Monday, September 19, 2011

Stuff Like This Makes It Hard To Take Bibi Seriously

So, remember that whole thing where Bibi refused to negotiate with the Palestinians unless they were prepared to recognize Israel, as a Jewish state? Remember how this was so important, so fundamental? Yeah, not so much.

First, just goes to show the guy is all talk. Clearly, a dealbreaker is not a dealbreaker. If it's in his power to give it to you, he will, provided you pressure him enough. The mistake Obama made when he called for a settlement freeze was not that pressuring Netanyahu was per se a bad idea, but that pressuring him in this instance would have no effect, as a full settlement freeze was impossible for Bibi to deliver at the time.

Second, as much as Likudniks want to say that this whole UN resolution thing is a waste of time, the fact is that it's clearly paying dividends already for the PA, as they've managed to move Bibi farther in the last week than in the last year. Imagine how much progress Israel could have made if their PM wasn't just being obstinate for obstinacy's sake! (It's not as if there was any principle behind his recalcitrance.) What's amazing to me is that Israel would actually be in a worse position if they had a PM with balls.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Showtime > Aish Fakers

Meh. The Showtime! guys do it on a crowded moving train. Also, Lenny Solomon is typically not involved.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sex and Values

Avi Woolf, guest-posting at Hirhurim, has a veeery stimulating article up, entitled, "Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe in Fun?" In part, I found what he said very interesting, because, basically, yes, Modern Orthodoxy does not believe in fun, nor does any denomination of Orthodoxy. Oh sure, they all believe in the value of recreation, i.e. "letting off steam", but this is typically understood as only being allowed insofar as it prepares you for doing further mitzvos. In other words, it's the difference between having fun and being a robot who's instructed to initiate Fun Sequence Alpha.

But that's not my main point here. As the title of this post suggests, I want to talk about Sex and Values. The connection to Woolf is in the comments to his post, where all the Hirhurimites get into the question of television and movies, and the gratuitous sex they (frequently) display. Although the whole thing is being vigorously argued, everyone seems to agree that the sex and pritzus in modern media today is immoral, disgusting and not in keeping with Torah values.

It is this notion I'd like to push back against.

First, a simple question. What does sex, per se, have to do with morals? Sure, you can do sex morally, or immorally, but that goes for anything. I can assault people morally, and I can help little old ladies across the street immorally. So what do we mean when we say scantily clad women on the TV are teaching bad values?

Consider, if you will, that Modern Orthodoxy seems to be converging on the idea that homosexuality is not immoral. G-d made gays with homosexual urges, and that's not their fault. Similarly, gay sex is not really immoral, either. If a guy can't control himself and slips up, he hasn't committed an immoral act. There's nothing evil going on. No one is hurt. To the extent that he's committed any immoral act, it's that he has violated his own personal code of conduct (i.e., to observe the Torah), and this is really more of a derivative moral transgression than an actual one.

This is more groundbreaking than first appears. If we say that gay sex, neither the desire to accomplish it, nor the deed itself, is per se immoral, then why doesn't that logic extend to heterosexual relations as well? And if the act itself is not immoral, then neither is the desire to perform the act, I assume. Because, at bottom, sex is a really fun thing to do. Really really fun. In fact, if either of my readers have taken monastic vows of celibacy, I strongly urge you to reconsider. And because it's a rather fun and enjoyable activity, people want to do it a lot. I don't see anything immoral there, either.

Obviously, the Torah has imposed many limitations on the practice of sex, and that's fine and all, but where is the immorality there? The fact that the Torah prohibits something doesn't really make it immoral. The Torah forbids me to have sex before marriage, but if I did, how have I acted immorally, other than the fact that I have gone against the Torah? In other words, if I live like a character from one of those shows on the CW (sex-wise), where have I acted immorally, exactly?

And if there is no immorality, what exactly are we afraid of letting into our living rooms through our televisions? Are we afraid that Junior will see 90210* and think, hey, "maybe I should have numerous beautiful sexual partners?" There's nothing really immoral about this behavior, nor do I see anything particularly disgusting in it either. Provided Junior treats the various women in his life with the respect due another human being, what do we care? Obviously, it's true that the Torah probably proscribes such conduct, but the Torah also prohibits driving a car on Saturdays. We let Junior see that all the time.

Perceptive readers will note that I've kind of conflated morals and values. In other words, just because I believe something conflicts with my values, does not mean I must find it immoral. Fair enough, but let's drill down on this and see if we can find any useful distinction.

To the extent that values and morals are not the same thing, I think we would say that morals means having to do with basic principles of right or wrong, while values refers to those things that keep in accordance with a set of rules, or the spirit of a set of rules, by which we've decided to conduct our lives. So, while having sex with numerous supermodels who are clearly too old to believably act in overwrought dramedies may not be immoral, it still violates our rules, and we value those rules, and we don't want to be exposed to their continued violation, even if, admittedly, those rules are, from our perspective, somewhat arbitrary (by which I mean we don't know G-d's plan, or why He prohibited certain things and not others).

Which is fine, and yet, it's curious to me that none of the commenters at Hirhurim raised the objection that it was wrong to watch TV because of the gratuitious chillul shabbos. Nor did anyone bemoan the lack of ma'aser in contemporary prime time programming. Which suggests to me that, at bottom, the distinction between sex and chillul shabbos has very much to do with morality. Which leads us back to the original question. Where's the immorality with sex, even gratuitous sex?

* For the record, I do not watch 90210.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Request for Information

I'm only in my mid-20s, and don't have the institutional memory required to answer this question. My kind of understanding was that the Jewish Press turned completely super-Republican (meaning economically and culturally, as opposed to in matters pertaining to Israel) after 9/11. My thinking is that a lot of Jewish Clinton/Gore Democrats became Bush Republicans. And this explains today's near-complete overlap between Jewish Press writers and the editorial staff of National Review and WorldNetDaily. Is this true? Or was the JP always solidly Republican?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is the Talmud Anti-Christian? Who Cares?

Steven Plaut asks if the Talmud is anti-Christian. He then proceeds to answer his own question in the negative (with an assist from Gil Student), by muddying the waters as to whether any of the Jesus-like characters encountered in the Talmud are actually Jesus, when they might in fact refer to Jésus, his non-union Mexican equivalent.

Alright, but leaving aside the obvious point that this doesn't really answer the question (I don't think Mein Kampf has many references to Woody Allen in it, and yet, it's probably anti-semitic), we must ask ourselves, who cares? Let's stipulate that the Talmud is anti-Jesus. Are Christians going to be pissed off? Why? Is it news to them that Jews don't like Jesus, especially the Jews they believe killed Jesus (i.e., the Jews of the Mishnaic age)? Don't they think that if we thought Jesus was all that, then we'd be Christians, too?

