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That's a Weekly Wrap-Up
Notes written in haste after a reading
This afternoon, I did a Zoom-based reading of a new screenplay of mine with a bunch of phenomenal actors, and it was both exhilarating and draining. It is always discombobulating for me to hear my own words read aloud, even though that is the entire point of writing a script. I get the sense of being disembodied, or of experiencing bilocation. Those are my words. Why are they coming out of someone else’s mouth? Add to that the terror of revealing myself (because if I've done even a halfway decent job of writing, it should be riskily revelatory), and not before an invisible audience but before people who I invited to see this spiritual strip-tease, and will be critiquing my every move, well, I hope it’s understandable that my brain stopped functioning properly some time ago.
All of which is to say that I apologize for what will undoubtedly be a terse and somewhat scatterbrained wrap up of the week.
Also, if anyone reading this is or knows someone who is interested in producing or otherwise backing a Mike-Nichols-esque low-budget independent feature film, please do get in touch.
One More Round With Israel/Palestine
My column at The Week this week elaborated on the tweet thread that I linked to in last week’s wrap up. I honed in on the difference between the clashes between Israel and Gaza, and those within Israel proper. The former was triggered by an attempt by Hamas to claim ownership of the latter (that’s why Hamas fired its barrage of rockets), but the latter is what matters more in terms of the future of Israel.
[T]he conflict within Israel's cities is of a very different character. It was spontaneous and unorganized, fueled by viral social media but rooted in deeper grievances. Some of those grievances are explicitly related to the occupation of the West Bank and the encirclement of Gaza, but many are related to the inferior status of Arab citizens within Israel: In terms of funding for social needs and economic development, which has always left the Arab sector shortchanged; in terms of relations with the police, who are rarely present either to keep the peace or fight organized crime, but who respond swiftly and repressively to protest; and, most fundamentally, in terms of representation in government.
Part of Hamas' motivation in launching its attacks was precisely to lay claim to those grievances; to declare, in so many words, that it is the only defender that Arab citizens of Israel truly have. The extreme right within Israel has been eager to agree, which is why mobs of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories have traveled to cities like Lod to beat up random Arab residents. Caught in the crossfire are those, like Mohammad Darawshe, who have been persistent advocates of coexistence and peaceful change. That's not an accident; it's the goal.
The question is whether it is the goal of Israel's government, or of those who would lead its government. In particular, the question is whether Naftali Bennett wants to distinguish himself from the hooligans, or whether he wants to associate himself with them. Does he see Israel's Arab citizenry as a fifth column working for an enemy that must be suppressed? Or does he see them as a segment of the electorate with whom he disagrees about deep ideological questions but whose legitimate grievances deserve to be addressed within the political system? Does he aim to be the prime minister of Israel? Or the prime minister of Jewish Israel?
Israel’s Arab professional class has actually done very well in recent years, progressing economically, rising through the ranks in medicine, law and business, becoming more visible. Its Arab working class has experienced much more stagnation and neglect. These are “normal” problems that would have political ramifications in any country that might surprise people who spend most of their time among the professional classes (see, e.g., the increased vote for Trump in 2020 among non-whites, particularly Hispanic voters and very much including Hispanic women). But in Israel’s political system, the Arab parties have been systematically excluded from participation in government.
That looked like it was about to change before the recent violence, and I very sincerely hope that the violence doesn’t materially set back the calendar for the breaking of that particular taboo. Working out a modus vivendi between a majority and a minority in a state with a significant national minority like Israel requires politics, and you can’t do politics if you rule certain perspectives that command substantial support out of political bounds.
On Here, meanwhile, I wrote about the recent conflict in Israel/Palestine from a different perspective—that of America. There’s a widespread tendency to overstate America’s importance to the conflict—to overstate how vital our support is to Israel’s security and to overstate how much influence we might have over Israel’s approach to its own core interests. I think both sides are basically wrong about this:
Yes, Israel receives a lot of American support—but Israel is probably less dependent on American largesse than it has ever been, not only because of the strength of its economy and military but because of its steadily improving relations with numerous other countries. (Indeed, America’s support for Israel has gotten stronger as Israel’s position has strengthened, not the other way around.) But regardless, at the end of the day Israel is going to calculate its own interests the way it sees them, not the way America sees them, and the value of American support is not at the top of the Israeli hierarchy of interests, anymore than it was at the top of Pakistan’s. That doesn’t mean we have no influence at all. It just means being realistic about what our influence really buys us, particularly when it comes to what Israel itself sees as its core interests. If support isn’t buying us the policy change we want, that might be a reason to wonder if support is worth the cost, but it’s unlikely that punitive measures will be more effective. The case for distancing from Israel, then, is not that we could thereby force Israel to drastically reassess their policies, but that America would be better off not being associated with Israel’s policies even if, as a result of our distancing, those policies became worse, from either a moral perspective or from the perspective of American interests.
