November 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
In the decade before the unfortunately named Arab Spring uprisings, political science on the subject of the Middle East was largely consumed with explaining the region’s persistent and seemingly exceptional authoritarianism. One of the best treatments of the subject was Yale political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar’s 1995 book titled Structuring Conflict in the Arab World. Lust-Okar looked at why political opposition groups in some Middle Eastern states would mobilize popular protests during economic crises while in other states they wouldn’t, and she developed a handy theory to explain the variance in behavior despite similar circumstances. While at first glance this topic has nothing to do with American Jewry and the nascent Trump administration, Lust-Okar’s book was the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about the way different Jewish organizations are responding to the challenges that President-elect Trump is presenting.
Lust-Okar’s theory on what made opposition groups decide to mobilize or not was that it wasn’t a function of the groups themselves, but a function of how the regime manipulated them. Middle Eastern authoritarian governments establish different relationships between the state and the opposition, and between opposition groups themselves, by creating unified or divided structures of contestation. In plain English, the state (wittingly or unwittingly) determines how opposition groups behave based on whether it favors some groups over others or treats them all as equally illegitimate. If the regime grants some political parties or groups legal status while making others illegal, the legal ones become reluctant to protest or join with the “illegal” opposition since they will be putting their own status at risk. Having the regime’s favor carries with it benefits, including most basically not being arbitrarily thrown in jail, so by playing it safe and not challenging the regime, the legal groups ensure that they will not be repressed or excluded from the system no matter what abuses the state carries out against others. On the other side of the equation, the illegal parties or groups are constantly looking to have the legal parties or groups join their protests in order to give them the imprimatur of legality and the safety of numbers. When the legal parties inevitably choose not join in order to protect their own status, it allows the regime to portray the protests as illegitimate and carried out by outlaws and rabble-rousers with invalid grievances.
I’ve been thinking about this while observing the way American Jewish organizations are reacting to the goings on surrounding Trump, his appointments, and his policies that will most directly impact Israel and Jews themselves. To get one important thing out of the way up front, I am not arguing that Trump is planning on banning groups he doesn’t like or that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that will imprison opponents. But looking at the dynamic of opposition in non-democracies helps to understand the dynamic emerging here.
To be sure, every White House has groups it favors and groups it doesn’t. Every White House uses the divisions within groups to its advantage. There is nothing illegal or untoward about this, but it influences group dynamics in a way that can be extremely damaging to group cohesiveness. To take a recent prominent example, the Iran deal was divisive enough within the American Jewish community without needing an extra boost from the Obama administration, but the White House unquestionably made things worse in its appeals to Jewish groups and making the “it will make Israel safer” argument a big part of the sell. This is not to absolve other actors or place the lion’s share of the blame on the White House, since there was nothing more ultimately damaging or divisive than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, but the choice made by the administration played a part in fracturing the Jewish community as well.
What is already going on before Trump has even taken office, however, is orders of magnitudes worse. For starters, no Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who runs a site that traffics in the worst sort of anti-Semitic and bigoted tropes as Trump’s most influential domestic policy advisor. As Bari Weiss correctly argues, whether Steve Bannon is personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant given how much anti-Semitic filth he is responsible for spreading and promoting. No Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who has retweeted anti-Semitic messages as Trump’s most influential foreign policy advisor. That Mike Flynn may want a closer relationship with Israel should not matter when he feels comfortably at home with people who view Jews as the source of the world’s ills. Yet whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on these appointments has become a controversy within the American Jewish community despite the fact that it should be clear-cut that they are completely outside the boundary of what we should deem acceptable.
Say what you will about the Obama White House, but it listened to and talked with everyone without regard to politics. When the previous White House Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk stepped down, one of the most complimentary missives came from ZOA president Mort Klein, who heads a group that is hardly a supporter of the current administration. Is anyone confident that the next White House will behave the same way? Will it listen to or deal with groups that do not share its views? My fear is that the Trump administration will look at how it so easily divided Jewish groups over an issue that should not even be debatable, and make the divisions even worse by rewarding groups that it views as compliant and freezing out groups that it views as intransigent. Once this structure of contestation has been set up, opposing the administration on anything will become that much harder, including on issues that directly threaten American Jewish interests or Israel.
American Jewish groups are not going to see eye to eye or march in lockstep on every policy issue, nor should they. It was eminently reasonable that some groups dedicated almost all of their time and energies to opposing the Iran deal while other groups to supporting it. Policy differences are not themselves destructive. But blatant anti-Semitism is not a policy difference; it is the reddest of red lines. We are creating in-groups and out-groups over an issue where everyone needs to be on the same side. As someone whose natural inclination is to more often than not side with pragmatism over absolutist principles, I innately understand the argument of not doing something that will foreclose any ability to have the president’s ear. Influence is often a result of being inside the room rather than shouting from a bullhorn outside it. But just as the television executives who went to Trump Tower on Monday thought that they were there to have a conversation with the president-elect and were instead berated for over an hour, I fear that we are falling into the same trap over an issue that is mission-critical to any Jewish organization irrespective of the precise mission. Do not allow Steve Bannon to become a litmus test that the Trump White House uses to determine which groups are “good” and which are “bad.” There is going to be lots to fight over and argue about during the next four years, providing us all with many opportunities to engage in Jews’ favorite pastime. If we cannot stand together at the outset when given such a wide and obvious target, then it is not going to be long before the wide and obvious target is us.
November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment
Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.
On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”
It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”
Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.
But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.
Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.
