Friday, December 23, 2016

I Abstain

Last week, outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recognized his organization's profound bias against Israel, noting that (among other things) it does no service to the Palestinian people it claims to act on behalf of. There's nothing really new about that acknowledgement -- Kofi Annan said the same thing -- but it nonetheless is gratifying to hear.

This morning the UN rejected a resolution imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan. But it passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) as violations of international law and "a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace." The resolution also contained a parallel condemnation of "all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction."

The resolution was passed after the US, a Security Council member with veto rights, elected to abstain. And, as is the case in any UN resolution on Israel, there is less than ideal language (particularly around Jerusalem). Moreover, precisely because the UN is such an obviously biased body when it comes to Israel, my default instinct is that any time the UN steps in it will cause more harm than good. The statement from the Israel Policy Forum in opposition to the resolution makes sense to me.

So I should be upset. But I just can't bring myself to be angry. I read the usual suspects falling over themselves in histrionic rage -- Mort Klein ranting that "Obama’s anti-Semitism runs so deep that he also apparently needed to drive one more knife into Israel’s back," Netanyahu saying he "colluded against Israel", David French fulminating against the supposed "50 years of foreign policy" undone by a single abstention -- and I just can't do it. I can't.

The ADL -- which murmurs empty platitudes about the President's right to implement policy when picking avowedly anti-two-stater David Friedman for Ambassador -- suddenly is "incredibly disappointed" that the Obama administration followed consistent American policy in opposition to the settlements? The JFNA -- which (and this was forwarded to me by an AIPAC-attending friend of mine) "has not said ONE THING about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism from Trump and his appointees" -- sure found its voice on this one.

The abstention was the first (and last) of Obama's tenure on an Israel related resolution -- by allowing just one of these resolutions to pass the security council, Obama has by a huge margin the most pro-Israel voting record of any post-'67 American President (by comparison, George W. Bush allowed six such resolutions to pass, and Ronald Reagan permitted a whopping 21). Ambassador Power's abstention vote came while fully and publicly acknowledging the UN's fundamental and discrediting bias towards Israel.

Will this resolution do any good? I doubt it. It's empty words from a body whose words deservedly carry little credit. Still, much of international diplomacy is the art of using empty words to send messages. Maybe the message here is that breathless hysterics about Obama selling Israel out! over and over and over again won't carry the day forever. Certainly that's a message I can get behind, regardless of whether anyone pays attention to the substance of the resolution.

I just can't take seriously anymore people who simultaneously decry America's policy towards Syria as being naught but words, while breathlessly characterizing one -- one -- abstention on a UN resolution that is consistent with longstanding American policy towards Israel as an act of "aggression". One would think that those "mere words" would pale in comparison to $38 billion in aid America will be giving Israel thanks to Obama's leadership. The UN is not the only entity whose words carry little credit these days. I've completely lost whatever confidence I had in mainline Jewish groups to maintain a sense of proportion and principle when it comes to defending a secure, democratic, Jewish state of Israel.

The UN resolution won't accomplish anything. Perhaps its only tangible impact is that it is felt as a rebuke by the Israeli government. Given their behavior over the past eight years towards the Obama administration and the American Jewish community writ large, I can't even be mad about that. You're not getting everything you want, all the time, from your "friends"? Welcome to the club.

So I abstain on this fight. Why shouldn't I? If I believe -- and I do -- that the settlements are "a" (not "the") obstacle to peace, and I believe -- and I do -- that Israeli settlement on territories in the West Bank should be contingent on a final, negotiated status agreement with the Palestinians, and I believe -- and I do -- that part of any remotely plausible peace plan means that not everyone will get to live on the precise acre of land that they wish, why should I muster up any outrage on this resolution? Because its verbiage isn't perfect? When is it ever? Because the UN is biased? Of course it is, but so what? Because the Netanyahu administration is trying its level best to negotiate a two-state solution and this throws a wrench in their delicate plans? Don't make me laugh. Because the Palestinians aren't trying their level best to negotiate a two-state solution? Of course they're not, but again, why is that relevant (what kind of Zionism is it that uses Palestinians as its metric)? Because I owe a duty of loyalty to my fellow Jews who do find the resolution problematic and worrisome, even if I personally am able to shrug it off?

