Digging Wells and Finding Fresh Water

This week’s parashah has some famous stories: the sale of Esau’s birthright for a stew; Jacob’s deceitful procurement of his father’s blessing. But I found something that spoke to me in a less-known wrinkle in the plot: the story of Isaac and the wells. Isaac lives near Gerar, in proximity to Avimelekh’s people, and to avoid being killed by people who might lust for Rebecca he does the same trick his father pulled twice: he pretends Rebecca is his sister. The jig is up, eventually, and Avimelekh orders his people not to touch Isaac. But people living in proximity and fighting over scarce resources during a famine is not a recipe for peace and harmony. Here’s what happened next (Genesis 26: 12-22):

Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. יהוה blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him.

And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.

And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled.

Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,

the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.

And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.

He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last יהוה has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Genesis 26: 12-22

Shortly after Trump was elected, I remember talking to two of my neighbors. They’ve been together forever, through the fight for gay rights and AIDS widowhood and the horrid deaths around the Castro and the murders of Milk and Moscone and the fight for equality. Tough guys, and at the same time full of joy. And what they said was, “we’ll just have to do all that…. AGAIN.”

I found their courage and perseverance inspiring–just as I find Isaac’s tenacity in digging wells, again and again. He didn’t sit by the well and bemoan his victimization. He didn’t deconstruct Philistine supremacy. He got to work. And I think those of us in the diaspora, encountering noxious views, hatred, ignorance, and violence, have to resign ourselves to the same task: unclogging old wells, digging new ones, and finding fresh water.

Apparently, my essay about antisemitism in academia has been making the rounds, and I’m getting lots of supportive reactions, but to my dismay many of them are compassion for my supposed victimization. This was not at all my intent when writing it. It’s natural for my Israeli and Jewish students to complain that the endless compassion for, and alliances with, any oppressed group have passed them by. But I would be very upset if the upshot of all this, the measure of success, were to be an inclusion of this additional voice in the petulant choir of victims.

Isaac didn’t sit and cry to God about how he was a victim of oppressive well-clogging. He didn’t petition the Philistines to recognize his disenfranchisement. What he did do was fight like hell. Some of those fights he lost, and he called those wells what they were: monuments of hatred. But he got straight to work and unclogged other wells, or dug up fresh ones. He and his servants took the trouble to dig deep, until they were sure they were provided for.

I’m already dreaming up ways to dig wells and keep their waters from getting rancid. I want to invite you, readers, to do the same. Here are some things I have found inspiring this week along these veins.

First thing, rather than sit and weep as people clog your wells, is to stand up to them and refute their claims to the water. Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s excellent essay The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False is an excellent, historically informed rebuttal to the usual claptrap one hears on campuses these days. Only last week, a grown, educated man stood up in an auditorium at my workplace and, in front of 200 people and apparently completely unashamed, chalked up the horrid, irrefutable facts of the horrid massacre to “Israeli disinformation.” He also regurgitated the usual ideological package, which Sebag-Montefiore’s summarily dismisses as follows:

This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century. But its current engine is the new identity analysis, which sees history through a concept of race that derives from the American experience. The argument is that it is almost impossible for the “oppressed” to be themselves racist, just as it is impossible for an “oppressor” to be the subject of racism. Jews therefore cannot suffer racism, because they are regarded as “white” and “privileged”; although they cannot be victims, they can and do exploit other, less privileged people, in the West through the sins of “exploitative capitalism” and in the Middle East through “colonialism.”

This leftist analysis, with its hierarchy of oppressed identities—and intimidating jargon, a clue to its lack of factual rigor—has in many parts of the academy and media replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians. When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore, “The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False”, The Atlantic, October 27, 2023

Montefiore proceeds to unpack the roots of the crisis. He does not shy away from strident critique of Israel’s policy, of the occupation, and especially of the disastrous Netanyahu government. And he also does not shy away from taking apart, and disproving, both the “settler colonial” idea and the “genocide” tag.

The concept of “partition” is, in the decolonization narrative, regarded as a wicked imperial trick. But it was entirely normal in the creation of 20th-century nation-states, which were typically fashioned out of fallen empires. And sadly, the creation of nation-states was frequently marked by population swaps, huge refugee migrations, ethnic violence, and full-scale wars. Think of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921–22 or the partition of India in 1947. In this sense, Israel-Palestine was typical.

At the heart of decolonization ideology is the categorization of all Israelis, historic and present, as “colonists.” This is simply wrong. Most Israelis are descended from people who migrated to the Holy Land from 1881 to 1949. They were not completely new to the region. The Jewish people ruled Judean kingdoms and prayed in the Jerusalem Temple for a thousand years, then were ever present there in smaller numbers for the next 2,000 years. In other words, Jews are indigenous in the Holy Land, and if one believes in the return of exiled people to their homeland, then the return of the Jews is exactly that. Even those who deny this history or regard it as irrelevant to modern times must acknowledge that Israel is now the home and only home of 9 million Israelis who have lived there for four, five, six generations.

Most migrants to, say, the United Kingdom or the United States are regarded as British or American within a lifetime. Politics in both countries is filled with prominent leaders—Suella Braverman and David Lammy, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley—whose parents or grandparents migrated from India, West Africa, or South America. No one would describe them as “settlers.” Yet Israeli families resident in Israel for a century are designated as “settler-colonists” ripe for murder and mutilation. And contrary to Hamas apologists, the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims never justifies atrocities. They would be atrocious anywhere, committed by anyone with any history. It is dismaying that it is often self-declared “anti-racists” who are now advocating exactly this murder by ethnicity.

Those on the left believe migrants who escape from persecution should be welcomed and allowed to build their lives elsewhere. Almost all of the ancestors of today’s Israelis escaped persecution.

If the “settler-colonist” narrative is not true, it is true that the conflict is the result of the brutal rivalry and battle for land between two ethnic groups, both with rightful claims to live there. As more Jews moved to the region, the Palestinian Arabs, who had lived there for centuries and were the clear majority, felt threatened by these immigrants. The Palestinian claim to the land is not in doubt, nor is the authenticity of their history, nor their legitimate claim to their own state. But initially the Jewish migrants did not aspire to a state, merely to live and farm in the vague “homeland.” In 1918, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met the Hashemite Prince Faisal Bin Hussein to discuss the Jews living under his rule as king of greater Syria. The conflict today was not inevitable. It became so as the communities refused to share and coexist, and then resorted to arms.

Sebag-Montefiore also persuasively argues that this “decolonization” narrative is the worst thing that can happen to this conflict now:

Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has used the murder of civilians to spoil any chance of a two-state solution. In 1993, its suicide bombings of Israeli civilians were designed to destroy the two-state Oslo Accords that recognized Israel and Palestine. This month, the Hamas terrorists unleashed their slaughter in part to undermine a peace with Saudi Arabia that would have improved Palestinian politics and standard of life, and reinvigorated Hamas’s sclerotic rival, the Palestinian Authority. In part, they served Iran to prevent the empowering of Saudi Arabia, and their atrocities were of course a spectacular trap to provoke Israeli overreaction. They are most probably getting their wish, but to do this they are cynically exploiting innocent Palestinian people as a sacrifice to political means, a second crime against civilians. In the same way, the decolonization ideology, with its denial of Israel’s right to exist and its people’s right to live safely, makes a Palestinian state less likely if not impossible.

Some sources tie these narratives to the flow of Qatari money into U.S. universities. A new NCRI report follows the money and correlates its sources with (1) the erosion of free speech and (2) the increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses.

Second order of business is to see who is actually unclogging wells, as opposed to shifting blame and whining, and support them. Unsurprisingly, these are the folks who stood day after day, shoulder to shoulder with my parents to protest the decay of the country. Since I mentioned the Netanyahu government, it is worth shining a light on the fact that, in the same way that Hamas is not Gaza, Netanyahu is not the Israeli people, and support for his government, which was already tenuous, has plummeted. Yair Rosenberg has a superb article in The Atlantic in which he unpacks what happened, and how the scorned, maligned lefties who led the anti-government protests in the last few months and proving to be more capable, dependable, and courageous than the government, to the point of supplanting it:

As Israel’s crony-filled Netanyahu government flailed and its security services faltered, ordinary citizens—many of them dissenters against the current ruling coalition—took charge. Crisis tends to separate the poseurs from the professionals, and the deadliest day in Israel’s history did just that.