Besides, it's not as if the New Testament, the Christian Bible, isn't anti-Jewish. And I suspect far more Jews have come to harm from Christian anti-Semitism than Christians have been injured by Jewish anti-Christianism. So what are we so ashamed of? Maybe the Talmud doesn't like Christianity. Duh. What of it?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Am I Missing?

So I was talking over this whole debt crisis with some knowledgeable Republican finance types, and I’m trying to see what I’m missing.

VP: What should the government do to fix the economy?

R: Tax cuts.

VP: But won’t tax cuts expand the deficit?

R: Yes, but those can be offset by massive cuts in spending.

VP: But then why don’t we just raise taxes, and then pay down the deficit that way?

R: Because tax hikes take money out of the economy, and we’re in a recession. If you take money out of the economy now, it deepens the recession!

VP: But wouldn’t cutting services and other government spending take money out of the economy as well?

R: Yes.

VP: So? Doesn’t that deepen the recession?

R: But we’ve got to get the deficit under control.

VP: So then why not raise taxes?

R: Because we’re in a recession.

VP: Argh!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Well, That Explains It

This funny use of parantheses comes from the Guardian's Amy Goodman, who was likening the effect that Vermont's adoption of single-payer health-care might have on the rest of the United States, to the effect that Saskatchewan's adoption had on Canada in the 1960s.

"Canada's single payer healthcare system started as an experiment in one province, Saskatchewan. It was pushed through in the early 1960s by Saskatchewan's premier, Tommy Douglas, considered by many to be the greatest Canadian. It was so successful, it was rapidly adopted by all of Canada. (Douglas is the grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland.) Perhaps Vermont's healthcare law will start a similar, national transformation."

It makes it seem as if the reason Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada went along with government health care was as a result of the great esteem in which Canadians held Kiefer Sutherland. This is doubtful, as Mr, Sutherland was not born until 1966, and did not achieve real fame until considerably later.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Return of Jewish Press Blogging!

Just something funny I saw in this week's paper. As one would expect, the JP was very interested in the Defining Crisis of Our Generation, l'affaire Kushner, and the Editorial took a very critical view of the backlash against CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, and the decision of the "executive six"* to grant Mr. Kushner an honorary degree. Which is all fine, and to be expected.

Just the argument they used was very funny. First, the Editorial noted that Kushner has a well-earned reputation for being anti-Israel, which is contrary to Kushner's own perception, but fine.** Then, they approvingly noted that Mr. Wiesenfeld, in support of his motion to block Kushner's award, "cited extensive chapter and verse from the public record" of Kushner's anti-Israel remarks, which also seems to be contrary to Wiesenfeld's own perception, which was that he pulled a bunch of quotes from Norman Finklestein's website (he wanted to appear non-biased, which is why he didn't rely on pro-Israel groups). They then conclude that Kushner is clearly anti-Israel. Then, they dismiss Kushner's own protestations to the contrary, i.e. that his remarks are being taken out of context, by, I kid you not, printing some of his out-of-context remarks - the very same as those quoted by Wiesenfeld. And then, the kicker; in the very next sentence, they further criticize Kushner for not, in his quoted out-of-context remarks, "even attempting any contextual analysis of the predations and assaults perpetrated by the Palestinians against Israel and Israelis." I mean, come on! The very next sentence! And the greater irony is that, at least according to Kushner, "[m]y opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."

So, to wrap up, the Jewish Press -

(1) Concludes that Kushner is anti-Israel
(2) Dismisses Kushner's own protests that his remarks are being taken out of context by:
(3) Citing his remarks out of context, and then:
(4) Further criticizes Kushner for not providing context in those remarks just cited, even though:
(5) He, in fact, does.

*Which seems to be a very postmodern attempt by the JP to gin up notoriety for a group of people who don't even conceive of themselves as a group, much less one capable of attracting attention.

**I mean, duh, of course he would deny it. That's Anti-Semitism 101.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Homeland Jews, Diaspora Jew, Cringing Jew

I remember hearing a quote from some historian who, upon remarking that the population of the Roman Empire was 10% Jewish, predicted that had the various persecutions against the Jews not happened, and the Temple not destroyed, and the Jews not sent into exile, there would be around 200 million Jews alive today. That’s somewhere between the population of Brazil and Indonesia.

To be sure, an Israel with a Jewish population in the hundreds of millions is enough to make any Zionist drool. Imagine the economic clout! The military power! Also, one assumes, that a 200 million person country would have to be at least slightly larger than New Jersey, so Zionists can dream about a physically larger Israel as well.

Still, even assuming the 200 million number, arguendo, I’m not sure what kind of Jews they would be. Would they be like the estimated 14 million Jews alive today, only 14x more of them? Or would they be like any random sample of 200 million middle-easterners?

My meaning is that Israel is a remarkable country populated by a remarkable people. It is the only democratic country in the Middle East with a truly robust civil society. It has a booming economy, is a technical innovator, and is populated with Nobel Prize winners. It has faced huge obstacles, numerous existential wars, and the absorption of millions of non-Hebrew speaking immigrants. It is a much greater success story than its fellow post-colonial countries that achieved independence post-WWII.

So, what separates Israel from the rest of the class of 1948? One obvious difference is that Israel is a majority Jewish country, while the India is not. But what kind of Jews began the Israeli enterprise? Immigrant Jews. In other words, Diaspora Jews.

The founding class of Jews that started the New Yishuv and built it up into Jewish Agency/Mandate Palestine/Israel were mostly Diaspora Jews. They came from Europe and abroad, from free countries and dictatorships, all of them coming from countries where Jews were not the governing people, all from societies where Jews were pronounced minorities. (Even the founding fathers born in Palestine were the children of immigrants, and grew up in a society where Jews were the minority.) They were malcontents and artists; socialists and utopians. They carried with them the liberal dream nurtured in alien lands and in foreign schools. They dreamed of a time and place where they and their extended families could exist free of oppression and discrimination, where Jews would have the same rights, in theory and in practice, as everyone else, and where Jews would control everything from the army to the post office to the sanitation department; a land where the instruments of state would not be wielded against the Jews.

At the same time, these Jews had personal experiences of what it was like to be oppressed by tyrannical majorities, and to bear the uncertain fate of strangers in a strange land. To that end, they resolved that all people living in their new land would be entitled to all the equal rights and freedoms the Jews sought for themselves, in the best liberal tradition.

Although sometimes that promise did not completely live up to its potential, that liberal tradition was the driving force behind the golden age of the new state, and it is remarkable how successful that dream became.

