Listening, Civility, and Dialogue

Once again given the condition of our political structure and deteriorating relationship between people holding different political opinions we have been hearing a lot more in the news about the civility. Some political figures have stated outright that civility and taking the high road is for suckers. Others recognize its importance. Below is some theoretical and practical advice for improving civility, which is not just “being nice.” It is a significant communicative skill that is directly related to successful resolution of problems.

Key Communication Elements of Civility and Dialogue

Conflict! I’m interested in the efficacy of communication and write regularly about how communication works and why it is fundamentally and by definition the best way to elicit change. One of the most important contemporary questions is how differences engage one another; how do individuals and groups with incommensurate realities and significant cultural variation manage their relationship? One way is intergroup dialogue which has been written about but remains an ethereal concept considered by many to be an idealized form of communication that is difficult to achieve. I remain resolute in my conviction to continue to discuss dialogue as a pragmatic and achievable form of communication that is not overly romanticized. Dialogue is a particular type of communication designed to solve problems that require mutuality, cooperation, and change. In these terms – mutuality, cooperation, and change – are not niceties but theoretical requirements.

Intergroup dialogue is really about action. It’s about how you collaborate with others across differences with the goal of social justice and problem solving in mind. Solidarity-based communication is that between similar people working on a similar problem. The interaction is cohesive and reinforcing with goals of stimulation and accomplishment of objectives to bring about any desired change. But bridging discourse, as termed by Dryzek, is between people of who are different and trying to find ways to manage the differences between them, trying to reach across information, cultural, and intellectual divides. Most important dialogue struggles with bridging discourse and it is of course the most difficult.

There are a variety of perspectives and approaches to dialogue, but one of the most thoughtful and theoretically well-developed perspectives is critical-dialogue as described by Nagda, Gurin, and others. These authors have identified four communication processes that are particularly important and pertinent to the dialogic process. Each of these four is required and part of the challenge of establishing conditions for successful dialogue. You can read more about these processes here.

  1. Engagement: This is primarily the requirement that dialogue be taken seriously and individuals be personally involved and committed. These are not the conditions for social loafing; dialogic contact with somebody of difference, when the problems are real and significant, needs the participants to engage in the full range of committed communication. Participants must take risks, assert themselves into the story, and do the hard work of listening empathically as well as critically without overweighting one.
  2. Appreciate differences: Politics is essentially the management of differences. Solving problems in general conflict resolution is the same. Differences are fundamental and the goal is not to eliminate them but to manage them. For this reason, an appreciation for differences is crucial. Democracies in particular use the communication process to manage differences. There is simply no peaceful resolution to problems without understanding the perspective of others, creating trust across differences, and even trying to participate and when appropriate adopt differences. Again, the goal is not simply the aesthetic appreciation of differences but the pragmatic issues of empathy, understanding, and the ability to argue and communicate in a manner that resonates with the other.
  3. Critical reflection: Again, the unreflective and rigid presentation of self is always limited by the boundaries of the self. Critical reflection is the ability to examine one’s own assumptions including finding those places characterized by bias, stereotypes, and distortions related to how the other is perceived including unfair sources of power and manipulation. Any genuine attempt to solve problems requires participants to think critically about their own patterns of communication and thought processes. Moreover, participants in dialogue must be able to recognize the sources of bias and inequality in both themselves and others but in particular themselves.
  4. And finally, building associative relationships: Participants in dialogue groups must build something together. As often as it has been said, and as easy as it sounds participants in conflict must eventually explore common goals to develop new associative relationships that are conducive to resolving intergroup conflict. There is plenty of research that supports the impact of intergroup dialogue. Its goal is to foster the bridging of differences and these four communication patterns of the mechanisms that accomplish these goals. True enough they require additional research and operationalization but these form the foundational theoretical underpinnings

How to Save Democracy

People have lost the ability to listen“ – How to save democracy

One could think that democracy is lost. The populists are on the rise; not only in Germany or Europe but in the entire world. This is the picture that is often drawn by the media and Mark Warren, Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, Canada, says this too. This is the „fear“ part of democracy and one which is sadly often the one more present in our minds. So what is the „hope“ part of democracy?

To discuss this question, how we can combine representation and participatory innovations, four professors from four different countries came together and took part in the panel Conceptualizing the Future of Democracy: Combining Representation and Participatory Innovations. Mark Warren, Rainer Forst (Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt), Jane Mansbridge (Harvard University) and Anne Philipps (London School of Economics and Political Science) are all experts in their fields and have been looking at democracy for a long time now. While they all agree that we have to change something about the way in which we participate in democracy, they have different approaches with different emphases.