Rosenberg gives some examples: the heroism of Yair Golan and Noam Tibon, who, as the army dawdled, were already on the ground rescuing people; Eylon Levy, who stepped up to do international outreach after the official minister of outreach, who is a nincompoop, quit her job just when she was actually needed. In general, he says,

Within Israel, relief efforts have been dominated not by government officials but by volunteers, many of whom come from the organized anti-government protest movement. Hamas’s massacre left thousands of southern Israelis traumatized, orphaned, and homeless, in need of food, shelter, and mental-health care. The subsequent Hezbollah attacks in the north have forced entire towns to evacuate. In total, about a quarter million Israelis have been displaced. Many others are struggling to cope after family members were called up to join the fighting.

Faced with these gaping social needs largely unaddressed by the government, the largest civil-demonstration movement in Israeli history repurposed itself overnight. Working out of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, 15,000 volunteers began distributing food and supplies to refugees, finding accommodations for thousands of families, and matching psychologists with patients. Some, led by the information scientist Karine Nahon of Reichman University, used AI tools to identify victims and hostages, sorting through hours of video footage from the assault. Others helped rescue 120 pets. In Jerusalem, another group of 4,000 protesters, overseen by Michal Muszkat-Barkan, a movement leader and professor at Hebrew Union College, has provided 30,000 hot meals, run daily blood drives, and recruited 200 mental-health professionals. Across Israel, the activists derided by Netanyahu and his hard-right ministers as leftist traitors have become the country’s rapid-response team.

Yair Rosenberg, “The Day After Netanyahu”, The Atlantic, November 10, 2023.

Finally, here’s a dose of tough love as we pick up the shovels. I know my students are grieving and shocked–not only about the horrid massacre and the unfolding outcome, which is disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians, but also about the loss of their friendships and footing in the world. It feels like gaslighting–one loses grasp of reality and of one’s own convictions. But as I said to a couple of people this week, “people your age have left families at home and gone to serve in the reserves. You found out you have shit friends? Make better friends.” I was comforted to read similar words from Batya Ungar-Saron:

So do not cast your lot as a competitor in the oppression Olympics. Instead, reject that entire way of looking at the world.

Here’s the thing: it’s good to be unpopular with a mob whose worldview has done away with the concept of right and wrong and decided, with a Nazi-like commitment to racial ideology, that you are Jewish and therefore you are white and therefore you are bad. It is good to be unpopular with people who spent the weeks after October 7 on the hunt for Jewish exaggeration, Jewish lies, Jewish crimes. It is good to be unpopular with people who cannot separate evil from power and virtue from skin color. (Unpopularity, for now, is your fate, unless you are willing to cosign your own humiliation and join the left’s token “good Jews” who advocate against Zionism from the comfort of the diaspora for plaudits from the Squad.) We don’t answer to them; we answer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.

The good news is: it may not feel like it, but this country is on your side. College students are in one of vanishingly few spaces in America that sides with Hamas. Your professors will live and die in irrelevance, signing their names to their silly little letters and coming up with new jargon with which to defend terrorism while nurturing their grandiose hero complexes. Most of your peers will grow up and abandon their radical chic commitments. The progressive movement has taken a big hit, having shown its true colors to a nation that knows what is good and what is right, that can separate barbarism from civilization. 

But for now, remember this: to be a Jew is to refuse to kneel and refuse to bow. The stakes of standing upright have never been clearer than they are today, in this post–October 7 world. It’s good to have these people as your enemies, because the world will always have people who oppose what’s right and what’s good, and it is our destiny to fight them. Do it with pride.

Batya Ungar-Saron, “The Antisemites Scream. And I Stiffen My Spine.” The Free Press, November 7, 2023.

Dig up the clogged wells and name them what your ancestors named them. Dig fresh wells. Fight for them. If you win, drink deep. If you lose, dig new wells.

Shavua Tov.

Offensive Speech in Terrible Times

Like many other campuses around the United States, mine is papered with despicable flyers espousing an ignorant perspective on the Israel-Hamas war. My Jewish students are understandably upset and infuriated, and so am I. Every day brings fresh, unbearable details about the massacre. The contrast between that and my outside surroundings is a dissonance that fractures me to the core. In the coming days, many campuses, including ours, will see abominable displays of hatred, antisemitism, and a breathtaking level of illiteracy regarding international affairs. We’ll see laughable, imaginary coalitions between, say, Hamas and the fight for trans rights. This will be ugly and it will be emotionally difficult to stomach. It already has been a difficult struggle to function at work and it’s likely to endure for some time.

At such times, supporting a legal regime that has absolute free speech is deeply distressing and challenging. I finally found out who first wrote, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”–it was Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in 1906. For First Amendment enthusiasts, this era epitomizes that sentiment–the price of freedom is walking around with a broken heart, even if the open goal of the speakers is to break it.

The image above depicts the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL; in the 1970s, Skokie was the setting for a free speech debate culminating in a Supreme Court decision that in many ways reminds me of the situation on the ground today. David Goldberger, at the time the legal director of the ACLU of Illinois (and later an Ohio State law professor specializing in free speech) has written a fascinating account, complete with images, of his representation of the Nazis in this case–not only what it was like to have them for clients, but also the public response. I really recommend that you read it verbatim. Among many things I didn’t know was the fact that Meir Kahane, in many ways the ideological granddaddy of murderous Jewish nationalists like Ben Gvir et al., started his activity in the US with the Jewish Defense League, who appeared at the ACLU offices with baseball bats! Another thing I didn’t know was that the ACLU’s choice to represent the Nazis in the Skokie trial led to tens of thousands of resignations, but also to some support letters from holocaust survivors who said that “they wanted to be able to see their enemies in plain sight so they would know who they were.” The ACLU is taking the same approach regarding the protests we are experiencing now.

I really recommend reading Goldberger’s entire account, and it’s even more interesting to ponder it through a comparative lens. Not all countries have absolute free speech; many place limitations on hate speech and incitement to racism or violence. That approach ushers its own host of problems: what is and is not “hate speech” or “incitement” is a subjective determination, and judicially delving into these questions inevitably brings in ideological perspectives and heuristics. I’m already seeing some troubling incidents in Israel in which universities and schools waste precious time and energy on McCarthyist investigations of their students, faculty, and staff.

It’s important to distinguish the general question of what should and should not be legally allowed from the more particular question, what these opinions tell us about the quality of the education we provide and about the quality of the people who espouse them. For some idea on how these ideas fester and infect people to this degree, read Julia Steinberg’s account of her own education. It exposes many of the flaws of what passes nowadays for progressive education, and dovetails with my unwillingness to responsibly participate in similar indoctrination efforts at my workplace and elsewhere. Steinberg’s piece was an important reminder that hateful idiots don’t spring into being, fully formed, in college or law school; they are raised to be the way they are in their K-12 years. I, for one, plan to keep a very watchful eye on my child’s education, to ensure that essentialist, separatist identitarian rubbish isn’t inflicted on the kids in this mindless manner.

It is also important to distinguish the right to free speech from the consequences of putting oneself out in public espousing horrendous views. Several law students in fancy schools are finding out, to their shock and surprise, that law firms are not all that keen to hire people who publicly extol the virtues of slaughtering, raping, maiming, burning alive, beheading, and kidnapping people. That being an antisemitic idiot with repugnant views is not a professional asset and has consequences in the job market shouldn’t be particularly surprising, unless you spent your undergraduate years under the tutelage of morally bankrupt people for whom espousing these “edgy” and “interesting” views was a calculated career strategy that catapulted them to prominence in fields like ethnic studies (read here a courageous letter by a UC Regent calling out the Ethnic Studies faculty council letter for what it is.) No wonder these students think they can spew horrid opinions in public and face no consequences whatsoever. What I find most amazing about the whole thing is that some of my colleagues are surprised by what they see on the campus quad. How is any of this surprising? Academic institutions, including the ones I work for, have breathed life into this Golem for years, and the last thing they should find astonishing is when it comes for them. They taught these people, but they didn’t educate them, and the proof’s in the rancid pudding.

