Friday, January 30, 2015

A letter to Bibi

Dear Bibi

Let’s put it this way.   If you were running for office in the United States you might get a large number of evangelical votes and then some from the non-representative AIPAC cohort, but you’d lose among the majority of American Jews.  And likely by a landslide.  It isn’t only that your conservative politics are not shared by most of us, but that you don’t seem to understand that we care a lot more about our president and how he is treated than about you.  Some of us wonder why you seem to disregard the basic Jewish precept of derekh eretz – humility and respect when it should guide your interactions with all human beings including our chosen leader.  We still haven’t forgotten that arrogant and cheap lecture you gave him before cameras in his own office.  In case you haven’t followed our domestic politics, which I know you do, the vast majority of us voted for Barack Obama and continue to support him.  So when you dis him, you dis us, you dis me.  Let me repeat, he is our president.

Israel exists today because of Israelis.  You have built the country and take all the risks.  But let’s not underestimate how important support from the United States — beginning with Harry Truman — has been and specifically the support of American Jews.   You shouldn't take it for granted.  You may think AIPAC represents us and to be sure they have lobbied hard for Israel (always right, never wrong), but they have only a minority constituency.  It should concern you that, according to Pew’s October 2013 study, only 30% of American Jews feel “very attached” to Israel.  That number drops to 25% of those 18-49.  The numbers are better about feeling Israel is essential to being Jewish, but still not a majority: 42% and 35% respectively.  Another 39% of Jews feel somewhat attached to Israel.  In total 69%, a majority, in our community feels some link.  That's good, but putting that in some perspective, 73% of us voted for Obama in 2008 and 69% did so again in 2012.  A Majority of American Jews (54%) support the president’s policies regarding Israel — only 31% think we’re not supportive enough.

I count myself among American Jews who see Israel as an essential piece of the Jewish puzzle and with those who are dismayed at its current direction.  The low number of Jews who feel Israel is essential is deeply troubling.  To some degree it reflects the growing number of Americans, Jews and not, who are distancing themselves from religion.  But you should understand that the policies of your government, most particularly with regard to the West Bank, play a significant role in how American Jews, especially younger Jews, feel about and relate to Israel.  We are a well-educated and largely well-informed community.  We know that the Palestinians share blame for the failed peace talks, but we’re not fooled the tepid lip service you personally pay to the two state solution.  Your actions allowing further expansion of settlements speak much louder than your words.  We understand Israel’s need to defend itself and its citizens.  So the Gaza retaliation, under your watch, was understandable, but it’s scale leading to the disproportionate cost in human life paid by Palestinians seemed hard to justify.

You are passionate about Iran and its threat to Israel, some might say a passion that borders on obsession.  For sure that theocratic country has been a bad player in the past and continues to be in the conflicts that abound in your neighborhood.  No one wants to see Iran armed with nuclear weapons.  But the truth is that many of us feel than no country, including the United States and Israel, should possess weapons that everyone knows are too big to use.  But I don’t think the assumed menace of Iran is what brings you to accept John Boehner’s undiplomatic invitation.  Like him, your real motives are all about politics.  You and your former GOP acolyte ambassador think you can insert yourselves in ours while using the grander and symbolism of our capital to impact your own reelection.  Your agenda is so patently transparent.  How can you hurt Obama and help Bibi?  Not a very noble cause, not the motivation of a statesman.    The Republican leadership may welcome you in March, and the attendees at AIPAC may give you a standing ovation.  I’ll be one of those who won’t join in and I’m hardly alone.  That’s not good news for Israel.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Without a cause.