That last one is the only one that makes sense. Or made sense, at least. But right now, that argument is a cruel mockery. When groups like the ADL and the JFNA and all their colleagues show they aren't willing to fight for their principles at home, why should I back them up just to pacify yet another right-wing temper tantrum? That, really, is what's driving me right now. Mainline Jewish groups have taken for granted that people like me -- solid, pro-Israel liberals -- will back them to the hilt when they feel the need to soothe their right flank, even at the expense of pursuing some of our own policy objectives in defense of a democratic Jewish Israel. But when it's Jewish liberals who need backing and the right which is asked to make sacrifices, suddenly those groups are nowhere to be found.

This one-sided bargain will not stand forever. I'm pro-Israel for my own sake -- I don't need to be treated nicely by the AJC or ADL to defend the necessity and justifiability of a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, and the fact that ZOA's mad at the UN does not mean that the UN is even remotely useful as an agent for peace. But that's not what's at stake here; I can and will make all those points without anybody giving me a cookie for them. What's at stake in this fight is intercommunal consensus -- backing our fellow Jews even when we don't have the exact same priors as they do. Such a commitment only works if it works both ways. Otherwise, I feel entirely justified saying that I'm done going to bat for bodies that I now know won't have my back when I need it. Solidarity is a two-way street.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ellison Continues To Impress on Jewish Engagement

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of two leading candidates to become the new DNC chair (the other being former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez), has faced concerns about prior associations with anti-Semitic groups -- specifically the Nation of Islam.

He's also done, in my view, a very good job responding to them -- certainly, he's been far more impressive than certain Jewish organizations I could name which treated him as a make-up call for Steve Bannon. I was extremely pleased to see the group I'm a part of, Third Narrative, issue a strong statement defending Ellison on this front. And the letter Ellison just wrote to a group of Conservative Rabbis only reaffirms my sense that he'd be an excellent friend and ally to Jewish Democrats as DNC chair:
Ellison, beginning his three-page letter to the Rabbinical Assembly with a quote from Pirkei Avot, Jewish ethical teachings – “The one who learns, learns from everyone” – expressed regrets, as he has several times since launching his bid to lead the DNC, for his association years ago with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam.
“At the time, I did not grasp [Louis] Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism,” he wrote, referring to the movement’s leader.
“It was difficult for me to see that the struggle for equality for African Americans could be subverted into hatred of others, specifically anti-Semitism,” Ellison wrote. “I focused on Farrakhan speaking to concerns of Black men. When I became aware that he made hateful statements about other groups, including the Jewish community with whom I was so close, I knew that I must reject his teachings. And I rejected them completely.”
Ellison, who has routinely voted for defense assistance to Israel, also for the first time regretted his exceptional vote against additional missile defense assistance for Israel during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
“In my mind, confident that the Iron Dome funding that I have always strongly supported would pass, I cast a vote reflecting my commitment to restoring calm and quiet at a moment of violence,” he said, referring to the anti-missile system Israel used to deflect Hamas rockets. “My voice was not being heard and I felt in the moment that casting my vote was a vital way to amplify my message. It was the wrong way to speak out and it was the wrong way to vote. I regret it deeply.”
Ellison, who first publicly rejected the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement in a statement last month to JTA, says in the letter that he has “fought” BDS with Jewish allies.
“Together we have fought against BDS and continuous attempts to delegitimize Israel in Minnesota, in the United States, and around the world,” he said. “I have said time and time again that BDS does not help anyone advance the goal of a two-state solution.”
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, also recalls his years of combating Holocaust denial, including among Muslims.
Good for him -- and in particular, good for him on the Iron Dome portion (which has been one of the last remaining sticking points for many of my Jewish friends).

I should say that, my warm feelings towards Ellison aside, I remain undecided between him and Perez (who's been doing outreach of his own to the Jewish community). On the one hand, Perez comes more from my "wing" of progressivism (wonkish rather than populist). On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that my wing had its people in place this election and we lost. On the other other hand ... well, this would be its own post.

But this is all overshadowed by my main priority: the ever-futile effort to prevent a choice between two great progressive options becoming a hysterical battle wherein each side considers the other traitors to the party (it was such fun in 2016 and 2008!). Both Perez and Ellison would make excellent DNC chairs. Simple as that. But on the subject of the Jews and in the context of being a great DNC chair, one of Rep. Ellison's greatest strengths will be the genuine and sincere friendship he's extended to the Jewish people and his commitment to the preservation of a secure, democratic state in Israel that exists in peace with a Palestinian neighbor.