If You Are Cheering Or Rationalizing a Pogrom, I’m Done With You: An Open Letter to My Colleagues

It’s not news to me that my line of work is an antisemitic Petri dish. For a profession full of folks of Jewish descent, it delivers plentiful opportunities to realize how alienating and silencing the progressive conversation in the field is to Jews and especially to Israeli Jews. This stuff often masquerades as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, but it looks, walks and quacks like what it is. My entire career in the United States, starting with the first year at Berkeley as a grad student, was suffused with antisemitism. In 2001, fresh in the United States for grad school, I rode a bus from campus to my home, and Students for Justice in Palestine took over it and shook it. The whole bus. They took over the Wheeler building. On Holocaust Day.

That same year we brought in a new roommate from Taiwan – a PhD student – who was surprised that my nose wasn’t bigger and that I didn’t look like the people from Fiddler on the Roof.

A few months before I took my current job, in 2007, someone who would be my colleague for over a decade published an op-ed calling to expand the boycott of Israeli academics to the United States. That colleague was later asked by the person in charge of my tenure file to sit in my class and write a report of my pedagogy for the file. I was the one who had to go to that person and, politely smiling and with a friendly tone, advise him to be more cautious as they could end up with lawsuits on their hands due to carelessness. “You people are so political all the time,” was the response.

Students whom I taught using diagrams from a human rights report from B’Tzelem about outrageous torture in interrogations of Palestinians contacted the dean and the chair of my tenure committee, lying that I “trivialized Palestinian suffering with a cartoon.”

My first, award-winning book Cheap on Crime, which has nothing to do with Judaism or Israel, has lots of excellent reviews on Amazon… and one bad review. The bad review, written by a man who doesn’t know me or my opinions about Israeli politics and has not read the book–he saw an ad for a talk I gave, which had a short bio of mine–is titled “Israeli militarist on the loose.”

I’ve had to sit through countless panels in which anyone cheering Palestinian terror is met with snapped fingers and applause.

I’ve had a law review editor ask me to excise my military service from my CV, so that his friends might agree to publish my paper.

I’ve had to listen to people with graduate degrees and publications espouse ignorant, sophomoric opinions about a conflict on which they have no expertise, that were drilled into them, using the right vocabulary and getting the right nods.

I’ve seen colleagues who are Jewish authoring earnest op-eds extolling the virtues of rude and violent students to make their campuses inhospitable for their Jewish and Israeli colleagues.

I’ve had to endure idiotic explanations by fashionable anti-Zionists, many of them Jewish, who have no idea what Zionism is, are utterly unacquainted with its many strains, and cannot name a single Zionist philosopher or thinker.

I’ve had to sit through a hiring meeting and listen to a colleague who insisted that we have no one on the faculty from the Middle East. When a colleague and I said that we were from the Middle East, she explained that she meant “real Middle Easterners.”

I’ve seen people paint Israel with a broad brush stroke, as if there aren’t millions of Israelis, me included, fighting against the occupation and against the Netanyahu government. As if my friends aren’t protecting Palestinian farmers against armed settlers. As if it is impossible to believe that Jews must have a safe place on Earth and at the same time work for the human rights of Palestinians.

But today I’ve seen colleagues sink to a new low. One published an antisemitic caricature that would not be out of place in Der Stirmer (the message was that Israel is pretending to be a victim while being the aggressor. What?) Another unabashedly is advertising an event on “Palestinian resistance” in the Law & Society group. I wrote back. She doubled down, as she’s promoting her book. I would name names, but why? You know exactly who you are and you’re not ashamed of it, apparently, because you know enough of your professional connections will cheer you on. People have made very successful careers in this field out of being shameless. I doubt that this post will earn me anywhere near that acclaim, but if that means not being invited to have coffee with antisemites at a conference, I can live with the deprivation.

I shouldn’t have to explain why this is appalling, but for those who have managed to avoid the pictures of sobbing hostages, kibbutzim burned to the ground, and terrorists celebrating and throwing candy as they mangle their victims’ naked bodies, here’s my friend Tal Guttman:

For all of my non-Israeli friends, who might think this is another round of tango between Israel and the Hamas: This is much closer to 9/11 than anything we have experienced here in Israel in the last 40 or 50 years. This was an invasion. Hamas terrorists went house to house, murdering children in front of their parents, abducting 70 year old grandmothers and 12 year old schoolchildren to Gaza. 260 people were butchered in a rave. The coverage in official news channels focuses on the big buildings going down in Gaza, but I urge you to go to twitter and read the (translated if needed) testimonials, sometimes live, of people who are tweeting from their safe rooms as the terrorists are outside, telling their kids it will be all right.

Imagine that in 9/11, terrorists would invade the US, shoot 33,000 (1000) civilians dead, wound 60,000 (2000), and abduct 3000 (100) American citizens, and held them hostage in Afghanistan. Adjusting for country size, this is what happened in Israel yesterday. This is going to lead to a long, and painful war. It breaks my heart.

I despise Netanyahu, and believe his current coalition of alt-right jewish supremacist firestarters is the worst in the history of the nation and the biggest threat to Israel’s existence. However, I hear people saying how the attack yesterday was a result of recent Israeli provocation. A coordinated, large scale and surprise attack of this kind takes months to prepare and train for. This was pre-meditated, pre planned. The Israeli provocations were only an excuse. This is what pure evil looks like.

Today I’m done with professional hypocrisy, with sitting quietly in rooms where unbelievable things come out of people’s mouths. I will leave conversations that deny my humanity, respond publicly on mailing lists to people whom I emailed privately before so as not to shame them. I will not shrug off situations that evince an astonishing level of cultural and academic gaslighting. If you have ill-informed opinions that celebrate or rationalize pogroms, that explain away rape and murder of children, women, and elderly people as “resistance”, or espouse some nonsense that tries to graft this conflict onto your parochial perspectives on race in America, I am officially done with you in any professional and personal capacity. If you cannot tell the difference between resistance and mass atrocity, your humanity is so compromised that I don’t know where to even begin to educate you. Nor would you be interested in being educated.

In the days to come, this will naturally become muddied. This war will claim civilian casualties on both sides, air strikes are already devastating Gaza, and none of this is bringing the hostages any closer to home. The villains on both sides will capitalize on it. And as we all know, the more morally questionable the retaliation, the more antisemitism will flourish online. A lot of this critique will be understandable and much of it will be justifiable. But it’s telling that the backlash started *before* the retaliation, which has exposed people’s true colors.

I honestly don’t know where to go from here in this line of work. I have zero motivation or desire to work or interact with anyone whose moral compass is so compromised, and these opinions are so entrenched in my profession that I doubt I can find an environment where I feel like I can breathe. The alternative is to go back home, to a country so degraded by Jewish religious messianism and so at risk from Muslim religious messianism that I can’t in good conscience raise my son there. Our great Yiddish authors called it: there’s nowhere for Jews to put their heads down.

Murderous Hamas Attack on Israel: How to Help

On October 7, Hamas terrorists launched a large-scale murderous invasion of Israel from the Gaza Strip, slaughtering at least 700 Israelis, injuring thousands, and taking at least 100 people–women, children, elderly folks–hostage. I am beside myself with horror and in constant touch with my family.

No explainers, as this is unfathomable, nor should you trust anyone already dispensing hot takes. Actual combat is still very much taking place in the streets.

Here’s how you can help (and thank you):

Unxeptable have a linktree with information and resources, and they have also provided verified links for financial assistance. You can also volunteer to host Israelis who have been stranded abroad due to flight cancelations. Click here if you need a place to stay.

The protest organizations in Israel are collecting funds for all affected communities here.

Israel Trauma Coalition will need all the funds they can get to help build resilience for the many thousands of affected families.

Kibbutz Nir Oz underwent a horrible massacre. Dozens were murdered or kidnapped in front of their families, and homes were burned. They can use your help.

Please do not share horror pictures and videos on social media, even for supposedly constructive ends such as “educating” or “raising consciousness.” I should not have to explain why not.

Please do not get pulled into political arguments on social media and comments sections. You are likely wasting your time and exhausting your precious energy arguing with hostile bots.

If you need an uplifting community experience, numerous Jewish congregations are holding special services that can help your morale and make you feel less alone (such as the one I attended this morning at Temple Emanu-El, depicted above). These events are held with heavy police security for obvious reasons.

Stay safe, watchful, and proactive.

