Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

July 14, 2024

Targeting America


By David K. Shipler 

              The bullet just grazed Donald Trump, but it struck the heart of America.

At a moment of critical care for a suffering democracy, the assassination attempt last night in Pennsylvania further weakens the stamina of an ailing culture of pluralistic politics. It adds toxins to the chemistry of the country. It has already provoked blame rather than introspection. Instead of strengthening Americans’ bonds of common citizenship, as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy did sixty years ago, this near miss will only deepen the divisions. It will be taken to justify the rage, hatred, and passion for revenge that Trump himself has fostered.

Moreover, it is hard to see how that apostle of autocracy fails to get elected in November. This bolsters the image of macho victimhood he has promoted, an ironic way of channeling the alienation and sense of helplessness felt by millions of white working-class voters who adore him. He was a cult figure before and now, in near martyrdom, he perfects the performance. Before allowing Secret Service agents to move him to safety, he needs to play his part, so he tells them, “Wait,” is helped to his feet, his bloody ear now visible as he raises his fist and apparently shouts, “Fight!”  And fight they will, in one way or another.

This Sunday morning, there have undoubtedly been preachers crediting God, as Trump did in a post, for making the bullets narrowly miss. Some of his followers believe he has been divinely assigned to lead the nation, and this will be taken to prove their case. And there have surely been preachers admonishing their congregations to seek reconciliation, to gaze inward, to love the other, to examine themselves for the wrongs that they and the broader society must right.

The sermons on taking responsibility and seeking healing and listening to the other side will not make the front pages, sadly. They will not generate a lot of followers on social media or even find their way into most politicians’ stump speeches on the campaign trail. Senator J. D. Vance, a possible vice-presidential candidate, instantly blamed President Biden’s harsh rhetoric against Trump for a shooting whose motives were still unknown. Vance didn’t mention Trump’s years of violent rhetoric, of course, or his vitriol loosening the restraints of civil order, culminating in the January 6, 2021 invasion of the Capitol by his violent supporters.

That’s the nature of American political leadership today. Some of the worst people rise to some of the highest levels.

What Trump and his Republican acolytes—including those on the Supreme Court—fail to realize is that whatever they unleash in governmental power or private aggression can be used by the left as well as the right. In other words, the authors themselves can someday be the targets. In her dissent from the Court’s recent grant of broad presidential immunity against criminal prosecution, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that a president could now “order the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival” and avoid prosecution. Her hypothesis, signed by the three liberal justices, drew no distinction between a Republican or a Democratic president.

At this writing, the public knows little about the alleged shooter, Thomas Matthew Crooks, who was killed by the Secret Service. He was white and apparently not an immigrant, so Trumpists won’t be able to blame all people of color and all immigrants, as many (Trump included) are wont to do for the ills of the country. He was not a member of Seal Team 6, evidently, so Biden’s off the hook for using his newfound powers from the Supreme Court. Crooks was reportedly a registered Republican who gave a small contribution a Democratic cause, so take your choice about his reasons for wanting to take Trump out.

Unless his online posts, friends, and family offer insights, a vacuum of information on his disturbed thinking will allow room for fantastic conspiracy theories. Those will further deteriorate the health of the society, and a society’s health depends on how self-corrective it is, especially in a moment of crisis.

It doesn’t look good for the United States. In this heated atmosphere, political violence begets more political violence. It would not be amazing for some of Trump’s militant supporters to take up arms against any target they deem worthy of their attention. Trump has called for unity but not peace. He might be incapable of preaching nonviolence to those who love him and value his raised fist. We’ll see.

What does appear reliably predictable is that a weak-looking, impaired Joe Biden cannot win over Trump. If Biden remains the candidate, Trump will be inaugurated next January. And at that moment, the world’s three most powerful countries will be led by criminals. Granted, only one will have been convicted. But Xi Jinping of China for his persecution of the Uighurs and Vladimir Putin of Russia for his war of atrocities in Ukraine certainly deserve prosecution. If you think of Trump’s crimes as minor, just wait.

The bullet that Trump heard whizzing past his ear? We all heard it as it found its mark.

July 9, 2024

America's Gathering Storm


By David K. Shipler 

              It’s too bad that Supreme Court justices and other government leaders aren’t required to live for two or three years in some dictatorship before they take office in the United States. Better yet, in one of the countries that have used democracy to undermine democracy. Then perhaps they would recognize the signs of a gathering storm, when the friction of the air seems to change and the wind turns ominous.

              The Supreme Court and the Republican Party are laying the ground for autocracy. They are corrupting the constitutional interplay among the three branches of government, among the shared and competing interests in a complex society, and therefore among the rulers and the ruled.

              The Republicans have abdicated the key role that political parties must play in every free society—filtering out extremist demagogues. And the radical right on the Supreme Court has now granted broad immunity to presidents who commit crimes with “official acts.” This junction of political and judicial mischief could not come at a more perilous time, with a Republican authoritarian poised to return to the presidency carrying a coherent ideological blueprint he did not have in hand his first time around. He would commit felonies against democracy virtually unfettered. This is the perfect storm.

One has to assume (though perhaps wrongly) that Chief Justice John Roberts and his right-wing followers on the Court do not understand fully what they are doing. One would like to believe that if they and their comrades in the Republican Party had even a passing knowledge of other countries’ tragic descent into authoritarianism, they would desist. They would realize that when they strip away restraints on a president, a future left-wing leader could also use the new latitude to dictatorial ends. Indeed, President Biden could do so today. We are lucky that he is not so inclined.

