Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Middle East Conundrum - A Suggested Way Forward

The history of conflict between the Jewish people and the majority cultures in the Middle East is an old one going back to biblical times and reemerging with a vehemence in the 20th century.  To find a way out of the Middle East conundrum, one must first understand that history.  Please bear with me; it’s a bit complicated.

The Jewish people have perennially been looking for a place to call home, spiritually and physically.  For more than 1000 years, from biblical times through the early period of Roman rule, they found that home in what is present day Israel and the West Bank (Judea, Samaria, and Galilee).  They prospered but were not safe even there as they were conquered several times during that period, persecuted by the victors, and ultimately dispersed to all corners of Europe.  

During the long period of diaspora that followed, Jews remembered the days when they were a people in their own land and not subject to persecution.  The phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” was invoked not just as nostalgia but as a fervent hope that Judaism would once again have a spiritual center and physical home.

Fast forward to modern times.  Jews and Arabs have been in a constant struggle since the early 1900s over the establishment of a Jewish state in the historic Holy Land.  It’s important to note that this has not been a conflict of religion but a conflict over land.  

Prior to WWI, the Zionist movement within Judaism sought to make the dream of next year in Jerusalem a reality and encouraged Jews to immigrate to the area.  During WWI and after the fall of the Ottoman empire, both Arabs and Jews sought promises from the British, who came to have the mandate over the area, designated Palestine, to establish an independent state.  

Many Jews denigrated the Palestinian claim for a state in Palestine because they had never governed the area nor had they ever been a distinct people.  But remember that this was a time when a people’s right to self-determination, however vaguely defined, came into vogue as a basis for nation building.  Even though the Arabs living in what became known as Palestine had never before that creation identified themselves as Palestinians, or some other name distinct from their fellow Arabs, this was the land where they had lived for hundreds of years and they felt they should have the right of self-determination.

The Arabs and Palestinians, on the other hand, felt that the Jews were interlopers.  Regardless the situation in biblical times, they had not been present to any but a marginal extent for almost 2000 years.  Even at the end of WWI, after a period of immigration, there were only 60,000 Jews in Palestine or 8% of the population.  By the end of the mandate, though, further Jewish immigration had swelled that number to 570,000 or 32% of the population.

In 1947 the U.N. General Assembly voted to support partition of the Palestine Mandate into separate Jewish and Arab states, with the two in an economic union.  Israel was subsequently declared a state at the end of the British Mandate.  The Arab countries, who had not cooperated with the U.N. Commission that drew up the partition plan, chose not to accept the partition and instead invaded to try to gain all the territory for an Arab state.  Not only did they lose the 1948 war, but the Palestinians were left with much less land than they would have had under the U.N. partition plan.  After the war, the Palestinians again chose not to declare a state in the area under their control.  

The Palestinian leadership for decades were pawns in the hands of the powerful Arab countries of the area who had no desire for peace.  They wanted Israel wiped off the map.  Period.  The Palestinian leadership adopted the same attitude.  Whether or not they still do is a confusing puzzle.  In 1988, Yasser Arafat stated that the PLO accepted the existence of Israel; later moderate leaders have said the same.  But despite claiming that the Palestinian Charter had been amended to remove the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel, it has never been actually amended; they decided to amend it but never followed through.  So their position is at best murky.  Hamas, of course, still calls for the destruction of Israel.

For Israel’s part, it has always and understandably thought of itself as in a defensive position with enemies on all sides.  As a result, although Israel is a democracy with protected rights of religion, etc., and the Palestinians who chose to remain in Israel and become citizens have on the one hand full legal rights of citizenship, including voting for the Parliament, they have been treated as second-class citizens in many ways.  For example, there is widespread employment and other forms of official and unofficial discrimination, and a large disparity exists in state funding for Palestinian schools and towns compared to Jewish ones as well as other Jewish v Arab needs.  Israel thinks of itself as a Jewish state, not just a Jewish-majority state, and that not surprisingly creates problems. 

The wars, occupation, and intifadas that have followed were an almost inevitable outgrowth of this historically combative and distrustful relationship.

There has always been a peace movement in Israel, but most governments have acted more to strengthen Israel’s presence in the West Bank and thus make a Palestinian state on the ground impossible.  Even the much ballyhooed  peace plan presented by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak during President Clinton’s Camp David peace initiative in 2000 was not a plan, objective observers felt, for a viable Palestinian state.  Nevertheless, it’s rejection by Arafat was the final straw for most Israelis and many Americans in the debate over whether the Palestinians really want peace.

