Monday, July 30, 2012

‘The Hand Of Providence’

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. 

Dear Governor Romney:

Today, in Jerusalem, you compared the Israeli economy’s to Palestine’s and suggested, by implication, that Palestinians lacked everything from a progressive culture to “the hand of Providence.” You and I were management consultants in Boston. Here are some facts:

The Palestinian Authority gets about $2 billion from donor countries a year, a large portion of it paying teachers and police but some of it wasted on patronage jobs; a part of what has stifled entrepreneurship, it is true, is a culture of dependency and old Fatah cadres running monopolies from cement to petroleum. By the way, Israel started off with Labor Party and Histadrut patronage, and dependency on international donors, too, but never mind.

Anyway, public sector salaries in Palestine, along with remittances from family members working abroad, at least wind up in bank deposits. About $8 billion in total deposits are available for investment in genuinely competitive ventures. At least twice that amount is in Palestinian-controlled banks in Jordan. Regional investors know Palestinians are relatively well educated and need one of everything. Palestine therefore desperately needs to expand its private sector, which you should encourage. But it cannot. Palestinian banks have been unable to lend more than about $3 billion to credit-worthy business plans.

For when you look at all of the things an ordinary businessperson takes for granted—mobility, access to markets, talent, suppliers and financial services—you see the frustrating effects of an occupation designed to advance the settlers, not Palestinian development. Problems of mobility are most widely reported: over 60 percent of land in the West Bank is so-called Area C—controlled by the Israeli army to secure Israeli settlements, but turning Palestinian cities into economic islands.

Try growing a supermarket chain when your just-in-time logistics system has to deal with 600 roadblocks; try planning meetings to open a new store. The drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem should take about 12 minutes, but with the checkpoints, it's normally an hour, and that's if you have permission. A Palestinian businessman routinely waits a half day just to collect an Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem and begin the journey. The World Bank estimates that, in spite of a projected 6-7 percent growth, per capita GDP is falling and unemployment may be as high 20 percent.

Rawabi, a new, billion dollar planned town is going up between Ramallah and Nablus. The construction, which is financed entirely by Palestinian entrepreneurs and Qatari investors, was held up for more than a year because the Israeli government refused to provide an access road for heavy equipment through “Area C.” But other problems are just as serious. Businesses need world-class managers, who have to be able to travel freely. Entrepreneurs from the Palestinian diaspora, if born abroad, have to fight for years to get residency permits. The handful who succeed cannot then use Ben Gurion Airport or come to Jerusalem, but suffer the same restrictions as locals.

Components for Palestinian manufacturing are routinely held up in Israel ports, waiting for long security checks. (One Palestinian aluminum window manufacturer, denied a coating material that could be used to make explosives, offered to pay for IDF soldiers to supervise the entire process.) Palestinian banks cannot park their cash reserves in Israeli banks, losing tens of millions of dollars in interest. They also cannot set up branches or even ATMs in East Jerusalem, where unemployment is over 25 percent and 50 percent live under the poverty line.

I visited Ramallah's $350 million Palestinian cell phone company, Jawwal, now facing real competition from the PIF-funded Wataniya. The CEO, Ammar Aker, took me to the roof of his modern building and showed me what he sees. On one hill to the north is a settlement in Area C brandishing the tower of an Israeli operator, Cellcom. To the south is another settlement with another tower. Cellcom gets about 10.5 megahertz of spectrum; Jawwal about 4.8 (spectrum, too, is a "security" asset). To get 3G and continuous coverage—what every Palestinian entrepreneur needs—you need to add a plan from an Israeli carrier.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been bragging about Palestine's growth. But under current conditions, the resilience of its private sector seems little short of heroic. Surely, he must know there are things that must be done now. Israel should be inviting, not prohibiting, Palestinian entrepreneurs to come to the West Bank to invest. It should be greatly expanding the number of permits for businesspeople to come to Jerusalem. It should be allowing banks to operate here, thus stopping the city's brain drain to Amman and Dubai. It should be assigning security forces to work with PA forces to expedite Palestinian supply chains. It should be authorizing the development of a secure, north-south transportation corridor linking Palestinian cities.

Providence needs help sometime, it seems. But you didn’t really come to Jerusalem to learn, did you?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Obamacare Watch: Headline Nonsense

Jim Fallows generally does our best policing of headlines, but this one, in today's New York Times, is so fatuous I won't wait for him to pounce on it. 

Obamacare is an historic achievement, but as I've argued in The Nation, the law remains unpopular, partly because the evolution of its provisions are not understood, but mainly because insured people can't be bothered to care about people without insurance. Now comes the Times arguing that the "Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen With Health Law," which gives one the impression that, for some reason, the law will lead to fewer doctors and less care. 

