Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Celebrating Power, Celebrating Resistance

The museums of Berlin are filled with amazing artifacts of past societies and civilizations, perhaps none more imposing than three exhibits in the Pergamon Museum, each filling enormous rooms. The biggest and heaviest architectural reconstruction in any museum is the Market Gate of Miletus, built 2000 years ago by the Romans as the entrance to the market square of Miletus in present-day Turkey, destroyed in an earthquake 900 years later, then unearthed and reconstructed by German archaeologist Theodor Wiegand. This gate, 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall, represents the power of the Roman emperors extending to the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

In a nearby room, the reconstructed Ishtar Gate displays the might of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who had it constructed about 575 BC in Babylon, the capital of his empire and perhaps the largest city in the world at that time. Thousands of brightly glazed bricks with reliefs of lions, dragons and bulls created an imposing sight, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The most famous holding of the museum, the Pergamon Altar, won’t be open for view until 2020, because the entire museum is gradually being renovated piece by piece. This monumental place of worship was built about 160 years before Christ’s birth to honor the political and military achievements of the Greek King Eumenes II. Visitors can ascend stone steps 60 feet wide to view a sculpted frieze depicting the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants.

These ancient monuments are the most imposing celebrations of power among hundreds of such displays in Berlin. Similar displays can be found in all European cities, where museums preserve reminders of past dynasties, public statues glorify past rulers, and restored palaces attract millions of visitors.

When we enter a museum, we have learned to expect representations of past authority, power and prestige, constructed of the finest materials by great artists, preserved for the wonder of succeeding generations. We see the most elaborate creations of the past.

There are other artifacts and memorials in Berlin which represent resistance, the opposite of power. Because Berlin was the site of two terrible 20th-century dictatorships, the bravery and foolhardiness of those who resisted power are also celebrated here. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was built right at the Berlin Wall to memorialize the East Germans who succeeded or failed to escape across the Wall. Instead of finely wrought art objects, the most interesting exhibits are cheap East German cars reconstructed to create tiny hiding places for escapees or rusty tools used to dig under the Wall. The names and faces of those who resisted the Communist government are noted here, but remain unknown elsewhere. Their achievements were not beautiful, but daring and inventive, and often ended in death or prison.

The theme at Checkpoint Charlie is escape. Getting past the Berlin Wall or across the border into West Germany meant freedom. Escaping from the vast territory of Nazi-controlled Europe was much more difficult. Resistance to the Nazis was more likely to be a lonely battle against a murderous regime in favor of human rights, that predictably ended in death. Bernard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in the center of Berlin, began to protest the brutalities of concentration camps soon after the Nazis took power, going directly to high Nazi officials to complain of their policies. He protested against the mistreatment of Catholic priests, of Jews and of the handicapped. He prayed publicly every day for deported Jews. He was imprisoned and died as he was being deported to Dachau.

In a small park on the quiet Rosenstrasse, a group of sculptures commemorates a remarkable act of group resistance. Hundreds of Christian wives of Jewish men who had been arrested in 1943 gathered before the building where they were being held to demand their release. They were threatened by SS trucks with machine guns, but did not move. After a week of constant protest, the men were released, the only instance of a successful German protest against the Holocaust. One of the women, Elsa Holzer, later said, “If you had to calculate whether you would do any good by protesting, you wouldn’t have gone.”

Celebrations of power are all around us. We don’t often think about how that power was exercised, about who might have suffered to make that power possible. Those who resist power usually pass into the fog of history because they were not famous and they had little opportunity to create imposing objects to memorialize their actions. Stone palaces and golden objects attract more attention than lonely dissent.

The more we know about the great rulers of the past, the more we realize that the trappings and accomplishments of power rested on the conquest and exploitation of vast numbers of people, some of whom protested. Like the still anonymous Tank Man who stopped a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989, they could calculate that their actions had little chance of success. They were not counting on their names being recorded in history books. They acted from conviction and desperation.

They deserve statues and museums, too.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 18, 2017

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What’s Wrong With Iowa?

We often drive through eastern Iowa on our way from central Illinois to Minnesota. The landscape is peaceful and prosperous. The farmhouses are well kept, and the roads smooth and wide. When we stop, Iowans are friendly and helpful.

Iowa is doing very well. The Census Bureau ranks Iowa #4 in lowest housing costs relative to income, and that cheap housing is near to the workplace: average commuting time is 19 minutes. Iowa is one of the safest states. The cultural scene is thriving: Forest City’s country music festival is ranked second in the country by Country Living magazine, and Broadway shows go straight to Des Moines. CNBC ranked Iowa 9th among the 50 states in its annual survey “Best States for Business”, with a similar ranking for quality of life.

So why does Iowa send a racist to Congress? Even before he was first elected to Congress in 2002, Steve King was clear about his disdain for immigrants of all kinds. As a state legislator, he proposed a law requiring Iowa students to be taught that the United States is the undisputed greatest nation on Earth. He sued his own Governor for providing ballots in languages other than English, despite the federal law that requires such ballots.

After election, King became known for his nasty characterizations of immigrants. In 2013, he generalized about undocumented immigrants: “For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds, and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Do immigrants pose a particular problem in Iowa? Iowa has one of the lowest proportions of foreign-born residents, less than 5%, compared to 13% for the US, and only 7% speak a language other than English at home, compared to 21% in the whole country. Iowa is one of the whitest states, with 85% non-Hispanic whites, more than all but 5 other states. King’s district is even whiter: 96% white.