In his excellent New Yorker piece, The Power of Congress, Sam Tenenhaus noted that in the 1960s, “The paramount cause for liberals was civil rights.”  I was struck by the realization that more than fifty years on liberals, and indeed Democrats, lack a paramount cause.  Perhaps most telling, is that often they seem to have no cause at all.  The sixties, where civil rights played so large, ushered in a long overdue realignment and clarification of our heretofore-schizophrenic political parties.  Absent liberals pursuing a paramount cause that might not have happened.  Their passion empowered a Southern born president to promote and then sign legislation that would represent both a social and political watershed.  Johnson’s pen, as he knew it would, effectively drove Dixie Democrats into the Republican Party.  That shift effectively rationalized ideologies along party rather than purely regional lines.  Symbolically at least, the legacy of Lincoln migrated from Republicans to Democrats who as a result of the realignment had became his true ideological heirs.  

Since then, the dominant conservative South and (as Tenenhaus says) Midwest have merged into a more cohesive Republican whole, one that has shifted ever further to right in recent years.  At the same time, the Democrats still seem to be struggling with their identity.  Bill Clinton’s New Democrat approach, one that “ended welfare as we knew it” and eviscerated Glass Steagall, resulted in immediate electoral victories but badly muddied the ideological water.  Ironically, it probably helped drive the Republicans further right, if only to better distinguish themselves, while leaving the Democrats without a defined cause.  This of course was compounded by their running away from the liberal label and also, in my view, contributed heavily to the loss of the House in 2010 and the Senate this past November.

Having participated in the paramount civil rights cause in the 60s, it’s striking to me is how little has changed.  I’m not talking here about the undeniable achievements that we can all list, but of the underlying fundamentals.  What drove the South’s passionate resistance to integration is precisely what’s driving much of today’s Republican constituency.  For sure there is a considerable racial component in all of this, but that’s not the primary issue and concern.  Those who fought integration with such passion were just as much, if not far more, concerned about the erosion of their way of life — let me repeat, their way of life — as about what amounted to a second emancipation.  It wasn’t what Negroes would obtain, but rather what they would lose in the process.  That loss might be expressed in school integration and a more competitive job market, but more so in a societal shift.  Equality was seen as someone else’s gain at the cost of their loss.  Bluntly put, it was the loss of White Supremacy.

And this is what I mean in saying nothing has changed.  Today’s underlying struggle is between those who are increasingly taking a place at the table and those who feel they, at best have to move over and make room, at worst will lose their seat.  It is an ongoing fear of losing a way of life.  It’s why counter intuitively Republicans, the party of big business, are attracting the majority of low income, older and one time union Whites.  We think how crazy it is for them to support candidates who promote tax breaks for the rich and oppose increases in the minimum wage — against their best interests.  But we’re looking at the wrong driving concern.  Yes, economics are important, like keeping others from taking their jobs, but more so they are attracted to a party whose paramount cause is perceived as fighting to preserve their way of life.  In that fight, race may still play a big role, but holding on to majority status (symbolized, among others, in retaining English as our exclusive language) is far more important.  It isn’t simply a holding on to the past — some rejection of modernism — but a mortal fear of what the future will bring in the most personal and immediate terms.  It’s a sense of potential diminishment.

As the Republicans stamp out the last vestiges of moderation — the party of Lincoln — from their midst, the lines become more defined.  They may headline small government, tax cuts, business friendliness and the like, but their contract with followers promises much more than that.  The fine print, at times the subliminal message, is all about protecting a way of life, real or imagined.  It is, as I’ve written in other posts, a desperate effort with time and demographics working against them.  What I’m suggesting here is that today’s rightist cause mirrors exactly the battle and objectives taken up by the likes of George Wallace and company back in the 1960s.  That the South plays such a large role in today’s Republican party, part of that realignment mentioned earlier, is significant and perhaps symbolic, but to focus on geography is to again miss the point.  Fearful White voters of a certain demographic across the country feel no less threatened than those in Dixie, then and now.  The GOP’s leaders understand this and have tailored their message accordingly.  It has become or remains their paramount cause.

