Sunday, September 18, 2011

Israel at the crossroad.

What do many years of conservative/tilting ever more to the far right rule do for and to a country?  Well just look at what it’s done to us since Ronald Reagan took the reigns of government three decades ago.  Even Barack Obama is hamstrung by a seeming fear of being too bold, not that anything really progressive could pass the current Congress.  And the Republican 2012 race is shaping up to be about which candidate can be more radical and regressive than the other.  Translated: bring back the policies that brought us to our knees, only more so.  The result, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, has been disastrous for our national discourse, economy and place in the world.  We probably have less influence and moral authority today than at any time since the end of World War II.  That’s most disheartening, but The United States will survive and perhaps even recover much of of what we had.

The same can’t be said with confidence about the State of Israel.  That is not merely disheartening — it is deeply, if not tragically, depressing.  My last writing, reflecting on the decade after 9/11, suggested that …the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but what we have done to ourselves since.  I was not letting those terrorists or their leader off the hook.  No one can or should diminish what they did then or have since.  So let me make it clear that Israel’s past adversaries, Arab countries that sought in unison to abort the State at its birth and those among current Palestinians who shoot rockets into civilian neighborhoods and their supporters have by no means clean hands, quite the opposite.  All the same, it is hard for any objective observer to deny that Israel, governed by right wing conservatives and held hostage by fundamentalist religious zealots, has not brought much of the current situation on to itself. 

Interestingly, religious fundamentalists also play a significant role in America’s hard right turn and they are among the most vociferous supporters of Israel’s policies, perhaps even more so than AIPAC.  Of course their agenda is grounded in something entirely different, the theological not the political.  They need Jews governing the Holy Land to facilitate their end of days prophecy and they are, admit it or not, morbidly anti-Islam, a religion whose very existence, beliefs and scale challenges their own.  Jews in Israel and here should take note that their loyal supporters do not believe, absent conversion, that we will have what Jewish tradition calls a portion in the world to come (however defined).  Some friends.

Jews as a community seem reluctant to criticize Israel and not without good reason.  I just finished Edmund de Waal’s wonderful book The Hare with Amber Eyes telling the story of his once enormously wealthy Jewish family that ultimately lost it all to Hitler.  His few pages recounting their wrenching and demeaning last days in Vienna were painful, almost impossible, to read.  Whatever success Jews have had throughout most of history has come at great expense; Israel’s founding in 1948 the highest price ever paid.  It would never have happed had it not been for the guilt felt by of those nations who waited far too long to intervene against what became the Holocaust.  Many good people stood by in silence, eyes averted, as six million women, men and children were slaughtered like cattle.  Politicians of all stripe, but particularly on the Right, seek to capitalize on Jews’ visceral loyalty by shamelessly manipulating the Jewish Vote for their own purposes.  An animated ad on the NY Times home page the day before the special vote to fill Anthony Weiner’s seat, portrayed Obama as anti-Israel.  I have to assume similar lies went out in the heavily Jewish district and we know with what result.  The bottom line is that the sometimes seemingly blind loyalty of Jews (or other Americans) isn’t helping Israel survive; it is ultimately undermining that survival.

In his September 18 column, Tom Friedman, long a supporter of Israel and an expert on the Middle East, opens with these words: I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future.  Nor have I.  Friedman adds that the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.  During the past months, some of the most tumultuous and game changing in the region’s modern history, Israel has stood by as an onlooker rather than a participant.  As a direct or indirect consequence, once friendly regional neighbors like Egypt and now Jordan have distanced themselves or, like Turkey, have been driven away. 

Point any fingers you like, Israel has allowed the inevitable Palestinian State to hang in limbo while the status quo of an untenable occupation continues.  I know, friends of Israel are not supposed to use the word occupation, but it isn’t the word that’s wrong, it is the reality.  If the change in the surrounding political dynamic were not enough, for Israel (and as Friedman points out, the United States) an impending crisis is anticipated for the week ahead when Palestinians will petition the UN for statehood.  This hasn’t come out of the blue.  Palestinians have been talking about it for many months, a desperate, perhaps last ditch, tactic when all else seems to have failed.  What is it about their long expressed intentions that the Israeli government, and Americans, didn’t understand?

