Monday, December 28, 2009

Expert commentary on the domestic ramifications of the terror attack last week.

Postscript: This is it for 2009, a hideous year indeed. Quick recap is in order. General Motors tanked, celebrities dropped like flies, Iran massacred its people (no particular order obviously). To a happy new year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

As the decade draws to a close, analysts and commentators are spewing out retrospectives left and right, drowning in remember-when and wasn’t-that-crazy stories. Instead, here I think it may be appropriate to recollect that ten years ago saw the advent of a film that ushered in the surrealistic absurdity we all lived through: “The Matrix,” most remembered for its ad-hoc philosophy and pioneering cinematography techniques. What it ought to be remembered for is how presciently it describes the current situation of our culture, indeed the world situation.

This may appear to be a stretch, but follow this line for awhile: mysterious agents are after a man who is unwittingly living what he considers a normal life, only for him to find out that things are not what they seem. He is introduced to “the desert of the real,” a truly frightening place. All of the civilized aspects of our existence amount to a fabrication, he finds, a cynical fraud to keep people in a cocooned, atomized state. How all of this can be rendered into a clear-eyed look back over the last decade, the discordant first notes of the young epoch, must be centered on how, through ubiquitous punditry and a break-up of the older modes of this information age, we have been witness to the construction of our reality.

No, we are not in pods; our lives are not simulacra. It is telling that the first reaction so many had to the first major event that heralded a dark era was that it appeared cinematic, the antithesis of real. So did the beginning of our adventurism abroad, set off like a video game, void of the suffering that followed sure enough. Another image, a flooded city, televised rioting, disorder. Upheavals across the planet came into our consciousness as mediated images, a construct. In a nation where about ten percent holds a passport, it was as real as it got.

To close this out comes “Avatar,” in which a mercenary, colonialist power travels to a poorly-understood, far-off land to steal its resources. Say what you will about Iraq, but the theme of misadventure and hubris has been thick in the air for so long that it is difficult to disentangle noble intentions from the blood on the ground. It is interesting that at the beginning and end of this ten-year span we have seen two sci-fi flicks that well capture the mood.

And so we face the second decade of the twenty-first century: unpredictable, likely fraught with hazard. Let us keep our heads.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Thoughts on Israel-Palestine

I do not wish to criticize anything Israel does that I would not criticize if, say, the United States, my own government, were to do the same in similar circumstances. To do so would mean engaging in moral hypocrisy. Yet the notion that it is okay if Israel does x because the US has also done x is kind of childish, even corrosive. The same standards of behavior must apply—all the more so because in both cases we are talking about democracies where the people are supposed to have a voice and authorities are supposed to be accountable to the people.

Standards of critique need to apply likewise. I am no less American for vehemently criticizing and opposing many things my country does; the same goes for a country that by virtue of my citizenship I am a patron and by virtue of my heritage is my birthright. It is very easy to defend Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, militant or not, under the rubric of our American “war on terror” mindset, simply because many of us feel we face similar barbarism. But I cannot help but feel that in the final account we, Americans and Israelis, condemn ourselves if we refuse to look into the mirror. I really believe that if the tables were turned, and the fortunes reversed, we would see things very differently. With military dominance, or religious fanaticism, comes a very strong tendency to dehumanize abroad and to despise those who oppose the worship of force within.

The status of Jerusalem is a case-in-point. It is wrong for the Jews and Arabs to each claim all of it as their own, and they must find a way to share it or end they doom themselves to endless strife. The confiscation of East Jerusalem is disgusting, and I will make no apologies for saying so. How would we react if the PA kicked out thousands of Jewish residents from their homes in the name of security and demography? According to HaMoked (The Focus), an Israeli human rights group, “government statistics it had obtained showed a leap in the number of Palestinians who had their Jerusalem residency status revoked by the Israeli Interior Ministry in 2008,” reported Isabel Kershner in the Times today. “Official statistics for previous years … showed that 8,558 Palestinians had their Jerusalem residency rights revoked in the years 1967 through 2007.” In the Post, Howard Schneider reported that 89 of them “appealed the revocation and retained their residency,” according to the Interior Ministry. Schneider concludes that this episode “highlight[s] the demographic complexities of a city that Israel claims as it ‘undivided capital’ but that Palestinians feel should also form the capital of a future Palestinian state.” In 2008 alone, Israeli authorities revoked residency rights for about 4,500 Arabs, which is approximately half of the number whose residencies were taken away since ’67.

The capital of my country, Washington, is about 38 percent white; Jerusalem is about 38 percent Arab. Imagine how anyone would react to the news that the City Council, or the Federal Government no less, regularly evicts residency rights for white D.C. residents because of “demographic problems” and claims the entire city as the “undivided capital” of the Black people? I am explicitly saying that what the Israeli state is doing in this case is racist, and therefore indefensible. Further, every embassy in the world, including the United States, that has contacts with Israel houses them in Tel Aviv. Only Israel recognizes a claim to all of Jerusalem, which has the highest rates of wealth inequality and the highest levels of religiosity in the entire country. By contrast, Tel Aviv is a secular, liberal cosmopolitan place that is probably seen by many Israelis they way many Americans see NYC: a self-contained bubble, not the “real world.”

(Coming up: a review and analysis of the new book, One State, Two States, by historian Benny Morris.)

P.S.: Here, from the Journal of Palestine Studies, is a collection of source material for the E. Jerusalem situation (in the wake of the 1967 war).