Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passover and the Biblical Argument for Israel

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 34 times during the past five years. The optimal time to do that probably is the week before Passover. After all, it is the biblical story of the Exodus that undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. On that point, I've had plenty to say, but I've never gotten the timing right.

Even this year, I'm a good week late--the first Passover Seder this year was Monday night. And people who were looking last week for a critical perspective on Israel and Palestine are likely not hunting hard for commentary this week.

One traditional phrase from the Passover seder expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem). In any case, my personal, aspirational, Passover phrase goes something like this, "next year I blog about the biblical argument for a Jewish state in Palestine in a more timely way."

Yes, the phrase needs work. Maybe it should be something more like, "next year, blog in Jerusalem."

Regardless, I have argued before that stories Jews generally tell for religious reasons, during seders and otherwise, is not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. In "Monotheism and the Accidental God," I put it this way:

"We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (before the common era), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists determined that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time]."

As it happens, Biblical accounts of things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

But even my version of so-called "real" events places Jews in the area a good, long time ago, when the southern Jewish state of Judah survived the destruction of the northern state of Israel. This is not such dubious history, and establishes the notion that the area was once a homeland for the Jews. One that was never forgotten regardless of the intervening history, a history that somehow became inseparable from godly promises and religious beliefs.

The real history of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

If Passover seders are to teach us anything, I believe they ought to remind us that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. It would be better to discuss what it ought to mean to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt," that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy. That ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Robert McNamara and the Dayton Daily News

A little j'accuse from the Dayton Voice

So, I'm finally taking the time to really think about the Dayton Voice--what the experience was like for me, what it was like for others, what we tried to accomplish, how much of Dayton life it chronicled, the Voice in retrospect, and other passing thoughts. Of course, to interrogate only my own self is to make the story of the Voice about me, which it most certainly was not. To get it right, I would actually have to report, talk to others who were with the Voice and of the Voice and for the Voice, readers and writers and photographers and carriers and sales staff and fellow travelers.

And I would have to set aside time and effort to write about Marrianne McMullen and what she did as co-publisher, editor and writer. She reported some of the papers most important stories, like the Dayton Public Schools' reliance on suspension and expulsion, like what prostitution felt like to the women who had fallen into it, like what Jenny Wilcox, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, experienced during and after her release, like how the Voice was Marrianne's inspiration.

But as important as it is to make sure that my story of the Voice is not some hagiographic fantasy of myself, I'm going to end this post with a pretty complete transcription of a piece I wrote for the April 20, 1996 issue of the paper about Vietnam, Kennedy-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and U.S. media at the time. In that piece, McNamara didn't lie alone," I was, per usual, much more opinion writer than reporter. And so it goes:

"Last week, the Dayton Daily News joined others in the mainstream media in criticizing former Secretary of Defense robert McNamara for hiding the truth about Vietnam. A News editorial chided McNamara for his "late, awfully late" revelations about the mistakes and failures of the devastating war against Vietnam.

"As the News would have it, the prolonged agony of the war was the responsibility of those who governed at the time and especially of an elite few, McNamara included. Americans wanted to trust their government, but the "...leadership at the top carries...the guilt of having hidden the truth from the American people," said the editorial.

"But DDN misses the point--as it must--that it took an enormous collaborative effort to hide the "truth." And the mainstream media was crucial to that collaboration, the News included.

"The media cooperated in a White House strategy of burying inconvenient facts, and omitted critical perspectives in covering the war. Such editorial policy facilitated the physical devastation of Vietnam, submerged the deepening impoverishment of parts of the United States and, ultimately undermined faith not only in American government, but in the media as well.

"After all, the truth about the war was known fairly early. In 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution that authorized President Johnson "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force" to oppose the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. But in March 1968, I. F. Stone reported in the New York Review that the alleged North Vietnamese attack in international waters on U.S. ships--the incident that the Johnson administration used to obtain passage of the declaration--actually had been a violation of North Vietnamese coastal waters and an attack provoked by the actions of the U.S. Navy. The News ought to check its own file library to see when, if ever, the paper reported that the Congressional quasi-declaration of war had been passed in response to an invented incident.

"Anti-war organizing [at the time] was based on a variety of different considerations. The United States, activists believed, had no legitimate national interest at stake in Vietnam and no reason to fight to maintain client regimes in the old outposts of French colonialism. Of course, rich ore and oil deposits in Southeast Asia and Indonesia were at stake, but access to these resources was not an admitted goal of U.S. war policy.