Now to the merits of their case: as Al Gore might put it, the inconvenient truth.  Perhaps the move is ill advised, but were the positions reversed — a Palestinian state but no Israel yet — be assured frustrated and disenfranchised Jewish residents would undoubtedly be on their way to the United Nations and likely would have made the trip much earlier.  One might hope that Jews would never have allowed themselves a violent Intifada and certainly not firing rockets into civilian populations.  But let’s remember that the founder of Netanyahu’s predecessor party was involved in bombing the King David Hotel in the late days of the mandate.  Also, Ben Gurion unilaterally declared a state before the UN had intended it.  Only quick recognition by the US and, yes, Iran, gave force to his doing so.  Desperate people do desperate things.

Here is another reality.  A Palestinian State will come into being.  With every passing day, its future and chances for survival looks brighter.  Time, the current dynamic in the region and demographics are on their side.  The opposite is the case for Israel.  Rising democracy should be it’s best friend but with an unresolved Palestinian situation, a denial of their democracy, the impending democracy of more Arab states could be Israel’s worst enemy.  Settling more of its population beyond the 67 lines undermines and may ultimately obviate a two state solution.  Here is the nightmare that should keep Israelis (and those who support Israel) up at night.  Palestinians are so frustrated by the current stalemate that they opt to cede all their land in exchange for citizenship in a single state.  Israel’s current track could make theoretical talk of a future Jewish minority in the Holy Land a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now I certainly don’t want to put all the blame for Israel’s predicament on its shoulders.  That would be unfair and is definitely not the case.  But who is right and who is wrong, who was willing to give more and who less, who had conditions and who didn’t, has ceased to be relevant.  Israel, like the United States, may be militarily and even economically more powerful, but in the end such power may not matter.  History moves in different directions at different times and winning requires being on its right side.  At present, the Palestinians are under Israel’s control.  One could make a very strong argument that their moral position relative to the Jewish experience in general and Israel’s position in specific is the lesser.  It doesn’t matter any more, because the past no longer has the relevance it might once have had.  Perhaps Israel has always been isolated by others but so too, in following its current path, has it isolated itself.  I for one am mystified by how this could have happened, how a country founded by progressive secular idealists could have put itself in the hands of hard right politicians and the most extreme of religious groups.  How could it have said no so many times or, perhaps worse, let opportunity slip by?

I started by asking what hard right conservatism does to a country, the kind found here and in Israel these days?  Well there is a connection.  The real agenda of our Right, which they would proudly admit, is to weaken the federal government and perhaps government in general, most especially the secular kind.  The underlying thrust of their budget (job) cutting agenda is to impoverish and starve governmental institutions at all levels until they no longer function.  Ron Paul, whose political fortunes may be no more promising than in the past, has nonetheless had a huge ideological impact on current Republicanism.  In the same way, Israel’s Right and most particularly its Religious Right, aims to weaken the secular state.  In fact, its Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem antecedents refused to recognize the State upon its founding.  They were a tiny minority then (no longer thanks to post founding immigration and high birth rates), but important enough to exact critical compromises.  Religious matters were ceded to their control, something the secular leaders mistakenly considered relatively unimportant.  The contemporary Settlers and other like-minded Religious Right Israelis have no real interest in peace with the Palestinians but dream of a real Jewish State, all the land governed by religious law if not all out theocracy.  That’s Israel’s current reality, not the dream of Israel, and that is what asks, or often gets, blind support.  But not my blind support, for us or for them.  I want more for both of us.

Israel is at a crossroad.  Make no mistake about it.  It’s time for a bold move either by its government or by its long excessively silent majority.  Everything is at stake.  Maintaining the status quo has run its course.  Deep down everyone knows that’s so.  It’s time to do more than dream the impossible or to be awakened by nightmares.  Religious rightists may believe the future is b’shert — destined.  Nonsense.  It is, and always has been, in human hands.  One can only hope mortals meet the challenge and take the right turn at this crossroad intersection, that they will head down the right road.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I was so wrong.

