Tuesday, December 30, 2008

israel and gaza--part ii

As the casualties (mostly Palestinian) mount in Gaza there are the first signs of divided opinion among Israeli observers. Writing in various Israeli and Italian newspapers authors Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua have taken similar positions expressing support for the original undertaking but hoping that it would be limited in scope and not preclude negotiations. (Grossman lost his son in the Second Lebanon War; all three writers are are, for some reason, highly popular with Italian audiences.) Historian Benny Morris, writing in the NY Times, took a somewhat different tack, explaining Israel's growing sense of insecurity--nourished, he suggested, both by objective realities and a feeling that the original moral basis for the state had frayed with time--and comparing the current situation to that preceding the Six Day War in 1967. Perhaps reflecting the difference in professions, Morris's piece was less a moral argument than a prediction, and not a notably optimistic one at that.

My own view is that Israel had little choice but to act, but that Gaza--like Lebanon and unlike the 1967 war--is essentially a political issue and is unlikely to be resolved by force one way or another. I still believe that we are going to see some kind of international force in the Strip, and perhaps the West Bank as well, before the thing is over. Until then people--many of them civilians--will continue to die.

Addendum: I watched accounts of the fighting tonight on Mabat, the main Israeli news program, and then at the English Al Jazeera sight Mabat detailed the missiles that have fallen on southern Israeli cities and had a few aerial shots of the bombing in Gaza together with news on the efforts for a humanitarian cease-fire, which did not seem particularly promising. Al Jazeera showed pictures of dead or dying Palestinian children including someone who was reportedly hit by a missile while riding on a donkey cart. If I hadn't known otherwise I wouldn't have imagined it was the same war.

arnold jacob wolf

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf died last week, although the obituary appeared in the NY Times today. Wolf, the emeritus rabbi at KAM-Isaiah Israel in Chicago, received most attention for having been an early supporter of his neighbor, Barack Obama, whose house apparently abuts the synagogue in Hyde Park. I knew him as the Yale Rabbi in the late 1970s, when I was in law school, and he was between stints at different Chicago synagogues. (He changed both congregations and wives with some frequency, although that's another story). Even then, he was known as a live wire, having helped to found Bereirah [Choice], an organization devoted to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at a time when it was less than popular; having invited the Chicago Seven to speak at his then North Shore Chicago synagogue, whom he supposedly introduced by saying "under Jewish law a woman who is being raped is obligated to scream; America is being raped and these people are screaming"; and, for good measure, leveling a parting shot at Yale in 1980, which he accused, no doubt corrrectly, of harboring a high degree of antisemitism behind its Ivy facade. (I think the immediate cause was the scheduling of commencement on Shavuot but there was obviously more behind it).

What was striking about Arnold, as everyone called him, was what a kind and modest person he was behind this political facade. I personally remember him most for taking a full hour to counsel me, a budding reactionary, on problems I was having with my first serious girl friend, who had committed the unpardonable sin of being kind and loving to me and whom I accordingly broke up with shortly after the meeting. (He asked me if I was proud being seen with her, and when I hesitated, he said, there's your problem.) I also remember him for his sense of humor, which I suppose one needed to be a leftist in those days, although I never made the connection. At his Yale farewell event, various colleagues droned on about their exploits in the movement and the future of the Jewish left. Arnold began to look bored and somebody asked him why. "Too much theory," he told them. "Talk about me more."

Let's hope that some of his energy, and his humor, rubbed off on his neighbor.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

israel and gaza

Israel has apparently had enough with Hamas and launched a very aggressive series of air strikes today, killing 200 or more and wounding perhaps three times that number. The large majority of the casualties appear to be military in nature but there have been others, as well. It is not clear if this will be followed by a ground attack, although the suspicion is that it will be, albeit one of a probably limited variety.

It's hard to blame Israel for losing patience--the south/southwest part of the country has become pretty much unlivable owing to Hamas rocket fire of late. If the rockets were intended as a bluff, that bluff has pretty clearly been called. So far the Israeli attacks seem reasonably well targeted.