Mendelssohn Reimagined: The Yom Kippur Conflict

The fierce conflict that erupted in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur showed how a classic political philosophy problem can come to blows. Religious organization Rosh Yehudi asked the city–seen as the bastion of civil rights and secular progress–for permission to hold an outdoors prayer with segregation between men and women. Municipal authorities refused: Tel Aviv does not hold segregated public events, a creeping problem in many municipalities in Israel. Rosh Yehudi leaders appealed the decision to the Tel Aviv District Court and were rebuffed, and nevertheless mysteriously announced that they have found a way to hold the prayer in a way that “upholds both halakhah and the law.” At the event, this way was unveiled: they did bring screens and dividers, and some of them were armed.

Secular people, angry at Rosh Yehudi’s flouting of the city and court mandates, interrupted the prayer loudly with noise and protest and removed the barriers. For religious people, this was a difficult sight to bear, as Yom Kippur is one of the only bastions of public religiosity that used to be tolerated and protected by the secular majority. Here is footage of the incident:

Video by The Holy Land, by Zahi Shaked

For more on this, you can listen to this interesting podcast, or read the opposing views of Daniela Gan Lerer and Meital Pinto. The incident also splintered the protest movement, as some thought the provocation would be counterproductive while others expressed the awakening of the secular public from decades of religious coercion.

To me, the incident underscored how much the serious issues that philosopher Moshe Mendelssohn raised in his book Jerusalem are still vividly present–and how they arise in Israel in much the same way that they arose in Germany in the late 18th century. Mendelssohn, a bright light of Western philosophy, in conversation with other Enlightenment greats like Lessing, Dohm, and Kant–whom he beat at an essay competition!–lived a life of deep contradiction (read all about his life in Leora Batnitzky’s book How Judaism Became a Religion.) He was an observant Jew who was at the same time versed in fresh Western philosophy; he wrote commentary on the Torah (which would later be banned by ultra-orthodox authorities) as well as hobnobbed with Berlin’s intelligentsia–even as he had to enter the city, where his own living situation was precarious due to his Jewishness, through the animal gate; he presented Judaism, to non-Jews, as a religion of reason, superior to Christianity in terms of its compatibility with science and reason, lauded ideals of the Enlightenment era, while at the same time explaining the importance of the embodied rituals that made Jews seem so alien to, and othered in, their European surroundings.

The advent of the modern state and the earnest focus on equality and civil rights (along with all the glaring blind spots that it had) brought to the forefront what came to be known as “the Jewish Question”: up until then, as my beloved dad described in his wonderful short story collection, Jewish communities lived amongst themselves, not really mixing up much with the general population, not regarded as full citizens, steeling themselves against pogroms and general hostility from the surrounding community, and pretty much self-governed by their own rabbis and authorities. But with new winds of civil rights and citizenship blowing in European countries, mostly in Germany, some thinkers figured that better integration and civil rights should be granted to Jews. For some thinkers, offering citizenship to Jews was important for the improvement of the Jews themselves, who were deemed backward and reviled based on their dress and customs (as well as their financial occupations); but for Mendelssohn, offering citizenship to Jews was important because Judaism should be regarded as a religion–the person’s private business, between them and their religious community–rather than a membership card in a political entity. In other words, one can be Jewish in their own home, following the customs and halakhic directives, and a full-fledged German or French citizen in the public sphere. The difference between religion and state, posited Mendelssohn, was the source of its power:

The state dictates and coerces; religion teaches and persuades. The state enacts laws; religion gives commandments. The state is armed with physical force and makes use of it if need be; the force of religion is love and benevolence.

This was directed especially as a critique of the practice of religious excommunication: Mendelssohn did not want to accord to religious leadership the statelike power of obliterating a person from their membership lists based on their inner faith or beliefs.

What’s remarkable about Mendelssohn’s writings, and his massive influence on the haskalah movement, is that they centered around the question of Jewish citizenship in European countries. The notion that Jews might at some point be citizens in their own nation-state did not come into the conversation. Just a few decades later, when the Hamburg temple would reform its liturgy, one of its main innovations would be prayer in German rather than in Hebrew, under the assumption that Hebrew was a dead language, irrelevant to the lives of the German-speaking congregation. The idea that, one day, Jewish people would congregate in a public place and pray in Hebrew was unimaginable.

The kicker is this: As my late, beloved colleague Gad Barzilai famously wrote in his book Communities and Law, most of the writings on multiculturalism–in many ways, a continuation of the Enlightenment-era debate–are the work of political philosophers examining the adaptation of ethnic and religious groups to largely Western societies in the United States, Canada, and Europe (Waldron, Nozick, Kymlicka, Parekh). Very little of this has engaged with non-Western societies, and particularly with Middle Eastern societies. Which brings us back to the peculiarities and endemic characteristics of the Yom Kippur conflict. One of the main admonitions of the protesters in the public debate about this was that the prayer gathering was deliberately (and provocatively) planned to take place not only in open, public place, but at a bastion of secularity. “If they want to pray with gender segregation,” goes the argument, “they are more than welcome to do so–in their own orthodox synagogues.” This argument, for me, echoes a Mendelssohnian concept of Israel as a European nation-state: the power of the state is secular and secularizing, and religion should be kept as the person’s private business, conducted in their private sphere, and certainly not endorsed by the state apparatus.

Contrast this to the position held by the organizers of the prayer gathering. Their position implies that Israel, unlike the Mendelssohnian state, boasts a unique religion-state nexus through its declaration of independence as a “Jewish and democratic country”, and has a special, privileged position for the Jewish faith that must be respected in the public sphere. The battles along this lines are many and varied, and only recently included the big blow-up over keeping Passover kashrut laws within public hospitals.

It may well be that “Jewish and democratic” are not harmonizable ideas, and that this conflict, along with its other manifestations, has brought to a head the fact that multicultural theories can produce neat analyses (and clearly defined disagreements) only in the situation that Mendelssohn and his intellectual progeny could envision: a seemingly secular state contrasted with religious subgroups. But even this is a bit farcical. The extent to which German society, presumably sterilized from religious contamination, was truly that–with Judaism having the same relationship with it as, say, Christianity–is highly dubious, and we know that many philosophers of the era (even Kant!) explicitly discussed religious elements in their state theories. Could it be that the relationship of religious Jews with their Jewish-and-democratic state is, in some way, analogous not to the relationship of Jews with 18th century Germany, but rather to the sublimated, seemingly invisible relationship of Christians and Christianity with 18th century Germany? If so, what this conflict does is bring to the forefront a sticky problem that permeated not Mendelssohn’s thinking, but the thinking of his contemporaries, who mistook hegemony for secularity and habitus for neutrality.

Series Review: HaShotreem (“The Cops”)

Our family tragedy kept me in Israel for three and a half months, during which my weekly escape was the second season of HaShotreem (“The Cops”) on Israel’s Channel 12 (all episodes available on the Mako website.) The show’s first season closely followed real-life events that occurred in Nahariya in 2006. At that time, northern seaside city Nahariya was controlled and terrorized by mob boss Michael Mor, whose stronghold on drugs, protection money, etc., extended to the city’s legitimate businesses and political structure. By contrast to the U.S., Israel has a national police force, rather than independent units for different municipalities. Nonetheless, the Nahariya police could not take on Mor and his organization; national headquarters refused to offer them help, because Mor was perceived to be a local threat, rather than someone serious on a national scale; and, consequently, their intelligence and covert operations units fell apart. Major Yaniv Ashur was summoned to rehabilitate the unit and confront Mor’s organization. Ashur’s invigorated, aggressive investigation saw some success: Mor was sentenced to seven months in prison for criminal threats.

But the retaliation from Mor’s side took a sinister turn: his people targeted the investigative detectives and threw grenades into their home, and even tried to kill the current mayor, vice mayor, and former mayor. The inability to protect themselves and their families, and Mor’s impunity, brought the cops, who received no backing or protection from the station or from headquarters, to hatch a desperate plan: they decided to shake up Mor’s confidence in order to push him to make a mistake. After consulting with an explosives expert, they laid pipe bombs under Mor’s vehicle and close to a home he owned. No one was hurt, and the investigating officers initially suspected Mor’s underworld competitors. Eventually, however, through an informant, the police arrived at the truth and managed to turn one of the “avenging cops” state witness against the others. The officers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison.

