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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Marty Peretz, 21st-Century Man

 Having subscribed to the New Republic for about thirty years and appeared in it a few times when Marty Peretz ran it, I eagerly made my way through his autobiography The Controversialist a week or two ago.  It was apparently much in demand in the west suburbs of Boston, and it took months for the library consortium to come up with a copy for me.  The book has drawn numerous reviews on line, most of which seem to make the same points about him and his career, and I will not go into those at any length.  Regarding his sexuality, as they note, Peretz declares himself gay in the book but says very little about that side of his life, never mentioning a single male sexual partner--and I don't care.  Nobody owes the public a thorough account of their sex life.  Peretz's book deals with his contributions to American public life, just as A Life in History dealt almost exclusively with my career in academia.  Incidentally, I have no idea if Peretz has a google alert for his name active, but if he somehow happens to read this piece, I am sure he would enjoy A Life in History.  Like his book, it has a great deal of information about the inner workings of Harvard, with which we were both so closely associated for so long.  That common association eventually brought us together for a while, but I will leave that story for the end of this piece.

Peretz was  born in 1939 in the Bronx to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland.  His father was a successful small businessman and landlord.  Peretz graduated from Bronx High School of Science, one of New York city 's competitive high schools, and probably in the 1950s the most difficult school in the country to get into.  He got into Princeton but went to Brandeis instead--and this leads me to my first relatively original observation about this book.

Peretz in his heyday at the New Republic, particularly from the 1980s, despised the label "neoconservative," but he certainly was a center-right figure and as he admits, his foreign policy views generally accorded with those of recognized neoconservatives. Thus many have forgotten or do not know that until the mid-1970s he ranked as a leftist--and his leftism dated from before leftism once again became fashionable.  He had, he tells us, two mentors at Brandeis.  The first was Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist, founder of critical theory, and prophet of the New Left, to which Peretz clearly belonged at least until a fateful conference in Chicago in 1967.  He evidently had more political influence upon the young Peretz than Max Lerner, his second mentor, and a devout believer in the American experiment.  Yet at no time in the book does Peretz really tell us anything substantial about his leftist beliefs in that era.  The Marcuse book that hand the most influence upon him, he says, was Eros and Civilization--because it encouraged young people to explore their sexuality.  He describes some relatively early civil rights activism, and in 1962, he joined the quixotic Senate campaign of Harvard professor H. Stuart Hughes, whom I became friendly with in graduate school, an independent run against Teddy Kennedy that called for a more reserved Cold War foreign policy.  He also mentions his sympathy for Fidel Castro.  In the middle of the decade, he like so many others became a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, and in 1966 he took up the cause of Biafra, the secessionist Nigerian province that the Nigerian government brutally suppressed  By 1967, he was helping to organize a Chicago conference of white and black leftists who were looking for a candidate to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968.  By that time he had married a very wealthy heiress, Anne Deveraux Labouisse, who became his political partner and whose fortune made him a significant political contributor, at least by the more restrained standards of the 1960s.  What is completely missing from this account of his youth is any indication of his views on economic questions--surely a remarkable omission from one who counted the leading Marxist of the mid-twentieth century as one of his mentors. 

About twenty years ago, Judith Klinghoffer wrote an interesting book, Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East, showing how the 1967 Six Day War had shifted the identities and the politics of many American Jews by awakening new feelings for Israel.  Some of them, she showed, noticed that the United States emerged in that crisis as one of Israel's few friends, and therefore began to favor an aggressive US foreign policy around the world in the hope that it would make Israel more secure. Peretz makes clear in his book that his identification with Israel went back much further than 1967, but the war's aftermath changed his trajectory for another reason.  At the Chicago conference of radicals, black militants took over, spurned any white input, and insisted on passing an anti-Zionist resolution.  The black-Jewish alliance on civil rights was coming to an end.  Peretz remained a dove on Vietnam, and indeed became a significant player (in his account at least) in the Eugene McCarthy campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968.  He also participated in the McGovern campaign in 1972--although he tells us that he wound up voting for Nixon,  partly, he says, because he was sure McGovern "had [Israel] in his sights."  I too supported both McCarthy and McGovern, and got to know McGovern slightly, and for what it is worth, I think he was a far superior public servant to McCarthy and a much friendlier human being.

Two years later The New Republic was up for sale, and Peretz bought it.  He rapidly changed its personnel and its political line, from moderate left to center-right--although as he points out, some leftist material continued to appear in it on some topics for a long time.  He went through a great many editors, a process he details without ever conceding that he was not an easy man to work for.  He continued to teach at Harvard (more on that later), and he brought a number of former students into the magazine.  He writes rather fulsomely about many of these subordinates, especially Leon Wieseltier, his long-time literary editor, whom he describes as a genius--a judgment in which I cannot concur.  The New Republic became a very reliable supporter of Israel--although not always uncritical--and, in the 1980s, a supporter of Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist counteroffensive in the Third World.  The left wing of the Democratic Party, it is fair to say, became its most common target.  Yet I came away from the book feeling that Peretz's personal likes and dislikes had an extraordinary degree of influence on its political stances.  Bill Clinton's policies, in retrospect, seem very similar to Peretz's preferences, and he also had elevated Peretz's former student and protégé, Al Gore, to the Vice Presidency. But Peretz clearly disliked the Clintons, and probably the worst piece ever to appear in The New Republic was Betsy McCaughey's scurrilous, utterly discredited attack on Clinton's health care plan--for which Peretz refuses to apologize.  He did not much care for Barack Obama either, and I don't think there is any reference to Obamacare in the book at all. 