Early on opponents of the right to abortion took on the mantle of “pro-life”.   It was an example of tactical and branding brilliance, putting those who favored choice on the defensive.  Worse it implied that they were pro-death.  Pro-lifers turned a woman’s right to have dominion over her own body on it’s head, a position of control and strength into one of perceived weakness — daughters and wives into alleged murderers.  In the same way, Republicans defending “our way of life” have forced Democrats into a position of being those who are threatening and destroying it.  It isn’t gaining rights and better employment/wages for people, but taking “rights” and jobs away from others.   It isn’t welcoming new Americans, but taking space away from those who are already here, have been here for generations — challenging an entitlement.  That is the same story pitched in the 60s, a mark of how little has changed, but also a reminder that change takes time.  More important purveyors of change require both logic and passion to make their case.  They also have to understand that on the other side stand real people who are, reasonably or not, afraid.

The people who marched in Selma and other places had a paramount cause and the relentless passion to overcome.  They knew that the struggle would not be easy and the road long, perhaps even without end.  Those on the right have a similar take on their pursuit, albeit with a very different cause and end point.  Democrats, if they are to recoup their recent losses and indeed make new gains will require their own paramount cause.  It’s time for both an identity and a reality check.  It’s time to reassess what lies just below the surface of all the noise.  Unless we understand what’s at stake for those who have increasingly cast their lot with the right — low income and elderly Whites, union and former union members and all those who see their America at risk — we will keep on losing.  These people need answers and a reassurance that change will strengthen their position, make life even better, not undermine all they hold dear.  The case must be made, but without it becoming a paramount cause, it’s unlikely to resonate.  And by the way, Democrats themselves need that paramount cause, a jolt that will energize them to undertake what's required for 2016 and beyond.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Existential threat.

In rallying the support of their own citizens or allies, leaders often invoke the specter of an external existential threat to their nation.  We need only to look back at the first half of the 20th Century to see that such threats can be real.  Consider the countries of Europe overrun and subjugated by Hitler’s Germany, those in Asia taken over by Imperial Japan and finally those forced into the Soviet orbit.   That said, for the most part even the most horrendous of these existential threats turned out to be relatively short-lived.  Ask today’s citizens of those countries.

So, making a credible case for external existential threats is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.   Despite all the hysteria surrounding 9/11, George W. Bush couldn’t convince us that Al Qaeda’s challenge was existential.  That made him and his neocon retainers so desperate that they fashioned an existential threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction out of whole cloth.  Still they couldn’t make the case, because of course there was none to be made.  This is not to suggest that existential threats can’t or won’t exist in the future, especially for smaller states.  Even so, my guess is that we and other nations may have more to fear from within than without.  This is especially true when something comes along that threatens a country’s national character or moral center.  To be threatened from outside is challenging, falling victim to a self-inflicted wound is truly tragic.

I couldn’t help but think of this in considering Israel’s upcoming March 17 election.  Immediately upon its 1948 founding, the fledgling state found itself under attack from all of its Arab neighbors.  Without question it faced an immediate and existential threat, a potential delayed stillbirth.  Despite all odds, including the vastly superior numbers of their adversaries, tiny Israel prevailed.  Since its war for independence, the country has been threatened on numerous occasions and each time triumphed, preserving its sovereignty, its existence.  Israel was born out of the Holocaust, midwifed by guilt-ridden nations, including the United States, who too long averted their eyes from what was happening to European Jewry.  It was not the first time Jews had been persecuted or faced possible extinction.   Indeed, looking at the arc of history, it is little wonder that Israel, along with Jews around the world, sometimes seem to be suffering paranoia.  Recognizing real not imagined threats has forced Israel to be both vigilant and prepared.  No nation can be expected to do less, but being on continuous high alert comes with considerable cost.

When it comes to Israel, as suggested in my December 2014 post commenting on Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, things are complicated.  Despite its military successes, the country remains surrounded by hostile neighbors, some still vowing its destruction.  It took control of the West Bank in a war it didn’t start — quite the contrary — but finds itself the occupier of territory that the United Nations designated as Arab (Palestinian) in its 1947 Partition Plan.  Since its inception, Israel has taken in countless Jewish refugees, fully integrating them as citizens into its society.  In contrast, its Arab neighbors — many of them rich — refused to take in displaced Arab Palestinians in 1948, in effect manufacturing a “refugee problem” that remains unresolved.   Israel may occupy, but the Arab world has used these “homeless” people as pawns for its own purposes, unwilling players in a chess game that never needed to be played.