The whole affair was silenced, but somehow, the names of the suspected cops leaked to the newspaper in the form of a fictitious obituary. Mor and his associates were suspected of paying for the ad, but have declined. In any case, even after the cops’ release from prison, they continued to be targeted by Mor, until his recent arrest.

The second season of HaShotreem, which ended last Tuesday, was fictional, but shared some elements with the first. In the series, the cops, recently released from prison thanks to a campaign spearheaded by their families and generally regarded as heroes in Nahariya, are unable to return to the force because of their criminal record and face dangerous retaliation efforts from the underworld. In their despair, they take a deal offered by their colleague who turned state witness (and, in the show, remained a cop): they agree to become undercover agents working for the crime boss’s competitor and bring him down in return for restoring their efforts. In the meantime, an anti-corruption candidate challenges the current mayor (who is mixed up with the underworld). The cops engage in dangerous missions as double agents, sometimes exceeding the framework and permissions of their jobs, and end up bringing down both their nemesis and his competitor. Here’s the first episode of the second season:

Commentators and reviewers have praised the acting and action scenes and the show’s riveting plot, but complained that, beyond that, it does not offer a moral center. They make a valuable point. At no point during the narrative are the viewers conflicted about the goodness or moral validity of the cops’ actions. They say to their commander, “we’ve learned from our mistakes,” but have they? No one makes any convincing argument that crossing the line like this could be problematic and, in the long run, erode what little legitimacy the police still has in high-crime neighborhoods. In that respect, the cops are quintessentially Israeli heroes: good guys fighting bad guys with the end justifying any means, and with no questions about shades of gray in “goodness” and “badness.”

Admittedly, I too have empathy for the show’s protagonists and for their real-life counterparts. They were placed in an impossible situation, with serious life threats against them and their families, with no backup or protection from their superiors, and later faced a thankless system. But one does not have to eschew this narrative wholesale to ask more difficult questions about how such events can affect the legitimacy of the police overall, or about whether we truly believe that, whenever the police crosses the line, it’s for a laudable goal and against a deserving target.

It’s been especially demoralizing to think about this slippery slope in light of what is happening as the show is broadcast: the increased military and border patrol support for horrendous settler violence in Palestine; the deliberate boundary-blurring similarities between police officers and rightwinger goons beating up protestors; deliberately sloppy police investigations leaving rightwing murderers free; and the constant talk of creating right-wing militias that will further blur the line between goon and lawman. How could the show’s producers not notice that this issue raises concerns that every Israeli should be pondering in 2023?

The Call Is Coming 3: A Forman Moment for Arab Israelis? And Why Expect So Little from Your Taxes?

In the previous two installments of this series, I discussed parallel processes I see in Israel and in California: rising crime rates and resulting miseries within underserved communities–Arab-Israeli towns and villages, and Black communities in Bay Area cities (disproportionately affecting these communities both in terms of perpetrators and victims). In the first installment, I showed that these issues have yielded calls from “inside the house” to improve police response to crime rates. In the second installment, I discussed a curious difference: the Arab Israeli calls are monolithic and they demand solidarity from allies in securing police presence and protection, whereas Black American calls–the recent NAACP letters in Oakland and San Francisco–are heavily contested and far from representative of the defund-abolish-dismantle-repeal sentiment. I proposed a few differences between the two scenarios and concluded that the problem is one of intra-movement politics.

In this last installment in the series, I want to posit two additional issues: one of timing and one of civic expectation. The first is, in some ways, a continuation of the argument I made in my article Bad Role Models, in which I discussed American influence on Israeli criminal justice. In that article, I showed how criminal justice developments in the U.S. migrated to Israel through a process of elite networking, often with a delay of 15-20 years, to the point that Israel implements American policies long after empirical evidence already undermines their merit or efficacy. I listed four developmental stage: the rise of American criminal justice as a model of influence; the “decade of rights”, inspired by the mistaken perception in 1990s Israel that American criminal justice is pro-defendant; the “law and order period” in the 2000s, in which Israel adopted victim rights and anti-sex-offender paradigms that were already being eschewed in the U.S.; and the “era of contrition”, in which new Israeli elites, who learned about mass incarceration in the U.S., started chipping at the punitive block.

My friend and colleague Hagit Lernau thinks that the Arab Israeli faith in policing as an answer to violent crime might be temporary, an echo of the period in the 1980s and 1990s in which Black politicians and police chiefs in D.C. wanted massive police intervention in the crack epidemic. In Locking Up Our Own, James Forman found great empathy for these Black power brokers, even though, as an abolitionist, he disagrees with them. He does not think the crime problem was exaggerated or did not exist–he fully admits that the calls for more policing came out of real distress that was grounded in fact–even as he rejects the premise that aggressive enforcement could have improved things.

To understand Hagit’s argument, let’s locate Forman’s politicians and cops along a timeline. Their preoccupation with internal community problems of crime can be seen as a retreat from Martin Luther King Jr.’s general message of a great project of equality, as well as from Malcolm X’s general message of militant opposition to white supremacy, toward sectorial interests of personal safety within Black cities and neighborhoods. This retreat, which happened in the 1980s-1990s, can be seen as a harbinger of the Arab-Israeli retreat from full commitment to the idea of Palestinian liberation/independence toward sectorial interests of citizens within the 1967 borders. If so, we might expect that the later developments in critical race perspectives on criminal justice–the academic concerns about police oppression and race and their migration to the mainstream of the progressive movement–might eventually make it in Arab-Israeli societies, perhaps through a process of elite networking (or through some other process) and we simply have to work through the delay. But eventually the moment of yearning for police will pass, and we’ll be in a defund/dismantle/abolish/repeal moment in Israel, too.

Here’s another theory on how this could happen: Perhaps, as in the case of D.C., the disillusionment that accompanies massive, oppressive police presence will cool the population’s enthusiasm for enforcement. A couple of weeks ago I talked to a friend who is a police detective investigating serious crimes, including in Arab-Israeli towns and villages. My friend tells me that, as soon as a serious crime is committed in a village, the police’s modus operandi is to send in border patrol officers, who proceed to harass and humiliate everyone around them and make life in the village unbearable. Unsurprisingly, after a few weeks of this, the officers who want to actually solve the crime encounter a wall of silence and mistrust. It is only a question of time until this realization becomes generalized and the community nationwide will stop calling for the police to help.

Which brings me to my second point, the issue of civic expectation. The famous serenity prayer invites us to have the wisdom to tell apart things that can be changed (and require courage) from things that are immutable (and require serenity.) The Forman moment, as well as the current moment in the Arab-Israeli crime prevention movement, assume that crime-ridden streets can be cleaned and that the erosion in public safety can be stopped, or even reversed, if the Israeli government wakes up from its appalling neglect and acts. The Defund movement makes the opposite assumption: nothing good can come from police intervention, so they might as well stay out of it and leave us to resolve the crime problem through non-criminal-justice means. I think both perspectives miss out on an important dimension: it doesn’t just matter how much policing is taking place, but also what kind of policing.

William Muir’s 1977 classic Police: Streetcorner Politicians offers a matrix that characterizes police officers based on their psychology. Muir is interested in two dimensions: the officer’s proactivity and their worldview. These create four types of cops.

Adapted from: William Muir, Police: Streetcorner Politicians (Chicago, 1977)

Out of these four, Muir’s preference is for the professional, whom he sees as an energetic, passionate problem solver who has compassion for their community. But preferring the professional to other types depends on the extent to which one believes that cops can still have a tragic/empathetic approach to human nature and the human condition. People who assume that all cops are cynical about the people they serve face a choice between enforcers and avoiders and might prefer avoiders. People who believe that some cops can be professional and compassionate, will prefer professionals to reciprocators.

If Muir’s typology is not applied to individual cops, but rather to hypothetical cops as “ideal types” of what we would and would not like to see in the streets, I think the best way to understand the Arab-Israeli call for help is as a call for professionals, not for enforcers. Which raises the question, given that we pay taxes so that we can have police services, why not insist that the force hire professionals rather than enforcers? Why give up and settle for avoiders, or for shrinking the force (and its utility) altogether? How much despair people experience and, consequently, how much they believe that they can have the police force they deserve, could be (as I argued in the previous installment) a function of where they live or (as I argue in this installment) on what moment we are in.

