December 28, 2011

Freedom without democracy?

A new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, argues that the system is stacked in favor of the elite, regardless of which political party runs Washington.

With only five percent of the world's population, the United States nevertheless holds nearly one-quarter of all prisoners in the entire world. And yet, nearly no one ever goes to prison in America for violating the United States Constitution or crimes against the American people. That includes everything from illegal wiretapping of thousands of U.S. citizens, to the financial meltdown that engulfed our nation just over three years ago. In fact, our financial agencies are controlled by executives of Goldman Sachs and a few other major banking firms, regardless of which party controls Washington.

I've been blogging this past year about how Egypt will remain under the same military rule, regardless of whether the brave demonstrators in Cairo succeeded in getting Mubarak removed as the President (though I had hoped otherwise). Russia will continue to be run by the same security apparatus and moneyed classes as before, but this past month's popular protests will force them to scale back some of their control and possibly change one or both faces at the top. Whatever it takes...

In the United States, a previous generation mounted full-scale protests against military adventurism in Vietnam and racism at home, and truly changed the face of our land. New laws were enacted, freedoms were expanded, and public welfare enhanced for millions. 

But do we have effective and functional democracy today?

December 20, 2011

Netanyahu forfeits to New York Times - brilliant?

The Prime Minister of Israel has surrendered the debate on Israel. Amazingly, his senior adviser responded to a New York Times request for an op-ed by Prime Minister Netanyahu with a long explanation of why he was refusing. As usual, faithful American Jews will be expected to cheer this bit of audacity and be fortified by it, but the real target audience -- those Jews and non-Jews who still need to be convinced of the justice of Israel's cause (at least as the Prime Minister sees it) -- will not even miss it, because it wasn't submitted in the first place.

No matter that the latest Israeli response could have easily formed the basis for a powerful opinion piece making the case that one of the world's -- and America's -- most prominent newspapers (the "newspaper of record," as even the Prime Minister's Office refers to it) is in fact promoting anti-Israel bias.

According to the Israeli missive, the final straw was a distorted and dishonest op-ed published in the Times by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Just as Israel effectively withdrew from UNESCO as soon as Palestine was admitted, Israel has now withdrawn from The New York Times because the world is unfair to Israel. Boo-hoo.

For all the talk about engaging the American public to make Israel's case, if the Prime Minister is either too proud or afraid to even publish an op-ed in The New York Times, then all the complaints about Israel's bad PR, and the need to spend countless millions on positive "hasbara" outreach, are pointless.

December 19, 2011

Our debt to Vaclav Havel

The fear was palpable on our first family visit to Prague, 40 years ago. My parents had been in Vienna, packing for a visit, when Soviet tanks took over the streets of Prague in 1968. The Prague Spring was still fresh in people's minds, though for a five-year-old American no history lesson was necessary. My memories of that 1971 trip are only of darkness and desperation, like the Batman and Spiderman cartoons I later watched growing up, or the films noirs I eventually came to appreciate as a college student.

One of those who saw through the darkness was Vaclav Havel. Many years later, he would write: “The time of hard, everyday work has come, a time in which conflicting interests have surfaced, a time for sobering up, a time when all of us – and especially those in politics – must make it very clear what we stand for.” I believe that, for Havel, each moment was such a time.

Having suffered for his principled dissent and literary liberties, he used his moment to lead Czechoslovakia to democracy in what became known as the Velvet Revolution for its lack of bloodshed on either side, whether before or after. The fact that Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of cultural and political expression certainly helped usher in the post-Communist phase, but the situation could still have turned deadly – both before and after the revolution – and there was no guaranteed outcome. 

In retrospect, with so many people intent on putting the dark years behind them, the democratic transformation can seem obvious and inevitable. But back then, few people had the courage or creativity to see beyond the prison running across Eastern and Central Europe. 

December 13, 2011

"Israel Firster" charge crosses the line

One can argue, even persuasively, that the AIPAC model of pro-Israel advocacy provides a disincentive for the Jewish State and its leaders to act in their own national interest. While I welcome the advent of J Street and other full-blooded left-of-center approaches to U.S. Middle East policy, I am not ready to join their movement. But I reject the assumption that they must be anti-Israel if they oppose the current Israeli government and support more forceful efforts to re-engage Israeli and Palestinian leadership in direct and meaningful negotiations, as anyone generous enough to read my blog must have noticed.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (THE pro-Israel lobby), like many major American Jewish organizations, is simultaneously a source of pride, regret and frustration for many activists in the American Jewish community. And I certainly have my own ideas about how they could do better. But AIPAC is successful in many ways, and it represents many thousands of mainstream American Jews. Like it or not, AIPAC matters.

I also have ideas about reforming the whole Washington system of influence-peddling, but not because it undermines progressive Zionism. It's not all about Israel, nor should it be.

The latest brainstorm by my friends in the progressive lobby (but NOT J Street) has been to label AIPAC and many prominent Jews of the center-right and neo-conservative wings as "Israel Firsters". This is both brilliant, as a way of reframing the parameters of debate, and absolutely deplorable. By "absolutely", I mean there's no way to justify it, no context to make it acceptable. M.J.'s most recent column, pointing out that the "Israel Firsters" are not really "Israel Firsters" (because they don't even care about Israel!!) begs the question: Why call them "Israel Firsters" in the first place, if not for the shock value?

December 1, 2011

Yet another Israeli PR flop

Has Israel finally run out of new immigrants?

The official website of Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption has a new theme: "Before 'Motek' turns into 'Honey'... It's time to return to Israel." In other words, Israelis are being urged to get their children to move back from overseas (notably the United States) before they fall in love with non-Israelis or raise children who don't realize that Jews celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas.

Thanks to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg for flagging this new campaign, which includes a couple of crass new video ads. One ad just seems pointless -- as Goldberg points out, the young Israeli could easily use the opportunity to explain the meaning of Israeli Memorial Day to her clueless American kowabunga-dude boyfriend. Goldberg also picks up on the thick layers of condescension toward American society.

The second video shows an Israeli couple -- with the Chanukah lights burning behind them -- Skype-ing their children in the States. When they ask their granddaughter -- in Hebrew -- what holiday it is, she answers, "Christmas". C'mon, Really?? Someone who speaks Hebrew doesn't know that Jews celebrate Chanukah? And the 10-year-old granddaughter is so dense, she can't even pick up on the candelabra on the computer screen?

Seriously, here are a few of my own takeaways from this substantively flatfooted yet technically slick campaign:

1. The main plug on the Absorption Ministry website is to bring Israelis back to Israel. This seems to confirm that the era of mass Aliyah (immigration to Israel) has come to an end. If large numbers of new immigrants were still arriving, the Ministry wouldn't be prominently dedicating its website to getting dropouts to return. So, thanks for that memo.