What struck me more than anything else in the book, however, was Peretz's worldview--an unusual one in his youth that has become a mainstream one now, especially although not exclusively on the left which he now despises. He is an avowed, unalloyed tribalist.  This is not merely with respect to his Zionism.  It colors his whole world view and his reaction to numerous individuals.  He is profoundly skeptical about our whole foreign policy establishment because it tries, in theory at least, to treat all the peoples of the world equally.  He does not believe in an American melting pot.  And his tribalism--like that of many others--emerges most strikingly in his views of other members of his own tribe--Jews whom he believes to be too little interested in their Jewishness.  His list of such people includes Harvard colleagues like Adam Ulam and David Riesman, George Soros, and Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, whose Jewish forbears renounced their Judaism.  (I did not know--or I had forgotten--that John Kerry's paternal grandparents were converted Jews.)  This was perhaps his generational rebellion. His own father, he tells us, was a proud American, and the Jews of the GI generation (like my own father) believed for the most part in assimilation, which not a few of them changed their names to achieve.  Peretz doesn't. He believed in Jewish power within the system, and that is what he was trying to achieve.

I had to laugh at one passage in the book about The New Republic and the personnel he brought in.  It occurs at the end of a long discussion of his favorite subordinates there--Leon Wieseltier, Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, and Charles Krauthammer.  Here it is.

"Together we were upstarts--young and pluralist, Jewish and intellectual, not afraid to provoke. But we also came with the imprimatur of the best institutions: Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford. We weren't like anything old Washington had ever seen  We were not on anybody's invitation list in those days.  What we had was their attention. And we used it.

"Those people thought they had me pegged as a smart-ass pushy Jew.  But they didn't expect the heft, the sheer braininess.  They didn't expect the intellectual commitment.  We had in our hears the worst atrocity in recorded history, and it affected our thinking, our approach, on the issues of the day.  We were something altogether new. There had never been such a widely read magazine of Jewish journalists before.

"Mike and Rick, who served as the actual editors, didn't care much about the Jewish stuff. But Charles and Leon, who identified, were the authoritative voices in the pages.  So, though this was never my conscious plan, the New Republic was a break for identifying Jews and Zionists in Washington."

The phrase "this was never my conscious plan" reminds me of one of the funniest lines Woody Allen ever wrote, in Manhattan, when he is arguing with his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) over whether he actually tried to run her and her female lover over with his car.  "What would Freud say?" she asks. "Freud would say I tried to run you over," he replies. "That's why he was a genius."

Oddly, Peretz, who prides himself on being different, was a pioneer of the trend towards tribalism that has transformed American life over the last half century.  The leaders in that trend, I would suggest, were the Zionists like himself and the black radicals who took away the leadership of the left at the Chicago conference in 1967.  It has now spread not only to every major ethnic group, but also to different genders and people of different sexual orientations, and it has destroyed, for the time being, the possibility of any broad consensus among Americans.  Partly because I have never felt that I had a tribe, I have been immune from the trend myself.  Tribalism, as Peretz seems to understand, is contrary to the lessons of the Enlightenment, which thought that reason could overcome tribal loyalty.  In the middle the the last century that seemed to be happening in the United States.   Now we have been on a different path, which Peretz, in his own small way, contributed to.  This, I am now inclined to believe, is a natural human reaction--too much universalism breeds tribalism, and vice versa.

Ultimately, a newer tribalism struck a big blow to Peretz's reputation and self-esteem.  The book ends very sadly.  In 2010, he and Anne, his political and social partner for so long, divorced.  In 2012 he had to sell The New Republic to Chris Hughes, a tech wunderkind who immediately transformed it.  And in the midst of this, writing a blog, he ignited a firestorm by protesting that Muslims  did not "raise their voices against . . .planned and random killings all over the Islamic world," and suggested the Muslims in America were "worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."  He apologized for that when it triggered a firestorm of criticism, but it turned a 50th anniversary event at Harvard in his honor as an opportunity for students and some faculty to blast him.  

I think I have faithfully conveyed the gist of The Controversialist--Peretz's memoir--yet I also know that my portrait has been too negative--because of the one brief, revealing experience that I had with him myself from 1979, I believe, though 1983.  This leads to his Harvard experience, and mine.

