Category Archives: Israel

What has to be said – and who has to say it

Germans are entitled to opinions and to the choice of whether or not to voice them. We should welcome it when they do – even regarding Israel.

Günter Grass

This post is about the Günter Grass poem “What must be said”. If you haven’t read the poem yet, please do so before reading the rest of this post (German/English/Hebrew).

Lisa Goldman shared a NYT piece about how the poem has made more Germans speak up about Israel, sometimes even in ways that make Israeli lefties feel uncomfortable.1

One commenter on Lisa’s post responded: “the creators of Holocaust should keep their mouth shut for the sake of decency”. This would, in and of itself, be a reasonable comment, except that at this point in history, the people actually behind the Holocaust are for the most part dead – a fate far more pleasant than they deserve, as it were – and this kind of comment aims simply to silence all German criticism of Israel. Oddly enough, you don’t hear it when Germans voice opinions supportive of Israeli policy. Continue reading What has to be said – and who has to say it

Footnotes

  1. This is not to say that Israeli lefties are used to offensive comments about Israel – but that some of the comments Germans are making may be beyond what we accept as honest criticism. []

Book Review: The Source, by James A. Michener (1965)

Cover of "The Source"
Cover, via Amazon

I recently finished reading an amazing book about Israel and Jewish history, written over 20 years before I was born. The Source, by James A. Michener, is a thick tome spinning an intricate web of fictional stories spread out through the realistic history of a fictional tel1 called Makor (Hebrew for ‘source’) near Acre, in what is now Israel. In retrospect, I probably should have kept a reading diary, because there are so many things in this book I would like to comment on. Continue reading Book Review: The Source, by James A. Michener (1965)

Footnotes

  1. A tel is a hill composed of layers over layers of civilization; these things are everywhere in Israel. []

Word Thieves

Three hundred translators watched transfixed as an assortment of colleagues, speaking from their isolated studies across the globe in their respective languages, faced the camera and opened a narrative vein: out poured their stories of how they got interested in the Hebrew language, the years they spent cultivating their peculiar passion, the emotional relationships they maintained with the dead and living authors with whom they spent their waking hours, the daily warfare they waged against the Hebrew language’s obstinate refusal to fit its rhythms and archeological layers to the structural and cultural molds of their far-flung nations.

The film was “Translating,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv, a series of in-depth monologues by translators from Hebrew into other languages, and the occasion the annual conference of the Israel Translators Association in Jerusalem. The audience, whose linguistic gaps were filled by Hebrew subtitles, could identify with the speakers’ singular strain of obsession, their solitude, and their implicit surprise at being for once in the spotlight instead of the shadows wherein they normally lurk. The symphony of the dozen or so languages in which these unsung laborers told their stories, all referring to the one language they shared and revered, was mesmerizing. Continue reading Word Thieves

Words cannot express this shame

I have been wavering between the brink of rage and the verge of tears since I got up this morning. Basic details on Ynet; more info on +972.

May each of the 37 “parliamentarians” who voted for this thing die slowly, and alone. Preferably of thirst, in the desert.1

 

Footnotes

  1. Note: I am strongly opposed to any action intended to cause any person to die in such a manner, and this is not to be interpreted as incitement to murder. It is merely that I would find it a fitting fate if they were to suffer that way, especially if they had nobody to blame for it but themselves. []

On self-definition and basic decency

Last week, I Facebook-liked a news item about an acquaintance of mine, Y., giving birth. The reason this was national news in Israel is that Y. identifies himself as a male. The article respected this, using the male gender even on the verb for “gave birth”. Two other acquaintances of mine made snide comments on Facebook, culminating in “it’s like they’re trying really hard to show that it’s actually a man who gave birth”.

I can understand this sentiment quite well. Some five years ago, Y. gave me a ride in his car; his self-definition as a male was new to me at the time, and indeed I had never had to deal with this situation before. I knew that Y. wished to be seen and treated as a man, and wanted to respect that, but it took me a lot of effort to start using the male gender for him.1 I remember sitting in the passenger seat, struggling with awkward silences, and trying to figure out how to speak to him, until I finally got a male “you” out of my mouth. Continue reading On self-definition and basic decency

Footnotes

  1. It’s important to note that in Hebrew, there are two different forms of singular “you” – one for males, another for females. The same applies to other pronouns, like “your”, as well as to verbs, like “like” – so I can inflect the sentence “Do you like hamburgers” one way for addressing a male (ata ohev hamburgerim?) and another for addressing a female (at ohevet hamburgerim?), but I have no way of leaving the sentence neutral as it would be in English. []

Anti-Germans as anti-Semites

United for global change!

