Brandeis and Zionism

October 27, 2015

The struggle between Israel and Palestine and the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, leads me to think about a founder of American Zionism. In a book to come out early next year, I wrote:

… [P]rior to his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, Brandeis became leader of the American Zionist movement, heading a committee to assist endangered European Jews. He would found the American Jewish Congress, the Palestine Endowment Fund and the Palestine Co-operative Company. Zionism expressed Brandeis’ understanding of American values, the same right for Jews as other nationalities to a homeland, to strengthen their claim to equality among the world’s peoples. Palestine, he argued, must not be claimed by war but by purchase and settlement, “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.” He compared Zionism to the recent independence and unification of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland and the more short-lived Servia. For Brandeis, support for justice, fairness and democracy everywhere, in service to “the brotherhood of man,” makes one a better American.[1]

Brandeis lived long enough to fear events in Europe and advise Jews to leave Germany but he died in 1941 before we joined the war, and before Israel was born in a bath of fire. May he rest in peace.

Instead, conflict has radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians and there seems to be no brakes on the spiral of violence.

A Palestinian graduate student at RPI told me Palestinians had every right to kill any Israeli, and Israelis have no right to fight back because they are wrong. His solution was the mirror image of Israel’s, takeover of the other’s land. I pointed out that would lead to the slaughter of everyone on both sides. He shrugged. Muslims from other places listening to us made clear they got my point. But extremists on both sides make peace impossible.

I see no mechanisms in their societies to resolve the conflicts and bring people together. Israelis and Palestinians are segregated in their living space, often by walls, boundaries and checkpoints. They are segregated in schools by faith and location. They are segregated in business, finance, wherever they might work together – save where Israeli employers hire Palestinian laborers, who work when Israel allows.

Our country has brought people together since the founding, in commerce, finance, colleges and schools. Still we suffer domestic conflict between racial and other groups. Congress and a string of American presidents supported desegregation to bring people together. The formerly segregated South changed a great deal, but backlash persists across America. Curing deep-seated antagonisms is difficult. It is next to impossible where they are reinforced by physical and legal walls.

I doubt Israel and Palestine have either the time or the will to build bridges between them. Each believes in re-taking the others’ lands, not sharing them.

My concern at this point is for America. I see little advantage to our country in being drawn further into an intractable conflict with religious zealots on both sides who kill peacemakers, national leaders, and noncombatants, to prevent or derail the possibility of peace. I fear that the future includes a great deal of slaughter, and am no longer convinced it can be averted. Our only choice may be whether we, in America, get blamed for it. The Israelis need to hear that message loud and clear. There is no chance of a decent resolution as long as Israel believes they have our unconditional support.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 27, 2015.

[1] Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 34 (NYU Press 2016).

Realism about Middle Eastern Priorities

September 8, 2015

Republicans in Congress have been holding up funds for Fulbright scholarships and the Peace Corps, anything that would actually allow Americans to learn about what is going on in the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that foreign policy discussions have the smell of fantasy.

It’s long been obvious that the struggle with fundamentalist and militant Islam has been ideological. They have established schools which are aimed at stamping out the multicultural Islam we have known for a millennium and replacing it with the intolerance of Wahhabi Islam. They know the value of educating the young. That’s why Boko Haram in Africa attacks western style schools there.

And it has long been reported that a large part of the funding and much of the drive behind this intolerant violent form of Islam has been coming from Saudi Arabia, as did most of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet knowing all this, we have been falling over ourselves to help the Saudi monarchy. It’s a pyrrhic bargain, some supposed short-term gain despite long term disaster. And we’re told Israel likes it – so much for the intelligence of Israel’s government.

Meanwhile we focus on boycotting Iran. Yet Iran is irrelevant to the growing Muslim fundamentalism – the Shi’ites of Iran are not going to fund Sunni schools the Wahhabis have financed, and Iran’s own brand of Islam is settling down in response to a relatively educated and westernized culture.

Sorry folks but misreading realities outside the U.S. are the wages of believing that there is no use to learning anything outside our borders.