Mark Warren says that the next step towards combining representation and participation is to do more „barefoot“ political theory. To advance newer democratic innovations, he together with Archon Fung (Harvard University) founded participedia, a website on which democratic innovations are crowdsourced.

Rainer Forst advocates for transnational solutions. He thinks that the crisis democracy is faced with is a justification crisis and that transnational parties could solve this as they are „a major form of combining representation and participation“. The challenge they face is to find common interests among the people; according to Forst the „essence of democracy“.

On the other hand, Jane Mansbridge claims that a system of recursive interaction as an ideal would be best for democracy. As an example she mentions townhalls which she considers very effective: if there was a system where randomly selected constituents spoke to their representatives on important topics, the idea of a direct democracy would be more included in an indirect democracy. However, this recursive interaction doesn’t necessarily mean that the constituents are all approached individually; Mansbridge says that parties play a very big role in bringing like-minded people together and forming political opinions. To overcome our differences, we have to understand the deeper interests of the people we negotiate with and maybe we can compromise on these rather than the actual demands (e.g. when someone is against immigration, maybe the underlying reason are economic fears which could maybe be solved in accord with immigration).

Anne Phillips feels like this is a good idea but that, also through social media, „people have lost the ability to listen“. In her opinion, alternative devices of democracy lack resilience. And if, compared to the economic power, democracy is very feeble, this would mean a further weakening of democracy.

All in all, the panel gave some really interesting insight into why democracy is in a crisis right now and what we have to do to make this situation better and save democracy as a whole.

Recent publication and theoretical statement

Below is the address for my most recent publication. An abstract precedes it. I have been working in this area for my entire career and tried to make some arguments about the nature of ethnicity and some relationships between ethnicity and communication. I emphasize the word “building” in the title because I intended the article to contribute to the development of theory rather than stand alone staking a theoretical claim. I hope it stands as a contribution to both conflict theory, ethnicity, conflict management, and identity.

Don Ellis

Building a Theory of Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict


Coherent theoretical development of theories of ethnopolitical conflict has been slow and scattered. Moreover, the role of communication has been seriously neglected. I theorize ethnopolitical conflict along two dimensions: the level in which the conflict is entered (macro state-level, mid civil society level, and individual level) and the type of communication most characteristic of the level (bargaining and negotiation, intergroup relations and intercultural communication, identity theories and deliberative processes).  Additionally, the article makes the case for a social constructionist perspective on ethnicity, and develops a relationship between communication and ethnopolitical conflict. Finally, theories of communication are posed as mediators of social systems that couple the communication systems of two conflictive groups in order for them to increase commensurability.


Israel’s Nation-State Law Must Accommodate its Minority Populations

The below is from the Jewish News Service (August 31, 2018). It is an important issue with respect to future treatment of Israel’s minority groups and diverse populations. Israel must reassure the Jewish nature of the state (thus the nation-state law), but it cannot disadvantage and alienate its minority populations. The Druze are very good example of this because they are so supportive of the state.  The issues below will continue to reverberate throughout the discussion.

Druze remain upset over Jewish nation-state law

Israel’s minorities are expressing concern because they perceive the new law as favoritism for Jewish citizens at their expense.

Israel’s new nation-state law that passed  last month has caused a great deal of controversy, particularly with Israel’s minorities and, in what came as a surprise to many, the largely pro-Israel Druze community.

Israel’s minorities are upset because they perceive the wording as favoritism for Jews at their expense. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to tamp down tensions and come to a solution since the passing of the law by meeting with Druze leaders, but the tensions and bad feelings remain. That was capped off by a Saturday-night rally in Tel Aviv on Aug. 4 that highlighted some of the community’s major concerns.

Weeks ago, Netanyahu said after a flurry of meetings with Druze leaders that they were “voicing the genuine sentiment in the community, and we are going to seek a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif (second from left), at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 27, 2018. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

The prime minister and supporters of the new law see it as necessary to maintain the Jewish character of the state as it continues to come under attack by the activist liberal High Court, the Palestinians and Arab-Israeli citizens, foreign-funded NGOs, BDS groups, international media outlets, foreign governments, and left-wing and Arab political activists and parties that want to implement a version of U.S. democracy, detaching the state from its Jewishness.

‘Needs amending for all minorities’

Dolan Abu Saleh, the mayor of Majdal al-Shams, a Druze town located in the Golan Heights, told JNS that in his estimate, more than 90 percent of the Druze are against this law.