In insular America, cautionary tales from abroad are rarely noticed, it seems. Donald Trump and his collaborators are following the authoritarian playbook used to convert pluralistic political systems to autocracies in Hungary, Venezuela, and elsewhere as described by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard in their book, How Democracies Die.

They note that while military coups were responsible for establishing most despotic regimes  during the Cold War, “There is another way to break a democracy,” which has since grown more prevalent than military takeovers. “Democracies die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power,” they write. Dismantling democracy can be rapid, as under Hitler in 1933, but more often “democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” (Listen to an interview with Levitsky here.)

After winning free elections in Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chavez arrested opposition politicians and judges, closed a major TV station, and abolished presidential term limits so he could rule indefinitely. But 51 percent of Venezuelans polled several years later rated their democracy 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10.

Viktor Orban of Hungary began as a liberal democrat and morphed into a semi-autocrat. He packed the Constitutional Court by expanding its members from 8 to 15 and changed the rules so his party could appoint judges unilaterally. “After winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010,” Levitsky and Ziblatt note, “the ruling Fidesz party used its supermajority to rewrite the constitution and electoral laws to lock in its advantage” through gerrymandering and banning campaign ads in any but the government-run TV station.

Trump loves Orban. Hosting him at Mar-a-Lago, Trump indulged in a rhapsody of praise: “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orb├ín. He’s fantastic.”

Manipulating elections, suppressing the media, and coopting the courts are elements in undermining the democratic process. The dynamics of democracy can suffer not only by strengthening the executive branch beyond accountability but also by concentrating authority in any one branch to the detriment of the others.

Judge David Tatel, recently retired from the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sees the Supreme Court executing a massive power shift to the judiciary from the elected branches—Congress and the presidency. The new restrictions on regulatory agencies are the most dramatic examples, because government regulation of private industry is anathema to the Republican-appointed justices.

The decision on presidential immunity also reworks the lines of authority. Tatel told me in a recent conversation that he thought it would now be highly difficult for the executive’s Justice Department to prosecute former presidents. Even though they can be charged with crimes involving “unofficial acts,” or some “official acts” that are not core constitutional powers, no evidence can be admitted that touches on their official duties or motives. That unprecedented exclusion, an invention of the Republican-dominated Court, would hobble the executive branch of its normal function to bring criminal charges.

In his opinion for a 6-3 majority, Roberts suggests that the immunity will protect presidents from political prosecutions by successors, which is exactly what Trump ridiculously claims is happening to him in the four criminal cases he faces. Revenge trials of former leaders are artifacts of crude autocracies, never seen in the U.S.—but apparently conceivable to a highly politicized Court.

Taken together, giving the president freedom to commit crimes but not to protect the public from corporate-created hazards might seem contradictory. But the right-wing justices are only hypocritical, turning on their principle of enhancing the power structure at the expense of the little guy. It’s amazing that millions of little guys vote for this.   

In a series of rulings curtailing the regulatory powers of government agencies, the Court has arrogated to itself the prerogative of micro-managing detailed, technical rules across the entire scope of protections established by decades of developing expertise. Last month the Court threw out a 40-year-old precedent set in Chevron vs. Natural Resources Defense Council that required courts to give deference to expert agencies where Congressional legislation was ambiguous. That respect for expertise in a highly technical world of rapid change had allowed regulations to keep pace with evolving science and engineering.

Tatel saw this coming, having closely watched the Court and having seen some of his key decisions overruled by “conservative,” Republican-appointed justices.  “Anyone concerned with the environment—or with safe medicines, unadulterated food, or cars that drive safely—has very good reason to worry about where this Supreme Court is headed,” he writes in his book, Vision: A Memoir of Blindness and Justice. (Listen to interviews with him here.)

Both new regulations and old will come under the Court’s microscope. It has effectively assigned itself the power to review any existing regulation, even those long in force, by revising the statute of limitations. The Court has ruled that the clock starts running not with the regulation’s adoption but with the injury to the particular party. So a business can be created to violate a rule and then sue, no matter that countless businesses before have been governed by the regulation for many years.

This canny twist illustrates that while the Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court might be ignorant of many things—including the course of incipient dictatorship—they are not stupid. They went to the best law schools. Their clerks are graduates of elite institutions. They know how to fashion an opinion by beginning where they want to end up and working backwards to concoct the justifications. They are intellectually dishonest and, at the same time, smart in a narrow and self-interested way. Honest history will not judge the judges kindly.

May 9, 2024

Israel vs. Hamas: "Whose Side Are You On?"


By David K. Shipler 

                On Monday, October 9, two days after the assault by Hamas on innocent civilians in Israel, Kalpana Shipler was asked by a fellow student at her public high school in Washington, D.C., “Whose side are you on?” That was the question being tossed around by multiple teenagers to one another as Israel began bombing Gaza in retaliation. And that seems to be the question dividing college campuses and mobilizing protests, corrupting the capacity to analyze complexity. If you are forced to pick sides, you miss the tangles of guilt that have bound Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs for decades.

                Kalpana didn’t fall into the trap, I am proud to say as her grandfather. She was wise enough at age 15 to resist an instant answer, to know that she didn’t know, a rare skill in today’s America. She deferred to the cause of learning.