Now, however, we seem to live in a new world. One of the latest surveys that is making its way around the j-blogosphere was conducted by the Macro Center for Political Economics. According to Haaretz:

The study found that 60 percent of Jewish teenagers in Israel, between 15 and 18 years old, prefer "strong" leaders to the rule of law, while 70 percent say that in cases where state security and democratic values conflict, security should come first. A similar picture emerges in the 21 to 24 age group. ...

Among Jewish youths, support for the definition of Israel as a Jewish state as the most important goal for the country grew from 18.1 percent in 1998 to 33.2 percent last year, the survey reports. At the same time, there has been a consistent drop in those who back the importance of Israel's identity as a democratic country - from 26.1 percent in 1998 to 14.3 percent in 2010. Support for Israel to eventually live in peace with its neighboring countries also fell significantly, from 28.4 percent 12 years ago to 18.2 percent last year. ...

As to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, 755 of the Jewish respondents said they do not believe negotiations will lead to peace, and most prefer that the present situation continue.

Bernard Avishai cites this interesting statistic, though I don’t know where he gets it from:

Up to 80% of Israeli Arabs express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have Jewish friend, and so forth), but just under 50% of Jews.

What are we to make of this? It is an Israeli society that grows ever more right-wing, ever more nationalistic and ever more reactionary. It is also a society in which immigrants and Diaspora Jews make up less and less of the population. Fewer Israelis than ever before know what it’s like to live in a Diaspora, or the importance of multicultural values. Fewer Israelis than ever know what it’s like to feel oppressed. (Yes, Israeli Jews are violently attacked by their enemies, but it is violence committed by the weak and the few, and not the persecution launched by majorities, societies, and the state.)

In modern Israel, Diaspora Jews are mocked as “cringing Jews,” Jews who accept their beatings from their gentile overlords with “please, sir, may I have another?” Diaspora Jews are weak and obsequious, ever desperate to please their cocktail sipping liberal friends with self-hatred and anti-Zionism. The best of us are vocal supporters of Israel, but too weak-willed and spineless to actually move there and take up arms in its defense. They are Ari Ben-Canaan and we are Alexander Portnoy.

We cannot possibly understand the needs of Israeli security, or comprehend the unique bloodthirsty nature of the Palestinian Hun. We are Yasser Arafat’s “useful idiots,” who are willing to run the risk of shedding Jewish blood if it means appeasing our intellectual friends. We are kapos, for wanting to make the West Bank Judenrein in the service of our anti-Semitic masters. We are pie-in-the-sky bleeding hearts, who don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone.

Moreover, who are we, living in our decadent gilded cages, to criticize the liberal values of the Israeli state, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East? It is they, not we, who are the true heirs to the liberal tradition!

Fair enough. But these poll numbers tell a disturbing story. They tell a story of an Israel that is becoming more and more like its enemies. Where the security and dominance of the status quo are more important than peace and civil rights. Where revenge and bitterness mix with revanchism and irredentism, just like they do in its neighbors.

If, in the future, there is an Israel with 200 million Jews, what kind of Jews will they be?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Think We're Being Too Hard on Judge Goldstone

So, the J-Blogosphere is all atwitter* with Richard Goldstone's opinion piece in the Washington Post. Needless to say, if you were not a fan of the honorable judge or his report before, you will not be now. Many are interpreting his latest editorial as a mea culpa, a big "oops**." But I would caution that we actually think about what he's saying, and what it says about us, that we think he is the biggest Jewish traitor since Judas.***

The majority of the fault with the fallout of the Report lies not with him, but with people who don't understand what his job is. As he made clear in the report, in the Post piece, and in numerous public appearances, the investigation was not a judicial or even quasi-judicial undertaking. He was sent to see if there was credible reason to assume that human rights violations and war crimes had been perpetrated, by both Israel and Hamas (and Fatah). If he thought there was, he would recommend that all sides conduct investigations. Which is what he did. He was not saying Israel had committed unique human rights atrocities or that Israel should be sanctioned. He reported that there had been a war which - newsflash - often results in innocent people being killed, and yes, human rights violations and probably war crimes. In specific, he listed several instances in which it appeared, from all available evidence, that it was very likely that Israel and Hamas had committed such war crimes, and that they should conduct their own, hopefully transparent, investigations.

Recommending that it appeared likely that war crimes had been committed is not a conviction; it is not even an indictment. Because no one can think about Israel-Palestine without going crazy one way or the other does not make his recommendations libelous.

What is so libelous? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Israelis commit war crimes. They are people like any other. Lord knows the United States does. I very much doubt any army, even one that tries as hard as Israel, can fight a war of even very limited duration without committing at least a few of them. Insert lame "war is hell" platitude here. A risk that should not have been taken, a traumatized teenager with a rifle that has seen too much. It happens. That does not mean they are not war crimes, and should not be punished. Just because they always happen does not mean that all efforts needn't be taken to ensure that they don't happen again. The Israelis do see themselves as bound by international law, unlike Hamas, and so prodding them to conduct investigations can be helpful for their future conduct. Goldstone here implies that Israeli investigations into conduct examined by the Report have in fact spurred them to revise their policies. It's certainly possible that Israel would have conducted equally serious and thorough investigations without such prodding, but one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

In the op-ed piece, he never apologizes. What he says is, had he known what he knows now, i.e. been given some of the evidence deliberately withheld by the IDF when he asked for their input, the report would have come out much more favorably to Israel. He is not retracting anything, or saying his conduct was at fault. He conducted a very public and transparent investigation. He asked for Israeli cooperation. It was refused; the Israelis assumed any such investigation conducted under UN auspices would be a hatchet job, even one run by Goldstone (a man who formerly had possessed excellent Zionist bona fides and had already intervened to make the investigation fairer to Israel) and thought shunning the investigation was a good idea. That was their decision, and I'm sure that wisdom has been put to question over these last months. But that's not Goldstone's fault.

You can certainly say that Goldstone made a tactical error. He should have realized that the world audience that cares about human rights reports on Israel is manically judgmental and won't understand or see the numerous qualifications or small print. But from his perspective, he just did the job he would do anywhere else. The thing is, though, nobody cares about Yugoslavia, Kosovo or Rwanda. By all means, blame the writer for not foreseeing his audience's stupidity, but I think the amount of criticism he gets is entirely unwarranted. Especially the hypocritical efforts to tie him to apartheid South Africa.


**"Oops," which must always be written in quotation marks, is Latin for mea culpa, which must always be written it italics.

***We said take care of him, not, you know, take care of him!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Which I Change My Mind About that Megillah Reading

Oh no, it was still awesome. I was just thinking about the people who insist on banging by Haman's name in a minyan where there is a strict no-banging policy. Earlier, I had dismissed the concerns of the gabbai who had tried to make a moral argument against banging (it's pretty selfish to bang and prevent others from hearing the words of the megillah) because we're obviously not at the fast megillah reading because of a desire to be super-yotzei the mitzvah; we're there to do it quickly.