On the other side, the almost 50-year occupation of the West Bank has with each passing decade deepened the hatred of Israel, especially since 2000 when West Bank Palestinians ceased being able to work in Israel as a result of the Second Intifada.  Thus you now have a whole generation of young men who have never interacted with Israelis other than the occupying military and Jewish settlers.  The problem is now not so much the enmity of the large Arab states, as it is the hatred of Israel by many Palestinian.  This shift can be seen in Hamas’ winning the ill-conceived election of 2006.

In the Bible, it speaks of Pharaoh’s heart having been hardened towards the Jewish people.  God sought to show his power and break Pharaoh’s will by sending the plagues.  And while that worked, Pharaoh quickly regained his senses and chased after the departing Jews only to be drowned in the Red Sea.

This story, regardless of the lack of historical or archeological documentation, has direct relevance to the current situation in the mideast.  Violence and fear do not soften hearts.  The hearts on both sides, which tended to distrust the other from the very start, have only been hardened over time as a result of the violence meant to break the other.  

In my opinion, if the peace process is to be truly revived and bear lasting fruit, a way must be found to soften the hearts of both sides.  Because of the history, this must be something much deeper than the “confidence building measures” that have been suggested in past negotiations.  As the saying goes, half measures will avail us nothing.

Because I feel it is impossible to imagine that an Israeli government, not just the current Netanyahu-led government but any future government, or the Palestinian leadership will have the mental and political flexibility and openness necessary for this process to move forward, I suggest that a working group be formed of citizen-representatives from both sides to work out a plan that would then be presented to the people as well as the then-existing governments.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” I can see readers thinking.  “This problem has been intractable even when very experienced and determined heads have put their minds to this.”  Ah, but the minds have almost always been government-connected political minds.  I honestly think that a major problem has been that people unconnected with government haven’t been asked to take the lead.  They are the ones who truly want peace.

It would be presumptuous for me to express my thoughts on what the major points of a peace plan might be, and so I will not, with one exception (see below).  However, because this problem has been so intractable and all efforts to date have failed, I am going to suggest something about the process, beyond the point I’ve already made, to help soften hearts.
  1. Each side must acknowledge the role they’ve played in creating distrust over the years.  This must be more than a mouthing of words.  It must be a heartfelt mea culpa of the various ways in which each side contributed to the current state of affairs.  
  2. A massive information and people-to-people campaign needs to be undertaken to reintroduce Palestinians and Israelis to each other as human beings after years of conflict. 
Finally, the one point I feel needs to be addressed here regarding a peace plan, because I have never heard it discussed when previous plans or outlines were presented, concerns the status of Palestinian-Israelis.   I have noted earlier in this piece that they are second-class citizens, suffering from widespread official and unofficial discrimination.  That must end.  They must be treated equally in all areas of public policy, including budgetary matters.  All official examples of discrimination against them must be removed.  And the government must undertake a major campaign to stamp out employment and other private discrimination against them.

That said, it takes two to tango.  If Palestinian-Israelis wish to remain in Israel and be citizens of that nation, then they need to pledge allegiance to the flag/state in exchange for finally being treated as full and equal citizens of Israel.

There is no question that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians/Arabs will be exceedingly difficult to bring to a peaceful conclusion.  It will require the suspension of decades of distrust.  It will require the ability to not let the violent actions by those who would seek to destroy the peace process … and almost certainly there will be such actions by groups on both sides … to succeed.  It will require giving your former enemy the benefit of the doubt over and over again.

Most important of all perhaps, it will require reeducating both populations that Israelis and Palestinians are all human beings with basically the same desires and that all deserve freedom, respect, and equality.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Working Towards Equality, Freedom, and Dignity for All

In my post, “Creating a Safer World for Our Children,” 4/5/15, I noted that "it is conceivable that an organization of the major religions united to end the us v them mentality could be formed … an outgrowth, for example, of the Global Freedom Network … which would make a real difference." And so I sent the following open letter to the founding members of the Global Freedom Network, the signers of its Declaration to End Modern Slavery:

  Roman Catholic: His Holiness, Pope Francis
  Anglican:  Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
  Hindu:  Her Holiness Mata Amritanandamayi
  Buddhist:  Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
          The Most Ven. Datuk K. Sri Dhammaratana
  Jewish: Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka
      Chief Rabbi David Rosen
  Orthodox:  His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Martholomew
  Muslim:  Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb
         Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Basheer Hussain al Najafi

I applaud your recent declaration to end modern slavery by 2020 throughout the world and for all time.   While this is certainly an important undertaking, it unfortunately only scratches the surface of man’s inhumanity to man.  The world is rife with examples far more subtle than modern slavery that “fail to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity.”