                Luckily, young people coming of age are not yet jaded. Shocked by the scenes of devastation and starvation in Gaza, students have acted on a purity of outrage, pushing the envelope of accepted rhetoric and calling to account their own country, Israel’s major supporter.

Yet the impulse to pick a side, as if war were a football game, has an unhealthy feature. It concentrates the blame, villainizing one adversary and idealizing the other. The dichotomy was prevalent among some activists who justifiably protested the U.S. war in Vietnam and decried our ally’s (South Vietnam’s) assaults on human rights, while regarding North Vietnam and the Vietcong as the only authentic patriots, skipping over the North’s tighter dictatorship and the VC’s brutality.

                A similar intellectual and moral flaw runs through the current protests over the Gaza war, in which Israel is supposedly “a monopoly of violence,” in the words of a Cornell professor. Palestinians through Hamas, which strives to replace the Jewish state with an Islamic state, are portrayed as exercising their anti-colonialist rights to liberty. Sometimes—only sometimes—vilification of the Jewish state has crossed into vilification of Jews, raising the stench of antisemitism in the “pro-Palestinian” encampments. They might be called “antiwar” encampments if they actually opposed war, if they protested not only against the atrocities Israel has committed in an effort to stamp out Hamas—the vast bombing, the barriers to food and medical care—but also against the intimate atrocities by Hamas—the rapes, torture, mutilation, and kidnappings—which unleashed this fighting.

It was astonishing to see 33 Harvard student organizations sign onto a statement issued by the Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee immediately after October 7 holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Seriously? “Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement declared. “The apartheid regime is the only one to blame. Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinians existence for 75 years. . . Palestinians have been forced to live in a sate of death, both slow and sudden.”

                 So spoke some of the purportedly smartest people of the next generation. One can imagine them delighting in their incisive brilliance as they looked past the Hamas violence into its roots. Fine. There is never a vacuum. There are causes of every effect. However, to turn back only one page in a long history of mutual victimization demonstrates a laziness of mind or, perhaps, a mind indoctrinated.

If you are pro-Israel, do you leave out the thuggish gangs of Jewish settlers terrorizing and assaulting West Bank Palestinians? If you are pro-Palestinian, do you omit Israel’s military withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Palestinian self-government under Hamas arming itself and rocketing Israel? If you are pro-Israel, do you leave out the stifling border controls that suffocated Gaza’s development and fostered poverty? If you root only for the Palestinians, do you ignore the Hamas suicide bombers sent against Jews two decades ago to torpedo the growing Israeli acceptance of Palestinian statehood?

In your journey back in time, do you stop before Arab armies attacked the fledgling Jewish state? Do you stop before the Israelis’ expulsion of Arabs from their home villages before and during Israel’s 1948 war of independence? Do you stop before the earlier Arab assaults on religious Jewish communities in the Holy Land or, on the other side, the Jewish assaults on Arab civilians there? Do you stop before the Holocaust? Before the pogroms of Europe, which so traumatized the Jewish people that its reverberations still ring today?

If you are looking for the original sin in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, keep going, and going, and going until you come to realize that both sides are victims. This is not moral equivalence. This is suffering that is particular to each people, not to be measured or weighed, but—if you want to campaign against war—to be acknowledged. As an Israeli said to me long ago, putting two victims together is like mixing fire and kerosene.

Victimhood confers an illusion of moral immunity. “The sense of victimhood is functional for a nation that is involved in an ongoing bloody conflict,” wrote the Israeli thinkers Daniel Bar-Tal and Elkiva Eldar in the newspaper Haaretz. “It shapes the perception of the threatening situation against the cruel enemy and provides moral justification for harming it unrestrainedly and without mercy. Victimhood distinguishes between us and the Palestinians and provides a sense of moral superiority and permission to dehumanize them. . . . Victimhood severs the society from a sense of guilt and leaves room only for feelings of anger and revenge.”

The same might be said of the Palestinian side.

So, how does complexity figure into the student-led protests? It doesn’t. Demonstrations don’t do nuance. They are meant to be categorical and dogmatic. They are not dispassionate classroom exercises in the ambiguities and contradictions of history, politics, and warfare. They are meant to galvanize, excite, force change, and call on the clarity of conscience. They don’t even have to be practical, as in thinking that university divestments from companies doing business in Israel, one of their demands, will tip Israel’s policies. What could tip Israel’s policies, imposing a modicum of restraint, are the Biden Administration’s recent delay in certain weapons shipments, steps that might have been propelled partly by those students on the quads and greens.

The campus protests have amplified the growing American disaffection with Israel’s unvarnished brutality against Palestinians in Gaza, Israeli excuses and rationalizations notwithstanding. Yes, Hamas uses civilians as shields and shelters fighters in networks of tunnels, some under hospitals. Does that justify attacking the civilian shields and devastating hospitals? Yes, Hamas smuggles weaponry into Gaza. Does that justify restricting trucks of food and medical supplies destined for children, women, the elderly? The “pro-Palestinian” protesters would presumably say no. “Antiwar” protesters would presumably hold both sides in contempt.

