Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Return Of 'The Right'

I surprise nobody by remarking what a difficult time this is for Israelis and Palestinians. In many ways, the sides are closer than ever to sensing what a modus vivendi feels like, as the institutions and economy of a Palestinian state gradually take shape, and the parameters of an initial deal become more widely understood by the international community. For the younger generations, who live more and more in cyberspace, the issue of land per se seems less and less relevant to quality of life. And yet I cannot remember a time of relative calm when the sheer hatred between the two sides has been more palpable, and the ultras on both sides are on the ascendancy, enjoying (and fueling) the resulting polarization.

Late last summer, I thought I'd take a step back and simply ask why we are so stuck. The result is this long essay in the current Harper's on the Palestinian right of return (for now, behind the magazine's paywall, I'm afraid, but a year's subscription to this great magazine is about the cost of lunch).

IN A NUTSHELL, the article argues that the sides are not simply stuck because of the Israeli occupation and settlement policies, inflammatory and destructive as these are, or because of Hamas' arguable power. Rather, the vast majority of people on each side hold to nonnegotiable principles of identity, and understandable but exaggerated fears regarding the other side's intentions. These make the polarization serious even if demagogic rejectionists were not exploiting them.

Most important in this context is the Palestinian right of return, which is not just another matter to be settled or finessed once a border has been agreed to. It is a nonnegotiable demand for Palestinians and cuts to the heart of what the Palestinian nation is. The problem is, Israelis tend to hear the demand through a prism that is different from that of Palestinians. And the prism is of a piece with the Israelis' own nonnegotiable demand, that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish national home, or even more vaguely, the state of the Jewish people. What are these prisms?

FOR ALL THE obvious reasons, the Palestinian nation is unselfconscious about its cultural life. Were it not for their confrontation with historic Zionism, the Palestinians would be virtually indistinguishable from other Muslim and Christian Arabs in the Fertile Crescent. Palestinian identity derives from a deep and abiding sense of injustice done to many but specific Palestinian families. Palestinians as a whole feel the dispossession and suffering of these families have never been acknowledged, let alone redressed or compensated.

Israelis, for their part, are extremely selfconscious regarding their cultural distinction, also for obvious reasons. They can easily imagine the world with Jews and Jewish culture extinguished. They look at America and see personal successes but, for Jewish civilization, a wasteland. They think of themselves as the last best hope for preserving Jewish language and everything this subtends. The article attempts to recapitulate the history of the confrontation between these rival needs.

It should come as no surprise, yet does, that people of good faith on both sides are still talking past each other.When Palestinians speak of a right of return they are really insisting on the centrality of the individual rights of Palestinian families, historically, but also gesturing toward the contemporary rights of Arabs in the state of Israel. They want their day in court, as it were, but also constitutional protections, "equality" going forward, something they think historic Zionism never accorded them.

For their part, Israelis hear the demand for a right of return and immediately assume Palestinians want to flood them with Arabic and Muslim culture and snuff out Jewish national identity. So they turn things around and insist that, before talks could get serious, Palestinians must recognize the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. What Palestinians hear is that Israel is demanding Palestinians accept a Zionist movement and state that once displaced them and now create institutions that discriminate against them.

WHAT CAN WE learn from this? For some time, most of us have assumed that the best way to approach peacemaking is by getting to a border, building confidence, and dealing with the right of return last. But perhaps this is misguided. (It is a little like a divorcing couple trying to come to an agreement about property before they have taken care of custodianship of the children.)

Rather, I argue, Israelis interested in peace should agree up front to participate in an international commission that will carefully investigate the property losses and pain and suffering of Palestinian families. (Olmert offered something like this in his negotiations with Abbas.) There are other actions, flowing from the establishment of this commission, that Israelis should agree to, including modalities for compensating refugees and, in various cases, allowing them to return to Israel should they choose to (though polls show most would not). I go into these modalities in the article.