But now I'm thinking, that if someone goes to a minyan that he knows is moving fast, and forbids banging, he is there to also appreciate the benefits of this fast minyan. He thus knows that the baal koreh will not pause when he says Haman's name. Thus, if he does bang, he will almost certainly cause people to not hear words. This sort of person is the worst! Here he is, davening at the fast minyan, so he gets to fulfill the mitzvah quickly, and then what does he do? He bangs by Haman's name out of some OCD reflex so he can feel frummer than everyone else, makes it slower for everyone else, and he then causes some other people not to be yotzei the mitzvah! Talk about hypocrisy!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Most Amazing Megillah Reading Ever!

By my reckoning, all over in 19 minutes! It was a potent combination of a recklessly fast leiner, and a strict no boo-ing policy. Usually, I have one without the other, but here there was both! Awesome.

Incidentally, before the leining began, the gabbai gave a short speech, admonishing everyone not to bang when Haman's name* is read. He told everyone that it was pretty selfish of people to make noise during the reading, as the whole point of the non-booing policy is to ensure that we can all hear every word. This was pretty funny, as that was most assuredly not the real reason we were all there.

The way I found the minyan was by following all the bums and unmarried people, and all the old people who don't give a ****, to the minyan where I knew there would be no children. We weren't there to hear every word (and I'm pretty sure the guy was so fast, I didn't hear everything anyway - yay!), we were there to go fast.

To me, it's not so much the amount of time it wastes, as it is just incredibly annoying. It just totally breaks up the narrative every six seconds. It's like reading a book, where every time the main antagonist's name comes up, someone shoots a cap gun two feet from your head. But I like the idea it makes me more religious because I irritate easily.

*His name is "Haman"!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why I Have Little Sympathy for the Hilltop Youth

West Bank Mama, whom I assume is a mother residing in the West Bank, has a heartfelt post in which she laments, in part, the conflict faced by those young renegade settlers who are always setting up new illegal outposts in the territories, only to see them torn down by the police or the IDF. Such was the fate that befell Chavat Gilad earlier this month. Basically, the conflict is that these very patriotic and ideological kids really love Israel, and really want to serve in the elite divisions of the IDF, but often find themselves at loggerheads with the enforcement arm of the Jewish State, most poignantly perhaps, when they, as teenagers, must make the decision whether to attend a protest that is bound to turn violent and thus lead to probable arrests (which is a black eye to any application to an elite unit), or whether to sit it out, thus betraying one ideal for another.

I call the post heartfelt because it does a good job of explaining a real dilemma for hilltop youth, but I still find it hard to sympathize with these kids.

Look. The Israeli government has a law: It is illegal to set up illegal outposts.* To the extent that you set up illegal outposts, you will come into conflict with the Israeli government. It's as simple as that. You don't want to come into conflict with the Israeli government? Then don't build illegal outposts! It's not like illegal construction is some sort of automatic involuntary behavior, like breathing or something. It's also not as if there is literally no place for these kids to live, or there is a dearth of space in Israel proper in which to build houses. There are plenty of religious Zionists who get on perfectly fine living in Israel, livin' the Zionist dream, and not breaking the law.

If you'd rather break the law to satisfy some ideological itch, then you've decided you care more about one facet of your ideology (the building of illegal outposts) than another (serving in a Jewish army). Which is fine. In life, you face choices. You can't expect to deliberately break the law of a state in a consistent and brazen-faced manner, and then plan to be welcomed by the elite units of that state's army.

It's the same conflict faced by patriotic muggers.

*I believe that the absolute best way to state a law is to present it in its most tautological form. Can't argue with that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Very Surprising

Jeffrey Goldberg:

"There are signs that reality is forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to the center, just as reality pushed Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, his two predecessors, to the center. Goldblog Central has been hearing rumors and intimations for some time that Bibi is going to announce something dramatic -- perhaps before a joint session of Congress (a friendlier audience than the Knesset, by a long shot). How dramatic? This is what is unclear. It's got to be pretty dramatic to keep Bibi's ostensible allies, President Obama and Angela Merkel among them, from giving up on him. According to Ha'aretz, Bibi has been telling associates that he fears the creation of a binational state in Israel's place if the country fails to allow the birth of a Palestinian state next door. He is even said to be thinking about endorsing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. For a man like Bibi, a hard-edged nationalist, this would be quite something, and would invest a speech with suitable drama." [Emphasis mine.]

Mind you, I've been hearing this BS about a new Israeli peace plan for weeks and weeks, so I'll believe it when I see it, but I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The saddest thing about Israel's situation is that they keep on electing right-wing Prime Ministers who vow not to vigorously pursue a two-state solution, only to wake up a year or two into their terms and all of a sudden realize that, hey, a bi-national state would be really bad, and only then they start to tackle the problem with any urgency. Then, invariably, they get killed/fall into a coma/get taken down for massive ethics violations/whatever will happen to Netanyahu. Then, rinse and repeat.

Friday, March 4, 2011

This Can't Be Too Good

Things like this, from the Washington Monthly are kind of disturbing.

A helpful summation from Andrew Exum, if you don't have time to read the Monthly piece:

"We basically have a cadre of yahoos running around the country teaching our police forces to fear any and all Muslims, which, if you're trying to radicalize your Muslim population, seems like a damn good way to go about doing it. Very few of these yahoos have any formal training or education in radicalization or currents of thought in political Islam. One consultant they profile is from the minority Christian community in Jordan and has a decidedly hostile view of Islam which he proceeds to share with his audience."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The J Street Enigma Explained!

Ah yes, the "infamous Gaza 54." Their infamy only surpassed by their obscurity.

But seriously, this video exploits a basic confusion about J Street, and lobbies in general. If you're like me, you grew up thinking of AIPAC as the pro-Israel lobby. So, AIPAC = pro-Israel. If there were another lobby that purported to be pro-Israel, and yet took different stances on a wide variety of Israel issues in the name of being pro-Israel, we would be faced with a problem. Either AIPAC is not really pro-Israel, or this new lobby is not pro-Israel. But they can't both be pro-Israel. So, J Street or AIPAC?

The thinking then goes like this: AIPAC is an old and venerable institution, and nearly always (at least publicly) supports the official government stance of the State of Israel. Since one can assume that the Government of Israel (GOI) is pro-Israel (if they weren't, who would be?), then those who support the government of Israel must be the pro-Israel lobby. J Street, a lobby that frequently criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government, cannot be pro-Israel, at least, not when it criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government.

