30 April 2007

29 April 2007 - Sari Nusseibeh: the power of empathy and complexity

An article in this week’s Brandeis Hoot says everything you need to know about Norman Finkelstein and anti-Israel activists like Harvard’s own Sara Roy. Roy “. . . claimed that Finkelstein cut through ‘the artificial web of complexity’ surrounding the Middle East Conflict.” To this claim Finkelstein added, describing the charge of Israeli “apartheid”: “[W]hat’s most striking is how uncontroversial this is.”

To Roy and Finkelstein, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear and simple. Its facts are undisputed; its guilty and innocent parties easily identified; its human dilemmas easily sorted out. It’s an odd claim for two children of Holocaust survivors who have spent their careers opposing Israel to make; you’d think that if they were sincere, they’d at least be alive to the complexities of their own position.

But there’s no room for complexity here, only blame. Roy and Finkelstein exemplify something my friend Theo refers to as “psychological concretism,” which I understand as the inability to grasp nuance. They are, in fact, deeply suspicious of nuance, seeing it as a kind of smokescreen. They add disclaimers about terrorism and the two-state solution but attack compromise as a form of corruption.

That, I believe, is why Finkelstein evokes so much hostility. To be a thinking, feeling human being, and to be confronted with the archetypal “right versus right” conflict of ancient tragedy, and then to be told that good lies exclusively with one side and evil solely with another, and that if you fail to agree then you are aligned with the evil—that is, in fact, profoundly dehumanizing.

People often attack Finkelstein by focusing on his distortion of facts. But that is not the core of what’s wrong with his approach. What Roy and Finkelstein lack is empathy—equal empathy for both sides. That is the key, regardless of whether you lean toward the Israeli or the Palestinian camp. Without that basic human empathy, no progress is possible—only blame, and, ultimately, vengeance.

Contrast that approach with that of Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, who came to Harvard last Friday to talk about his new memoir, Once Upon a Country. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in a review in the New York Times, Nusseibeh “exhilaratingly declares that ‘a Manichean view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with one side all light, the other all darkness, is impossible to take.’

Nusseibeh spoke about the conflict between mind and body for Palestinians under occupation—how, prior to the first intifada, the Palestinians were becoming Israeli in body by consuming Israel exports and working Israeli jobs, but remained Palestinian in mind by nurturing their own aspirations. This created an intense internal conflict, he said, whose resolution he could not predict.

He told the story of how he had enjoyed a swim at a pool in an Israeli settlement, and then wondered why Palestinians didn’t demand the right to live in the settlements. It would, he said, have led Palestinians to demand equal rights to Israelis, which would have made Israelis realize that the occupation was not only costly but undermining the very essence of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state.

These are the words of a champion of the Palestinian cause who realizes that peace must come through dialogue—and that, in fact, non-violence can be a far greater threat, a far more powerful tool of persuasion, than terror. They are the words of someone who understands that complexity is not an illusion but a reality—and often, at times, a deeply subversive one.

The moderator of the discussion at Harvard’s Center for the Humanities, Prof. Homi Bhabha, kept trying to push Nusseibeh in a more radical political direction—or even to undermine his approach. Was there growing support for an anti-apartheid-style movement? Was his attitude the result of an aristocratic upbringing? What was it like to be “in the struggle” and to reconcile mind and body?

Nusseibeh deflected these questions—but none more brilliantly than the last. He abruptly announced that he had to go to the bathroom, and left the room for five minutes while Bhabha struggled to fill time. He returned, and told his interlocutor: “You see, sometimes body and mind are irreconcilable, but we still move on,” or words to that effect. I’m not sure Bhabha got the joke, or the point.

(The other interesting point that emerged from Nusseibeh’s bathroom break came when Bhabha turned to Nusseibeh’s wife to answer questions about Hamas in his stead. No, she replied to Bhabha’s query about the group’s supposed moderation, she had not seen evidence that Hamas was becoming more peaceful, except for a few individuals, perhaps. Palestinians were, in fact, turning to civil society for answers, she said, out of frustration with Hamas.)

The questions continued along the same lines, from Bhabha and the audience, with Nusseibeh defending brilliantly. Why did he refer to Hamas as “Islamist loonies”? I was not referring to the people who voted for them, he said, but to their use of force. Wasn’t force the only way to keep the Palestinian cause on the agenda? If any history teaches that force does not work, it is Palestinian history, he said.

What about the Israelis—didn’t force work for them? Not really, he said. In 1967 they won the West Bank and Gaza—and now they are an occupying force struggling to get out. Every time they build a settlement, they “win,” because they can do it, but they also lose because they slowly erode the foundations of the Zionist project. His performance was brilliant; he simply shone above the Harvard critics.

I managed to ask him a question. Let’s take your swimming pool story, I said, and tell a similarly subversive tale, but for constructive reasons. What if Palestinians were to say to Israeli settlers that they could be free Palestinian citizens and remain where they are? Doing so would create strategic pressure on Israel to withdraw, and would also lay the foundation for creating a pluralistic, tolerant Palestinian society.

Nusseibeh agreed, and said simply—and sadly: “It’s a brilliant idea. I wish our leaders would do that. Unfortunately, our leaders do not do everything that they should do.” Bhabha then asked me exactly what I meant, and I tried to clarify my question. I didn’t know how it could possibly have been clearer. I think he was just taken aback by it. Imagine that: asking a Palestinian state to uphold human rights!

Nusseibeh said something I had heard Rob Malley say the day before—that despite the violence, the two sides are getting closer to peace. But he did so in a wonderful narrative style, referring to a fairy tale in his book about “Mr. Seems,” the man who is not quite what he appears to be. Bhabha busied himself with labels, calling Nusseibeh an “existentialist humanist nationalist.” Nusseibeh just nodded, amused.

It was really such an amazing event that I leapt up to buy Nusseibeh’s book and get it signed by the author, which is something I have never done before. The Jewish Daily Forward wrote: “If only Nusseibeh’s story of persistent empathy were also his people’s story. But it’s not. It’s one lonesome heretic’s tale.” I hope it’s more than that. I hope it’s a real way forward, past the reductionist radicals, and into the future.

29 April 2007

28 April 2007 - Rob Malley's Mideast roundup

Before I begin, I just want to thank everyone who voted for Guide to the Perplexed in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards. With about half an hour of voting left to go in the first round, I am tied for second in Group C for Best New Blog, and I am holding onto second in Group B for Best Left-Wing Blog. According to the competition rules, this means the blog should advance to the final. Stay tuned!

This past Thursday, Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs hosted Robert Malley, who is the Middle East and North Africa Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Washington D.C. The topic of his talk was “Israel, Palestine and the U.S.: Moving towards Peace?” Malley gave a detailed report on the state of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to a packed seminar room.

The ICG has done some interesting work on the conflict, and recently launched an initiative designed to create diplomatic momentum towards an ultimate resolution. Its reports and other publications are worth browsing through. However, I must say that much of what they are doing seems rather conventional—and indeed much of what Malley told us last Thursday seemed like old news (at first).

Malley is optimistic about the prospects for peace, and said that despite continuing violence there is a greater convergence of views on both sides about the shape of a final agreement. (This assessment repeated the next day by Sari Nusseibeh, whose presentation at Harvard’s Center for the Humanities will be the subject of my next blog entry). He cited the Saudi peace initiative as an example of this convergence.

Malley also spoke about the prospects for peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, and criticized the United States for telling Israel not to talk to the Assad regime. He claimed that history would remember the Bush administration for being the first to walk away from an Arab leader who was genuinely interested in making peace, and urged the view that talks with Syria offered the best chance for progress.

I agreed with Malley that the U.S. should let Israel pursue the Syrian track, but felt he should have explored the reasons why it might make sense not to—such as the difficulty of getting Syria to separate itself from Iran, or the potential for double-dealing by Assad, or the desire to back Saudi leadership in the region. Malley in fact failed to mention Iran at all until someone asked him a question about it later.

In addition, there were two things Malley said that I had never heard before. One sounded somewhat plausible, the other totally ridiculous. The first was that the Arab League proposal was intended as a framework within which Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors could negotiate a final deal. Its intent, he suggested, was to give political cover to the Palestinians and Syrians to negotiate with Israel.

That’s not how I understood the plan. There is, first of all, the possibility that it is merely a U.S.S.R.-style peace proposal, designed so that all concrete concessions must be made by Israel—designed, in other words, to be rejected, or to achieve some other propaganda purpose (such as showing that the Saudis can cobble together a consensus in the Arab world, though based on the least common denominator).

The Saudis have lent credence to such suspicions by refusing (publicly, at least) to negotiate the terms of the plan until Israel first accepts it in its entirety (bit of a contradiction there). Still, I am willing to believe that it is possible that the initiative is sincere, if only because the Sunni world has a strong interest in getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settled so it can face Iran with a unified front.

