Friday, July 22, 2016

MENA Scholars And The US Election

American analysts of the Middle East think frequently about our ethical obligations to people in the region. While we often overestimate our influence, it doesn't excuse a sense of impunity. Analysts do not get to sit on the sidelines when people's well-being is at stake. We are members of society and what we say can have an impact, however small, on those around us. We disagree about the nature of these ethical obligations but not about their existence.

Our obligations don't end at the water's edge. We have obligations to our students, university, our friends and family, and a country that protects our freedom to speak, write, publish, and debate. The affairs of our own government matter just as much as those of the governments we study.

Three facts about last night's Trump acceptance speech are undisputed. First, a candidate for President of the United States gave a speech. Second, that candidate claimed that the country is in a state of lawlessness and that he would restore law an order. Third, this candidate's plan to restore order involves severe, unprecedented restrictions targeting specific groups of Americans. This includes explicit restrictions on the rights of Muslim Americans and de facto limitations on the rights of African-Americans. In the United States, limitations on the rights of one group are a limitation on the rights of all Americans.

This kind of speech from a presidential candidate is unacceptable in the United States of America.

Middle East analysts have seen this story before. America is not the Middle East, but populism is not uniquely a Middle East phenomenon. Our colleagues in the region have risked their well-beings, their physical safety, and their lives to speak against populism in their own countries. Turkey is the latest example but not the only one. 

Our obligation in the United States is to recognize the importance of these efforts by replicating them here. 

It is time for analysts who have seen the slippery slope of populism to call Trump's dangerous speech what it is: An attack on the Constitutional rights of Americans and a threat to our democracy. We respect our MENA colleagues who do the same, but we do not truly respect them if we fail to act in their image when it is our time. This is our time.

In calling out Trump, we must respect (as we have often failed to do), conservative and Republican points of view. But Trump's speech is not the position of the Republican Party. It is a slap in the face to decades of policy designed to promote freedom and liberty as Republicans envision it. And it is impossible to protect the freedom of any point of view - liberal, moderate, or conservative - when populism threatens to censor discourse and silence members of the debate. 

You need not disavow support of Donald Trump. If you plan to vote for him, that is respectable and your point of view is respectable and important. But neither can you ignore the facts as they stand, and the consensus of decades of research on populism and its dangerous path.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Elie Wiesel, Israel, And The Politics of Trauma

The passing of Elie Wiesel yesterday at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the human family. A professor, author, Nobel Laureate, and activist, Wiesel challenged humanity to find light among the darkness. Elie Wiesel was not content to memorialize the past. He was determined use the lessons of the past to shape a brighter future.

While he was a voice for the downtrodden, Wiesel's views on Israel were not always "progressive." He was a staunch opponent of a divided Jerusalem, the Iran nuclear deal, and attempted to publish a controversial ad against Hamas' use of children as human shields. Such views have been the subject of critique on this blog. Yet Wiesel's views on Israel were similar to, if not more moderate than, many of his peers. They were certainly not more extreme than the views of the median Israeli. Even if one disagrees with these views, they were certainly not radical enough to overshadow his legacy of advocacy to better the human condition.

But this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where respect for the deceased is not more valuable than the opportunity to score points in a meaningless war of rhetorical attrition. Already, some have come forward to voice their opposition (to phrase it politely) to the sanctification of Wiesel on the basis of his political views. The level of cynicism in the conflict is too high to expect that an appeal to such a trite concept as basic human decency would make a difference to those who hasten to defame the dead. However, there are two further considerations that expose such attitudes for the danger that they are.

First, no camp in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a monopoly on human rights, justice, or morality. Attacking Wiesel because he belonged to a different political tribe is the height of arrogance. A willingness to claim to moral superiority over a Holocaust-surviving Nobel Laureate human rights activist takes a special brand of narcissism. If the seeming disconnect between Wiesel's principles and his policies is puzzling or disconcerting, it should prompt introspection and a willingness to consider how the same facts can underlie different political views. And as it turns out, it is also possible to criticize Wiesel's politics without being rude.

But more importantly, it is vital to consider the life experiences that shaped Wiesel's views. Given the extent of trauma Wiesel describes in his memoir Night, its role cannot be overlooked. Trauma is also important in national politics. For both Wiesel and for Israeli nationalism, the legacy of the Holocaust is trauma. This trauma shapes Israeli policy-making. While trauma can never excuse the abuse and violation of others, it can frame decisions governments make to engage in such behavior.