Actually, all the article shows is that, with more poor people insured--making claims on health services they could not afford before--the proportion of doctors to the number of potential patients decreases. No kidding. Come to think of it, the existence of scholarships "worsens" the shortage of places in the Ivy League. The article is itself pernicious because it seems to imply a general hit to the commonwealth when the commonwealth is in fact becoming fairer. I would like to believe that somebody at the Times is simply asleep, and the impression will soon be corrected.

But Do You Really Love Me?

Mitt Romney is in Jerusalem. Iran needs to know, he says, that if sanctions do not work, a credible military option is not off the table, which differs from Barack Obama's position, founded on the preparation of a military option, which is not off the table, if sanctions do not work. The key difference is, of course, the word "credible." Romney is the guy who means what he says, not somebody who just says what he hopes will play well with key audiences. We know this because such toughness plays well with his base. Anyway, Romney never objected to settlements, and is unashamed to raise money from Sheldon et al at the King David Hotel, which means he must be tough, or just loves us more than Obama, so the word "credible" must be credible. Heck, Romney just loves us to death.

Friday, July 27, 2012

'Judea And Samaria' Have A 'University'

The following was published in today's Haaretz

"Discussion must not be on a political-ideological basis" - so wrote Manuel Trajtenberg, the head of the Council for Higher Education's budget committee, in a memo arguing against the upgrading of the College of Judea and Samaria to a university. One had rather to look at the process: Should the recommending committee also be the deciding committee?; at the panel's standards: Are its members impartial and world-class?; and at resources: Does the government have the funds to start another university without harming existing institutions? By bringing politics into the decision, Trajtenberg insists, you "fatally harm academia."

Trajtenberg is a fine man and a political economist of stature. His specific objections are reasonable, though existing universities are always afraid that starting some new institution will mean too much water in the wine. And his allusion to political ideology governing this decision was obviously meant to point, gently, to the Likudishness of this decision. The education and finance ministers' elevation of the college in Ariel would have been unthinkable were they not intent on integrating "Judea and Samaria" into Israel. 

Nevertheless, Trajtenberg's rejection of the "political" in this decision is an example of why liberals wince at the mention of "technocrat." Trajtenberg defends the CHE by debasing the very idea of a university. 

At bottom, universities are the most perfect products, and most important custodians, of liberal-democratic standards, of what liberals used to call "civilization." Academic freedom is an idealization of political liberty. The classroom is a microcosm of nonviolent settlement of disputes, a frame that valorizes tolerance. These standards are the basic conditions for science to proceed. 

As the University of Chicago's most famous president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, once put it: "The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens." Universities, he added, are not technology factories. You can't have the technology without first having the science, and you can't have the science without enabling critical thinking. The key is to induce students to think for themselves. This means ordinary human rights for all, scientific doubt, a rejection of all orthodoxy and dogma. 

My point, of course, is that you cannot have a university in a place where human rights are extended only to a minority privileged by religion or race or other discriminatory law - well, you can, but then the university is pathetic by definition. I have been to a university in Gadhafi's Libya. I have been to a university in Beijing. They are not universities, but at best retailers of technical literature developed at real universities in Western democracies. 

Who can doubt that Ariel's "college," plunked down in the middle of a population denied the elementary rights of citizens for 45 years, is an insult to the word "university" in the same way that universities in all other authoritarian dictatorships are? Why, or to please whom, will Trajtenberg refuse to say so?

Dr. Eyal Levin, who teaches in the Ariel college program called "Israel in the Middle East," inadvertently proves my point, by putting the following defensive, pitiable apologia on his page on the Ariel website: "The most surprising thing to me ... in the department is the pluralism of views, from left to right ... I get raised eyebrows when I say this to my colleagues elsewhere, as if I am giving them wishful thinking rather than reality ..." and so forth.

Given the context, does anyone doubt why Levin feels impelled to write this? But then, what does pluralism mean to him? In the "Israel in the Middle East" program, would one hear from educated Palestinians from Ramallah speaking about their despair over the possibility of there being two states, and their demand instead for either enfranchisement as full citizens or the application of international law, which considers the college, like all Israeli building in the occupied territories, illegal? 

Of course not. Those Palestinians are not in Levin's class, though a good number of Israeli Arabs (very few from the territories) study for degrees in engineering and other technical fields at Ariel. Meanwhile, Palestinian universities are starved of talent, because residency in the territories is so difficult to secure for diaspora Palestinians or erstwhile residents who've been abroad for more than seven years. The pluralism Levin is speaking about, in other words, is carried by students, and embodied in standards, that pass through to Ariel from more democratic Israel on the other side of the Green Line. 