What I found impossible to believe was Malley’s argument that there is a tactical convergence between Hamas and Israel. How can this be, when Hamas is still trying to kill Israelis and abduct soldiers? I questioned Malley about this and his answer was that both Israel and Hamas want to delay a deal as long as possible—that Hamas’s hudna, or long-term cease-fire, matches Israel’s stalling behavior.

This conclusion is a classic example of false co-equivalence. Israel has a clear and urgent interest in a final peace agreement. It may not be in a rush to conclude one, given the radical concessions demanded by its neighbors, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hear the clock ticking. Hamas, on the other hand, has an ideological and strategic interest in keeping the jihad going. At most, it wants a temporary lull.

Malley goes in for the idea that Hamas has become more moderate since taking power—or that it could become more moderate in future. He believes that Hamas will work with Israel because it needs to consolidate support among Palestinians. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that Hamas may believe its ability to govern depends on its ability to kill Israelis—not to win support, but to win obedience.

I simply cannot understand how Malley can blithely ignore Hamas’s explicit commitment to a strategy of violent confrontation. Yes, there can be progress towards peace even as the two sides are shooting at each other. But Hamas is trying to escalate the conflict, not contain it. It is also ready to go to war against Fatah to protect its hold on power. Seeing this as progress is just wishful thinking.

Malley suggested that the U.S. should follow Europe’s lead and start developing closer contact with Hamas leaders. I think this would be a big mistake, because it would mean that the diplomatic effort to rob terror of its political legitimacy would have failed. Such a move would actually make negotiations harder, because it would strengthen hard-liners, weaken moderates, and remove incentives for non-violence.

I was also highly irritated by Malley’s tendency to play to the crowd—which was two-to-one anti-Israel—by talking about the domestic constraints on U.S. policy—i.e. the “Israel lobby.” He said he had some problems with Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis, but didn’t quite say what, and in fact led credence to that thesis claiming that few political candidates or diplomats had the courage to stand up to Israel.

He added, in response to an audience member who apparently believed that the Jews in Israel were “Europe’s problem,” that Clinton had allowed himself to be led astray by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Oslo process and had given in to far too many Israeli demands about the secrecy of the talks and goodness knows what else. Barak—who staked and lost his political career for peace!

Malley even recounted a silly story about by getting angry emails from the Zionist Organization of America about a speech he had written for former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In fact, the more he went on about the “lobby” and the deficiencies of the Bush administration, I felt this former Clinton official was offering little more than political sour grapes of the Jimmy Carter variety.

There are, it seems, three common fallacies among those who follow the Carter line: first, they downplay the effects and intent of Palestinian violence; second, they place sole blame on Bush and/or the “lobby” for the lack of progress; and third, they think the U.S. should defer to Europe, et al., in overseeing negotiations. I sincerely hope this does not suggest the future outline of Democratic policy in the region.

Despite his optimism about the convergence on all sides, Malley offered a rather pessimistic vision of the Middle East ten years from now. I left feeling discouraged. Not about the prospects for peace—I have my own reasons for feeling optimistic—but about the apparent lack of imagination, and the apparent prejudice, of people who are supposed to be at the forefront

26 April 2007

26 April 2007 - Is Israel an affirmative action state for Jews?

In defending Israel’s right to exist, several South African Jewish leaders have used the argument that Israel is like an “affirmative action state” for Jews. In the South African context, this is an attempt to link Jewish national aspirations with black aspirations and with a policy that the ruling party considers beyond question. Yet I am quite uncomfortable with the analogy, for two reasons.

First, affirmative action is a policy that both addresses and creates a class of dependent beneficiaries who cannot, theoretically, succeed on their own. That is not how Israel was created, nor how Israel has survived. Israel’s critics, of course, insist it would not exist without U.S. aid. That is untrue, but the “affirmative action” analogy lends support to that view and denies Jewish agency.

Second, affirmative action is a policy that is not only controversial but is also considered, even by its most vocal proponents, to be something of a failure. It has opened new opportunities for blacks at the top, but it has not made much of a positive impact at the entry level, and may even have had a negative impact in several cases (the South African National Defence Forces provide one example).

I am not talking about specific Israeli policies such as the Law of Return, which is a form of affirmative action (though perhaps one that could do with some reform). I am talking about arguments that justify Israel’s very existence by referring to a policy that is theoretically aimed at redressing past injustice but creates, in the eyes of many, new injustices and new victims without achieving its original goals.

Affirmative action has fallen into a rhetorical trap: criticizing the policy is taboo, but defending it is becoming impossible. That is the trap that Israel, too, will be caught in if the country’s existence is justified solely as a response to antisemitism—and not as a worthy goal in itself, consistent with ideals of democracy and self-determination. Without independent justification, any policy of restorative justice ultimately fails.

The pitfalls of affirmative action—both the policy and the type of debate that surrounds it—were illustrated recently in South Africa when University of Cape Town philosophy chair David Benatar attacked affirmative action on ethical grounds in a lecture entitled “Justice, Diversity and Affirmative Action." His lecture prompted a stormy exchange which ran amok in the local press.

(A note about Benatar: he is a cool guy, a wonderful mix of contradictions. An Orthodox Jew and a vegan, he clearly believes in doing the right thing on earth and yet has published a book arguing that it might be better if none of us had ever been born in the first place. The title, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, was nominated for Oddest Book Title of the Year by bookseller.com.)

Benatar’s argument went roughly as follows: the best kind of affirmative action policy is one aimed at equal opportunities. More severe versions will allow weaker candidates to benefit. This is usually justified as necessary to rectify past injustice, but race is not necessarily a proxy for past injustice. Furthermore, it is impossible and absurd to define “race.” We have to find better means of rectifying injustice.

University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Martin Hall responded: Benatar bases his argument on UCT policies, but “there are no rules or guidelines.” Unlike American policies (?), South African affirmative action has to address past injustice. Quality and racial diversity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We do not use a biological but a social definition of race at UCT, and do not push it to extremes.

To this, Benatar replied: Hall did not respond to my arguments. The policies I described do reflect UCT practices, which Hall describes with euphemisms like “equity”. UCT does not use a “social” definition of race, because it classifies people without knowing more than color. Hall prefers UCT’s policy to remain ambiguous but still cannot defend it except to associate my views with others’ extreme ones.

Other people also weighed in: Laurie Nathan of UCT accused Benatar of failing to base his arguments on empirical evidence; Sam Radithlalo, also of UCT, claimed Benatar was saying that black appointees were necessarily unqualified and also not truly disadvantaged; Robert Segall argued that appointing “less qualified, but nevertheless appointable” candidates was a “modest price” to pay for past injustice.

Then there was the inevitable argument that the standards of quality themselves are already contaminated: “The unfairness is only self-evident from the vantage point of the dominant ‘western’ or ‘white’ culture – and exactly because that culture provides the ‘universal norms and standards’ according to which fairness must be measured,” said Pierre de Vos of the University of the Western Cape.

Nathan’s argument is easily dismissed in two ways. First, supporters of affirmative action are as obliged as critics to provide empirical evidence that it works—more so, in fact, given the costs—but they never do so (nor does Nathan). Second, the empirical evidence that does exist from affirmative action policies around the world suggests that these policies do not achieve, and in many ways frustrate, their goals.

As Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution has observed: “Despite sweeping claims made for affirmative action programs, an examination of their actual consequences makes it hard to support those claims, or even to say that these programs have been beneficial on net balance – unless one is prepared to say that any amount of social redress, however small, is worth any amount of costs and dangers, however large.”

Radithlalo, like Hall, simply misconstrues Benatar’s argument. Benatar did not say that anyone appointed under a race-based affirmative action policy is necessarily unqualified or privileged, but that such policies are likely to lead to less qualified and less disadvantaged people being appointed. Radithlalo takes Benatar’s criticism personally—which shows how hard it is to have a rational discussion of this subject.

Benatar responded well to Hall’s arguments, but I think three more points are in order. First, just because UCT’s policy does not aim to achieve exact demographic proportions does not mean it is not absurd or will not lead to absurd consequences in individual cases or in general. Certainly the ruling party believes UCT’s policy should conform to demographic targets of ninety percent black, ten percent white.

Second, Benatar could have pointed out the many ways in which affirmative action in South Africa actually harms the poor. As Robert Guest pointed out in The Shackled Continent, hiring less qualified people in the government makes public services—which the poor depend on—more scarce; hiring less qualified people in the private sector holds back economic growth, limiting job creation for the unemployed.

