Reaction to Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

In Jay Ulfelder’s reactions to Marc Lynch’s reflections on the Arab Uprisings, I was struck by Ulfelder’s discussion of motivated reasoning. Ulfelder’s notes a problem: “When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood.” I want Egypt to become democratic after Mubarak’s fall so, gasp, my deeply-informed analysis says Egypt is likely to become democratic. [Or insert your own favorite example.]

Ulfelder proposes a solution, or at least a coherent mitigation plan:

Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Sounds reasonable.

But what if the extrinsic motivation is the main guide to how we select or interpret the factors that point us toward our conclusion? In any given political situation, scholars can point to a myriad of factors or draw on a wide range of historical precedents. How do we know which tradition is most relevant and which variables to consult? If we want the process to conclude with democracy, that suggests a certain way of looking at the problem.

In other words, maybe the scientific (analytical) process is hopelessly tainted by our own preferences and hopes. Perhaps “feelings” and analytic outcomes co-vary more than we like to admit.

About the New NGO Bill

Far-right members of the Israeli government are planning to submit a bill that requires any Israeli NGO receiving funds from foreign governments to register as a foreign agent. The bill would require, as Lahav Harkov explains, groups

to report any aid they receive from countries overseas and any commitments they have to them, as well as any “foreign activity” they conduct or plan to conduct, and any communication relating to the activity and commitments, among other details, all of which will be accessible to the public, with exceptions like national security or professional secrets.

In short, organizations will have to spend considerable time wasting engaged in reporting their activities and meeting the government’s approval, and will be unable to keep their discussions and planning out of the public eye. The bill will also limit the ability of Israeli NGOs to raise funds abroad. All this while Israel’s existing Amutot Law (Law of Associations) is already more intrusive than comparable laws in other countries. In Israel, NGOs are subject to the supervision of the state, which sets out rules for things like membership and board requirements. An NGO also cannot be formed or maintained if “any of its objects negates the existence or democratic character of the State of Israel.”

Let’s put aside the point that a mature democracy can handle criticism and even calls for new political arrangements. Some have argued that because the bill is modeled on an American version, it’s really nothing so drastic and is well within Western political norms.

The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores context. It’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t about shutting down criticism from left-wing groups and defining acceptable political discourse. A glance at those sponsoring the bill (and the rhetoric they regularly employ against those they disagree with) should make this obvious enough.

A second argument is that because many leftist NGOs receive funding from European governments and European institutions, and because they often cooperate with outside agencies or organizations to provide information on the Israeli occupation, they are, in effect, foreign agents and undermining the interests of the State of Israel.

But it should also be obvious that it’s acceptable for domestic groups to perform watchdog duties on the government, particularly when government policy has clear moral and physical consequences for Israelis and for others. Indeed, this kind of accountability and citizen participation should be encouraged. There is no indication that Israel is weakened because Israeli organizations want to end the occupation, or even call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers; indeed, Israel has never been more accepted into world affairs through economic integration and participation in political institutions. Nor has there ever been evidence that European entities control or direct the activities of Israeli NGOs.

An argument might be made that groups focused on the Arab community and Arab political demands undermine the “Jewish and democratic nature of the state.” But a close look at the politics of the Arab minority indicates that the demands most worrisome to rightist politicians (changing the Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens”) occurs primarily at the level of the political and intellectual leadership, not in the community more broadly. These demands are also predicated on the decades of marginalization and discrimination the Arab community has faced. Addressing these underlying conditions would do far more to engender acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state than coercive measures. Finally, since comparisons to the West are common, it should be noted that Canada’s political system has for a long time included a party devoted to breaking up the country–the Bloc Québécois–while other Western democracies have their own legitimate separatist movements. In any event, Arab-oriented NGOs are primarily engaged in protecting and expanding the civil and communal rights of Arab citizens.