            In true antiwar demonstrations, the symbols, the pieces of colored cloth woven into specific patterns, might be carried together. In true antiwar protests, wartime grief would be common ground. The Palestinian and Israeli flags might be intertwined, perhaps even tangled. Some demonstrators might want to burn them, as some Vietnam era antiwar protesters burned the American flag. But then, some leaders of the that antiwar movement thought it would be a more poignant symbol to wash the flag. What if both Israeli and Palestinian flags were washed in the middle of a college green?

March 6, 2024

The War of Atrocities


By David K. Shipler 

            In a grisly coincidence, the UN within 24 hours has documented two outrages of the Israel-Gaza war that will permanently scar the lives of those who survive: Sexual crimes by Hamas, which probably continue against young Israeli women who are still hostages. And severe malnutrition among tens of thousands of Palestinian children, some at critical stages of brain development.

A team headed by the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict confirmed most earlier reports of sexual assaults by Hamas fighters who invaded Israel from Gaza on October 7. But in addition, the UN task force found “clear and convincing information that sexual violence, including rape, sexualized torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment occurred against some women and children during their time in captivity and has reasonable grounds to believe that this violence may be ongoing.” The team did not say, but everyone knows, that the deep trauma suffered by such victims is likely to be ongoing as well, perhaps lifelong.

In what might aptly be called divine injustice, the hostages taken October 7, and evidently still being held, include seven young female soldiers from the Nahal Oz military base, an intelligence hub. Women agents there had picked up strong indicators of the coming Hamas attack and repeatedly urged their male superior officers—in vain—to take preventive action.

Whether the hostages are the same women who sounded the alarm is not publicly known, but they are from the same unit. That they should suffer such intimate brutality because they or their colleagues were ignored ought to haunt the incompetent government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its somnolent security apparatus. Furthermore, Israeli officials have reportedly worried that Hamas would rather kill the women than release them to tell the world of their torment.

At the same time, the UN’s World Health Organization has warned that famine is “almost inevitable,” and reported this week that 10 children in northern Gaza had died of starvation. Israel’s retaliatory strategy of cutting off Gaza’s two million Palestinians from most supplies of food, water, electricity, and medical care has taken a severe toll on health, even as sporadic, inadequate aid shipments and air drops have been permitted. Eventually, famine and disease are expected to cause at least as many casualties as the 30,000 deaths Hamas has reported from Israeli bombing and ground fighting.

Here, too, the unseen impacts are inevitable. Just as post-traumatic stress disorder is a lasting condition for survivors of sexual torture, the cognitive damage to children suffering malnutrition is likely to be lifelong. (Why this is not a routine part of the mainstream media’s war reporting is surprising: Neuroscientists have researched it extensively.)

At critical periods of brain development—especially in last two trimesters of pregnancy and the first two to three years of life—the inadequacy of certain nutrients can inhibit the creation of neurons and synapses, of myelin sheaths and the neurological connections that are essential to reasoning, learning, memory, and behavior in adulthood.

For at least half a century, scientists have been documenting how the developing brain suffers from insufficient iron, iodine, folate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, selenium, and various vitamins, all found in balanced diets of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. The finding is made in study after study, including the succinct warning in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics that, after age two, “the effects of malnutrition on stunting may be irreversible, and some of the functional deficits may become permanent.”

Longitudinal studies have shown the lifelong effects. Seventy-seven infants in Barbados, for example, hospitalized with protein deficiency, then received nutritious food between the ages of one and twelve. Nevertheless, in their thirties, they had compromised “verbal fluency, working memory, processing speed, and visuospatial integration” compared to a healthy group from the same classrooms.

Iron deficiency during pregnancy can cause serious damage to the fetus, even if the child gets adequate iron later. Without enough meat, poultry, fish, spinach, or beans, the mother and child can suffer from anemia, which decreases the formation of the myelin sheath, whose fatty matter insulates nerve cells and helps accelerate nerve conduction. Insufficient iron affects the metabolism in the hippocampus, critical for memory, and can lead to low birth rate, which is associated with cerebral palsy and other neurological problems.

Studies following children who were anemic as infants found that years later, in school, they scored lower in math, written expression, motor functioning, spatial memory, and selective recall.

Then, too, hunger—or even the fear of hunger—creates an additional layer of anxiety on top of the terrors of war. Learning disabilities and mental health problems result. “Learning is a discretionary activity, after you’re well-fed, warm, secure,” said Dr. Deborah A. Frank, who founded a malnutrition clinic at the Boston Medical Center.

Persistent, elevated stress hormones have an impact on the size and architecture of the developing brain, a group of scientists reported in 2016, “specifically the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.” Mental health implications abound: people experiencing food insecurity alone, even without warfare, display depression, PTSD, hopelessness, and suicidality.

All this is happening to innocent Palestinian children in Gaza as a result of Israel’s draconian strategy. And that, in turn, is the result of Hamas’s sadistic attacks on innocent Israelis, which struck the country with a novel, pervasive fear of insecurity. And that, in turn is the result of . . . You can spin back through the weary history of that tortured land and try to find the original sin that caused it all. Or you can understand that every effect there has a cause and no untanglement of cause and effect is feasible.

Then, having been foiled by history, you can look to the future and understand that what lies ahead, damaged by the present, will effectively continue the war’s harm for a generation or more—even if a total cease fire were declared today.