There is an PhD dissertation in economics waiting to be written about whether the advances some black South Africans have made since 1994—such as increasing numbers of households moving from the poor to the lower middle class—were due to affirmative action policies, or to the dismantling of discriminatory apartheid laws. I think the evidence would show affirmative action has actually retarded progress.

Third, the ambiguity of UCT’s policy is not a virtue, but actually its worst possible vice, because it will allow the administration to make wholly arbitrary decisions and defend them in terms of social justice. Administrators could, for example, deny use the policy to settle personal scores, or target certain people on the orders of the government, and the victims would be almost powerless to protest their exclusion.

This is a problem with South Africa’s racial policies in general, which are generally classified as “transformation.” Politicians, judges and business leaders argue that “transformation” is a constitutional imperative, but the word does not actually appear in the constitution. It has many contradictory meanings, not all of them benign, and South Africans are letting the government decide which ones to use.

Not only does the vagueness of “transformation” create the potential for erosion of the rule of law; it is, in itself, a severe blow to the rule of law because it allows the government to determine, on a whim, what the law should be. This is the great political problem at the heart of affirmative action in South Africa. A fixation on race brought down apartheid and it could destroy South African democracy, too.

As Paul Trewhela writes, responding to Professor de Vos: If ‘an objective standard does not exist’ in human affairs, there is no law. . . . In reality, far from ‘objective criteria’ merely helping ‘to hide the prejudices of the powerful behind a façade of neutrality,’ nothing would make law more subject to the naked interests of the powerful than his relativism.
The professor argues for the end of law.”

And so, to return to Israel. It does little good—and perhaps much harm—to equate Israel with a policy that may undermine the rule of law, to rest Israel’s legitimacy on the continued magnanimity of the international community, to base the case for Israel solely on Jewish victimhood. I understand the rhetorical thrust, but I dislike the comparison to affirmative action almost as much as the apartheid analogy.

25 April 2007

25 April 2007 - Contract law and the peace process

It’s exam season at law school, and I thought I’d use the opportunity to reflect on how contract law can shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Peace negotiations really are grounded in principles of contract; though they potentially govern so many other areas, such as international law, human rights law, property law, environmental law, etc., they are first and foremost deals between the parties.

There is an old English case, Kingston v. Preston, King’s Bench [1773], that explored the three kinds of covenants that can be created in a contract. First, there are covenants that are “mutual and independent.” These are binding on each party whether or not the other parties fulfill their obligations: “[I]t is no excuse for the defendant, to allege a breach of the covenants on the part of the plaintiff.”

Second, there are covenants that are “conditions and dependent,” such that one party’s duty to fulfill its promises depends on the prior obligations of the other parties to fulfill theirs. Third, there are covenants that are “mutual conditions to be performed at the same time,” where if one party is ready to perform its obligations and the others do not, the first party has a cause of legal action against the others.

In the debates over the failure of the Oslo peace process, which have subsided somewhat in recent years but are still relevant, there was disagreement about who was more at fault. Palestinians blamed the Israelis for the continued expansion of the settlements in the occupied territories; Israelis blamed the Palestinians for the continuation of violence and the failure to clamp down on terror and incitement.

Factually, these claims were both correct—although Israel pointed out that it had not undertaken to stop construction in the settlements in the Oslo agreement. (Indeed, that was why critics like Edward Said opposed it.) Palestinians countered that settlement construction was a violation of the good faith necessary to the fulfillment of the accords and the negotiation of future final status agreements.

The Israeli response to this was that continued violence by Palestinian groups and incitement in official Palestinian media was not only a violation of good faith but of the letter of the agreement itself. The Palestinian counter-argument to this claim was that it was in fact making a good faith effort to stop violence, and that Israeli interventions and military responses just made it harder for them to do so.

Admittedly, I’ve simplified things a bit to make the debate fit the contract law framework. However, looking at the Oslo process this way leads to some interesting ways of understanding its flaws. Each side claimed that the obligations of the other were of the second type described in Kingston—that is, conditions and dependent—or, alternatively, of the third type—that is, mutual and simultaneous.

But what if the obligations of the Oslo accords were of the first type—mutual and independent? That would mean that neither side could blame the other for its own failure to fulfill its obligations. The Palestinian commitment to stop terror and incitement, and the Israeli commitment to freeze settlement construction, would then be considered binding and worthy of fulfillment in and of themselves.

However, these two commitments are not equal. First of all, the Palestinian commitment to stop terror was explicit, and the Israeli commitment to stop settlement was not. Second, and more important, settlement in occupied territory, even if (for the sake of argument) illegal according to international law, does not lead inevitably to war, while armed attacks against civilians may certainly do so.

Terror and incitement not only offend notions of good faith but also violate what might be referred to as an implied condition of the Oslo agreement itself: the condition that both parties seek peace. Unlike a covenant within an agreement—which, if broken, may release the parties from other duties—an implied condition can govern the validity of the agreement as a whole. Break it, and the deal is off.

This contract law analysis has implications for future agreements. If Hamas continues to attempt abductions of Israeli soldiers, even while talking about terms for prisoner exchanges, how can it be trusted to negotiate in good faith? And if the Palestinian unity government can find money for rockets but cannot pay its own employees’ salaries, how can it be expected to enforce peace agreements?

The lack of will and capacity on the Palestinian side is one of the most important reasons for Israelis to maintain a policy of unilateral withdrawal behind the security barrier as its BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement—and to defend that BATNA against Palestinian attempts to undermine it with rocket fire and kidnappings. Otherwise, the only other alternative will be war.

24 April 2007

24 April 2007 - Happy Israeli Independence Day!

This really says it all.

23 April 2007

23 April 2007 - What is the left wing?

I was thrilled to discover last night that this blog has been nominated for two awards in the Third Annual 2007 Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards. One nomination is for Best New Blog, and the other is for Best Left Wing Political Blog. To vote for Best New Blog please click here, and to vote for Best Left Wing Political Blog please click here. The first round of voting runs through Sunday 29 April 2007.

I must admit that it came as a surprise to be nominated in the “left wing” category. While I identified with leftist thought and with the politics of the left for most of my life, today I don’t define myself in those terms. Nor would many other people define me that way, based on my support for free markets, my skepticism of socioeconomic rights, and my support for Israel and for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

What do the terms “left” and “right” mean, anyway? When I was in fourth grade, growing up in a solidly Democratic suburb of Chicago, we learned that the basic difference between Democrats and Republicans was that the former sided with workers and the latter sided with bosses. In high school, these definitions appeared to shift: the left favored the public sector and the right favored the private sector.

Through the 1990s, as American politics became more partisan and divisive—even as the parties converged ideologically—you were “left” or “right” depending on who you trusted as a last resort: the left trusted the government and the right trusted the church. Or maybe it was who you trusted in the first instance: Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and Bob Dole replied, “It takes a family.”

My geography textbook depicted the political spectrum as a horizontal axis running from “radical” on the left to “reactionary” on the right, and the Democrats and Republicans as two bell curves with peaks either side of the center. More recently, I’ve taken the Political Compass test, which uses both a horizontal “left-right” axis and a vertical “libertarian-authoritarian” axis. (I fall somewhere near the middle.)

In university, we learned to identify the right with fascism and the left with communism, and to accept that capitalism and socialism were simply moderate, democratic versions of these two extremes. The left, we were told, concerned itself with class, which was based on economic analysis, while the right busied itself with race, nation, religion, ethnicity and other categories which were merely arbitrary.

We were never assigned liberal thinkers like Popper, or Hayek, who pointed out that fascism often grew out of socialism and that the two shared a common fixation with centralized economic planning. We were, instead, set to read Marx, ad infinitum. (I was recently assigned Marx’s On The Jewish Question for a law school class. It was the third time I had been assigned to read it in my academic career.)

When I returned to South Africa, I found that left and right had referred not only to competing ideologies but to competing nationalisms. Right-wing meant Afrikaner nationalism; left-wing meant African nationalism. The liberal Democratic Party (DP) presented itself in the historic 1994 elections as a centrist option, using the slogan: “If the left wins, nothing will be right; if the right wins, nothing will be left!”

Over time, these definitions have changed in South Africa. The trade unions and communists now accuse the government of abandoning the left, while the government counters by casting all opposition as right-wing. Today, the liberal Democratic Alliance (which sprang from the old DP) is described by the ruling party as “right-wing,” though there are plenty of old apartheid hacks in government.

The labels have moral connotations, too. In South Africa, at most universities around the world, and among America’s bicoastal elites, “left” is a synonym for “good,” and “right” equals “evil.” The labels are reversed throughout much of the American heartland, among many religious Christians and Jews and, increasingly, in parts of Europe that are struggling to deal with the influx of Muslim immigrants.