At the same time, Palestinian leaders should agree in advance that Israel is the country where the distinct civilization of the historic Jewish people will find its contemporary expression. It is disingenuous on the part of Palestinian leaders, even moderates like Abbas, to say that they recognize Israel but have no intention of endorsing a "Jewish state" (or something like this) for fear of condemning Israeli Arabs to second class citizenship. If there are things about the Israeli state apparatus that Palestinians reject, that is, in addition to the occupation, they should say so--but this should not prevent their affirming Israel's purpose to provide a Jewish national home.

Both sides, in other words, have to state a view regarding the proper boundary between individual rights and national-cultural survival, just the way Canadians have had to, or members of the EU had to. Palestinians have to stop talking about the Jews as if they were referring to just another religion in some larger secular state, or about historic Zionism as if the Naqba and occupation are all there is to say about it. Israelis have to stop talking about Palestinians as if refugees who demand attention to their grievances are inviting genocide or Israeli Arabs who want a "state of its citizens" are calling for the end of Jewish national identity.

ALL OF THIS brings us to a culminating point, which I take up at the end of the article. The right of return is the most dramatic but by no means the only issue that forces Israelis and Palestinians to confront how to reconcile individual rights to national rights. This reconciliation cannot be achieved without certain confederative institutions that, say, permit certain Palestinian returnees to live as "resident aliens" in Israel (and may well allow some Jewish settlers to live in Palestine as resident aliens).

In fact, no two-state solution is even conceivable without any number of confederative institutions: a single municipality for Jerusalem, and international custodian for the holy basin, an international custodian to administer security arrangements on the Jordan River, institutions that guarantee the sharing of water, electromagnetic spectrum, and many other benefits. This has nothing to do with the sides loving each other--no more than the French loved Germans at the launch of the Common Market.

In short, the right of return can become a cause of a fight to the finish. Or it can be an invitation to finally settle this conflict humanely and imaginatively--and fully. Again, you can download the entire article here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gaza Interlude: A Report

My friend Kathleen Peratis is a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, and co-chair of the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch.  She traveled to Gaza last week and wrote the following report for this blog. It will appear in the Nation, in slightly different form, in a forthcoming issue.  

It became clear to me that Fatah was no longer the reluctant partner in a potential reconciliation deal with Hamas. I was here in May when Hamas, at the behest of Egypt, was the reconciliation suitor while Fatah found pretexts (and was subjected to great pressure by the US and Israel) not to go forward. Hamas is stronger now, Fatah is relatively weaker, and both are ready to defy the US and Israel.

“The US told Abu Mazen to choose between the US and Hamas. But he now knows there is no hope that Israel will give him anything in the years to come,” said Hamas Huda Naim Naim, member of the Hamas Politburo and the Palestinian Legislative Council “Hamas is stronger now due to Bibi and, in wake of Shalit deal, is more popular,” said Fatah official Husam Zomlot.

According to most of the people I spoke to, both sides, for their separate reasons, have signaled that they are ready to accept the results of elections, win or lose. And Hamas’ price? For one thing, the unity government will reportedly be based in Gaza and not in Ramallah, which will significantly empower Hamas. Since the shoot-out between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Fatah officials have rarely, until quite recently, come to Gaza. The Fatah officials I spoke to were pleasantly surprised that they had been in Gaza for a week and Hamas had not stormed their offices. “They are now using soft power,” said Mr. Zomlot, the Fatah official, “because they want to show good will.” He added, “They have implanted fear for so long that the people know the consequences of opposing them – they know that if they oppose Hamas, they will be crushed.”

Fatah officials based in Ramallah can’t go abroad or come home without Israel’s approval (which Israel usually gives, but still). Gazans, however, can now go to Egypt pretty easily whether Israel likes it or not and, from there, any country in the world that will let them in--Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, of late Scandinavia, so far (“Maybe because Hamas is on a blacklist,” according to Ms. Naim) but, in light of the Arab Awakening and the probable entry of Islamists into many Arab governments, Hamasniks expect that blacklist to become shorter.

“For Hamas, reconciliation will legalize its past, normalize it, and give it protection. The US will speak to the Brotherhood (in Egypt) and once Hamas is in the parliament, the US will speak to Hamas too,” said Omar Shaban of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink, who is attempting to form a secular democratic party in Gaza. Being able to travel is tantalizing to the Hamas officials I spoke to. 

