the two-state solution), and yet still maintains an even larger Right (in terms of MKs seeking to derail said solution). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The elites, the politicians, are two-staters, but not the people they represent. The people continue to elect politicians who seek to thwart the two-state solution as a vehicle for peace, yet once the politicians get into actual positions of authority and responsibility they realize that their hands are tied and that the only way forward is compromise. This compromise enrages the people, who elect new, hopefully intransigent leaders, only to be betrayed again. And the cycle continues, ad infinitum. But we don't have that kind of time. It is morbidly ironic that what might very well destroy the world's only Jewish democracy is democracy itself. It is almost enough to tempt one to long for a brief strongman period, just to get Israel past this hurdle. Almost.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

For Deep Thinkers and People Who Should Wear Hats

Long time readers will know of my contempt for the Jewish Press. For a paper that bills itself as America's largest independent Jewish weekly, it does a lot to represent the opinions of only the most right-wing, pro-settler, Republican Jews, and the Pesach hotels they frequent. The most left-wing article/opinion piece/political cartoon (in the JP, the distinction is fleeting) that I can recall reading is one that argued that we shouldn't hate Barack Obama because he is an anti-semite, but because he is a delusional peacenik who is just very stupid. Very brave.

All this is news to no one, least of all me, but sometimes the contempt some of the writers in the JP have for their fellow Jews is just overwhelming. I am a frequent reader of the weekly column "Chronicles in Crises" by the mononymous "Rachel", purely for the cultural voyeurism. My all-time favorite was the series on cheating in the frum community, which was allegedly started by an individual who wrote in to justify the practice. (I'm 90% sure that letter-writer was pulling our collective chain, but I digress.) Lately, however, the crises in our community have been getting more and more mundane, and less and less entertaining. This has culminated in this week's installment, which featured The Terrifying and Anguish-Inducing Crisis of The Boy Who Did Not Want to Wear a Black Hat to Shul on Shabbos, Even Though His Father Really Wanted Him To. Pretty lame, granted. However, Rachel's advice is everything I hate about the Jewish Press.

The mother who wrote in had asked Rachel if she could help convince her son to wear the hat, if possible with a cutting combination of logic and Halachic citation. After affectionately pooh-poohing the logical faculties of the modern teenager (and therefore arguing that really all such attempts at reasoning with a teen are somewhat quixotic), Rachel agreed to help and furnished some citations for The Case for Wearing a Black Hat.

First, two disclaimers. I am by no means a rabbinic source, a font of halachic knowledge, or particularly knowledgeable about this issue, and I do not wear a hat on Shabbos. Second, while I firmly believe women should be taught everything that men are taught, I don't think this was in fact the education that either the Tearful Mother, or the Mononymous Rachel actually received, and I'm curious as to what education Angry Dad was gifted, because the procedural posture of this cry for help is definitely weird. What kind of father can insist that his son wear a hat on Shabbos, without actually having a clue of any of the ma'are mekomos or relevant source-texts? Are they really relying on the mother asking a female Charedi psychologist in the Jewish Press? And from the article, the boy is in a hat-wearing yeshiva. Doesn't he have rebbeim? Can't they brainwash the boy? What kind of yeshiva is this? When I was in yeshiva, I didn't want to wear a hat, and my rebbeim were on me like white on rice. I was left with the strong impression that people who don't wear hats are oysvarfs, and that it is a clear matter of halacha that Thou Shalt Wear on Thine Head a Rabbit's Keester, Meester. So, I have to say, the job that Rachel did here did not leave me very impressed.

First, she cites the Mishnah Berurah that "a man davening Shemonei Esrei should be garbed in a manner that befits the occasion of meeting with an important official," and Berochos that "one should bow before Hashem dressed as befits one who stands before the King."

Okay, I think we can clearly learn from here that when you're davening you should be dressed respectfully, as if you were standing before a King, or at least some important official. But where does a black hat, in particular, come from? The kid doesn't want to go to shul dressed in skater chic, I'm assuming he wants to wear a suit and tie, respectable clothes, right? Why isn't that enough?

"While many orthodox segments of Jews will not allow themselves to succumb to outside trends and influences, members of the modern orthodox may argue that times are not what they used to be and thus justify their no-jacket no-hat attire (when davening) as acceptable."

This sentence right here is everything that is wrong with how the Chareidim view the Modern Orthodox. Notice the dualism here. One the one hand, you have "succumb[ing] to outside trends and influences" which is obviously wrong and bad, and on the other, you have mealymouthed MO's arguing that "times are not what they used to be", which is exactly the same way that Chareidim characterize the outlook of Reform and Conservative Jewry. Times have changed! G-d doesn't care whether we drive to shul on Shabbos, or whether we eat pork, or whether we have premarital sex. He just wants us to have a good time! La-la-la.

And this is the entirety of the no-hat argument. Times have changed. You can just hear the subtext. Silly modernishe Jews, such shotim! Don't they know that times don't change? The Torah is timeless!

And then -

"Then there is the rationalization that proper etiquette in the world at large calls for removal of one's hat in deference to an important figure, such as when standing before a dignitary or monarch. But if that indeed holds true in the gentile world (as we know it does), it should give us all the more reason not to follow such trend in our service to G-d."

I don't even get the logic in this argument. Even assuming every point is true;

1. In order to daven, a Jew must be dressed like he is standing before an important figure.
2. Proper etiquette on planet Earth apparently calls before the doffing of one's hat when standing in front of an important figure.
3. Therefore, we must not take off our hats in front of important figures!

What? How do you get from postulate 2 to conclusion 3? Is Rachel saying we should not take off our hats because goyim (and MO's) take off their hats? Why, just to shtuch them? Or is the argument, that, by definition, goyim don't know how to comport themselves in front of malchus? Are we drawing a distinction between government and Hashem? Are we saying that when one goes before an important official, then he shouldn't wear a hat, but when one goes before G-d, he must? But then what's the meaning of the moshul employed by both the MB and the Gemara? And if her point is that both when going before important officials and G-d, we must not wear hats, then, memah nafshach, what's the point of the moshul? "Dress respectfully before an important official, unless goyim do it too, in which case, dress like mobsters from the 30s." And this is the powerful logic for wearing a hat?

What does she think, that for the last 2000 years, Jews have been wearing fedoras everywhere? Or beaver pelts, I guess? Obviously, Jews in the first half of the 20th century wore fedoras because that was the style of the time in which they lived. When you went outside, you wore a fedora. When you went to work, you wore a fedora. When you went to shul, you wore a fedora. But they didn't wear fedoras in the 1830s. Nobody did. You would have looked like a cowboy.

The fact is, the marriage of Torah-true Orthodox Judaism and wearing a hat is of relatively recent vintage. As I understand the MO argument, the idea behind equating one's manner of dress between an important official and G-d is supposed to be timeless and instructive advice. If the MB or the Gemarah wanted us to always wear fedoras, they could have easily done that - instead, they recognized that fashions change with the times, and that which is respectful attire to one era (say the long-flowing robes favored by Rabbi Akiva and his circle in the JP's weekly comics), will look comical to another. Therefore, by it's very nature, what is considered respectful attire in any one generation will depend on the times, and indeed, whether they have changed. To arbitrarily and permanently peg one's conception of respectable dress to the 1940s is ridiculous. And I'm not even going to begin on the Chassidim who wear satin stockings, fabric belts, long-flowing caftans and giant beaver pelts on their heads. Really, RW-Jews, it's you guys who should have to explain yourselves to us!