“It is not only Druze, but other minorities are against it. Even if the state fixes the law to appease the Druze, it still will remain a problem since it needs amending for all minorities,” said the mayor.

Dolan Abu Saleh, the mayor of Majdal al-Shams, a Druze town located in the Golan Heights

The Druze faith is an esoteric offshoot of Shia Ismaili Islam that does not allow conversion into or out of the religion.

Today, Israel is home to a significant and influential Druze minority, who unlike Muslim Arabs, are drafted and proudly serve in the Israeli military, police and government. Roughly 150,000 Jews, less than 2 percent of Israel’s population, live mainly in northern Israel in the Galilee, Carmel and Golan Heights regions.

For minority groups like the Druze, who have experienced centuries of persecution under Muslim rule in the Middle East, there is a general anxiety over the new nation-state law that promotes the Jewish character of Israel.

According to the law, “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” Arabic is demoted from an official language alongside Hebrew to one with a “special status.” Another feature is the promotion of Jewish settlement in the land.

While much of the law is symbolic, minorities are worried that it will have practical applications.

Abu Saleh went on to argue that the law would limit the authority of the High Court in Israel when it comes to minorities. “Jewish extremists,” for example, could mobilize against a minority city on a land issue for example, and the state could cite this law in order to act in favor of the Jews, he asserted.

Before this law, there was a “positive feeling,” continued Dolan, describing relations between Druze and the Jewish majority.

“I very much want that Israel remains a state for all its citizens, and I know that this law will hurt first the state itself, and has the potential to increase cause conflict between Jews and minorities,” said the Druze leader.

Asked what a possible solution, he replied that the law needs to be revoked. “The potential for internal conflict will grow” if it stays in place, he opined.

Members of the Druze community attend a special Plenary Hall session about Israel’s new nation-state law at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Aug. 8, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The law has also touched a nerve in the Jewish sector, with some feeling that the Druze are being ungrateful. Some supporters of the bill see the Druze opposition as misplaced since in the end it will not change anything for them on the ground or in any practical way.

In reaction to the strong Druze opposition to the bill, Netanyahu said on July 29: “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full equal rights for all of its citizens. This is the meaning of the words ‘a Jewish and democratic state.’ ”

He continued: “We have determined the personal equal rights of Israeli citizens in a series of laws, including Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, laws that ensure full equality before the law, beginning with the right to vote and be elected to the Knesset, and ending with all other personal rights in the State of Israel.”

“Already there are proposals to replace the flag and the anthem in the name of equality, as it were. There is opposition to the idea of a nation-state in many countries, but first of all in the State of Israel, something that undermines the foundation of our existence, and therefore, the attacks emanating from left-wing circles that define themselves as Zionist are absurd and expose the nadir to which the left has sunk,” added the prime minister.

‘If the law doesn’t change anything, then why is it needed?’

The main issue not being addressed: that Israel is an ethnic state, like others in Europe, based on a dominant ethnic group and or religion. This leads to a situation where minorities can feel that they are playing second fiddle to the majority culture. The root of the Druze objection to the law is that they seek a U.S.-style democracy that does not explicitly endorse a specific religion or ethnic group, whereas the Jewish majority does want a Jewish state.

Yet some pro-Israel minorities support the new law. Capt. (res.) Shadi Haloul, head of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association who also runs a pre-military preparatory program for Jews and the Christian Arabs, said approved, stating it actually cements the rights of minorities.

According to the report in Israel Hayom, he also stated: “Just look at what has happened to the Maronite Christians who are being persecuted in Lebanon, as well as other minorities there. As soon as Israel stops being the state of the Jewish people, as some in radical left and in the Arab parties want, we will no longer be able to enjoy the freedoms and security Israel provides us.”

Still, for many Druze, it appears that such arguments are not swaying them at the moment. Jamal Kheir, the owner of a hotel in Peki’in, a mainly Druze village in the north near Beit Shean, told JNS in an interview that the concern in the Druze community is real. He concurred with Abu Saleh’s assessment that more than 90 percent of Druze oppose the law.

As many as 50,000 Israelis and Druze protested in central Tel Aviv on Aug. 4 after the passing of the law, chanting “equality for all.”

“The Druze are not upset about what is written in the law, but what is not written in it. There needs to be a special place for the Druze,” said Kheir.

“We helped the Jews when they were weak, before the state even existed,” exclaimed Kheir.