And yet what do these terms really tell us? Do they expand their original meaning, when they simply referred to different sides of the French Legislative Assembly—radicals on the left, royalists on the right? Perhaps they do: the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick observed: “Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.”

Why, then, would anyone want to be identified with the left? Almost every species of left-wing thought today shares a common demonology, a conspiracy theory that sees events as the outcome of a struggle between a cabal of puppet-masters and the rest of us. This belief persists because it explains an increasingly complex world, and provides pleasure to the ego that imagines it might one day pull the strings itself.

And yet there seem to be plenty of reasons to avoid the right nowadays, not limited to specific objectionable ideas commonly espoused by right-wing parties. Where the left sees conspiracies, the right sees barbarians at every gate, threats emerging everywhere to our way of life (however defined). Occasionally, there really are conspirators and barbarians. Mostly, though, these worldviews are just tiresome.

I want to set aside the labels for a moment, and propose a different way of looking at politics. I believe that there are two fundamental purposes of politics. One is to perfect social life—to shape it according to a set of values and goals. The other is to protect members of society—to marshal the collective capacity of the group to defend individuals from immediate physical danger as well as poverty and want.

The first tendency aims at excellence; the second tendency aims at decency. And those, I believe, are the two ideal motivating forces in politics. These map roughly onto what we recognize today as distinctions between left and right. The role of right-wing parties is to establish and defend core principles; the role of left-wing parties is to speak for and attend to those people who are most vulnerable.

Neither of these two roles is exclusive to the left or the right, or to the political parties commonly identified with these labels. But both roles are necessary to a properly functioning political system. To the extent that the left is concerned with aiding the marginalized, I am a leftist; and when central tenets of our society are in danger, such as the sanctity of the individual, then I am, in that sense, a rightist.

My real creed, I suppose, is liberalism, which prizes individual choice but also the institutions that make choice possible. And institutions are, in turn, social relations among individuals conducted according to specific rules and for specific purposes. So I am not a radical individualist—but nor do I place my faith in the collective, as I once did. My views have moderated over time—but they have also become clearer.

Perhaps starting a blog about human rights and conflict resolution is enough to earn the “leftist” label. Or Perhaps the term “left” is being used here in the way “liberal” was once used in the U.S.—not in the classical sense, but to refer to a somewhat credulous optimism that people, and the world we live in, can become better. I am not that kind of “liberal”—but to the charge of optimism, I plead guilty.

22 April 2007

22 April 2007 - Constitutions

A frequent complaint among human rights activists is that Israel does not have a constitution, only a set of Basic Laws establishing the fundamental rules and institutions of the state. A country does not need to have a constitution to uphold human rights—there have been many that have violated human rights despite having a constitution—but having one might make those rights more enforceable.

At a deeper level the debate about an Israeli constitution forces Israel to decide certain questions about the identity of the state that it has preferred to leave unanswered. These include: whether Israel is to be a Jewish state, or a state of all its citizens; whether and to what extent religion will be separated from the state; what rights and protections will be guaranteed to the Arab minority, and so on.

In addition, there are a number of other political questions that a constitution would have to answer, such as: the extent of judicial power to review legislation, the role of the military in society, and so on. Past attempts to write a constitution have failed, and recent attempts have also stalled. However, several proposals have established the basic outlines of a what an Israeli constitution would look like.

The Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee presented a draft constitution—really a collage of proposals—in February 2006. The draft includes detailed (and contradictory) suggestions about the structure of government, as well as an extensive set of rights, including socioeconomic rights. Nothing much has happened since the draft was presented; it seems to have been overtaken by events.

A number of civil society groups have undertaken constitution-writing projects of their own, such as the Israel Democracy Institute (whose proposals, unfortunately, are still only available in Hebrew, and while I am pretty fluent it takes me a while to get through the technical terms). One group that has published a constitution in English is Adalah, the legal center for Arab rights in Israel.

The constitution proposed by Adalah is actually quite rudimentary, more a sort of outline of what a constitution might look like. The most developed section is the preamble, which does not begin with Israel’s identity as a state but with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a list of Palestinian grievances against Israel. More thought seems to have been put into this than the rest of the document.

The rights in the Adalah constitution also seem more like a list of demands. There is an extensive Bill of Rights that is largely adopted from the South African Constitution, including its largely unenforceable socioeconomic rights. There is also a section on the restitution of property that would allow claimants to take back land that was confiscated before Israel existed, under laws of the British Mandate.

Some sections are really so simple that they seem rather trite. The section on the judiciary, for example, merely states that the judiciary “has the power to adjudicate, including the power to annul laws which are in contradiction of the Constitution.” This does not address the controversy over the separation of powers which is a hot topic in Israel, with the Knesset trying to tame the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

A section on decision-making aims to give the Arab minority power a kind of veto power over Knesset legislation, provided that seventy-five percent of the members of parties defined as Arab parties oppose it. On issues of language, culture and identity, Arab parties will have half the seats on a committee that reviews all such legislation. This would be a kind of “political affirmative action” for Arab parties.

The really surprising thing is that after all these proposals, the Adalah constitution stipulates in a “Miscellaneous” section that the constitution may be amended by a two-thirds majority, which means the Arab parties would lose their veto anyway. Adalah suggests that revising the veto power of Arab parties should require an eighty percent majority, but even this would seem to leave those parties vulnerable.

Another odd proposal is that Israel should be a bilingual state—i.e. Arabic and Hebrew. This sounds at first like a welcome nod to multiculturalism, except that Israel already has three official languages: Arabic, Hebrew and English. Suggesting that Israel become a bilingual state is effectively the same as suggesting that it get rid of English—that it become less multicultural, in fact, than it currently is.

Overall, the Adalah constitution seems somewhat sterile. It presents Arab grievances with a certain pathos, but lacks the sense of aspiration that is present in most real constitutions. Perhaps that is because it is an opening proposal and not the product of intense negotiations. But Adalah seems somewhat agnostic about Israeli nationhood to begin with; perhaps that is why the text is so passionless.

Emerging Israeli constitutional law is really quite fascinating, and something I would really like to learn more about. I once visited the Israeli Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, which as an extensive international law library because the court has to draw on many international precedents, lacking a constitution of its own to refer to. Perhaps I’ll be able to study this topic more in the months ahead.

21 April 2007 - Beware of rulers

There is a line from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), a Jewish book of ethical maxims from the Mishna, which gives advice on dealing with politicians: “Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need.” (2:3) I have often wanted to remind South Africa’s Jewish leadership of this quote.

A controversy is brewing about whether, or why, the South African Jewish leadership has not protested vociferously against Ronnie Kasrils’s recent trip to Iran. Apparently even the local Jewish press ignored the story for the most part. The reason may be that the communal leadership wants to maintain relations with Kasrils: they resent his views on Israel, but feel they need his help with community security.

The safety of Jews is a constitutional right, not a special favor, but still the need is felt to tread softly. I should add that it seems that community leaders did actually criticize Kasrils’s trip when asked for comment by the Israeli press. Perhaps they criticized behind the scenes also: Kasrils seems to have felt the need to clarify his remarks on Iran, saying he did not endorse its nuclear program, as reported by Iranian news.

But in general, there is a reluctance to speak out too loudly. I feel that the community should maintain cordial and even close relations with the government, but also guard its independence and its pride. “Do not lust for the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than their crown, and your Employer is trustworthy to pay you remuneration for your deeds.” (6:5)

As a postscript, I should note that South Africa did eventually support sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Peter Fabricius, who writes about foreign affairs for South Africa’s Independent newspaper group, theorized that South Africa could not afford the political cost of opposing sanctions while it was in the President’s chair; otherwise, he suggests, it would have voted against them.

20 April 2007

19 April 2007 - SA Security Council Watch

This week, South Africa took yet another indefensible stance at the UN Security Council when it joined China in opposing any discussion about the threat of global climate change. This is only the latest in a series of South African attempts to divert the Security Council from discussion of serious issues of human rights and international security, and suggests South Africa has become China’s lackey.

China has clear reasons to oppose action on global climate change. It has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past quarter-century. China depends on inefficient, sulfur-rich coal for energy, and has an increasing demand for oil. Though its growth has come at huge cost to the environment, it wants to continue on its current economic path.

South Africa might have economic reasons for following China’s lead. It, too, is a developing country that needs to grow its economy; it also has highly inefficient fuel sources. However, South Africa also has invested in alternative energy sources, and wants to be the first country in the world to develop the pebble-bed nuclear reactor (PMBR). It actually stands to benefit from attempts to tackle global climate change.