And then, the kicker:

"A fascinating bit of kabbalah that deep-thinkers may appreciate explains why Chassidim and other orthodox sects wear hats over their yarmulkes (a double covering). Each Jewish soul is made up of five levels: the nefesh (soul), ruach (spirit), neshama (soul - Hashem's breath), chaya (living essence) and yechida (unique essence). The first three, the nefesh, ruach and neshama, are the ascending levels that reside within the physical body, while chaya and yechida - the highest levels (not internalized) - are acknowledged with the jacket and hat respectively. These items of clothing are linked to the makif (encircling light) and thus have the ability to attract the divine light that protects us from the surrounding negative forces. Quite compelling an argument (in favor of wearing a jacket and hat) in and by itself!"

What is she, insane? Yeah, kabbala mandates the wearing of a Borselino and a Perry Ellis jacket everywhere you go. That explains why noted kabbalists such as the Arizal and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wore hats and jackets.

And "deep-thinkers may appreciate"? The smugness, it burns! There is nothing more revolting than to ask why something should be done, and told "v'hamayvin yavin". How is this deep thought? Is this the result of her long meditations into the spiritual spheres of heavenly majesty and cosmic balance? Is there some secret meaning to her words that only she and people like her can understand? More likely, this is just a bit of "kabbalite" that has been told to her, and which she is dutifully repeating. But since it's "Kabbalah" it must be for "deep-thinkers." Right. Ve'hamayvin yavin.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Should Judge Reinhardt Recuse Himself from Perry v. Schwarzenegger? (A longish post.)

As many of you know, this past summer Perry v. Schwarzenegger was litigated in the Northern District of California. At issue was whether the Proposition 8, now enshrined in the California Constitution, violated the Due Process clause and/or the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Vaughn Walker, the District Court judge, ruled that it violated both, and was thus unconstitutional. However, the defendants (in this case, actually, not Schwarzenegger) immediately appealed to the Ninth Circuit and were successful in getting a stay, so Judge Walker's order will not be enforced until the appeal is decided on the merits. This week, the three-judge panel which will be hearing the case was chosen. One of the judges is a Bush II appointee, and is conservative, one is a Clinton appointee, and is middle of the road liberal, and one, Judge Reinhardt, is a Carter appointee, and is considered to be one of the most liberal judges on the Ninth Circuit, which means he is one of the most liberal judges in the country. He also happens to be one of the most reversed judges at the Supreme Court level, including such famous cases as Washington v. Glucksberg (the right to die case).

In any case, the defendants, and much of the conservative media, have been calling for Judge Reinhardt to recuse himself from the hearing because of the apparent bias. It turns out that Judge Reinhardt's wife, Ramona Ripston, is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California.

What exactly that means is where I get bogged down. From the defendants' petition for recusal, it appears that the ACLU of Souther California has taken a somewhat active role in the case, but what that is, remains unclear. (All I have is the defendant's motion, so I don't know the other arguments.) But according to the motion, the ACLU/SC represented a different set of plaintiffs in front of the California Supreme Court, in an effort to disqualify Prop. 8 under California state law (which was unsuccessful). Additionally, the ACLU/SC has obviously spoken out against Prop. 8 numerous times and vowed to fight it, etc.

Regarding what the ACLU/SC has done in Perry, it looks even murkier. From what I can tell, the ACLU/SC tried to intervene (become a party) to the original suit in District Court, was unsuccessful, and then also tried to file an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs (I'm not sure if they were allowed to, in the end.) It is unclear what role Ripston had in any of this, but two factors seem at once both relevant and unhelpful: (1) Ms. Ripston is not a lawyer, so her name probably isn't on anything, but (2) she is, according to the ACLU/SC website, deeply involved in everything they do. So this can go either way.

Ms. Ripston also publicly lauded the district court's decision in Perry, and apparently, before the litigants in Perry brought the case, they consulted with her and a few other lawyers as to whether they should bring it or not. (There was a large debate in the progressive community whether it was a good time to litigate in federal court a constitutional right to gay marriage.) We do not know what she advised them.

Additionally, it appears that Judge Reinhardt has a policy of recusing himself whenever the ACLU/SC is "involved" in a case. Obviously, as I don't know what is meant by "involved", I can't figure out what he would normally do in such a case. In any case, Judge Reinhardt denied the motion, and said he will hear the case.

The Code of Conduct for United States Judges (a set of ethical principles and guidelines adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States), Canon 3.C (Subpart (1)(d)) states that circumstances in which a judge's impartiality may reasonably be questioned

“includ[e] but [are] not limited to instances in which … the judge’s spouse … is (i) a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, or trustee of a party; or (ii) acting as a lawyer in the proceeding.” Federal law has a virtually similar provision.*

I don't think there is a very strong textual argument that Reinhardt must recuse himself because I think everyone would agree that neither Ripston nor the ACLU/SC is a party to the proceeding, and that she is not a lawyer, so legally she cannot act as a lawyer.

Ed Whelan has argued that since Ms. Ripston is "an officer of an entity that acted as a lawyer in the proceeding", the difference is trivial, and Reinhardt should recuse himself. I would dispute this, and argue that the difference is quite significant. First, we can't be saying that this is what the law mandates, because the statute specifically draws two separate scenarios; if the drafters wanted to combine them, (as Mr. Whelan does) they could have easily done so. The fact that they didn't is, I think, instructive. Second, Whelan's reading would greatly expand the scope of the provision. The ACLU, for example, is interested in pretty much any case that involves a constitutional right, and a good deal many besides. They will try to either represent or file an amicus for most such cases. Seeing as most cases that involve constitutional rights will involve federal court, and Reinhardt sits on a federal court, it would be a huge burden if Reinhardt had to recuse himself everytime the ACLU/SC just tried to get involved, especially if it was only at the District Court level.

So, the statute doesn't cover it. Which is fine, because in most of these situations, I think, it is rare for a judge to go just by the book; typically they recuse themselves by a much stricter standard, so as to leave no doubt.

So we have two issues, I think. Two kinds of bias. One, do we think that Judge Reinhardt is biased because of his wife's position with the organization (assuming the facts as I have related them are 100% true). And two, even if his wife does not make him biased, does the relationship give the perception of bias, which means Reinhardt should recuse himself regardless.

Relatedly, what standard should we adopt? On the one hand, Judge Reinhardt is a very liberal judge, and it is almost assured that he would have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs anyway. Reinhardt is probably the stereotypical liberal activist judge of every conservative's nightmares. He is famous for going out on a limb, and the Supreme Court apparently takes an active interest in reversing his opinions. It seems highly unlikely to me that such a person is in danger of changing his opinion to make his wife happy, especially if he doesn't care about the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, a standard by which we would allow a judge to only recuse himself where he felt, subjectively, that he would not be swayed by his relationship to the parties is obviously faulty; would we let him hear this case, then, if his wife was the litigant or the attorney, even though we are sure it wouldn't really effect the decision?

So, then, question 2. Would a reasonable person perceive this to be bias? Depends what you mean by reasonable. Anybody familiar with his work, knows how he will decide regardless. However, most people who care about the outcome of Perry are not familiar with his work, and might very well perceive there to be impermissible bias. On the other hand, this isn't a case where his wife is the litigant or the party's attorney, and the casual observer would have no clue as to the connection, either.