In this regard, there is an important parallel between disregarding Wiesel's personal trauma and disregarding Israel's national trauma. This national trauma comes from Israel's many wars as much as it comes from the Holocaust, but both sources affect policy-making there. The point is not that trauma justifies Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians, who themselves suffer from the national trauma of 1948 and 1967. Rather, it is that trauma shapes political calculations in Israel in observable ways. Ignoring the fact that trauma is at the heart of much of Israeli policy-making is a dangerous oversight that may perpetuate ineffective approaches to desperately-needed political change there.

Engaging with both Wiesel's legacy on Israel and Israel's politics more broadly requires acknowledging and accepting the validity of Holocaust trauma as a political context. Regarding Wiesel, this means considering his political views in the context of the crucible in which they were formed. One need not agree with Wiesel to respect the weight of his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and survivor of one of the worst genocides in human history. 

For Israel, serious engagement with national trauma is critical to improving a broken status quo. Tactics of isolation and antagonism may be less effective on nations with a history of trauma. BDS, isolation at the UN, and framing Israel as a rogue state may only serve to magnify the harmful impact of trauma on Israel's decision-making. Downplaying trauma or muddying the waters with arguments of moral relativism is the wrong approach to states suffering from national trauma. A better approach is to acknowledge the validity of the trauma, reassure nations (including the Palestinian nation) who suffer from it, and reinforce messages of just politics as national empowerment. Such an approach is not only more respectful, it is more effective in improving the collective human condition. It orients us toward a legacy of which Elie Wiesel could be proud.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Knesset Coalition Instability Is Secondary

In the wake of Yisrael Beiteinu joining Israel's governing coalition, some worry that this time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has gone too far. Since formation of the newest coalition last week, analysts have pointed out that it is shaky, tenuous, and unstable.

These characterizations are decidedly true. Lieberman and Netanyahu have different constituencies and personal political interests. Their differences are so great that upon joining the coalition, Lieberman reassured the Israeli public that he had lengthened his short fuse. The coalition has also drawn criticism not only from the left but from within the Prime Minister's own Likud party. History (ie 2015) has also shown Likud Beiteinu to be is an unstable political isotope.

At the same time, these analyses miss two important political factors at play.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu is setting the tempo of Israeli politics. This coalition deal is proof positive. The latest coalition shuffle does not give the Prime Minister a substantially stronger coalition - he has 66 now compared to 61 a month ago. This boost is enough to reduce the damage of a few MKs defecting on a vote, but it is not a mandate by any stretch of the imagination. The Prime Minister also switched his offer to join the coalition from Labor to Yisrael Beiteinu at his leisure. With this brilliant political play, Netanyahu simultaneously hurt Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog's credibility, strengthened his coalition, and demonstrated his control of the political system. When ties with Yisrael Beiteinu inevitably break down, the Prime Minister will be directing the path of politics in the Knesset, not reacting to them.

Second, the effects of an unstable coalition are limited without a viable alternative. As the previous post details, Prime Minister Netanyahu has remained in power by systematically dismantling alternatives to his leadership. In Israel's Knesset the left is de-fanged, the center is fractured, and the right is coopted. This is a favorable state of play for the Prime Minister and one which he had a hand in engineering. Thus, while a coalition that includes Yisrael Beiteinu is unstable, there is no serious pressure from outside the coalition that will exacerbate this instability in a meaningful way. While the public may be concerned or even dissatisfied with the current coalition, there does not exist a better option for the immediate short-term future. This lack of alternative gives the Prime Minister breathing space to mitigate the harms of an unstable coalition.

While this coalition, like all coalitions, will eventually succumb to the dynamics of Israeli politics, there is no reason to believe that including Yisrael Beiteinu puts it in danger of short-term collapse. Analysts were surprised by the last-minute including of the party, but the effects of that surprise will die down as the news cycle moves forward. An analytical focus on instability should be redirected at what policies the Prime Minister actually pursues, and what (if any) opposition he faces.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bibi Kills Two Centrist Birds With One Stone

Israel analysts have spent the day speculating about the consequences of PM Netanyahu's decision to offer the Defense portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman and bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition. The offer, which comes days after talks with Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog appeared to be going well, is a huge surprise. Assuming Lieberman accepts the position, Israel's domestic policy will likely shift to the right, its foreign policy will exacerbate international tensions, and Netanyahu's position as Prime Minister will be solidified.