But one hopes that calls for a large-scale offensive or reoccupation of Gaza--"lesader otam sof-sof," as the Hebrew puts it, to take care of them once and for all--will be resisted as long as possible. An Israeli occupation of Gaza has been tried and failed once already, and it's not clear that any European or other country is ready to step in. For the nascent Obama Administration, it is less than an optimal circumstance. Having accused the Bush Administration of paying too little attention to regional quarrels, it faces the prospect of its charges proving only too true: potential wars in both South Asia and the Middle East, with no end to either conflict in sight.

Friday, December 26, 2008

antisemitism and "islamophobia": the next round

I can't buy Ha'aretz, the more sophisticated Israeli daily, because the local kosher bakery decided it was either too sophisticated or too left-wing (or both) for its increasingly narrow clientele. I do follow it online, though, including an interesting piece today by one Benjamin Weinthal, whom the article says is an independent journalist in Berlin. The piece laments that the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, also in Berlin, recently held a conference titled "Concepts of the Muslim Enemy - Concepts of the Jewish Enemy," which (according to the author) conflated antisemitism with Islamophobia in a dangerous way. Several scholars of antisemitism, Daniel Goldhagen among them, have suggested that such an equation may trivialize antisemitism, which they argue is uniquely venomous (especially in Germany), and may further lead to ignoring current anti-Jewish propaganda, notably that emanating from Iran with which Germany does a good bit of business. That the Iranians apparently helped to coin the term "Islamophobia" doesn't help things either.

It's hard to deny antisemitism has been uniquely vicious in Germany, and it is surely hypocritical to complain about prejudice without challenging Ahmadi-Nejad. But I am not sure that it is necessarily wrong to compare antisemitism with anti-Islamic hatred. As I have written here, there are numerous parallels between the two, including a tendency to see Jews or Muslims as primitive in their behavior (specifically regarding women); as believing in a God of vengeance rather than love; and as posing a demographic threat because of their higher reproduction rate (we are talking about Jews in the 1930s) and immigration patterns. Nor will it do to distinguish the two because of the association of radical Islam with terrorism or the Iranian nuclear threat. Jews were likewise identified with communism in the 1930s, or at the very least with a sort of secular humanism that--as absurd as it may seem to us--appeared a mortal threat to many in prewar Europe.

There is also a question of effectiveness. Weinthal quotes Theodore Adorno as stating that the post-Holocaust world is obliged to "structure its thinking and actions in such a way that Auschwitz would never be repeated, that nothing similar would happen [again]." But what if the potential Auschwitz involves not Jews but Africans, Asians, . . . or Muslims, in a deteriorating world environment which sees currently fringe thinking become gradually more mainstream? Will a conversation that simply reiterates the perseverance of antisemitism, denying the possibility of parallel experiences by any other group, really prove that persuasive, and (as time goes on) how many people will even want to participate in it? It is understandable that Jews would insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and indeed any serious discussion is likely to recognize that uniqueness. But a phenomenon can be unique in its essence while retaining specific characteristics that invite, even demand, comparison with other phenomena: refusing to discuss these comparisons risks a conversation that is in the end no conversation at all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

christmas, chanuka, vacation

I have always rather liked Christmas, despite or perhaps because of my being Jewish. In an increasingly atomized society, it is nice to have a season in which people shed the notion of neutrality and admit, or indeed celebrate, their belonging to something beyond the current time and place. That many key elements have little if anything to do with Christmas--most appear to be German or Dutch folk traditions and many of the best songs were written by Jews--is almost beside the point.