Which gets us to the trees falling in forest problem. If there is no actual objective bias at work, and no one is aware of the fact that would lead knowledgeable people to think there might ve a perception of bias, is there any perception of bias?

Put another way, if we adopted a standard by which Judge Reinhard had to recuse himself just because "it doesn't look good", then we open the door to cases where, if I, as a litigant, don't like the judge assigned to hear my case, will find some ostensible, perhaps even attenuated connection, but play it up so now that it appears there is a perception of bias. And, voila, I can disqualify my judge.

For example, Justice Thomas's wife is a Tea Party leader and is probably on record saying all sorts of things like "Obamacare is unconstitutional." Does that mean that we will think Justice Thomas is biased when he hears a case that challenges healthcare's constitutionality? People who follow the Court at all, of course, will realize that probably far more influential to Justice Thomas's thinking is Justice Thomas's uber-conservative jurisprudence than any opinion his wife may hold, but now that I've told everyone about his wife's beliefs, does that mean there is now a perception of bias?

The irony of all this is that my arguments for Reinhardt's lack of perceived bias is based on his obvious actual bias, which however is permissible bias - the bias of his jurisprudence.

*The difference is this. The Canon states

"A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances in which:"

-and then lists the factors mentioned above. However, the statute, 28 USC § 455 states

"(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States
shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his
impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following

- and then lists the factors.

To me, it's possible to read the Canons as saying that the factors are part of a non-exhaustive list of scenarios in which a judge's impartiality is reasonably questioned, while reading the statute as saying that the factors do not describe scenarios in which a judge's impartiality is reasonably questioned, just other scenarios in which he must recuse himself.

I'm not sure what the difference would be. Either way, I think the textual argument is strong, that if it's a scenario that is not covered by the factors (but very easily could have been if that was the drafters' intention), it's probably unlikely that it's a scenario in which the judge's impartiality is questioned.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What's Really Up With the TSA?

Obviously, it seems patently silly that travellers should have to undergo a rigorous inspection of their undercarriage before they get on a plane. All of our attempts to secure air travel seem to involve efforts to counteract the very latest attack, no matter how epic its failure. A dumbass puts a bomb in his shoe, and now everyone has to take their shoes off. A dumbass tries to conduct military-grade chemistry in an airport bathroom, and now no one can bring lens solution on board. A dumbass actually puts a bomb in his underwear, and now no one can wear undergarments on a plane. Oh wait, only figuratively! We just need to see everyone naked before they get on a plane. Or have them felt up. And not everyone. It'll be random. For now.

It doesn't matter how far any of these dumbass "plots" were from succeeding, what matters is that they can ruin, or at least make even worse, the magic of air travel. Seriously, at this point, if I was Osama bin Laden, I would just send some dumbass to get on a plane with a bomb in his nostril, just to see what we do next. The amount of damage he can do by hatching a really crappy dumbass scheme is well worth it. All he needs is for some dumbass to get a match, shove it up his nose, and then try and get on a plane. He doesn't even need to get on the plane! Even if we catch him, we'll still destroy every match in the country, bomb the match fields of Denmark, force every country to sign on to the Match Ban.

But seriously, where does it end? To me, the next step is to try putting a bomb in a terrorist's anus. Then what? From what we know, Rapiscans can't see in someone's butt. What do we do, then? Require that everyone undergo a full-cavity search? A colonoscopy? Why is genital fondling a measured response, but not a full-cavity search? The inside/outside line?

I don't blame the TSA, it's not really their fault. Especially the TSA workers we see, the ones given the unpleasant task of inspecting our junk for explosive irregularities. They're the real victims in all of this. A lot of people are directing anger at them, as if the secret dream of every low-salaried government worker is seeing John Q. Public naked, in all his glory. Personally, if worked in the TSA, I would turn into a recluse from having to deal with the thousands of entitled passengers who would see me as an object of scorn, upon whom society has made acceptable the giving of rebuke. The last thing I would want to do is touch their nuts. There are already stories of TSA workers who now go home every day and cry because they are called perverts or pedophiles, as if the vast national security-state was the product of a decades-long scheme to perform random fumblies on our jumblies.

But, again, it's not even their bosses that are to blame, either. For some reason, the American people have condensed the risk of terrorism into two scenarios: nuclear bomb in New York City; and crashing/blowing up an airplane. While we've farmed out nuclear bomb detail to other government agencies, we've told the TSA to worry about the airplanes-out-of-the-sky problem, to the exclusion of all else. Even other airport related danger. The TSA doesn't stop anyone from, say, detonating themselves while waiting in the security line, which thanks to the extended wait times, will now be longer.

It's natural that we, as human beings focus on what hurt us last. That's how animals think. After 9/11, we demanded from the government that an airplane never fall out of the sky again, or heads will roll. Even though the odds of that happening essentially dropped to zero by the late-morning of 9/11, the government quickly went about expending billions of dollars to make those specific protections redundant, because throwing money at a problem is how government goes about ensuring things most important to government; getting votes.

Now, of course, the chattering masses have turned on the TSA for crossing some invisible line of decency which really pisses them off. It's ironic, because it's largely the media's fault. They're the ones who put a gun to the head of government and jump on any failed plot and look for ways to make it appear that the government is clueless and needs to step up its efforts. Now, of course, unbeknownst to it, the government stumbled upon a security measure the media hates. I don't fly that much, figure ten times a year. I can tolerate the chance of randomly being selected for a groping, and polls show 66% of Americans are in favor of random groping (though they prefer it be done to people browner than them). But someone in the media typically flies a gazillion times a year, which means they will get groped a lot. (Ditto politicians, which is why this is now a bipartisan issue in Congress.)

Essentially, the media is putting a gun to the head of the TSA, and then asking, "Hey, why so nervous? It's just a gun. And, yeah, if you let anything through, we'll shoot you. But you guys are awfully paranoid. It's unhealthy."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pet Peeve of the Day (Minor Rant)

To get out of my subway station, after coming home from school, I (and my fellow passengers, naturally) need to go up a flight of stairs then choose either the escalator or seven flights of stairs. If you choose the escalator, and actually walk up the escalator, you can make pretty good time. If, on the other hand, you elect to stand on the escalator, it will take longer than if you just walked straight up the stairs.

Now, I don't have a problem with people who don't want to walk up the entire escalator, or who want to rest on the escalator. That's what it's there for. If you're not in a rush, you're not in a rush.

What I don't get is why some of these people feel the need to situate themselves at the very last door of the train (the door closest to the stairs and escalator), block anyone else from getting out, rush to the escalator, and then just stand there. If you're in a rush, rush. If you're not, let the rest of us out! I can't tell you how many times I race a train full of people to the escalator, only to come second to some person who started at the front, and has been maintaining a brisk pace up until that point, and then suddenly forgets her legs can move. It's a one person escalator, width-wise, so passing is difficult. All this results in about fifty people lined up behind one person for two minutes.

Not a big deal, but it makes me roll my eyes every day.

Funny story, one time a guy refused to let a woman pass him. Nothing happened, except the look on the woman's face was priceless. She could not believe that someone could be such a jerk. She had this expression like she had found herself in some Kafkaesque dystopia. I sympathized.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kahane Was A Schmucktard

Who is the most important Jewish leader of the last little while to die this past week? I’ll give you some hints. He was very active in Israeli politics, had leadership positions in a Jewish military, earned fame for his dealings with Arabs, and was assassinated. If you guessed Yitzchak Rabin, you’d be wrong. Or, at least according to the Jewish Press, who apparently believes that Meir Kahane is more worthy of a memorial tribute than the former war hero, Ramatkal, Israeli Prime Minister (twice) and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shelley Benveniste, the JP’s South Florida editor, wrote a touching memorial to the good “Rabbi”, while no one could scrape together two words for Yitzchak Rabin.