One problem with this analysis is that it conflates support of a government with support of vague ideas like country, Zionism and ethnic pride. While I would agree that the Israeli government cannot really ever be intentionally anti-Israel*, that by no means precludes the possibility of those who hold differing opinions being pro-Israel as well. For instance, J Street is the bane of the settler population in Israel. Certainly, the settler population has their fair share of vociferous and often violent disagreements with various Israel governments (including this one), but they would just as vociferously and violently dispute the notion that they are not also pro-Israel. And, while a Likud coalition currently governs the country, it was not too long ago that it was a Kadima coalition, and the Likud opposed the previous government. So, conflating support for a government or a specific policy with being pro-Israel is a poor rhetorical choice.**

But more generally, I wanted to parse out what lobbies are. I see two different kinds of lobbies, broadly. One kind are the ones that are engaged by specific entities, either corporations or countries or people, that seek to advance the political interests of their clients who pay them. Thus, Big Tobacco engages the services of tobacco lobbies. These lobbies are pro-tobacco in the sense that they advocate in favor of policies that will enhance the position of Big Tobacco. They know which policies will help tobacco because very often it is Big Tobacco telling them which policies will help them. When they publish studies that purport to show that smoking in children under the age of 5 builds strong bones and teeth, it is widely assumed that it is being published either in concert with, or under the direction of, Big Tobacco. It is impossible for such a tobacco lobby to act in opposition to Big Tobacco. Their raison d'etre, the reason they were created by Big Tobacco in the first place, was to help Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco creates them, and Big Tobacco destroys them. I call this agency lobbying.

Then there is something that's more along the lines of an ideological lobby, one that advocates on behalf of certain actions, irrespective of what the relevant actors who would be carrying out the actions think. The people who fund these lobbies fund them because they happen to agree with their goals. In an ideal situation, if their donors disagreed with their policies, the donors would withdraw funding, but the policies advocated should remain the same. So, let's say I love smoking, and wish it to remain as legal and lightly taxed as ever. To that end, I believe that smoking should be absolutely prohibited to children. I believe, that if children are allowed to smoke, although this may in the short run help Big Tobacco's bottom line, it will eventually create a backlash that will lead to perhaps all smoking being prohibited. This sets me up in a conflict with Big Tobacco, who is perhaps not as farsighted as I. We are both "pro-tobacco,"*** but we're very different sort of enterprises. I don't care if Big Tobacco jumps up and down and tells me a gazillion times that children are the future of tobacco, I won't care. An agency of Big Tobacco, however, will certainly care, and "be persuaded" by its client corporation.

It seems to me that AIPAC is like the agency lobby for the Israeli government. It supports whatever the government supports. It is as if it is engaged by the Israeli government to help convince the American government of the rightness of the Israeli government's point of view. If the government changes its view, and argues that removing settlements is good, then so will AIPAC.

J Street, on the other hand, is unaffiliated with the Israeli government. It has an ideological vision for a future Israel that it likes and wants to see brought to fruition, and seriously believes that its perspective is good for Israel. To the extent that it and the Israeli government advocate the same policies, that's great, but besides the point. Governments come, and governments go, but ideology remains.

*I suppose one could imagine a situation where a government was somehow covertly taken over by people who hate both themselves and the country, but that would be weird.

**Obviously, this isn't simply a mistake on the part of people who call J Street anti-Israel. The point is always to demonize those who disagree with you, and to ascribe to them malicious motives. If you believe in higher taxes, you hate America.

***We could even imagine a situation where I am actually looking out for the best interests of Big Tobacco - perhaps I am an investor. The banning of all tobacco products will not help Big Tobacco's bottom line in the long run, after all.

Was Rashbag Reform? (Or, at least, not Orthodox?)

Here's a mishna from Masechta Kerisus (1:7 - Soncino translation).

If a woman had five doubtful births or five doubtful issues she need bring but one offering, and may then partake of sacrificial flesh, and she is not bound to bring the other [offerings]. If she had five certain issues, or five certain births, she brings one offering and may then partake of sacrificial flesh; but it is still her duty to bring the other offerings.

It once happened in Jerusalem that the price of a pair of doves rose to a golden denar. Said R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, "By this sanctuary, I shall not go to sleep tonight before they cost but a [silver] denar!" Then he entered the Beth Din and and taught; If a woman had five certain births or five certain issues she need bring but one offering, and may then partake of sacrificial flesh, and she is not bound bound to bring the other [offerings]. Thereupon the price of a pair of birds stood at a quarter of a [silver] denar each.

To me, this seems pretty radical. Here we have Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a nasi, changing a halacha purely out of social justice concerns. Now, I don't know a lot about this area of halacha, but I see few possibilities here.

Option A is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was mandated by the Torah. Then, Rashbag, in order to lower the prices of sacrificial doves, changed the meaning of the Torah to remove that obligation, because doves were too expensive. This is the most radical interpretation. This would be like changing the meaning of the constitution, something no Supreme Court justice would ever admit to doing. And certainly not for social justice purposes! Plus, you know, the constitution is man-made, and is thus an incomplete and flawed document. But the Torah is divine and perfect? How can Rashbag just change it to lower the prices of doves in the marketplace?

Option B is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was the consensus Rabbinical interpretation of the verses of the Torah. Meaning, that the Rabbis sincerely thought that a woman was Biblically required to bring additional offerings. Then, Rashbag, in order to lower the prices of sacrificial doves, overruled that interpretation of the Torah to remove that obligation, because doves were too expensive. This is still very radical. This would be more like uprooting a decades-old constitutional doctrine, in favor of social justice. Again, this is super-rare in constitutional jurisprudence. It's stranger, though, because while one Supreme Court may very rarely be comfortable saying that a previous SC's understanding of the Equal Protection Clause was wrong, or outdated, I would think it impossible to read of a Tanna taking this view of a previous Tanna. Were the older generations wrong? Did they misunderstand? But that doesn't even seem to be his argument. He doesn't seem to be saying that the previous generations of scholars misunderstood; he's just changing the rules because the rules are making doves too expensive! Weird!

Option C is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was a Rabbinical statute. Meaning, as far as the Torah is concerned, all a woman need bring is one, but the Rabbis said, for some reason, "Nah, bring five." Comes along Rashbag, and says, we're changing that Rabbinical law, because doves are too expensive. This is the tamest explanation, but still seems pretty interesting, because Rashbag is changing a d'rabbanan just because he feels doves are too expensive. I can see telling someone that they're still yotzei their obligations with one, but actually rewriting the law to make the price of a commodity drop? Still weird. Additionally, he doesn't explain his reasoning. Presumably, the Rabbis had a reason to mandate five. It may be an important reason, it may be not so important. It could be that ensuring a cheap supply of doves is more important. But what was the reason for the original ruling? Also, I'm a complete am ha'aretz in this field, but, facially, it seems strange to me that the Rabbis would mandate additional offerings for no reason. I mean, are they trying to put up a syug l'Torah, "just to be safe"? Safe from what? And do the Rabbis have the authority to mandate sacrifices that are not required by the Torah? Is there such a thing as korbanot mid'rabbanan (Rabbinically created sacrifices)?