Peretz owed his career as a Harvard teacher (never a professor) to a loophole in the university's structure.  He earned his Ph.D. in Government in the early 1960s, just when the new major Social Studies was developed by my future friend Stanley Hoffmann. Drawing on faculty from the Government, History, Economics and Social Relations departments, Social Studies became an elite major that annually attracted some of Harvard's best students.  Its introductory sophomore tutorial revolved around Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud.  (In recent decades, it has added Foucault and Habermas.) Peretz, along with Barrington Moore, Jr., because a permanent, although untenured, faculty member within that program, although I don't believe he ever published any scholarly work  other than a few academic reviews.  He also taught a full-year course, I believe, annually in the freshman seminar program, where Al Gore was his most famous student.  He was evidently a very effective teacher and he kept his finger on the pulse of undergraduate life through his students.

In 1979, when I was an Assistant Professor of history at Harvard, I decided to approach Peretz to see if I could review a polemic, The Real War, which Richard Nixon had just published, for The New Republic.  I simply telephoned him out of the view.  "I know about you, I've heard of you," he said immediately, indicating that we had had students in common.  He told me to go ahead, turning me over to his literary editor Jack Beatty(whom he later let go), and I wrote the review, which appeared. I wrote at least one more review, of Dangerous Relations by Adam Ulam, for them in the next year or two.

In 1983, The New Republic was preparing a twentieth anniversary issue devoted to John F. Kennedy.  I talked to Beatty about writing a piece about how Kennedy had been misunderstood by many recent commentators, and he told me to go ahead.  I wrote the piece, focusing on Kennedy's skill as a politician--but Beatty didn't like it.  I appealed to Peretz, and got a call back a few days later.  "Good piece!" he said, and it ran.  The week that it appeared, George Higgins, a Boston Globe columnist, devoted part of a column to the whole issue, focusing on two of the articles in it. I quote:

"For Its Issue of November 21, The New Republic put together four extended assessments of John F. Kennedy. This Is the sort of duty which devolves upon opinionated journals about national affairs - one accedes helplessly to the argument that It Is expected of them, but still cringes slightly as the barn doors creak open once again and display the same old tired war horses snorting In their stalls.

"Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, is the wheelhorse of that stable, naturally. He held a valid White House pass during JFK's tenancy, and he Is a trained historian. He. Is also no mean hand with the English language, and that's all to the good, of course.

"The trouble Is that Arthur Schlesinger has been around this track more times than old Tom Fool. Years ago he got wind of the reports that his President may not always have been a gentle, perfect knight. He heard there were those who thought he showed more profile than he did courage. As any friend would, Schlesinger became Incensed. He sallied forth to smite the sacrilegists, and In the heat of battle made claims for the martyred leader which would have made the man himself dissolve In gales of laughter. Mildly rebuked for those excesses, Schlesinger took umbrage and not heed, and blustered out still more extravagances.

"Now he appears to think he's stuck with them. and so we have this treatise on "What the Thousand Days Wrought," which seeks to subsume Into JFK's short years In office most of the progressive trends of the current century. It's rather embarrassing. .

"More realistic, I thought, was David Kaiser's knowing portrait of the President as a gut bucket politician, ·cozening the scribblers and hornswoggling Drew Pearson. I don't think there's any need to flounder around madly seeking reasons to beatify a smart politician, whose achievements in part rest upon his skillful use of sham. John Kennedy did not wrest the nomination out of Lyndon Johnson's grasp by yanking some damned sword out of a stone: he got It by being smarter, craftier and mean, and I think he ought to get the credit for his well-honed wits. Kaiser gives it to him, and it's quite refreshing."

I appreciated Marty Peretz's decision to run the piece, obviously, and I appreciate it even more now, having found from The Controversialist that he personally disliked Kennedy intensely at the time that he ran for president in 1960 and apparently never changed his mind very much.  This whole story shows a side of him that I can't help admiring.  He evidently trusted his student's opinion of me, and he genuinely liked what I had written for him.  Unfortunately I could not manage to establish a good relationship with Leon Wieseltier when he succeed Beatty as literary editor, and I stopped writing for TNR.  And I am sorry to report that in 2014, when it published an anthology of articles from its one hundred years of existence, it included Schlesinger's article from the JFK anniversary issue but not mine, which you can read here.

Peretz and I were part of a particular Harvard, one where students loved the humanities and social sciences and the best faculty enjoyed bringing out the best that they had to offer.  The reading lists of those years would be unheard of today--quantitatively and qualitatively.  And as teachers, we both took advantage of the opportunities that that institution offered.  That was why, really, those pieces of mine ever appeared in The New Republic, and for that I am still grateful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Some History of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

 While I am sticking to my resolve not to propose a solution to the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians, I do think that understanding how the conflict began and how we got to where we are can help us all.  In fact I think both parties to the conflict understand these questions much better than western observers.  Underlying all this, meanwhile, is a fundamental question about the essence of the modern world--and I will begin with that.