And Levin has the temerity to end his entry by complaining that this imported pluralism exists only in Ariel - that is, "in absolute contradiction to other universities, where your chances of getting a position depend on how you answer the question of your political views." Really. As if proof of one's pluralism is tolerating the legal expressions of intolerance that are part and parcel of the occupation. 

In crisis, Yeats writes, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The intensity of the Levins can be taken for granted. What is "fatally harming" our democracy, hence, the dignity of our academies, is the mumbling of the Trajtenbergs. I, for one, will not step foot in the place.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Portnoy, (Ahem) Down Under

This interview, conducted by Australia Broadcasting's (terrific) Sarah Kanowski, gets to some of the essential parts of Promiscuous in just 15 minutes. I was delighted to discover, on a recent trip to Melbourne and Sydney, that Roth's reputation is as secure in Australia as in America. By the way, Portnoy's Complaint was at first banned in Australia. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Charlie's Angels

There was, I assumed, little I could add from Jerusalem to the you-didn't-build-that debate now roiling (actually, entertaining) journalists "covering" the presidential campaigns, but then I happened on this column by my old classmate from Montreal, Charles Krauthammer. The column begins with the quote, played endlessly on Fox-News, and attributed to President Obama--“If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen”--and Charlie takes off  from there:

Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.

Now, Charlie is a smart guy. The only problem with him in the seventh grade--and straight through McGill, actually--was that he took this just a little too obviously for granted. Anyway, he is surely smart enough to figure out the noun a pronoun is referring to. Here is what Obama actually said:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

In other words, the "that" was clearly referring back to "roads and bridges," the "internet, etc., not to the business itself. But I'm not writing to challenge Charlie's grasp of grammar and syntax, which Fox pays him handsomely to play dumb about. It is his argument about the tangential role of government that, coming from him, of all people, creeps me out. Bear with me.

Obama was not talking about our consciousness being "shaped." He was talking about our families being helped--that is, by institutions that advance us, some of which may crucially be supported by government. Obama needs lectures from nobody about the role of "family, neighborhood, church," and so forth. He never fails to pay tribute to his mother and grandparents. And unlike Romney--who, as they say, was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple--Obama is the self-made man in the race, the real embodiment of the American dream such as it is--or was.

Very much like Malcolm Gladwell in his poignant book, Outliers, Obama nevertheless, and with humility, also pays tribute to the various ways public institutions enabled his success--schools, scholarships--institutions lacking in the Indonesia of his childhood, for example. In the case of Gladwell, who is from Canada, these public institutions are even more prominent than in the US.

Which brings me back to Charlie. He mocks Obama, absurdly, by suggesting that inherent in the president's humility is the notion that government agencies should somehow take credit for genius--viz, "We don't credit the Swiss postal service with the Special Theory of Relativity because it transmitted Einstein’s manuscript to the Annalen der Physik."

This extrapolation from Obama's remarks is so cute I have to believe Charlie didn't write it. Incidentally, Einstein kept body-and-soul together working (not too hard, I'll grant you) at the Swiss patent office. When you think about, this is yet another case of public sector support for pure research--but never mind.

Charlie's most fervent mockery is reserved for "The Life Julia," a somewhat trite but instructive series of panels describing the kind of help a young person can expect through life owing to the social safety net. Julia's world "contains no friends, no community and, of course, no spouse. Who needs one? She’s married to the provider state," Charlie writes.

This is really too much. The Hebrew school he and I went to was heavily subsidized by the Quebec government; all schools in the Protestant and Catholic school boards were, too. (By the way, Obama is for chartering schools run by religious groups so long as they meet standards in teaching the general curriculum.) McGill was so heavily subsidized that yearly tuition cost about what a washing machine cost. When we graduated, Charlie went on to graduate school on a Commonwealth Fellowship (I told you he was smart), but we all got graduate fellowships of one kind or another.

When he came back to Harvard Medical School, and broke his neck, his wonderfully supportive family's fortune was not wiped out by his years of rehabilitation, insured as he was both from Canada and Harvard. His first job was at Mass General which would be--where exactly?--without state supported medical schools, Medicare, NIH research money, and myriad state and federal grants. Oh, and Charlie's first job after leaving medicine was with the Carter Administration, including a stint as a speech writer for Walter Mondale.

It is fine to say, albeit pretentiously, that a conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality. But it is quite another thing to be Charlie's kind of conservative when reality mugged you and the institutions liberals and social democrats put in place were your family's guardian angels: educated you and saved you from penury. What, with so much ingratitude, can a conservative be trusted to conserve?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Global Israel: 'The Jewish Problem' Revisited

This past May, UCLA brought together scholars and writers to debate the impossible topic of "Jewish sovereignty." I contributed the following paper, which I called: "Global Israel: ‘The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem’ Reconsidered." I've been using the term "global Israel" more and more off-handedly in recent posts. I thought this paper might explore its deeper meanings.