There is an argument to be made that in spite of the scientific consensus on climate change, it is neither a human rights issue nor a global security issue. But that is not how South Africa is defending its stance. Consider the transcript below, taken from the meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, 17 April 2007, at which South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo tried to explain his country’s position (emphasis added):

Mr. Kumalo (South Africa): We, too, are very honoured and pleased that you, Madam, have come all this way to chair our meeting today. I would also like to associate myself with the statements to be made by the representative of Pakistan on behalf of the Group of 77 and China; by the representative of Cuba on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement; and by the representative of the Sudan on behalf of the African Group. While underscoring the fact that this debate does not fall within the mandate of the Security Council, South Africa would like to use this opportunity to outline the priorities for mitigating and adapting to within the United Nations system. In 1992, the historic Earth Summit held in Brazil adopted the Rio Principles. Among those was the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which was accepted by the heads of State and Government as being fundamental to any debate on climate change. Ten years later in September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, reaffirmed that principle. Furthermore, the Johannesburg Summit assigned the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol with the responsibility of following up on climate and sustainable development. Recently, the report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reconfirmed that Africa is one of the continents most vulnerable to climate variability and change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. Some of the identified impacts for Africa resulting from climate change include the facts that, by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people are projected to suffer exposure to an increase of water stress due to climate change; agricultural production, including access to food, is projected to be severely compromised by climate; local food supplies are projected to be negatively affected by decreasing fisheries; resource shortages in large lakes may be exacerbated by continued over-fishing; towards the end of the twenty first century, projected sea-level rise will affect low lying coastal areas with large populations; and the cost of adapting to those levels of climate change could amount to at least 5 to 10 per cent of gross domestic product. Clearly, an inequitable global response, in which the largest historical emitters in the developed world do not shoulder their respective responsibilities to mitigate climate change or assist vulnerable countries to adapt, may in future contribute to human insecurity and could thereby indirectly contribute to instability and exacerbate conflict potential. The developed countries should take the lead in providing new and additional funding for adaptation activities. It is also critical that all developed countries commit to legally binding emission reductions and meet their other obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The developing world is relatively unprepared for disasters and is under-resourced to deal with the consequences of extreme weather events. The least developed countries, especially in Africa and Asia, as well as the small island developing States, cannot bear the brunt of these costs. The appropriate United Nations bodies should strengthen their capacity to deal with disaster and humanitarian crises resulting from climate change, including new efforts focused on predicting, preventing, and handling climate-change related disasters. The established multilateral processes in the climate debate in terms of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol are in place and we look forward to the Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to be held in Bali, Indonesia in December this year. What is of the utmost importance is that the obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol are honoured by all countries if we are to avoid a catastrophe brought about by climate change. The examples we have raised to describe the impact of climate change do not as yet directly threaten international peace and security. Moreover, the issues discussed here are first and foremost of a developmental nature. These issues can be best dealt with regionally in the General Assembly, a more representative body than the Security Council. Furthermore, the mandate of the Security Council does not authorize it to deal with such matters. We remain convinced that it is vital for all Member States to promote sustainable development, adhere to the Rio principles, especially the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, and to fully implement Agenda 21. We hope that these commitments will be reiterated at the fifteenth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, which will meet in New York in a couple of weeks. It is for this reason that South Africa attaches great importance to the assurance by the delegation of the United Kingdom that this Security Council meeting will not result in any outcome or summary. We further hope that these discussions will not in any way elevate the issue of climate change or the environment to being a Security Council agenda item.

On the one hand, South Africa argues that global climate change “could . . . indirectly contribute to instability and exacerbate conflict potential.” On the other, it claims that global climate change doesn’t “yet directly threaten international peace and security.” As it has done on other issues, it tries to deflect the issue to the General Assembly, which is “a more representative body”—a meaningless claim.

South Africa is trying to have it both ways—to appear to be on the “right” side of the issue, to make all the expected noises about instability and conflict and inequality and humanitarian problems, and then to act in a manner directly contrary to its own logic by opposing any effort to deal with the problem. It is an intellectually and morally dishonest approach to international relations and it is not fooling anyone.

18 April 2007

18 April 2007 - More human rights confusion

Picking up from yesterday, I thought I’d note that South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils recently traveled to Iran, and endorsed that country’s nuclear program, calling it “wise.” Other South African ministers have been making high-profile visits to Iran ever since August 2004, when defense minister Mosioua Lekota signed a trade agreement there, the contents of which are unknown.

At the time, Ha’aretz speculated that South Africa could start selling uranium to Iran. This was never confirmed, but in addition to uranium, South Africa also has considerable nuclear know-how to offer. In exchange, Iran can provide vast supplies of oil. And who knows? Iran might even have offered contracts to South Africa’s ruling party, which may have once hoped to make billions from Saddam’s Iraq.

So South Africa, which remains the only country ever to voluntarily dismantle its own nuclear weapons program, is now providing diplomatic cover for—and perhaps direct assistance to—Iran’s nuclear project. That is not the role Nelson Mandela envisioned for South Africa at the dawn of democracy, and it is a complete inversion of South Africa’s former image as a leader in human rights, peace and democracy.

South African opposition leader Tony Leon made similar points in his address last Thursday at Harvard Law School, where he was a guest of the Harvard African Law Association (HALA). The video of the event has now been made available here. Leon noted South Africa’s foreign policy successes, but also discussed its support for eccentric anti-Western states and its failure to defend human rights at the UN.

The most recent weekly letter of South African President Thabo Mbeki, posted on the ruling party’s website, further illustrates that government’s confusion about basic human rights issues. Mbeki devoted his letter to the topic of slavery, but failed to acknowledge even once that slavery is still ongoing in several African countries, not to mention Haiti, which Mbeki is fond of citing as a paragon of liberation.

Instead, Mbeki condemned ordinary wage labor as a form of slavery, quoting Karl Marx: “All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.” He also described the work given to “the large numbers of Africans who, driven by dire poverty, daily risk their lives to reach Europe in search of even the meanest of jobs” as a contemporary form of slavery.

Illegal labor in Europe is no picnic, and many migrant workers are, no doubt, exploited, but they are not being carried to Europe and America in chains. They are not bought and sold as property. And some go on to achieve astounding success. Frankly, only a man who has never had to work his entire life could describe the immigrant experience as a form of slavery. For many, it is sweet liberation!

Mbeki may not realize it, but in equating free labor to slave labor, he emulates the nineteenth-century defenders of slavery in the American South, who argued that migrant factory work would be worse than anything black men and women had encountered in the insular world of the plantation. His argument, which poses as a defense of African liberation is, in fact, closer to its opposite.

This is the sort of confusion that an emphasis on socio-economic rights produces. Instead of recognizing and condemning real slavery—i.e. work compelled by violence or the threat thereof—Mbeki attacks a caricature of free labor, which even at its hardest is still the choice of millions of people moving from south to north, east to west, every year. South Africa, too, has immigrants; why not welcome them?

17 April 2007 - The right to hate

South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils is at it again, boasting on the Ministry for Intelligence Services website that he has been cleared of “hate speech” by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). This is a blatant abuse of public resources for personal purposes, and is a habit with Kasrils; he used the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry website the same way a few years ago.

Kasrils, who initiated the SAHRC inquiry himself, claims the SAHRC found “that his criticism of Israel’s policies and actions in respect of the Palestinians does not amount to the advocacy of hate speech but constitutes legitimate political debate.” That is actually a distortion of the truth. No one complained that mere criticism of Israel was hate speech. Rather, the objection was to extreme and offensive criticism when Kasrils called Jews “Nazis” and referred to Israelis as “baby-killers.”

Kasrils made these comments in an op-ed piece in the Mail & Guardian (“Rage of the Elephant”), and in a two-part series of articles in the ANC’s online journal, Umrabulo (“David and Goliath: Who is who in the Middle East” Part 1 and 2). I responded to the M&G article with an op-ed of my own, to which Kasrils did not reply. Other people wrote letters to the editor, and a few wrote op-eds of their own.

One of the latter was Anthony Posner, who wrote an article in the South African Jewish Report entitled, “Some pertinent questions to Kasrils.” Kasrils tried to respond, but when SAJR editor Geoff Sifrin saw the piece he decided not to publish it, on the grounds that the majority of readers would consider it “hate speech.” Kasrils, furious, accused Sifrin of censorship worthy of the apartheid government.

Kasrils was perhaps reacting to more than a simple article in a small community newspaper. His comments about Jews had resulted in the withdrawal of an invitation to speak at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg—which, as a German institution, was not eager to endorse Kasrils’s comparison with Nazis. This incident caused Kasrils a great deal of embarrassment when the story hit the national press.

Kasrils decided to hit back with every means at his disposal. He enlisted the aid of the Freedom of Expression Insitute (FXI), which despite its purported neutrality often takes anti-Israel positions (perhaps because senior FXI staffer Naeem Jeenah is closely linked to pro-Palestinian organizations in South Africa). Rather than defend the editorial independence of the SAJR, the FXI came out to bat for Kasrils.