For the last eight or nine weeks I have been reading the Iliad for a class of senior learners.  The class is well run and the discussions have invariably been lively, often focusing on the differences between the ancient Greek world view and our own.  Emotions rule the world of the Iliad--both the human world of Achilles, Agamemnon, Helen, Hector, Priam and all the rest, and the world of the gods, who continually intervene in earthly quarrels.  Students have constantly wrestled with the obvious differences between the Greek gods and the Judeo-Christian god to whom we have all been exposed all our lives, whether we are religious or not.  That latter god laid down laws and standards of virtue which he expected humans to live up to, pointing us, in  many instances, towards a calmer, more peaceful and more moral world.  Not only do the Greek gods not do that, but they also display all the vices of human beings.  The Greek world, as a result, is almost totally chaotic.  I have been something of a gadfly from the beginning of the class, frequently arguing that the Greek view might actually be a more accurate portrayal of human nature and the sources of human behavior than our own more idealistic one.  Recently, indeed, it occurred to me that our whole civilization is based on the idea that reason can provide rules that will allow us to overcome the chaos that Homer identified so clearly.   The history of the last few centuries certainly reveals the western experiment to be less than a complete success.  The wisdom of the Enlightenment has not prevented the eruption of wars on a scale Homer could not even dream of, even as the nations of the world have tried to organize lasting peace.   Perhaps, though, the experiment in rationality is worth continuing, not because it is destined to succeed completely, but because the alternative would be worse.  These, it turns out, are key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am going to begin my analysis today with the creation of modern Israel in 1947-8.  Modern Zionism had emerged as an international movement in the late nineteenth century and won its first great political victory in 1917, when the British government--then at war with the Ottoman Empire--announced that it would support the creation of a "Jewish national home"--a new concept in international law--in Palestine, with the understanding that this would not prejudice the rights of the existing Arab population.  Thus was born not only the dream of a Jewish state, but the contradiction that has bedeviled it ever since.  The British pledged to implement that plan when they assumed control of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate after the First World War, and it immediately led to violent conflict between Jews and Arabs, who opposed the idea from the beginning.  By the late 1930s the British government had backed away from the plan and was severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, even as the holocaust threatened.  After the war the Jewish population of Palestine revolted against British rule, and the British in 1947 announced their intention to terminate the mandate and turned the question of Palestine's future over to the new United Nations.  That body appointed a commission to study the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs and recommend a solution.

That committee recommended a partition of Palestine--that is, what is now Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank--into Jewish and Arab states.  The Jewish state it envisioned was considerably smaller than Israel today, and Arabs would have comprised almost half its population.  The Truman Administration endorsed the plan, and helped line up the two-thirds General Assembly majority that approved it on November 29, 1947, as UN Resolution 181.  The General Assembly, however, had no power to implement the resolution, and thus asked the Security Council to take steps to do so.  This attempt to resolve the issue peacefully and by legal and diplomatic means, however, collapsed at once.  

The Zionist leaders in Israel welcomed the resolution, even though they did not regard the terms of the partition as satisfactory.  They understood that the international endorsement of a Jewish state, however small, was perhaps the most critical step towards creating the Israel they had in mind.  The Arabs, on the other hand, made a terrible mistake, from their point of view, by rejecting it completely.  Within days, civil war between the Arabs and Jews had broken out in Palestine.  This was a very brutal conflict, as detailed by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in his book Righteous Victims, and by the late spring the Jews were beginning to get the upper hand.  Meanwhile, the Security Council refused to play the role the General Assembly had envisioned and could not agree to a new approach to the conflict that had emerged.  The attempt to solve the problem through international agreement had failed, and the two parties on the ground were now at war.

On May 14, when British authority in Palestine lapsed, the Israeli leadership, headed by David Ben Gurion, proclaimed the new state of Israel.  Neighboring Arab states--some of them newly independent as well--immediately declared war on that state and sent troops into Palestine.  As far as I can see, however, the Arabs within Palestine--who suffered, as Morris points out, from poor organization--did not at this time proclaim a state of their own.  In the international war that followed the Israelis managed to expand their territory far beyond what the partition plan had envisioned and beyond what they had controlled on their independence day.   Meanwhile, most of the Arab population of that territory either fled or was driven out. And the territory they did not regain--the West Bank of the Jordan River, East Jerusalem, and Gaza--did not become part of a Palestinian state after the armistice of 1949, but instead came under control of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.  The UN recognized the Palestinians who had fled to Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan as refugees, but that was all.  Israel, like most other modern states--including the United States of America--had established itself not via international agreement, but by force, followed by varying degrees of international recognition--though without any diplomatic recognition from its immediate neighbors.  The Palestinians had been given no say in the process of redrawing the region's borders, had lost the military battle, and had now become stateless persons.

From 1949 through 1967 the Arab-Israeli conflict was a conflict among states, with Egypt leading the Arab coalition against Israel after Gamel Abdul Nasser took power there in the early 1950s.  None of those states accepted the status quo as anything but temporary. The Arabs hoped to destroy Israel, and sponsored guerillas who crossed Israel's borders to commit terrorist acts.  The Israelis--and this has been well documented by Morris, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and others--wanted to expand their borders.  They attempted unsuccessfully to do so when they attacked Egypt in 1956 together with Britain and France and occupied the Sinai peninsula, only to have President Eisenhower force them to withdraw, and they did so more successfully in 1967, when they attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria after Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, effectively blocking the port of Eilat. The Six Day War left them in control of the Sinai Peninsula, all of Jerusalem, the whole West Bank of the Jordan River--referred to by the Israelis as Judea and Samaria--and the Syrian Golan heights.  They immediately offered to return the Sinai and the Golan in exchange for formal peace treaties with Egypt and Syria, but they did not make a parallel offer to Jordan with respect to the West Bank, which many Israelis saw part of the original grant from their god to the Jews.  Instead, the Israeli government began establishing settlements in the West Bank--and the settlements have grown under every Israeli government in the last 56 years, and now include half a million people.