But even if the offer were to fall through, it is an example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy of destroying viable centrist alternatives to his leadership. Today's deal kills two birds with one stone. It makes it extremely difficult for Herzog to maintain leadership of the Labor Party, and it potentially pushes center-right Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon out of the cabinet. It also punishes Ya'alon for urging IDF soldiers to exercise integrity in thought and expression, and sends a message to those who would challenge the Prime Minister. 

This is not the first instance in which Netanyahu has undercut centrist politicians to prevent a viable alternative to his leadership.

In 2012, Yair Lapid announced the creation of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Days later Netanyahu formed a national unity government that would have pushed off elections and delayed Yesh Atid's entrance into politics. When elections did occur in January 2013 and Yesh Atid did unexpectedly well, Netanyahu coopted Lapid. He offered Lapid the Finance portfolio in the context of deep discontent over the government's response to the 2011 economic protests. Lapid went from leading the second most popular party in the Knesset in March 2013 to having a 75% disapproval rating in December of that same year.

Tzipi Livni, after forming the HaTnuah party in 2012, was appointed Justice Minister by the Prime Minister. However, after gaining substantial power - and criticizing several government decisions - Netanyahu fired her along with Lapid on December 2, 2014. Livni, however, was not done with politics. HaTnuah formed a joint list with the Labor Party and its new leader Yitzhak Herzog for the 2015 elections. Since the elections, she has laid low, taking on diplomatic pressures against Israel at the UN and issuing few criticisms of Israel's government. In the long term, Livni is a threat to Netanyahu. In the short term, however, she has shown no interest in challenging him.

Moshe Kahlon and the Kulanu party were coopted by Netanyahu and joined the coalition in 2015. To achieve this cooptation, Netanyahu played Kulanu and Yesh Atid off each other. Yesh Atid and Kulanu are centrist pro-reform parties. Yet by design of the Prime Minister, Yesh Atid is in the opposition and Kulanu is in the government.

Over this past weekend, PM Netanyahu had been in talks with Herzog to bring Labor into the coalition under the pretense of a unity government. Such a move would have coopted an already weak labor leadership. However, by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu instead, Netanyahu keeps Labor weak and in the opposition, while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to Herzog's political career. By offering Defense Minister Ya'alon's position to Lierberman, he denies Ya'alon a platform to build centrist support.

The fracturing of Israel's political center is not entirely Prime Minister Netanyahu's doing. Egos, party politics, and public opinion play an important role as well. However, today's move is consistent with the Prime Minister's strategy for remaining in power. While it is undoubtedly a brilliant political move, it remains to be seen whether it can create meaningful change for Israelis. Economic hardship, war, international pressure, and lack of a future vision are all real problems facing the Israeli public. Ultimately, the Prime Minister should be judged not by how he attains political power, but how he uses it.





Monday, May 2, 2016

Is Anti-Zionism Possible Without Anti-Semitism?

The suspension of British MP Ken Livingstone for the (inaccurate) comment that Hitler was a Zionist has raised charges of anti-Semitism within Britain's Labour party. These charges are part of a larger debate over whether being anti-Zionist is anti-Semitic. Given a Western norm against anti-Semitism, some fear that anti-Zionism is merely a dog whistle for more notorious prejudices. Others point out that Zionism as an ideology is independent from Judaism as a religion and criticism should be fair game. 

The intractability of this debate shows that the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism is far too broad to be useful. It risks getting bogged down in semantic debates while ignoring the more important question of how to build discussions of Zionism that are open enough to include dissenters, but regulated enough that bigotry and prejudice don't silence supporters.

In addition, neither Judaism nor Zionism are easily defined. Both are professed by large, pluralistic, longstanding, international communities. Both are characterized by internal debates around a core set of principles. This means that blanket statements about all anti-Zionism or all anti-Semitism do a disservice to both. A better approach is to specify which types of anti-Zionism are and are not anti-Semitic. 