Christmas does present some difficult choices for Jews, which are only slightly mitigated when Chanuka overlaps it, as it does this year. The irony, of course, is that Chanuka--whether by coincidence of design--celebrates precisely that resistance to assimilation that is most challenged this time of year. The rabbis, though, were no fools. Rather than emphasizing the military aspect, they stressed the miracle of one day's oil burning for eight and the spiritual purity of the Maccabees as opposed to their pagan enemies. Whether this conforms to reality is, once again, less important than the choices it suggests and the moral vision it entails.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanuka, and I'll be back with more taxes and politics tomorrow. Or the day after.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

fattah, rangel, and caroline kennedy

Some of you may have noticed newspaper reports of an FBI investigation of Cong. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), whom I ran against before withdrawing last summer. The allegations involve potential irregularities in the use of funds by a federally funded scholarship program, CORE Philly, which Fattah founded four years ago and suddenly shut down last month. Fattah has described the investigation as "an audit of a past grant," but the books of the operation don't seem to add up, and the Inquirer, which hardly even bothers to cover Fattah's opponents, appears to be taking it pretty seriously.

I don't wish Fattah any bad luck, although rumors about his ethics (or lack thereof) have swirled about Philadelphia for some time. But it's hard to avoid the fact that--when you win reelection so easily you don't even have to campaign--there's an awfully strong temptation to stretch the rules. Something similar appears to have happened with Charlie Rangel, in New York, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, whose stories have received more national attention.

Although there are no allegations against her, I am fascinated in this context by the candidacy of Caroline Kennedy for Senator, and her apparent refusal either to answer substantive questions or to release financial records in support of her candidacy. We hear a lot about a "new" politics from Obama and his supporters. But an easy election victory can also provide an opportunity for arrogance, in which celebrities, opportunists, and assorted hangers-on take advantage of the lack of competition to pursue their own ambitions. I'll be blogging shortly about a recent book by Rick Perlstein, which describes what happened the last time a Democrat won a convincing national triumph. The name of the book: "Nixonland."

Monday, December 22, 2008

more from italy: globalization, easy credit, and echoes of the 1930s

Another 10 days in Italy and I'm back home, just in time for the Holidays and a brief but rather unpleasant medical procedure I won't go into here (hint: it involves drinking lots of liquids). All in all it was one of the most pleasant trips for me but perhaps the most frightening in terms of big-picture developments. I've hinted at these in previous posts, but let me develop them just a little more here.

The good news is that--notwithstanding globalization--Italy, and presumably most of the world, retain their local color. When I last posted I was getting ready to leave Rome, ahead of a torrential flood and a threatened, but then canceled, general strike. Since then I was in Padova, Ferrara, Torino, and Milan, all but the first primarily work stops. None of these places are anything much like each other. Padova retains the Venetian love of good food, fine wine, and after-dinner drinks, a generally indulgent and somewhat showy approach to life. Ferrara, just over the border in neighboring Emilia-Romagna, has a darker and more severe charm alhough it is surely no less and perhaps more beautiful. Turin (Torino), the city of FIAT and Primo Levi, retains the feel of a proud provincial city that is historically vital to the country (it was the first capital of Italy) and outside of it at the same time--a bit like Boston 30 years ago or perhaps Philadelphia today. Milan is all energy and vibrance, New York to Rome's Washington, Tel Aviv to its Jerusalem. If anyone was afraid local differences would fade in an era of standardization, they needn't look any further.

What was scary was that, notwithstanding these differences, there was an air of pessimism among almost everyone I talked to, which cut across regional, class, and (in some cases) even national lines. It was a pessimism that--while expressed first and foremost about Italy itself--contained elements that applied equally to America, China, and the rest of the world. It appeared to affect primarily younger and more thoughtful people, and suggested a moral crisis, a crisis of faith in society and its institutions, that went beyond political categories.

Especially striking were the analyses of the crisis, which popped up with striking consistency. Everywhere I heard the same refrain. Easy credit--in the literal form of credit card debt and inflated mortgages and the more intangible sense of living beyond one's means--had eroded the sense of reward and sacrifice among young people in particular. The differences between classes were getting bigger rather than smaller. Political parties exploited these differences but did little to fix them. Voters talked about solving the problems but in the end sought mostly stability: unwilling to give up their toys, when push came to shove they would sacrifice their very freedom in order to keep them. Rather than solving the problem, America was exporting it.