“I remember the day—before ’67--when I used to be able to take a train from Cairo to Gaza. It was cheap—90 piasters. People used to go by car. Maybe that day will come again,” said Mahmoud El Zahhar, the co-founder of Hamas. “In two or three years, we will be able to drive from Gaza to Morocco. The era of the Arab people has started. We speak the same language, we are the same religion,” said Mohammad Al-Agha, Hamas Minister of Agriculture.

Economically, also, the Gaza base presents opportunities. “The West Bank is linked only to Israel whereas Gaza has managed to cut its cord with Israel and reestablish itself with other markets,” said Mr. Zomlot. Many Hamas officials implied that in a reconciliation deal, they would demand the dissolution of Palestinian Authority itself because “It is farcical to declare a state when you are under occupation,” said Yahya Moussa of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “The PA failed in its task to serve the political project,” agreed Fatah official Amal Tawofeeq Hamd, Deputy Secretary of the Revolutionary Council of the PLO, “and so what use is there for the PA?”

Such talk is for now mere polemic, thank god. It would not be good for Israel should it actually occur; who then would administer the Palestinian areas of the West Bank? Worse news: Reconciliation will not bring abolition of the “private” militias (Qassam, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Brigade), those who fire rockets into Israel. While many Hamas officials they say they are committed to a mutual cease-fire and are, to some extent, now restraining Islamic Jihad and others, they believe they drove Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and 2009 on account of their armed resistance and there is no possibility that their private militia will now be banned.

“It will take a long time to deal with these militias. After elections, security forces need to be unified but …armed resistance (remains) a strategic option,” said the reasonable, urbane and Western-oriented Fatah official Mr. Zomlot. I asked Mr. Zahhar, a founder of Hamas and a proponent of reconciliation and elections, “If you say Hamas to most Americans, they will not think the beautiful Islam you describe; they will think: Rockets and killing civilians.” He responded, “We tried all peaceful methods and we failed. Egyptians and Libyans and Tunisians will not accept the status quo and neither will we. When we use violence, they say, ‘Stop and we will negotiate.’ Then we stop but they don’t negotiate. They keep killing us.”

During the two weeks I was in the region, eight rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza causing injury to one foreign worker, and, according to a UN report, Israeli airstrikes and shelling launched in response to the firing of rockets killed five Palestinians in Gaza, of whom two were civilians, and injured and 15 others.

I asked Hamas official Mr. Moussa, “How can you succeed with arms against Israel? Isn’t non-violence the only way to win your struggle against an adversary that is so strong? “If everyone comes at the elephant with pins, the elephant will die,” he said. “Non- violence can work in an internal struggle but not a national liberation struggle against guns and tanks.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

'Pennies From Heaven'

When I joined Monitor Company (now Group) in the spring of 1992, the first party its directors, my new colleagues, invited me to was at Mitt Romney's mansion in Belmont. Romney was at the time still with Bain Capital, but his political ambitions were clear. The party, in fact, turned out to be a fundraiser for a friend of his, a Harvard Business School professor, who was planning a run for the U.S. Senate, as (of all things) a centrist Democrat, in Utah.

As my new Monitor friends whipped out their check-books, writing in numbers that elicited broad smiles from Romney and his special guest (Monitor directors were "kicking McKinsey's butt" at the old AT&T at the time, which was spending tens of millions on strategy consultants on its road to eventual oblivion), I gingerly took out my check-book, too. I wrote in $50, and mumbled some apology about being new. The smiles came anyway. (I did not mention I was a left Democrat, which would have been a little like admitting you were a Republican at my son's Bar Mitzvah.)

Make no mistake. Romney and his wife Ann could not have been more gracious--or attractive. Their sons (I think I met three out of the five) were about as good-looking as it was possible to be outside of a Land's End catalogue, yet they were warm, respectful, and the huge, imposing home-on-a-hill had an unmistakably lived-in air about it. Homework was being attended to around the kitchen table. You got the sense that they were good and grateful people, who simply assumed their wealth was earned, deserved, yet a blessing, something to be put to the fullness of life. They seemed middle class, only more so.