The years from 1967 through 1979 transformed the conflict from a mainly interstate one to a renewal of the original 1947-48 battle between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine.  The 1967 war sent more refugees from the West Bank into Jordan, and Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Authority now emerged as the political representative of the Palestinian people, with some international recognition from various states and from the United Nations.  International efforts to arrange peace talks between Israel and the Arab states went nowhere until 1973, when Egypt and Syria staged a surprise attack on Israel and won initial successes, and Egypt emerged having regained some of the Sinai peninsula.  That led to disengagement agreements among Israel and Egypt and Syria, and then, in the late 1970s, to Anwar Sadat's peace ovetures and the conclusion of the Camp David accords in 1979, when Israel agreed to full withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for full Egyptian diplomatic recognition.  Those agreements also promised "autonomy" for the Palestinians on the West Bank, although as I have come to understand, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin believed that that meant autonomy for the people, but not for the land--that is, while the Palestinians would enjoy some form of self-rule, they would not enjoy territorial sovereignty or their own state in what Begin referred to as part of the "land of Israel."  

Once again the Palestinians had taken no part in the talks and rejected any such plan.  Their leadership had now headquartered in Lebanon, where they played a role in a disastrous civil war and built up a substantial military capability.  That in 1982 led Israel to invade Lebanon to destroy that capability.  Eleven years later came another apparent breakthrough. Just as Jimmy Carter had brought Sadat and Begin together at Camp David, Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Arafat to the White House to consummate the Oslo accords in 1993.  Those accords recognized Israel's right to exist and provided for some Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian authority to take over the administration of the Arab population there and in Gaza.  They did not promise a Palestinian state, but merely envisioned further negotiations between that Palestinian authority and the Israeli government to determine the "final status" of the West Bank and Gaza.  Shortly thereafter, these agreements apparently enabled the government of Jordan to sign its own peace treaty with Israel.  In short, the accords seemed to provide, for the first time, a framework within which Israelis and Palestinians could live together in peace, although the exact terms of their relationship remained to be worked out.

Important opposition to this new framework immediately emerged on both sides.  Hamas, which had been founded to organize Palestinian resistance in the late 1980s, immediately opposed the accords and emerged as a formidable competitor with the PLO.  In Israel Rabin was assassinated by a young Israeli who regarded him as a traitor for concluding the the accords in 1995.  Pressed by the Clinton Administration, Arafat and Rabin's successor Ehud Barak tried to conclude a final status agreement.  The parties met at Camp David, following in the footsteps of Sadat and Begin and Carter, in late 2000.  Israel offered Palestinian sovereignty over much of the West Bank and Gaza, but wanted to retain key settlement blocs and to divide the Palestinian territory in various ways, while also maintaining control of its airspace and limiting its military forces.  The Palestinians wanted some acknowledgement of a right of return for refugees, although exactly how it would be implemented remained unclear.  The two sides also disagreed about the fate of East Jerusalem and the custody of holy places.  An excellent and very well sourced Wikipedia article on the failure of the the talks suggests to me that the two sides remained very far from an agreement, and I urge all readers to look at it themselves and evaluate the responsibility for the failure of the talks.  Both sides, in different ways, repudiated the process after the summit's failure.  In Israel Ariel Sharon defeated Barak's center-right coalition in the the next year, and Palestinians in the West Bank launched new rebellions and terrorist campaigns, led in part by Hamas. The Israeli government concluded that they had simply used the Oslo agreements and the Israeli withdrawal to prepare for a new armed campaign against Israel.  A panel discussion organized by the New York Times tells a great deal about the origins of Oslo and why it failed.

The last twenty  years seem to have pushed both sides farther and farther from agreement.  In Israel neither Sharon nor his successor Benjamin Netanyahu have shown any interest in a two-state solution.  The Bush II administration blamed Arafat for the failure of peace talks and demanded new elections in the West Bank and Gaza to elect new Palestinian leadership.  To its utter amazement, Hamas won an easy victory in those elections, albeit with slightly less than 50 percent of the total vote.  The Palestinian authority, now led by Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, refused to yield to Hamas, and has refused to hold any further elections since.  Sharon did withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005, making it a separate enclave. Hamas rapidly gained power there, and Israel and Egypt have blockaded the territory ever since, controlling all its utilities.  The complicated significance of that withdrawal is explained at length in another well-sourced Wikipedia article.

Since taking power in Gaza Hamas has built up its military capabilities there. Meanwhile, north of Israel, Hezbollah, a militant Shi'ite group backed by Iran, has become a very important political force in Lebanon and established a parallel military capability.   Both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon have built up enormous stockpiles of rockets and drones which they have periodically fired into Israel, which has defended itself with antimissile systems and carried out several punitive expeditions.  Early this year, the creation of a new right-wing government in Israel, including settler activists who apparently have designs on the entire West Bank, moved the conflict into a new phase.  Then came the massacre of October 7, and now, the Israeli war on Gaza.

