Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Can There be Peace in the Middle East?

I didn’t know what to think about Israelis and Palestinians. I was brought up to believe that the creation of Israel was the best possible response to the Holocaust, that Israelis had created a remarkable and successful democracy in a difficult area of the world, and that Israel deserved the support of Jews everywhere else. I believed Israelis to be my distant siblings.

That message was promoted by every Jewish organization in America, from the local synagogue down to mah-jong games among Jewish women, and up to a spectrum of national Jewish organizations. All forms of media agreed with that message and reported as if it was an obvious truth. Palestinians came to public notice only when they committed acts of terror.

Then that uniformity of belief and message eventually began to change. Led by President Jimmy Carter from the White House and Paul Findley from within Congress, our government tried to negotiate peace by raising the status of Palestinians from a terrorist society, which was always only a tiny minority, to a national people with just grievances and demands. This “peace process,” which had begun much earlier, has never succeeded in solving the cold and hot wars between Palestinians and Israelis.

Opinion polls have shown a similar uncertainty in the American public. In a 2012 poll just before the election, most Americans were unsure what kind of policy they wanted in the Middle East. Although more than two-thirds agreed that Israelis and Palestinians are “equal people with equal rights”, about half were unsure about the earlier Clinton peace plan, a Palestinian right of return, the status of Jerusalem, or the role of Jewish settlements.

One small segment of public opinion, American Jews, have been gradually lessening their support for Israeli policy. Younger American Jews tend to believe that the Israeli government is not making a sincere effort to find peace. Few believe that building settlements contributes to Israeli security.

I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in Israel and in the West Bank in earlier this month. I was able to talk with many knowledgeable people about the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. Most important I was able to see with my own eyes Jewish settlements, Palestinian cities and refugee camps, military check points, and the ubiquitous walls.

It is easy to fault Palestinian political organizations for engaging in tactics of terror against civilians and for not being willing to accept the existence of Israel as a state. It is easy to fault the Israeli government for military tactics which kill civilians and for continuing to seize Palestinian land for expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

It is not easy to develop a strategy toward peace. Most of the people I spoke with offered thoughtful analyses and opinions about the current situation, but did not talk of peace. Their hopes were much smaller: some progress in reducing tensions and the cycle of violence.

How difficult that will be was demonstrated by a political moment at the Miss Universe contest in Miami last week. Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, posted on Instagram a smiling photo of herself together with Miss Lebanon, Saly Greige. That prompted some Lebanese officials to demand that Greige be stripped of her title for consorting with the enemy. Lebanese are not allowed to visit or even call Israel, and Israeli products are banned there.

Apparently Matalon chased Greige for several days trying to get a photo together. This minor incident at a beauty contest not only shows the obstacles to any reconciliation. It also illustrates the differing situations of Arabs and Jews: Matalon could do what she wanted without worry, while Greige was necessarily concerned about reaction back home.

Is there a solution? I will try to sort out my impressions of one of the world’s most intractable political problems in the coming weeks.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 27, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je suis Charlie

The assassination in Paris of 12 people at the offices of the cartoon magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and the murder of four others at a Jewish grocery store have caused a worldwide revulsion against terror by Islamic extremists. Over one million people filled the streets of Paris a few days later to demonstrate for tolerance.

The murders were a unifying force, bringing world leaders and people of all colors and backgrounds together behind the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, “I am Charlie”. On the news, I saw people of widely disparate backgrounds speak of their support for each other and for diversity. The significant presence of Muslims, who may have been offended by the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoon but were outraged at the murders, demonstrated that the killers represent only a radical slice of Islamic belief. The absence of any high-ranking American official was an embarrassment.

I write about this because a second major issue behind the demonstration was freedom of expression. “Charlie Hebdo” was targeted because they published a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. I don’t think the mockery of other people’s religious beliefs is clever or useful, but I firmly support everyone’s freedom to write or draw whatever they want, no matter whom it offends. As soon as a government is allowed to make rules about what may not be printed, that government can effectively restrict open discussion of its policies. If a social group, majority or minority, can censor free speech, they have taken enormous power over the rest of us. The proper way to indicate disapproval of offensive writing is to say so, not to make it illegal, and certainly not to attack with violence.

I am privileged to live in a society where freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental rights. Only a minority of nations protect these freedoms.

The Paris marchers reacted to a horrible tragedy by demonstrating for something good. A more negative demonstration took place in Dresden, Germany. The political group PEGIDA, standing for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, has organized weekly demonstrations for several months against immigration and against non-white immigrants to Germany. PEGIDA leaders use their Facebook pages to make racist remarks about Turks in Germany. As do many conservative movements who do not like their claims and ideas to be examined too closely and publically, they are fond of the phrase L├╝genpresse, “lying press”, the German version of complaints about the “mainstream media”. Their demonstrations have provoked counter-demonstrations in support of more tolerance and diversity, usually in greater numbers.

