In response to a Facebook post wondering at the uncritical commitment to Israel insisted upon by the American far-right, and their insistence that any wavering from that commitment is “anti-Semitic,” I wrote the following essay:
Being critical of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitic,” just as being critical of America is not necessarily “anti-American” (and, for that matter, being critical of any given religious order, movement, or individual, isn’t necessarily an affront to “God”). Israel and America are both nations, more like than unlike others despite the mythologies surrounding them.
Israel and America have had an important strategic relationship, confused and exaggerated by two religious communities that have become overzealously committed to America’s unflagging and unquestioning support of Israel, even to the point of to some extent ceding our own sovereignty to Israel. Those two groups are, of course, the American Jewish community, which has always been overwhelmingly blindly and fanatically pro-Israel (though not without many exceptions, Jews who are first and foremost humanists and are first and foremost concerned with our shared humanity), and, now, conservative evangelicals, who have their own religious reasons for feeling a zealous commitment to Israel (having something to do with their interpretation of the requirements for the Rapture, as I understand it, rather than any sincere love of Israelis) combined with their own ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist leanings.
Israel’s history and pre-history are also both critical threads in a complete understanding of the geopolitical landscape into which it has woven itself, and the moral implications of that choice. The one thing that isn’t relevant to anyone but Israelis themselves is their ancient, religious-based claim to the land: Every parcel of land on the face of the Earth has changed hands –far more often by violently imposed than by peacefully mutual means– many, many times over the ages, and the current legitimate claims of one racial/ethnic/religious group that had been in continuous possession of that parcel for about a thousand years prior to the Israeli colonization and usurpation of that parcel had, up until that point, the far superior claim to legitimate rights over that parcel.
So, one thread in the tapestry to understand is the very legitimate grievance of the Palestinians, whose currently and extant ancestral land was colonized by a group of Europeans who decided to call it their own and create a state explicitly dedicated to their own culture and religion on it, instantly reducing the pre-existing inhabitants to the status of second-class citizens. Another thread of the tapestry is the recognition of the strong and compelling push factors that induced that European population to do so, though the legitimacy of those push factors (i.e., a history of violent oppression, culminating in the Holocaust), as horrific and empathy-inducing as they may be, can’t justify colonizing and oppressing another, unrelated, foreign people. (That injustice experienced by the Palestinians, however, does not justify and excuse their own atrocities committed since the establishment of the state of Israel, a lesson to those who forget their humanity in the midst of their commitment to other abstractions.)
But another fact of our geopolitical history is that it is a story of borders drawn and redrawn, populations placed and displaced, by endless series of combinations of militant initiative and gross injustices, so that once some new formation becomes a fait accompli, the injustice of its formation becomes less relevant than the reality of its existence. No modern nation on Earth can claim not to trace its roots to the military conquest of other peoples and the drawing of lines in the sand based on that conquest (if there are a few tribes scattered about the world, who still have some identity of themselves as a nation, who never occupied land they took from others, they are an exception to the rule defined more by the circumstances they encountered than by some idealized superior moral quality of their own). For that reason, Israel’s right to exist should not be brought into question; the Israelis aren’t going anywhere, and any agenda that insists they do at this point can only become a source of gross inhumanity.
Finally, there is the issue of the Israeli-American relationship and their combined and separate relationships with the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. America quickly recognized Israel’s right to exist, in part to avoid having to absorb millions of European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, in part due to the presence of large numbers of Jews in America who strongly favored supporting Israel, in part due to a sense of the inhumanity that had been inflicted on the Jews in the chapter of world history just preceding the establishment of the state of Israel and some generalized debt of humanity to them that that chapter incurred, and, undoubtedly, in part due to recognition of the strategic value of such an alliance. And America quickly formed a strategic partnership with Israel, becoming Israel’s staunchest and invaluable military and economic supporter in return for having a country-sized base of operations and proxy agent in a region of the Earth very much at the vortex of historical geopolitical struggle and conveniently located near the Eastern Communist Block.
This meant that the hatred of the Arab world toward Israel for colonizing and usurping what had been an Arab country became generalized to the United States as well, and, in some ways, raised to a higher pitch against the United States, whose superior wealth and power and secularity all piqued the jealousies and religious animosities of many in that region of the world. America, the rich, secular, militant supporter of the small power that had ensconced itself on previously Arab land, easily became “The Great Satan” in the popular Arab mind (and, yes, the animosity toward America in the Arab world, while far from universal, is very wide-spread).