"Instead, we were fighting to stop a communist takeover and protect the "free world," even though a Vietnamese election in 1956 and agreed to by Ho Chi Minh was stopped by the Eisenhower administration. The News can check to see when it reported that Ngo Dinh Diem was installed with the support of the United States in preference to a freely elected Communist government."

"The national news media, and local outposts like the News, were delighted with the spectacle of protest, which they covered, and uninterested in the substance of these protests. The News, which helped to perpetuate the myth that opposition to the war tied the hands of the U.S. military, ought to go back and check its files to see when, if ever, it reported that more tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped on Europe and Japan during all of World War II.

"Thought the media was comfortable with the studied and persistent omission of the facts about the air bombardment of Vietnam, they delighted in reporting about alleged abuses of returning Vietnam vets by war protestors. The News might consider how many times it covered abuses of vets compared to the far more frequent physical assaults on protestors. Further, compare that to coverage of the estimated 200 or more massacres of Vietnamese villagers by American ground forces. These events were common knowledge among Vietnam vets and war protestors. They were "truths" that Washington elites and a cooperative press ignored.

"The cost of the military build-up resulted in severely underfunding anti-poverty programs. That is one reason why Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the war. The News might check its files to see how ofteh the paper reported on Dr. king's opposition to the war.

"Yes, it is terrible that Robert McNamara waited so long to confess. After all, 60,000 Americans and 400,000 Vietnamese died in the war. But mainstream dailies told precious little truth about the war and the Dayton Daily News' editorial maintains that tradition. "Awfully late" is too soon to expect an apology from the News."

"McNamara didn't lie alone," Dayton Voice, April 20, 1995.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Secretary of Peace, maybe, and other notions

including the noisy clatter of destruction,
and grief according to Dylan Thomas,
and Palestinian grief according to Mahmoud Darwish

It's hard to tell whether Rita Dove is bearing witness on behalf of the people about whom she writes, or whether she is placing them beyond our reach, leaving us unable to do anything about what is happening to them. I want her to be clearer--to tell me what to do--after she shares with us the reflections of a slave or of, say, a Benjamin Banneker, who himself seems to have lived with only one foot in this life and one foot out.

Still, Banneker promoted the idea of a cabinet-level Secretary of Peace. And earned the devotion and respect of others. I guess it's fair to say that Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate has done the same.

And she writes some haunting and beautiful poems, too.

"Where his frail hands paused
breath lingered, so that I am now

"restless, a perfumed fan,"

Dove writes in "The Kadava Kumbis Devise a Way to Marry for Love," which appears to involve first marrying a gentle man with a loving touch, although perhaps lacking the robustness to endure, and then marrying another, maybe,

"that ragged man on the hill,
watching from a respectful distance."

And who are the Kadava Kumbis, anyhow? Perhaps a people out of African history, out of African-American lore. Dove's poems may be emotionally rich; they are certainly shrouded in mist, and call for careful exploration, maybe more care than I can muster.

Though Dove may be difficult, Dylan Thomas is more so, but also sonorous as a single bass note.

"And she who lies,
Like exodus a chapter from the garden,
Brand of the lily's anger on her ring,
Tugged through the days
Her ropes of heritage, the wars of pardon,
On field and sand
The twelve triangles of the cherub wind
Engraving going."


The stanza is from Thomas' "A Grief Ago," which, I suppose, is a grief one manages to get over, but almost everything Dylan Thomas wrote seems to carry multiple meanings. I would have thought she who lies could be lying or dead, maybe, or maybe simply lying down, but then there's the rest of the poem to contend with or, even, the next sentence, which is clearly a biblical reference, but even so is quite ambiguous, though I did find a guy writing on something called Insane Journal, who appears to believe the lying is actually "having a shag in  the middle of the garden," which is "the most romantic fucking thing you can think of," which I guess makes sense, given what went on in Eden.

One has difficulty imagining a lily's anger. It's hard to see how that could be the worst part of tugging a burden "of heritage" (family trauma survived for which she seeks absolution?) behind. But it seems also that most people who love Dylan Thomas "hear" his meaning, not think it. One should maybe focus on grokking Thomas' work.

Joy Harjo isn't very prescriptive, either. In fact, in "Who invented death and crows and is there anything we can do to calm the noisy clatter of destruction?" Harjo wants to know what we think. And so she asks,

"What do you make of it?"