I just got back from Leipzig’s #globalchange festival/demonstration. At one point, I noticed two guys holding up an Israeli flag, and went over to ask what that’s about. It was the only national flag present and I wasn’t sure what it was doing there. “We’re here to provoke,” said one of the guys. “This demonstration is structurally anti-Semitic.” The idea, of course, is that a demonstration with anti-elite, anti-banker sentiment is anti-Semitic, whether the demonstrators know it or not. I tried to argue against this odd rhetoric, but he quickly said he doesn’t want to discuss it.

These counter-demonstrators are, I gather, anti-Germans. This is a movement considered to be left-wing and anti-fascistic, with a commitment to unconditional solidarity with Israel. The paradox of the “provocation” I witnessed is that this was the only mention of the “banking=Jews” stereotype I could detect in today’s demonstration, or indeed in all of the Real Democracy Now activities that led up to it in the past half year. It seems to me like the anti-Germans were the only ones bringing anti-Semitism into the demonstration. It annoys me to no end that they weren’t open to discussion, and this post is my attempt to say what I would have told them if they were willing to listen.

I recently read a pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”, a fascinating guide to understanding and combatting anti-Semitism targeted at social change activists. It can be found online [PDF] and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are involved in any kind of movement for social change. It makes the crucial point that anti-Semitism is:

“a divide-and-rule strategy that has served to maintain ruling classes, conceal who actually has power, and confuse us about the real systems of oppression that pit us against one another.”
(Chris Crass, Quoted on a now-defunct website hosting the pamphlet.)

Historically, rulers and ruling elites have used anti-Jewish sentiments to deflect the anger of the oppressed masses towards a relatively powerless group (Jews). In a way, it comes down to rulers explicitly or implicitly fostering the belief that the Jews, not the rulers themselves, are the problem.

What those anti-Germans were trying to do today was the same in reverse – delegitimizing an expression of legitimate grievance against the ruling class by claiming it’s an illegitimate expression of intolerance against Jews. This makes me pretty angry, I have to say. If I had detected any anti-Semitic sentiment or rhetoric from the demonstrators, I would go berserk. But I felt very comfortable at the demonstration, felt it was a matter of global solidarity, explicitly inclusive to me (with my irrelevant Jewish background) and to anyone else. The first thing that made me uncomfortable there was the anti-Germans with that big Israeli flag. How dare they insinuate that the German banking system is controlled by Jews? Where the heck did they get that idea?

You know what, I don’t actually know the names and backgrounds of any major German bankers. And I don’t need to. We were demonstrating against the absurd situation in which Europe and the world are in crisis yet the number of millionaires in Germany has only increased. We were demonstrating because we’re told things are going to get hard and we have to live in fear of economic collapse while those who were involved in creating this mess have nothing to fear and they continue to control much more wealth than the rest of us. Even if it so happened that 99% of German bank owners are Jewish, this wouldn’t have been an anti-Semitic demonstration.

Speaking out against someone who happens to be a Jew is not anti-Semitism. Speaking out against “the Jews” or attacking someone because they’re a Jew is anti-Semitism. Is those anti-Germans’ approach supposed to somehow protect Germany from a resurgence of anti-Semitism? Seems to me like at the very least, it muddies the waters and creates confusion about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, making it easier for real intolerance to fly in under the radar. Even worse, it can actually re-enforce anti-Semitism by suggesting that speaking out against the powers that be is speaking out against Jews – supporting the false equation that “(the) Jews” are responsible for the power structures we live within.

There. I think I got it out of my system now. Has anyone else encountered similar situations, where people meaning to fight intolerance end up implicitly encouraging it?

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On systemic problems (a response to Mattan)

In his guest post, Mattan Mamane argued that any form of central planning of the economy should be avoided, and only turned to when necessary. I have to say, I tend to agree with this approach. But first of all, I think there’s a case to be made for placing severe limitations on freedom when it comes to economics, because such limitations are already – actually, always – necessary. And second of all, there is planning and there is planning – not all planning is the same.

Now, I feel I lack some of the historical background knowledge that Mattan brings along. I can be ignorant sometimes, as I form my opinion in discussions more often than in deep reading. But if I’m not mistaken, the important insight of socialism is that there are certain dynamics in an unrestricted market which severely, systemically, and systematically limit the freedom of vast swathes of the population.