Long time readers of my blog (of which there are none) may be aware of my frustration with the Jewish Press, a once-mediocre community rag that has since fallen to the level of hackish drivel whose sole utility is serving as filler for the weekly “shidduch crisis” columns and Pesach (and now Succos!) hotel advertisements which are its true purpose.

But this seems to be a much more dangerous development. Meir Kahane is not a good guy. He is not “misunderstood”, he is a schmucktard. He was a bad man. In an ideal world, no one would be writing tributes to this colossal waste of space, but even in a world where good and evil were locked in eternal struggle, one would hope that “America’s Largest Independent Jewish Weekly” wouldn’t. The paramilitary society he founded, the JDL, is recognized by the FBI and our State Department as being a terrorist organization. His political party was outlawed by the Israeli Knesset (!) as being too racist. The fact that the Jewish Press chose to write an article of slavish adoration about this crazy bigot, while completely ignoring Yitzchak Rabin is very disturbing. It sends the message that Kahane is a more widely respected figure in the Zionist and Orthodox Jewish communities than the former Prime Minister. If that’s the case, we’ve really lost our way.

Among the ridiculous statements in his tribute:

“Kahane, a graduate of Mir Yeshiva (Brooklyn), was a real Talmud chacham. For the ten years that he stayed in my family’s home on his visits to Florida, the light in his room would go on no later than five o’clock in the morning. He was learning Torah.”

Perhaps if Kahane would have gotten up a bit earlier in the morning, perhaps a quarter to five, he might have come across Exodus 20:12 – thou shalt not commit adultery. Which he did. With (gasp) a shikse! Whom he then dumped. And then she jumped off the 59th Street Bridge. A moral giant, for sure.

“Rabbi Kahane had a tremendous ahavat Yisroel, a love of his fellow Jew.”

Some of the Jews Kahane loved included Sol Hurok, the Jew whom the JDL tried to kill. And his secretary, whom they did kill. (Hurok’s capital offense was organizing for performing artists to come from the Soviet Union to the United States on cultural exchanges. His secretary’s sin was being in the office at the wrong/right time.)

“Kahane understood the urgency of the plight of Soviet Jewry.”

Better, apparently, than Soviet Jewry themselves. Natan Sharansky and other prominent refuseniks condemned Kahane and the JDL for their terrorist tactics (which included, inter alia, bombing Soviet embassies, missions and consulates), which they felt, quite rationally, put the actual Jews of the Soviet Union in a rather precarious position as scapegoat.

“Through the years, I have heard many people, who had never listened to the rabbi speak, or read any of his books or articles exclaim, ‘Kahane said we should have killed the Arabs!’ Of course, that is patently untrue. ... According to the Torah, the [ger toshav] may have personal rights but may hold no political position.”

Patently untrue, yes. You see, all he wanted us to do was to ethnically cleanse the Jewish state of nearly all of its Arab, by force, if that was necessary. As to the non-Jews who remained, they would get to live in an Apartheid state. Sheesh, Liberals, they distort everything.

In sum, Kahane was a schmucktard.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kiruv Professionals Should Stay Away from Children

I don’t have a lot of regard for kiruv workers. Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t think they are bad people, or that they are just doing it for the money, I’m sure the vast majority of them are dedicated, sacrificing individuals who want to bring their fellow Jews closer to optimal way of life, which just happens to resemble their own. I don’t have a lot of regard for their ability, though.

Again, though, just so I’m not misunderstood, I’m sure they’re very “successful,” in the sense that they can take a lot of unobservant Jews and convince them to keep shabbos and kosher, but I don’t think they do it through rational argument.

This probably wouldn’t bother me so much if many of these organizations didn’t explicitly rely on the apparent logic and obviousness of their claims. Kiruv professionals like Rabbi Mechanic, programs like the Discovery Seminar, and books like “Permission to Believe, Receive, Conceive, Retrieve, etc.” all make the argument that things like the existence of G-d, the divinity of the Torah, and the truth of Orthodox Judaism can be proven, and proven easily, to anyone who is willing to use their brain, and forget the “brainwashing” of the surrounding culture.

Of course, they’re wrong. I mean, I’m Orthodox, but I don’t rely on garbage “proofs” based on the Kuzari, or on logical reasoning that should be obviously lacking to any college freshman. I happen to like Orthodox Judaism, it’s the religion of most of my family and friends, and I don’t think it really conflicts with my inherent moral outlook all that much. That’s basically it.

As you’ve no doubt surmised, I am not a good kiruv worker. It’s hard for me to evangelize others, when I’m kind of meh on the basics myself. To me, there are any number of obvious, fatal questions to the obvious truth of OJ, and there is no way I could give a prospective returnee to the faith a bullshit answer just to get the “right” result.

And this flaw extends to all kiruv professionals. None of them have the right answers, or can really defend their claims. I’m sure they believe they can, and they believe that the fact that they believe the Torah says 3,000,000 men, women and children witnessed a divine revelation at Sinai means that the mesorah must be true, but it doesn’t. To me, to avoid facing the hard questions, they have to rely on a few underhanded tactics. Firstly, they can structure conversations in such a way as to reduce the chances of a truly hard question of being asked. Two, they can give bullshit answers, and believe the bullshit answers. Three, they can give the bullshit answers, and not believe the bullshit answers, but believe there are answers, and nobody dies from a question anyway, and it’s better to have a frum guy who got there on bullshit, then a not-frum guy because he wasn’t given bullshit. Fourth, they can downplay the importance of the question, perhaps by relying on other “evidence”, the charisma of the kiruv professional, and cholent and kugel.

And this strikes me as fundamentally wrong. If you can’t convince someone truthfully, and can’t answer all the questions thrown at you, perhaps you shouldn’t go around trying to change people’s lives to match your own. I mean, turning someone into a BT, can have huge consequences. These are life-changing decisions. They can rip children away from parents, break up marriages and estrange siblings. They can make a person give up his lucrative career, or give away lots of money to charity, that they really can’t afford. Now, you may think that since you’re giving these people the answer to “life, the universe and everything”, a little upheaval in their lives is a fair trade. Perhaps. But before you start screwing up somebody’s life to bring them to nirvana, you better be damn sure. Damn sure. And if you can’t answer questions, or believe you have to evade questions or give bullshit answers to people questions, you are not damn sure enough. Even if your target has never even asked the hard questions, and you know there are hard questions, that’s just as bad. All you’ve done is brainwash an idiot.

Which brings me to kids. Many of these kiruv organizations target children in high school, or even younger, who society believes lack the critical thinking skills and decision-making ability to pilot a motor vehicle or consensually engage in sexual intercourse. Why it’s understood that of course we won’t let them drive, drink or have sex, but will let them take their run at brainwash roulette is beyond me. Kids are idiots, they just are. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a species they’re idiots. And the consequences of the decisions these brainwashed kids will make have much greater ramifications than the mere choice to have sex with their boyfriend. Kriuv workers should stay away from kids until they have the ability to think for themselves; maybe until they’re 20.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Why I Hate OnlySimchas

Not because I’m jealous. While I’m not married, I’m also not really looking at the moment, so I don’t resent your evident success at life. And it’s not because I find the concept annoying. In point of fact, I think it’s a fantastic idea! As my friends and I have graduated from yeshiva and college and Yeshiva College and grown up and moved across the world, it’s become impossible for us to keep up with everyone. So when I hear that so-and-so is engaged, naturally, the first place I turn to is OnlySimchas.