Achad Haam
In 1897, Achad Haam attended the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. He wrote privately that he had felt like a “mourner at a wedding feast.” Publicly, he wrote this:

It is not only the Jews that have come out of the Ghetto but Judaism has come out too. For Jews the exodus is confined to Western countries and is due to toleration; but Judaism has come out (or is coming out) of its own accord wherever it has come into contact with modem culture. This contact overturns defenses of Judaism from within, so that Judaism can no longer remain isolated and live apart. The spirit of the Jewish people strives for development; it wants to absorb those elements of general culture which reach it from outside, as it has done in other periods of history.

What did he mean by overturns Jewish defenses “from within”? This remains somewhat mysterious, of course; but he obviously meant to imply that modernity was organized around principles that Diaspora Jews intuitively recognized, felt vaguely to be their own, and reinforced their critical faculties, such that traditional life in the Pale, well, paled.

It was almost as if Achad Haam were warning that modernity, the emancipation, was a perfected version of what Jews, marinated in Judaism, intuitively believed; that the frictions of Jewish civilization were a kind of rough draft for an approach to really human ways of being, now implied by, but not fully realized in, the rabbinic tradition; that the Haskalah had brought what was in the back of minds to the tip of tongues.

"Since the day we left the Ghetto," Achad Haam writes in the “Transvaluation of Values,” “and started to partake of the world’s life and its civilization, we cannot help seeing that our superiority is potential merely. Actually we are not superior to other nations, even in the sphere of morality. We have been unable to fulfill our mission in exile, because we could not make our lives a true expression of our own character, independent of the will of others.”

Then again—surely he knew but did not say—who is ever free of the will of others? And what do we have to give that has not already been given? How, in other words, to modernize Judaism?

Not—at least, not immediately—with an independent state, as Herzl had proclaimed at the Congress. Not by adopting agonal conceptions of nationhood implied by admirers of Nietzsche’s superman. Not by giving in to biological conceptions of tribe, or halachic conceptions of exclusiveness, or pathetic notions of the world—you know, that the goyim would never let you assimilate. The sadder truth was that they would, and Judaism was defenseless against what “the West” would offer.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mofanyahu: The Anti-Climax

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Timing is not everything in politics, but it is not nothing. Shaul Mofaz left the coalition last night for the right reasons, which will continue to resonate in Israeli electoral politics, but he is two weeks too late to establish himself, against all odds, as an alternative leader to Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it yet clear who will emerge to organize the parties of Global Israel against the governing coalition of Greater Israel. What is clear is that the public conversation has shifted to ground more favorable to the former than anything they’ve enjoyed for some time. And Netanyahu has never looked more vacillating.

Let’s review the bidding. The Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, and mandated that the burden of national service must be (more or less) universal; Netanyahu—to his credit, and against the protest of his Orthodox partners—chose to respect the verdict. This provided Mofaz, who was headed for an electoral embarrassment, an unexpected opening. He joined the government on the explicit condition that a Kadima back-bencher, Yochanan Plessner, write the law.

It seemed plausible, if unlikely, that Netanyahu took Mofaz into the government because, given this national mood, he was entertaining the idea of gravitating toward an alliance with secular, globalist Tel Aviv against greater Jerusalem and its settlements, his left brain against his right. Indeed, this issue of conscription—Netanyahu surely understood—is the only one where the parties of Global Israel can press an advantage. Yes, a majority favor two-states, but a greater majority have contempt for Palestinian intentions and American meddling; a majority oppose a strike against Iran, but a greater majority want toughness in “the neighborhood” (and the recent massacres in Syria, like today’s horrible bus bombing in Bulgaria, will only reinforce his hawkish prestige). On the matter of conscription, however, Netanyahu’s opponents have a ticket to ride.

Anyway, Netanyahu got spooked at the critical moment, apparently by the thought of abandoning his old, ultra partners and finding himself at the mercy of new ones. He dumped “Plessner.” Demonstrations were called. He then un-dumped him. At that moment, Mofaz should have bolted.  Instead he allowed himself (and his young colleague) to be dragged into predictably fruitless negotiations by a back-tracking Netanyahu and his surrogate, Moshe Yaalon, whose idea of conscription reform is, in effect, allowing deferments with no financial or other penalty until age 26 (at which point many Haredi students have multiple children) and then deciding on the draftee’s fate.