A guy I know once stood by the side of a road, hitchhiking, and also tripping (on acid). He watched a whole lot of cars go by during a long wait for a new ride, was asked exactly the same question by a companion. "What do you make of it?" He is reported to have responded, "a potholder," which made no sense at the time, and does not do as an answer to Harjo's question, either.

For relief from ambiguity, we might turn to Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, who was both poet and PLO official. His "Earth Poem" is no call to go green. It concludes:

"And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains"

This message does not have the virtue of lifting our spirits, but it is truth-telling and there is something uplifting about that. Solidarity with Darwish and the Palestinian people also leads me to my own version of truth as I tried to spell it out (no ambiguity here) in my poem Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian, which can be found in its entirety on Outdoor Poetry Season:

"I am Jewish because I am a child of Abraham;
Palestinians, therefore, are my brothers and sisters.
We are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because Jews, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because Jews have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers,
I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother,
and will return to her.

"If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart. "

Friday, March 15, 2013

Between paradise and fear...

...and further on.

I don't love all of "The Creation Story" by Joy Harjo, but I really do love these three stanzas:

"It's not easy to say this
or anything when my entrails
dangle between paradise
and fear.

"I am ashamed
I never had the words
to carry a friend from her death
to the stars

"Or the words to keep
my people safe
from drought
or gunshot."

Like Harjo, I've discovered I didn't (and don't and won't) "have the words" countless times, including the words to carry a friend to the stars, but here Harjo finds the words to name the shortfall. And when she rues her inability to keep her "people safe from drought or gunshot," she has named both herself and her people. Good words.

In his poem "Three Women," Donald Hall has come into possession of a few words that do get the job done. They will not carry him or anyone else to the stars, but they work for capturing the richness of some experiences and the loss that sometimes follows. In fact, they work so well that Hall uses the same words exactly in three consecutive stanzas, making up the whole of his poem:

"When you like a woman,
you talk and talk.
One night you kiss.
Another night you fuck.
You're both content,
maybe more than content.
Then she goes away."

The poem is included in Hall's last book of poetry, The Back Chamber, described on the book jacket as "full of the life-affirming energy" of the poet. But I see it full of a rich, inescapable melancholy.

Kim-An Lieberman won a poetry prize from the Dayton Voice in 1995 or '96 (I suppose I could look it up, sort through the bound copies of the paper we have in our possession, but one thing at a time here). A decade later, her book, Breaking the Map, was published and she sent an autographed copy to Marrianne and I. Her book ended up being part of the motivation for publishing Wild, Once and Captured, a book of my own poetry. Sampling Kim-An's poetry I come to "Grandmother Song," and am struck by the fact that she has found a way to lift her grandmother to the stars.

"...Underneath is a ruby of blood.
The needles and tubes are webbed like milliner's lace.
Last the jade necklace, leaking the milk of her heart."

Perhaps, the words come to Lieberman because she so clearly hears and sees and feels her grandmother at the end of her life.

"...She gestures
faintly upward from the bed; I bring my ear
to the rasp of her laboring breath. I watch her draw
pin by pin from the loose chignon
...I roll the soiled gown..."

Hunting more details, I found an interview with Kim-An where she observes that "journalism and poetry, in particular, both share a language of ear-catching 'sound bites' as well as an urge to make a permanent record of fleeting events and observations." This seems an apt description of how Ernesto Cardenal goes about writing a poetry that finds the words to make permanent a record of "fleeting events." His book, Zero Hour, is a collection of what Cardenal calls "documentary poems."

"In Mr. Spencer's gold mines they X-ray
each miner twice a year
to see if he shows symptoms of TB.
If there's a shadow, he's paid off
at once. In due course he spits blood, and tries
to claim: ...
... and so he dies on a Managua sidewalk."

Cardenal, is a poet and a Catholic priest and the Nicaraguan Minister of Culture after the overthrow of Somoza. His poetry is the work of a man who hears music in his head, but feels the urgent need to change the acoustics of the world around him so that others may hear their own music. Cardenal makes poetry relevant as Lawrence Ferlinghetti insisted it should be when he wrote:

“I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs. Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?”

And Cardenal is one of the poets I was thinking about when I wrote "Wild Dogs of Poets:" 

The wild dogs of poets
speak sharps and blunts,
wish the streets
to the back alleys

of emerald cities;
some singing separately
and, alive for now,
glow in the dusky, dreaming sky.