Which is why it’s such a shame the site sucks. Now, I don’t really know if a similar website exists in the secular world, and if so, whether the problem afflicts all of humanity, or whether the trouble is endemic to the Jewish community, but the people who leave mazel tovs are the banes of my existence. I mean it. I hate them with a passion bordering on the insane. And I am completely certain, although I have not taken even an informal survey of any rigor whatsoever, that the fault lies with girls.

If somebody tells me that an old yeshiva friend, say Yaakov Fine, is engaged, I am, as the ray of sunshine I strive to be, very happy for him. “That’s great,” I will think. “I am full of goodwill and well-wishery.” If I remember, the next time I am in front of my computer, I will try and leave him a message communicating the above thought. One phrasing I am particularly fond of is “Mazel Tov!” An oldie, but a goodie.

Imagine my dismay, however, when I find the new couple’s page on OnlySimchas. The ten comments that are already there are all along the lines of:

“OMGGGGGG!!!!!!! Mazel ToVvVVVVVVvvvV! [Translation of random pasuk from Tehillim in a combination of Hebraic and Cyrillic script]!!!!!! You should be zocheh to build a bayis ne’eman b’YisrEal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!! !!!!!??? ??&&^%%$$# OMG You’re so lucky!!!!!!!!! With gratitude to Hashem Yisborach!!!!!! Can’t wait to dance at your wedding!!!????!!!! I luv you so muchhhhhh. [Then there usually follow a bunch of acronyms that I cannot quite follow, but that my little sister employs with abandon; as far as I can tell, the intent of them is to communicate various kinds of platonic hugs, kisses, and various and sundry other displays of sisterly affection].

These are invariably left by all the Miris and Chavis and Ruthies and Dvoris and Tzipis, etc. so I know whose fault it is. And, girls, don’t think you’re fooling anyone because after you got married you officially got yourself a “joint” OnlySimchas account for you and your husband. Everyone knows it’s just you.

Now don’t get me wrong, girls, I applaud the sentiment. I do. It’s just that it’s not a sentiment I can physically express. I just can’t. I am literally incapable of expressing those emotions. (I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of even having these emotions. Granted, I have the emotional range of a fruit fly, so I represent an extreme case. Still, I think it’s a difference of degree rather than kind.) The above sample was very tiring on me even to fake. I had to actually go to OnlySimchas and find some actual posts for inspiration. You’ll notice I left out emoticons and failed to repeat everything three times (is that a lucky number for you guys, or something?) because I (also) lack the ability to do that sort of thing in Microsoft Word.

And it makes me look bad, to be frank. Very bad. Now my measly little “Mazel Tov!”, once so cheerful-sounding to my apparently tin ear, will come out as mealy-mouthed and begrudging. “I hope you and your cursed union rot in the fiery bowels of hell!” I might as well be saying. And that’s really not the effect I was going for. I want to be invited to the reception, after all.

And, honestly, what’s the point of all this exuberance? Are you really this enthused? Then why don’t you call them up and communicate your feelings to them verbally? And if you’re not that kind of friend, maybe you should respect some lower consonant-to-exclamation mark ratio? Sincerity isn’t measured by the amount of asterisks in a sentence. Ever seen a headstone with an emoticon?

OMGGGG!!!@#$% Chanie, you were the gr8est person ever!!!!! So sad you’re gone :-( :-( :-(, but hapy to hve known you!!!!!! :-) :-) {:-)!

Didn’t think so.

So, a plea. Rein it in. Curb your enthusiasm. Let us sentimentally-deprived have a chance to give our good-wishes to the happy couple or new parents or proud owners. Think of all the extra energy you’ll save for texting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Somebody to Love

I would post this exuberant dub of "Somebody to Love" done by the students at Hebrew University, but I'm worried that Time Magazine's Karl Vick will only see it as further evidence of Israelis enjoying themselves too much to care about making peace. Ah, what the hell.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Does Netanyahu Want Peace?: Or, Getting to 61

Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision not to extend the moratorium on West Bank settlement has been met with disappointment on the western side of the Atlantic. The Obama Administration is "disappointed" and several American Jewish commentators have wondered as to whether Netanyahu seriously desires a comprehensive accord with the Palestinians, at least one that results in an independent Palestinian state.

Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic, offered this suggestion to Netanyahu: “Why not risk your governing coalition and impose a total freeze on settlement growth outside of the greater Jerusalem area? This way, you'll show the world, and the Palestinians -- who are governed, on the West Bank, at least, by a group of true moderates, who have done a great deal for your security over the past year -- that you are serious about grappling with the challenges before you. And you'll show President Obama that you mean it when you say that it is the Iranian nutters, and not the Palestinians, who pose an existential threat to Israel. Yes, risking your coalition means you would have to induce Tsipi Livni's opposition Kadima party into the government, but now seems as good a moment as any. At the very least, you'll gain a foreign minister who isn't an international embarrassment.”

Most prominent American Jewish commentators have not been as generous, instead seeing Netanyahu’s decision to preserve his right-wing governing coalition as proof positive that he never intended to sign a comprehensive agreement.

Peter Beinart, in the Daily Beast, reasoned that “a prime minister genuinely interested in a final status deal would have said good riddance, and brought in Livni’s Kadima instead, thus creating a government composed of people who actually support a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, has not done that, just as he refused to create a centrist government during his first stint as prime minister. The reason is that he likes governing alongside racist, pro-settler parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Ovadiah Yosef’s Shas. They give him political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”

Two weeks ago, William Galston, writing in The New Republic, observed that “[t]he decision that the current coalition must be preserved at all costs would represent the clearest possible evidence that this round of negotiations isn’t serious.”

All this has led Matthew Yglesias over at ThinkProgress to demand that “[a]t some point don’t we need to give this game up?... [I]t’s actually not puzzling at all why Netanyahu doesn’t form a different coalition and agree to a settlement freeze—Netanyahu favors settlement building. This is the whole trajectory of his political career, from leading the charge against the Oslo Agreement to rump Likud in a rebellion against Ariel Sharon to forming a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman. The guy’s not a fool. He knows what he’s doing.

My reading of this is less clear. There are a range of possible intentions that Netanyahu may have. He may not want talks at all. He may want talks, but only so that he can manipulate the Palestinians into walking out, thus giving Israel the appearance of once again trying for peace, only to be turned down by the insatiable Palestinians. He may want the talks to succeed, but his definition of success for Israel is something no Palestinian can agree to. He may have a realistic grasp of what peace will take, and be wiling to do it, but also believe that for any substantive agreement to be accepted by the Israeli populace, it has to be negotiated by the Israeli right. All would explain his devotion to his coalition.

Or it could be that there is no grand strategy at work here. My thinking is that Netanyahu is taking orders from his primal political instincts. He wants to say in power. All politicians do; it is the sine qua non of politics.

