January 22, 2015

For Silver, betraying Jewish education is old hat

Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly, may yet be found innocent of the charges against him in a new federal indictment. But the dirty secret within the Jewish community, is that he's been guilty of other offenses: Allowing milions in campaign contributions from teacher union override his allegiance to the Jewish community.
The most recent twist in this long-running farce: Crowning a public career understandably devoid of even a yarmulke, the privately Orthodox Silver -- who blocked tax incentives and other offsets that would ease the tuition crisis in New York State, home to the largest private day school population in the world -- dressed today like a yeshiva rebbe for his "perp walk".

In all our dealings with the Speaker, he never once offered serious relief of the kind that's worked in other states, without breaching constitutional protections or incentivizing tuition hikes -- excuses he consistently used to avoid serious legislative remedies.

To be fair, we were able to work out agreements with the Speaker to expand or update existing programs, netting tens of millions for non-public schools, including the yeshiva/day school community. And also, to be fair, major Jewish groups hailed the Speaker's "leadership" and good will, both publicly and in private ring-kissing sessions, to preserve and advance their claims of access and influence, and to maintain credibility as if they were accomplishing great things for Jewish education. With tuition totalling something over $1 billion a year for New York's Jewish community, a few million at a time is barely a dent.

I figured, politics is politics, and never bore a grudge against the Speaker. Even with the conflicts of interest implicit in his outside earnings, Albany is no clean room for good government and Governor Cuomo's own fighting words against corruption have faded into farce.
But seeing the Speaker suddenly don his yeshiva-style fedora for the most public appearance of his life -- in a moment of disgrace, pointedly identifying with the very community he had blocked -- is what pushed me to speak my mind.

The Catholic community hasn't waited patiently for the Speaker to throw them crumbs, which is the reason Governor Cuomo -- just yesterday -- committed to pushing a modest but promising initiative to increase the tax benefits for donations to non-public school scholarship funds.
I don't expect any Jewish community groups with a stake in "business as usual" to speak out against anything the Speaker has done, so I am voicing my own humble protest against his duplicity and our own community's complicity. I also confess my own playing ball (but never backing down) when I thought it could advance the cause.

November 19, 2014

Adding intellectual insult to physical carnage

There are no new debates and no new lessons to be learned from yesterday's wrenching, horrific, disgusting and barbaric attack in Jerusalem. I stopped being surprised a long time ago. The problems and the solutions are neither easy nor mysterious, and suggesting otherwise adds to the difficulty. May the families and the entire community find the comfort and courage to move forward in every way.

In the car yesterday morning, I listened to BBC's coverage of the synagogue attack, via our much-maligned public radio network, including an extensive chillingly vivid account by an Israeli first responder who literally jumped right into the unfolding carnage. I found his account, and the entire BBC report, to be deeply meaningful and illuminating, and couldn't have imagined a more appropriate or objectively sympathetic frame for the immediate aftermath of such an unthinkable tragedy. 

Right or left, the wasted time and effort pillorying the news media (and trumpeting every graveyard-shift breaking-news error) for supposedly biased coverage is a distraction from the real tragedy and from the real dilemmas facing Israel and the region, and the Jewish people. "All hands on deck" is a call for discipline, ingenuity and clarity of purpose, not recitations of talking points and easy answers, running around in circles, or blaming each other as our ship nears the reef.

The persistent effort to discredit open discussion and dissent within the Jewish community is beyond wasteful -- it's destructive to the very mission and purpose of the sacred enterprise. It advances the very goal of such awful but strategically irrelevant attacks, which -- beyond provoking the sort of retaliation which further alienates Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in Israel proper -- is to break the Jewish spirit and open discourse. Those who respond to external attacks by attacking other Jews are no less "self-hating" than those whose Judaism they impugn.

As I mentioned above, this is all a play that's been repeated too many times, and despite a few heroic attempts we have yet to see either progress or a dramatic shift from the same thinking. 

September 14, 2014

My Tony Auth original

As I learned this evening from veteran foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin, sadly the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth has passed away. Growing up in Philly, I regularly saw and was impacted by his work (as by Trudy's!).