In recent years there has been much talk, on both sides, of a one-state solution rather than a two-state solution.  Since the numbers of Jewish Israelis and Arabs between the Jordan River and the sea--including Gaza--are almost equal at this point, and the Arab birth rate is higher, the militant Palestinian leadership presumably regards that as a step towards eventual takeover of the whole area, with very serious consequences for the Jews, while the Israelis see it as too big a threat to the existence of the Jewish state.  Meanwhile, both sides covet territory belonging to or inhabited by the other, just as they did in 1947-48.  The principles of self-determination and equality that international politics claim to have been based on at least since the First World War cannot, sadly, solve this problem, because, despite the existence of many people of good will on both sides, neither political authority respects the claims of the other.  At times I find the insistence of my own government upon an eventual two-state solution somewhat pathetic, since there seems to be no possibility of it coming to pass, but thinking about last week's discussion of the Iliad and our times, I see that to give up on the two-state solution would be giving up on a particular vision of humanity, in this case at least, that we do not want to lose. 

The October 7 invasion and massacre was the kind of terrorism the Palestinians have used since Israel's foundation, but on a larger scale.  Their use of big rocket attacks from Gaza--joined by Hezbollah from Lebanon--seem designed to make at least large parts of Israel uninhabitable for the Israelis, and reports from Israel indicate that they are having some success.  In response, Israel is using unprecedented tactics in Gaza, treating it and its population the way the British and Americans treated the Germans and the Japanese during the Second World War.  I do not know what the goal of their bombing is, but it seems pretty certain that more than half of the Gazan population will be homeless by the time the war is over, whether it successfully destroys Hamas or not.  In the last few weeks, not only Israeli right-wingers, but even people within the current government, have been putting forth the expulsion of all the Palestinians from Gaza--two million of them--as the only solution to Israel's long-term problem. The Israeli Intelligence Minister just advocated resettling Gazans elsewhere publicly, only to be disavowed by anonymous government spokespersons.  Meanwhile, armed settler militias have emptied sixteen Palestinian villages in the West Bank during this year.  These steps, like the bombing, hearken back to the Second World War.  The Allies at the end of that war cooperated in the expulsion of nearly twelve million Germans from territory given to Poland and the USSR, from Czechoslovakia, and from elsewhere in Eastern Europe.  The Allies--utterly supreme in 1945--faced no real opposition to what they did then.  We do not know what the consequences of a parallel step for Israel today would be.  I hope that it does not take place.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Platonic Disease

 I have never read Plato's Republic, but I have been aware for a long time of its idea of a state ruled by philosophers.  Uncle Google has kindly supplied me with this quote:

“Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsory excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either." 

The idea that the most educated and thoughtful people should rule has played an enormous role in modern history, partly because it has obvious appeal to the educated class that now dominates modern states. The Enlightenment theory of government seems in fact to have drawn on it, since it presumed that reason could identify and solve society's problems, and monarchs such as Voltaire's sometime friends Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great seem to have seen themselves in this way.  I think that the idea has become particularly influential in some key political strata of the United States over the last half century, and that a variant of it now dominates both journalism and academia.  And I fear that this is a key reason why our political system and our traditions are teetering on a precipice.

The Democratic Party remains the party committed to the idea of government as problem solver.  Where do ideas on how to solve problems come from today?  Some come from institutions like the JFK School of Government at Harvard, where I taught part-time in the late 1970s.  That was an interesting experience.  I was teaching the course The Uses of History with Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, which took a relatively traditional approach to policy making.  Using actual case studies and historical readings, our students looked at some good and bad decisions from the past, and we discussed how history might have helped achieve better outcomes.  I vividly remember Neustadt, who had become a good friend of mine, remarking that the course was what the students had expected from the Kennedy School when they arrived--but that the bulk of the curriculum was very different.  Much of it used macroeconomic techniques to evaluate policy programs.  Logic, that implied, could establish the truth--and one had to be a JFK School graduate to understand its use.  Decades later I re-established contact with one of my favorite undergraduate students in those years--then a left liberal--and found to my amazement that he was now a Republican.  "The Kennedy School turned me into a Republican," he told me.  Class lessons seemed to him so out of touch with economic and political reality that he could not take them seriously.

This is highly relevant, it seems to me, to the Biden Administration's political problems.  Drawing on many years of work in think tanks and universities, it has designed and passed potentially very important legislation to rebuild infrastructure and transform our energy future.  Neither Biden nor any lesser administration figure, however, has made a serious effort to explain how the legislation will work to the American people.  That is exactly what presidents like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan did, mostly on radio and television, as my new book shows.  Roosevelt discussed every New Deal measure at some length and put them all within the context of an attempt to build a new and far more equal society.  Truman did the same with proposed new measures for civil rights and national health insurance, and although he could not pass them, he laid the foundation which Lyndon Johnson managed to complete.  Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy also laid out their foreign policy programs in great detail.  Nixon, ironically, played the same role in welfare reform that Truman did in health insurance.  Congress turned down his family assistance plan, but the very similar earned income tax credit--although never explained at any length by Clinton and his successors--drew on the same ideas.  Reagan repeatedly listed the wonderful things that his tax cuts would bring about, and even though he certainly oversold them, the reduction of inflation and the gradual economic recovery convinced the nation that he was on the right track.  Clinton did sell a tax increase that eventually balanced the budget, and Obama made an effective case for expanded health insurance, but that was about as far as they went. George W. Bush promised to transform the Middle East along democratic lines, but could not do so.  Trump used Twitter to dominate the news, but couldn't communicate real solutions to real problems there.