The Call Is Coming 2: A Comparative View of Approaches to Intra-Racial Crime

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue I brought up in my previous post The Call Is Coming from Inside the House–situations in which a minority community with an appalling history of oppression by law enforcement asks for law enforcement intervention due to rising crime rates. I compared the Arab Israeli protests for law enforcement intervention to the letters recently penned by NAACP leaderships in Oakland and San Francisco.

What I didn’t discuss was an obvious difference in the way these calls for enhanced law enforcement reverberate within these communities and outside them, which puzzles me. As I explained in that post, the Arab Israeli community is fairly united in its call for police intervention and personal safety. The pressure on allies and other members of the center-left opposition to Netanyahu is to participate in protests calling for the police to investigate and solve these crimes. People get excoriated for not embracing this call.

By contrast, the NAACP calls I looked at in the previous post have by no means represented the consensus in the Black community and, in fact, provoked a lot of strife and antagonism. There is serious critique and questioning of the concept of “Black-on-Black crime”, efforts to present police violence as a much more important and salient problem than the crime problem, and pretty oppressive silencing of the few white voices that don’t fall in line with the “don’t call 911” ethos.

This difference in approaches is striking not only within minority groups and their adjacent communities, but also among academic and human rights milieus. In Israel, ACRI (the equivalent of the ACLU) feels deeply conflicted on what to do and who to support. And in the U.S., academics and nonprofits by and large fall in line with the idea that the priority is to curb police violence, rather than intra-racial civilian violence.

At the recommendation of a friend, I started listening to Micha Goodman and Efrat Shapira-Rosenberg’s podcast Miflegeth HaMahshavot (“The Party of Thoughts”), which explains ideologies in Israeli politics. In one early episode, they explain the rise of Ra’am, the first time a major Arab party was part of the Knesset. According to Goldman, this election represents the triumph of sectorial interests, which Ra’am sought to promote, over the big issue of the Palestinian occupation that the Joint Party, the other Arab party, sought to promote. Ironically, though, Ra’am is an Islamist party, presumably less inclined toward compromises, which raises the question how it came to offer Arab-Israeli voters a pragmatist, sectorial platform. Goodman thinks that it reflects a unique form of religious pragmatism: we, humans, worry about our immediate, short-term issues (chief among which is the intraracial crime problem), while God/Allah will worry about our ultimate salvation (an Arab state from Jordan to the Mediterranean sea).

If applied to the U.S., Goldman’s might predict a similar sectorial emphasis on restoring personal safety to the neighborhoods referred to in Supreme Court jurisprudence “high crime areas” and in sociological parlance “neighborhoods where poor people of color live.” And yet, that’s not what we’re seeing. Either fighting crime is not (or, until recently, was not) a sectorial issue of high priority for Black communities, or police violence is more of an issue of that sort. Why are we not seeing parallel processes in the two countries, then? hypothesis would So, why is there a difference?

I’ve tried to hash this with friends, and I’m not sure I’ve nailed the issue, though I have some thoughts. Let’s work through this the way Hercule Poirot would solve a crime: by gathering suspects and eliminating them from our inquiries. The first two possibilities are related to the with the relevant weight of the crime and police problems in the two countries, and I find both unpersuasive:

  1. The crime problem and the threat to personal safety are much more serious in Israel than in the U.S. This is not something that is easy to measure, and geography makes a big difference. Crime is not evenly distributed in either country. The existence of “million dollar blocks” and places ravaged by gang warfare is unfortunate, but not fictional. I think in both places there are people living under a serious threat of violent crime.
  2. Police violence toward minorities is a much more serious problem in the U.S. than it is in Israel. This is also something that is difficult to measure, especially due to problems of underreporting. Again, geography makes a big difference, because in both countries enforcement is selective and very geography-driven. In addition, the national security/conflict in Israel throws in another factor (there are now voices calling to involve Israel’s security service, the Shabak, in crime solving in Arab Israeli villages. Yikes.) I would have to parse out the statistics, but I don’t see that Arab Israelis are more fortunate than Black Americans in the treatment they receive from the police.

If we accept the premise that crime rates and police violence are serious problems for both populations in both countries, we should consider the extent to which the crime picture emerging from the two context is different. In other words, can Arab-Israeli crime be distinguished from Israeli crime in general to the degree that Black crime can be disaggregated from American crime? How easy is it to treat it as a unique, endemic problem? Again, two options emerge, one sociological and one involving framing.

  1. The sociological issue: Perhaps voices in the Arab-Israeli community are more successful in raising crime rates as a problem because intra-racial violent crime in Israel is, or is perceived as, more of a stereotypically/characteristically Arab/Palestinian problem than intra-racial violent crime in the U.S. is perceived as a stereotypically Black problem. This requires viewing murder cases, including unsolved murders, through a criminological lens. I have the 2021 data. What it tells us is that Arab- Israeli murders might not be as distinctive as the media suggests. In a previous post I described the disturbing statistics about the murder of Arab women, but those are less than 13% of overall murders in the Arab community. We know most of these are shoot-outs and most of the victims are under 30 years old. This doesn’t seem to paint a picture full of honor killings and, in fact, resembles organized crime killings in the U.S. Both countries also feature problems involving the proliferation of guns in criminal hands that are certainly not limited to this or that ethnic/racial group. It is true that, in Israel, 64% of murder cases are perpetrated by Arabs (usually against Arabs), who are merely 21.1% of the general population. FBI UCR data for 2019 shows that African-Americans (who were 14% of the U.S. population in 2021) accounted for 55.9% of all homicide offenders in 2019. In both cases we have considerable overrepresentation that cannot be explained merely by discriminatory policing/investigatory practices.
  2. The framing issue: Perhaps politicians on the left in Israel feel more comfortable calling for police intervention to solve intra-racial crime in Israel because there it is not perceived as being tied to, or stemming from, the Jewish/Zionist hegemony to the extent that intra-racial crime in the U.S. is perceived as a response to white supremacy. Even if this is true, it raises a further question: what impacts the framing?

Which brings us to the final frontier: I think that a big difference between Israel and the U.S. has to do with intra-movement politics and positionality, and these factors are responsible for how the problem is framed:

  1. I think that Goodman is right in that Israeli Palestinians/Arabs have become more invested in sectorial politics, while the U.S. Black community has by-and-large retained its interest in the bigger questions of criminalization/incarceration.
  2. This could be related to the respective size of the two countries in two ways. First, in Israel there’s more segregation in terms of where people live. This means that educated, middle-class Arab Israelis will live in closer proximity to crime than middle-class Black Americans and, because of that, will be more invested in personal safety and law enforcement (this is in line with James Forman’s argument about D.C., which is a city in which Black politicians and police officers hold considerable power and use it to “lock up their own.”) Second, the sheer population of the minority group is so much smaller in Israel that, to the extent that someone even cares about the plight of the community, it will hear mostly from middle-class, law-abiding folks afraid to let their kids outside to play; in the U.S. there’s a multiplicity of voices which, amplified by social media and activism, includes the interests of those more concerned about police persecution than about crime prevention.
  3. Finally, I think the Israeli scenario contains an important factor: Arab/Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are in a completely different situation than Palestinians living in Palestine. The latter are in such dire straits, and treated so appallingly by the army, the security services, and the settlers, that the police-citizen encounters against Israeli citizens, ugly as they may be, don’t even register as a problem by comparison.

The Call Is Coming from Inside the House

The image above, captured by movement photographer Gal Mosenson, comes from a protest held yesterday in Tel Aviv in support of the Arab-Israeli population. As some commentators have mentioned, Arab-Israelis are conspicuously and understandably absent from the pro-democracy, anti-government protests; the proliferation of Israeli flag and the coalition with centrist movements, obscuring the occupation of Palestinian land and the horrors visited not only on Palestinian refugees but on Israeli citizens who are ethnically Palestinian, are huge hindrances to collaboration. Yesterday’s protest organizers asked their Jewish allies to show up without protest t-shirts or Israeli flags.

I’ve previously posted about rising crime rates amongst Arab-Israelis, and things have grown even more dire since then: the number of murder victims is skyrocketing. The confusion among civil rights organizations whether to support the Arab-Israeli demand for assistance from a police force that oppresses and uses violence echoes some of the dilemmas that James Forman spelled out in Locking Up Our Own. But there’s something deeply patronizing about downplaying calls from thoughtful citizens who have realized that they simply cannot have their kids leave the house out of fear of shoot-outs and family vendettas gone wrong.