When people say similar things it is sometimes because they have been prompted to. Indeed, some of the statements above are similar to things that have been written in newspapers, and some are not entirely consistent with each other (it's hard to blame political parties if voters want the same things). Then again, when a number of people in separate conversations say more or less the same things, there's usually something to them.

All of this is especially chilling for someone who is writing a book about Europe in the 1930s. Then, as now, America exported a depression (recession) to European and other countries. Then, as now, there was a spiritual as well as an economic crisis, and people sought leaders who would reinforce traditional values as well as preserving economic security. Then, as now, America turned vaguely left while Europe turned increasingly to the right. I thought this was my (admittedly fertile) imagination at work until the last night of the trip, when I told a waiter in a Milan restaurant that I was working on a book about Italian history. "Promise me one thing," he asked. "Say something good about Mussolini. He was the only one who did anything good for this country." I promised I would give him fair treatment.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

il paese anormale

Well Italy continues to border on absurdity but be lovable just the same. Today the country was alternately threatened with a transport strike (which means you have to go to work but can't possibly get there), a general strike with an exception for transport (which means you can get to work but there's nothing to do), and a plain old general strike (which means you can't do anything at all). Eventually the whole thing was canceled.

Last night I went to see a play, Porcile (Pigpen) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian writer/director known, among other things, for writing a poem in which he said that a tram driver, who happen to die the same day as Pope Pius XII, was more worthy of praise (there are probably many Jews who'd agree with this, even without meeting the driver). The plot, if I understood it, involved a young German male who cannot relate to women but instead loves pigs, who reward his love by tearing him to pieces--unless, as it seemed to me, he was really eaten by his father and his business associate as part of a deal to surpress the associate's participation in wartime murder of Jews in return for surpressing the son's unusual proclivities. The good news: I paid for a balcony ticket but was invited to sit in the (largely empty) orchestra, yet another example of the ambivalence about rules that characterizes the country and which may have saved a fair number of lives (Jewish and otherwise) in the 1940s. The further good news: the play was so weird that whatever words I missed in Italian can't possibly have mattered, anyway.

One happy note: the image of the U.S. has certainly improved with the election of Obama, who appears to be a inspiration to young Europeans in particular. Luckily, few of them know exactly where Chicago is, or how the same state can have a senator who is so brilliant and a governor who is such a dope. Probably better they don't find out.

Monday, December 08, 2008

italy two years later

A couple of years since my last trip to Italy and not much has changed . . . for the better. It's still the nicest place in the world to visit. The rituals alone--the coffee paid for at the cashier with the receipt left on the counter together with a small tip; the groups of twelve and fourteen people going to dinner together, including children who never seem go to sleep; the ambivalence, not to say absurdity, with respect to any kind of rules (there's no space without a reservation, wait yes there is, well maybe if you don't take too long)--are worth the trip on their own. I'm in Perugia in central Italy today (did you know it was Immaculate Conception Day?) and everyone looks straight out of a Renaissance painting. Roger Cohen has a column in the IHT saying that Paris is no longer Paris. It's too clean, too anglo-saxon, isn't the city he used to know. Italy is still Italy, and it probably won't change any time soon.

That, of course, is the problem. Take immigration. Italy has a an aging population and a lot of people want to come here. So making it easy for newcomers ought to be a no brainer, right? Think again. It's not just that Barack Obama wouldn't get elected prime minister here. It's not clear he could operate a successful cafe. In theory the country is open and tolerant, but in practice it is hostile or at best indifferent to outsiders, who remain very much at the margins of Italian society, in a cultural and almost a physical sense. That the same word which was often used for Jews in the 1940s (extracomunitari, outsiders) is often used for new immigrants gives a sense of the problem.

Housing is a further example. It's expensive and there isn't enough of it. So you would expect to see a lot of new housing being built, right? Except that for a lot of reasons--lack of creativity in the financial markets, local regulations, people's unwillingness to leave their native areas--it by and large isn't. (One bright side: the mortgage default and related financial problems are generally less pronounced here than in other countries.)