What's Going On in Lancaster?

My social media was ablaze today with reports that a Jewish family had "fled" their home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania over false reports by Fox and Breitbart that they were responsible for the canceling of a school Christmas play. Local news also reports their children had been harassed by classmates due to the report. But the ADL investigated and said that the family had simply left on a previously scheduled vacation, and that the claims that they "fled" are a panic-inducing fiction. What's going on?

Unfortunately, the original local story is behind a paywall so I can't read it. My suspicion is that the real story is something like the following:
  1. The children experienced some harassment over the false reports that their family was responsible for canceling the play (this part of the original reporting does not appear to be in dispute, though the ADL does not address it).
  2. The family had a previously-scheduled vacation, and expressed some sentiment to the effect of it being nice to have some time away to allow things to cool down.
  3. Overzealous journalists took #2 and elevated/amplified it until it became the overblown claim that the family had "fled" town.
Of course, that's speculation on my part. Without access to the original story or more robust follow-up reporting, we won't know.

I'm So Tolerant, I Continue To Read Things Which Confirm My Worst Instincts About My Adversaries!

The Hill presents a poll showing that, after losing this election, Democrats are more likely to "unfriend" someone due to their political posts than Republicans. Several thoughts on this:
    • What counts as "politics"? For example, if someone makes an unfriending decision because someone posts something nakedly anti-Semitic, is that decision "political"?
    • I've never unfriended someone because of their political posts. I have thought about it. But typically, when I do, my conscious mind gives me a sober lecture on the importance of not isolating myself from competing points of view and listening even when it's difficult. But there's another part of me that secretly wonders if the real reason I do it is to confirm all of my worst instincts about what Republicans are really like. Put simply, the people I think about unfriending are not my lucid Republican friends. They are histrionic trolls of the worst order. Making sure the seven daily posts about how Barack Obama is about to implement his Secret Muslim Plan (just you wait) or how Hillary Clinton's emails are the greatest treason our nation has seen since the Civil War stay on my Facebook feed doesn't "challenge" me in any reasonable respect, it just reaffirms my instinct that the opposing side has been taken over by lunatics. For all the "if only we talked, we'd see how much we really have in common", well -- not always.
    • I wonder how much work "Democrat" versus "losing this election" is doing. I've always been a proponent of "listen to your adversaries, take seriously challenging points of view" (my Intro to American Politics students got that lecture so often they probably can recite it from memory). But I'll confess it was an easier instinct when I assumed my side was going to come out on top, and listening was a beneficent gift I'd bestow on the electoral losers. At Berkeley, to urge one to listen to conservatives is to urge someone to listen to an utterly powerless minority. It's easy to do because they present no immediate threat. Power doesn't require one to listen to others (obviously), but it does make it easier to do so magnanimously. Marginalization often does force one to listen to others (obviously), but the compulsion tends to make it happen without much good cheer.
    In related news, an interesting study finds that much of the biased partisan divergence in factual assessments of the world dissipates if you give people a small monetary incentive to be honest (whether that means "giving the true answer" or "admitting you don't know the true answer"). It's an intriguing add-on to the well-known phenomenon whereby partisans will interpret facts to suit their own agenda (so liberals will say that the economy faltered in conservative administrations regardless of whether it did, conservatives will do so for liberal administrations). The study suggests that persons are doing this not because they "actually" labor under these mistaken beliefs, but simply as a rooting mechanism for their preferred team.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2016

    Supporting David Friedman Sells Out Young Zionist Jews

    Berkeley is not the easiest place to be a Zionist Jew. To be sure, it is not the cataclysmic warzone it's sometimes portrayed as. Still, it's not exactly home turf. Being referred to as a Nazi due to one's position on Israel is not an everyday occurrence, but it's not a hypothetical concern either. A two-state solution respecting both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights is probably the median position, but it is not one you can take for granted.

    Jews at Berkeley, and at other campuses around the country, have listened to many exhortations by our communal leaders about our need to stand strong in such climates. And we have, under difficult circumstances. Anyone paying attention to campus politics now knows the awkward position Jewish students are in, how concerns about Israel are often wedges that freeze Jews out of our own academic communities, how standing firm on principle regarding anti-Semitism puts us at odds with otherwise allied groups.