December 30, 2023

Religious Absolutism: Isaac and Ishmael


By David K. Shipler 

Also published by Moment Magazine  

If you list the elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you'll see that while most are subject to compromise, one is virtually non-negotiable: religion at its most dogmatic. It has grown more prominent over the decades as devout militants have gained power among both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

Measuring its ultimate influence is difficult, for the dispute is largely secular, and is seen that way by most Israelis and Palestinians, polls show. In theory, the two sides’ overlapping territorial claims, driven by the clash of two nationalisms, could be resolved by drawing reasonable borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. West Bank Jewish settlements could be dismantled and consolidated. Security concerns could be addressed by humane, mutual protections. Jerusalem could be shared. Palestinians could bargain away their “right of return” to former villages inside Israel. The dueling historical narratives of grievance, so central to the conflict’s psychology, might gradually fade as uneasy neighbors learn to coexist. 

                That is all eventually possible, but less likely when each of the issues is salted with the absolutism of divine mission, as certain Israeli and Palestinian leaders are doing. They merge the sacred and the temporal, combine faith with tribal identity, and infuse piety into their peoples’ past grievances and present longings.

 The current example is the war in Gaza. At dawn on October 7, a voice on the Hamas military frequency announced to the fighters: “Rocket barrages are being fired right now at the occupied cities! May God empower and grace the holy warriors!” The man spoke in a pitch of ecstasy, echoed by another’s exultant answer through the static: “The resistance is now inside the occupied territories!”

Allahu Akbar!” (God is most great!) the young Palestinians shouted as they streamed from Gaza through breaches blown in Israel’s border fence, their body cameras recording their fervent chants as they whooped in celebration over Israeli corpses. Each terrorist who died for his faith would earn the honor of being called shaheed (martyr).

Thus began the worst day for Israel in its 75-year existence, inflamed by religious slogans and symbols. Hamas wants to replace the Jewish state with an Islamic state. It named its sadistic attack “Al-Aqsa Flood,” after the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, now in Israel’s capital.

In turn, after the Hamas slaughters that day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced a biblical analogy by likening the Palestinians to Amalek, the ancient nomads whose complete extermination was ordered by God. This seemed to consider the massive assaults on Gaza that followed as divinely blessed. Other religious terms were tossed around. Israeli officials named the artificial intelligence that picked its targets in Gaza “the Gospel.” Netanyahu reportedly proposed naming this “the Genesis War.”

December 10, 2023

Lessons From the College Presidents


By David K. Shipler 

                During a presidential debate in 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis sank his presidential campaign with a clinical, legalistic answer to a question about his wife from reporter Bernard Shaw: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

                Instead of reacting from his gut, Dukakis responded from his head. Instead of exploding first with a vengeful desire to tear the man limb from limb himself, he jumped right to the substantive answer on capital punishment:  “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state. It’s one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America . . .” By that point, if not sooner, millions of voters were incensed by his lack of passion, no matter how legitimate his policy.

                It’s not an exact parallel, but it’s instructive nonetheless in how the three presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania made fools of themselves in last week’s congressional hearing. Excessively prepared by the prominent law firm of WilmerHale, according to The New York Times, they slipped catastrophically into procedural answers during a sequence of prosecutorial questions on whether calls by students for the genocide of Jews would constitute punishable harassment.

                Again, instead of the raw gut reaction of “Yes!” two of them in particular, Elizabeth Magill of Penn (who has since been forced to resign) and Claudine Gay of Harvard, tried to draw a line between speech and conduct. The first is usually protected, the second, often not. They failed to recognize that verbal calls to exterminate Jews, who make up part of their student populations, would at least blur that line and probably erase it entirely.

They may have been complacent about antisemitism on their campuses, as some Jewish students have complained. Or they may have been more sensitive than last week’s blundering made them seem. In any event, cautionary lawyering apparently made them gun-shy about potential free-speech lawsuits from students. The presidents acted as if they were in a courtroom instead of a hearing room. And therein lie some lessons.

1.       Never testify before Congress voluntarily. If you’re not under subpoena, obligated as a government official to appear, or seeking Senate confirmation for a position. Don’t naively imagine that the legislators are inviting you because they are actually seeking information. The Republicans especially want you as a foil to posture, perform, and promote themselves into political orbit.

December 8, 2023

For Israel: A Blank Check or Tangled Strings?


By David K. Shipler 

First published by Moment Magazine 

           This is an awkward time to attach conditions to the generous military aid that the United States provides to Israel. But it should be considered, not only to curb civilian casualties in Gaza, as some Democratic senators wish, but also to curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which have long poisoned prospects for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

           With the exception of the Trump White House, which supported settlements, Republican and Democratic administrations have declared Israel’s settlement policy an obstacle to peace. Yet the U.S. has never used the leverage of the purse to restrain the practice. Since the Oslo accords of 1993, the number of Israeli residents on the West Bank has soared from 110,000 to more than 500,000, the number of settlements from 128 to about 300, now scattered throughout Palestinian areas.

American officials have done little more than complain and wring their hands as Israelis have populated territory that might have formed a Palestinian state, constructing government-subsidized developments whose town houses, schools, synagogues, orchards, factories, and swimming pools have an aura of permanence that belies the term “settlements.” They are satellite cities and sweeping suburbs. They have created such a crazy-quilt of jurisdictions that piecing together territory for Palestinian sovereignty would now require the departure of tens of thousands of Israeli Jews.