I should add that I had just finished five-year stint as the Harvard Business Review's technology strategy editor, and found the karma familiar. The Romney home seemed a kind of extension of the business school's architectural principles, not just the physical space, with its understated but firmly established elegance, but its implied social architecture as well.

YOU STARTED WITH a sincere and disciplined mind, erudition (though not too much, one is humble among Jewish intellectuals), a willingness to work hard, and the instinctive fairness needed to build teams; you then graduated to the company, a kind of nobler--because collective and stronger--citizen; and through the company you did the world good: brought new things to history, learned science and practical skills, forced all colleagues into excellence through good-faith competition, earned a nice living--all in all, the sorter of people in a meritocracy.

You needed government the way Derek Jeter needs the umpire. The idea that Jeter would not have been Jeter without government or, as Malcolm Gladwell writes, crazy good luck that governments can spread around, would never have entered your mind.

The heart of the architecture was the family. Raising children was a calling. Once, when I was in Salt Lake City, my ex, Susan, and I visited the home of a man who'd become a close friend at Monitor, Henry Eyring, scion of a famous scientific family, now himself an educator and senior Brigham Young administrator. We sat for hours on the Eyrings' living room couch, talking, gossiping: politics, companies, the politics of companies, the ways of families. Throughout this conversation, the Eyrings' daughter, 7 or 8 years old, sat quietly in a chair of her own facing us, listening, taking in what adults had to say, practiced at this, fascinated: reality television without the television. The younger son, whom I had never met, curled-up on the couch next to me, put his head on may lap, and fell asleep. The trust was poignant. Obedience had tipped into cultivation.

THESE WERE NOT my first encounters with the business school's Mormons. Kim Clark, who would go on to become the dean (and, later, president of a campus of Brigham Young), was one of the faculty who wrote often on technology.  I can't remember working with, or editing, a man of greater professionalism: smart, kind, prompt, constructive, inviting. The same could be said of his colleague, Steve Wheelwright, and my colleagues at HBR had similar feelings about the now renown Clay Christensen. (Editing Larry Summers was, let us say, another matter.)

I ran into the same good-natured professionalism with other Mormons at Monitor, which had the good sense to recruit a great many. Monitor's CEO, Mark Fuller, made a point of putting young Mormon associates on his personal staff, assured of their discretion, their appetite for long hours and tolerance for hierarchy. (One of Mark's assistants once asked to have lunch and revealed, almost as if this were an illicit love affair, that he ached to study political philosophy, as I had. But he felt vaguely ashamed of his ambition: the egocentric implication of it, the presumptuousness of taking liberties, the fear of appearing disloyal to Mark, or leaving him without support. I gave him permission to follow his bliss; he wrote five or six years later, out of the blue, to thank me, his Ph.D. in hand.)

I REALIZE THESE anecdotes do not amount to a scientific sample. Mormons, I guess, are no better or less tortured than human beings, who are not the greatest species. But when I hear Christian preachers or the magnificent Hitchens question Romney's fitness for office owing to his Mormon beliefs, or even hear responsible journalists raise this as an "issue" for the campaign, all I can say is that I know better. Original dogmas and founding myths are not some inner mind. They are the raw material minds work on, the stuff from which believers make beliefs--along with the practical cultures perpetuating their sense of goodness. The Oral Torah supersedes the Written Torah, as the Jewish sages said. (Besides, living as I do a few parched blocks from where Christ was supposed to have been resurrected around the year 33, I can say with authority that he might well have then preferred to try upstate New York in 1823.)

And yet. You don't need to be Max Weber to know that the political cultures of faith communities may be fair game. When you vote for Chuck Schumer you know (or should) that you are getting along with the person the communitarian proclivities of Eastern European Jews, the kind of worldview, so Michael Walzer would tell you, that makes the social safety-net of Democrats seem natural. When you voted for Obama, how could you not have the political morality of black churches ringing in your ears? ("You were born on second, Jeter; so don't think you hit a double.")