Now Mofaz has finally pulled out. But the horse left the barn, the porridge is cold, the blood’s dry. Others have stepped into the vacuum: Kadima’s Haim Ramon is signaling the possibility of a new party, his friend Ehud Olmert is unemployed, and may yet be cleared of other charges pending against him, and Yair Lapid, another friend of Olmert’s, is gaining steam. The chances are reasonable that some new, consolidated, “center” party will form, and it is highly unlikely this bloc will turn to Mofaz for leadership.

Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch is calling for new elections, which Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin (who should know) predicts will take place next February. Even Avigdor Lieberman is threatening to propose a law in which all 18-year-olds, with no exceptions, will be called up, though this is largely meant to goose Israeli Arabs—and, anyway, he said he will not leave the government if his measure is defeated.  (The Knesset summer break begins this week.)

None of this is meant to imply that Mofaz cannot help bring Netanyahu down. He is a general and Mizrahi. He may pull votes from other “center” parties, but may also pull votes they could not pull from Likud—sort of like the way the Volkswagen-owned Skoda Roomster pulls customers from the Volkswagen Golf, but also from the Fiat 500, and so contributes to a larger market share for Volkswagen Group as a whole.

But most important, Mofaz’s gambit, however fumbled, has forced Netanyahu onto the worst possible turf to fight the next election on. An overwhelming majority, some two-thirds, support what “Plessner” represents, if not universal service strictly enforced, then at least much greater social fairness: ordinary Israelis—including Mizrahi Jews and Russians who’ve historically disdained the left—are stressed by the inevitable, largely positive, but also unequal consequences of globalization. They do not agree to go on carrying the extraordinary burdens of unequal national service, unequal taxation, and a fraying social safety net. (In this sense alone, the shocking self-immolation of Moshe Silman at a demonstration Saturday night has struck a deep nerve.)

The same ordinary Israelis, it is true, find it hard to contemplate Israeli Arabs bearing an equal burden. They do not wish equality of privilege. They don’t, in other words, want national service to bring about the “state of its citizens” that many believe (rashly) is “anti-Zionist.” Yet—even if Arabs will be understandably reluctant to serve in the military—a growing chorus of Israelis, certainly in the media, want some demonstration that Arabs would take the benefits and obligations of Israeli citizenship seriously if given half a chance. Arabs attend Israeli universities and are integrated into the medical profession. Why should they not fight fires? (For more on the complex, and surprisingly promising, attitudes of Israeli Arabs to national service, this article by Haaretz editor David B. Green in Tablet is not to be missed.)

So Netanyahu is coming out of the last two months a different leader than the one he was before. Imagine an election next winter, after Netanyahu’s government has punted a genuine conscription law. Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, says he will simply call everyone, as the Supreme Court requires, but only keep those people he can use. Imagine the stories of favoritism and abuse. Imagine also a new budget which will give Netanyahu’s populist rivals more ammunition to rail against inequalities. Imagine, finally, that Bashar Assad is gone, Egyptian president Morsi has announced he has Hamas’s back in Gaza—and Obama is reelected. Imagine Netanyahu asking Israeli voters to trust him to manage relations with Washington, that is, with no Congressional Republicans around to spring to their feet.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Doctor, What About Me?"

Blogging is such a narcissistic act that it may seem like piling on to post just to call attention to a little milestone. But I noticed the other day that the "Hebrew Republic Lecture," uploaded to YouTube in the fall of 2008, and linked to from this blog, just passed 4000 viewings. I can hardly imagine what it means to have had a virtual audience of this size and quality. I am grateful.

And since we're on the subject of my gratitude (and narcissism), I cannot resist pointing to this new review of Promiscuous, just published in the Forward. It assumes Portnoy's Complaint, and Philip Roth, to be somewhat more preoccupied with American Jewish life than either really are, but the review is very generous and thoughtful (which, for any writer, is redundant).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Circumcision Blues: Skin In The Game

I posted an earlier version of these reflections some time ago, but the recent ruling in Germany prompted me to revisit the subject on the Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. You can find this post here. You may also want to see this wonderful film by my friend Danae Elon. 

Having just celebrated (if that’s the word for it) the circumcisions of two grandsons in the past few months, I have to admit the German court that ruled the practice “bodily harm” got my attention as much for its compassion as its presumption. Jewish parents, no less than gentile jurists, approach this ritual at least fascinated, at times skeptical, a little queasy, certainly pained.

Does this act, first attributed to Abraham, not violate the most natural instinct we have as parents around a newborn, which is to protect him absolutely? Abraham, too, was a loving father but he was also capable of treating his sons with, let us say, fervor. Why has this ritual remained so cherished, indeed foundational, while so many other ancient commandments have fallen into eclipse?

