One of the rationales for the war in Afghanistan is that under the Taliban it was a state that oppressed women and denied them their freedoms. Unquestionably, the Taliban government did deny many of the freedoms that women have won in the west and that are now taken for granted: the freedom to vote, to be educated, to dress as they choose. But freedom is a tricky concept: in some countries, such as Australia one isn’t free not to vote – it is compulsory and there are fines if one doesn’t. In all countries children (or their parents) aren’t free to choose to not be educated – up to a certain age they have to be in school. And increasingly, women are free to not wear a niqab (a veil that obscures their faces) – but they aren’t free to choose to wear one. Freedom is peculiar when it only allows you to make whatever choice the state wants.
There’s climate change happening all over the world, and everywhere melting glaciers calve icebergs at an unprecedented rate. (“Iceberg”? Isn’t that a Jewish name?) One particular glacier that’s disappearing fast is the unified and monolithic support that Jews outside of Israel have always given to whatever the Israeli government of the day wanted to do. It has been a truism for years that there was far harsher criticism of Israeli governments from Jews within Israel than from Jews outside of it. But now, for the first time significant numbers of diaspora Jews (and fellow travellers) are opposing the Israeli government, and doing so because they see the current expansionist policy as hugely harmful to any chance of Israeli survival.
As I prepare to go to friends to celebrate Passover sedar, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Jewish. I have increasingly been feeling comfortable with the people with whom I celebrate, part of which is that they too are more concerned with exploring questions than with repeating simple answers. One of the questions is what is being celebrated: is it exclusively that God saves the Jews, (Hey Pharoah! We own the podium!) or is it a more universal celebration of the unforeseen liberation from slavery to freedom, an archetypal celebration for all who are oppressed?
These days I have my most stimulating arguments about being Jewish, and about Jews with Philip Weiss, even if my part of the debate is in my head. Here’s an except from a recent piece, in which Philip and the non-Jewish wife of a Jewish friend of his are having this argument:
I said, “It is a great liberation story and that’s what I like about the seder. It belongs to all people.”
The friend’s wife is sophisticated religiously, she has read widely. She said firmly, No it is confined to the Jewish people. There is the sense throughout the festival that this is What God did for us. There is a sense of chosenness throughout the seder.
I got upset. I said flatly, she was “wrong.” But she persisted, and I was quiet. I just listened. She quoted some of the liturgical stuff in the seder, also the violence directed at Egypt, the ten plagues down to the slaying of the first born. I bet she knows the seder better than I do.
It all seemed to start when Vice-President Biden, in Israel to promote the “peace process”, was greeted with the announcement of further Israeli expansion into the historically Palestinian Ramat Shlomo, in East Jerusalem. The US fired back on all cylinders, with Biden, Clinton, and General Petraeus questioning Israel in an unprecedented way. In return, the Jerusalem Post accused Obama of “repeatedly humiliating our prime minister.” And since he’s critical of Israel, Obama must be (according to Hagai Ben-Artzi, Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, anyway) an anti-Semite. The dust was still thick in the air, as American leaders made it clear that they loved Israel, it’s just the actions of the Israeli government with which they have difficulty.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Growing with two parents who escaped the Holocaust, from Germany and from Austria, there was no ambiguity in my mind about Adolph Hitler or the Holocaust. He was evil, to an extent beyond any other person, and the Holocaust was an event, sui generis, beyond any other event. For years my dreams were inhabited by desperate attempts to escape jackbooted storm troopers who were searching for me, or trying to survive after having been captured by them. I was horrified at other evils, but this lay beyond them, as the far marker of human cruelty
In political debate that made me very wary of cheap comparisons to the Nazis or Hitler. I’m not alone in that of course: Godwin’s Law, created by Mike Godwin, famously states that, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” and goes on to note that whoever raises the comparison is considered to have lost the debate. (The technical term for this logical fallacy is “Reductio ad Hitlerum” Really.)
But the problem with that moral stance, viewing Hitler as an evil beyond all other human possibility, is that it diminishes the chance of our recognizing or preventing such evil from occurring again.