It's the same with Romney's kind of Mormons. The political culture evolving from their saga and sense of salvation is relevant to the evolution of Republican "values." Which brings me to the real reason for this post, to urge you to read this terrific piece in the October Harper's by Chris Lehman: "Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the G.O.P." (behind a pay-wall, alas, but at 16 bucks a year, Harper's is the best deal there is). The piece hasn't got nearly the attention it deserves.

What you are getting with Romney, Lehman shows, is not just a man but a political economic weltanschauung ratified by his faith community, something not weird at all, but rather all too complacent: the self-regard of business school meritocrats; the elevation of the obedient family to a sacrament; a genuine love of markets and enterprise and competitive self-realization; a belief that what might be seen as hypocrisy is just what market actors do to protect and refresh their brand. "Corporations are people," Romney called out in Iowa. Actually, Lehman shows, it is something like the other way around for him: it is people who compete to prove their worth and keep faith with their adorable little share-holders.

I want Obama to beat Romney badly, but the latter should not be underestimated. This will be, in a way, a clash of civilizations. Romney is probably as good an embodiment of the Republican gestalt as we are likely to see. His Mormon background, or his peculiar version of it, will not be a drag on his campaign but a kind of preparation for it. Obama will need Democrats to close ranks behind him, now, and without all the condescending qualifications that seem to be our specialty.

Jerusalem Arabs, Hebrew Labor

"Let Me Work!"
(Socialist Zionist poster, 1930s)
Haaretz reports this morning that Meir Ettinger, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, and a grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, was recently caught "investigating" on behalf of a project called "Hebrew Labor" Jerusalem businesses that employ Arabs. The goal of the project is "to warn the public" against buying from these businesses.

THE PHRASE, HEBREW Labor, was originated by Ben-Gurion and the pioneers of the Second Aliya. They were (as I write in the current Harper's) intoxicated by the prospect of evolving a new Jew: Hebrew-speaking, emancipated, communitarian, self-reliant. They understood land to be an instrument of cultural reconstruction and therapeutic heartiness. They determined to put down contiguous agricultural collectives, in which the Hebrew language could be modernized and incubated, unfettered by rabbinic dictates.

Especially during the 1930s, Ben-Gurion’s Histadrut, the colonists’ labor federation, set about building a state within a state, establishing urban industries from construction to food processing, social benefits from a health insurance fund to sporting clubs, providing Polish Jews a commercially viable refuge from European fascism. Displaced Arab peasants, streaming into the cities, were mainly excluded. Histadrut leaders believed the Jewish proletarian class would evolve into a nation, but that this would shrivel up, and lose moral prestige, if colonists became nothing but Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor.

Anyway, the Hebrew nation is no longer hypothetical, and the exclusion of Arab workers from Jewish enterprises--provisionally, arguably, justified in the revolutionary 1930s--is now just another feature of how Jerusalem is degenerating. Nor are things really better for those Jerusalem Arabs who are employed by Israeli Jews. Here is a little story, published in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, about my friend Abed, whose fate seems indicative. Try to read it without blushing for me.

“The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself,” Sherwood Anderson writes in Winesburg, Ohio, “[the moment he] called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Meir Ettinger is a very young man. I wish him the strength to escape the gravitational pull of his grand-father's pathetic life--and death. I wish him the strength of, say, Abed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Four Years: Repetition Compulsion, Revisited

This coming week I'll have been working this space for four years and will have posted 412 times. It still feels a rare privilege to sit down at my desk, get something off my chest, and feel engaged by the expectation of reaching so many intelligent readers. (I don't know exactly how many, but some 24,000 "unique visitors" have checked in at various times over the past year. Far fewer see the blog more or less regularly, but getting to know people who, in various chance encounters, say they feel like they know me has been delightful and humbling.)

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I haven't posted in almost three weeks. I could give the excuse that I've been busy with a mix of long-form projects, which is true: an article in the December Harper's on the Palestinian right of return (subscribe!), a book review on American healthcare forthcoming in the Nation, the galleys of my Portnoy book--all projects dear to my rather promiscuous heart. But the truth is a little less grand.