    While we acted, our communal representatives promised that they had our backs. Referring to a Jew as a Nazi is intolerable anti-Semitism -- there can be little more horrifying, for a Jew, than being compared to a Nazi or Nazi collaborator. The two-state solution is a boundary that demarcates friend from foe. It may be hard, it may be awkward, but we were told that these were lines that could not be crossed. Ultimately, they expected us to police those lines. And we did our part, to the best of our ability.

    And then David Friedman was nominated as Ambassador to Israel.

    David Friedman, an avowed opponent of a two-state solution. David Friedman, who referred to large swath of American Jewry as "far worse than Kapos". David Friedman, who called the oldest American Jewish civil rights organization "morons" for standing up to clear anti-Semitic rhetoric in the presidential campaign. David Friedman, who enlisted the Holocaust to deflect attention from boasts of sexual assault. David Friedman, who -- in word and in deed -- seems to detest most of the Jews in his own country -- especially the young liberal Jews who inhabit our college campuses.

    Now it was time for those communal representatives to have our backs. Now it was time for them to enforce those lines on our behalf. Now it was time for them to show courage in perilous waters, and say that this is the line, and David Friedman crossed it.

    And suddenly, these representative groups clammed up.

    Well, not all of them. Aside from the usual right-wing suspects, the World Jewish Congress endorsed Friedman today. The WJC's motto is "All Jews are responsible for one another." We now know the seriousness with which it takes that commitment. The bare minimum of being responsible for other Jews is to have their back when they're condemned as Nazi collaborators. If the WJC isn't willing to do that, it can forget about any talk about "responsibility".

    As for other mainstream organizations, so far many of the main players have maintained, at best, a studious silence. AIPAC hasn't said a word. The AJC's statement was mush. The ADL has nothing on its page (Jonathan Greenblatt was on MSNBC tonight to talk on the nomination, but it doesn't look like he came out against).

    I've talked a bit with folks on the inside of these organizations. They're not happy. But they stress the difficult position these organizations are in. Donor pressure. A need to appear even-handed. The importance of working with the new administration.

    I get it. It's hard. But it was hard for us too, and we held the line. Because, we were told, this was the line the Jewish community had drawn.

    And today, when adhering to those lines gets difficult for Jewish organizations, they had the opportunity to stand strong too.

    When they fail to do so, it's worse than a disgrace to their stated principles. It's worse than a failure of political courage. It sells out the Jewish community they claim to protect. It abdicates their responsibility to the Jewish community to be our ally and shield regardless of political creed or partisan ideology. Millions of Jews now know that if they are tarred as Kapos or worse, the WJC will not have their backs. Indeed, it might proudly join hands with their slanderer. We are left wondering where the AJC or the ADL will be. Until proven otherwise, we cannot count on them anymore.

    This is betrayal. And it is those of us in places like Berkeley, who have bravely fought on behalf of a Jewish and democratic Israel in an inhospitable climate, that will suffer the most from this act of deep, profound cowardice. The principles we fought for -- which we , relying on the representations of these communal bodies, declared were representative of American Jewry -- have been pulled out from under us. And for what? For access? For donor satisfaction? It is disgraceful.

    I honestly don't know if these groups realize the peril they are in. They hear about angry Jewish millennials and think of the IfNotNow sorts, the JVP types, and conclude it's all a loud fringe. I am not IfNotNow and I'm certainly not JVP. I'm a committed Zionist in my politics and deeply institutionalist in my orientation. But in talking to other Jews like me -- proudly Zionist, proudly pro-Israel, connected to the inside baseball of Jewish life and aware of the realities of political machination -- there is a growing sense of rage at their supposed representatives that is on the cusp of bubbling over. They see that political capital is never spent on our behalf, that principles we're expected to cleave to on pain of exile are waived without hesitation when the right flouts them.

    This cannot stand forever. It cannot indefinitely be the case that Jewish communal policy is set by a quarter of the Jewish community which openly holds two-thirds of us in contempt. And it cannot indefinitely be the case that Jewish communal representatives refrain from backing the American Jewish majority for fear of alienating that right-wing fringe. David Friedman puts that in stark relief -- backing him means selling us out. Policy disagreement can be mended, but this sort of betrayal -- finding out that it's actually a-okay to call us Nazi collaborators -- will not heal easily.