Some say Jews practice the brit mila because it is ancient and, they’ll tell you, one dare not break a chain others have died for. Chronicles of martyrdom can break your heart, but if chains of devotion were themselves reason enough to preserve scripturally sanctioned ways, we would be stoning children for impudence and sacrificing lambs to quell (consequent) feelings of guilt. As for claims of ancient hygiene, I leave that to ancients' hygienists. Today’s data is hardly definitive on what might be gained by losing one’s foreskin. Presumably, modern soap may be trusted.

I hasten to add that circumcision can hardly be thought determinative of a baby boy’s sexual development, however much Alex Portnoy might complain about his bris as a dim precursor to later castration threats. If the pain of circumcision is traumatically invasive, then applying Desitin to diaper rash is molestation. The late, great Hitchens assures us that circumcision reduces sexual sensation, pleasure, etc., in adult men, and wounds them before they can state their desires, drawing a parallel to female circumcision—which is of course incomparable, since the latter removes the source of all sexual pleasure in women. But is he even right about men? In the first place, how would he know? In the second, a man’s most important sexual organ is his brain, and, third, I doubt many women would mind if male sexual sensation were reduced by, say, seven minutes.

Most thinking Jews, justifiably, will counter all this physiological speculation (and hyperbole) by insisting that circumcision is not a practical matter at all. Rather, it is a primordial act of covenant, a kind of throwback to sacrifice, actually, which marks the commitment of our children to the Jewish people and its mission. But this begs the question, precisely, of how to understand the covenantal mission and how to engender it. The same Jews believe that the mission unfolds as life and history unfold. Our commitment is to inherited principles, not to inherited genes. The act has to be consistent with, or evoke, enduring principles. What are they?

So we are left with a puzzle. What deeper meaning might be implied by circumcision, so that Jewish parents, generation after generation, swallow hard and do it? How does the back of the mind take in the brit mila, so that Jewish sages thought its lessons were indispensible?

Permit a passionate father (and grandfather) to suggest a direction, if not a whole answer. The poet Robert Bly once said, “A man’s wound is his genius.” I think parents who perform circumcision on a tender baby cannot but feel the beginning of an acknowledgement, which will grow over time—something bitter-sweet and wise. It is that our role is not merely to protect our children but to expose them. We are required to introduce them—affectionately, yet at times strictly—to the stings of the world, which are everywhere; these are the real prompts of maturity and autonomy—thus the deepest sources of their happiness. This ritual infliction of pain, like the insistence of broken glass at a wedding, is an act of love, arguably divine love—that is, love of human beings as we truly are, without (dare I say, childish?) illusions.

You don't have to have a mother like Sophie Portnoy to know that over-protection is the ultimate form of child abuse. Who among us would live our lives over again without the pains that instructed, fashioned and liberated us?

And since this was a German court, however secular, let’s cover another base. Saint Paul said that we ought rather to circumcise the heart. (Actually, Leviticus, and later Jeremiah, suggest the same, arguably without the “rather.”) Well, I have had both circumcisions, of the flesh and heart, and I can report that the latter is far more painful. Human life is calculated to make us lose every person we love, but who lives happier by shielding himself from love?

The part of Paul’s theology I admire most suggests that the divine proved truest by becoming flesh to suffer with us, thus to truly know us. I like to think the divine was first present in my life at the tiny suffering of my circumcised flesh; that God slyly instructed Abraham to circumcise his sons because he wanted to imply what some rabbis have had the wit to add, generation after generation. Before circumcision a man is not whole. Genesis Rabbah states, glossing circumcision: “All that was created during the six days of creation requires improvement. For example, the mustard seed needs to be sweetened and the lupine need to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, and even a person needs improvement.” Indeed, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Olmert's Peculiar Indictment

I have known (and liked) Ehud Olmert for nearly 40 years, at first as a reporter using (and being used by) a source, in the way of journalistic friendships--but enjoying warmer relations in recent months, as Olmert found himself forced out of office, lamenting missed opportunities, having second thoughts about the use of military power, and worried about the country's direction under the Netanyahu government. If only for personal reasons, I confess great relief at the verdict exonerating him.

But circumstances that force a sitting prime minister from office are not merely of personal interest, especially (so Olmert has emphasized to me and others) when the prime minister's indictment comes just days after he enters into talks with the American Secretary of State and (through her, with) Mahmud Abbas about far reaching concessions for the creation of a Palestinian state; when the charges are thin and exotic; and the facts that underlie the charges are dredged up by, among other investigators, teams of reporters whose salaries are paid by Sheldon Adelson, an American billionaire supporting Netanyahu's resistance to any such concessions.

This may be just a tragic coincidence. (And I find myself slightly appalled writing this last sentence, since crack-pot conspiracy theorists always write, "This may be just a tragic coincidence" when they are about to write, "But could there not be more to the story?") But could there not be more to the story? Stay tuned.