Our unfailing support of Israel’s own sometimes overly aggressive reactions to their own perceived insecurity has not helped this modern historical animosity between America and the Arab world. All of this combined with our support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, in order to use them as proxies to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and our choice to leave abruptly once that was accomplished, leaving a tribally-contested power vacuum and a whole lot of very deadly state-of-the-art military hardware and weaponry. As a result of that latter choice, a very bloody civil war ensued in Afghanistan, for whose intensity we were in part correctly blamed, resulting in the establishment of the Taliban, who hated us for all of these reasons involving our relationship with Israel; our secularism, wealth and power; and the deadly and bloody ruin we had set their country up for.
So our support of Israel has come at a high price, a high price that we should have been glad to pay if that relationship really were as morally perfect as some pretend it is. In reality, we incurred the enmity of the Arab world in part by taking a very strong side in a complex regional relationship that required more of an honest broker from what is in fact the global hegemon (The U.S.). (The extent that we failed to be an honest broker can also be exaggerated; our shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has often played a very valuable role in resolving conflicts there, and forging new alliance where enmity had existed, such as between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) This is a difficult error to correct at this point, but one which we should strive to correct by taking a harder line with Israel, not rescinding our alliance, but insisting on more restraint, accountability, and accommodation from those often wayward allies of ours.
If we viewed a time-lapse map of the world across geological history, we would see mountains rising and falling, seas swelling and drying up, continents drifting and colliding, climatic regions expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight. If we viewed a less condensed time-lapse map of the world across human history, we would see nations rising and falling, empires swelling and drying up, cultures drifting and colliding, borders expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight.
The world is in constant flux, geologically and anthropologically. Even in my lifetime, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia dissolved into smaller nations, and the European Union consolidated into a new political entity not quite belonging to any category that had existed before. South Africa managed a remarkably peaceful transfer of political power from the white minority to the indigenous majority. Japan evolved from exporting cheap trinkets to exporting state-of-the-art high tech gadgets. China, India, and to a lesser extent Brazil are on a path of accelerating economic growth, poised to become economic powerhouses in short order.
Rewind the human historical map to prehistoric times, and watch homo sapiens emerge from, and eclipse, closely related species, pouring out from the African savanna and spreading over the face of the globe, differentiating into a plethora of local cultures, coalescing here and there into larger civilizations, fracturing here and there into smaller ones; languages, cultures, religions, ideas developing, splintering, cross-fertilizing. Fast-forward, and we’ll see something similar in our future, accelerated, respecting the borders between polities and forms only in their fluidity.
We are cognitive prisoners of our moment in history when we treat the frozen frame in which we find ourselves as if it were the moving picture itself. The human world is not reducible to sovereign nations as its immutable units; it is reducible to individuals (or, in another sense, “ideas”). We need to confront the challenges of a world composed of human beings, not one composed of nations.
One example involves global poverty. Foreign aid from wealthier countries to help address global poverty, reasonably enough, is channelled to poor countries. Except that it’s not countries that are poor, it’s people. An increasingly large portion of the world’s most poor reside in countries that are now classified as middle-income countries (http://www.economist.com/node/17155748?story_id=17155748).
Another example involves human migration. Let’s view our time-lapse map again, and watch the way in which an enclave of disproportionate wealth was produced in the northern portion of the American continent, a continent on which (to simplify slightly) the Spanish conquered densely populated, highly developed indigenous civilizations and intermarried with the indigenous population, whereas the English settled less densely populated tribal lands, intentionally and unintentionally exterminating the indigenous population. Inhabitants of the African continent were imported in many regions as chattel to be used beasts of burden. As we watch the time-lapse map play, we see that the distribution of wealth continues to favor the conquerors and to disfavor those with more indigenous blood and the descendants of those who were imported as slaves.
A land grab and an opportunistic war in the American Southwest in the first half of the 19th century led to the shift of the border in favor of the United States, and at the expense of Mexico. Combined with differences in the social institutions inherited from the respective European conquerors, these various dynamics led to a continuing polarization of wealth and poverty on the two sides of that border. As is natural in such circumstances, those to the south of the demarcation sought to migrate toward opportunity, and those to the north sought to exploit their desperation.