I am therefore writing you, and your co-signers, with a request that you all join together again and go further  … clearly stating to the world that the suffering that man has endured at the hands of his fellow man, whether in war, civil conflict, everyday life, or within the family must end because it too is caused by actions that fail to respect the equality of all, the right of all to live with freedom and dignity.  For the sake of the children of the world and future generations, this lack of respect for one another must end.  

We are all children of a single God.  Regardless what our religion (or non-religion), nationality, race, sex, ethnicity, or age, we are all one.  We may each have our own traditions, our own path to God or understanding the mysteries of the universe, but we are all nevertheless one.  We are all created by the same life force.  We are parents and children, but we are still one.  Whatever has come between us and drives us apart is learned and is not natural or according to God’s law.

While the suffering caused by war, civil conflict, and modern slavery is recognized by many as inhumanity, the suffering experienced by many within the family and as a part of everyday life is generally not considered inhumanity because it is not horrific.  Yet inhumanity it is … behavior that causes physical or mental harm or pain is cruel and thus by definition inhumane.

Within the family that should be a sanctuary of love and support, a refuge from the challenges faced in the world, it is instead far too common to find conflict, unkindness, disrespect, and cruelty between spouses, parents and children, and siblings.  How can children grow up to be whole, loving, secure people in such an environment?

Likewise the experience of discrimination and bias that many people face in everyday life is painful and cruel, the insidious remnant of age-old conflicts or animosities, including religious ones.  As with conflict within the family, these experiences often scar people psychologically for life.  And they rent the fabric of a nation and the family of man.

Any acts of inhumanity are not acceptable in a civilized society because people are thereby harmed.   

And so I ask that you join together again and vow to use your energies and your offices to teach the people of the world that we are indeed all one, and that every person should follow the maxim that is to be found in each of your religion’s heritage … to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Any action that fosters a perception of us v them must end.  Whether between members of a family, or groups, or nations, treating each other with respect and as equals is God’s way.

With sincere respect and humility,  I am,

Hanh Niêm, Ronald L. Hirsch

Enc:  “Creating a Safer World for Our Children”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The One-Sidedness of American Individualism

From the very beginning, the celebration of the individual has been at our core.  The Declaration of Independence declares that each of us is equal to the other and each has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The Bill of Rights ensures against unwarranted government action against the interests of the individual.

Our growth as a frontier country depended heavily on the fortitude of individuals.  These were the heroes of America’s expansion to all corners of the country.

In today’s age, we see the sanctity of individualism in fights about property rights, about whether the government can tell property owners what they can or can’t do with their property.  We see it in the statements of gun rights advocates.  We see it in the emergence of the ego-centric “Me” generation during the Reagan years that has cared little for what happens to its fellow Americans, let alone its fellow man.

But this is just an expression of one aspect of individualism … that the protection of individual rights ensures the freedom and independence of us all.  (As an aside, that those rights are not absolute is discussed in a previous post, “The Common Good Always Trumps Individual Rights,” that dealt with the problem of what to do when one person’s individual rights threaten those of another or the common good.)  The other equally important aspect of individualism is that individual thought is vital to the health and vitality of our democracy and our society.

Whatever may have been the case at our country’s founding and during its first century, our modern culture has developed in a way which finds individual thought antagonistic, not vital, to our future.  The disapproving phrase, “boat-rocker,” comes to mind.  Our capitalist system has fostered and depends on a culture of conformity.  What little individual action or thinking that exists concerning the problems of our culture, and some is excellent, has been a voice in the wilderness, drowned out by the mass media and the power of the corporate interests that control our society.

Some may argue that our political system is an example of individual thought.  I would argue that although we certainly have disagreement within the system, and certainly the Republican and Democratic parties’ current perspective on what’s in the best interest of the country differs wildly, we still have precious little individual thought.  What we see instead is conformity to two opposing perspectives, with little individual thought about either or a third way.  The online petitions from Credo and and other organizations, while helpful, are like mosquitoes to the prevailing system;  they do not attempt to address the underlying societal problem or suggest a different political structure.

Others may argue that in industry, at least the world, individual thought is highly prized.  But this is individual thought in the search for material fortune and individual thought in the furtherance of our dependance and conformity to modern technology.  There has been little, although certainly some very good, individual thought about where all this technology is leading us.  Almost no thought exists on how to stop this degeneration of human life and interaction.

Thomas Jefferson famously stated that there needs to be a revolution periodically to maintain the health of a democracy.  Given the control of our culture and society by a relatively small number of people and corporations and the subservience of virtually all Americans to that culture’s way of life, where will a nonviolent revolution of ideas have a chance to take root and grow?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

When Is War Really Necessary?