The commentators above all want Netanyahu to bring down his coalition, kick out such embarrassments as Yisrael Beitenu, Shas and National Union, and create a new National Unity Government consisting of Likud, Labor and Kadima, a coalition of 68 MKs. But how would such a coalition function, and why would Netanyahu get to remain Prime Minister? In such a coalition, he would not be the leader of the largest party (that would be Tzipi Livni, of Kadima), nor of a party that’s representative of the coalition. The Likud party would be the outlier. Why would Ehud Barak and Livni want the most right-wing member of their coalition to be its leader? Livni and Barak had that option after the 2009 elections and Livni refused, largely because she felt Netanyahu was unwilling to make peace.

Perhaps Netanyahu believes that doing the “right thing” – blowing up the coalition – would result in his ouster from political power. Expecting a politician to do the right thing when faced with such consequences is an exercise in disappointment. Most politicians, I suspect, would rather opt to be a guaranteed James Buchanan then a 20% chance of being Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, it’s possible that a Netanyahu-led Kadima-Likud-Labor government could emerge. My understanding is that something similar happened in the Eleventh Knesset, when the Shimon Peres-led Alignment, consisting of 44 MKs, was unable to form a government with the smaller parties, and entered into a power-sharing agreement with Yitzchak Shamir’s Likud (41 MKs) that resulted in Shamir becoming Prime Minister for the last two years of the government.

But the present scenario seems different – in that Netanyahu would be asking the leader of the largest party to take the hit, and serve as a subordinate (at least, at first), and the first part is the important part.

It seems just as likely that such a coalition could never emerge, which would lead to elections. And, honestly, are two-staters really sure that the winners of that election would be them? It seems more likely that an even more right wing coalition would come to power, one to which even Netanyahu would be anathema. Then nobody gets what they want.

Still, I think it’s obvious, that at some point, if Netanyahu really plans to sign a comprehensive agreement that results in a massive pullout from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he’s going to have to change the coalition. I think it’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu does not control Jewish Home or National Union – and those parties will never go in for an agreement. Opposing such an agreement is their raison d’etre. There would literally be no point to them, if Judea and Samaria ceased to exist. Although Shas can be bribed, I think it’s obvious that they’ve taken a right-ward progression over the last decade, and would be vehemently opposed to ceding any of East Jerusalem. Clearly, this government cannot sign an agreement.

My assumption is that Netanyahu will try and get an agreement, which will rupture his coalition, at which point he will invite Kadima to join the government, if only to help ratify the damn thing without an election or a referendum, which seems likely to be unacceptable to the electorate at large. Yeah, I’m not optimistic.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How Israel's Kooky Koalitions Cause Problems

(One example of many.)

Here is Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: "[Regarding the possibility of peace -] not next year and not for the next generation." ... “However, there is no reason to be worried," Lieberman added. "I repeat: Abu Mazen will not fight us... The only practical solution is a long term interim agreement, on which we can debate. Our proposal is: No to unilateral concessions, no to continuing the settlement freeze, yes to serious negotiations and mutual gestures of good faith."

In his remarks, FM Lieberman is notably at odds with those of his Prime Minister, who, professedly at least, sees great potential for a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the United States, and in many countries around the world, a nation’s foreign policy is understood to be formulated and executed by the state’s head of government, whether that be the Prime Minister or the President. To be sure, Secretaries of State and Foreign Ministers play a vital role in the shaping and execution of foreign policy, but it’s understood that when push comes to shove, a country’s foreign policy is that of its head of government. If the foreign minister disagrees, he either keeps that to himself, or he gets out of government. It is virtually unheard of for a country’s chief diplomat to criticize foreign policy from the sidelines.

In Israel, however, things work much more stupidly. Because of electoral pressures, PM Netanyahu has a foreign minister he can’t let anywhere near foreign policy. Whenever Lieberman gets involved in diplomatic affairs, a scandal erupts. He says impolitic things, yells at ambassadors, and presents positions contrary to those of his government. Thus, in all manners of consequence, Netanyahu is Israel’s foreign minister, while Lieberman retains the title and a good deal of the bureaucracy. This is unsustainable, however.

Ill-informed observers will naturally assume that FM Lieberman speaks for his government on foreign affairs. It’s his title, his job. When Netanyahu says one thing, and Lieberman says another, people will assume that the government of Israel is unsure, or ambivalent about its policies. Some may assume that there is some sort of subterfuge at work. Perhaps Netanyahu is telling the West what is wants to hear, and Lieberman is telling the truth?

The Israeli government often speaks of the importance of hasbarah, of making its case persuasively to the world. This focus is echoed by many pro-Israel groups. But how can people be expected to take Israel seriously when its own government can’t get its mouthpieces in line? You think the world is biased and distrusts Israel? Your own foreign minister, the head of your Foreign Affairs Ministry, is busy making anti-Israel propaganda for your enemies!

Think for a moment how damaging Lieberman’s remarks are. While Obama is running around the world, moving heaven and earth to get negotiations started, and Netanyahu is doing his best to at least sound eager and willing to negotiate, Israel’s foreign minister is rhetorically dooming the talks to failure before they have even begun in earnest. Not just these talks. But any talks that happen in this generation. In other words, no peace now, and no peace for the foreseeable future. Hey, Intifada III, are you listening? Lieberman is essentially telling every pissed-off Palestinian (of which we can assume there are many) that Israel is not giving Palestine any independence for the next 25 years or so, at least. So, hey, start up again with the murder and mayhem, because you’ve got nothing to lose.

And then, he has the audacity to mock PA President Mahmoud Abbas, saying that “Abu Mazen will not fight us” and there is no reason to worry about not negotiating for the next generation or so. Can you think of any statement more calculated to ensure a third Intifada? The entire underlying rationale of the modern PA’s nonviolent approach to independence is based on the premise that negotiations will yield fruit quicker and better than violence. The competing counterpoint, popular amongst the militants and fundamentalists, is that Israel is only pressured to make concessions when it is paying in blood. Here, Lieberman is taking sides with the fundamentalists! He’s basically saying, hey no violence, no need to make a deal.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it appears that Lieberman is actively trying to sabotage the talks. Which is awful, obviously, but everyone’s got the right of free speech. No, the real problem is that he’s doing this as Israel’s Foreign Minister. Some hot-headed Palestinian youths reading his remarks in the paper are going to think he speaks for the State, and people may die. This is serious. Lieberman has got to go.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What Are You Willing to Give Up for Peace?

It's that time of decade again. Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and a whole host of other nationalities are sittin' around the old peace-makin' table and trying to work out a final-status agreement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an odd issue, because most people seem to agree on the broad outlines of how to solve the damn thing, but for one reason or another, it's been kicking around the last 40 years. The conflict's longevity has led many to conclude that peace cannot/will not ever happen, although of course just because something has gone on for a long time does not mean it will go on forever. Just think of all those long peaces that occasionally break out into wars. Or periods of prosperity that turn into recessions.

I'm not going to get into what makes these talks different (in a positive way), because honestly I don't think they are. My sole reason for optimism is that everyone knows how to solve the conflict (at least, in a general sense) and that it's got to be solved sometime, and it might as well be now. Then again, or not.

What I'm more curious about is what the community, by which I mean Orthodox Jews or any denizens of Jewish blogosphere, is willing to give up in a final status agreement. Think of it as a negotiation exercise, the famous "getting to yes" of bargaining. One common reason for failure in any negotiation is that one or both of the parties does not have a clear idea of what they would be willing to take in a deal (i.e. the bare minimum to count it as a net win) and when they would be willing to walk away. I think it's useful to think these out, even if few of us will actually be involved in the negotiations. I'll start us off.