In any case, I think it's pretty radical that we have a Tanna over here willing to change a straight up halacha, just to lower the price of doves; for social justice, really. Sounds almost Reform! Now why can't we solve the agunah crisis?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is the Individual Mandate Constitutional?

Short answer: probably.

Long answer: It depends what you mean by calling something "constitutional". If we define (Def. A.) constitutional as meaning in line with the Supreme Court's commerce clause jurisprudence over the last 200 years, then I would say, probably. If we define it as conforming to some originalist conception of the limits of the federal government held by the founding generation (Def. B.), I would say, we can have no idea. If we define it as what a majority of justices on the Supreme Court will do when it gets there (Def. C.), I think we can still say they'll probably count it as constitutional.

A and C involve almost the same thinking process, because typically if something conforms with 200 years of jurisprudence, the Supreme Court will rubber stamp it. But that's not always true, and the justices are not isolated apolitical creatures who remain uninfluenced by the national debate. Just like all 9 Justice could vote in favor of the measure, I can definitely see all 5 conservatives voting against it. I don't think that will happen, however, as I will discuss.

So, the problem with the individual mandate (IM) is that it apparently forces individuals to purchase health insurance from entities that meet certain criteria. Opponents of the IM who argue that it is unconstitutional (Opponents) argue that the constitution does not authorize the federal government to force individuals to purchase anything.

So, one response is just to say that the federal government is not forcing you to do anything. The government wants you to buy health insurance. If you do, good on you. If not, the government wants you to pay a fine or tax, the moneys of which will go into the pool of money which funds the government's expenditures on health, presumably towards treating people without health insurance. The fine or tax is not that much, and can't exceed, I believe, 2.5% of your income. Also, there's a provision that forbids the IRS from starting criminal proceedings against anyone who doesn't pay the fine/tax, so you can't go to jail if you don't pay it.

I don't particularly like this argument, because I'm not sure how a court will look at this. It could be that in this instance, there's no coercion, but then the Court would have to examine future instances, looking at the substance of the law and its enforcement mechanisms, to see if counts as coercive or not. Is 3% coercive? 10%? I'm not sure where one draws the line, or on what grounds one would draw it.

A much better argument is that the constitution allows the federal government to tax really whatever it wants, provided it's for the general welfare, which Obamacare certainly is. Opponents have argued that this is not the way that either Congress or the Administration have been framing it; they've been calling it a mandate (connoting the fact that people must do something) and not a tax (a collection of revenue from people who choose to engage in certain activities, in this case, not buying health insurance). FWIW, this makes little sense to me. What does a Court care about how the Democrats framed something for political debate or Sunday morning talk-shows? The court will look at it, see it's a tax, and call it as such. Try a thought experiment. If the government decided to kill people randomly, but labeled it a carbon tax in all its attempts at spinning the law to the press, would we think it makes sense for the government to consider it a carbon tax, and not the random murder of citizens?

But I think a more fundamental reason why the constitution authorizes it, is because the government's power to regulate interstate commerce is pretty strong. One argument opponents make is that as strong as the commerce clause is, it's never been used to force people to perform actions when they're not doing anything. In other words, government can't regulate interstate inactions, just interstate actions. People always ask, "Can the government force me to buy a GM car, or force me to eat my vegetables?"

Okay, let's break this down. Let's assume that the government has never attempted to regulate inaction. So what? Why should that make a difference? It's never been questioned before that the government can't regulate inaction - what's the constitutional reason why government can't regulate inaction now?

So then we get to the idea that if the government could regulate inaction (i.e. forcing you to do things), then we would be empowering if not a tyrannical government, then at least a government with a loaded gun, which could be used to launch a tyranny at some point. Imaigne a dystopia where the government forced you to eat vegetables or buy crappy GM cars! Surely, the constitution does not authorize dystopias? However, honestly, I'm not sure why not. If the government can make a compelling case that you buying a GM car is necessary or helpful, even, to its national commercial regulatory scheme, it seems clear to me it can force you to buy a GM car. This may be exceedingly dumb policy and prove to be very unpopular, but the constitution authorizes scores of dumb and unpopular policies.

The reason why the government (probably) won't force you to eat your vegetables is not because the constitution does not authorize it, but because Congressmen don't want to get fired. If 60% of the House of Representatives and the Senate think an IM is a good idea, then as far as the constitution is concerned, it's probably a good idea. That is, the constitution does not care if something is a good idea or not. If those democratically elected representatives want to roll the die on their careers, I'm largely comfortable letting them make that choice.

We have to get over the idea that the constitution protects us from tyranny and bad policy. In reality, it's us. When push comes to shove, what stops a military junta from taking power is not Congress's theoretical control over its funding, but the fact that the common man, and the common soldier and officer, would see such a coup as illegitimate.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What Makes a Jew a Jew?

One of the big issues threatening to blow up the world* is that of conversions. In Israel right now, there appears to be a big hullaballoo over whether the conversions performed by the IDF rabbis were valid. Traditionally, conversions into Judaism involve the convert at some point accepting to keep all of the mitzvot in the Torah. At some point in the last few hundred years this became mandatory practice (it appears this definitely was not always the case), and it looks like the IDF rabbis were/are not sticklers on that last part. This is a big deal, because the conversions in question are largely conversions of the Russian immigrants that were oleh in the last 20 years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are estimated to be about a million of them, practically all of whom consider themselves Jewish, but a theoretically substantial minority of which don't have a technically Jewish mother, meaning they technically require conversions.

From what I can tell, there appear to be two camps. On one extreme, you have the chareidim, led by Rav Elyashiv, who believe that since "everyone knows" these converts had no intention to actually keep all the mitzvot, their conversions are invalid, and indeed, never were valid. Sephardim, led by Rav Yosef, argue that the conversions are fine. I don't really care about the finer technical points of the dispute, and while I apologize if I've mischarachterized anything, it's not really germane to my point.

My question is, what really makes a Jew a Jew? I don't think Rav Elyashiv thinks that our conversion standards have always been the same, and that we have always required the honest acceptance of the mitzvot, because the rishonim certainly don't reflect such uniformity. Rather, it seems to me, the title or status of Jew is something the community bestows upon a person. In the old days, if someone acted like a Jew, and thought of himself as a Jew, others would too, and that was enough. By the same token, that seems to be the way it works today. Nobody checks my lineage. Rather, I go to shul, I keep shabbos, and I eat kosher, so I'm Jewish.