“The law needs to be totally canceled and rewritten with a paragraph on the Druze,” he suggested, stressing that the current law “goes against Druze rights.”

Jamal Kheir, the owner of a hotel in Peki’in, a mainly Druze village in the north near Beit Shean

As to the argument that some supporters of the law make—that it is more symbolic and does not change the current situation in reality—Kheir rejected that argument, saying, “If the law doesn’t change anything, then why is it needed?”

Regarding the suggestion that the Druze will forget about the law in a few months and relations will go back to normal, Kheir insisted that this wouldn’t be the case. “The Druze will not forget about this. There is Facebook, and everyone is commenting about this on social media. There are former army officers involved in WhatsApp groups; it is very serious.”

Questioned about Netanyahu’s efforts to solve the problem, he responded, “If Bibi wants to give Acamol [an Israeli over-the-counter pain medication], it won’t work.”

“For the Arabs we are traitors,” he said, “and for the Jews we have become Arabs. And this bugs us.

The Nation-State of Israel

The below is from Bret Stephens of the New York Times, August 11, 2018. I reprint it here  because it states the issues clearly and more accurately than many of the responses to the original bill. The nation-state bill needs to be improved and adjusted in a few areas but it is not a narrow minded document dripping with nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments.

Anyone who follows the news from Israel knows that the Knesset last month passed legislation that takes the Jewish state a step closer to apartheid and outright theocracy. For instance, the bill explicitly authorizes Jewish-only communities and requires secular courts to adopt Jewish ritual law in certain cases. It also promotes the settlements.

Actually, the nation-state bill, as the legislation is known, does none of that. Nearly all of its most controversial provisions were stripped from it before passage. But you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise based on the reaction to the bill — reaction that is far more revealing than the bill itself.

Among the planks of the legislation: Hatikva” is Israel’s national anthem. Hebrew is its official language. Jerusalem, “complete and united,” is its capital. The flag and menorah its official symbols. The Sabbath its day of rest (with non-Jews having their own days of rest). Israel is open to Jewish immigration. Above all, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

If you’re shrugging at most of this, you should: The bill’s purpose was to codify into Israel’s Basic Laws — akin to a constitution — aspects of Israeli identity long taken for granted by Israelis and outsiders alike.

The bill has some more controversial features. It gives Arabic — the native language of roughly one-in-five Israeli citizens — “special status” as a language, which has no practical effect but is a demotion from the official status it enjoyed since the days of the British mandate. It contains language that might impede efforts to foster greater Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, including egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall.

It also places a “national value” on the “development of Jewish settlement,” which means towns and communities in general but sounds like — and by no means excludes — West Bank settlements. And it notably fails to mention the word “equality,” which has a prominent place in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

All this can plausibly be described as a mostly symbolic codification of Israel’s Jewish character in the face of persistent efforts to deny that character. Or as part of a broader global turn toward more nationalistic forms of politics. Or, as Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” an excellent new biography on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tells me, as “a rabble-rousing poke in the eye to Israel’s minorities drafted to excite Bibi’s far-right base.”

What the bill is not is the death of Israel’s democracy — it was enacted democratically and can be overturned the same way. It is not the death of Israeli civil liberties — still guaranteed under the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and visibly reaffirmed by the large public protests following the bill’s enactment. And it is not apartheid — a cheap slur from people whose grasp of the sinister mechanics of apartheid is as thin as their understanding of the complexities of Israeli politics.

Nor, for that matter, is it anywhere remotely as noxious as what is happening in other Western democracies wrestling with competing claims between national identity, civil liberties and cultural pluralism. In Denmark, The Times reported last month, “starting at the age of 1, ‘ghetto children’ must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values,’ including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language.’”

Whatever else you think of Israel’s nation-state bill, this is undoubtedly worse. So where are the calls to boycott, divest and sanction Denmark?

Which raises a deeper question concerning the nation-state bill: Why the over-the-top reaction? In an interview with Haaretz, British philanthropist Vivien Duffield, who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli causes over the years, declared “I hate Israel” after the bill’s passage, then reached for the apartheid analogy.

Shoddy reporting about the bill from some of the usual suspects furnishes at least part of the answer. Ordinary liberal distaste for a conservative Israeli government furnishes another part.

And there are plenty of good reasons even for Israel’s friends to dislike the bill as unnecessary, provocative, divisive and a transparent bid by Netanyahu to shore up his popularity in the face of corruption allegations and a military quagmire in the Gaza Strip.