I'm willing to give:
a) 95-97% of the West Bank. When you get right down to it, I'd probably be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines for peace, but I don't think the Palestinians or the Americans think that's particularly possible or even desirable. I assume that what will be asked for is most of the West Bank and some land swaps in the Negev or something, which I'm also fine with.
b) East Jerusalem. It's mostly Arab anyway. (Ditto Hebron.) I'm assuming here that the final status agreement would let Israelis visit East Jerusalem (and indeed, anywhere really in Palestine), but even if it didn't, I don't think the need to control these Arab neighborhoods is enough to threaten peace.
c) Some sort of joint sovereignty over the Temple Mount. There's very little I agree with in the writings of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, but one of them is that I don't see any real pressing need for the Jews to control the Temple Mount. We're not using it, anyway. If it makes them happy, let them have it. When/if Moshiach comes, he can take it back. I'm sure the Palestinians will understand. Up until then, who really cares? Of course, I understand that I'm a huge outlier here. Most Jews will care very much, thank you. To many, it is a culmination, a vindication of the whole Zionist enterprise, religious or not. To give away the Temple Mount would be like acknowledging that the whole exercise was a mistake. For that reason, I think joint sovereignty is the absolute minimum that any Israeli negotiator can accept. And fair enough, though I think it's a bit irrational.
d) Complete independence for Palestine. None of this wishy-washy quasi-state business that Netanyahu is talking about. It seems pretty clear that the whole world is expecting a real, independent Palestinian state. A state which was not allowed its own military or control of its ports, entries and airspace would hardly be sovereign. Now, I get that people are understandably worried about what this new Palestinian state would be importing or exporting through said ports and airspace. It's a concern. But the Palestinians would never agree to a treaty where they just get some sort of autonomy without actual sovereignty, and I don't blame them. A real country has control of its own entrances and military.
e) Some sort of tunnel or bridge connecting the West Bank and Gaza. Pretty self-explanatory.
f) The removal of all settlers from the land destined to become part of the Palestinian state. While in principal there's no reason the future state of Palestine could not have a sizeable Jewish majority, I think in practice it's a bad idea. The point here is to separate the two populations. I think it's inevitable that either (a) the settlers would come under some sort of abuse from the Palestinian government or populace, or that (b) the settlers would do something stupidly provocative or (c) more likely, both. This would put Israel in a very awkward position, in deciding whether to intercede or not. The whole point here is to minimize entanglements between Israel and Palestine. We don't ever want Israel needing to decide whether to interfere in domestic Palestinian affairs.

What I need from the Palestinians:
a) A cessation of claims. This is it. They sign this deal, and they're square.
b) No right of return. My inclination is that a Palestinian right of return to Israel would not be as catastrophic as commonly assumed. In fact, many RWers in Israel have lately taken to the idea of annexing the West Bank and making all of its residents Israeli citizens, which would almost surely be worse that any conclusion to the Right of Return. However, it really is not going to happen.

What I don't need from the Palestinians:
a) Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. I'm not even entirely comfortable with Israel's recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But that's a different matter. From a nationalist standpoint, though, it's pretty clear why you would want this. It reinforces the whole cessation of claims thing. If the Palestinians recognize Israel's Jewish character, the thinking goes, it vindicates Zionism and serves as an indication that the Palestinians are serious about peace. On the other hand, it's ludicrous to actually expect the Palestinians to do this. First of all, there's no reason to ever assume that the Palestinians will ever make peace with Zionism. They perceive 1948, and the events leading up to it, as a catastrophe. They still see all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as the Palestinian homeland, much as Jews see it as a Jewish homeland. We can demand that they make peace with the political reality of Israel, but not that Israel was right all along. Just like no one should expect Netanyahu to recognize East Jerusalem and the West Bank as rightly belonging to an Arab homeland (just to a Palestinian state), no one should expect Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland, just as an Israeli state.

Secondly, the Palestinians have concerns that if they recognize Israel's Jewish character, it would endanger somewhat the rights of Israeli Arabs in Israel. I don't think their concern is absurd, but I do think it's overstated. It's definitely true that Israel's Jewish character deprives its Arab citizens of some important rights. The best thing, however, for Israeli Arabs in the long run (at least, vis a vis equality) is a separate Palestinian state. The average Israeli Jew will be much more willing to incorporate Arabs in to the State if there is no real fear of the polity being overrun by Arabs.

I should probably finish by describing what I see as peace. I would be happy with even a cold peace, such as exists between Egypt and Israel. Even such a peace would largely solve Israel's security concerns regarding the Palestinians, and would be enough to normalize relations with most states in the Middle East. (The remaining holdouts, probably Lebanon, Syria and Iran, are different matters entirely. Although the prospects for normal relations with them would only be improved by a Palestinian peace.)

What about you?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Not Sure What to Make of This

MK Uri Orbach (HaBayit HeYehudi): "People who think peace alone will solve all the problems in the region just don't understand the reality of things."

Count me as one of the people who think peace will solve all of the problems in the region, like those having to do with the lack of peace, e.g., war.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Peter King (R-NY) - "President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero. Unfortunately, the President caved into political correctness."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Problem with a Jewish State

This week, the Israeli cabinet was set to discuss the legal status of the children of migrant workers. There are about 1200 such children awaiting deportation. An inter-ministerial special committee has recommended that 800 of the children be allowed to stay. These children were born, educated and raised in Israel. They consider themselves to be Israelis and speak Hebrew. While I’m glad to hear that most of the children will be allowed to stay, I find that the way that many Israeli officials have been framing the issue is very disturbing, and indicative of a larger problem.

For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants the children to stay, described the issue thusly:

"The issue touches on two things," Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. "One is humanity, and the other is a Jewish and Zionist state."

"We have here little children who grew up here and went to school here. They are a part of us. We are looking for ways to absorb them and take them into our hearts. However, we don't want to create an incentive. We want to preserve the Jewish democratic majority that allows us to maintain a Jewish democratic state," Netanyahu declared.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been less delicate. Back in October of 2009, when the Netanyahu Government postponed a decision on the children until the end of the school year, he reportedly informed the prime minister that if the children were granted residency or citizenship he would resign control of the Immigration Authority, and foment a coalition crisis. (As Israel has no formal legal mechanism for the absorption of non-Jewish residents, such questions are left to the discretion of the Interior Minister.) At the time, he said that allowing the children to stay in Israel:

"is liable to damage the state's Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation."

He also noted that:

"We are not a safe haven, period. We should not damage the character of the Jewish state simply out of clemency."

In many ways, these statements reflect the deeply problematic nature of the Jewish democracy. It is a matter of widely held belief in Israeli society that Israel is not just a democratic state, but a Jewish and democratic state. What exactly this means has bedeviled successive Israeli governments almost since the founding.

I think it is important that we recognize that these two principles, the democratic and the ethnic, are in tension. The State of Israel cannot be truly available to all of its citizens, regardless of race or creed, and simultaneously proclaim itself to be a Jewish state.

Many disagree with me, however. The Supreme Court of Israel famously ruled that “there is no contradiction whatsoever between these two things: The state is the state of the Jews, while its regime is an enlightened democratic regime that accords rights to all citizens, Jews and non-Jews.” The Court also argued that, “the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, as the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character.”

