Michael Oren’s Misuse of Psychology

By now Michael Oren’s holding Barack Obama personally responsible for ruining the American-Israeli relationship is well known. No reasonable person argues that Obama doesn’t share blame for complicating the relationship. But as a number of very good assessments of Oren’s arguments have noted (see, for example, here, here, and here), there is a much larger context that Oren thinks is irrelevant, but can’t be.

A number of common points run through these critiques.

  1. The idea that American presidents before Obama maintained “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem has no basis in fact.
  2. The stipulation that Washington would never surprise Israel has no basis in fact.
  3. Oren was not present for all discussions pertaining to either the Iran deal or American-Israeli relations, and so is speculating as much as describing events.
  4. Oren completely ignores Israel’s, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, own agency, which is morally problematic and strategically bad for Israel.
  5. The arm-chair psychoanalysis of Obama’s issues of male abandonment is made without any evidence.

It is this last point where I think Oren makes his biggest mistake. It hasn’t been a major point in his public writings and interviews, but it’s a telling one.

All politicians—all individuals—are influenced by their life experiences. But a major problem with Freudian psychoanalysis like this is that the same cognitive and emotional state can be used to explain opposite outcomes.

That is, there is plenty of evidence of individuals who have suffered from the same childhood experience—say, being beaten by a parent—yet who have taken very different paths later in life. Some have turned to a life of violence, others have not. Some become aggressive, some become meek. Clinical experiments in psychology demonstrate behavioral tendencies, but these are generalizations rather than explanations for every individual action. Plenty of other factors intervene, including levels of education, social circles, and so on. So the assumption (or rather the supposition, as Oren couched the accusation) was unnecessarily inflammatory without more development.

Oren’s comments on the topic would have been more effective if he had just argued—as he started to—that Obama’s interactions with Muslim activists and leaders early on helped shape his worldview, by teaching him certain ideas about Islam and about America’s policies toward the Islamic world. That is, that he developed impressions and came to believe they were important enough to translate into policy. (In fact, this is the argument Peter Beinart makes about Obama’s interactions with Jewish leaders in Chicago.)

It’s possible Oren sees himself as so embedded in history that he’s convinced this really is a crossroads moment for Israel, and so ringing the warning bells as loudly as possible is necessary; the end justifies the means. But as defenders of Oren’s claims have pointed out, he is a very smart man. Surely he should have known better than to rely on such a characterization devoid of proof and that touches on some of the worst accusations Republicans and conservatives made against Obama during his first run for presidency—about his identity, about his presumed negative feelings toward America, that he’s anti-Israel, and so on. Indeed, as a public figure, an intellectual, and an Israeli politician who wants to maintain a strong US-Israel connection, he must.

Oren’s Op-ed Lacks Historical Context

This is a guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili of American University:

Let me offer a few observations on Michael B. Oren’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “How Obama Abandoned Israel”:

  1. Oren’s article is full of historical misrepresentations. For example, Oren’s statement that Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood in “Gaza, almost the entire West Bank, and half of Jerusalem” is a gross exaggeration. And Obama’s insistence on the total freeze was a result of Israel taking advantage of loopholes in similar previous arrangement that were less explicit.
  2. Oren’s argument that Barack Obama is the first US President to abandon the principle that there should be “no daylight” (no public disagreement) between Israel and the US is simply wrong. The United States, for example, has always publicly opposed Israeli settlements (though less so under President George W. Bush), and never accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
  3. Moreover, Oren seems to think that this principle runs only one-way: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly and vehemently calls US policy on a nuclear agreement with Iran dangerous, that’s okay. When Obama disagrees with Israel’s expansion of settlements that’s breaching the trust. How so?
  4. 
Israel makes sure never to deliberately surprise the United States, Oren claims. Really? I cannot believe that the Suez War, the bombing of Osirak, and announcing settlement expansion whenever a high ranking US official is visiting, were all unintended mishaps. Even in the Israeli land of improvisation that is unlikely.
  5. After trying for too long to pressure Israel privately to change its policy (which is basically talk the talk but make sure nobody can walk the walk), the Obama administration did decide to go public with the disagreements. But so long as this is not accompanied by a willingness to actually press Israel by threatening financial or military aid (as, for example, President George H. W. Bush did) or by refusing to veto UNSC resolutions that Israel is opposed to (basically anything that has the words “Palestine” and “Peace” in it), Netanyahu can easily keep on his obstructionist policy. And keep on complaining about Obama through his ambassador-turned-Knesset Member.

The Student is not a Consumer: Further Thoughts

Dan Drezner’s smart post had me speculating thinking about two other related points. Drezner noted that 1) a university is not a corporation and students are not consumers and 2) the real university crisis is in the growing number of college instructors without tenure who are thus vulnerable to poor student evaluations and general student whinging.

