Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #16

Israeli Aggression

Not unlike the American invasion of Iraq, Israel’s massive strike on Gaza is a disproportionate and inappropriate response to terrorism. And just as critics blasted the rationalizations for the devastating Russian assault against Georgian troops and Ossetian infrastructure in South Ossetia, so should we all repudiate Israeli explanations for its attacks on not only Hamas targets, but the infrastructure of Gaza, as well.

The main features of Israel’s assault, including overwhelming technological superiority, disproportionately high enemy non-combatant casualty rates and low risk to its own soldiers, also bear strong similarities to the wars initiated by Russia and the United States, both of which were strongly condemned internationally.

Over the years, the frequency with which Palestinian civilians have died in Israeli assaults, the widespread expropriation of Palestinian land for Israeli expansionism, and the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights have contributed significantly to the dramatic growth of fundamentalist Islamic groups committed to violence against Israeli and Jewish targets.

Though there is, indeed, an individual and national right to self-defense, Israel should not be allowed to claim such a right as the basis for acts of war.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Family Correspondence on Israel & Palestine

My nephew Abraham and I recently exchanged a few e-mails about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject has gotten very difficult for me to write about during the last few years, but I much enjoyed exchanging thoughts with Abe and have decided that when it comes to writing about Israel and Palestine, the perfect is definitely the enemy of what might be only barely adequate. What follows here is, at least, heartfelt.

Hi guys,

As you know, I'm going to Israel in a little under a week. I'm going to have a ton of time on the plane, and probably on buses and etc., to read; and I'd like to get a better understanding of the place and its history. So I'm asking for suggestions.

I have relatively little knowledge of Israel/Palestine's history, so I don't want anything too specialist/arcane. And it would help if it's well-written and engaging (though I can work around that).

But what I really want is a quality product, an essential book. If one (or both!) of you regard the book and/or author highly, I'll feel pretty confident that I can trust it. I worry, given the subject matter, about being propagandized to (especially since I kind of expect the trip itself to be a 10-day propaganda festival).

So. What would you recommend?


Hey, Abe,

Wish you were here. I've got so many books, but you’re going to have to go out on your own, I guess.

First off, for years anything put out by the American Friends Service Committee was about the best resource one could get. "A Compassionate Peace," which is probably out of print, was a great one-stop for the 20th century history of the region. But it wouldn't be enough, anyway.

Anything by Edward Said is a great critical resource, though sometimes a difficult read. A collection of essays by him would be an easy way to go.

Noam Chomsky, who is a friend of Said's, has written extensively about the region. "The Fateful Triangle" is a pretty comprehensive backgrounder. Not incidentally, don't carry a book by either author on your trip. That would invite debates that you can't win and that you will quickly tire of. When it comes to Israel/Palestine, everybody you meet will act like they know better than you, regardless of the facts.

A safer alternative to Chomsky and Said might be David Hirst's "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." It first came out in '70s, but it has been released twice in new editions since then. All of these books are, of course, strong dissents from orthodox pro-Israel history.

I know you don't want arcana, but Baruch Kimmerling's "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians" has a lot of good recent history. I think it's a pretty easy read, too, but I don't know how much my off and on immersion in the subject may have prepared me to read it.

Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors. He's got a book called the "The Holocaust Industry" that you might want to read after you get back. Or maybe not.

Jerome Levin of the Jewish Peace Lobby always seemed relevant to me, but it has been a few years since I looked at his stuff. But you might want to check out JPL's website.

Detail matters and, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oversimplification is especially dangerous, but I'm gonna oversimplify a little bit here. Remember, at all times while you're thinking about this, that two wrongs don't make a right—meaning that the Nazi war against the Jews cannot justify the expropriation of Palestinians.

A 60-year Arab propaganda war (much diminished, of late) against Israel is reprehensible, certainly. But it does not justify the Occupation. The propaganda campaign the Arab states waged against Israel matters, of course, but citing that as though it is the whole story and defines the Palesintian attitude toward Israel and Jews is wrong. There are plenty of Palestinians of enormous goodwill who believe the whole question of peace is not a moral one, but a political one. In other words, they believe that Israelis and Palestinians are peoples with a common fate who can and must settle their differences with compassion and a willingness to share the loaf.

That said, there are plenty of smart, well-meaning people who think that a two-state compromise can never be a permanent or stable solution. This is chiefly because an Israel that exists as a Jewish state will always be an anachronism, however compelling the arguments for a homeland for the Jews may be. The fact is that a Jewish state is a theocratic state and a fundamentalist one. Democracies cannot thrive, let alone endure, as theocratic states.

Jews won't thrive in a garrison state, either. And there is no argument that can justify forcing Palestinan citizens of Israel to live with fewer rights in what Desmond Tutu and others call an apartheid state.