As with racism, sexism, homophobia, and able-ism, anti-Semitism can be unconscious. Good specification can be useful for bringing these unconscious biases to the surface. That being said, an anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic argument has:

1) Well-specified terms. It does not talk broadly about the nature of all Zionists. Rather, it acknowledges - explicitly or implicitly - variation that has existed among Zionist movements since at least the First Zionist Conference in 1897. In addition to variation across movements, individual Zionists held complex views as well. Albert Einstein supported a bi-national state in Mandate Palestine, but also campaigned for the World Zionist Organization and was a strong supporter of Hebrew University. 

Anti-Zionism without anti-Semitism also acknowledges changes in these movements over time. As Nadav Shelef points out, for example, Revisionist Zionists originally considered present-day Jordan as the "Jewish Homeland." Today, few members of revisionism's progeny - the Likud Party - would argue that Israel should annex Jordan. Zionism, like most political ideologies, comes in many flavors and changes over time. A purely anti-Zionist argument acknowledges this variation by specifying which kind of Zionism and which time period it is addressing.

2) Generalizable principles. This means that the tenets of the argument are based in principles that apply beyond Zionism. Take the idea that Israel should not exist because Judaism is not a nation. This idea is a purely anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic if the criteria of "nation" applied to Jews are reasonable and widely applicable to other groups. It is not anti-Semitic to say that the Jewish nation does not inherently deserve a state only if one also believes Kurds, Armenians, Roma, and other historically persecuted minority nations do not inherently deserve a state either. The values of an anti-Zionist argument that is not anti-Semitic should be broad-based and applicable to other cases.

The difficulty for generalizability, of course, is that Israel is unique in many ways beyond its Jewish character. It is a non-Muslim state in the Middle East, the only state whose leadership includes those of European descent, and the largest recipient of US foreign aid. The Jewish people are also unique in that analyses understand them simultaneously as a religion, ethnicity, nation, and culture. Criticism of Zionism that bases its argument on these unique aspects of Israeli or Jewish character is not necessarily anti-Zionist. That being said, some of these factors interact with Israel's Jewish character and purely anti-Zionist arguments should acknowledge this interaction. US aid to Israel may be affected, for example, by American religious views towards a Jewish presence in biblical Israel.


One final observation: Specific terms and generalizable principles are not only good argumentation but respectful as well. They acknowledge the pain of those who identify as Jewish and/or Zionist, a pain which is real and to which they are entitled. As with anti-Palestinian nationalist arguments, one can be reasonably anti-Zionist without being disrespectful, rude, and obnoxious. One doesn't have to be polite to avoid being anti-Semitic, but it bolsters confidence that the claim is about an ideological point, and not thinly-veiled prejudice against Jews or their historic homeland. 

In other words, make your case but don't be a nudnik.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Hebron Shooting And Civil-Military Relations In Israel

An IDF soldier who shot an already-incapacitated Palestinian stabber in Hebron last Thursday has drawn widespread sympathy from Israeli MKs and the Israeli public. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon find themselves facing criticism for suggesting that the soldier should be subject to the judicial processes of the IDF. The resulting debate raises three important points about civil-military relations in Israel.


First, the Israeli public trusts greatly the IDF as an institution, but also supports individual soldiers. A 2016 survey of surveys by Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona found that even during periods of relative quiet in Israel, 71% of the Israeli public "trusts IDF senior commanders" and 76% "have confidence in the IDF's fighting abilities." As the vanguard of the state, and an institution in which nearly all Israelis serve, the IDF is a highly respected entity. 

At the same time, Israelis want assurances that their sons and daughters have the tools and rules of engagement they need to protect themselves in combat. A letter by the mother of the soldier who shot the Palestinian man in Hebron reveals a sense of betrayal by the establishment. She writes, "he isn't just my son, he is the child of all of us," This statement is evidence that public opinion over the incident is shaped by the question, "What if it had been my son?"

Second, the IDF's rule-based order is generally effective but lacks support from politicians. Footage of IDF soldiers using force in a confrontation with civilians is often designed to portray the military as unprofessional and haphazard. In individual cases this may very well be the case, as it could be with any military. At the same time, the IDF's reaction to Thursday's killing was prompt. The soldier was arrested the same day, and a murder indictment has already been filed. This comes after discussion that the charge would only be manslaughter. The IDF is taking the incident seriously in a way that befits a military in a liberal democracy. No doubt, the IDF also understands the international political implications of video footage of the incident which has been disseminated widely over social media. 