Some scratch for pennies
wherever there are no such
generosities. Some kill time
as though they are flush,

And some few,
the chosen,
die on the barricades,
hopeful and ready.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Barbara Ransby's biography of Eslanda Robeson

The story of a smart and fierce woman written by a rigorous intellectual and a passionate partisan

I saw Barbara Ransby at Bus Boys and Poets last night. She's on a tour promoting her new book, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson.

I haven't read the book yet, but Barbara described Eslanda Robeson in very compelling terms. Robeson, called Essie by her friends (and by Ransby who spent six years researching and writing the book), was a journalist and advocate for human rights through a peripatetic lifetime, both as a companion to Paul Robeson and on international journeys of her own. She possessed "...a passion to live and speak and know and understand the world in all its amazing complexity...a capacity to love, to remain loyal, and to speak out with emphatic eloquence and steel-willed resolve against so many of the injustices of her day," writes Ransby.

How like Barbara herself, who describes her own circle of friends and family as progressive champions of a similar sort, and who deserves to be at the top of any list of current-day anti-racists, anti-imperialists and feminists. Clearly, Essie Robeson captured Ransby's imagination:

"[She] lived a life that was complicated and vibrant, rich and full, privileged but often difficult. Along the way she made some hard choices about the path she was going to follow, and about the the kind of woman she was going to be. Tough and determined, Essie fought long and hard for the ideas she believed in and on behalf of the people she loved and admired. She won some battles and lost others, but she was a fighter to the end."

I've know Barbara for a long-time, but not in the intimate way she has come to know Essie Robeson. Still, "tough and determined" sounds like Barbara to me, and so does fighting "long and hard" for ideas, and for principles and for progressive change. It does not surprise me to discover that Barbara has become the biographer of her soul-sister.

Eslanda is available from Teaching for Change. Ransby's earlier book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, is also available from Teaching for Change.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Sneaking Suspicion

(also on Outdoor Poetry Season)

Is it really a poem,
or just some clever hoax?

If you believe
in life following death,
then the sneaking suspicion,
trailing behind

like a holy phantom,
like Smeagol,
the reflection
of all our sins,

could well be the thought
that you
are already

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Dayton Voice, Again

David Esrati and Chuck Porter responded to a previous post: The Dayton Voice and A.J. Wagner. I could have used the comment section of that post to follow up, but there is so very much to say it seemed better to use a whole new post to further explore the life and times of the Dayton Voice.

The first message excerpted below is from David, a Dayton-area iconoclast of the first rank, a blogger on local political issues, and a candidate for Dayton City Commission in the upcoming election. (Read the full text in the comment section at the end of The Dayton Voice and A.J. Wagner):

Letter from David Esrati

"Jeff," David writes,

"Although I think AJ is a much better candidate than the democratic party endorsed Nan Whaley, I think of AJ as a career politicians, with a boatload of baggage."

The truth, David, is we all travel with "boatload[s] of baggage. It's the human condition. Ad hominem attacks don't accomplish much, except to muddy the water.

"[Incumbent Mayor] Leitzell is an independent, who challenged all candidates to run for less than $10K. Nan and AJ have each raised in excess of $60K already- and are going to spend much more.

"I'd have to think you'd respect that."

Well, I suppose I can respect that, and it might make Leitzell's defeat more noble when it happens. But it will still be a defeat.

"Also- the part you leave out about AJ is that he's still a political animal. He quit his last elected position as Judge, so his friend Steve Dankof could get nominated by Strickland before he left office. When Dankof wouldn't keep AJ's friends and family on the patronage payroll- AJ wanted to "un-resign." They worked a backroom deal so AJ's pal could keep her job. This is what we need to put a stop to in Dayton."

I actually omitted a lot about A.J.--mostly because I wasn't making any attempt to be comprehensive. But here's the thing, David--when A.J. published a few official county notices in the Voice, he was being a good steward of public funds and opposing policy that mandated purchasing from the Dayton Daily News at monopoly prices. That's the sort of frugal government expenditure you believe in and support, yes?

As for A.J.'s on-again, off-again retirement, why wouldn't I simply conclude that A.J. was trying to protect a competent colleague and public employee? Indeed, it seems awkward and there might be more to the story, but your implication that it was a corrupt ("back room") move ought to be supported by more rigorous journalism.