But if liberal Americans haven’t (yet) given up on the United States in the age of Donald Trump, liberal Jews shouldn’t be giving up on Israel on account of an overhyped, underwhelming law whose effects would be mostly invisible if they hadn’t been so loudly debated. Countries we love will inevitably do things we don’t like or fail to understand. The same goes for people.

However else you feel about the nation-state bill, reserve your serious outrage for the things that deserve it. An estimated 542 Syrian civilians were tortured to death last month by the Syrian regime, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights. Did you know that?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Unprepared

Reproduced from Corey Robin blog located here:

The below is an interview with the newest media darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She describes herself as a socialist, which is unfortunate because it just about  guarantees  an election loss, and seems to have little more than random vocabulary to describe her socialism and international relations. She is not sufficiently prepared and in many places was confused or stuck with a jumble of generalities that she could not untangle. Although I resonate with much of her politics, I will not support someone so “unprepared.”  Hit the books Alexandria!

See the interview here.

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.

Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. I said a shorter version of what I said above. It provoked a bitter debate on my page. There were even more bitter debates on other people’s pages.

The camps divided in two: on the one hand, there were those who took Ocasio-Cortez’s comments as confirmation that she is no real leftist, that she is turning right, that she’s been absorbed into the Democratic Party machine, that she’s a fake, a phony, and a fraud. For these folks, Ocasio-Cortez’s comments confirmed their generally dim view of electoral politics.

On the other hand, there were Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders, claiming that she is only twenty-eight, that she had been set up by a right-wing journalist, that progressives shouldn’t criticize her, that the Left always eats its own, that those of us who are criticizing her are sectarians ready to go after anyone the second they disappoint us.

What I’m about to say doesn’t address the first camp. While I know and respect many of these folks — leftists who either reject electoral politics completely or reject any involvement with the Democratic Party — theirs is not my position. Nor do I think this incident is revelatory one way or another for their position — had Ocasio-Cortez said all the right things, I doubt it would convince skeptics of electoral politics that getting involved in Democratic Party politics is the way to go — so I don’t see any point in using it to engage in that question.

My comments are directed to the latter camp: the people who, like me, believe in electoral politics, are on the Left, and think we may have an opportunity right now that we have not had in a long while.

There are some of us, many of us, who care deeply about the Israel/Palestine issue from an anti-Zionist perspective and who are also realistic about US electoral politics. We’re not naïfs who think that the politicians we support are going to come out right away, or right now, in support of a single binational democratic state, which is the position we hold with regard to Palestine. We also realize that the Left that is beginning to think about electoral politics is young (not in terms of age but political experience), and it will take us all some time to figure out how to advance our positions in a way that will win support and translate that support into policy.

And last, we know that despite the centrality of Palestine to our politics, it’s not central to the politics of everyone on the Left, that people have multiple concerns, and that it does no good simply to hector people and say this should be at the top of your list (along with a thousand other issues that should be at the top of your list).

I know all of that, we know all of that.

But we also know a few other things.

Sooner or later, every national politician in the US has to confront the issue of Palestine. You can’t duck it. Not only is the Left moving left on this issue, not only is the base of the Democratic Party moving left on this issue (it is, if you look at the polling), but it is also a major issue of international politics and US foreign policy that every member of Congress has to have a position on.

Palestine is not some obscure question that you can simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know much about that.” Any person who aspires to be a member of Congress, particularly from New York City, where this issue comes up as a local, national, and international issue all the time — when we had the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions fight at Brooklyn College in 2013, our top opponents included multiple members of the New York City congressional delegation: Jerry Nadler, Yvette Clark, Nydia Velazquez, and Hakeem Jeffries — will have to be clear about where they stand. It’s not optional: Ocasio-Cortez has to have a position.

Not only does Ocasio-Cortez have to have a position, but to be a credible leftist voice in Congress, she has to have a leftist position on this issue. Now, before everyone concludes that means she has to call for a binational state, there are many ways to talk left about Israel that are considerably better than the current liberal pabulum and that do not require an elected official to commit political suicide.

There is the human rights vernacular that Ocasio-Cortes herself alludes to (a particularly popular approach, as sociologist Ran Greenstein pointed out in the discussion on my Facebook wall). There is the language of realpolitik, which people like Nathan Thrall have pushed. And other ways still.

Ocasio-Cortez could talk about conditioning aid on human rights improvements. She could talk about cutting military funding to Israel. George H. W. Bush, after all, withheld loans to Israel because of the expansion of the settlements — not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but here in the US, in the early 1990s. All of these claims are well to the left of any current political discourse in Congress and would force the debate forward and would be productively polarizing. And maybe propel Ocasio-Cortez to even more of a leadership position on the Left.