November 9, 2016 § 5 Comments
I am as disappointed and angry, and frankly shaken to my core, about what happened yesterday as anyone out there. That Trump is now the president-elect does not change the fact that he is uniquely unqualified to serve in the office by dint of his temperament, intellectual vapidity, lack of any relevant experience, terrible judgement, willingness to display and countenance all manner of bigoted and misogynistic behavior, and most crucially his clear admiration for authoritarian norms and prerogatives. I feel a mortifying sense of embarrassment that he is now the face of our country and what we offer up as a representative example of America. I am repulsed by his dark vision of our current state of affairs, and terrified for what will happen when those who have placed their sincere hopes in his ability to deliver all sorts of undeliverable promises realize that he cannot do so. Well aware of how overwrought this will sound, when I stood in front of Kira’s door this morning for thirty seconds before going in because I wasn’t sure what to tell her and because I wanted to put off for just one more minute shattering her sweet innocence about the world, it transported me back to how I felt on the terrible afternoon that my mom died and I had to call my brother and my aunts and uncles to let them know. I stand second to none in my conviction that four years from now we will be picking up the wreckage of geopolitical upheaval unlike anything seen since WWII.
But despite all of this, there is one – and only one – appropriate response. The United States of America only works if we all accept that we belong to a single political community and that the legitimacy of our political system is above question. I never had any patience for those who treated President Bush as illegitimate because he lost the popular vote; we have an electoral system that gives the presidency to the winner in the Electoral College, and unless you want to throw out the entirety of the Constitution, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you want to abide by and which parts you want to ignore. Similarly, I had even less patience for those who treated and still treat President Obama as illegitimate based on debunked and puerile conspiracy theories about his citizenship, allegiances, or his alleged un-Americanness. There is nothing more disgusting to me than Americans who derogatorily refer to their elected chief executive as “your president” because they didn’t vote for him or don’t support him. If you are an American citizen, the person who takes the oath of office on January 20 is our president whether you like him or not. Them’s the facts, and there is literally nothing less American or more unpatriotic than behaving otherwise. Those of you who could not grasp this very simple principle during the past eight years should hang your heads in shame and should have the decency and self-awareness not to lecture anyone about it now that you have a president you like, and those who will not be able to grasp this very simple principle for the next four years will forfeit the right to complain about how President Obama was treated during the past eight.
With all that said, I am going to do anything and everything I can to oppose what I believe will be a disastrous Trump presidency, but I will do it based on disagreements with his policies and his behavior and not based on any questions about his legitimacy. I suspect that many of you will do the same, and I welcome any and all thoughts about productive ways to limit the policy fallout that is coming. Spare me your pablum about coming together. We do not have to unify as a country, heal the political divisions, just accept the inevitable, or treat this as anything but a dark day, and I hope that we don’t. The consequences of this election cannot possibly be overstated, particularly if – like me – you care first and foremost about foreign policy and America’s place in the world. Stop making idle threats about making aliyah or moving to Canada, and instead fight tooth and nail to ensure that the United States remains the greatest country on earth. Be the loyal opposition. Be an American by conviction and not by convenience.
But we absolutely must be unwaveringly unified as a polity, which means that on January 20, Donald Trump becomes OUR president. It means sincerely wishing and praying for his success as a president and as the leader of our country, even and especially if you think, as I do, that he will be a historically, disastrously, abysmal failure. Lead by example in fearing and preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. Be an American first.
November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
On Election Day four years ago, I wrote about the following scenario, which is worth recounting again this year. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, with the most troubling irregularities occurring in territory controlled by the challenger’s brother, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.
The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges to declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. After seeing to it that his troops had placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him out of the capital, he then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace.
The question is, what happens next? Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? Based on this set of facts, this country is likely going to experience an outbreak of violence, if not armed civil conflict, and authoritarian rule is almost certainly going to prevail. Fortunately, we do not have to guess the trajectory of this country’s future because this series of events actually occurred somewhere relatively recently, but the country in question was not Yemen, Zimbabwe, or Syria. As many of you have already realized, the country I have described is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration. As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.
The reason that transfer of power here is so routine is because we vote. If you ask most people why voting is important, they will say it is because it allows the people to decide who their leaders will be, but I don’t think that is correct. Choosing our leaders is the outcome, but not the biggest reason it matters. It matters because the simple act of voting protects our freedom and our political system, without which it won’t much matter who our leaders are. One of the ironies of our unparalleled democracy is that the right to vote allows people to purposely not exercise that right if they choose not to do so, but that is the wrong way to look at things. Being a citizen of a democracy gives us rights, but it also comes with responsibilities and obligations, and expecting to keep those rights without taking the responsibilities and obligations seriously is the best and fastest way to see those rights disappear. Voting is the ultimate responsibility and obligation, and if you choose to stay home today, not only do you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome when you inevitably don’t like it, but you risk losing the freedom to stay home next time.
Voter apathy seems higher this year than it has ever been, but no matter how you feel about this election, go vote. Want to make America great again? Go vote. Think America is already great and has to be protected from someone who doesn’t understand that? Go vote. Hate both candidates and bemoan the state of our politics that has produced two historically unpopular nominees? Go vote. Think that voting doesn’t matter because there is no real difference between the candidates and their policies, and the system is rigged anyway? You’re wrong, and go vote. No matter what your preferences or political proclivities, go vote. Whoever wins at the end of this day, there is no scenario in which not exercising your ability to protect our system of government is the right decision. Demonstrate that the awesome power of the American electorate is something that can never be trifled with or taken away, and make sure that the story that I told above never unfolds in this country with a different ending. Go vote and celebrate what makes this country unique in the history of the world, and happy Election Day to all.
November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.
I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.
The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.
Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.
Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.
Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.