I have always thought my best writing happened when I didn’t think about the audience, but instead got taken over by the words I was shaping. When I became so involved with the passion of what needed to be said, so entranced by how best to birth it into the world that I lost my sense of self and there was only the process of trying to shape the words on the page so that they embody the idea that lay just the other side of perception. The audience didn’t enter into it at all. Perhaps on a later draft, I’d look at the piece and recognize a reference that was so obscure that no reader would get it, and so it had to go. But for the most part, the dance was between the words and my ideas, and the audience were wallflowers, watching perhaps but obscured by shadows.
I think of this because of a recent encounter that brought home just how out of touch this attitude of mine is with the way things are done these days.
One of the most read pieces on this blog in the last week is Eli Zaretsky’s “Proto-Fascist Elements in America Today.” It’s a powerful piece, and I disagree with it only in two regards: I don’t think the problem is particularly American, and I don’t think it’s about fascism. Zaretsky’s concerns certainly apply as much to Canada and the UK as they do to the US. And the core of what is wrong with what is happening in these countries isn’t a potential slide into proto-fascism, it’s that what is making that possible is the destruction of the legal protections that were once taken for granted.
Paul Craig Roberts, in CounterPunch, cuts to the heart of the issue:
The greatest human achievement is the subordination of government to law. This was an English achievement that required eight centuries of struggle, beginning in the ninth century when King Alfred the Great codified the common law, moving forward with the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century and culminating with the Glorious Revolution in the late seventeenth century.
The success of this long struggle made law a shield of the people. As an English colony, America inherited this unique achievement that made English speaking peoples the most free in the world. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, this achievement was lost in the United States and, perhaps, in England as well.
It is this willful and demonstrable loss of the protection of law that is the core of what is wrong with what is happening in the West today.
Two months ago, I discussed on this blog how the sun was setting on the two state solution in Israel. At the time it felt a bit hypothetical; while Palestinian leaders and commentators were saying that a single state was the only solution, I didn’t find many in the mainstream (neither Stephen Walt nor Philip Weiss can yet be characterized as “mainstream”) who were saying anything in favour of the idea. But suddenly, things have changed and there’s all sorts of talk about it.
In The Nation, Harry Siegman (former executive director of American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America) writes a stunning piece that concludes that an “externally imposed solution” is the only route to two states, and that without such intervention only a single state solution is possible. Here’s a taste of the piece:
Once again, a bungled terrorist attack produces bungled security responses. One can’t help but wonder if there is a final solution hidden in the minds of these people: if they can just make flying so difficult and arduous that no one does it, then there won’t be any airborne terrorism, will there? I can’t be alone in wishing that one politician, in some country, would point out that your chances over the past ten years (including 9/11) of being killed by lightning are 20 times greater than being killed by air terrorism. And the number of lives that might be saved if the energy directed at malicious airplane passengers were instead focussed on drunken car drivers boggles the mind.
Though for serious mind-boggling it’s the new horror film: invasion of the body scanners. Just so we know exactly what this entails, here’s a trailer, a movie of a man and a woman going through the scanners. It is, of course, nsfw (not safe for work.) The first of a number of logical inconsistencies in the protection scheme was that in the UK, the scanners show enough to violate the child pornography laws, so no one under 18 will be scanned.
Winter solstice is time of greatest darkness, which of course is why so many cultures have festivals of lights at this time. But in our culture the lights have gotten over the top, with thousands of lights blazing as you walk down the road, and when you get to the mall at the end of the road (all our roads may not lead to Rome, but most lead to a mall) the lights have become so bright there are no longer any shadows. That’s a profound loss. In the shadows lie our deep fears, and this time of the year traditionally allowed us to look at those fears, to name those shadows, and to learn how they connect to us. If we don’t connect to our shadows, we never grow up, and (like my namesake) we can only live in never never land.
This year, when I look in the darkness, I see the shadow of my country, and it is a dark and oil-stained shadow. I used to be proud of Canada. When I travelled around the world, and people asked me where I was from, I would answer Canada, and they would say, “Oh, Canada good” and then make jokes about snow and cold and I would laugh, and then we’d go out and have a drink and become friends. But as George Monbiot so accurately says, “So here I am, watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. The tar barons of Alberta…are turning this lovely country into a cruel and thuggish place.” I read that and wish I could find a reason to disagree.