First, this might also help us understand grade inflation. If the students-as-consumers expect high grades, and will threaten job security when they don’t get those grades, why not give out high grades like candy? (Though to be transparent, more like the cheap, corn-syrup based candies than good chocolate.) People who have actually researched this possibility seem to agree.

Second, evaluations are so appealing because they boil everything down to a number. A number can be discussed and weighed quickly as well as easily compared to other instructors at the university, as in, “Oh, look, this professor’s average is above the mean for the university as a whole.” This ease and speed could be appealing to administrators or committees that have to supervise and evaluate many instructors. Moreover, in a field like political science where many faculty are pushing quantitative research, the primacy of numbers in evaluation should come as no surprise. It avoids some squishy, qualitative judgment based on, say, actual classroom observation by a professional.

Now please grade this blog post on a scale of 1 to 10. Anonymously.

The Unlikely Winners of Israel’s Election

No one can confidently predict the outcome of tomorrow’s Israeli election. It will undoubtedly be a close contest between Likud and the Zionist Camp for the most seats in the Knesset. In any case, which of the two will lead the next government and who will be the next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu or Yitzhak Herzog, will not be determined at the polls, but in the inevitable inter-party negotiations and deal-making that follows it.

Netanyahu, a seasoned expert in such coalition building, is still the most likely candidate to form the next government and become prime minister. Despite a lack of popular support and a widespread desire for change at the top, Netanyahu is a savvy politician who has often been able to outmaneuver his rivals. More importantly, it will probably be much easier for him to put together a governing coalition than it will be for Herzog. Not only is the right-wing bloc—composed of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—likely to have more Knesset seats than the center-left bloc of the Zionist Camp and Meretz, but also the ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism, Shas, and its new offshoot Yahad) are more inclined to sit in a rightwing government than a center-left one, partly because many of their voters hold rightwing, hawkish views on the Palestinian issue. A narrow coalition of rightwing and religious parties, probably joined by the new center-right Kulanu party led by the former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, is therefore a more likely outcome than a left-of-center government. Many analysts, however, believe that a broad national unity government, including both Likud and the Zionist Camp, is the most likely outcome of the election, even though most Israelis are decidedly unenthusiastic about this.

Sadly, this does not bode well for the already dim prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Those people, both inside and outside Israel, desperately hoping (with more desperation than hope) that the next Israeli government will be more serious and determined about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, are likely to be disappointed, yet again. Even if the Zionist Camp wins the most seats and Herzog is somehow able to cobble together a coalition, he will have to rely upon the support of parties whose leaders are much less willing to make major concessions to the Palestinians, particularly concerning the future of Jerusalem.

But although the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is unlikely to be significantly advanced by the results of this election, another cause—no less important to Israel’s future—could well receive a major boost. This is the cause of Jewish-Arab coexistence and cooperation in Israel. Since the late 1990s, and especially since the notorious events of October 2000 when Israeli police killed 12 Arab citizens of Israel during large-scale, and sometimes violent, protests, Arab-Jewish relations in Israel have been dangerously deteriorating. The Palestinian-Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, has become increasingly alienated from the Israeli state and from Israeli Jews. After suffering from decades of discrimination and government neglect, and after having recently endured racist attacks (both verbal and physical), rightwing Zionist agitation against them (led by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu colleagues), and parliamentary legislation targeting them, many, if not most, of Israel’s Arab citizens now firmly believe that they will always be ‘second-class’ citizens in a Jewish state.

This election could challenge that demoralizing and pernicious belief and help convince Arabs that they can in fact be fully equal citizens, and that Israel can really be a Jewish and democratic state. If the Joint List, a union of three Arab parties and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, succeeds in winning thirteen or fourteen seats (as the polls suggest it might) it could be the third largest party in the next Knesset. While it is unlikely to join the government—there is an informal rule against including Arab parties in Israeli government coalitions—the Joint List could become Israel’s main opposition party, a status that confers many practical and symbolic benefits. For example, its leader, Ayman Odeh, would meet with visiting foreign dignitaries, receive official government briefings, and get to address the Knesset after every speech by the prime minister.

The potential electoral success of the Joint List, and the political influence and prestige it would enjoy as a result of this, could turn out to be a game changer in Israeli politics. It could emerge not only as the unified and representative voice of the Arab minority, one that Israeli and foreign leaders and the Israeli-Jewish public would have to pay attention to, but also as a future government coalition partner. Above all, its success would send a powerful and much–needed message to the Arab minority that voting in Israeli elections is not a sham or a waste of time, as many Arab citizens have come to believe it is (which is why Arab voter turnout has declined in previous elections). This would encourage future Arab political participation and strengthen Israeli democracy.

Whether the Zionist Camp or Likud lead the next Israeli government, therefore, perhaps the biggest winner of the election will be the Joint List, and its most significant outcome may be in the often ignored, but deeply troubled, relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

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.

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.