Israel’s founders had their differences but they were idealists who saw the new state in almost utopian terms.  Most of them were secular, not religious.  Yet they were deeply committed to Am Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood.  Most were exiles from, and profoundly touched by, a war-torn and hostile Europe.  For them, persecution was an immediate and personal experience, loss of home and family etched in their psyche.  The idea of a Jewish State, a permanent and secure homeland, was not an option but a necessity born directly out of that experience.  The nation they were building would be egalitarian, not sectarian — the opposite of the totalitarian countries from which they escaped.  

It was an idea and a reality rejected by the new country’s small ultra-orthodox (Haredi) population, many of whom lived in Jerusalem.  That rejection didn’t sustain.  Over time, with continued immigration and an outsized birth rate the Haredis would opportunistically and pragmatically change their stance becoming a significant political force in the body politic.  Together with the West Bank settler community (to which many of them belong) and rightist parties, they have stood in opposition to the two-state solution envisioned and embodied in UN’s 1947 partition resolution.  To them all the land that was pre-1948 Palestine is the Promised Land; all belongs solely to the Jewish people. 

Bibi Netanyahu, the aggressively vocal Israeli prime minister, likes to evoke external existential threats, most notably a nuclear Iran.  Without discounting that there are those who regularly vow the country’s destruction, I think its greatest existential challenge may come from within.  That brings us back to the upcoming election.  While not on the ballot, the issue of one state or two is certainly at stake.  Remember, I defined an existential threat from within as one that threatens a country’s national character or moral center.   For many years now, Israel has been moving steadily away from its left/liberal roots (the founders Mapai Party) toward the political right (Likud and others).  As my most recent post would demonstrate, they are not alone.  Conservatives have been ascendant in the US and rule in Germany, the UK, and may again in France at the next vote. Turkey, a once moderate Moslem state in the region, has taken its own sharp turn to the right.

Netanyahu, whose firing of two key moderate coalition partners precipitated the impending vote, is a man of the right.  In recent years he has paid lip service to two states — one Jewish and one Palestinian.  But his sanctioning of further expansion on the West Bank makes one wonder about his commitment and to the peace process in general.  Without question, more building in the “territories” has complicated negotiations with the Abbas PLO government.  This is not to suggest that Israel is the only party responsible for the failure of John Kerry’s peace initiative. In a recent NY Times Op-Ed, Dennis Ross Bill Clinton’s principal negotiator in the 1990s contends that the PLO shares equal, even greater, blame.  Nonetheless, with the increasing rise of the right, most notably but not exclusively the Haredi, talk of a single Jewish state encompassing the West Bank and, one would assume Gaza, has entered the conversation in a more serious way. 

I have Israeli relatives who feel that the election is unlikely to change anything — the government or the status quo.   I’m not sure they will bother to vote and that itself says something, including why the left is so weakened.  Not being an Israeli, I’m in no position to know that their assessment is wrong.   What does seem clear, even from this vantage point, is that a big win for the right could indeed have considerable consequence.  Among others, it might close the door on the two-state solution and transform Israel into something very different than what the founders had envisioned.  It could move the country from being an occupier into a “Jewish Homeland” where Jews hold only a small and shrinking majority.  If the West Bank and Gaza were incorporated into a single State of Israel, Arabs would immediately number 5.5 Million up from the current 1.7 Million.  That means that the Jewish population (6.1 Million) now 75% of the whole would shrink to a tenuous majority.  Demographics alone, even allowing for the high Haredi growth rate (5%), could tip that balance in relatively short order.  