"Just because AJ put some cash in your pockets- doesn't make him a good guy, or a good choice for Mayor.

"David Esrati"

Actually, David, none of the money the county paid for those public announcements made it all the way to my pockets. In the heat of unpaid bills, it all evaporated before it hit the ground.

Who knows, maybe it paid for a press run that included an article about you--one in which we likely treated you with more respect than you ever got from the Dayton Daily News.

The next message, also excerpted, is from Chuck Porter, who worked for the Voice for several years as paper carrier, bookkeeper and circulation manager. When he finally left Dayton, Chuck and his family moved to Nebraska to manage an organic farm. Chuck's still out there, making his committed, diligent and trying-to-be-green way.

Letter from Chuck Porter

"Jeff," Chuck writes,

"I have very limited memory of AJ Wagner, and, so, won't comment about his character or fitness for leadership. But, I couldn't let a read of your post go by without thanking you (and I sincerely mean this) for letting me see and experience a way in which speaking truth to power and embracing diversity could be guiding principles for a business. The Voice was much more (and, I know, sometimes much less) than a business.

Well, our mission--to treat working people, women, people of color and the LGBT community as legitimate readers, sources and audiences for the news was a very good thing, but I'm not sure about the guiding-principles-for-a-business thing. Regardless, it seemed the right thing to do.

"I look fondly back on my years as a staff member, and I proudly remember that we paid delivery drivers $8/hr -even in the mid-to-late 90's- because we knew they were people of the utmost importance to our mission. I was proud and happy to be one of those drivers, and I was even more delighted to remain on staff in other roles, even after your departure.

"It is my hope that you and Marrianne look at those years in Dayton as important and formative, not just for you, but for a city that needed a Voice."

Thanks, Chuck for the "atta-boy."  Marrianne and I hope that the Voice told stories that were relevant and unique, but what we know is that being part of the Voice and working with everybody there and developing real relationships with readers and activists was singularly enriching. No other work experience in my lifetime has taught me more or been more rewarding. We had the privilege to be part of something much bigger than ourselves.

"...I do believe countless people were changed -if even in a small way- by picking up The Dayton Voice off the rack somewhere in the Miami Valley. Awareness was given where it hadn't been before...regarding racial/sexual/gender inequality, ecological/financial negligence, and political/media shenanigans, eyes that were closed were pried open with the possibilities for local performance and visual art.

"I came into that mix of people because you invited me.

"Chuck Porter"

Whatever we accomplished we did it together, and you were part of the mix because you recognized what the Voice was trying to do and made yourself part of that effort. Too bad we couldn't make it last, but like you say, the Voice is still there, part of us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Israel and the Path to Self-Destruction

Biden on Israel is a waste of everybody's time, even AIPAC

So Joe Biden wants the main pro-Israel pressure group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to know that Barack Obama is serious when he says that he will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons ("Biden seeks to reassure AIPAC of loyalty"). But what Joe Biden wants AIPAC to know falls far short of what Biden himself probably knows and definitely needs to say:

Israel is on a path to self-destruction and has been on that path since, oh, say, its founding.

Citing the opinions of four former directors of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, I described the problems with that path in "End the Silence" for the Nov. 21, 2003 issue of In These Times. The immediate stimulus for the piece was the publication by an Israeli newspaper of an interview with the former security chiefs.

At the time, Israel was in the process of building a security fence to separate the occupied Palestinian territories on the West Bank from Israeli settlements established in the territories. A quote pulled from Yedioth Aharanoth cited the opinion of Avraham Shalom, head of Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986: “[The Fence] creates hatred, it expropriates land and annexes hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to the state of Israel. The result is that the fence achieves the exact opposite of what was intended. … We must once and for all admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully. Yes, there is no other word for it: disgracefully. … We have turned into a people of petty fighters using the wrong tools."

In 2003, when Shalom began to speak out, there were 401,820 Israelis living in the settlements. Ten years earlier, when Israeli and Palestinian representatives signed the first of the Oslo peace accords, there were less than 300,000 Israelis living on the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and Gaza. By last year that number had reached 550,000 and is still climbing.

But the former leaders of Shin Bet are still speaking out. In The Gatekeepers, a documentary directed by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, the four Shin Bet chiefs originally named in the Yedioth Aharanoth article are joined by two others. The film lays out their critique of Israeli policy and the occupation of the Palestinian territories. As a group they are clear, Israeli policy must change.