The PEGIDA demonstrations represent the German version of a much wider European reaction against “immigrants”, which really means non-Caucasians. This continental movement promotes an extreme conservative ideology of nationality and race, often bordering on fascism. Marine le Pen leads the National Front, which has recently become the third largest party in France. She used the killings in Paris to criticize “radical Islamism”. The right-wing Party for Freedom has become the third largest party in the Netherlands under a platform opposing immigration from non-Western countries. Golden Dawn in Greece, more closely identified with the Nazis and more violent against opponents, received only 7% of the votes in 2012, but attracts much more attention than its numbers have earned.

In the advanced economies of the West, immigration of people of color from poorer regions has caused conservative backlash. Although Germans recruited Turks, and French recruited North Africans, and Americans recruited Mexicans as cheap labor after World War II, the continuing flow northward created political division as those industrial nations have experienced economic problems since the 1970s.

The conflict between President Obama and the Republican Congress over how to treat undocumented immigrants is a pale reflection of these deeper divisions in Europe. Our most radical rightists are moderated by their membership in the larger Republican Party, while in multi-party European countries, the extremists form their own smaller, but more radical parties.

But the issues are the same and they won’t go away. The absolute dominance of white majorities has been shattered by decades of immigration and by successful pressure for equal rights of existing minorities. The worldwide force of migration cannot be stopped by nostalgia for the disappearance of “traditional values”, often expressed as a cover for hatred and racism. New colorful societies are emerging. This process can be protested and fought, as in the PEGIDA marches, or it can be welcomed and celebrated, as in Paris. But it cannot be reversed or wished away.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 20, 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My New Year’s Resolution

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about political corruption. My essay began by citing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, then mentioned by name Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican Congressman Michael Grimm. I also noted the pervasive historic corruption among Chicago alderman, most of whom have been Democrats.

A reader who calls himself “Common Cents” responded online as follows: “Get your head out of the sand, or wherever it is. Both parties buy votes. I agree with you when you say it is wrong. We must make lobbying illegal if we want to start cleaning things up. I was in Chicago when the Democrats gave away free cell phones and all sorts of other things to the minorities to buy their votes to get Obama elected. That should also be illegal. I wonder if it is possible for you to write something from a fair and balanced point of view...I doubt it.”

I am used to getting misreadings of my columns which put forward a liberal viewpoint, but I was surprised that Common Cents was unable to see “balance” in a column which mostly targeted Democrats. I wasn’t surprised at the hostility, but I don’t believe we should accept rudeness and ad hominem remarks in place of reasoned argument. So I responded: “I don’t know who you are, but you sure are unpleasant. What could be more balanced than a column about how both parties are guilty of corruption. Can you read?”

That provoked Common Cents: “By the way, resorting to name calling is not professional. My debate teacher said it was an admission of defeat. Let’s stick to the issues.”

I repeat this exchange partly because I think that rudeness ought to be called out. I also find Common Cents’ projection amusing: he has made hostile comments to me before, here he made a few more, but then he gets huffy when I called him “unpleasant”.

Common Cents resembles many online political commentators: he doesn’t carefully read what he comments on, he proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems, and he ridicules anyone with different political leanings. But my response to him also resembles too many political columnists: after noting his unpleasantness, I wrote sarcastically, “Can you read?” By responding to rudeness with rudeness, I cut off the possibility of actually opening a dialogue with someone who is interested enough in what I write to read and respond. I don’t know if Common Cents is capable of a reasonable political conversation, but my own actions made that much less likely.

Everyone complains about the uncivil state of our national political conversation, the tendency to assume that political opponents are stupid at best and, more likely, evil. And everyone waits for the other guy to shape up.

So my New Year’s resolution is to break that cycle myself by inviting my critics to civil dialogue. I do that here in general, but I will also do it in the more difficult situations when someone calls me a name, or says I am stupid or crazy. I will try my best not to respond in kind, but to find the common ground of our shared interests, to remain polite and respectful. As Common Cents suggests, I will try to stick to the issues and see if I can coax similar behavior from my critics.

The open antagonism which characterizes so many of our political conversations is not characteristic of the rest of our lives. Without knowing another person’s politics, we say hello on the street, root for the same teams, and offer help when needed. And we love the same country. If we can short-circuit our tendency to assume the worst when we find out that someone lives on the other side of an invisible political fence, we will not only have more successful politics, we will be better human beings.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 6, 2015