Despite phrases like "a land without a people for a people without a land," the Palestinians have always existed in Palestine. Any account of the history of the place that does not acknowledge the enduring and productive presence of Palestinians is a colonialist account, as was the description of North America as wilderness when Europeans arrived on the continent.

It is obvious that few who live in or lead this country would suggest that we should return the continent to the descendants of the Native Americans who were here first, but we should never deny their existence in favor of a fairytale that pretends they weren't here (or were savages, or lost their rights to it because they didn't develop it the way Westerners believe[d] was appropriate). Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 20th century were frequently good neighbors for Palestinians, but the development of the land was very capital intensive, even though the myth is that it was accomplished almost entirely by Jewish labor in the Kibbutzim.

Finally, a one-state solution is not a continuation of the "war against the Jews" by other means. Jews could live as well and probably more sustainably in a Palestine with an Arab majority. By the 22nd century, such a place could develop as a model of peace and tranquility for a world badly in need of such examples.


P.S: You're probably sorry you asked about all this, but the damage is done. I would appreciate your feedback--I would like to edit this and put some version on my blog. You will not be included in any version without your review prior to full blogification.

Hi Jeff,

I wish I was there, too :) But this is the next-best thing.

Sometime later today, I'm going to take this email and head over to Moe's, which is an amazing 4-story palace of used books on Telegraph, just a few blocks south of Bancroft, so I might in fact find some of the items you list as being hard to locate.

That said, a few thoughts:

First, thanks for looking out for me re: Said and Chomsky. I can only imagine the shitstorm I would endure if I spent hours on the bus in Israel, surrounded by fellow pilgrims, reading the latter. Said, I think I'd have an easier time defending (and probably wouldn't raise as many eyebrows in the first place, though who knows.) But he seems a bit too academic for my current purposes.

Second, I've thought for a long time that a two-state solution was the way to go. My argument usually makes its way down, at some point, to the "demographic timebomb" and the underlying assumption that Israel can't exist the way it's "supposed to" under an Arab majority. I suppose it's also premised on the idea that a theocracy based on a by-definition racist policy of exclusion of some kind is acceptable, though I'd never condone such a thing for my own country. Characterizing it that way makes it seem too anachronistic to persist for much longer, but after all, even pirates are making a comeback these days...

Anyway, I hereby condone any and all parts of this exchange for blogification. Do with it what you will!

Thanks and love and see you soon,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.
I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago; there even my public school was Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish, and I felt it then and feel it now.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and I do.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to seek justice and because I believed my teachers who said we must do so.
I am Jewish because I have never felt any other way.
I am Jewish because dissent is my faith and my chosen fate.
I am Jewish because I learned Hebrew and then forgot nearly every word of it.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother's kitchen nothing would rise, but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club was founded by people who would not let us in.
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy at Comiskey Park who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.
I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Dad was thrilled that Grandpa lived to my Bar Mitzvah and a little beyond.
I am Jewish because I wouldn't have it any other way.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman was Jewish, and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho Marx and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms and the ghetto and the death camps and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another except when life, itself, is directly threatened, and that principle must never be compromised.

I am Jewish because with that claim I also claim my humanity and in my humanity I find this:
I am Palestinian because I, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because I have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
I am Palestinian because we are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because, although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers, we all live in the embrace of one mother, and will return to her.

I am Jewish because if you come for the Jews, why not me also?
I am Palestinian because if you come for the Palestinians, why not me also?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hey, Dude, You’ve Got Something Stuck In Your Teeth

“Before language, we were critically limited in our ability to represent what wasn’t there,” writes Daniel Levitan in “The World in Six Songs.”

When I reflect on the meaning of this statement, I wonder how exactly it applies in very specific cases. Having no knowledge of linguistics, at all—or perhaps it is my equally limited grasp of anthropology that fails me—I have no idea if language first developed to distinguish you from me; or to help us all to understand that fire is not merely hot, but dangerous; or to share vocally the good feelings generated by touching and rubbing each other.

Regardless, once we had a word for rabbit and one for fire, we certainly needed more words to communicate our delight in the taste of cooked rabbit. I assume that it is at that point that things must have begun to get really complicated.

How do you say to a hungry person holding a dead rabbit and possessing a vocabulary of, say, 40 words, that we should cook the thing before we eat it? And cook it with the skin off because, after all, you want to wear the furry part on your head?

What if “skin,” meaning remove the hide, was the 50th word you learned? That means the dude holding the rabbit is 10 words behind you, not interested in a language lesson, and staring at you as though you, the educated one, are some sort of crazy caveperson.

You, meanwhile, are thinking this guy is an idiot, but he’s also the one holding dinner. Armed with only the rudiments of language, you are probably going to shrug and eat your portion raw, pausing occasionally to pick rabbit hair out of your teeth.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Poem for Language Experts

Poem for Language Experts

You say, ding-dong.
I say, pooh-pooh.
Ta-ta, you shout.
Yo-he-ho, I sing.