It’s amazing how stable a view of the Middle East the hawks maintain and how unstable the Middle East actually is. Israel is our friend regardless of how their policies stiff us. Saudi Arabia is our friend even though they cradled el Qaeda and radical Islam, Saudis were deeply involved in 9/11, and they are now funding Hamas which fights Israel. Iran is our enemy even though we fight together against ISIS and they have cut Hamas off.

The hawks seem to fear learning about what is actually happening and driven by a desire to flex muscles for the mere fact of pride in the muscles they flex. It would be really funny except they can screw up the future of this country and substitute military graves for the future of too many men and women.

Our first priority must be to turn off the flow of Saudi support for their breed of intolerance. And then to turn the internet into a trap, radioactive figuratively speaking, so that the world’s terrorists are scared off it and isolated. I’m not sure Obama or anyone in his shoes will have any choice but to continue using drones, much as I dislike them. But if we grow up and deal with the world as it is instead of the medieval fairy tale the know-nothings running Congress keep telling us it is, things might just get saner. Meanwhile, let’s provide significant funds for Americans to work and study abroad. We have a lot to learn to undo this neo-isolationist reign of ignorance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 8, 2015.


Support the Iranian-American Nuclear Bargain

September 2, 2015

I have been very disappointed with Sen. Schumer and those of his colleagues in both houses of Congress who will not support the agreement with Iran. I’m sure they have convinced themselves that their stand is good for America, good for Israel, and good for their supporters. They should know better.

Many people like to talk about Iran as if it’s uniform – Iran is this; it acts like that. But Iran is many things just like this country is many things –Red and Blue; hawks and doves. We change, sometimes radically –flipping right or left. Our politics and culture respond to events.

The same is true in Iran. Some of us who have worked in Iran lived in historically tribal areas where their government had forced people to give up their migratory lives. Some lived in areas that had supported the Shah; others that were hostile to our interference, helping to depose an elected government and restore the Shah. The position of women has been changing radically; they are extremely well educated and participate in large numbers in Iranian professional life as doctors, attorneys, etc. Iranian culture is also changing radically, reflected in widespread and very public choices of dress, music and customs in conflict with the traditional religious injunctions. Attendance and participation in religious rituals is decreasing considerably. Even the clergy are affected by the changes. This is not your parents’ Iran.

A large portion of the Iranian people are very westernized and very friendly to the U.S. They are the people that chose Prime Minister Rouhani. Another group organized around the Ayatollah has been very suspicious. Contemporary Iranian politics is about the jockeying between those groups.

We can make sure that the hard-liners win the Iranian contest by withdrawing from diplomacy, refusing to resume trade, and making it clear that nothing will lead to rapproachement. That will lead to the most anti-American outcomes within Iran.

But if we are willing to engage, to use diplomacy, to arrange agreements to lower the tensions, to trade and travel, we will strengthen our friends there and help them gain and hold the upper hand. We can’t and don’t control Iranian politics. But we can and should see the complexity that is modern Iran and take advantage of the openings it gives us. Refusing to see and account for the changes in Iran isn’t hard-headed realism, it’s blindness.

We’ve made mistakes like that before. Our hatred of communism closed our eyes to the realities of Asian politics and blinded us to the possibility of using Vietnam to play balance of power politics between Russia and China. After an expensive war, we now trade with the same regime we fought for almost a decade. We can be smarter with Iran.

Iran is now the most westernized and stable of all the Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Around Israel, in every direction, countries have been getting less stable and more dangerous. Missing the opportunity to cultivate our friends in Iran would be a huge mistake for us and for the Israelis whether or not they can see that.

I have one concern – that the price of the agreement with Iran will be to arm Israel enough so that they feel free to thumb their noses at American efforts to broker a peace. I think it would be a good corrective for Israeli politics to wonder about American support. This cannot be a world without constraints, for Israel, Iran or anyone.

