Friday, May 20, 2011

obama and netanyahu

Readers of this blog know I am not one of those who thinks Israel--especially the Israeli Government--are always right. But they aren't always wrong, either. This week is one of the times they aren't.

There are two interpretations of President Obama's Middle East speech, in which he suggested that peace should be based on the 1967 borders with adjustments or "swaps" agreed to by the two parties. One is that Obama is fed up with Israel and intentionally leaning in a more pro-Arab direction. This interpretation is disconcerting to Israel, but would at least suggest a coherent policy, which would probably be supported by a lot of Americans although not by Israel's core supporters.

The more frightening--and I think accurate--interpretation is that, as a "senior Israeli official" (probably Netanyahu himself) has suggested, Obama is simply in over his head, trying to say a little bit to please all sides but making none of them happy. It is noteworthy, on this point, that Arab reaction to the speech has been only marginally more positive than that of Israel. Even Israelis, I suspect, are more puzzled than genuinely angry.

Everyone knows that peace, if it comes, will be based on something approaching the 1967 borders with additional clauses for Jerusalem, refugees, and other issues. What is hard to understand is what is gained by saying so at this point. A possible explanation is that Obama wanted to forestall a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood by throwing a bone to the Arab side at this juncture. The problem is that, by awarding something before negotiations, he has actually reduced the incentive to negotiate and suggested that unilateral actions, by one or perhaps both sides, will be rewarded. From an Israeli perspective, there is a fear that it will result in a no war/no peace situation, where the country will be left with problematic borders and no real commitment to peace by the other side.

The only good news is that the speech will probably shake Israel, and some its more blinkered American supporters, out of their complacency. It has been obvious for some time that Israel is losing support among Americans generally and American Jews specifically, partly for reasons beyond its control, but partly because of its own actions. The traditional arguments--Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East (it isn't anymore), any compromise will lead to another Holocaust (no longer convincing if it ever was)--have plainly run their course. For better or worse, Israel has to compete in a marketplace of ideas and policies where it no longer has a monopoly of virtue and where increasing numbers of people see the region through neutral, if not actively Arab, eyes. If the Obama speech causes Jerusalem to wake up to these realities, it will have accomplished some good, after all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

strauss-kahn, schwarzenegger, and the state of gender relations

I don't know what happened with Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid at the New York Sofitel the other day, although I would have to say it doesn't look good for him from here. (When you head to the airport and hire a famous criminal lawyer, it's not a very good sign). But a couple of points should be made that, I think, have been overlooked in the reporting:

1. It's often said that French, Italians, and other Europeans have a more "liberated" view of sex than Americans. I think what they actually have is a more "feudal" view. There's nothing particularly erotic about a 60+ executive emerging from the shower to tackle a chambermaid, or an aging prime minister (Berlusconi) attending parties with confused, teenage Moroccan girls. While such behavior is sometimes dismissed on the basis of real or imagined cultural differences, it has a real cost in the countries involved, which tend to have lower labor force participation and lower birth rates precisely because of the treatment of women (France has actually been a little bit better than Italy, or Israel, on this score). In any event, the event in took place in New York, not Rome or Paris: as Buzz says to Woody in Toy Story, we're not on my planet, are we?

2. Ditto for the French complaints about the "brutality" of American criminal law. Sure, the civil and common law have different criminal procedures. Americans couldn't understand why Amanda Knox didn't get a jury; Europeans can't understand why Strauss-Kahn had to do a "perp walk" and isn't free on bail. But his treatment seems pretty consistent with what others facing similar charges would endure: if he were treated better the political uproar would I think be quite forceful.

3. I still wonder about the anonymity of accusers in cases of sexual violence. The woman in question appears to be a hard-working family person who behaved quite courageously (or so it would seem) in reporting the event immediately to her colleagues. Is it really helping or hurting her to keep her identity secret while the sympathy flows to her alleged assailant?

On a broader level, the Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger stories--which coincidentally broke at about the same time--make one wonder just how much has changed in gender relations. We seem to have a formal world in which everyone is equal and all sex takes place in loving, egalitarian relationships covering a substantive one in which powerful men regularly use their positions for sexual advantage, and perhaps pursue these positions in large part for that very advantage. (Together with allegedly assaulting a French writer, Strauss-Kahn apparently had a "consensual" affair with an IMF employee which she perceived very differently than he did.) I don't think the answer here is to give up on feminism or to assume that "boys will be boys" and that's the end of it. But I do think we need a more honest conversation about what is acceptable and what isn't, rather than the obvious double or sliding standard that seems to apply right now.

Addendum: As if things weren't bad enough, it appears Strauss-Kahn is 3/4 Jewish and his alleged victim is . . . a Muslim. Oh dear.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

1948, 1973, 2011: whither the middle east?

Following my brief experience with Israeli literature (see previous post), I've been doing a lot of reading in the country's history, or more precisely its wars which unfortunately constitute a fair if not necessarily the better part of its history. I started with 1973, which was most closely related to the Grossman book, and went back through 1967 to 1948 with various stops in between. And, of course, approximately half my incoming e-mail and Facebook posts concern the contemporary Middle East--Richard Goldstone, Tony Kushner, whatever else is new--so the issue is never far from my mind.