This response is indicative, however, of an ongoing process by which the IDF is forced to compensate for the failure of Israel's political establishment. That the IDF leadership has come under fire from Knesset members for investigating a murder caught on camera is not only a shocking statement of apathy for non-Israeli lives, but an abandonment of political responsibility. In a media storm where critics of Israel are rushing to portray this incident as "more of the same," the IDF has been abandoned by Knesset members who should be supporting a fair and impartial investigation. Militaries sometimes do things that are unpopular. In the US, PFC Bowe Berghdahl was given a hero's welcome upon his release by the Taliban, only to be charged with desertion by the Army. In such cases, political leaders should stress the importance of a fair and thorough judicial process as prescribed by law.


Finally, there is a low appreciation among publics, including the Israeli public, for nuanced responses to terrorism. Importantly, this is not the position of the IDF, which has invested in both non-lethal and semi-lethal weapons systems. A Channel 10 news report frames the Hebron shooting as "an IDF soldier who shot a terrorist and is now being indicted." It omits any reference to the fact that the terrorist in question was incapacitated when shot. Stabbing a soldier may be terrorism but it does not dissolve all legal protections afforded to either civilians or enemy combatants. Support for the soldier seems to be based in a perception that terrorists waive all of their rights after having committed an attack - even if they no longer pose a kinetic threat to soldiers. Even if he had been wearing a suicide vest, it seems unlikely that the IDF's standard operating procedure would call first for shooting the suspected bomber in the head - as opposed to moving at-risk individuals out of a potential blast zone.

The United States has seen similar apathy towards the legal protections of terrorists. In 2014, a majority of Americans supported torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. The point here is that Israelis are by no means unique in their willingness to deny rights protections to terrorists. But whether or not it is popular, such actions may violate international law and the laws of both the United States and Israel. 

Finding a balance between rights and security is a core challenge of liberal democracies under threat from terrorism. As a country at the forefront of this fight, Israel's adherence to its own laws and judicial process is what will ultimately allow it to find a balance between the two.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AIPAC Must Restore Focus On Shared Values

AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus may be disappointed that her constituents applauded Donald Trump's attacks on President Obama, but she cannot possibly be surprised. Out of 18,000 people, the chances not one would respond to an attack on President Obama are virtually zero. Those concerned by the content of Donald Trump's comments should not be persuaded by the crocodile tears shed at this morning's plenary. 

AIPAC's 2016 Policy Conference was carefully designed to absolve the organization of responsibility for comments it knew Trump would make. The religious appeals and calls for bipartisanship provided a backdrop for AIPAC's leadership to state that it was shocked, shocked that Donald Trump would make comments beyond the scope of AIPAC's bipartisan platform. This morning's apology was a calculated political move designed to let AIPAC have its cake and eat it too.

AIPAC has also engendered some of the very sentiments to which its leadership now takes offense. In 2011, a spat between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the 1967 lines played out at AIPAC. Yet speaker after speaker publicly expressed support for Netanyahu and tacit disapproval of President Obama. Last summer, AIPAC spent $30 billion dollars to counter the Iran nuclear agreement, the centerpiece of President Obama's Middle East foreign policy. AIPAC can hardly be shocked that after these initiatives, its constituents are willing to applaud attacks on the President of the United States.

The deeper problem facing AIPAC, however, is one of values. While it may have provided them with a platform, AIPAC is not responsible for the beliefs of the Republican candidates for president. Nor should it go over the slippery slope of picking and choosing which candidate is tolerant enough to deserve a platform on the AIPAC stage. However, it should take seriously the fact that many of these candidates' statements contradict the values at the heart of the US-Israel relationship. 

If the US and Israel are to have a strong relationship, they must come together - not around an Islamophobic fear of the other but around a firm determination to protect the values enshrined in their founding documents. Liberal values - tolerance, freedom of expression, pluralism, and self-reflection - are at the heart of the American and Israeli national project. Without a mutual commitment to these values, the US-Israel relationship is not sustainable. If AIPAC is offended by statements that contradict these values, it should work to bring citizens in both countries together who support them.