    David Friedman does not represent a hard case. David Friedman represents the straightforward application of the principles mainline Jewish groups have long espoused, now to a right-wing provocateur. Simple as that.

    For those groups which fail to rise to the challenge, it isn't going to matter at the end of the day whether they were lying about their professed principles or were simply too fearful to enforce them. We need Jewish organizations that are representative of American Jews. If the old guard can't do it, then the old guard will cease being relevant.

    UPDATE: Here's the link to Greenblatt's segment on Friedman last night. It's, if anything, worse than I anticipated.

    Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXIII: Psychology

    Dylann Roof, the White Supremacist terrorist who was just convicted of murdering nine at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, now faces sentencing. He could receive the death penalty. One thing he will not do in his penalty phase is call a mental health expert or otherwise present mental health evidence. Why not? Glad you asked:
    Roof, 22, who is acting as his own attorney during the penalty phase of the trial, said in a handwritten note to the court that he “will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence.”
    While the note did not specify the reason, his journal, filed with racist and anti-Semitic rants, which was introduced as evidence during the trial, says he considers psychology a “Jewish invention.”
    “It is a Jewish invention and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t,” Roof wrote, according to reports including from the Associated Press.
    Actually, this one I feel like has a pretty long pedigree -- dating back to Freud. I suppose I hadn't realized it was still a "thing". But if the conspiracy means that Roof is more likely to receive the punishment he deserves, I suppose I can let him maintain his delusions idiosyncratic appraisal of social scientific development for a little while longer.

    Sunday, December 18, 2016

    Republicans? Self-Regulate? What a Daft Idea!

    There's an emergent pattern I'm seeing among many Republicans who by all rights should know the risks of a Trump administration, responding to Democrats expressing concerns over the radical first moves of the Trump administration. It goes like this:
    Democrat: "Look at this terrible policy Trump is proposing/terrible nominee Trump has put forward/terrible advisor Trump has installed!"
    Republican: "Haha! Bet you wish Reid hadn't abolished the filibuster/Obama hadn't expanded executive power/Clinton hadn't focused on social issues that cost you rust belt seats, don't you?"
    Now, we can debate the merits of any of these things. For example, call me crazy but I continue to think that the Senate should generally run on the uncontroversial practice of majoritarian rule. In a democracy, the ultimate check against bad laws should be the people voting in good, civically-spirited legislators. Institutional barriers are important, but no set of norms can create good laws from bad actors. By and large, policies are going to reflect the character of the persons writing the policies -- that's baked into the democratic cake. If 52 GOP Senators mindlessly march in partisan lockstep to rubberstamp the entirety of the Trump agenda, the problem isn't majoritarianism, the problem is that the GOP lacks any principles beyond blind party loyalty.

    And that gets to what's really striking about this line of argument: It takes for granted that our choices are either "an empowered Democratic Party" or "Trump gone wild." The idea that Republicans might exercise any meaningful oversight in the Trump administration is too fanciful to even be acknowledged. Again, I'm not sure these people realize exactly who they're insulting here.

    Once more, I think this is related to the infantilization of the American right. Right now, it is an article of faith that Republicans simply will serve as the unmediated channels of the right-wing id. The job of Democrats is to act as the Republicans' babysitters -- to guard them from the consequences of their own tantrums. When Democrats are not sufficiently empowered to do that, the problem isn't that Republicans are incapable of self-regulation, it's that Democrats allowed themselves to lose the necessary influence to keep the GOP in check.

    From a Democratic vantage point, this perspective makes sense -- our job is to win seats, and when we don't do that, we're doing something wrong. From an external observer's view (especially a Republican's view), it evinces an abdication of personal responsibility and civic duty on behalf of the GOP that should by all rights be shocking.

    Would I be happier if the Democratic Party had enough seats in Congress to serve as a robust check on the Trump administration on their own? Obviously! But the thing is, 48 Democratic Senators would do a fine job constraining Trump's excesses if even 4 Republican colleagues joined them. The fact that this possibility doesn't occur to anyone -- even to persons who purported to be on the "Never Trump" train -- is proof of just how far the rot inside the GOP has spread.