The real question then is how would that single state be managed?  Would there be universal suffrage, which might one day lead to Arab rule or more likely would the non-Jewish population be relegated to some kind of second-class citizenship.  Think companies that have two classes of stock, voting and not.  Either way, over time the character of the country would be totally altered — an existential threat if there ever was one.  For any one who cares about Israel, not to mention the future of the Jewish people, the implications of this outcome are almost too painful to contemplate.  Imagine, for example, if Apartheid would reemerge, only this time in the Holy Land.  Again, an existential threat to the state and an end to the Biblical promise, “out of Zion will come the authentic teaching, the divine word out of Jerusalem.”

A radical outcome from the upcoming vote would further alienate the world community, perhaps even triggering some international action that could undermine all for which the country’s people have worked.  But that is really a very poor reason upon which Israeli citizens should decide on how to vote.  They shouldn’t allow this existential threat for themselves and for their own future not because American Jews like myself or others want that outcome.  That’s true as well for any future peace initiative.  Nobody can or should dictate Israel or the Palestinians fate.  They have to do it for themselves and for those who will come after them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ah, liberalism.

I learned of Mario Cuomo’s death while sitting at my computer on New Years Day working on this post.  His son Andrew had been inaugurated for his second term just hours before.  For anyone who regularly reads Beyond All That, you know that, like my former governor, I am a card carrying liberal, with a capital L.  Okay, he actually preferred “progressive”.  Despite some small, albeit significant, victories, we — liberal or progressive — have been steadily losing ground since the Reagan days.  That time, you will remember, prompted Cuomo’s most memorable political speech before the 1984 Democratic Convention.  It was more than three decades ago and counting.  It’s worth a listen.

Being a political junkie, I started listening regularly to Democratic (and many Republican) keynotes as a kid and still do.  Governor Ann Richards gave one of the most memorable in 1992 — “Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  But only two really stand out both for delivery and soaring rhetorical language.  In each case, I was convinced the nation was looking at its future president.  I was wrong about Mario Cuomo and right about Barack Obama.  Beyond their shared gift for oratory, the two men had other things in common.  For one, as Ken Auletta noted in his recent New Yorker remembrance, Cuomo “…had the temperament of a writer—not unlike Barack Obama.”

Cuomo in his 1984 keynote mocked Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, pointing out that the one encountered and depicted by president was gilt edge and privileged.  It was a place where few Americans actually lived — most were merely getting along, struggling or in dire straights.  He spoke of America as a “tale of two cities”, a theme so contemporaneously relevant that Bill de Blasio adopted in for his 2013 New York mayoral campaign.  All these years later you can listen to that keynote (and again I urge you to do so) and realize that it could easily and credibly have been delivered today.  Not much has changed, and if so, often for the worse.  Entering 2015, beyond all else, we have a far smaller and less secure middle class.  It turns out that income disparity isn’t a product of the Great Recession, but of the decades’ long rise of conservatism and concurrent decline of liberalism.  These days, we liberals are losing both the battles and the war, terminology I don’t use lightly. 

Today’s conservatives, and indeed people at the edges of ideology right and left, are adept at, and comfortable with, fighting.  Liberals are not.  Conservatives have no trouble employing virtual weapons of mass destruction (including calculated misinformation) to gain victory.  Resorting to such tactics run contrary to the very essence of liberalism.  Liberals are often portrayed as people who believe in big government compared with conservatives who would severely contain its reach.  Liberals see government as a solution.  In contrast, Reagan proclaimed, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem”.  But these of course are much too simplistic formulations — big or small government, solution or problem.  Underlying the liberal point of view is that society has a responsibility to and for its constituency.  Mario Cuomo might have put that in religious terms: we are our neighbor’s keepers and they ours.  That explains liberal’s support of social programming, whether broad scale accessible education and healthcare or the need for a protective safety net for those in need.  The size of government is not the issue; rather it’s what government does.