Meanwhile, in the New World, similar calls are being heard regarding crime rates in Oakland and San Francisco. The Oakland call comes from no other than the NAACP:

Oakland residents are sick and tired of our intolerable public safety crisis that overwhelmingly impacts minority communities. Murders, shootings, violent armed robberies, home invasions, car break-ins, sideshows, and highway shootouts have become a pervasive fixture of life in Oakland. We call on all elected leaders to unite and declare a state of emergency and bring together massive resources to address our public safety crisis.

African Americans are disproportionately hit the hardest by crime in East Oakland and other parts of the city. But residents from all parts of the city report that they do not feel safe. Women are targeted by young mobs and viciously beaten and robbed in downtown and uptown neighborhoods. Asians are assaulted in Chinatown. Street vendors are robbed in Fruitvale. News crews have their cameras stolen while they report on crime. PG&E workers are robbed and now require private security when they are out working. Everyone is in danger.

Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police, our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals. If there are no consequences for committing crime in Oakland, crime will continue to soar.

People are moving out of Oakland in droves. They are afraid to venture out of their homes to go to work, shop, or dine in Oakland and this is destroying economic activity. Businesses, small and large, struggle and close, tax revenues vanish, and we are creating the notorious doom-loop where life in our city continues to spiral downward. As economic pain increases, the conditions that help create crime and criminals are exacerbated by desperate people with no employment opportunities.

Notably, their call to action recognizes the progressive shaming that hinders action, and they call out the relevant communities without mincing words:

We urge African Americans to speak out and demand improved public safety. We also encourage Oakland’s White, Asian, and Latino communities to speak out against crime and stop allowing themselves to be shamed into silence.
There is nothing compassionate or progressive about allowing criminal behavior to fester and rob Oakland residents of their basic rights to public safety. It is not racist or unkind to want to be safe from crime. No one should live in fear in our city.

A somewhat more tepid call, but still important, comes from San Francisco’s NAACP President:

It can be difficult to exercise compassion when the situation is this dire. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, poverty remains a significant problem, made worse by ever-increasing income inequality. Too often, our reaction to this suffering is to call for it to be removed in sweeps that only create more suffering by moving the problem to a new place in the city.  We have seen regrettable responses, such as the owner of a North Beach art gallery who sprayed an unhoused woman with a hose when she refused to move from the sidewalk in front of his business. I understand his frustration, but as difficult as it is, we must exercise compassion; today, I am working with the gallery owner to help him through this challenge.

But compassion must be accompanied by responsibility.

First and foremost is for people in this city to take personal responsibility, even in the most difficult of circumstances of being unhoused.

Setting up an encampment underneath an occupied building and setting open fires, as has happened recently in the Haight, is utterly unacceptable. So is erecting a tent city that prevents others from safely walking in their neighborhoods or makes it dangerous for them to come and go from their own homes. Engaging in open drug use, committing violence and carelessly creating unsanitary conditions are all the outcome of a lack of personal responsibility.

We also must practice community responsibility. Those who need help should be able to receive it, and we need to take the steps to streamline the creation of safe, affordable housing to get people off the streets permanently. At the same time, there must be consequences for those who refuse help yet continue to refuse to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Perhaps the most important thing we need, however, is accountability — by the city, by the array of agencies and organizations that serve the unhoused and those dealing with addiction, and by the larger community. Too much money is spent without effective oversight, coordination and collaboration. We can provide an individual with some of the help they need but fail to connect them with other essential resources. Organizations duplicate efforts, work at odds with one another, and in the end, fail to solve the problem they all profess to be fighting.

I assume the culture wars will now lead to an argument that the NAACP has sold out to white supremacy or whatever (the term “personal accountability” in particular, as my friend Paul Belonick notes, will be read by some as a right-wing dog whistle), but that would be reductive, disappointing, and mostly disrespectful. At some point, this movement will have to contend with the fact that the call is coming from inside the house, and that the big talk about “lived experience” means we should believe people who tell us they can’t live with crime around them.

Twenty years ago, when I studied radical/critical criminology, it struck me that the biggest weakness of Marxist/critical race theories were that, for all the political incentives of the oppressed to fight against the machine, the vast majority of poor people of color do not commit crime. And the fact that crime, especially violent crime, tends to operate intraracially. The radical rhetoric was intoxicating, but after years in the military defense, seeing how the haves and the have-nots fared, I realized that left realism was the best framework for understanding what I saw around me. What is novel and worthwhile about the calls for help from the Arab-Israeli community and from the Bay Area NAACP chapters is that it’s not just about oppression: they realize that enforcement must come hand in hand with opportunities for youth, otherwise there is no hope for the community. The Oakland NAACP writes:

Our youth must be given alternatives to the crippling desperation that leads to crime, drugs, and prison. They need quality education, mentorship, and, most importantly, real economic opportunities. Oakland should focus on creating skilled industrial and logistics jobs that pay family sustaining wages, and vocational training so Oakland residents can perform those jobs. With this focus we can produce hundreds, if not thousands, of the types of jobs desperately needed to stem economic despair. Unfortunately, progressive policies and failed leadership have chased away or delayed significant blue collar job development in the city, the Port of Oakland, and the former Army Base. That must change!

We also must continue with mentoring programs like the Oakland branch of the national OK Program that steers youth away from criminal activity. We believe that young people currently in the criminal life will choose another path if they are shown a way.

The idea that improving opportunities reduces crime is not new. It comes from Cloward and Ohlin, architects of Opportunities Theory. Even in the late 1950s it was evident that young people treated as second-class citizens make use of the opportunities available to them, and those tend to be illegitimate opportunities. This is common sense, but what I see all around me (Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is a prime example, but there are others for sure) is derision of Cloward and Ohlin as white, top-down do-gooders who are almost (if not absolutely) worse than rightwingers. The appeal of Hinton’s argument is that it is clever and counterintuitive, and it is just perverse enough to appeal to academics who don’t have to actually deal with the people victimized by crime in dilapidated neighborhoods. Margo Schlanger presents this critique against another one of these lefties-are-worse-than-conservatives books, Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right.

The secret truth–the thing that happens to best reflect reality, but does not fill auditoriums or gets you coffee with the cool people at socio-legal conferences and punishment workshops–is that Cloward and Ohlin were right. It’s not sexy to talk about namby-pamby proposals for reform, but Lyndon Johnson had the right idea initially, as did Kennedy, and the reason it didn’t work is related to a lot of things, but not to the fact that crime was just a figment of the conservative imagination. Crime was real in the 1950s, and it was real in the 1980s, when lots of people had to live in environments saturated with lethal violence brought about by the crack epidemic. That the CIA is now widely, and rightfully, acknowledged as having at least negligently brought that about by turning a blind eye from midlevel drug dealers, doesn’t mean those years did not exist. It does not mean that thousands of people did not die from addiction or addiction-adjacent violence, and many more ended up incarcerated for the same reasons. Reality is not spicy, but it’s an essential ingredient in cooking up criminal justice policy. And who best to obtain a reality check from than the people who have to live with the outcomes?

If I’m going to be truly respectful–listening to people’s “lived experience” in crime-ravaged zones not only when it fits my politics, but whenever they opine about something they actually know best–I have to respect that the call for crime control is coming from inside the house, from unimpeachable, reliable sources, and that the wave of pretending that crime doesn’t exist either has crested or is very close to cresting. Criminal justice professionals like Pamela Price might realize that her constituents don’t actually want the sort of nonjustice her office is doling out (I read that scenario as different from Chesa’s recall, but there are parallels.) Whoever brings about nonjustice ends up with Nancy O’Malley or Brooke Jenkins as DAs, and that is not a scenario in which anyone, right to left, can thrive.


Hat-tip to Paul Belonick and Emily Murphy for the NAACP links.

Israel Crisis Q&A for US Audiences

What happened on Monday?

On Monday, Israel’s Knesset approved a basic law that prohibits judicial review of administrative and executive actions on the basis of “extreme unreasonableness.” In anticipation of this legislation, and the general plan to weaken basic democratic protections and civil rights guarantees, hundreds of thousands of Israelis walked, in high-90s temperatures, all the way to Jerusalem to protest. They were met with violent oppression by the police (high pressure hoses, horses trampling them) and some were injured. The protest continues, with millions of people out in the streets on an ongoing basis for the last 28 weeks.