If it just used Jewish iconography in all its official symbology, or made the Hebrew language the official language of the State, I would agree with the Court that Israel’s Jewish and democratic principles are not in irreconcilable conflict with one another. The United Kingdom has its own state church, the national language of France is French, and a cross figures prominently in the flags of all Scandinavian countries. All these countries are universally respected members of the family of liberal democracies, despite their superficial lip-service to Christian or ethnic symbolism.

The premise of the liberal democracy rests on the assumption that as far as the State is concerned, your religious and ethnic origins are irrelevant. The State engages with you as an individual, and not as a member of a larger group.

The reason the aforementioned countries are excused their not-completely-neutral symbols is that everyone recognizes that these are just symbols. There is no substantive legal benefit to being an Anglican in England more than being a member of any religion, or being an atheist.

In Israel, however, being Jewish carries with it profound legal and social implications. The State defines itself as being the Homeland of the Jews, whether those Jews be within Israel (i.e. Israeli citizens) or without (i.e. foreigners). It sees as its duty the protections of Jews the world over, and sees itself as the best instrument for accomplishing that goal. Only Jews and their families may immigrate to Israel.

Israel’s official state ideology is Zionism. Zionism, by its very definition, seeks to make Israel more Jewish. It promotes Jewish settlement, use of the Jewish language and the propagation of Jewish institutions. Zionism has no place for Arabs (or any non-Jews), nor, for that matter, has it endeavored to find a place for them. Zionism demands that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens swear fealty to Israel as a Jewish state, and recognize it as the Jewish homeland. Israel’s national anthem expresses the millennia-old hope of the Jewish people to return to Eretz Yisrael, an aspiration that all Arabs are, at best, indifferent too, and more likely, actively resent. Arabs do not serve in the armed forces, do not participate in settlement of the land, and are formally forbidden from tinkering with the official Zionist ideology of the State of Israel.

In short, what separates Israel from France is that Israel has an official ideology that aggressively uses the organs of the state to favor one group of its citizens over the other. Instead of being content to rely on its already in-born demographic advantage, Israel uses government power to increase its lead. Israeli politicians, even when well-meaning, are willing to advance this notion to the point that it contradicts basic humanistic and democratic principles, as evidenced by Netanyahu’s equivocation above.

It is illiberal ideologies like Zionism that allow a government minister of a country explicitly founded as a safe haven, to argue that the country is not a safe haven, because the people seeking refuge belong to the wrong ethnicity.

I should think it obvious that using the rules to ensure that you are always in the majority, a cause Netanyahu is clearly advocating, is not real democracy. It’s stacking the deck, pulling up the ladder after you’ve already climbed it to the top, and any other metaphor that describes unfairness.

As long as Israel continues to deny its minority citizens an equal place in the country, it will continue to not be regarded as a full-fledged democracy, and rightly so.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Logic of Prisoner Swaps

Can someone please explain to me the logic of swapping one captured Israeli soldier for hundreds, maybe thousands, of terrorists? It could be I'm missing some basic part of this, in which case, I hope someone will enlighten me.

To me, if these guys are dangerous terrorists, then I don't see why the Israelis would release them in exchange for just Gilad Shalit. Gilad Shalit is not dangerous to Hamas. He's just some guy they kidnapped. Presumably, these terrorists Israel has locked up are there because they have either committed, or participated in the commission of, horrendous crimes, and there is reason to think they are still dangerous.

If, on the other hand, all the terrorists offered in exchange are not dangerous, as in, not really terrorists, then why are they locked up in the first place? Just for the purposes of prisoner exchanges? That seems pretty stupid - stop locking up prisoners to be used for prisoner exchanges, and you take away Hamas's reason to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

I understand there's some psychological benefit in doing anything you can to bring any Israeli soldier that falls into enemy hands home, but I think we can agree that a thousand terrorists seems excessive. It seems the height of foolish sentimentality to me to hold, as an absolute value, that you'll give in to terrorist demands to bring a soldier home. Again, assuming at least some of these guys have blood on their hands, I don't see how there is a net gain, even psychologically, in bringing home one soldier, who killed nobody, in exchange for a prisoner that killed twenty people at a pizzeria. If anything, soldiers accept certain risks (such as capture or death) that are not typically contemplated by restaurant patrons.

And, just additionally, if you're unwilling to negotiate with Hamas to bring peace to the region, because you don't negotiate with terrorists, then why the hell do you negotiate with terrorists to bring one soldier home? Especially when the terrorists only kidnapped the soldier so you would negotiate with them for the release of prisoners?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jewish Press Op-Ed Page Advocates Treason?

More Jewish Press fun. Op-Ed writer Arnold S. Mazur has had enough of Barack Obama. (From what I can tell, Mazur’s claim to fame is that he was Executive Vice-President of Sales with CA Technologies sometime in the ‘80s, when the Jewish Press credits him with “defying the Arab boycott.”) Anyway, Barack Obama is so bad for Israel, he recommends that Israel, our current ally, begin to realign its foreign policy to be more in tandem with China, our current not-ally, and major rival for world domination. Helpful.

Besides the possibly treasonous angle here of an American citizen urging an allied state to start weakening that alliance (I know it’s not actually treason, thanks), I’d like to just highlight for a moment the great stupidity here.

I understand that many Jews believe that Barack Obama is bad for Israel. I disagree, but surely reasonable people can differ on the interpretation of stimuli. But I think it’s important to note here that when we say “bad for Israel,” we don’t mean in the same way that President Hitler would be bad for Israel. At least I hope so. My assumption is that most rational Jewish Obama-haters don’t actually believe that Obama is seeking ways to destroy Israel, but rather they complain that he is not a strenuous enough advocate on Israel’s behalf, more than anything else. Another frequently aired complaint is that he may be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis.

My point is, that Obama on his worse day is a much better friend to Israel than Hu Jintao (or whoever controls Chinese foreign policy) will ever be. Mazur himself recognizes that China has no particular need for Israel at the moment, and that China has far more to gain by staying cozy to countries like Iran. For some reason, though, he is assuming that Israel can win China over.

Let’s just run through some of the differences between the American-Israeli relationship and the Sino-Israeli relationship.

America is the largest, richest, most powerful country in the world. It has been allied with Israel for at least 40 years. It is home to around 6 million Jews, who wield a disproportionate amount of influence in media, politics and finance, typically in favor of Israel. It is home to a powerful lobby, AIPAC, that is widely considered to be the most successful ethnic lobby in the history of mankind. It is virtually impossible for Congress to pass a resolution critical of Israel, or for the executive to make remarks critical of Israel. The United States gives $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel, more than any other country in the world, and much of it is used to purchase the latest American military equipment. It is currently in a war trying to kill Islamic terrorists, whom Israel has long considered a major existential threat, and has, to that end, toppled governments in Iraq and Afghanistan hostile to Israel, and is currently doing its damndest to ensure that Iran not get a nuclear weapon.

China, a totalitarian state, is home to practically no Jews, and none of them are politically powerful. It’s main foreign policy concern is securing enough oil for its rapidly developing economy, which means cozying up to countries that have oil, the vast majority of which Israel hates. America may be accused of not pushing hard enough for tough sanctions against Iran, but China actively resisted any sanctions at all. There is no Jewish lobby in China, and China gives no aid to Israel. China has no use for Israel at all, whereas it has great use for countries Israel considers to be enemies.

Why the hell would anyone counsel Israel to switch allegiance from the US to China?