Those who reduce our immigration issues to “criminals” “illegally” crossing a border, and “violating” our sovereignty, engage in a convenient conviction that the present is all there ever was and all there will ever be. The disproportionate wealth to one side of the border, in this ahistorical self-justification, is deserved (despite the history of conquest, enslavement, opportunistic warfare, and just plain dumb luck involved), and those to the south have no right to migrate across our militarily imposed line in the sand. Few on the wrong side of such mythologies have ever, or will ever, adhere to them. Poverty is everyone’s problem, because poverty respects no borders in a variety of ways.
Pandemic disease, economic crises, climate change, terrorism all are problems that do not respect borders. The United States has retreated from international partnerships in which we participate in good faith, and has regressed into an attitude of uncooperative ideological insularity. We stood poised a couple of generations ago to lead the world in its inevitable and necessary gradual transformation into one with more permeable borders and more transnational social institutional cohesion. We have now become, instead, the hegemon with a comb-over, clinging to the past rather than embracing the future. And the future will be far less kind to us as a result.
On my Facebook page’s link to the post What Does Democracy Mean When The Outcome Of The Election Is All But Certain?, Dave Schemel wrote: “This Democracy is a corporate illusion,” to which Stan Dyer responded: “People have no one to blame but themselves when they believe democracy fails them. For one thing, it should never be considered a “large” turnout because more than half of the eligible voters find time to cast ballots. For another, we can’t put all of the burden of change on the backs of elected officials. Many changes can be enacted by ourselves in our own lives. We all have the power to treat each other equally, to recycle, to promote alternative energy, to talk to our neighbors about positive change, to lend a helping hand, to volunteer, to be a positive influence, etc., etc., etc.. Kennedy said it 50 years ago, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’
I responded to both: “Well said, Stan. I do think there are roles for government that people can’t effectively perform without it, due to the nature of public goods and transaction costs. But government is our agent, and when it does not act according to our will, that is ultimately our own responsibility. When people refer to the influence of corporations over our democracy, what they mean is that because candidates know that elections hinge on expensive advertising, the need for corporate money to win campaigns makes office-holders beholden to them. But, to the extent that that’s true (which is considerable), it’s true because too many people allow themselves to be too swayed by that expensive advertising, and are not diligent enough about understanding the issues and knowing the facts.
“The failings of our democracy are not caused by those who benefit from them, but by those who participate in them. Perhaps, to some extent, the failings are in human nature itself, or perhaps just the current state of human consciousness. If corporations can undermine democracy so easily, by paying for expensive ads that people allow themselves to be swayed by, then the absence of corporate influence would only mean that electoral decisions are being made on equally shallow bases, even if influenced by other mechanisms.” Or, I would now ad, “even if surrendering their sovereignty to other overlords.”
I’m facing an example of this vis-a-vis Jefferson County Public Schools right now. Several months ago, I formed the South Jeffco Community Organization, and suggested as a first project the development of a robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring program for South Jeffco kids. It made sense to try to organize such a program in cooperation with Jeffco Schools. Cindy Stevenson’s first reaction, in a Columbine Courier article on the project (http://www.lcni5.com/cgi-bin/c2.cgi?038+article+News+20100420190738038038001), was mildly dismissive (in what I’ve come to know as her style of always sounding open to ideas that she is going to do everything in her power to obstruct).
I’ve since spoken at a School Board meeting, met with Holly Anderson (area superintendent for South Jeffco), met with SJCO members, worked with another SJCO member who compiled a list of volunteers, and complied with requests to distance myself from the project so that Jeffco Schools could avoid any appearance of political favoritism (by actually engaging in politically motivated disfavoritism). But it became increasingly apparent that Jeffco Schools was shining us on, in the end telling us to write a letter to our volunteers suggesting they contact their local schools and offer to volunteer in the classroom, something we and they could have done without Jeffco Schools’ involvement.
In an exchange of emails with Cindy Stevenson, she continued to barrage me with empty assurances, insisting that Jeffco Schools loves having volunteers in the schools, has many, and so on and so forth. But the vision she kept anchoring these assurances in was one of a small trickle of volunteers into the occasional classroom, helping out teachers in very marginal ways. My vision of a robust school-community partnership was clearly not anywhere within the range of possibilities she was willing to entertain (a range basically limited to her own preferences and predilections only).