Avrahom Shalom damns the occupation. "'s a brutal occupation force," he says, "similar to the Germans in World War II.

Ya'akov Peri, head of Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994 said that being the chief security officer and enforcing Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories was deeply affecting. "These moments end up etched deep inside you and, when you retire, you end up becoming a bit of a leftist," he said.

The brutality of the Israeli occupation can't possibly be news to Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, part of that time as the chair of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. He is also likely to be quite familiar with the details of international law forbidding the establishment of settlements on occupied territories. Biden may even be aware that the state of Israel was created by the unilateral action of Jewish settlers living in Palestine after Palestinians and neighboring Arab states rejected a United Nations resolution that aimed to internationalize Jerusalem and create separate Jewish and Palestinian states.

Despite all this, Biden chose to appear before AIPAC and pander. "We will continue to oppose any efforts to establish a state of Palestine through unilateral actions," Biden said, referring to Palestinian efforts to seek U.N. recognition that the United States has staunchly opposed. "There is no shortcut to peace."

Of course, there is nothing unique about Biden's refusal to address what is really at stake in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Supporters of Israel routinely focus on the hostility and alleged anti-semitism of Arabs, in general, and Palestinians, in particular. But the hatred of people who consider themselves to be conquered, subjugated and dispossessed should come as no surprise to the conquerers, however far events may have receded into history. That the occupation of Palestinian territory continues is a fresh and daily reminder of injustice. That Palestinians frequently conflate Jews and Israelis in ways that supporters of Israel suggest is evidence of anti-semitism should not be a surprise, either. After all, Israelis and Jews frequently describe the theocratic state of Israel, which in law and in practice treats Arabs and Jews differently, as a democracy.

But misrepresenting the reality will not make a theocracy and a military occupation the path to a safe harbor in the Middle East. That way lies only pain and loss for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why doesn't Obama call for more stimulus?

Make the Republicans say "no"

Barack Obama's big win in November could have been a springboard for moving American political dialogue to the left. Arguably, it has done that, at least a little bit. Of course, Sandy Hook and Hurricane Sandy have had a role in that, too.

After all, state legislatures and Congress are seriously considering tighter restrictions on guns (Maryland, for example), state legislatures are advancing action on climate change over right-wing objections (Kansas, for example), and six Republican governors are going ahead with a Medicaid expansion they had previously opposed.

But Obama's decision to focus on potential damage caused by the sequester misses an opportunity to push political dialogue even further to the left. And, as Robert Reich argues in a column carried by the Huffington Post, focusing on the damage isn't effective tactically, either.

However real that damage might be, it probably won't be obvious to most Americans, Reich says. "Moreover, the blame game can be played both ways, and Republicans are adept at slinging mud," he wrote.

Instead, Obama should "...directly rebut the two big lies that fuel the Republican assault," Reich writes. "The first big lie is austerity economics--the claim that the budget deficit is the nation's biggest economic problem now, responsible for the anemic recovery.

"The second big lie is trickle-down economics--the claim that we get more jobs and more growth if corporations and the rich have more money because their the job creators, and job growth would be hurt if their taxes were hiked."

Reich's piece doesn't outline what Obama should be offering in opposition to austerity and trickle-down economics, but he's right that swapping accusations over the sequester helps Republicans avoid the debate over how much damage right-wing economic policy has caused over the past three decades, and especially since the collapse of the housing market dumped the country into a recession that caused job losses from which we still have not recovered. That recovery should remain the priority for national economic policy and President Obama is in the best position to make that argument.

He could begin by reviewing the work of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), still the best source for a full look at the high price of deficit reduction at this time and what additional stimulus might accomplish. And, if the president needs to look at new ways of generating revenue, he should study CEPR's carefully documented argument for a financial transaction tax.

A bill in the Senate calls for the imposition of just such a tax. A press release from CEPR summarizes the benefits of the tax.

"The Harkin-DeFazio bill provides a way to raise a substantial amount of revenue while at the same time making our financial markets more efficient."

"The modest tax would discourage an enormous amount of short-term trading while having almost no impact on the ability of markets to finance productive investment. The cost of the tax would be born almost entirely by the financial industry, since for most investors the money saved as a result of lower trading volume will offset the higher cost of trades.

"At a time when Congress and the President are looking to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other essential programs, the idea of getting $40 billion a year from taxing speculation in the financial industry looks very attractive."

Wouldn't that move the debate in a progressive direction?