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.