Arf, arf, you bark.
And then, bow-wow.
Grrr, I growl.
Cuckoo, you tease.

Stones, I throw.
Down, you fall.
Hop, I dance. Hop hop away.
Sneak and slither, you creep behind.

Then bam and down I fall.
Ouch, I yell.
Ha-ha, you laugh.
Boohoo, I cry.

Blood, I show.
Sorry, you shrug.
Me, too, I mug.
Happy, we hug.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #15

Actually, I never noted on this blog that the Post did publish letter #12. Obviously, I found that apparent success somewhat demoralizing. The evidence for that lies in the fact that I waited so long to write #s 13 & 14. Maybe they'll publish this one. It is, after all, somewhat sycophantic.

What Journalism Should Be


Colbert King’s relentless pursuit of the facts in the jailhouse death of Jonathan Magbie (“For Jonathan Magbie, a Catalogue of Injustice," Dec. 6) deserves much praise. In the column, King thanks his editors for allowing him to return to the story 14 times since October 2004. In the process, King and the editors have provided us all with an example of what journalism should be.

This matters as surely as do First Amendment protections. Without such dogged pursuit and publication of stories that illuminate recurring issues in our society newspapers would be unworthy of their constitutional protections.

In Magbie’s case, Judge Judith Retchin so badly failed any reasonable humanitarian standard it is a wonder she remains in office. Likewise, in the Magbie instance and others, the D.C. jail has failed repeatedly to balance its duties to community safety with fairness in its treatment of prisoners. Based on King’s repeated accounts, it seems equally fair to say the hospital, now know as United Medical Center, failed miserably at keeping Magbie alive, clearly UMC’s first responsibility.

And of what was Magbie, a 27-year old, ventilator-dependent, quadriplegic, guilty? A first-time offense against marijuana possession laws.

There is no question in my mind that what happened to Jonathan Magbie shames us all. But as long as journalists and their editors give such stories the attention they deserve, we will have opportunities to fix the institutions and policies that permit such tragedies. And the country will have a journalism that serves our needs.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dean Baker and the Economic Right Stuff

If there is a more delightfully rational and straightforward economist around than Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, somebody needs to tell me. I don’t write much--I wish I could make myself do it more. But reading Baker’s stuff makes me want to package his ideas and analysis and get it out to a wider audience. My reliance on Dean for economic and political truth is so complete, I would be roadkill without him.

“Paulson and Bernanke spread the wealth around” is a recent and useful example of Dean’s thinking. He observes that when Barack told Joe the Plumber that he favored tax increases on incomes over $250,000 in order to spread wealth, the loudest responses were critical and adverse.

But, Dean writes, “fortunes will be made or lost depending on how this bailout money is used. For example, Secretary Paulson just agreed to lend another $20 billion of the Treasury's bailout money to Citigroup.

“In addition, the Federal Reserve Board agreed to guarantee up to $300 billion of presumably bad assets. This is an enormously valuable guarantee. If Citigroup had to arrange a comparable guarantee in the private market, it would almost certainly pay more than $30 billion a year.

“This decision sent Citigroup's stock soaring. In the week since the bailout was announced, Citigroup's stock more than doubled, adding more than $25 billion to the company's capitalization. (The government could have bought the bank outright with the money it lent to Citi.) This is great news for Citigroup's shareholders, who would be holding almost worthless stock if Mr. Paulson had not been so generous.

“Paulson's decision was also good news for Robert Rubin and other top executives at Citigroup. If the government had not stepped in, Citigroup would almost certainly be in bankruptcy and most of its highly paid executives would likely be out on the street.

“Creditors of Citigroup also benefited. If Citigroup went into bankruptcy, their loans would be frozen for a period of time while the court determined what percentage of Citi's debts could be paid. At the end of this process, many creditors would only receive back a fraction of what they are owed.

“The fact that money is being redistributed doesn't make it wrong to bail out Citigroup or any of the other companies now being aided by the various Fed and Treasury funds. We need to keep the financial system functioning. However, there is every reason in the world to be concerned about the extent to which these policies may be enriching the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the rest of us.

“In the case of the Citi rescue, there was no obvious reason why the shareholders should not be wiped out. They understood (or should have) that when they bought shares of the company that they could lose their whole investment if the company was poorly managed and went bankrupt. Similarly, there is no obvious reason that the management that wrecked Citi should not be thrown out and replaced with a more competent and lower paid team.”

There is more of Dean, lots more at Be sure also to check out “Paper wealth and the economic crisis.”

Dean may not have a prime place in the rolodexes of power, but journalists and commentators need to rely on him more often. Ordinary folks already can and do.