Finally, regarding context, comparisons to the U.S. law are misleading. American non-profits and NGOs have a very large source of potential funding to draw on—the American people. The Israeli population is much smaller, and there is no history or norm of widespread giving to support NGOs or other similar institutions. This makes it difficult for any NGO to rely on domestic sources for funding.

This connects back to the first point about the bill serving as a vehicle for shutting down left-wing activity, rather than being applicable to all Israeli groups. In theory, legally, of course, the bill doesn’t distinguish between left and right. But it does in practice: most right-wing NGOs get their funding from private sources abroad, rather than public sources. Leftist groups get much of their support from public rather than private sources. So the bill’s effect is designed to apply primarily to certain organizations only.

It’s hard, then, to avoid the conclusion that this is another effort—in a long line of efforts stretching back to the second Netanyahu government—to define Zionism, patriotism, and loyalty very narrowly.

Open Hillel and the potential for change to US Jewish life

I was able to spend half a day at the Open Hillel conference, including speaking on a panel on “Potential Solutions.” One thought: I’d be worried if I were part of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment. These leaders of tomorrow are not going to quietly accept stale dogma.

The students I met and heard talk at the conference are smart, attend elite universities, and are thinking hard about these issues. They are exposed to a range of organizations that not only includes AIPAC/JCRC/Federation/CAMERA etc but also groups with alternate views such as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Jewish tradition was long one of deep intellectual curiosity. In addition, college is one time when many students get to explore ideas. This combination of being party to the Jewish tradition and in college makes for a double dose of curiosity. That’s crucial if one is asking these students to blindly accept narratives or avoid peeking outside the existing opinion tent; they’ll push back, as they did by even establishing Open Hillel and organizing this first conference.

I’m not an expert on American Jewish institutional life. Moreover, there was a selection effect – the kind of student who would be at an Open Hillel conference lends herself/himself to my claims. Students who are outsiders and questioners now certainly might be co-opted later. Fair points.

So rather than an airtight argument, take this as impressionistic…but plausible. Let’s revisit in 20 years and see where things stand.

(I’ll write more about the conference tomorrow @BeaconReader).

Carter and Camp David

A quick thought. I have not read Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. (Can I claim to be Camp David-ed out?) But in reading a review by Jordan Chandler Hirsch, I was struck by one of the reviewer’s phrasings.

Hirsch does not want us to over-emphasize the US role in bringing about Egyptian-Israeli peace: “Washington, in short, played the role of consolidator, not catalyst.”

In the hopes of not over-emphasizing the US role, the risk is that Hirsch minimizes the US role. In the end, I think two things are true about the diplomacy of 1978-1979:

There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had not Egyptian and Israeli interest been moving in the same direction.
There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had the US/Carter not mediated (especially in September 1978 and March 1979).

Hirsch’s line does not fully capture my sentiments.

Why the Israeli Government Isn’t Going to Western Africa

It came as a bit of a surprise to me that Israel refused the American government’s request to send government aid to western Africa to contend with the outbreak of Ebola. After all, Israel has long prided itself on the immediate relief aid it provides to stricken countries, as well as its successful cooperative programs in Africa (longstanding but interrupted in the 1960s and 1970s). Others on Twitter were equally surprised, and wondered whether, because Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made the final decision over an initial Foreign Ministry recommendation, this was a poke in Barack Obama’s eye.

According to one government official familiar with the details of the decision, it was indeed the case that the Foreign Ministry first recommended acceding to the request. But once the bigger picture was sketched out, it was decided that other considerations as laid out by the Defense Ministry were relevant enough that the request should be turned down. There is, according to the source, “[n]o friction between ministries or ministers on this one.”

The decision not to get involved at the governmental level was made in light of the “tough summer” Israel just experienced. The Israeli military, which typically runs the large-scale aid interventions, is focused right now on building up its own capacities given the lessons of the conflict with Hamas as well as existing and perhaps expanding regional threats to the state. In any event, the IDF’s area of expertise is disaster relief, rather than helping develop a healthcare structure to deal with an ongoing epidemic. The decision not to participate was underlined by the fact that the non-governmental sector, including IsraAID, is active there; indeed, Jerusalem supports their efforts.