Changes in the media are part of the problem--although the media might give the president more space if he had more to say.  The newspapers no longer print entire presidential addresses, and Biden's two State of the Union addresses, I believe, are the only speeches he has made that all the major networks--who are shadows of their former selves anyway--have carried.  Frequently important speeches of his are relegated to inside pages of the New York Times, an unheard of practice in earlier decades. The other reason for this, however, is that the major media outlets no longer respect the right of elected officials to set the national agenda and propose solutions.  Op-ed columnists in particular--who have emerged as the superstars of major papers--arrogate that job to themselves, whether their ideas have any chance of being implemented or not.  This of course encourages their readers to adopt their ideas, even if they have no chance of being adopted.

The revolt of the late 1960s targeted authority of all kinds--social, religious, sartorial, intellectual, and political.  I believe that hostility to authority has been perhaps the most enduring legacy of that era--and I have discussed many times how much further it has gone in recent decades.  Our government, I am convinced, cannot function if we do not trust our elected officials to make decisions and carry them out.  They may have earned our skepticism, but the depth of that skepticism prevents them from re-establishing real respect and trust.

Yesterday, Donald Trump at a rally referred to his political opponents as "vermin" trying to destroy the United States.  Every story about that speech quotes some historian noting that this echoes the authoritarian leaders of the last century, with the implication that we must heed our historians to preserve our democracy.  The press gives them the status of Plato's philosophers. That, alas, is no substitute for genuine faith in our democracy among our common people--large portions of whom turned to Trump in the last two elections, and may again, because they have lost that faith.  A truly effective new president, I think, will have to have some understanding of what earlier presidents managed to do, and how they did it.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Something different--pictures worth a million words

 This week's post will take about six minutes to watch.  It is a clip from a remarkable film made around 2009 in Israel, Lemon Tree.  The plot, as you will see, revolves around a Palestinian widow living in the West Bank, whose land includes a lemon grove.   The Israeli Defense Minister has moved next door, and this has immediate repercussions that the clip explains.  According to Wikipedia, the plot is closely based on real events.  You will find the clip here:


This is an avi file, a standard video format.  I hope that your device will open it in its favorite video player, whatever that happens to be.  I use Media Player, which I think is free.

This post is dedicated to my grandfather, Moshe Ber Kaiser, who over the strong objections of his wife moved his whole family from Ukraine to the United States--where life was better.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Mideast Tragedy

Because of an accident while I was working on this post, it is dated October 31.  It is actually going up on November 4.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza, designed to avenge the deaths of 1400 Israelis and wipe out Hamas,  is well underway.  Benjamin Netanyahu has warned his people of a long and difficult war, while reports from Washington suggest that the administration is hoping for his downfall.  Today I will try to lay out my view of the situation as it has developed in recent decades, and where it seems to be going now.  

I have written here many times that both history and journalism should in my opinion focus on what was or what is, not on what the author wishes should have been or should be.  There is no topic more difficult to hold to this rule than this one, but I am going to do my best. The often-heard argument, "Yes, that's what they seem to think, but they shouldn't be thinking that," leaves me cold. 

The problem is a simple one: two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, want the same land between the Jordan River and the sea.  The leading political elements on the two sides--Hamas on the one hand, and the current Israeli government on the other--reject the other side's right to sovereignty in any of that territory.  It's easy to feel that the Palestinians should have given up their goal long ago, but they haven't.   Many Israelis and an unknown number of Palestinians would be willing to compromise, but such people have rarely if ever been able to prevail on either side.  Nor is this all.  As we shall see, neither side is satisfied with the current status quo.  And this is not a problem of a majority and a minority, like race problems in the United States from 1865 to 1965 or the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India in 1947.  The Palestinian and Israeli populations of the territory in question are very close to equal.

Since the Carter years the government of the United States has pretty consistently taken the position that while Israel has a sacred right to exist, some framework involving a two-state solution should enable the Palestinians to enjoy full political rights as well.  It has never been clear whether any Palestinian leadership--or the Palestinian people as a whole--would see such a solution as anything but a stepping stone to eventual control of the whole area, achieved by any means necessary.  Certainly there is no indication that Hamas would--and Hamas appears to represent at least a plurality of Palestinian opinion.   When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas took it over, and Hamas also won the election in Gaza and the West Bank handily in 2006 with 45 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Fatah, the Palestinian establishment party.  There is no indication that events since 2005 have made the Palestinian authority under Mahmoud Abbas more popular.  Hamas has built a military base in Gaza, largely in underground tunnels, and put together a large arsenal of rockets and other weapons there with the help of aid from Iran and elsewhere.  It also apparently developed a very sophisticated military planning capability, which early this month allowed it to disable the Israeli defense system on the border completely and carry out the massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis, military and civilian.