Monday, July 9, 2012

You Missed It, Mofaz

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

As I wrote last time, Shaul Mofaz, the head of Kadima, had an unexpected opportunity to redefine the Israeli political map. All he had to do was resign from Netanyahu's government over the prime minister's decision to disband the Plessner committee last week. In one bold stroke, Mofaz could have claimed to be the instigator of a wildly popular proposed reform of Israeli conscription law, and by implication, the defender of a more nearly egalitarian conception of Israeliness that transcends traditional electoral tribes. He could have kept Kadima from oblivion, and kept alive the possibility of denying Netanyahu another Knesset majority.

The key to Mofaz's opportunity was that he would have had to be bold. He had to make a manifest demonstration of unwillingness to get drawn in to viscous coalition negotiations, which Netanyahu would manage; negotiations in which Plessner's voice, and the work of his committee, would be would be slowly muffled by ministers from coalition partners looking for new compromises and concessions; negotiations that ostensibly supported reform, but pushed implementation so far into the future that nothing of substance will have been gained.

Indeed, the public--and not just through the mainstream media--were voicing a hunger for decisiveness. By Friday, a mass demonstration was called for the streets of Tel Aviv. Had Mofaz resigned, he might have joined it in triumph, demanding simplicity, transparency, equality of obligation, and change.

Netanyahu understood this. Anticipating a debacle, chagrined by the coming demonstrations, he performed yet another u-turn, re-embraced the Plessner report, and promised to bring it to a Likud forum after the weekend. The worst thing Mofaz could have done was temporize, allow Netanyahu to form another committee yet appear the change agent, the spokesman for an egalitarian principle all know the Likud cannot fulfill without jeopardizing its relations with historic ultra-Orthodox partners and anti-Arab parties.

Well, Mofaz did the worst thing he could have done. He refused to resign, but signaled his willingness to play on Netanyahu's court. Predictably, he showed up at Saturday night's demonstration and was roundly booed. Sunday morning, on cue, and as if Netanyahu had not already disbanded the committee, the Likud showily adopted the Plessner findings, though with modifications, adding a tougher line on Israeli Arabs to please Avigdor Lieberman (though the latter announced he would oppose a law based on Plessner's principles). Mofaz also agreed to a new committee to which Plessner would be appointed, and in which Likud would be represented by hard-liner Moshe Yaalon. They say they will report out a new bill in a few days. In any case, Mofaz appears to have hit the tar-baby between the eyes.

Mofaz will brag that it was his, and Kadima's, initiative that should be credited with bringing revolutionary change. But he merely set the table for Netanyahu’s machinations and hastened Kadima's demise. Netanyahu is already taking the credit for change, even as he is preparing a process that will impede a public conversation, and legislation, in which real change may be entertained. I argued here before that, in adding Mofaz to his coalition, Netanyahu gave himself more room to play off Global Israel forces against Greater Israel ones. The point is, it is Netanyahu who will remain in control. “Mofaz is not an Alpha-animal,” a columnist friend of mine lamented.

Remember, one quarter of Israeli first graders are in Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox schools, and another quarter are Arab. Resignation would have gestured toward an electoral fight for civil society that is not just plural but pluralist, in which ultra-Orthodox would not be materially privileged and segregated, and Arabs would not be excluded and legally discriminated against. If reform is skewed to bring more ultra-Orthodox into service, but keep Israeli Arabs on the margins, its most lasting effect will be to reinforce Greater Israel nationalism in the army, and alienation in largely segregated and boxed-in Arab towns.

Everybody understands it could take a generation (and, at least some understand, a rekindled peace process with Palestine) to bring genuine civil society into relief. With Mofaz folding himself back into the bosom of the Likud, it is hard to see just what change is getting started.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Shaul Mofaz: Hello, I Must Be Going

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Yes, Shaul Mofaz joined the Netanyahu government to keep from facing a September election in which he and Kadima were headed for humiliation. But (as I argued here a little while back) he also cagily positioned himself to emerge the only leader who could eventually deny the current Likud-led coalition a Knesset majority in the next election, perhaps even find himself an unlikely custodian of Israel's globalist (yet fragile) civil society.

Netanyahu has now offered Mofaz his ribs and handed him a shiv. Will Mofaz have the daring to thrust?

The key here is the overwhelming sense of revulsion, in critical electoral sectors, regarding ultra-Orthodox military shirking and economic sponging. I am referring to more highly educated Mizrahim, Russian secularists, economic centrists, and young people in general--voters in the habit of choosing Likud.

Two-thirds of Israelis want change in the draft and, correspondingly, an end to a state of affairs in which so many Israelis are unfit for ordinary work and citizenship. Only 13 percent think the current situation is acceptable. Some 56 percent of Israelis are in the workforce. In Japan, say, the number is 68 percent.

