August 30, 2011

Democracy by any other name

A senior colleague once visited a group of Soviet Jewish trans-migrants in Italy, in the final months of the Soviet Union. They had many complaints, but they all started shouting, "We want democracy!" So he asked them, what did they think democracy means? "It means we can do whatever we want!" was their response. It's all a matter of perspective...

As Central and Eastern European countries continue their post-Cold War democratic evolution, and African, Asian and Arab countries begin their own paths, it's worth noting that "democracy" and "representation" can mean very different things in different societies. This does not have to mean that certain countries are not ready for independence or popular rule. It should mean that different cultures may dictate different forms of government, and in ways that affect the discourse -- what people are thinking when they say and hear different terms.

August 28, 2011

Out of UNGA ideas? So protest!

Rallies and protests are an important vehicle for articulating communal solidarity, and sometimes -- as with the Soviet Jewry movement -- for effecting real change. I have been to many Jewish and pro-Israel rallies, even organized a few, and I expect to do many more. Given next month's line-up, however, I don't see myself grabbing the bull horn.

I believe the annual Jewish protests across from the UN, opposing Iran's nuclear program, probably impact no UN votes. But as a community member, I have no problem following the consensus of my colleagues and fellow Jews, participating as one voice in solidarity. We have a duty to speak out, and that goes for other causes like Gilad Shalit, too.

So where am I drawing the line this Jewish holiday protest season?

August 25, 2011

Qaddafi's fall helps Africans more than Arabs

It would be a mistake to think that the imminent fall of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi will directly impact developments across the Middle East. Within Africa, however the consequences may be far-reaching.

Qaddafi's departure will measurably ease the burden of the Arab League's deliberations, but could fundamentally alter Africa's power equation. Not so long ago, the Arab heads of state were holding one of their periodic, closed-door deliberations. Qaddafi suddenly proposed a joint invasion of Israel, to solve the Palestinian issue once and for all. Going around the table, the self-styled "king of kings" started assigning tanks and planes to each leader, based on the combined Arab numbers. When told how many hundreds of warplanes he should command, a dazed Bashar Assad -- Israel's most dangerous neighbor, no less -- asked what he was supposed to do with 100 or 200 fighter jets. Almost literally, for several years now, Qaddafi's voice has been the sound of one hand clapping inside the Arab tent.

August 17, 2011

Instead of UN showdown, try making peace

It still amazes me to read of the extensive diplomatic efforts to head off a global showdown over Palestinian statehood at next month's United Nations General Assembly opening in New York. Had the Israeli and U.S. governments put even half as much thought and coordination into restoring a climate of trust (rather than trading insults and blaming the Palestinians), there might be a prospect for actual peace in the Middle East, instead of the consolation prize of stopping a unilateral claim to statehood.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the student who -- rather than doing the hard studying to would keep him from failing a test -- spends his time getting his parents and the school principal to intervene with the teacher to change the grade. At the same time, he makes a big fuss about the Palestinian kid sitting next him who's also going to fail.

Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister who now represents the Mideast Quartet, has been dispatched to avert the Palestinians' plan to request UN recognition. The Obama administration has made clear it will veto any Security Council resolution to admit Palestine, and the U.S. Congress has a sheaf of resolutions calling to cut off U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, all of which is appreciated. And some pro-Israel activists have recently captured the Jewish twitter-verse by protesting that the White House re-labeled the photo of Blair's March 2010 meeting with Vice President Biden as "Jerusalem" rather than "Jerusalem, Israel". Is this really the best we all can do?

August 15, 2011

Berlin might give Washington some hope

Fifty years ago, the Berlin Wall went up, blocking East and West Germans from crossing the dividing line left from the end of World War II (which Germany lost). By the time my parents drove us across Europe ten summers later, East German guards were sticking mirror-ended spars under our car to make sure we weren't smuggling anyone out to the West. (Of course, as I grew up, I would learn exhaustively about the Holocaust, but that's for a separate post.)

The next time I'd see anything like that was on Capitol Hill following 9/11, in Washington, DC, of all places (we had won WWII). The deserted expanse of public spaces, where cars once roamed freely, may be of necessity, but it's still jarring. Our architecture, after all, follows the dual American ethos of automobile access and public participation.

I used to aspire to work in government, because it seemed like a worthwhile experience (despite the constant complaints by federal workers who are free to join the private sector at any time). Since 9/11, the added incentive is just to be able to enter buildings without waiting for clearance and being escorted around like a tourist (even when I am a tourist).

August 10, 2011

Crown Heights - too early to celebrate

When I hear the word "pogrom", I think of a populist and systematic attack on Jews and their property, instigated by political interests and enabled by official negligence and neglect, appealing to the basest emotions of greed and anti-Semitism, with the stated goal of killing Jews. 

Twenty years ago this month, a mini-riot following a fatal car accident led to such a pogrom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The simmering racial tensions were hardly one-sided, but it's the Jews who were systematically attacked, and it was a young Jewish scholar -- Yankel Rosenbaum -- who died after a brutal gang attack. It was the authorities who took their time and tried to understand the anger of the perpetrators rather than protect the innocent. It was mainstream Jewish organizations that did not do enough, quickly enough. 

August 7, 2011

I'm Jewish and I support Obama, but honestly...

Adam Kredo is among those who have observed that President Obama's defenders play up U.S.-Israel military cooperation as a proof that he's good for Israel and for the Jews. Apparently, they think this will answer the critics of his effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Hopefully, the Administration does not genuinely anticipate winning back any Jewish voters or donors who may have dropped out over his dysfunctional peace moves -- because it won't work.

First of all, it's not clear the President has lost that many votes, and he's still far ahead in the fundraising race. Second, many of those he's lost are not just scared that he's exerting too much pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- many are disappointed that the President hasn't pressured Netanyahu enough. They feel he has squandered a fleeting opportunity to salvage the peace process before the Israeli public loses faith. 

Third, I can't think of a U.S. President whose Jewish bona fides have bounced back after being so roundly dismissed by Israelis themselves. Carter? Bush 41? And funny enough, they each accomplished great things for Israel objectively, but it barely registered absent that warm, fuzzy feeling.

Those American Jews who are backing (or even leading) Netanyahu's defiance of a U.S. role and his rejection of any genuine push for substantive negotiations have successfully planted the notion that Obama will "throw Israel under the bus" (yes, everyone loves to invoke that metaphor against this President). The best the President can hope for, having bet and lost on a settlement freeze twice already (TWICE), is that most American Jews will once again see that even a failing Obama is better than the Republican alternative on the full range of issues that American Jews care about.