This is not just about Palestine. This is about US foreign policy as a whole. It used to be that US foreign policy was the Left’s strong suit. Back in the 1970s, when it seemed as if the Left’s confidence in its economic policies and positions was flagging, its critiques of US imperialism, military spending, and the national security state were in ascendancy. Some of these positions even made it into the left wing of the Democratic Party. Since then, the Left has gotten very weak on this stuff. Not in terms of its moralism on foreign policy, or the antiwar rallies it will show up at, but in terms of being able to advance a position that would begin to command national assent, form public opinion, and then be translated into policy.

This is a problem: it should be the easiest thing in the world right now, for example, to go after runaway military spending. Yet there’s hardly a credible or potent left voice that is pushing that agenda, much less getting a hearing within even progressive circles of the Democratic Party. Indeed, in this age of alleged partisan polarization, authorizations of massive increases in spending for the Pentagon and the CIA pass both houses of Congress with hefty Democratic majorities — with scarcely anyone noticing, much less protesting.

So, again, this isn’t about Palestine only. Or I should say, Palestine is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. From Palestine you get into the question of the Middle East as a whole, which leads to US foreign policy as a whole, and issues of budgets, spending, war, peace, and all the rest. All the more reason for Ocasio-Cortez to get up to speed on it.

Like it or not, Ocasio-Cortez has been elevated to a national position of leadership and visibility on the Left. If she wins in the general election, as everyone believes she will, every single thing she says and does will be watched and scrutinized. It simply will not do to say, oh, she’s only twenty-eight, oh, the media is so nasty, oh, let’s not have circular firing squads. The media is always nasty, the Left will always be critical of its leaders, and one day, soon, Ocasio-Cortez will no longer be twenty-eight. To complain about any of these things is like shaking your fist at the weather (weather in the old-fashioned sense; before climate change).

People have turned to Ocasio-Cortez not simply because she won but because she’s good at what she does: she’s smart, fast, funny, and principled. Because she’s shown leadership. I understand the pressures she’s under. But as her star rises, the pressures will only increase. Ocasio-Cortez needs to be not only strong but also clear on this issue. She needs to be as subtle, dexterous, and sharp as she is on other issues, virtually every night on Twitter. This isn’t a game, especially when it comes to Israel. Or, if it is a game, she needs to be a better player.

What has sustained me the most in these last several years is the on-the-ground work of the activists, in Democratic Socialists of America and other groups, who have been making victories like Ocasio-Cortez’s possible. I’m confident that those folks are talking to her now about getting a better line on this, and I’m more than confident that she has the political skills to get it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when there were left Democrats, in Congress, who had strong anti-imperialist politics and positions. There were even parts of the Left — particularly the black left — that were critical of Israel at a fundamental level. They didn’t get there from nowhere. They weren’t better people. There was simply more of a movement, in the streets and at the grassroots, articulating and developing those positions. There is no reason we can’t do the same. I’m confident we will.


Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict About Religion? Not Really, But it is Implicated

People often refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “war over God.” It’s easy for the casual observer to assume that the conflict is defined by Judaism or Islam. My response is always that it is not a war over God, but a conflict over land and national rights. But I always add that religion is “implicated” in the conflict. The Israelis and Palestinians are not arguing directly about God but religion hovers in the background and very often informs attitudes and beliefs. Moreover, religion has contributed to cultural differences that have evolved over the generations and play a role in the conflict. Let’s examine the role of religion a little more closely because religion is important to the conflict.

Religion is central to the identities of both sides and must be respected as a part of any solution, and there are unique qualities of Islam and Judaism that motivate conflict actors. Both religions have apocalyptic elements – although more so for Islam – that are responsible for extreme behaviors and make any sort of permanent peace elusive. Some orthodox and Zionist extremists have begun to see themselves as defenders of the state along with sanctifying the land such that the presence of any foreign groups is considered a transgression. Clearly aspects of Islam have triumphalist visions that define Israel as an illegitimate state built on Islamic holy land. Both sides talk about liberating the land for religious reasons and this further exacerbates the intensity and significance of the conflict.

Manipulative and unsubstantiated religious claims – for example, the Jews want to destroy the al Aqsa mosque and build the third temple on the site – circulate in the population and increase the amount of distorted information and inflamed opinions. And, of course, Jews draw on their own history of vulnerability and fear that Islam wants to annihilate them.