One can open the newspaper and find numerous other examples. The two main stories in Corriere della Sera today were a war between local prosecutors and the opening of the new season at La Scala, including commentary on the new tenor (good voice, wrong physique) and the dress worn by Milan's mayor, Letitia Moratti, to the opening. An inside story related the declining lifestyle in the larger northern cities, suggesting that one must flee to smaller centers (like Perugia) to find the good life.

The problem, of course, is that the good and bad elements are hard to separate from each other. Italy is so pleasant precisely because of its ambivalent attitude toward modernity, because it refuses to change its rituals and continues to value things like family, region, and religion more than other countries. (Marxism, or what remains of it, is simply another religion, at least as practiced here.) Yet one has to wonder if there's not a middle ground. I saw a billboard on my last trip arguing against the TAV (the superexpress train, the Italian TGV) on the grounds that slow trips were, as a matter of principle, better than fast ones. Not that speed had to be balanced with other virtues: that slow was, as a philosophical matter, better than fast. One has to wonder if better trains, or housing, or government would really compromise that much of what is good about this country. On the other hand, it's four o'clock, which means I'd better head to a caffe and think it over--very slowly--before deciding.

Friday, December 05, 2008

from mumbai to milan

Barring any further family emergencies, I will be off to Italy (Rome, Turin, Milan, etc.) tomorrow for a two-week research trip. My laptop having not yet arrived, I will be blogging when and if I can get access to a computer, typically not a problem in the North but rather more difficult in Rome, which seems to take a pride in doing things all'antico. Then again, they pretty much defined the idea of antiquity, so I guess they must know what they're doing.

I'll be back in the U.S., with my accent refurbished and my work completed, on December 21.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

pakistan and the mumbai terror attacks

The evidence that the Mumbai attacks were initiated and directed from Pakistan is overwhelming. A lot of people will say that this shows the need for restraint on the part of the two countries, both of whom have nuclear weapons. That's true, but I think it misses the point.

Pakistan is, to be blunt, a country of dubious legitimacy. It was carved out of British India as a Muslim-majority state without any real basis in Indian history. It now appears to be serving as the home base both for Osama Bin Laden and other 9-11 terrorists as well as those who attacked Mumbai last week. In the latter case, as in several previous attacks on Indian soil, so-called "former intelligence officials" appear to have played an active role.

Pakistan lost half its population as a result of its irresponsible behavior in East Pakistan--what later became Bangladesh--in the early 1970s. I think it needs to get the message that, if it continues to tolerate or encourage behavior of this type, it risks losing the rest. It is inconceivable that the U.S., as the world's second largest democracy, would tolerate behavior of this type from its next-door neighbor. Why should the largest democracy do any differently?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

the georgia runoff

Saxby Chambliss, the Republican, has apparently won the Georgia Senate runoff with something like 60 percent of the vote, although this may decline as other precincts report. This means, among other things, that the Democrats will have a hard time getting to 60 Senate seats, although that may or may not matter much.

One might ask how someone who couldn't get 50 percent in the general election could win a runoff so easily. The answer, of course is turnout: apparently less than half that in November, effectively a different electorate than the Presidential election. Even if no one changed their mind in the intervening month--even if more people supported Obama--Chambliss would still have won, because so many of the Democrats stayed home.

The turnout issue presents an opportunity but also a serious danger for the Republican Party. I have described previously how Republicans in my own state, Pennsylvania, make low turnout an essential part of their strategy in local elections. If the same is true elsewhere, it is entirely possible that (say) the 2010 congressional elections could result in substantial Republican gains without a meaningful change in popular opinion. But the strategy has its downside, as well. Democrats are increasingly nationalizing local elections, and--while Georgia may be a step too far for them--they are unlikely to sit back and watch the same happen in a national contest. The strategy, if it can be called that, is also a poor recruiting tool. Who wants to belong to a Party whose best chance of winning is when people don't bother to vote?