Some years back, I had occasion to meet Mr. Auth, at shiva for the late and beloved Chaim Potok with whom he had collaborated. When he introduced himself and offered his business card, I had two immediate responses: first awe, and then surprise that such a visual person could have a card with only text on it. He grabbed it back from me, pulled out a pen to doodle a few lines, and handed it back -- self-portrait complete.

No doubt his trademark selfie was widely repeated, but I don't know how many of his biz cards merited the same logo. I'm glad I asked.

Rest in peace.

August 27, 2014

You say 'Chamas' and I say 'Hamas'...why it matters

Language and politics have always been linked, and today there remain many examples, no less in the Middle East and the War on Terror.

Peter Beinart recently asked why Israelis insist on pronouncing Hamas using the Hebrew "chet" sound, approximated by the Spanish "J", as in Guadalajara, or the "ch" in bleccchhhh. In Arabic, "Hamas" is spelled and pronounced with the more challenging throatiness of the letter 'Haa. The Hebrew Chet is still pronounced that way by some Jews of Mideastern origin, but standardization of modern Hebrew has largely eliminated that. So, there's one easy explanation. 

On a more complicated level, though, this also fits an Israeli and Western optic, where "we" get to define others on our terms. Hence, some of my colleagues in the pro-Israel community still use the antiquated "Moslem" to refer to Muslims, akin to calling Beijing by its erstwhile, anglicized form of Peking. Like the duck. 

When I see someone of this century referring to "Moslems", I immediately sense a lack of understanding or sympathy for a religion and culture of one billion souls, spanning dozens of countries. It's almost as quaint as Thomas Jefferson's vintage reference to "Mussulmans". Unlike "Hamas", the Arabic "Muslim" easily lends itself to correct pronunciation by English-speakers. At least, for those who care.

Saying "Hamas" with a simple English-style hard "H" sounds more accurate, since it leaves out the guttural -- and completely wrong -- "kh" as in Guadalajara. Knowingly or not, pronouncing "Hamas" as a modern Hebrew term, rather than the Arabic of its origin, takes ownership of that group's narrative. It really displaces the broader Palestinian narrative, as well. In fact, most Israelis still refer to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as "Israeli Arabs".

When pro-Israel activists in the States hear an Israeli expert refer to "Chamas" (or "Khamas"), they may assign more authority to the analysis and arguments, since few Americans can pronounce that sound, either. Of course, that same word in Hebrew, with the Chet, translates as criminal violence, so there's also that.

We are admonished to call evil by its name, but if we insist on pronouncing it our own way, how does that help the fight? The world, and sometimes our own neighbors, don't operate according to our fears and expectations.

May 14, 2014

The political cost of "price tag" attacks

Right-wing settlers and supporters have a very big stake in prosecuting and delegitimizing the so-called "price tag" attackers, who vandalize and destroy Palestinian property in indirect retaliation for Palestinian terrorism. The use of violence against non-Jews, including Israeli citizens, reinforces an image of racist settlers seeking to dominate and persecute Palestinians on both sides of the 1949 Green Line. 

Settler voices should be the loudest in calling for full investigations and harsh penalties: They have a moral obligation since it's being done in their name, and they have a political imperative because they stand to further erode the Jewish Israeli base of tolerance or support for their enterprise. Rather than calling for the arrest of Israeli writer Amos Oz, who labeled the perpetrators "neo-Nazis", they should be demanding extra resources so the police can bring the price-taggers to justice. Piling on against Oz amplifies his message, while also creating the impression of defending the attacks.  

Settlements are enough of an economic and security burden to the average Israeli, without the added stigma of abiding racism. If settler leaders truly seek to maximize the territory and infrastructure Israel holds into the future, they'll need to reassure average Israelis that this is about fulfilling the Biblical, Zionist dream. In the settler narrative, the Palestinians are anti-Semitic terrorists who attack Israelis. If settlers are seen as condoning similar tactics against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, their whole premise will collapse, along with the pro-annexation meme that a bi-national state can somehow uphold Jewish and democratic values simultaneously. 