The idea of basing the economy on central planning is not a good one, that’s for sure. It depends on the planners being very smart, very well-informed, very quick, and very moral. With any of those missing, people will suffer. But obviously there are many economies, most economies really, which are based on many individuals making individual decisions without central planning, but within a set of rules and systems designed to protect societies from some of the ills of unlimited capitalism. I said “most economies” but it’s really all modern states, as modern states have laws and modern governments manipulate the economy in all kinds of ways. It’s really a question of how.

Mattan brought up a good example: privatization. Privatization of public institutions can be good, but the calls in the #J14 movement to end privatization in Israel are justified: the kind of privatization pushed there by Netanyahu and others is not the right kind; calls for tenders are tailored towards single corporations or individuals with large sums of money. As a result, privatization is used to drive more economic centralization and harms the competition needed for a free market; instead of a single government carrier for public services, we get a single private carrier, without the checks and balances of public oversight nor those of multiple private shareholders.

So it’s not privatization itself that is good/bad, it’s how you privatize that can be a great thing or a really bad thing. In the same way, combatting economic centralization or poverty can be done in good ways and in bad ways, and I think Mattan’s suggestion of focussing on freedom is a very good one.

However, I would caution Mattan and others from believing the oft-repeated claim that everyone is better off in a USA-style capitalistic society. Perhaps they are when compared to economies based on central planning, but the modern state is a very new thing as far as history is concerned, and we probably have all kinds of economies to try out. I think it is key to recognize systemic problems with existing systems, and try to figure out how these can be overcome.

One systemic problem of capitalistic societies is poverty. Here I mean relative poverty: being poor compared to the people in your society – not some absolute idea of poverty compared to the whole planet. We are all encouraged implicitly or explicitly to be innovative, take charge of our future, and be the very best we can be. Poverty, as I understand it, is a feature of the system of modern society: the existence of a category of person who, from birth, is not so likely to achieve those things which we should all aspire to. Perhaps some people are poor because they somehow have less potential, by nature, but this is not what I mean.There are many brilliant people born into poverty, who simply have the odds stacked starkly against them from the start. ((I believe that people’s ability is affected very much by their schooling and upbringing; specifically, I think that a traumatic childhood – such as that experience by most of us in unjust factory-like child-correction institutions mockingly called “schools” – is key to limiting people’s ability in most areas. But that’s a topic to be tackled separately.))

The measures taken against poverty are many and varied, and some are better than others. Welfare, at least as I know it in Germany, is not a very good one, in my opinion. Under this system, people have access to a living stipend if they meet certain criteria, the main type of welfare being available to people who are unemployed. Even assuming the stipend is enough to keep them from being poor, this system still limits their freedom: they have to go through embarrassing, even humiliating bureaucratic procedures on a regular basis and are forced to take a job, any job, even one they would hate. Such a system makes poverty slightly less awful without making it go away, and diminishes people’s freedom in the process.

Does this mean that welfare as a whole is a bad idea? I don’t think so. The German system just isn’t a good way of doing it. Perhaps all welfare systems ever tried aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean a good one can’t be created.

What I beg you to realize is that systemic problems in an economic system are never “somebody else’s problem”. They belong to everyone in that system, whether you happen to mainly benefit from it or mainly suffer. Like me, you probably have that image in your mind of a self-made man insisting that he made every single cent by his own hard work and wits, insisting that nobody ever helped him, outright raging that he doesn’t owe anybody anything. I’m sure many wealthy and successful people feel this way; if they didn’t personally make the fortune but rather inherited, they might feel this way on behalf of whatever ancestor did. But those who feel this way are deluding themselves. We live within complex social systems which can empower us to do great things or condemn us to lives of hardship. Sure, some measure of luck and some measure of ability are involved – but they do not exist in a vacuum. If you benefit from a system and that same system makes others suffer, their suffering is your problem, and you are benefitting from it whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to say the wealthy or successful are evil or something – just that no matter what they think, they bear a responsibility for the poor and the failures.

I think we have to take responsibility over the systems we live in and be brutally honest with ourselves about what they do right and what they do wrong. And when we recognize a wrong, we have to be creative and find a way to fix it while doing as little wrong as possible. It’s not easy, but it seems to me like an interesting challenge, and I believe it is the right thing to do.

 

I have one or two more guest posts lined up to continue this discussion. In the meantime, comments are open. What do you think about all of this? Are there good ways to improve capitalism? If so, what are they?