I don't think there's some objective record of who's really really Jewish up in Heaven that G-d has, and to get on that list, you have meet a very concrete and specific line of regulations. If we think you're Jewish, you're Jewish. Definitely, no one has completely pure yichus without one single gentile in their family, or can vouch 100% that they know that any potential converts on their mother's side in the last 3000 years were mekabel chiyuv mitzvis. Certainly these "lost Tribes" we keep finding in Africa or India or China can't do that, and it's funny that we all just "pretend" they're "really" Jewish.

I think the only reason we have any objective standards at all is just so that the status of Jew doesn't become meaningless. If it was just a listserve or something that you sign onto, what good is it? That's fine, and I think that makes sense. That explains why Judaism requires that you marry Jewish - it's more likely that your children will be raised Jewish if both spouses are committed to their Jewish heritage. But in this situation, I think we've got that. These are immigrants who have come to the Jewish state to embrace their Jewish and Israeli heritage. They serve in the Israeli army, build illegal settlement outposts, and run on racist Jewish-supremacist party platforms to become the foreign ministers of the Jewish state. To me, there is no greater acceptance of Jewish heritage than those things. We don't have to worry that they secretly are celebrating Christmas or going to church or planning pogroms in their basements. It's not as if marrying them will really dilute Judaism in any effective way. Also, there are like a million of them living in a country with a tenuous Jewish majority, and writing them out of Judaism right now would be a really stupid idea.

Jews are who we say they are. If all the Rabbis got together and said, these people are Jews, everyone would be fine with that. Everyone would accept that. So I would really wish Rav Elyashiv would take a pragmatic approach here and recognize that he has agency. These guys are just as Jewish as any non-frum Jews. As long as Rav Elyashiv says so.

*The world of Torah, that is!**
** I.e., the only world that counts, mister.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Must Orthodox Jews be Racist?

I think we're all comfortable saying that there are many Orthodox Jews who are racist, and that there might even be a correlation between how frum you are recognized as being, and how racist you are. This makes a certain degree of sense, as frummer Jews tend to be live in more insular communities, and more insular communities tend to be racist.

So, we more modern Orthodox Jews pat ourselves on the back, and tut-tut those backwards Chareidim for their primitive perspectives. But how much better are we? Don't the doctrines of Orthodox Jewry, e.g. the belief that the Jews are the Am ha-Nivchar (chosen people), necessitate a degree of racism?

A few weeks back, Rabbi Harry Maryles had a thoughtful post on his blog about a story in Lakewood where a few yeshiva kids had apparently called a bus driver a nigger. He wondered what could cause such kids to do something so inhumane, and concluded they had been imbibing the soft racism of their parents or teachers, or who had misunderstood "our status as G-d's chosen people."

While believing your people to be the chosen people does not necessitate using racist slurs (just because you're better than everyone doesn't mean you have to be a jerk about it, I guess), I think it really does mean that you think you are better than other people. That your people is worth more than other people. That your people are more loved by the G-d of everyone than His other people. That by your very nature, even absent any actions you might commit, you can be holier than someone else. And no matter how you pretty this up, there doesn't seem to me to be a way to separate this sentiment from racism. I think in any other segment of the populace, we would find these beliefs repugnant. If WASPs thought this, we would find them racist. Why is it different when it's us?

Last week, Rabbi Pruzansky wrote about the two letters that had gone out in Israel decrying the mixture of Jews and Arabs. One letter, signed by Rabbis, purported to prohibit the sale of property by Jews to Arabs, and was widely condemned by Jews everywhere, and the other, signed by Rebbetzins, urged women not to have relations with Arabs, and was not so widely panned. Rabbi Pruzansky seemed to object to the letters only because they appeared impolitic, and represented halachos sh'ein morim kein (laws that we do not publicly teach because they make us look bad). He had no problem with the actual substance of the ban or discouragement, and he attempted to explain why the segregation mandated by the Torah cannot be compared to the Nuremberg Laws:

His argument seemed to be that the Nuremberg Laws were written out of hatred for Jews, and are thus repugnant, but the Torah's laws celebrate the love of Jews and therefore are not repugnant. In his words:

The [Nuremberg Laws] did it out of racial hatred and pure evil; the Torah does so out of a need to preserve the unique character of the Jewish nation that would convey the divine idea to the world. The former was vile and odious, and the latter a reflection of God's love for the Jewish people and for mankind. But a simpleton will only look at the results and, seeing the same prohibition, conclude, "it's all the same." It is not all the same, and that shallowness is more polemical than it is sincere.

At the risk of sounding like a shallow polemicist, I don't think I see a difference. The fact that the results are the same is a very profound argument. I mean, had the Germans forbade Jews to purchase property out of love for German property, would we have found that okay? I don't think so. If they did it to preserve the unique character of the German race, would that have been okay? If they claimed that was why they did it, would we believe them? More importantly, would that make it better?

A friend of mine who is a very big fan of Kahane (who I think was a racist) once tried to justify to me Kahane's racism by quoting Kahane as saying that "it's not that I hate Arabs; I just really love Jews." That didn't help, in my eyes. And it's the same thing here. Saying "I just love white people more" is obviously a racist sentiment.

But oddly, this attempted justification seems to be the best answer Judaism has been able to give to explain the presence of racist halachot. I'm referring to the "family" explanation. This is even favored by more modern rabbis in OJ, such as Gil Student (I think) and Rabbi Pruzansky.

Pruzansky: So why does the Torah - which, after all, posits that all human beings are created in the image of God - discriminate between Jews and non-Jews in certain laws? Because Jews constitute one family (that's why we always argue with each other), and family is allowed to treat non-family differently; otherwise, there is no purpose to family. Thus, we are enjoined to "love your neighbor as yourself," but I am allowed to love my wife and children more than I love your wife and your children. As a Jew, I am commanded to love Jews more than I love non-Jews, not because there is anything wrong with non-Jews but because Jews are family. It is not immoral to distinguish family from non-family; it is right, natural and proper.

At the risk of being crude, this strikes me as BS. This sounds facially logical, but if you actually think about it, it's pretty fallacious. The first question it begs is that what makes Jews considered a single family, but not all of humanity? Maybe all white people are a family? Maybe all gentiles are a family? If you want to say that all of humanity is too big to be a family, I would ask, why? There are millions of Jews today whom Rabbi Prizansky evidently considers family; that seems like a ludicrous amount of people to consider family. There was a time two thousand years ago when I doubt there were that many people in the entire world. And now, we can easily imagine considering them family, but not the other six billion people? What's the practical difference?