I think this applies equally well but in a different way to the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel. I think it’s folly to think that a strong relationship with Israel can in any sense “save” the American Jewish community, and I think it’s also folly to think that anything American Jews say or do will have any profound influence over Israel’s policies or its culture (except inasmuch as it influences American culture, which of course exerts enormous influence around the world). The reason to cultivate a strong relationship between American Jewry and Israel is for its own sake; families ought at a minimum to be on speaking terms, ideally to be involved in one another’s lives. But ultimately, you live in the community where you live, and living in a fantasy world of elsewhere is not a mentally healthy lifestyle.
That’s the heart, ultimately, of my answer to people like Eric Levitz when they say stuff like this:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t just concern American Jews because some of us have friends and family in the region. Even among those with no such kin ties, Israel can be fundamental to ethnic and self-identity. This is true of anti-Zionists and Likudniks alike. Whether the weight of Jewish heritage leads one to embrace ardent nationalism or disavow ethnocentrism, Israel is the theater of conflict over which conception of Jewishness is correct; or, to put a finer point on it, over how the suffering of one’s forebears can be redeemed.
Forgive me for being blunt, but from where I sit simply by choosing not to move to Israel, you have already made the decision not to contribute to the redemption of your forebears’ suffering through Zionism, and that is totally fine and normal. Nor is Israel a “theater of conflict” over any kind of conception of Jewishness. Israel is a fact, an accomplishment of Zionism that was already achieved in the past. The point of Zionism was precisely to make of the Jews a “normal” nation, the kind that sometimes oppresses other nations. If you live in Israel, and are horrified by that behavior, then you may well feel a moral obligation to act on it. But if you don’t, then on a certain level you’ve already made your choice.
Americans of Ethiopian extraction may well feel shame or pride in the behavior of the Ethiopian government or the achievements of the Ethiopian people, and may follow events in Ethiopia closely. They may even vote based on what our government does vis-a-vis Ethiopia. But they are unlikely to presume to have a special obligation to weigh in on the behavior of that government, to take its moral burdens as their own, either in defense thereof or in critique. And that is absolutely an option for American Jews as well; indeed, it is the option that is most in-tune with the fact that we live in another country. Learning the language, history and culture of Israel, regardless of one’s religious views, are a way to be in touch with one’s heritage, with the only living “old country” that most American Jews have, just as it is for Americans of Greek or Chinese descent. But don’t expect the country to represent you, or for you to represent it.
Of course, Israel’s actions can have an impact on Jews in America and elsewhere outside of Israel. One collateral consequence of the fighting in Israel/Palestine is a rise in antisemitic acts—in Europe, in Canada, in the U.S., and elsewhere. I think that’s terrible—but also completely predictable. It shouldn’t be ignored, and it also shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. But it’s also worth pointing out that such incidents were at historic highs before the latest fighting. We’re living through an era of increasing intolerance. That’s one reason I also don’t think the rise in antisemitism should be hived off into a separate category from a rise in other kinds of hate crime, e.g. the surge in attacks on Asian Americans, which have also been committed across a variety of racial and ethnic lines.
But mostly I agree with this thread:
Other Stuff On Here
Apart from the piece about America’s relationship with Israel and how much influence we actually have, I wrote two other pieces for the Substack this week:
I speculated about whether East Asia’s overall outperformance of the entire western world in battling COVID was in part due to having faced a milder form of the disease than what ultimately evolved in Europe and spread from there to North and South America.
I mused about the importance of ambiguity in liturgical matters, of saying things that we can keep saying, and saying together, because their meanings are malleable enough to survive sometimes radical changes of context and temperament.
The World Elsewhere
The Big Test. As noted up top, my brain has been melted by preparing for and then doing this reading! So I’ll just recommend reading Matt Yglesias and Freddie DeBoer on the accelerating push to deemphasize the SAT and other standardized tests in college admissions. I tend to suspect this kind of thing will be self-correcting to some degree; institutions that buck the tide and make heavy use of those tests will gain a reputation for that fact among employers, and that should feed back into the behavior of other schools. Besides which, I think there’s real value to diversity between institutions; I’m not an educational nihilist so I think schools with significantly different cultures can serve a genuinely diverse population better.
But if you believe that getting rid of the SAT at highly competitive schools is a good way to reduce inequality, you’ve probably got it backwards. The SAT is a useful tool for making the meritocracy a little less inbred. That’s of limited importance to overall social and economic inequality.