Moreover, a thuggish minority of Israeli settlers have tormented their Palestinian neighbors through home invasions and vandalism, destruction of olive groves, and even murder with impunity. They are religio-nationalist zealots operating in a free-wheeling environment of self-righteous extremism. This is not new, just more widespread and unrestrained. It has been going on for at least 40 years, recently escalating to a level attracting international attention as settlers try to terrify Palestinians into fleeing—with some success. At least 11 Arab communities have been emptied so far this year, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a monitoring group of non-governmental organizations funded by ten European countries.

The problem may seem purely political and humanitarian, but it has military consequences for Israel. What happens on the West Bank resonates in Gaza, where Hamas ruled and armed itself for the gruesome slaughters and kidnappings of October 7. The Palestinian prisoners whose release Hamas is obtaining in exchange for hostages are virtually all West Bank residents, arrested by Israeli forces there and often held without charge or trial. By remote control, Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank seem to have contributed to radicalization in Gaza, at least to some degree.

November 20, 2023

Israel's Mission Impossible


By David K. Shipler 

                In October 1953, two days after infiltrators from Jordan threw a grenade into an Israeli home and killed a mother and her two small children, Israeli Unit 101, led by Col. Ariel Sharon, took revenge in a deliberately disproportionate manner.

Crossing into Jordan, the Israeli commandos destroyed some 50 houses and killed 69 civilians in Qibya, a town 5 kilometers south of where the infiltrators’ tracks had led. Sharon claimed that he didn’t know any people were in the houses he blew up, but property damage was hardly the point. “The orders were utterly clear,” Sharon wrote in his autobiography. “Qibya was to be an example for everyone.”

                That was, and remains, Israel’s basic strategy of deterrence: hold the neighbors responsible for the misuse of their territory by hitting back exponentially.  

                The practice has worked, to an extent, as long as the neighbor has been in control. Jordan eventually patrolled its side of the border closely, and the frontier was fairly quiet for decades before the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. The same with Egypt for several years before its formal peace with Israel in 1979. And even without a treaty, Syria has kept its heavily fortified border mostly closed to attacks on Israelis until exchanges of fire recently, during the Gaza war.

                But where the state has been weak or virtually non-existent, as in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, only powerless civilians have a stake in preserving calm or stability. Non-state forces have prevailed—first the Palestine Liberation Organization, then Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza—and Israel’s strategy of fierce retaliation has little effect except to radicalize residents and fuel extremism.

                So it is in Gaza today. Israel’s military withdrawal in 2005 opened a vacuum for Hamas to govern, but its armed passion to obliterate the Jewish state provoked a partial Israeli and Egyptian blockade, deepening poverty and leaving the territory well short of autonomous statehood. Hamas used outside aid to construct tunnels and build an arsenal of weaponry, not to foster prosperous independence that it would want to preserve.

October 19, 2023

The Arsenal of Memory


By David K. Shipler 

First published by Moment Magazine 

                No fabrication or suppression of history is needed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Truths are enough to arm both sides. We are now witnessing additions to the stockpile of weapons in an arsenal of memory that never gets depleted.

                Victims do not forget. Nor do their descendants. When the Palestinian movement Hamas invaded Israel from Gaza to execute its monstrously planned slaughters and kidnappings, the date, October 7, was marked indelibly. Going forward, probably for generations, it will remind Israeli Jews of the grievance and rage that scar their long road. And for Palestinian Arabs, Israel’s coming onslaught on Gaza will reload the batteries of hatred--and what they call “resistance.”

                The two peoples are imprisoned by history. When they argue for themselves and against the other, the past looms. The pogroms in eastern Europe. The Holocaust. The scattered violence by local Arabs against Jews who fled to Palestine. The Arab states’ rejection of a Jewish state, and the 1948 war that Jews had to fight to secure Israel’s existence. The Arab-led wars that followed. The Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings into the heart of daily life.

October 11, 2023

Predicting the Mideast: Prophets and Fools


By David K. Shipler 

                The most obvious prediction this week, after Hamas fighters rolled easily from Gaza into the stunned villages and kibbutzim of Israel, would be this: The sputtering hope for a Palestinian state has been finally extinguished.

Having seen their children, women, and elderly bathed in blood and taken to Gaza as hostages, Israelis will never countenance Palestinian statehood anywhere nearby, not in Gaza and least of all on the West Bank, which is even closer to the heart of the country--literally just down the street from the capital, Jerusalem, and many other towns.

                 Since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from its military occupation of Gaza in 2005, and the subsequent election of Hamas to rule the densely populated territory, the sporadic rockets and infiltrations have undermined Israel’s peace movement’s central concept. That’s been “land for peace,” a belief that once Palestinians had their own territory, they would accept Israel as a neighbor. Well, Gaza residents got their land, but Israel got no peace. That’s been the simplistic equation.

                Of course it can be argued—and usually is, on the political left around the world—that Palestinians didn’t really possess their land, that they were suffocated and radicalized by Israel’s imposition of tight border controls that restricted imports and hemmed people into what some call an open-air prison. Wages are low in Gaza, and better-paying jobs in Israel are inaccessible without a permit to cross the border. Even after Israel increased the number of permits in recent years, the Gaza unemployment rate stood at nearly 50 percent: a prescription for smoldering desperation and explosive fury.