And if you want to say that all of humanity can't be considered to be a single family, because then no one will not be family, I would say that's also ridiculous. What you're doing, then, is defining family as an inherently exclusionary club. The whole point of being in a family, then, is to deny my resources to other people. And why is that "right, natural and proper"?

And obviously, Rabbi Pruzansky does not consider me to really be just as much his family as his own actual family - but he considers me closer than his gentile coworker. We've created a new connection, a new family structure, whose whole purpose is to entitle me to better treatment from Rabbi Pruzansky (whom I have never met) than to which his coworkers are entitled. And it is based entirely on race.

Again, if white people thought this way, would we hesitate for a second in calling this racist?

The second question he begs is that who said you should treat your family better than my family? The pasuk he cites - And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself - directs the opposite inference! Now, I can see why genetics would drive such a conclusion, or why we would want to think this way, but why should an Omniscient, Ultimate Benevolent G-d endorse such a perspective?

Third, I think this is BS because it's not as if the benefits we are denying to gentiles are based on familial affection. I could see it maybe if we were commanded to give Jews more charity than we give non-Jews; fine. But how is not selling them property, or refusing to marry them based on family? Selling one's house and marrying someone are two activities one does not associate with doing particularly with one's family.

In conclusion, this is very troubling. I don't think there's a way to square this circle.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Asshole Theory of Diplomacy

To me this sort of thing seems to be the wrong way of looking at things:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu for his goal of peace this year with the Palestinians, as well as Lieberman's request for an apology from Prime Minister Recip Erdogan for Turkish participation in the Gaza-bound flotilla, has cheered friends of Israel everywhere because they are rare examples of self-respect and national honor coming from an Israeli public official (news story, Dec. 31).

However, Lieberman apparently shocked shtetl-minded members of the Netanyahu government. A spokesman for Netanyahu immediately assured the hostile foreign news media that Lieberman's views are his own and do not represent those of the government. One minister in this supposedly right-wing Likud government even accused Lieberman of appealing to right-wing voters! He also agonized over what "the world" would think.

Unlike Netanyahu and his other ministers, Lieberman has learned something important from history. He knows the world respects a people who respect themselves and despises weakness and self-abasement. He also knows that appeasement alienates friends and incites and energizes Israel's enemies while greatly increasing the chances for war.

I call this the "Asshole Theory of Diplomacy" because it seems to follow the perverse logic that the only way to get people to like you, or respect you, is to act like an asshole to them. The assumption is that countries that apologize, or use diplomatic language, or are more interested in keeping friendly relations with others than using blunt, macho language that exemplifies "the truth," only serve to make other countries hate them even more, and view them as weak and pathetic; in other words, not worthy of respect.

A similar argument is that the only way the Israelis can dwell securely in Israel is to build even more settlements, even further from the Green Line, to show the Palestinians that Israel will never leave, and that therefore they should give up their silly dreams of nationalism and maybe move to Hawaii, or be content to chop our wood or hew our water or something. Again, the logic is that only by adopting politics of spite can we convince them of our righteousness.

There are a few flaws in this reasoning. First, just intuitively, why would we think this is true? Just from our day to day interactions with other people, can we conclude that acting like an asshole gets people to like, or even respect us? I don't think so. Sure, if you're being bullied, perhaps the best response is not, "Please sir, may I have another," but in the vast majority of interpersonal relationships, acting like a douchebag does not make people respect you. No one likes the office douchebag, or the douchebag cousin.

Second, the people who subscribe to the Asshole Theory tend to be the sort of people who believe the Israelis do have a right to establish civilian settlements anywhere, and that Arab-Israelis should face discrimination, and that it is the rest of the world that is immoral and that therefore they should be treated with contempt. The Asshole Theory lets them do everything they wanted to do anyway, but now assures them that this will make people like them. So, not only is this the right thing to do, despite the objections of everyone else, but indeed by following our preferred course of action, we will eventually make everyone stop objecting and see the rightness of our position. Conversely, stopping the activity that everyone objects to, or apologizing for it, only encourages them to find more things to object to, and more reasons to hate us.

Now, I think we should be instinctively suspicious of this sort of logic, the same way we would be if our doctor told us the only way to lose weight was to eat more and exercise less. It's like saying, not only is my smoking not injurious to my health, it has a salubrious effect as well! It's just a little too perfect.

Now, you might say, hold on, naive little liberal. The world of diplomacy is not like your fluffy dreamland of interpersonal relationships with friends, family and coworkers. It's full of cutthroat realists; politicians and dictators that would sell their mothers down the river to a place where they can throw their grandmothers under buses for a quarter they got from selling candy they stole from babies.

I doubt it. In fact, I would assume that the world of diplomacy is probably overpopulated by diplomats. In other words, people who tend to think diplomacy and diplomatic language and behaviour is important. Career foreign service types. It is precisely these sort of people that would see the benefit in apologies and not acting like a dick. And the politicians they serve didn't get to their high positions by acting like assholes, though I'm sure most of them in fact are. And I don't just mean that for Barack Obama to get to where he is, he has to be nice and friendly and yes, diplomatic, to hundreds, and probably thousands of people. Even a dictator like Hosni Mubarak, or whatever Abbas or Fayyad are, can only achieve and maintain power by being able to cultivate allies, and to persuade others to join his coalition, or at least put aside their differences for a long time. Becoming dictator is not all just purging your enemies in bloody coups, you know. Before Stalin was in a position to purge the Soviet Union, he had to become head of the Soviet Union, or at least his faction. This required him to make lots of friends, and to be able to call on lots of favors, and to know how to back winning horses, and to know when to pick his fights. In fact, one of the observations that people made about early Stalin was that he was a very very very good listener.

And even if the world of diplomacy was populated by thugs and psychopaths, I still don't think being an asshole would be a good strategy. Doubtless the world of mafia men is governed by scum and murderers, but it's also a world that is famously governed by elaborate diplomatic norms. In Mario Puzo's novels, the point that is made again and again is how Vito Corleone's greatest strength was his diplomatic style. He never threatened when threats were unnecessary, and never insulted another man to his face.

And, again, I don't think the world of diplomacy is ruled by the very worst people in the world. The United States is Israel's greatest ally, and Israel's relations with the PA over the next 20 years will say a lot about whether there will be an Israel in 20 years. Both of those countries are overwhelmingly populated and governed by people who do not enjoy being insulted, in other words, normal human beings. If it would be a mistake to be an asshole to those normal people in normal situations, it's probably a mistake to be an asshole to them when nationalism and religion are thrown into the mix.