In addition, Kasrils approached the Media Review Network (MRN), a radical Pretoria-based Islamist propaganda machine that espouses Holocaust denial and boasts links to terror organizations like Hizbollah. The MRN, which has provided “research” for Kasrils’s anti-Israel diatribes in the past, published Kasrils’s response to Posner on its website and claimed Kasrils had been “victimized.”

The debate carried over into the mainstream media. In a letter to the Business Day: Weekender Edition of Oct. 14, 2006, journalist Rehana Roussouw criticized the Goethe Institute for un-inviting Kasrils. Anti-apartheid veteran Helen Suzman responded in a letter a week later, pointing out that the South African Constitution did not protect hate speech, “into which category Kasrils's allegations clearly fall.”

This, then, set the stage for Kasrils’s approach to the SAHRC. Like the FXI, the SAHRC was another open goal for Kasrils. SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen protected Kasrils in 2004-5, refusing to act when Kasrils named the National Intelligence Academy after Mzwandile Piliso, a notorious human rights abuser whom even the ANC had rebuked for torturing prisoners in ANC camps.

The SAHRC’s decision—which was also published on the intelligence ministry’s website, as well as by the Kasrils-friendly, Israel-unfriendly editors at the M&G—backed Kasrils. It interpreted the ban on hate speech narrowly, ruling that hate speech must be actual “advocacy of hatred” and declaring: “The robust debate of ideas, the lifeblood of any constitutional democracy, must be safeguarded.”

On the one hand, this is consistent with the approach that other South African tribunals, such as the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, have taken towards hate speech. Wary of reverting to the restrictions that were once the norm in the South African media, judges and commissioners have leaned heavily towards a liberal interpretation of the constitutional right to the freedom of expression.

On the other hand, the SAHRC did not consider the context of Kasrils’s remarks. In certain circumstances, referring to Jews as “Nazis” would indeed amount to “advocacy of hatred” or incitement to violence. In the weeks and months before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, for example, he was frequently portrayed as a Nazi by the Israeli hard-right.

In many European countries, such as Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial has been criminalized, despite the fact that many of these countries have very strong protections for the freedom of expression in general. (Germany is also leading efforts to make Holocaust denial a crime across the EU). I personally disagree with laws against Holocaust denial, because they make bigots into free speech martyrs. But many Europeans feel such laws to be necessary safeguards against hatred.

Context is everything, and for many Jews—certainly Jews of the wartime generation—comparing Jews to the Nazis that murdered them will always amount to hate speech and incitement. It may be a matter of opinion whether calling Jews “Nazis” or calling Israelis “baby-killers” is motivated by the intent to advocate hatred, but last year set new records for antisemitic incidents in South Africa.

In addition, the SAHRC seems to have left out the views of both Sifrin and Suzman. The report claims the SAHRC “afforded both Mrs. Suzman and the SAJR an opportunity to make further representations” and adds: “We are grateful to them for acceding to our request.” However, there is no record of what they said, and it would seem that the SAHRC did not, in fact, seek their input in any serious fashion.

The SAHRC also deigns to lecture the Jewish community about what it should, and should not, debate, saying that if Jews “are of the view that the comparison [with Nazis] is odious, unjustified and illogical, then it is preferable for them to articulate these sentiments fully and robustly engage in a debate of ideas.” It does not consider what effect such a ridiculous “debate” would have on antisemitism.

Finally, the SAHRC takes a swipe at Suzman: “To accuse a person of engaging in hate speech is a serious charge as it is tantamount to suggesting that the person is undermining and subverting core values of the Constitution.” But Suzman did not bring the accusation to the SAHRC; Kasrils did. And surely she is entitled to a view about what is, and is not, hate speech, even if her view does not carry legal weight.

In any event, Kasrils is trumpeting the SAHRC decision as a personal vindication—not only of his right to express his views, but of their correctness. He casts Suzman’s as attempting to suppress “criticism of Israel’s policies and actions in respect of the Palestinians”; nowhere in his press release does he admit what the case was really about—namely, his reference to Jews and Israelis to “Nazis” and “baby-killers.”

Kasrils is also demanding his critics show contrition: “Welcoming the HRC findings Kasrils has challenged his detractors, including the Goethe Institute who refused to allow him to address a meeting at their Johannesburg premises, to accept the HRC findings.” He seems to think the SAHRC decision means that not only is he allowed to express his views, but also that everyone else must accept and promote them.

While flaunting his own freedom of speech, Kasrils forgets everyone else has theirs, too. He can call Jews Nazis—that, it seems, is his right. But no one is obliged to print his remarks, and Suzman and the Goethe Institute and every other reasonable person has the right to tell him to get stuffed. What kind of democracy requires every newspaper and every organization to publicize a minister's views?

It might be interesting to refer a new question to the SAHRC: namely, whether it is an abuse of Kasrils's human rights for the SAJR to refuse to publish him or the Goethe Institute to refuse to host him or for the Union of Jewish Women to refuse to serve him tea and cake, or whatever. The point would simply be to illustrate that while Kasrils has his right to free speech, so does everybody else in South Africa.

But it might be all right, as well, to let the issue rest. After all, it is somewhat embarrassing for Kasrils personally and South Africa in general (though I doubt whether Kasrils realizes it) for him to proclaim, on a government website, that his right to slander Jews is a moral victory for humankind. Bisho, Zimbabwe, Iran: all undermine Kasrils’s human rights pretensions, and so does this latest farce.

17 April 2007

16 April 2007 - Arab league apartheid, revisited

Last month I offered an overview of human rights and democracy (or the lack thereof) in the Arab world as a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy. The call by the British National Union of Journalists to boycott Israel (even though a BBC journalist seems to have been killed by Palestinian terrorists) reminded me of another parallel between Israel’s neighbors and apartheid South Africa.

Last year, two English Premier League football clubs, Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United, left their Israeli players home when they traveled to Dubai, since the United Arab Emirates denies entry to Israelis. Contributor David Hirsh at the Guardian’s “Comment is free” website compared the clubs’ acquiescence with the refusal of the English cricket team to accede to South Africa’s demands in 1970.

Back then, one of the English stars was Basil D’Olivera, a South African-born cricketer who was classified as “coloured” and therefore knew he would be denied the opportunity to participate equally in his native land. He emigrated to England, where he became a mainstay of the side. On a tour of South Africa in 1968, England actually did leave him at home; finally the team decided to stand its ground.

The apartheid government objected to the English team not just because it was racially integrated but also because of D’Olivera’s political opposition to apartheid. “It's the team of the anti-apartheid movement,” complained South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster. But the English team stuck to its guns—defended its wicket, you might say—and refused to play by South Africa’s racist, repressive rules.

That decision helped boost the international campaign to isolate South Africa from international competition altogether—not just in cricket but in every sport. It was a necessary and effective way to demonstrate the world’s revulsion at South Africa’s apartheid policies. And it hit sporting-mad white South Africans hard. Only when talks began with Mandela and the ANC was the boycott lifted, to great cheers.

Compare that treatment with the way the world accepts the treatment of Israeli athletes by Arab and Muslim states without complaint. The only whimper of protest came in 2004, when an Iranian judo champion refused to compete against an Israeli opponent at the Olympics—and even then the Iranian was excused by the International Judo Federation on the spurious pretext that he was “overweight.”

Even more bizarre was the case of Kenyan-born Mushir Salem Jawher, who once represented Bahrain as an international marathon runner. Jawher chose to compete in an Israeli marathon, becoming the first athlete from an Arab country to do so—and won. He was rewarded by the Bahraini government by having his nationality revoked and having his name struck off the sporting union records.

Vintage apartheid stuff. But Israel—which has produced outstanding Arab athletes such as welterweight boxing champion Johar Abu Lashin and national goalkeeper Dudu Awat, among others—is accused of apartheid. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Orwell once argued that sport was a bad way to settle international conflicts, and he may have been right. But refusing to compete may guarantee that wars continue.

15 March 2007 - A candle for fundamentalism

It’s nowhere near Chanukah, but I thought I’d reach into to archives again and post a piece I wrote over Chanukah back in 2001, back when I was living in a Muslim neighborhood and wrestling with all kinds of questions about Israel and Islam and the rest of it. I wrote the essay in response to the experience of hiding my Chanukah candles during Ramadan due to the risk of violent antisemitism in the area.

I got a few nasty responses from people who read this piece: one right-wing acquaintance said something like: “That’s what you get for choosing to live in a Gaza-like enclave.” Some of my thoughts seem vain and naïve to me now. For example, I think that whatever root causes encourage fundamentalism should be dealt with on an independent basis, not as a response to any kind of threat.