Given this attitude that the presence of another religion on what is considered land given to a people by God is a religious transgression, then peace is by definition impossible if it includes any sense of sharing the land or living together.

Religion is also used as an answer to social ills. In the Arab world in particular Islam, and especially radical Islam, becomes an answer for political and economic failures. The failing economic conditions encourage more religious-based politics reinforcing blame on the other side.

Imagine trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not understanding the religious foundations of the settlers in the West Bank or the status of Jerusalem. The settlers believe they are restoring biblical Israel in preparation for the Messiah, and Jerusalem is the site of many holy places for both Islam and Judaism. These two issues are good examples of how religion is implicated in the conflict. In fact, in the case of settlers and the status of Jerusalem the issue of religion is pretty clear.

Culture, religion, and politics share overlapping identities for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any one individual might privilege one identity over the other, but all three are present at both the individual and group conflict level.





How Group Membership Distorts Political Thinking

Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.

Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.

One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the results of objective consideration and analysis.

Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.

Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.

Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.

The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.










Of Embassies in Jerusalem

Jerusalem continues its long tradition of political energy, religious intensity, and misunderstanding. Having just returned from a couple of months in Jerusalem (a little work, a little play), my sense of the political history and tensions continues to evolve. For example, I’m increasingly convinced that the contrasting narratives between Israelis and Palestinians – that is, contrasting historical narratives for starters – is so fundamental to the issues that I believe both sides should share the study of history in as intense a manner as possible with the goal of coming to some convergence.

It’s easy enough to cite clear contrasting examples of how the reality of history lives in the language of the two sides. Even the simple distinction between Israeli “Independence Day” and the “Nakba” speaks to the incommensurability the two sides struggle with. We saw this today acted out in the dedication ceremony of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. One side is celebrating the life of the state, and dressed as if it were Derby day, and the other side is dying because of it.

Let’s try a little history and see where reasoning our way forward gets us. We will try to stay as close to the facts as possible: The United Nations partition plan in 1947 designated Jerusalem and its holy sites as Corpus Separatum. This means it was a separate international entity under the auspices of the United Nations and not under the control of either side. So there is clear recognition that Jerusalem was special and should be the subject of negotiations and agreements between the two sides. After the war of ‘48 East Jerusalem came under Jordanian control. There was no mention of West Jerusalem, but Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem a fundamental part of Jewish history. The centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people is not a difficult argument to make, but this does not deny that other people lived there and were displaced by the war. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 62% of Jerusalem a Jewish.

But Israel was attacked in 1967 and maintains that war and such attacks disqualify previous agreements such as the agreement to consider Jerusalem Corpus Separatum. This is typically true but modern international law seeks to maintain a strong moral force by refusing to recognize countries that acquire land through violence. This is a point of contention between those who argue that Israel has a right to East Jerusalem and conquered pre-1967 territory. After the 1967 war Israel began building large Jewish neighborhoods on land that had been designated as “occupied” and not legitimately acquired. This is an extension of the point above concerning how property is acquired legitimately during times of political conflict and war.

Israel then did two things that have been the source of problems and criticism. Their justification remains a matter of perspective depending on how you believe the land was acquired – legitimately or not. The first thing Israel did was invoke a complex system of citizenship and national identity. This has led to the unfortunate and unjustified apartheid claim, which causes more problems than it solves. The second thing Israel did was remove about 70,000 Palestinians from their homes which again continues to burn deeply into Palestinian consciousness. It has been the chief focal point around claims of “return” in the entire discourse of longing for a lost and cheated land.

The Palestinians argue that Israel has violated international law, and the Israelis claim that international law no longer applies. Thus, we have the historical loggerhead. Moving the embassy must satisfy historical differences and maintain the two-state solution. It should be clear that the Embassy in West Jerusalem does not preclude a future Palestinian Embassy in East Jerusalem. If and when the day comes that these two historic enemies come to terms it is possible for both of them to have capitals in Jerusalem.



Middle East Braces for a Tense May

Palestinian protesters burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza Israeli border east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018, the second of two border marches. April 13 marks a third week in a row the area has seen violence. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90

Palestinian protesters burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza Israeli border east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018, the second of two border marches. April 13 marks a third week in a row the area has seen violence. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90

The coming month of May looks set to contain an unusual number of potential escalation points that could converge to create a highly explosive month.

I have been floating the dangerous prediction that violence is going to erupt in the Middle East in some capacity. I think the analysis below makes the case.