It's hard to say anything about the Middle East that hasn't been said before, even after a stack of reading like this. But herewith a couple of things that stood out, and several of which even surprised me:

The Problem of Perspective.--One of the things that struck me most forcefully was the radically different way in which Israelis and Arabs perceive the conflict (the books were each written by Israeli authors (Rabinovitch, Oren, Morris) but made a serious effort to include Arabic sources and outlooks). Much of Arab behavior--the attempt to blame the U.S. and Britain for the defeat in 1967, the claim of military victory in 1973 when the Israelis defeated or surrounded both Egyptian and Syrian armies, the insistence on a "right of return" in 2001--often seems irrational or self-defeating from a Western perspective. It becomes less so when one understands that the Arabs perceive Israel, not as a return to its homeland by a small Middle Eastern people, but as a continuation of colonial humiliations that precede and encompass the Palestine problem. The sense of virtue that Israelis feel as a small outpost surrounded by enemies, and the corresponding sense of their enemies' evil nature, is likewise more than reciprocated by their Arab foes. For example, many of the Egyptian casualties in 1967--and to a lesser degree in the remaining wars--took place while their army was retreating, which appears like legitimate pursuit to Israelis but is likely to appear more like a massacre from the Arab perspective, a difference that no amount of logic is likely to overcome.

There's nothing new under the sun.--Another thing that strikes you in reading backwards is how few really new ideas there are in the Middle East. The one-state solution? This was the basic Arab position going back to the 1930s. Two states? The 1947 partition proposal. A partial, symbolic right of return for (say) 100,000 Palestinian refugees? Benny Morris reports that Israel proposed it in the 1950s (although rejecting suggestions of a larger number). None of this means, of course, that any of these ideas are necessarily right or wrong: only that it's awfully hard to come up with proposals in a place where just about everything has been tried, and failed, already. Ask George Mitchell.

Nobody's really a good guy.--It's obvious, from the above, that I don't think much of Israelis who assume that all virtue is on their side and all evil comes from their enemies. But the opposite idea is no more, and perhaps even less, convincing. Both sides committed atrocities; both sides launched surprise attacks; both sides have a strong and recurring tendency to think in extremist terms and deny the existence of the other. This point is important, I think, because there is a tendency among intellectuals (and especially Jewish intellectuals) to engage in "intellectual flips:" the Israelis are not perfect and the Arabs are not all evil the way that I learned in Hebrew School, therefore the Arabs must be all victims and the Israelis aggressors. (See Tony Kushner, above; see also neoconservative movement.) Demonizing your own side, or parts of it, is no better than demonizing the opposition: in some respects it is worse, because one loses credibility with both sides and becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

All of which bring us back, somewhat dejectedly, to the current "peace process." It seemed obvious to me, even before my reading, that Israelis and Palestinians have been talking about different things for the past decade: the Israelis about undoing 1967 (by returning all or most of the "territories" and calling it a day), the Palestinians about reversing 1948 (by permitting a return of refugees and creating, at once or in several stages, a majority Arab state). This recognition, of course, does not solve the problem (and may even make it more difficult): but it still seems preferable to a process that papers over the obvious differences in perspective and sets the stage for further conflict. My belief continues to be that a lasting peace must involve creation of a Palestinian entity, probably linked closely to Jordan; a lengthy transition period in which the Palestinians much more closely approach the Israeli standard of living; and serious constitutional changes within both countries, so that the Arabs content themselves with a limited or symbolic return to Israel proper and Israel becomes a מדינת כל אזרחיה (state of all its citizens) in a way that its Arab as well as non-Zionist Jewish minorities feel like full citizens rather than tolerated guests. This too is not particularly original: it's more or less what liberal Israelis, and some Arabs, have been saying for some time now. But does anyone have a better idea?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

coffee, community, and the meaning of progress

Since the Inquirer published a list of Indie coffee houses in Philadelphia, I've slowly but surely been making the rounds. How much I've learned about Philadelphia, I don't know, but I've learned a lot about generational change, in this and (presumably) other cities. To wit:

1. The biggest improvements in America over the last generation are (i) the increased acceptance of interracial relationships and (ii) the improved quality of espresso, not necessarily in that order. What is significant about these developments is that--unlike, say, gentrification of neighborhoods or the overthrow of Arab dictatorships--it's hard to think of a downside to either trend. Presumably, there's some same-race couple or some second-tier coffeehouse that was displaced to make way for progress: but this seems a small price to pay for the overall improvement in question. Indeed, since many interracial couples appear to meet and hang out at Indie coffee houses, the two developments may even be related, which suggests the possibility of beneficial interactions that may yield still further improvements.

2. The most significant negative development, by contrast, is plainly the rise of laptops and other portable devices. On recent excursions, I have regularly witnessed rooms full of intelligent, attractive, and serious-looking coffee drinkers, all of them buried in their laptops and none of them paying even the slightest attention to the person or persons next to them. Every once in a while, as if in some kind of B movie, two people will look up from their computers and smile or caress one another--I actually witnessed a shoulder rub at one daring location--but then just as quickly return to their screens. It is possible, of course, that these people are engaged in social networking on their computers, perhaps even initiating the very interracial or other relationships (or else planning the new coffeehouses) that are referred to in item 1., above. But what is the point of going to a coffeehouse, the very symbol of modern community, if you are going to ignore the other people there; and what does "community" even mean in this context?

I suggested, half jokingly, that the barista break in to the wifi link once an hour and require the patrons to change locations in the hope of making new friends and breaking out of lethargy: something like the radio stations that used to warn beachgoers to rotate their bodies each hour and avoid sunburn. But by then, my coffee was finished; besides, I had to check my Blackberry.