That said, it is not a difference in ideology or even in the role of government that explains the rise of conservatism and the retrenchment of liberalism.   In fact, when pollsters ask respondents about approaches to specific problems or mores, rather than using hyperbolic code words like “Obamacare”, the liberal position often wins out.  And on social issues, just look at the dramatic turn of public opinion on marriage equality that, with the addition of Florida, is now legal in 36 states.  But, it’s not programmatic ideology that counts, rather a much more fundamental difference in worldview.  The essence of liberalism lies in openness to both new ideas and alternatives including contrarian views.  Liberals do not believe themselves to be in possession of “the truth”.  In fact, they have a strong aversion to the idea that anyone owns the truth, to any kind of absolutism.

This is not to suggest that liberals lack conviction, quite the contrary.  We hold strong beliefs, ones strong enough to form a foundation for how we live and conduct ourselves.  At the same time, true liberals don’t assume that their conviction or mode of living is the only right way of doing things and that those who choose a different course are somehow flawed or stupid.  Mario Cuomo was a deeply religious Catholic who personally opposed abortion.  But as a governor presiding over a diverse citizenry with different views and personal truths, he was a indefatigable supporter of a woman’s right to chose.  That suggests both respect for other views and with regard to society the need to compromise, not in how we approach life individually but how we function relative to others.  That doesn’t mean compromise is always possible — there are lines drawn by our beliefs — but that living and functioning in community has distinct requirements.

Conservatives, whether in politics, religion or anywhere else, come at life differently.  That’s especially so in the post Reagan era where rightists dominate. Today, those at conservatism’s center stage are more likely people who think they do possess the truth and, as such, are absolutists.  For them compromise is an anathema, a betrayal of the truth and, yes, of faith.  Prevailing is all that matters.  Simply put, they are in the right and those with other views are in the wrong.  To be fair, some of those on the outer edges of liberalism, albeit with the opposite ideology, have a similar take on things, one that I don’t share. 

The bottom line is that, given our very different worldview, we liberals are at a distinct disadvantage on what has become a continuous battlefield.  We can’t help it.  While fervently believing in our positions and resultant policies, we recognize those on the other side are coming from a different place, one that for them has equal merit.  It assumed to be heartfelt and deserves respect.  That works well around a dinner table, but falls short on the battlefield.  Soldiers are expected to hold the line, consider their cause as gospel and go on the attack.  Liberals make bad soldiers.  Constitutionally, we are more comfortable in mode of the famous 1914 Christmas Truce whose centennial we marked a few weeks ago.

I have good friends who look at conservative tactics before, during and after political campaigns and bemoan the fact that liberals aren’t hitting back, and doing so in kind.  I’ve heard the complaints about how the president in that regard.  I appreciate their frustration and point of view, but that kind of tit for tat of just doesn’t work in the context of liberalism.  I’ve written before about how poor we are a slogan making and branding relative to conservatives.  Liberals are not good marketers, certainly not t when that requires constantly spinning or shading the truth. I know it’s a pragmatic disadvantage to be that way, but it’s consistent with liberalism.

Of course, there is a difference between understanding a respecting an opposite point of view and not standing up for one’s own.  Calling an opponent on the implications of their ideology or worse their fabrication of fact, is not succumbing to their way of doing things.   Running away from the accomplishments of the last six years, as Democratic candidates did across the country this past November, is inexcusable — and costly.  It bespeaks a lack of pride.  Regan made “the L word” a badge of shame.  I wear it with honor.  If not, how can I expect others to either respect me or take me seriously. 

I watched Mario Cuomo’s simple funeral today, just as he had wanted it.  Aside from the parish priest, his son Andrew was the only speaker.  It reminded me of my father’s equally simple funeral where I gave the only eulogy.  Like the current governor, I had also spent some years working with mine.  Andrew spoke of his dad’s career, but perhaps most germane to this writing was his final assessment: Mario Cuomo was “the keynote speaker for our better angels”.  He spoke his mind and his conscience both a reflection of what I proudly call liberalism.  We should take that as a lesson if we want to reverse our slide.