More and more, I've been finding that the thing on my chest has been got off before, here and elsewhere--in some cases many times before--and that knowing the intelligence of the blog's readers gives pause in a vaguely familiar way. When I was around nine or ten, a pupil in an orthodox Hebrew day school (Talmud Torah in Montreal), I came to the precocious understanding that the daily Jewish liturgy, whatever its aesthetic virtues or failings, was excruciatingly repetitive; that most of us came to regard "davening" as a kind of smug sacrifice. You were seriously bored (try even listening to Pavarotti sing "Nessun Dorma!" three times a day), but in suppressing revulsion for your boredom, and whispering, say, the "Amida" yet again, you were proving yourself worthy, ethically disciplined somehow, in touch just a smidgen with the suppressed revulsion Isaac must have felt when Abraham bound him, and thus sharing a smidgen in his moral prestige. I thought: was the All-Knowing dumb enough to fall for this kind of thing?

Anyway, I sat down recently to write yet another post about the folly of entertaining an attack on Iran and felt that I was just davening. Ditto, the many laws pending before the Knesset that expose how vulnerable Israeli democracy is, and has been almost from its inception. I called a friend and went out for coffee, instead. I've done that a few times since returning to Jerusalem.

Needless to say, I don't want this blog to become some kind of mandatory ritual, and certainly not just a way of punching an ostensible moral coupon. So I ask your help in refreshing it. I have opened a new email account,, and invite you to let me know what's on your mind--not "comments" in the ordinary sense, but ideas, reactions, hopes, confusions. I'll post notes I think especially provocative or original. Meanwhile, I'll pick up the pace, but probably with shorter and more off-beat posts.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

UNESCO: Boycott for Boycott?

The admission of the Palestinian Authority into UNESCO has occasioned a fuss about the American response, the automatic cutting of $70 million in funding to the organization, triggered by existing, AIPAC-inspired Congressional legislation. (M.J. Rosenberg's good column on the subject here.)

But the thing nobody seems able to explain is what possible interest Israel, or even the Netanyahu government, has in keeping Palestinians out of an organization that focuses on the the sharing of scientific information and universal artistic and cultural values?

I have argued in the past that no Palestinian (or foreign sympathizer with the Palestinian cause) interested in peace could have an interest in boycotting Israeli universities or entrepreneurs, that is, the people who have an inherent interest in globalism and reciprocity, hence, coexistence with Palestine. Precisely the same logic applies in the other direction. How do Netanyahu and AIPAC justify keeping Palestine out of UNESCO and expect this not to set off renewed calls to boycott Israeli scientists, educators, and artists?

Netanyahu has made much of the importance of "economic peace," of Palestine advancing economically, even under occupation. He may mean nothing more by this than token improvements in living standards, but the larger implication, which even he would not deny, is that advances in Palestinian civil society can only be good for Israel. And the most important changes that would enable such advances are the freer flow of talent and intellectual capital into Palestinian territories: talent for educational institutions, talent for private sector ventures. If Israel were itself serious about peace, it would have long ago proposed Palestinian membership in UNESCO, just as it would have encouraged dozens, hundreds, of Palestinian entrepreneurs to come to the territories and build.

President Abbas has set the PA on a course toward reconciliation. The Israeli government claims to want to head off the turn to Hamas in the streets of occupied territory. Then why stifle the forces that bring cooperation and vindicate the forces that depict Israel as inherently opposed to Palestinian life?

Some will argue that Palestinians, once in UNESCO, will foment disputes over the disposition of ancient sites in Jerusalem and all over the 'Holy Land.' But since when did Palestinians need to be in UNESCO to do that? They live on the disputed ground, for God's sake, and the disputes have raged for decades. Others argue that making any concessions to Palestinian independence at the UN encourages Palestinian resistance to bilateral negotiations. But what resistance? Abbas has said again and again that he'll return to negotiations in a heartbeat if Israel stops its settlement project. The ball is, as it has been for two years, in Israel's court.

The idea that Abbas will give up this stance--negotiate, but not if settlements continue--because of continuing pressures such as denial of membership in UNESCO is not worthy anyone already educated enough to be a member. Or do we have here just another case of Netanyahu diplomacy confusing transparent (and rather pathetic) efforts at bullying with "realpolitik"?