                But the partial blockade was itself a reaction--supported by Egypt along its border with Gaza—aimed at impeding Hamas from building an arsenal whose disastrous scope was displayed to Israel this week. In turn, that militarization of Gaza was a reaction to Israel’s “colonial” oppression, as many Palestinians see it. And Israel’s tough posture was itself a reaction to radical Palestinians’ ideology of obliteration, which dreams of a final end to the Jewish state.

                And so on, one reaction to another to another ad infinitum. Untangling the causal relationship depends on how far back in history you’re willing to go before stopping and deciding that you have found the original sin.

                It’s not so hard to look backward. It’s harder to look forward. In that part of the world, only prophets and fools are inclined to use the future tense. Prophets have been scarce for quite a while. Fools have been in plentiful supply.

                Unexpected consequences seem to be the rule. Israel’s lightning victory in the six-day war of 1967, celebrated tearfully by Jews able at last to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, saddled the country with the unending dangers of containing hostile Palestinian populations in the captured West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s near defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur war gave President Anwar Sadat of Egypt the stature, he thought, to make peace with Israel. Some have speculated that Hamas’s monstrous assault will give Palestinians the swagger to make eventual compromises. I wouldn’t put money on it, but you never know.

You never know, that should be the motto. And you need to be careful what you wish for. In 1981, it came to my attention that the Israeli government, confident in its ability to manipulate Arab politics, was funneling money to the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, a precursor of today’s Hamas. That startling miscalculation was confirmed by Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, Israel’s military governor of Gaza, who explained that he was under instructions from the authorities to build up the Brotherhood as a counterpoint to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Communists, whose goal of Palestinian statehood was seen as more threatening than Muslim fundamentalism.

                The Brotherhood was doctrinaire religiously but also deep into social welfare services for the impoverished Gaza population. I suppose the movement seemed benign to Israeli officials whose hubris led them to think they understood the Byzantium of Gaza’s politics. A year later, Israelis made the same mistake in Lebanon, where they went to war to succeed in expelling the PLO but fail dramatically at realigning Lebanese politics in a pro-Israel direction.

                Significantly, an architect of both the Gaza and Lebanon schemes was former general Ariel Sharon, then defense minister. Later, as prime minister, he ordered the army’s unconditional withdrawal from Gaza, with no agreement or international structure to keep some modicum of peace. Hamas rockets followed.

Palestinians have a rich history of miscalculation as well, and this Hamas attack seems destined to mark history with an indelible turning point. Israelis, it has been said, became complacent in their material comforts and relative security in recent years. True, masses took to the streets against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to emasculate the judiciary, but Jewish-Arab violence precipitated by Palestinians and vigilante Jewish settlers, was mostly confined to the West Bank, with little terrorism inside Israel proper. The “situation,” in the anodyne euphemism, did not occupy everyday worries.

In Gaza, Hamas lobbed occasional rockets, which were mostly intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. As radical as the group’s objectives were—Israel’s annihilation—it seemed contained, the two sides standing off in a hostile equilibrium. The Arabs’ conventional order of battle had been practically dismantled by peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, internal disarray in Syria, and the aftermath of the US war in Iraq.

The remaining threats came from non-state actors—Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza—but they seemed manageable. Then came the latest day of infamy.

What shift will this bring? “Hamas was once a tolerable threat,” wrote Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel. “It just made itself an intolerable one, all while convincing Israelis they are too vulnerable and weak to respond with the old restraint. . . . These heirs of a collective memory forged in the fires of the 20th century cannot handle the experience of defenselessness Hamas has imposed on them. Hamas seemed to do everything possible to shift Israeli psychology from a comfortable faith in their own strength to a sense of dire vulnerability.

“And it will soon learn the scale of that miscalculation. A strong Israel may tolerate a belligerent Hamas on its border; a weaker one cannot. A safe Israel can spend much time and resources worrying about the humanitarian fallout from a Gaza ground war; a more vulnerable Israel cannot. A wounded, weakened Israel is a fiercer Israel.”

It seems a reasonable prediction. The page will be turned from heart-rending pictures of Israelis massacred and kidnapped to heart-rending pictures of Palestinians bombed and mangled in Gaza. Woe to the fools who see only one page.

September 23, 2023

Vietnam, Israel, Ukraine, and the Fluidity of Global Politics


By David K. Shipler 

                We have entered a period of flux in international alignments. After decades of relative stability in the so-called “world order,” interests are being recalculated and affinities revised. It is a risky, promising, uncertain time.

Vietnam and the United States, once enemies, have just announced a comprehensive strategic partnership, whatever that might mean. Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the cusp of putting aside their longstanding antagonism in favor of diplomatic and commercial ties. The Saudis and Americans are exploring a mutual defense treaty. Russia seems poised to swap technology for artillery shells from its problematic neighbor, North Korea, once kept at arm’s length. Russia and China are making inroads in some mineral-rich African countries, at the West’s expense. A rising China has adopted a forward military posture, threatening Taiwan more acutely than in decades. Ukraine is lobbying anxiously for its survival against Russian conquest as doubts about continuing aid arise from a wing of Republicans in a party once hawkish on national security.

Upheavals such as these will require deft statesmanship. Both Beijing and Moscow are bent on denying Washington what they call the American “hegemony” that has mostly prevailed since World War Two. The Chinese and Russian leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, proselytize for a multipolar world, which appeals to developing countries resentful of post-colonial hardships. (Don’t they realize that Russia is the more recent colonial power, fighting to reimpose its historic colonialism on Ukraine?)