There is something called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things happen because our beliefs make it happen. We can wreck the future or we can build a decent one. It’s our choice.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 1, 2015.

Future Oriented Diplomacy Toward Iran

July 22, 2015

We did something that infuriated Iranians in 1953 by organizing a coup removing their democratically selected Prime Minister. They did something that properly infuriated us in 1979 by taking our embassy staff hostage. George Bush announced that Iran was part of the Axis of Evil. So now is the die cast? Are we doomed to permanent enmity? Trapped in stereotypes and hatred, too many see no way to a better future except by deepening the conflict with every kind of force.

I have a fair amount of contact with people who study Iran or spend time there periodically. And they all tell me the same things. Iran is changing. Even clerical views are becoming less radical. The population at large is becoming more secular, less radical, and narrowing the clergy’s options. There is less attendance at the mosques and more activity that contradicts the strict interpretations of Islamic theology that worry Americans. Iranians are wearing unsanctioned clothing, listening to unsanctioned music and news, even dancing and producing theatre. Not only middle-class Iranians but up and down the income scale and across Iran geographically people are changing toward much more cosmopolitan views and lifestyles.

Those developments are important. They signal a widespread Iranian desire for rapprochement with this country, a weakening and a softening of clerical control over the government, and the possibility of moving toward much better relations between our countries.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Iran had a democratic government long before the Revolution and that Iran had an Israeli diplomatic presence while the rest of the Middle East treated Israel as a pariah. Although the Iranian Revolution dislocated some of those traditions, Iran cannot be lumped in with the radicalization of some sects in the Sunni world. It has long been following a separate, westernizing path.

A westernizing trend with deep roots in the population of an economically progressive and powerful Islamic country needs to be encouraged. Despite all the rhetoric about bringing Iran to its knees with sanctions, the sanctions are being used in Iran to sustain the more conservative elements in Iranian religion and politics. It is a clumsy American foreign policy that guarantees that the future will be worse than the past. The short term is dominated by disputes. Diplomacy, however, cannot ignore the long term.

That was the genius of the European Union. Germany and France had been enemies, repeatedly fighting major wars over several centuries. Yet after World War II they were united, but not by sanctions, reparations and renewed threats. Instead we rebuilt Germany under the Marshall plan, while French and German statesmen, with British and American backing, envisioned a world in which Germany could be a partner and an ally. That took vision, not merely the repetition of slogans about battles and hatreds.

I don’t mean to imply that the EU is a model that can be repeated wherever there are enemies. But diplomacy must work toward a vision for how we can share a better world.

That is really the strength of the Obama-Kerry plan. Instead of insisting that old disputes must fan future ones, it strives to reduce the friction and heal the wounds, while important historic forces work inside Iran so that it can regain a positive role in resolving middle-Eastern struggles.

And yes, of course, this agreement does not solve everything. The Iranians reached out to George Bush with a proposal to put a broad range of disputes on the table but instead of responding through diplomatic channels, he publicly called Iran part of an Axis of Evil. It’s hard to tell what that may have cost us. As some diplomats say, put everything on the table, agree on nothing. My point instead is that there are fundamental developments in Iran that should be encouraged, and that it is a huge mistake to write them off. Lack of vision can make a decent future unreachable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.

Israel, Iran and American Diplomacy

March 3, 2015

Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.

I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.

Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?

Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.

It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.

Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.

I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.

The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.

I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.

Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo bombings – Was it just about France?

January 13, 2015

In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?

So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.

Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?

I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.

We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.

I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”

Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.

Guns v. PR in Palestine

October 28, 2014

Whenever I speak about Israel and Palestine, I get angry and anguished letters from both sides. I understand. The world is going to heck in so many ways – growing population, destroying our environment, killing each other – why not have a few dreams about the good life in the Middle East. Dreams are much more fun than reality. Only a few have the strength to look with clear eyes and at both sides.

Perhaps you heard Matty Friedman in On The Media discussing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.[i] I looked at his very interesting essay and recommend it.[ii] He makes clear some truths that should be self–evident. Read the rest of this entry »


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