Early last week, Carol Bartz sent a four-word email blast to all Yahoo employees: I’ve just been fired.  It caused quite a stir in the corporate world where both executives and companies are wont to spin firings with face saving euphemisms.  The now former CEO told it like it was — the bold and simple truth.  Only time will tell if she will follow-up with a more extended explanation of her tenure, including what she may have done wrong.  By all accounts, Dick Cheney’s new book In My Time doesn’t include admissions to any wrong thinking or wrongdoing during his time in Washington.  Telling the unvarnished truth, as Bartz did, and admitting being wrong, as Cheney didn’t, is rare in our world.  That’s sad.  We desperately need the truth, but perhaps even more so, we need to admit to what Kathryn Schulz so thoroughly explored in her excellent 2010 book Being Wrong.  We can learn and teach so much from being wrong, and we should.

The narrative and images of September 11, 2001 are forever embedded in our minds.  They require no repeating.  For those of us who lived Manhattan at the time, the memory is particularly vivid: where we were, what we saw and what impact it had on us, personally and as a community.  To get a sense of the unique experience endured by those who lived in real proximity, read Neil Tyson’s harrowing email written from the refuge of his parents’ Westchester home the day after.  And then of course there was the endless written and spoken analysis.  The opinion consensus: everything had changed for America — we would never be the same.

I dismissed what had come to be that conventional wisdom.  In blogs I even rebelled against the term 9/11 and refused to call the place Ground Zero.  To me both smacked of the tabloid-speak that has so overtaken, cheapened and impoverished our language.  Mine wasn’t a matter of denial or a sense that what happened wasn’t profoundly important.  No American, especially living in New York, could dismiss the stark reality of those days.  It was rather that I felt we were getting ahead of ourselves in predicting things would never be the same.   To me it constituted of-the-moment analysis driven by sensational 24/7 coverage.  We were prematurely making a historical judgment before we had the necessary time and perspective.  This is not to suggest that I felt we would be untouched.  That would be impossible.  The Civil War, Great Depression, and three major 20th Century conflicts (hot and cold) all left indelible marks.  Nonetheless, we had always picked ourselves up, not merely recovering but gaining even greater strength — better than before.  American ingenuity and exceptionalism I thought would win out as it always had.  I was so wrong.

We are not what we were.  To be sure we certainly can’t attribute all of our now diminished state to the 9/11 attack.  The seeds of change were sown much earlier and more broadly than a single event, no matter how wrenching, and it will likely take historians many years to unpack and sort through them.  Some of the decline can probably be attributed to the natural ebb and flow of history.  Empires and the like have always had a finite shelf life — ask the Romans or the Brits.  In our case, losing the edge can in part be attributed to a systemic rebalancing of a once dominant economy upended to a degree we never fully anticipated by post-industrialization, lightening speed technological advancement and truly competitive globalization.

But Bin Laden was a player here.  Despite one major miss, the targets his suicidal agents hit — icons of our economic and military might — were astute and in their way serve as tokens for the never-be-the-same prediction.  Ten years out our undisputed financial preeminence is severely challenged and, all our high tech weaponry notwithstanding, we are increasingly seeing the limits or our military power.  But the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but we have done to ourselves since. 

There is an odd kind of euphoria that accompanies collective trauma, an emotional high that draws us together.  We certainly experienced it in the first days after, when even a president and a mayor not known for eloquence were somehow able to unify and inspire us.  That this togetherness dissipated virtually overnight should have been a tip off.  I may not have been in denial about what happened in my city ten Septembers ago, but I was blind to what would happen and with what consequences.  So this writing in September 2011 isn’t a matter of I told you so, but rather a reminder that I didn’t.  I was so wrong.

Would things have turned out differently had Al Gore rather than George W. Bush been in the White House?  I’d like to think so, but am by no means sure.  I doubt we would have gone to war with Iraq, but would we have done any less in Afghanistan?  Perhaps it would have not been so named, but a war on terrorism would likely have been declared.  It’s hard enough to parse what actually happened in the past — memory is selective — but speculating on what might have been is a waste of energy.  In fact, it can be distracting when we have to deal with reality, the product of what did occur.