Here is what King has done in this current Congress since January. He proposed to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which created the federal income tax. He found one co-sponsor. He proposed a bill to terminate the EB-5 program, part of the Immigration Act of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush. That program offers green cards for permanent residence to entrepreneurs and their families, if they invest in a commercial enterprise in the United States and plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified American workers. He found one co-sponsor. He proposed a bill to use federal funds to support private schools, and to repeal federal nutritional standards for school lunch and breakfast programs that increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk, and reduce sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat. He managed 3 co-sponsors for that. King proposed to end our national policy of giving citizenship to anyone born in the US, even if their parents are not citizens, as he has done in previous years.

Is King perhaps just very conservative? No, some recent comments show that he is a white supremacist. In July, he said about non-whites on a cable news show, “I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” Just before the Dutch election, he tweeted about the far-right candidate Geert Wilders, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The former KKK leader David Duke understood what King meant, and responded “GOD BLESS STEVE KING!” On CNN, King reaffirmed his idea of a white America: “I meant exactly what I said. I’d like to see an America that's just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same, from that perspective.”

Why do the people of northwestern Iowa keep electing King to Congress? It’s not because he does anything useful there. Since he was elected to Congress in 2003, he has sponsored over 100 bills and not one of them even got out of committee, even though Republicans controlled the House for most of those years. He was named the least effective member of Congress in 2015 by non-partisan InsideGov.

Are most people in Iowa’s 4th district racists? Not necessarily: in 2008, they voted for Obama over McCain for President.

Steve King, along with other politicians who have made openly racist statements, exemplifies an unhappy characteristic of many white American voters. Electing a conservative is more important than not electing a racist. As long as their choice is between a Democrat and Steve King, northwestern Iowans will keep voting for King, no matter how ineffective or prejudiced he is.

That’s how we end up with racists in Congress.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 11, 2017

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I Don’t Belong in Israel

The first time I landed in Israel in 1993, an unexpected feeling swept over me: I felt at home. Although I had never been anywhere near the Middle East, the knowledge that I was not an exception in the crowd, but was surrounded by fellow Jews made a strange place comfortable. I didn’t wonder how people felt about Jews or what they would think of my unusually scattered family history. I didn’t have to explain myself, I could just be myself. I didn’t look Jewish, I looked like I belonged.

That feeling is gone. On my most recent visit to Israel in 2015, I spent time with Palestinians on the West Bank and learned about their treatment by the Israeli government. I have been reading about the most recent Israeli policies. I am deeply distressed about what official Israel now stands for.

In the past few months, encouraged by the election of Donald Trump, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to significantly expand Jewish settlement on Palestinian land. Netanyahu’s government is pushing for the first new settlement in over 20 years, as well as approving many illegal settlements that had pushed beyond the borders of existing settlements. Even Trump, who proclaimed himself a great friend of the current right-wing government, advised Netanyahu in February against expanding settlements. This appears to have had as little effect as the UN resolutions condemning settlements as against international law.

The Israeli government has become more active in limiting the rights of those who criticize its actions on the West Bank. In February, an investigator from Human Rights Watch was prevented from entering Israel. Human Rights Watch has been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but also of the human rights record of the Palestinian Authority.

Breaking the Silence is an organization of Israeli military veterans who are critical of military actions in the occupied territories. By publishing soldiers’ testimonies, the organization seeks to inform Israelis about “abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property”. Netanyahu has attacked Breaking the Silence as not supportive of the battle against terror. After some less formal attempts to keep members of Breaking the Silence from speaking in schools, the government now supports a law banning them from educational institutions.

The Education Minister issued new guidelines to schools about invited speakers, which includes this language: “Entry is forbidden to external groups and speakers whose ... discourse harms the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Moreover, entry will be forbidden to speakers ... whose activities undermine the legitimacy of state bodies (such as the Israel Defense Forces and the courts).” That language could be applied to any critics of the military occupation, and is directed especially at Breaking the Silence. Someone who says that Israel’s policies are undemocratic could be barred from schools.

In early March, the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, passed a law which bars foreigners who support a political boycott of Israel from entering the country. The idea of boycotting Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian land and its treatment of Palestinians has spread in recent years across the world. Called BDS for boycott, divestment, sanctions, the movement, begun in 2005, “works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” The new law applies not only to foreign nationals who have made public statements in support of such a boycott, but also to those who work for an organization which advocates the boycott. It applies to those who advocate a boycott of products produced in any Israeli-controlled territory. That broad definition includes the World Council of Churches, which urges only for a boycott of goods produced in the settlements.

I do not support BDS. While I believe that boycotting an entire nation because of its politics can be justified, as was true for the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, I do not think that Israeli policies have reached that level. That is my personal political judgment. But if I decide to sign one of the many calls to support BDS which I have seen, I could be barred from entering Israel.

I recognize that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unreasonably try to coerce support and punish opinions they don’t like. Last week, Eddie Izzard, a British comedian who ran 27 marathons in 27 days in 2016 in tribute to Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, was rejected by the organizers of the Palestine Marathon because he performed in Tel Aviv the day before.

One of Israel’s major arguments against those who are critical of these policies is that it is better than its neighbors. That may be true, but it’s not enough for me. No matter how badly a nation behaves, it can always point to another nation as worse. There is nothing new about any of the policies I discuss here. There is no bright red line which a nation obviously crosses on its way from democracy to repression.

But I have read too much and seen too much myself on the West Bank. That feeling of coming home in Israel in 1993 was delicious. It’s gone. Israel cannot be a home for me as long as the Israeli state practices discrimination, censorship and occupation.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 4, 2017