Thursday, April 30, 2009

Share tourism revenues?

From Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, at Marginal Revolution:

“In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their mainsource of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsiveto the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”

Liberate the oppressed and the oppressor

There's a great post over at South Jerusalem blog, by Gershom Gorenberg discussing the author's call for Palestinian non violent struggle. The whole essay is worth reading, but here is an excerpt that stands out - a response to those who think Israelis don't have the right to tell Palestinians how to fight:

There were others who asked whether I as an Israeli had any right to suggest that Palestinians risk their lives, and quite possibly lose them, in nonviolent struggle. Richard Silverstein, for instance, raised that question, in an astoundingly sour screed at his Tikkun Olam site attacking my “fantasy” of non-violence. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has coarsened both sides to the point that an Israeli would just as soon kill a Palestinian as look at him (and vice versa),” Silverstein wrote.

To which I have several responses: First, it seems to me that Silverstein, at great distance from real Israelis and Palestinians, is the one that has been deeply coarsened about both sides - as shown by the ease with which he assigns one mentality to all Israelis and all Palestinians. Besides that, I think that progressives are people who dare to imagine a better future and work for it, who “have a dream” - not people who mock such “fantasies.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Parshat Tazria - Sanctity and Impurity

Vayikra isn't the easiest of books to get through. It has been called Torat Cohanim, (the rules for Priests) because of the great details found in it relating to sacrificial and other priestly duties.

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah has rules that pertain to states of purity and impurity. In this discussion, Rav Aron Liechtenstein places these laws in context, saying that the Jewish approach to purity and impurity occupies the space between a nihlistic perception of the universe and one that sees purity and impurity as an inherent part of the universe's structure:

The Jewish approach in this regard differs from the two other prevalent attitudes to this issue. The magical approach claims that there are in fact forces of sanctity and impurity inherent in the world, but they are primordial, embedded within the natural order. There are demons, evil spirits and the like, but man does not and cannot bring them into existence; they emerged together with the rest of creation. The scientific approach, by contrast, maintains that no forces of sanctity or impurity exist in the world whatsoever. No object can be seen as more sacred then the next, no given place can be considered holier than the next, and no quality of impurity can be attributed to corpses or anything else. Simply put, science outright rejects all these concepts.

Judaism disputes both positions. On the one hand, it rejects the scientific approach and insists upon the existence of sacred and profane, purity and impurity. Even further, it believes in a hierarchy of levels of sanctity and purity. On the other hand, it disputes the magical approach and sees all sanctity and impurity as emanating from man, not from nature. Man creates sanctity - he writes Torah scrolls and tefillin (and only with the proper intention in mind), he designates an animal as sacred for the purposes of sacrifices, and he even infuses specific periods of time with sanctity.

The full text can be found here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What motivates Neturei Karta's anti-Zionism?

I recently watched Jonathan Hoffman debate Aron Cohen - the Neturei Karta representative notorious for standing loud and proud with Israel's worst enemies - on Iranian government controlled Press TV.

What was striking about the interview was Aron Cohen being challenged on his own turf, a message being sent to those watching, that he does not stand for Jews, he is not the proud ambassador his Iranian sponsors make him out to be.

So hats (or should I say fur hats) off to Jonathan Hoffman for challenging Aron Cohen on his own turf. Ethics of the Fathers teaches that "in a place where there is no man - be a man". Jonathan Hoffman is stepping up to the plate - he is leading the fight. We should all be grateful - and follow his lead.

But there's more going on here, the debate really got me thinking, and I wanted to try and collect some of those thoughts here:

The arguments expressed in this debate represented deeply opposing world views - and in the few minutes the participants were given - these views were not explored.

Aron Cohen became part of Neturei Karta Judaism through independent choice - he was born into a mainstream Orthodox Jewish family - and it is presumable that he was attracted to the spiritual purity that Hassidic Judaism strives for. Through their separate clothes, extreme dedication to Torah study and observance, Neturei Karta achieve what they strive for - life in a vacuum - as far away as possible from any possible hint of distraction or spiritual compromise.

Part of this religious attitude, I think, fundamentally involves resisting change and idealizing the past. For example, the fur hats (streimels) worn by Aron Cohen and other Hassidm are only recent additions to Hassidic Jewish culture. In fact, there is very little that is Jewish about these hats in their origins - and contrary to what some might say - Jews did not wear them at the splitting of the Red Sea. Originally worn by aristocratic non-Jewish Poles, these fur hats were adopted by the Hassidic communities in Eastern Europe and only recently came to be considered essential religious items in these communities.

Before I get carried away and criticize an attitude that is fundamentally backwards looking and not forwards looking, I should say that, being an Orthodox Jew, I am sympathetic to this backwards looking world-view. Passing values onto children is difficult without some kind of fondness for what was. Whether it was Psalmist remembering Zion by the rivers of Babylon, or the Hassid making sure he has the right type of fur hat, a people in exile longs for the past. When it ceases to do that, it is no longer in exile. On an individual level too, religion seeks comfort and inspiration in what is. Never mind that God reveled himself to Moses for the first time as "I will be as I will be" (Exodus 3:14 - a statement inherently dedicated to eternal evolution in the future). Many look to God for comfort. What is new, what threatens the status quo, is uncomfortable. It should be shunned.

Aron Cohen and Neturei Karta's attitude to Zionism should be seen through this lens. Zionism represents a breaking with the past, a refusal to accept historical fate and an attempt to shape a destiny through human action. This emphasis on human action is the polar opposite emphasis of what is Neturei Karta's focus - inertia accompanied by blind faith. This is why they can't stand Zionists.

So Aron Cohen would be right if he said that he represents an Orthodox Jewish world-view. He certainly does. But he actually represents one particular form of an Orthodox Jewish view, and one that is certainly not exclusively Jewish - it can be found all over the place - certainly in Islam and Christianity.

So the claim to represent the only Orthodox Jewish world-view needs to be exposed for what it is - elitist and misguided. He needs to accept that not all Orthodoxies are backwards looking, and that change does not necessarily mean loss.

Apparently he refuses to travel to Israel, but if he did I would be happy to take my cousin on a tour of the country's Hesder seminaries, institutions designed to allow male soldiers to combine Torah study with their compulsory military service. These boys have a love for Torah study he would want for his own grandchildren, but by refusing to come here - he refuses to acknowledge this. There are plenty of other examples of Orthodox Jewish Zionism that refute Aron Cohen's claim to be the only Orthodox Jewish world view. But I will leave him with one thought, if he is reading, which I hope he is.

When the Jews left Egypt they found themselves in a difficult situation. Up ahead was a sea - right behind them was an Egyptian army going for the kill. Moses prayed. And what did God say?
Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forwards! (Exodus 14:16)
The miracle at the Red Sea happened after human effort.

The holocaust - in which Aron Cohen and I lost family members - is the most recent historically relevant event to the Exodus story. Zionism, which was a response to the antisemitism that was to cause that tragedy, is a human effort that echoes Exodus 14:16.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

10am, Jerusalem, Yom Hashoah

The sirens sounded at 10 am today across the city.

It was haunting.

Cars and buses stopped, people stood.

I looked around.

I don't know these people, but I know they are my people, and we share history and (I hope) destiny.

Three buses stood still, at a green light. The driver and his one passenger, in the bus nearest to me, just standing.

Not surreal - very, very real.

This is Israel.

These are my people.