I also think there may be differences between Islamic fundamentalism and other kinds of religious fundamentalism, even though they all share certain core ideas and themes. I guess I was trying to reach out to a totally alien perspective. I also don’t think I’d again tolerate living in a neighborhood where I felt I had to hide my Chanukah candles. But it was a learning experience, one I’m really glad I had.

A Candle for Fundamentalism

(December 2001)

Like Jews all around the world, I lit my Chanukah candles this week. I thought to put them in the front window of my house, as required by halacha, or Jewish law, but changed my mind. I live in a working-class Muslim enclave in Cape Town that has been the site of violent demonstrations by Islamic fundamentalists in the past few years. So although I get along very well with my neighbors, I decided not to take the risk of attracting too much attention to myself. I put the menorah in the kitchen, in accordance with the halachic rule that allows you to hide your candles in times of danger.

As I did so, I thought of what Chanukah means to the Jewish people. We celebrate the liberation of ancient Israel from Syrian-Greek occupation, and the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it had been cleansed of pagan idols. We light the menorah to remember the miracle of the oil that was recovered in the sanctuary, which was only enough to last for one day but burned for eight instead.

Of all the festivals on the Jewish calendar, Chanukah is actually the one with the least religious significance. Yet in the United States, where I grew up, it is one of the most widely-celebrated Jewish holidays, popular even among non-observant Jews due to its seasonal association with Christmas. Its popularity is derided by some Jews as evidence of the widespread assimilation in the community.

Some refer to an additional irony: that the ancient Jewish revolt was not just a movement for political independence, but a struggle to reverse Jewish assimilation into Hellenistic Greek culture. So the holiday that is celebrated to remind us of resistance to assimilation in the ancient Greek world has become a symbol of our assimilation in the modern world.

Religious Jews aren't the only ones who are uneasy about assimilation and modernity. The events of recent months have drawn worldwide attention to the difficulties in the contemporary encounter between Islam and the West. And those difficulties are certainly evident here in Cape Town, even though Islam has existed at the heart of this colonial city for three hundred years.

A few years ago there was a string of bombings in Cape Town aimed at American symbols like Planet Hollywood and the New York Bagels delicatessen. Today, there is widespread anger at the war in Afghanistan and American support for Israel. Many of my Muslim neighbors, even those who are not particularly religious, feel a degree of sympathy for groups like the Taliban, and do not believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the World Trade Center bombings.

These events and feelings are connected to broader trends in the Islamic world, but also have specifically local sources of inspiration. The end of apartheid brought new freedoms to South African Muslims, most of whom had been classified as "non-white" or "coloured." But with new freedoms came difficult new choices, and many people found comfort in the simple idea of a society neatly divided into "Islam" and "not Islam."

Also, the social disorder, the rise in crime, and the spread of HIV/AIDS that followed in the wake of apartheid's collapse have increased the appeal of traditional Islamic sharia law in the eyes of many local Muslims. My neighbors will allow that the Taliban "went overboard" in their treatment of women and such, but that the essential goal of establishing a pure Islamic state was a noble one, whose passing is deeply mourned.

How can one counter this perspective? I have tried to convince my neighbors with examples of countries where Islam coexists with democracy. I have talked about the flourishing of religion in the United States, which persists in spite of (and some would say because of) a broad separation of church and state. All of these arguments fall flat, because my neighbors and I see the issues from within fundamentally different experiences.

Or do we? As I have observed my Jewish holiday this week, I have reflected on the fact that the heroes of the Chanukah story, the Maccabees, were the militant religious fundamentalists of their time. Their tactics were similar in many respects to those of Islamic militias today, in Lebanon, Kashmir, and elsewhere—the use of ambushes and quick guerrilla attacks to fight superior military powers, the appropriation of religious symbols for the war effort, the killing of collaborators, the celebration of famous martyrs, et cetera.

And although we Jews celebrate their triumph, in reality the victory of the Maccabees was somewhat ambiguous. The Hasmonean dynasty that was installed by the Maccabees was infamous in its later years for its brutality and even for its persecution of religious authorities. It also failed to alter the long-term geopolitical balance in the eastern Mediterranean; Jewish autonomy was short-lived, and was quickly followed by the Roman conquest and the Second Temple's destruction.

More broadly, the Maccabee revolt failed to end the association of Judaism with Hellenism—and we Jews are the better for it. Greek names and concepts have been incorporated into the core of traditional Judaism; the Passover dessert, for example, is still referred to by its ancient Greek name, "afikoman." Even the transmission of the Chanukah story itself would have been unthinkable without the Jewish association with Hellenistic culture—for the narrative was excluded from the Old Testament but incorporated into historical documents and Apocryphal texts outside of the religious canon. And the Jewish entanglement with Hellenism also marked the entry of Jews into the Western philosophical tradition, an encounter which not only had a profound effect on philosophy but on traditional Jewish religious thought as we know it today.

Perhaps the Islamic world could benefit from these lessons of the Chanukah story. Jewish history teaches that fundamentalist regimes are not only despotic, but end up desecrating the religious principles that they purport to uphold. Our history also illustrates that the encounter between religion and a broader liberal culture is not just one of conflict but also one of co-existence and cross-pollination.

There are, of course, important points of difference in such encounters: the polytheism of the Greeks is still anathema to Jewish theology, just as certain aspects of contemporary life in the West are problematic for Islam. But it is important to recognize that the two sides in each case are not diametrically opposed, and that there are aspects of their relationship that are mutually beneficial. Under peaceful and prosperous circumstances, there may be space for living in both worlds at once.

Yet if Chanukah proves the futility of fundamentalism in some ways, it also teaches us its importance. For although most Jews today would reject the militancy and religious zealotry of our Maccabee forebears, we draw a sense of pride from their achievements. And although most Muslims reject militant Islamic fundamentalism, for some it plays an important role in creating a sense of identity and a feeling of self-worth.

In this, Muslims are no different than the members of any other religious, social, or political movement in the world today. Fundamentalism gives living expression to the ideals of the communities we each belong to, and even if we may reject its approaches, it helps us discover who we are.

The solution to today's ideologically-saturated confrontation has to go beyond condemning Islamic fundamentalism. We all need to recognize the underlying political and economic causes that give fundamentalism such potency in today's Islamic world, and to address those causes with the greatest empathy.

For most of us in the Jewish community, even among our more traditionalist and nationalist elements, the miracle of the oil and the commemorative lighting of the Chanukah candles have come to supplant the more fundamentalist and militant themes of the holiday. That is not a symbol of assimilation, in my view, but a symbol of enlightenment.

The challenge in today's world is to encourage that kind of enlightenment in a broad, humanistic way throughout the world. Sadly, symbolic measures alone won't be enough. But knowing this, I don't mind hiding my Chanukah candles for the time being if it means I can contribute, in my small way, to the well-being of this struggling Muslim community in the new South Africa.

15 April 2007

14 April 2007 - Hope and Fear

Hope and Fear. That’s the title of Tony Leon’s first book, published in 1998, which contains his major speeches from the 1990s, before he became Leader of the Opposition in the South African Parliament in 1999. (A second book, a political memoir, is due sometime in the next year.) Leon spoke last Thursday at Harvard Law School, and described the contradictions within South Africa’s foreign policy.

That title, Hope and Fear, says so much about South Africa—and I think it applies equally to Israel. There is always hope that the great problems will be resolved, that the great conflicts will come to an end, that the great challenges can be overcome. And there is always fear that there will be no solutions, that violence will engulf the nation, that the challenges are too great to bear and will eventually lead to collapse.

I feel a cautious sense of hope when I read that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going to meet his Palestinian counterpart, and that Israel is considering talks with the Arab League over the Saudi peace plan. But I feel a sense of fear when I read about how Hamas is arming Islamic Jihad with rockets to fire at Israeli civilians, playing the same double terror-and-diplomacy game Yasser Arafat once played.

I feel an even worse sense of despair when I read that the British National Union of Journalists voted to boycott Israeli goods and called on the British government to do the same. I feel a sense of hurt and outrage when I read about an Irish artists’ cultural boycott, defended in the same terms that anti-apartheid activists once used to defend for boycotts against South Africa (even against anti-apartheid artists!).

I feel great sorrow when I read about how Adalah, the Arab rights organization in Israel, is taking a war crimes case against the Israel Defense Forces to the Israeli High Court and threatening to take it to international courts if the Israeli court does not rule in their favor. The sorrow is twofold: one that atrocities happen at all, and two that only Israel is blamed, only Israel is held to account for these events.

And, finally, I don’t know what to make of editorials such as this one in Ha’aretz, criticizing Olmert for not meeting with the private citizens who took it upon themselves to mediate between Israel and Syria. Though such efforts are laudable—indeed, I hoped they would lead somewhere—like Pelosi’s visit to Syria, they are no substitute for real diplomacy, which they may frustrate if they are mishandled.