American Jewish groups have been speaking out strongly against "price tag" attacks, because they oppose criminal violence and because they would otherwise have no credibility in defending official Israeli actions when they need to. 

Even though it undercuts their argument that Palestinians cannot be trusted, settlers have an interest in showing that Jewish settlers and Palestinians can live harmoniously together without the need for a Palestinian state or evacuation of Jewish families. It's not an argument I accept, but it's the best case the settlers can make. 

April 29, 2014

Questions for Congress on Mideast peace

As usual, Congress is full of complaints, questions and demands -- especially regarding the Middle East peace process. Here are some questions Congress might try to answer this week:

1. How would Congress resolve the paradox of Palestinian representation? Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, expedited with U.S. support, making it the rightful representative of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, have repeatedly questioned Abbas’ legitimacy by pointing out that – even on a good day – he speaks for only half the Palestinians. If he is somehow able to cobble together a functional joint effort with Hamas support (if not outright “participation”) and/or if Hamas improbably accepts the conditions of the Mideast Quartet (the PA must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and accept all prior agreements), Israel might truly have the credible negotiating partner it has long sought. Until September 1993, Israel banned all contact with the PLO, seen as a terrorist organization.

2. If a final resolution is vital to Israel’s long-term security and stability, how far will Congress go to back an Administration that’s seeking a workable outcome? Netanyahu, Abbas and most Members of Congress are publicly committed to achieving a two-state solution, using the 1949 Green Line (a.k.a. “’67 lines”) as a starting point for negotiations. Other terms are fairly well known, as are sticking points like the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, and the final borders of Israel and a Palestinian state

3. Can Congress develop creative channels for supporting programs, possibly outside the official scope of the PA, in order to keep efforts moving on the ground?

4. Is Congress committed to legitimizing risk-takers for peace in the Middle East? Will Congress convene hearings on functional strategies toward peace, to flesh out and publicly empower change agents and those taking risks for peace? It should be possible to do so without undermining Israel’s interest, especially since such endeavors enhance Israel’s standing.

April 23, 2014

If Israel has a Plan B, let's hear it.

Many Israelis seem pleased that the second shoe has now dropped on the unlikely U.S.-led effort to bridge old and new gaps between Israelis and Palestinians. Now, Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even mocked Mahmoud Abbas' threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. 

If the leaders of Israel's governing coalition truly appreciated the degree to which a credible and sustainable Palestinian entity is in their national interest, as they often acknowledge at least rhetorically, they might be less triumphant and superior at this moment, or at any moment. And they would be more concerned with how to bolster Abbas, rather than forcing Washington to drag them kicking and screaming at each turn.

Whatever positive steps Israel has taken of late, much energy has also been spent in ways that obviously undermine Abbas and boost his Hamas rivals. Over the past few years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued expansion and proliferation of West Bank settlements, even into areas generally accepted as part of a future Palestinian state. He has negotiated truces with Hamas and released hundreds of Hamas fighters without complaining to Washington.

Netanyahu alternately denies that Abbas has the legitimacy or capacity to deliver on any agreements -- because after all, Hamas and not Abbas controls Gaza -- and condemns Abbas whenever he makes an effort to coordinate with Hamas and forge a unified Palestinian front. 

If Abbas leaves the scene, with or without the Palestinian Authority, Israel will have to invent one. And it is unlikely to get as good an interlocutor as it has right now. 

If Israelis, and Netanyahu, are OK with this state of affairs, then so be it. But the notion of a tangible, sustainable peace WITHOUT a reliable Palestinian partner, or of waiting for a BETTER Palestinian partner to emerge someday -- as though any kind of real status quo could possibly hold in the meantime -- seems absurd.

If there is an alternative to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, let's hear it (of course, several other options were tried before). Deriving political benefit and scoring rhetorical points off the flaws and failings of Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Palestinian leaders is no way to build or maintain the possibility for an eventual peace. And yet, this is what Netanyahu's government has been doing all along. Or do they expect two million-plus Palestinians to just ride off into the sunset?