A reasonable decision, I think, under the circumstances.

Update:

It appears that discussions on the topic continued after Ya’alon officially rejected the request. Some in the Foreign Ministry, particularly in the sustainable development division, pushed back hard to send aid. It was eventually agreed that the Ministry would contribute a modest effort through MASHAV, but there would be no IDF involvement.

On Liberal Zionism

At Haaretz I recently argued that public laments over liberal Zionism—that it’s “dead,” at a “crossroads,” or simply untenable—were oriented around prominent male commentators writing in prominent American publications. I noted this has the effect of dismissing or neglecting others, particularly but not only women, who write on the topic elsewhere. This is a follow-up post, in which I point out some of these other writers. I don’t agree with all of them (in fact I often disagree), but many of them are much more well-versed in Israeli and Jewish history than some of the commentators driving the conversation. And if the conversation is to be genuine, then it needs to account for other serious writers.

Certainly there are others out there. But just because one writes on Israel and on Jewish politics doesn’t mean one understands Israel and Jewish politics.

I don’t think all of those listed below would call themselves liberal Zionists, or advocate all of the positions we typically associate with liberal Zionism; but they all have things to say about the issue that are worth reading.

In no particular order:

Mira Sucharov. A Canadian professor, Mira has a blog at Haaretz. She often explores the difficult choices and trade-offs liberal Zionists in the diaspora have to face.

Dahlia Scheindlin. Dahlia is an Israeli political analyst and consultant. In addition to her other important work, read her to track changing attitudes among the Israeli left toward the two-state solution.

Noam Sheizaf. Noam is an Israeli journalist and analyst. He explores similar issues as Dahlia, but has moved further away from the main tenets of liberal Zionism as necessarily structuring solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and illiberalism in Israel.

Rebecca Steinfeld. Rebecca has been challenging liberal Zionists on the dual nature of their commitments long before the people I mentioned in my Haaretz piece.

Joel Braunold. A longtime participant in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution efforts, Joel raises important questions about the diaspora-Israel relationship.

Dov Waxman. Among other topics, Dov writes on the U.S. Jewish community’s politics, particularly the place of Israel there.

The folks at Molad. Molad is a recently-established think tank in Israel, with a focus on rejuvenating both the Israeli left and Israeli democracy. Because it’s comprised mostly of the religious left, it disproves the notion that religion and secular democracy are not compatible in Israel.

Sarah Posner. Sarah writes on developments in the American Jewish community, which are useful for tracking changes in its religious and political trajectories.

Shmuel Rosner. An Israeli political commentator, Shmuel writes about both Israeli politics and the diaspora-Israel relationship. He’s a frequent critic of others who write on these topics.

That Genocide Post

I hate to waste the space here, but since that Times of Israel blog post arguing that genocide against the Palestinian is permissible because Hamas just won’t give up (I won’t link to it here; it’s been taken down anyway, though others have captured images of it) is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and online media, it’s important to make a few points clear.

Having been a blogger at ToI, I know how blogging works there.

  • The blog post is just that: a blog post. It appeared in an open, largely un-moderated blog, written by what is for all intents and purposes a random blogger.
  • It was not vetted by ToI editors. Once you are approved as a blogger there, you get a password and you can post whenever and whatever you want. Sometimes an editor will see the post and make some minor changes; mostly, given the high quantity of pieces submitted, it simply gets passed through.
  • The post doesn’t represent the paper’s editorial line.
  • Even less does it represent either Israeli public opinion or elite opinion.

Given all this, if you are promoting the piece as a sign of Israeli opinion in any way, you are not a serious person.

This isn’t the first silly, offensive, or dangerous piece to be posted there. Obviously, then, it behooves ToI to immediately change its moderation policy. Immediately.

Update: The ToI editors explain their decision to remove the blog (and the blogger) from their website.