Mofaz joined the government, remember, because the Tal Law, which exempted pretty much all Yeshiva students from military duty, was held to be unconstitutional--a violation of the Basic Law of Human Dignity--by the High Court of Justice. Netanyahu might have challenged the court or tried to water down the basic law. But that would mean favoring his right brain, which lives in Ariel, over his left, which lives in North Tel Aviv.

So he promised reform instead, brought Kadima into the coalition, and enjoyed a few weeks being King of Israel and Vanity Fair's darling. The problem is he promised that the next law, to be drafted by a committee chaired by a Kadima bank-bencher, Yochanan Plessner, would finally spread obligations to national service equally on all citizens, including Haredim and Israeli Arabs. And the bigger problem is that Plessner surprised everybody by actually doing his job.

Plessner's final plan, which he reported out of committee (or what was left of it) yesterday, envisions increasing to 80 percent the proportion of Haredi youth doing some kind of national (including military) service over the next five years. He would impose serious financial and other penalties on those who do not. The report also envisions tripling the number of Israeli Arabs doing national service during this period, to something like 7500 youth. The goal would be universal service for the 30,000 or so of draft-age. (The Arab parties are not amused, but they are not in government, which I’ll come back to presently.)

By the time Plessner reported, however, Netanyahu had already begun backtracking, fearing becoming Kadima's hostage instead of its master. He scorned the Plessner committee and declared its deliberations "irrelevant," which in a way they were as the basis for a coalition bill. Shas leaders had pulled out, fearing the consequences for its Yeshivot. (Presumably, the Czar had also resorted to conscription to pull Jewish youth out of Judaism.)

Avigdor Lieberman, for his part, had pulled out, too, insisting (not without a certain logic) that any obligations imposed on Haredi youth should be imposed equally on Arab youth. Again, however, Arab parties are not invited into government. And Lieberman is not correspondingly entertaining legal reforms to dismantle quasi-official Zionist institutions that discriminate against Arabs, especially in land, or initiatives to advance the peace process, so that Arab Israelis would not wind up policing members of their own clans across the Green Line.

Which brings us back to Mofaz. In contrast, he defended Plessner's report, and put Netanyahu on notice that he intends to leave the government if Plessner's "principles" are not enacted. Some keen analysts, like Reshet Bet radio's Hanan Krystal, suspect that the word "principles" is meant to give everyone wiggle room. But Mofaz is suddenly in the surprising position of being able to embody the general will; all he has to do is resign. Imagine his political future, says Krystal, if Mofaz stays and starts haggling over ministries for Kadima people.

Mofaz must know that, in this atmosphere, going along with Netanyahu will make him irrelevant. Of course, Netanyahu is counting on Mofaz acting like a politician; Mofaz didn't get to be Chief-of-Staff by being politically obtuse. If he wants, he can just invoke the Iran threat, and call for continuing unity. Netanyahu is meanwhile scrambling to supersede the Plessner committee with intra-coalition negotiations conducted by himself.

But Netanyahu is the one being obtuse. In effect, he is trying to make himself the champion of compromise. But this would be a compromise that preserves a clearly obnoxious and broken system of conscription based on past compromises; a system that makes the vast majority of Israeli Jews feel like suckers, or friarim, in the street parlance. And a significant group within Kadima is threatening to bolt if Plessner's law is scrapped and Mofaz stays.

Anyway, if Mofaz does stay then he deserves to be irrelevant. He has a golden opportunity to become a national leader simply by going back to the opposition, leaving it to the media to roast Netanyahu for ideological creepiness, while valorizing Mofaz's statesmanship. He becomes Mr. Center.

Besides, to placate Kadima's North Tel Aviv base, Mofaz has to keep his promise and try to advance the dialogue with moderate Palestinian leaders, the way Kadima leaders Olmert and Livni did. But when Mofaz was scheduled to meet with Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah this past week, so many Facebook groups sprouted up threatening fierce demonstrations (or so my friends in Palestine tell me) that Abbas called off the meeting.

Clearly, a Netanyahu coalition that cannot advance Israeli civil society against the claims of Jewish ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox cannot advance peace with Palestine either. Why stay if not to forge a centrist coalition without the forces Netanyahu is once again pandering to? The latter likes to think he is Israel's Churchill. He is closer to Israel's von Papen, a centrist with nationalist sentimentality, and vain enough to think he can feed the beasts and not eventually be devoured by them.

A part of the Palestinian reaction to Mofaz, it is true, stems from his having been Sharon’s Defense Minister during the second Intifada. But then, Yitzhak Rabin was Shamir’s Defense Minister during the first.