Rather than play the role she had written for me, of letting her politely stonewall me while wasting my energy accomplishing nothing, I started to challenge her, referring to “the dysfunctional status quo” and “the Kabuki theater of faddish professional development workshops”. As a result of challenging her, I received an aggressive letter from a school district lawyer, stating that Dr. Stevenson will not work with me as a community partner.
In the response I will send to School Board after the election, I write:
[I[f the Jeffco Schools administration refuses to work with me as a community partner, volunteering my time and energy in the hopes of improving our schools, on the basis of my . . . criticisms of some aspects of how Jefferson County Schools is being run, that is a decision over which I have no control, except to insist that it is a violation of the district administration's essentially fiduciary duty to its stakeholders (Dr. Stevenson manages the school district in trust on our behalf), and to strongly urge that the administration either change or be changed. Dr. Stevenson's strong-arm attempt to exclude the participation of an interested and knowledgeable Jeffco parent, on the flimsy basis that that parent had the gall to be critical of her, merely serves as further confirmation of the accuracy of my observations, and the legitimacy of my concerns.
In a democracy, constituents have a right to take an interest in, comment on, and even criticize particular policies and particular government officials, when it is their considered belief that those policies are contrary to the interests of the people on whose behalf they have been implemented, or those officials are acting in interests other than the interests of the principal whose agent they are. Despite Dr. Stevenson's insistence to the contrary, I have every right to make such observations about Jeffco schools, and about Dr. Stevenson herself, without losing my status as a member of this community, and a parent of a Jeffco Schools student....
In accord with my past experience and observations, and numerous confidences shared with me by others, it appears to me that being directly or indirectly critical of Dr. Stevenson (or those she has hand-picked to serve her will), or placing the interests of students above allegience to her, is an invitation to be aggressively targeted. One might speculate that it is precisely this autocratic tendency which motivates her to be so opposed to implementing any truly robust partnership with the community.
As a Jeffco resident and father of a Jeffco student, however, I have a right and a responsibility to take an active interest in how my school district is being run. I will continue to be a vocal community advocate for the implementation of a robust school-community partnership, which I believe is very much in the best interests of our students and of our communities. And I will continue to advocate for fundamental improvements in my school district’s administration, reducing the degree to which internal politics undermines the effectiveness of the school district in delivering the highest quality educational services, and reducing the degree to which ritualism preserves a sub-optimal status quo. These are goals that all people sincerely committed to improving the quality of our schools should find completely uncontroversial….
The only issue at hand is the quality of our school district, and the only questions to be addressed involve the merits of what I am advocating, and the accuracy of my concerns about what internal district dynamics are obstructing consideration and implementation of such proposals on the merits. I am not asking for a seat at some internal school district table from which I can be excluded (as Dr. Stevenson seems to believe); I am taking my seat at the table to which I already belong, that of a Jeffco resident and parent. This is our school district, and Cindy Stevenson is our employee.
Here’s the point: Cindy Stevenson does not succeed at being an autocratic local ruler because of corporate backers, or big money, but rather because of constituent complacency and inattention. It may be that Dr. Stevenson’s talents are more beneficial than her autocratic tendencies are costly, but that is a calculation that the public should consciously and knowledgeably make, not one they should surrender to Dr. Stevenson’s own political maneuvering. But the public is oblivious to what many who work in the district have long known: It is a crony-ridden fiefdom, with many talented people chased out and several egregiously incompetent or counterproductively overbearing ones retained and promoted due only to their personal loyalty to Dr. Stevenson.
Why would the people of Jefferson County surrender their sovereignty, surrender their school district, to an autocrat? Why would the school board that represents the people allow this to happen? The answer to the former question is that the residents of Jefferson County (or any other county) just don’t care enough to take an active role in the governance of their school district, and the answer to the latter is that, knowing that they just don’t care enough, the question for the Board isn’t whether the superintendent is an autocrat, but rather how effective an autocrat she is.
Jeffferson County Schools is a microcosm of the nation. We surrender our sovereignty by either apathy or ignorance (or, usually, both), because the former allows government to serve those who serve it, and the latter, even if not accompanied by apathy, only adds the challenge of disinformation and manipulation to the nexus of power. It does not return it to our hands. Recovering it again is no mean feat. It requires a commitment to well-informed robust participation, something that is currently in far too short supply.