It may be, and probably is, futile to speak out against war, but futile or not, one must.  And the time to speak out against it is not when whether to go to war or not is the burning question of the day; by then it’s likely to be too late.  It is when things are developing around the world that could turn into a situation that raises the question, a constant threat, but which could be avoided if they were dealt with properly.

First, let us be clear what the impact of war is.  The immediate impact is the destruction of lives.  It destroys the lives of the young men and women who die or are severely injured, physically or mentally, in service of their country.  And it takes a heavy toll on the lives of their families.

             U.S. Deaths      U.S. Disabled
Iraq 17,847 407,911
Vietnam 58,169               75,000*
WWII    405,399 670,846*
* does not include mental disability

Lest this be read with a shrug, as people seem to accept this as a fact of life, I ask the reader to put yourself in the shoes of these young men and women, regardless of the particular war, and imagine being hit with shrapnel, a bullet, whatever.  Imagine the pain, imagine seeing and feeling your life force drain away; or imagine not dying but living forever with severe injury.  Is this something that a fellow human being can shrug off as being a necessary fact of life?  I hope not.

Many readers will likely respond, “That may all be true, but sometimes war is necessary and there’s no getting around that war involves the sacrifice of the lives of young men, and now women, to the country’s cause.” 

Let’s examine the statement that “sometimes war is necessary.”  In looking at recent history I would say that there are two types of wars … those that we do not want but are or appear to be inescapable and those that are wars of choice.  

Wars of choice are by definition not necessary and therefore don’t justify the sacrifice.  They should thus never be undertaken.

The Iraq war was an example of a war of choice.  The United States was not threatened by anything whatsoever that Saddam Hussein was doing.  Even if there had been WMDs, that would not have posed a direct threat to U.S. security.  No, given the lead actors involved, this was more likely a war over the control of oil resources.

Vietnam was also a war of choice.  There was no direct threat to our security.  Yes, I know that the domino theory said that if Vietnam goes Communist, all of SE Asia will become Communist.  But even given that, there still was no direct threat to our security.  Perhaps to some of our corporations’ lines of supply, but you do not send your young men off to die to protect that. The war in Afghanistan, as opposed to our early efforts to chase and destroy al Queda, is another example of a war of choice.

But there are instances where there appears to be little option other than war.  By the time of Pearl Harbor and our entrance into WWII, there was no other practical way to stop Hitler and Japan.  And here without question there was a direct threat to our security.  Plus, although this played no factor whatsoever in our entry into the war, there was a major humanitarian crisis … the planned extermination of the Jewish people of Europe.

This raises two issues.  The one is, could anything have been done to prevent Hitler from unleashing WWII.  Yes.  The world could have kept Hitler from rearming Germany.  Hitler accomplished this without borrowing funds from outside Germany, an amazing feat, but he did need raw materials from other countries.  If there had been a unified trade blockade of Germany, it would have had a serious impact.  Some symbolic military action would probably have also been necessary to show Hitler that his clearly expressed expansionist plans would not be allowed to proceed.  That probably would have prevented WWII.

But this option was not pursued.  As far as I know, it was not even seriously discussed.  The lesson:  one cannot avoid a clear aggressive danger; one must act to stop it before a major confrontation is required.

The other issue raised by the WWII example is whether one should go to war, and thus commit the lives of our young, over a grave humanitarian crisis such as genocide.  Here it is clearly not a matter of national security, at least not in the narrow sense.  But as a civilized country, I think we need to be committed, not to helping everyone who needs help, but to preventing an act of mass inhumanity such as genocide.  There may be no other humanitarian example that would justify war.

In this example as well, there were certainly options that could have been taken short of ultimately going to war.  The first would have been universal outrage at Hitler’s actions, including the removal of the 1936 Olympics from Germany or its boycott.  Why did these things not happen?  I must be blunt and state that at that time anti-semitism was rampant in the state departments and governments of all the leading countries of the world … certainly in Britain, France, and the United States.  

So objection to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews just wasn’t going to happen.  That fact also means that had it not been for Hitler’s threat to the Allies’ national security … had Hitler stopped at the borders of continental Europe … his plan to exterminate European Jewry would have succeeded.  

The rallying cry is, “Never again.”  But the histories of Rwanda and Bosnia show that when it comes to saving a people from ethnic cleansing (a euphemism if ever there was one) either no country will lift a finger or it will be done very belatedly.

Bottom line, Presidents should never undertake and Congress should never authorize a war of choice.  Period.  Countries that pose a potential direct threat to our security should be dealt with early in the process with the minimum, if any, force possible.  Never allow a situation to deteriorate to the point where the only viable option is war … meaning troops on the ground.  The same is true for emerging threats of genocide.  But if indeed war as a last resort is the only option, then the price must regrettably be paid.  I am anti-war, but am not a pacifist.