The Israeli defense establishment is dealing with several pending potential flashpoints, including an Iranian threat to revenge a missile attack on an air base in Syria that was housing several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers; a decision by the Trump administration on whether to cancel or amend the nuclear deal with Iran; weekly Hamas-led mass marches on the Gaza-Israel border on Fridays that continue to escalate; the celebration of Jerusalem Day; the expected move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and the Palestinian day of mourning over the establishment over Israel’s independence, known as Nakba [“Catastrophe”] Day.

Collectively, these incidents have the potential to escalate various fronts at the same time, such as Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the territories, in addition to Israel’s north, with a Russian, Iranian and even Turkish presence ensconced in Syria.“The month of May does indeed contain within it more than a few challenges that can change the face of the area in a manner that will obligate us to update some our current policies,” Brig. Gen. (Res) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau of at the Prime Minister’s office, told JNS.

As a result, the defense establishment will need to analyze the potential developments and their scope, and on that basis, prepare options that will remain at Israel’s disposal, he added.

“In some of the cases, these are small changes that influence the short term, and in others, the potential is more significant,” said Nuriel.

He described the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem as an event with short-term influence that may spark violence, but which will likely be temporary, “or at least will not fuel [other] violent incidents.”

Upcoming elections in Lebanon, he said, “actually create new opportunities.” And the pending decision by U.S. President Donald Trump over Iran “could change the rules of the game in the region,” he added.

‘A clear anti-Israel strategy’

Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior scholar the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, said “the next weeks will represent one of the most explosive regional situations that involve Israel. The most serious one is the attempt by Iran to take advantage of the victory of the Assad regime in its fight against the rebels, a victory to which Iran and its proxies—Hezbollah and the various Shia militias—have had a major role.”

The Russian air campaign was the decisive factor that allowed an Iranian-led victory on the ground in Syria. Now, the Iranian axis and Russia depend on one another—meaning that Russia cannot accept an all-out Israeli war on Iranian forces and proxies, cautioned Karmon.

“The political solution [in Syria] that the Russians dream of also depends, in great measure, on Iranian good will,” he explained. “Tehran, therefore, seems to have decided to continue its strategy” of planting itself in Syria, which itself is part of “a clear anti-Israeli strategy, threatening it from the Syrian and Lebanese borders.”

Karmon warned that Iran’s conflict with Israel is “inevitable” as long as Jerusalem remains convinced that it cannot tolerate the formation of such a severe and direct threat on its northern border, and as long as it continues to “act accordingly, mainly through its air force.”

He noted that “Israel has behaved according to the very clear red lines made public by its military and political leaders, and seems determined to continue.”

Tehran, meanwhile, must also factor in the arrival of a more anti-Iranian White House team. All of these factors are part of the buildup to Trump’s “fateful decision” on May 12 regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as “the unpredictable results of his negotiation with the North Korean dictator, which could directly impact Iran,” assessed Karmon.

An apparent decision by Russia to provide the Assad regime with its advanced S-300 air-defense system is contributing to the instability, he argued. The transfer of this military hardware risks a confrontation with Israel, he said, although “based on a historical perspective, Israel has always found technological and operational solutions to advanced Russian weapons systems.

The Palestinian arena is heating up

Meanwhile, Karmon said, several factors are conspiring to make the Palestinian arena more explosive, including Hamas’s weakness in the face of the Palestinian Authority and its growing regional isolation.

“This situation could get out of control at some point on the border with Gaza, but not in a manner that could threaten Israel strategically, except in the public diplomacy arena,” he said.

However, an escalation of the situation in Gaza could trigger an Iranian move designed to extricate the Iranians from the Israeli challenge in Syria. The Israeli-Iranian tensions remain “the most serious trigger for a direct confrontation in the short term,” stated Karmon.

Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that he does expect May to be an “intensive month” with some potential for violence, but added that the chances of it leading to a major armed conflict remained low.

In this region, he said, “explosiveness is not new. I certainly see a potential for the eruption of pinpoint clashes and intensive verbal wars, but not a regional war.”

The reason for this, explained Rabi, is that “no side will emerge with gains from a regional clash or a full-scale war between Iran and Israel. Assad could lose his seat of power; the Russians would not be able to realize their achievements in Syria; Iran is unable to allow itself to get caught up in an adventure that will further destabilize the regime at home; and Israel, too, has no interest in such a war.

“As a result,” continued the academic, “we will see more of the same—meaning what we have had in recent months will continue into the month of May. Perhaps at a higher intensity, but not beyond that.”

From Jewish News Service

April 26, 2018

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