Hope and fear. The best of times, the worst of times. In mathematical terms, I would say this is a saddle point—a point from which it is theoretically possible to travel upwards, but in which there is a constant danger of moving downwards.

In fact, movement in any direction seems likely to lead to more problems. In short, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in a delicate situation of dynamic instability.

The only response is to change the landscape—to refuse to play by these rules and to substitute others. That’s what the ideas I have been working on attempt to do—to put into place an entirely different kind of process, one that involves creating some shared institutions, one that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were ready to attempt before (and which, admittedly, they may hardly be willing to adopt now).

At the moment, everyone is thinking in terms of the old equation. Israel must be convinced to give up land, and the Palestinians must somehow be constrained from supporting terror. The absence of talks, this line of thinking goes, can only be due to the unwillingness of the parties to talk. So the US begins to talk to members of the unity government, and the EU and other players start to talk to Hamas itself.

Norway was at it this week, meeting with the prime minister of Hamas. Israel promptly canceled its meeting with the Norwegian prime minister. And good job, too. How can any peace process move forwards if no one is willing to abide by a rule to shun terrorists? It would seem that Norway sees the diplomatic anomie as a chance to grab back some of its old Oslo glory. But I don’t see a chance of that now.

It is encouraging to see that some governments flatly reject boycotts: "The only way forward is through an inclusive approach of dialogue with and between Israelis and Palestinians. The government is working directly with the parties, and with our partners in the EU, for the revival of a credible peace process with the clear objective of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said the Irish minister of arts, sport and tourism, John O’Donoghue.

But it is also discouraging to hear from fellow classmates that human rights law professors at Harvard are telling their classes that the arguments for and against the Human Rights Council’s treatment of Israel are that the same pressures successfully ended apartheid in South Africa, and that on the other hand it might be good, once in a while, to consider other issues.

There’s no real understanding of conflict resolution—of how human rights could play a positive role instead of a negative one, of what really brought the struggles in South Africa and Northern Ireland to an end, of the continuing challenge that terror and violence pose to the peace process. And to think of all those bright people, sitting in that class and listening to that silliness, wasting their time and talent.

How to get out of this saddle point? It will take leadership, and new ideas. Olmert’s days in office may be numbered. His replacement will likely be Bibi Netanyahu of Likud, or Ehud Barak of Labor. Who knows if either one will govern with greater success than they did before, or what a new American presidency in eighteen months time would make possible? Everything hangs on answers yet to emerge.

13 April 2007

12 April 2007 - On a bi-national state (2001)

When September 11th turned the world upside-down, I happened to be living with a Muslim family in a crowded industrial enclave in Cape Town called Salt River. I had moved in several months after the new Palestinian intifada began, partly because my other lease ended but also because I wanted to learn more about Islam and to try, in a personal way, to bridge the chasm that had opened up in the world.

It was a fascinating, challenging and wonderful experience. By December 2001—after covering the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, dealing with South African schadenfreude about 9/11, taking on Ronnie Kasrils, starting Arabic lessons with an imam in another heavily Muslim neighborhood, and making it through my first-ever Ramadan fast, I was exhausted. But I had learned a great deal.

I penned the following essay as a reflection on the idea of a bi-national state. The piece was once carried by a pro-Palestinian site (with permission) but was never published My ideas have changed since then: I no longer see a two-state solution as simply “an interim stage on the way to some kind of confederation,” nor do I feel that “one can't help but mourn the disappearance of the bi-national ideal.”

But I do think some of the things I wrote then, especially about the importance of cooperation, have merit. The real joy was discovering the pamphlet by Magnes and Buber in the old Beinkinstadt bookstore at the lowest corner of what used to be District Six. Nothing is new under the sun as Ecclesiastes wrote. But it is fun to re-visit old ideas. If nothing else, they tell us more about the ideas we hold today.

"On a binational state"

Joel Pollak (December 2001)

Yesterday, while browsing in the Beinkinstadt Jewish bookstore in what used to be Cape Town's District Six, I discovered an old hardcover pamphlet, yellowed but still readable after decades on the shelves, entitled "Arab-Jewish Unity."

The pamphlet was written by Judah Magnes, former President of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and by Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish theologian. Published in 1947, it is a transcript of their testimony before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry, which in 1946 investigated Jewish and Arab claims in Palestine and made recommendations for the future of the territory, then under British rule.

In their submission to the Commission, Magnes and Buber, both of whom identified themselves as Zionists, argued that since both Jews and Arabs had a claim to Palestine, it could neither be an Arab state nor a Jewish one. They also rejected the partition option, saying that it was impractical and a "moral defeat for everyone concerned." Instead, they recommended that a bi-national state be formed, in which Jews and Arabs would share power in a single land.

Their suggestion was that Jews agree to limit immigration to the point of parity with the Arab population, and that Arabs agree, in turn, to a power-sharing arrangement with Jews. Jews and Arabs would have equal representation in a democratically-elected legislature, and the head of state would be appointed by the United Nations Organisation. Each community would have autonomy in cultural affairs. The entire entity would be overseen by a regional trusteeship to be organized by the United Nations and chaired by Britain, and composed of representatives of the Arab League and the Jewish Agency.

The Commission was impressed with Magnes and Buber's deeply idealistic testimony, and its final report, issued in mid-1946, reflected some of their suggestions. "Palestine," according to the report, "must be established as a country in which the legitimate national aspirations of both Jews and Arabs can be reconciled, without either side fearing the ascendancy of the other. In our view this cannot be done under any form of constitution in which a mere numerical majority is decisive, since it is precisely the struggle for a numerical majority which bedevils Arab-Jewish relations."

But there was little support in Palestine itself for the bi-national idea. It was flatly rejected by Arab leaders, and on the Jewish side only the most left-wing groups supported it. In addition, the events of the preceding twenty years—particularly the Arab riots of the 1930s—had radicalized opinion and encouraged militancy on both sides. The net effect of British rule, during which unrealistic promises had been made to both camps, had been to set the two communities against each other rather than to prepare them for joint government.

The escalating Jewish-Arab antagonism was discouraging to proponents of the bi-national idea: "You can't introduce a bi-national State all at once," Magnes was forced to admit in his testimony. And the Commission didn't try to: it proposed that "until this hostility disappears, the Government of Palestine be continued as at present under mandate pending the execution of a trusteeship agreement under the United Nations."

But the Mandate was becoming more and more unstable. As early as the Arab riots, a British commission had recommended terminating the Mandate and dividing the land. After the Second World War, the Mandate government was the target of organized sabotage and terror campaigns by Jewish right-wing groups. When the question of Palestine was referred to the United Nations, that body turned to the only remaining alternative under the circumstances: partition.

The idea of a bi-national state remains marginal today. Fifty years of Arab-Israeli conflict, and the intense Israeli-Palestinian clashes of the last few decades, have done little to build the foundation of trust that bi-nationalism would require. There is also the demoralizing example of Lebanon, which was set up as a bi-national state between Muslim and Christian groups but collapsed into civil war and anarchy under the demographic and political strain.

A handful of Israeli leftists and academics had revived the idea of Jewish-Arab bi-nationalism in recent years, but since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, such ideas have been all but forgotten. Instead, various versions of partition have come to form the loose core of a weak and troubled consensus in the diplomatic community.

Despite its obvious and insurmountable flaws, one can't help but mourn the disappearance of the bi-national ideal. Magnes and Buber may have been naive in their hopes for a bi-national state, but they were correct in their basic assumptions that "Jewish-Arab co-operation is essential for a satisfactory solution of the difficult problem" and that "Jewish-Arab co-operation is not only essential, but also possible."

For the myth that finally ended the Oslo peace process was that there could be a "permanent solution" to the conflict. Few people were prepared to face the fact that when the "peace process" was over, the "process of peace" would begin, and that the two independent states would have to cooperate on virtually every major issue of importance—from security to trade, from religion to environmental protection.

Any partition will be, at best, an interim stage on the way to some kind of confederation. And while the immediate concern at the moment must be to end the violence and terrorism, there must also be a diplomatic paradigm shift away from the dystopia of separation and towards the utopia of cooperation. The focus of international intervention should not merely be to assist separations between Israelis and Palestinians, but to discover ways for them to come together in mutually beneficial ways—and not just on security issues.

Perhaps it is utterly idealistic to speak of cooperation when Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon glare hatefully at each other across the carnage, riding their respective governments to collapse. But on the other hand, perhaps it is the only way forward. Fifty-five years ago, Magnes and Buber suggested that "Jewish-Arab cooperation should be the objective of major policy." Maybe it's time the world took that advice.