How come I haven’t even heard about this?

Mainstream U.S. reporting on Israel is scant and of low quality, and most of what you hear would suggest that Netanyahu enjoys consensus and that all Israelis are in favor of this. The opposite is true–even people who voted right-wing are opposed to this governmental overhaul, and people have been in the streets nonstop for years now, and almost daily since this government assumed power.

Why are all these people so worried?

They know this is merely the opening shot in this government’s battle to weaken democratic protections. The planned judicial overhaul would also politicize judicial elections; undermine judicial tenure and independence; make governmental legal advisors into, essentially, personal assistants to their ministers; etc. This basic law is there to help usher in the rest of these reforms, as well as other outrageous legislation that is already in the pipeline. As Internal Security Minister, terrorist, and convicted criminal Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted on Monday, “the salad bar is open.”

Wait, back up for a minute. What is a basic law?

Israel does not have a written constitution. In the 1950s, efforts to establish one failed due to the irreconcilable differences between religious and secular legislators. A compromise was reached, according to which the Knesset would, from time to time, enact “basic laws” with an enhanced majority. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court awarded these laws a special, quasi-constitutional status, allowing the judiciary to strike down regular laws that contradicted basic laws. All laws that violate or undermine a principle in a basic law must entail minimal injury and be legislated “for an appropriate purpose.”

So what’s up with this “extreme unreasonableness” basic law?

Because Israel does not have the level of democratic control–through checks and balances, or through the constitutional review structures in places like the US–that other countries have, its courts could strike down executive decisions and actions that appear to be purely malicious or don’t make any sense. Now that this amendment is in the books, and enshrined as a basic law, supposedly any government action will be immune to judicial review provided that it is done under proper authority. For example, if a government minister chooses to uproot a Palestinian village, require all women in the office to dress a certain way and earn a quarter of what men earn, award jobs to unqualified people based on whims, etc., courts would not be able to do anything as long as the minister acts within their authority

Why would Netanyahu ram this amendment through? Does he not care at all about what the public wants?

Not even a little bit.

What does this government care about?

Israel has a coalition-based governance, which means that governments are put together out of various political parties that have different, and sometimes contradictory, values and interests, but they all benefit from being in power. In this particular case, what they all have in common is that they don’t care at all about the democratic culture of the country or its citizens (and certainly not the Palestinians.) Netanyahu chose this adventure for a simple reason: he is facing multiple charges of corruption. The offenses are serious and there’s plenty of evidence, and he could be serving years, or even decades, in prison. He will do anything and sell out to anyone to avoid that. These amendments will provide loopholes for him to escape criminal accountability. His partners, to whom he has sold out, are an assortment of convicted criminals (Arye Der’i, bribery; Itamar Ben-Gvir, terrorism); known homophobes (Smotrich, organizer of the Pride counterprotest “the beast march”); and theocracy-bound bureaucrats taking orders from the religious think-tank Kohelet Policy Forum (Yariv Levin, Simha Rothman.) What they want is a theocracy, consisting of Jewish supremacy; an annexation of the West Bank and elimination of any hope or reality of Palestinian independence; the denial of rights to Israel’s Arab citizens and other non-Jews; taking away rights from women and unconventional families; and shifting mountains of money from the tax-paying, military-service-performing secular people to the Ultra-Orthodox, who neither serve nor work or pay taxes.

How do we know that’s what they want?

They have been open about it since day one. Folks like Ben Gvir and Smotrich came into power explicitly to annex the West Bank, obliterate any hope of Palestinian independence, and grind to dust any hope of upward mobility for Arab Israeli citizens. All you need to do is look at the list of laws presented to the Knesset for approval yesterday, the day after they stripped judicial review: a law requiring compensation for “Torah students” to match that of people serving in the army, sometimes at great risk and sacrifice; a law that ministers or legislators suspected of criminal activity can only be removed from office by the coalition’s agreement, not through judicial review; new criminal penalties–three years in prison to anyone blocking roads (i.e., the nonviolent protesters); extensions to the criminal immunity of parliament members; affirmative defenses for rabbis publishing their opinions in religious pamphlets (including incitement to racism, murder, etc.); recognizing rabbinical certificates as the equivalent of academic degrees for all public jobs. And that’s just yesterday. This will not be a democracy for long.

Was Israel ever a democracy, you colonialist monsters?

The occupation of Palestine, whose tragic roots date back to 1948 and arguably, before that, to the British Mandate, is indeed an ugly and horrifying aspect that is inexorable from the rest of this mess. It is arguably the root of much of the problem, and inhumane policies and practices have been a fact of life in Palestinian territories since they were conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. Many people live in horrid conditions, under a military regime that controls even minute aspects of their lives and accords these lives little to no value. At the same time, all Israeli governments, right and left alike, have allowed Jewish settlers to occupy and expand these territories, and often given them free rein in acts of agricultural vandalism, sabotage, and horrific violence against Palestinians with no consequences. Courts have offered precious little protection to Palestinians in these matters.

So why would Palestinians even care about judicial overhaul?

Even though the situation in Palestine has always been dire, any person who believes things cannot be worse is seriously deluded. With the de-facto elimination of Judicial review, people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich can run unchecked and unfettered in Palestine. Since their explicit goal is to burn down Palestinian villages–and they’ve been acting on it–you can expect worse. At the same time, it’s understandable that people who have been through so much are cynical about the protest and not participating as the Jewish protesters would hope.

Isn’t there any merit to the claim that this government is trying to disempower the old, oppressive Ashkenazi elites and bring about more equality?

No, this is a cynical ploy that persuades people who have been neglected and kept in ignorance by Netanyahu et al.–the epitome of an oppressive Ashkenazi elite–so that they can be duped into supporting this nonsense. It is true that long-festering resentments have lingered since the 1950s, when immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries were treated condescendingly and appallingly by the local Ashkenazi authorities and residents. Ethnic tensions still exist. But many, many talented, hardworking people who came from nothing are utterly disgusted with the effort to make ethnic tension into a cudgel to foment hatred and schadenfreude and have spoken out publicly about this farce.

Is there nothing that can be done to change course?

Some of the more effective pressure has already been deployed: reservist pilots, military intelligence chiefs, and cyber unit specialists have withdrawn their commitment to volunteer for military service. This has considerably weakened Israel’s security situation and it’s not unlikely that the army is unfit to protect the country at this point. Iranian leadership, who now has nuclear weaponry that can reach Israel, won’t even have to use it. Yoav Galant, the security minister, has announced that, with these retreats, we must pause and reverse course before it’s too late. Similarly, the shekel is in free fall, investors are pulling out of tech companies, and bright minds are fleeing the country on the daily. Both of these things should have given anyone with an iota of public concern some pause (when you think about it, Israel’s survival in the Middle East is largely thanks to a few hundred pilots, some cyber defense systems, and robust scientific invention) but these government ministers are ruthless, unprincipled, and out for whatever they can get, and Netanyahu himself could not care less as long as it keeps his own ass out of the slammer.

Can the U.S. do something?

Emphatically, yes. The U.S. government generously and without asking any questions supports Israel with massive funds (these are sort of a reverse subsidy to American contractors, because the money purchases American weaponry and military equipment.) President Biden’s message to Netanyahu was an opening shot in this direction, and he can and should make it clear that the support is not unwavering or unconditional. Ben Gvir seems to think this is a bluff. Biden can call his bluff.

What can we do?

For heaven’s sake, speak out. It is inconceivable that the only U.S. Jewish voices heard on this topic come from nutty right-wingers or namby-pamby lefties mumbling DEI platitudes. If you don’t like fascism and want Biden to stop funding it, for heaven’s sake, pressure your rabbi, your Jewish organization, your nonprofit, your company, AIPAC, to say something.

I don’t want to seem antisemitic or offend anyone.

You know what’s worse than “seeming antisemitic” or “saying something offensive?” actually ushering in bigotry, discrimination, hatred, and animosity toward Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans by lending credibility to the government that has taken Israel hostage. The more Israel devolves into a decrepit, impoverished backward, theocratic, violent cesspool, the more credibility the bigots will have and the more difficult it will be for Israeli or Jewish people, businesses, and organizations to defend themselves against these noxious phenomena. It is your patriotic duty to both Israel and the U.S. to speak out.