Of course the leadership we had in place played an enormous role in how we reacted to 9/11.  It always does.  But in a democracy, as I have written often in these posts, we the people share fully in that responsibility.  Let’s remember that post Afghanistan and Iraq George Bush was reelected with 50.74% of the popular vote.  Moreover, no meaningful, much less sustained, protests on either the Civil Rights or Viet Nam scale have been mounted on our streets or in Washington.  That is striking given the unpopularity of our wars, but not that surprising since so few of us, as I and others have said before, have skin in that game.  And there may be another reason for our lack of activism, this one directly related to 9/11.  The first attack on mainland American soil, one that mostly took the lives of our fellow civilians, has cast a shadow on protests against military action that, despite Iraq, continue to be seen in the context of retaliation.  Protesting Viet Nam, a war rationalized by some theoretical and distant domino theory and a questionable Communist menace, is different than protesting one that avenges our personal hurt, even if opportunistically exaggerated.

Speaking of military conflicts, another thing that may never be the same after 9/11 is nature of war itself, previously fought between nations.  Again that change, in which the opponent is a rogue band of terrorists, had been in the works years earlier.  Much has been made of the warning signs missed by the Bush Administration, but in truth few of us recognized a sea change that had already taken place.  Bin Laden exposed what was potentially our, and with it most nation states’, Achilles Heel.  We, like major powers throughout history, have (mostly) been good at fighting big.  We were relatively unprepared and inexperienced at fighting small.  Shock and Awe was our way and its ineffectiveness was not only missed by political and military leaders but by a public that had happily bought into the notion of antiseptic quick wars.  Bomb the hell out of them and it’s over.  Right.

Some analysts have pointed to the Arab Spring as a repudiation of Bin Laden’s way.  That may be true relative to exploiting religious extremism and employing terrorist tactics to intentionally kill civilians, particularly non/wrong-believers.  But what Al Qaeda also demonstrated was that relatively few people could cause real and effectual havoc even in an authoritarian country.  I would suggest that what we’re seeing now, Libya excepted, is a non-violent manifestation of insurgent people power, another new normal if you will.  For sure Gandhi deserves some credit here, but Bin Laden’s contemporary example turned on its head may be more, even if ironically, to the point.  That it’s taken this particular less violent turn is heartening, but let’s remember we’re still in the early stages of a still moving target.

Other than in a metaphoric sense, it’s hard to attribute our never will be the same economy to the destroyed Trade Center.  Whatever disruptions that event caused were fleeting — a precipitous market drop with a quick recovery.  At the same time, Bin Laden certainly had a beef with the economic hegemony of what he considered the godless West.  But our economic woes have much deeper roots and are largely of our own, not his, making.  What is true is that the decade following 9/11 certainly has exposed them, perhaps like never before.  We may still mouth that this is land of opportunity, but can no longer be certain.  Things may truly never be the same.

Being diminished or experiencing decline, whatever you want to call it, is hard to take.  It brings with it an environment often described as one of uncertainty.  In fact it’s any thing but uncertain.  The wars our troops are fighting abroad may be remote, but our economic downturn is not.  The unemployed live or lived next door and they often include our near and dear.  That's certain and it makes us frantic.  That certainty about our dire condition may best explain the poisonous political atmosphere that abounds, and the increasingly vitriolic blame game.  It also accounts for monumental swings in voting that may have more to do with unrealistic wishful thinking than anything else.  Both parties seek to exploit this situation.  Republicans ask for power, holding out the promise that they have the magic bullet solution to all our problems.  I think many, if not most, of them honestly believe that to be the case.  And Democrats are no different.  Just replace Bush and presto, Obama will fix it all.  Such promises, made or imagined, are not only unrealistic they lead to huge, often unwarranted, disappointment.  Perhaps before, using 9/11 here as a token, there were fixes that could make a relatively immediate difference.  A drop or rise in interest rates could do wonders.  But today everyone is stretched and even the experts are flying somewhat blind.  I think Obama’s jobs plan (forget if you feel its big enough or perfectly focused) generally makes sense.  Conversely, the detail-poor Boehner Jobs approach seems much of the same old Republican formula that helped get us into this mess.  But who can say so for sure?  That the old rules seem obsolete and that things are not what they used to be and may never will be again is all I’m willing to say with some certainty.  

I was so wrong about the future back in 2001.  With that lesson in mind, I could be wrong again in 2011.  At least that gives me some modicum of hope.