The US government continues to suggest that a two-state solution is the only desirable solution to the conflict.  In the current crisis US officials imply that such a solution might emerge after Hamas is destroyed.   That seems to me very unlikely for two reasons.  First of all, the Palestinians have never responded to Israeli military action against them by becoming reconciled to Israel's existence.  They have only become more and more militant.  And equally importantly, the Israeli government has not shown any real interest in a two-state solution for more than twenty years, and the new government has repudiated it publicly and is doing more and more to make it impossible.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is not making any secret of his view of the future.  Just last month, before the entire United Nations, he held up a map of the Middle East with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia in green--that is, Israel plus five countries countries with which it has diplomatic relations, plus Saudi Arabia, with whom negotiations to establish them were proceeding.  The map showed Israel including both Gaza and the entire West  Bank, with no territory at all marked out for a Palestinian state.  More than six months ago, Bezalel Smotrich, himself a West Bank settler and Netanyahu's Minister of Finance--and now responsible for the government of the West Bank--went him one better.  In a commemorative speech in Paris, he announced that "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people"--a claim Golda Meir also made half a century ago--while his podium displayed a map showing all of Jordan, as well as the West Bank, as part of Israel.  That, I remember from Ezer Weizmann's book, The Battle for Peace, echoed articles by Menachem Begin in the years immediately after Israel's founding, when he too argued as a member of the opposition that the East Bank of the Jordan was part of the Old Testament grant of territory to the Jews.  Begin at that time looked like a fringe figure in Israeli politics. Smotrich is a central figure now.

Another front in the struggle is the West Bank itself.  Just six weeks ago, an Israeli academic and peace activist, David Shulman, had a remarkable article in the New York Review of Books detailing what is happening in the West Bank now: settlers emptying entire small villages of West Bank Arabs and taking over their land for new settlements, with no interference from the Israeli Army.   The UN reports that 237 Palestinians and 25 Israelis died in West Bank violence from January 1 to October 6, and another 123 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, some by settlers and some by the Israeli Army, while 1,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  It is not clear to me exactly what the Israeli right expects to happen to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank.  Anyone who asks us all to look at the Hamas Charter and what it says about the future of Israel should also look at this evidence of how the Israeli government sees the Palestinians' future. Yes, many Israelis oppose all this, including some of the journalists I have quoted in this piece, but for the time being, at least, they are helpless, and they would have to command a substantial majority to reverse current trends.  

We also need to ask what the actual result of the current military campaign in Gaza will be.  Few would deny the Israeli right to punish the perpetrators of the massacre that started this war, but the consequences of their tactics too enormous to ignore.  The Israeli government's demand that about one million Gazans leave the northern part of the strip to leave it completely open to Israeli military operations is, as far as I know, unprecedented in modern warfare.  The devastation that the air and ground campaigns are wreaking upon Gaza is obviously making large parts of it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future..  I just heard a Gazan arguing that the Israelis are trying to turn the whole Gaza population into refugees again and empty Gaza out.  Who could reassure her that it isn't?  Meanwhile, Arab countries refuse to take any Palestinian refugees, and the only Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza for Egypt are either critically wounded or possess dual citizenship. Today, November 5, the New York Times reports that Israel has in fact asked Egypt to allow several  hundred thousand Gazans to enter Egypt.  The Egyptians refused.

Since the October 7 attacks that killed 1400 Israeli civilians and soldiers, Israeli leaders have used language reminiscent of American presidents in the last two decades.  They have talked of crushing Gaza to the extent that Israel would be safe for generations, and many have compared what they plan to do to the enormously destructive American-led campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq.  In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu himself  describes the conflict as a war between civilization and barbarism. "Iran has formed an axis of terror by arming, training and financing Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and other terror proxies throughout the Middle East and beyond," he says, echoing George W. Bush in 2001. "In fighting Hamas and the Iranian axis of terror, Israel is fighting the enemies of civilization itself."  Like Bush then, he argues that the whole world must side with Israel for its own sake.  The column leaves the impression that a people ruled by an evil political movement is sunk in barbarism and enjoys no real rights.  It could also mean that Netanyahu wants the US and other nations to join him in a war against Iran, which the Obama Administration was reportedly quite close to doing before it reached the now-defunct nuclear agreement with Iran in the second Obama administration.  The Israeli historian Benny Morris, who best the drum for war with Iran in 2008-12, has just encouraged the Israeli government to consider an attack on that nation again.

We want a world where nations live together in peace.  The US government, with its feeling of responsibility for everything that happens in the world, its very close ties to Israel, and its interests in the Arab world, very naturally continues to talk as if a real solution was possible--but neither the Palestinians nor the Israeli government seem to think so.  I doubt that the Israelis can crush Hamas and Gaza into submission.  I wish I could see a real solution on the horizon, but I can't.