The global turmoil has tossed up a key choice for Americans: How engaged or how withdrawn shall we be? How entangled? How aloof? This will be an unwritten question on next year’s ballots. Both Putin and Xi will be watching. They surely hope for victory by the American neo-isolationism represented by hard-right Republicans—including Donald Trump. No such administration would stand astride the shifting tectonics of the emerging globe.

Ukraine is a litmus test. No matter the obscenities committed by Russia against helpless civilians. No matter Russia’s martial expansionism in the heart of Europe. No matter the mantle of democracy and freedom proudly worn by the United States. The extreme Republican right is playing on the ethnocentrism of its base and a weariness of foreign involvements.

September 4, 2023

How Strong is Putin?

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

                We don’t know. That’s the honest answer.

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Kremlinologists could estimate the pecking order of the grisly men (almost always men) who made up the governing Politburo by observing how they lined up atop Red Square’s Lenin mausoleum for the parade on November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Or their positions as they walked into a ceremonial hall. Or whose name adorned one or another declaration. Physical proximity to the General Secretary of the Communist Party was a clue to influence and a possible successor—and was watched closely by scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

                Inner politics was encrypted then. Kremlinology was like a puzzle with only a few visible pieces. But looking back, the Soviet Kremlin seems less opaque than Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin today. There are no puzzle pieces now, only misfits or blanks filled by deduction, guesswork, and wishful thinking.

                Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s political standing at home has been an obsession in the West, where conventional wisdom has ricocheted back and forth. At first, he was a formidable foe, a canny calculator of military and diplomatic maneuvers. Then, when his army stalled in the face of Ukrainian resistance, he became a monstrous blunderer whose humiliation would surely bring him down.

                But as he wielded his dictatorial powers to obliterate the remaining freedoms Russians had gained since the Soviet collapse in 1991, Putin was the ruthless strongman, unconquerable in the moment. As the war ground into a bloody stalemate, however, and criticisms of the military escalated from the right, his pedestal showed cracks.

Then, he was pronounced weakened and vulnerable when units of Wagner, the private militia, slipped from under his thumb and launched an abortive mutiny by marching toward Moscow. “How Revolt Undermines Putin’s Grip,” said the lead New York Times headline on June 25. The appraisal flipped two months later, after the (presumably non-accidental) plane crash that killed Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The lead Times story declared: “Mutineer Dead, Putin Projects Image of Might.”

So, which is it? A Russian president in peril or in command?

August 27, 2023

Florida Bans Scary Trump Mug Shot from Schools


By David K. Shipler 

                The Florida Board of Education, citing a state law’s prohibition against student “discomfort,” has instructed public school teachers to refrain from “showing, displaying, distributing, discussing, mentioning, or making implicit gestures or facial expressions during class regarding” the mug shot that Donald Trump posed for during his booking in Atlanta last week.

A member of the Board, requesting anonymity, explained: “The fierce, angry, vengeful look that Trump carefully adopted would terrify small children and bring immense discomfort to teenagers. He looks as if he’s about to trash them on social media or sign them up as false electors.”

The decree is an expanded application of the statute on curriculum, Section 760.10 (3)(f), which Florida enacted last year to restrict how racial issues are taught. The code states: “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

Even where race is not explicitly involved, the Board member said, “Discomfort is not an emotion we want any of our children ever to experience until they’re old enough to go into a voting booth.”

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, asked for comment by a reporter in Iowa, said nothing. He just gave his once-a-week smile.

 This is satire. It’s all made up (except for the text of the law), a disclosure made necessary by the absurdity of current reality, which prevents lots of people from telling the difference between truth and fiction.

August 20, 2023

Democracy: The Political Right's Alarming Lack of Alarm


By David K. Shipler 

                Right-wingers who tamper with democracies should be careful what they wish for. They might hold positions of power today, but as they undermine the checks and balances that stabilize and restrain, they hand formidable tools to their opponents who might take over tomorrow.

This is poorly understood in both Israel and the United States, two democracies now imperiled by extreme agendas that would weaken longstanding mechanisms designed to protect minority rights and moderate governmental authority.

The political right ought to take note: If Israel’s religio-nationalist government dismantles the separation of powers by emasculating the judiciary, what’s to prevent some centrist or more liberal government from driving unencumbered through the same gaping holes? After all, the right-wing governing coalition has only a four-seat majority in a 120-member parliament.

In the US, similarly, if Republican “conservatives” regain the White House and disempower independent agencies by transferring power to the president, as Trump’s team plans—and if they continue dismantling the non-partisan machinery of elections in swing states they control—what’s to prevent Democrats from doing the same where they hold or gain majorities? When you destroy the careful balances in a pluralistic system, the new structure is available to everyone, not just to you.

A case in point is Donald Trump’s anti-constitutional argument that Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, could have rejected slates of electors from some states that went for Joe Biden in 2020. But if Pence had that power, so would every vice president: Vice President Al Gore could have thrown out Florida’s Bush electors in 2000, where the popular vote was razor close and justifiably contested. And Vice President Kamala Harris could do it in 2024 if she doesn’t like certain states’ results.

Why don’t reporters interviewing avid Trump supporters ever point this out and ask for reactions?

It could be that Trump and his spellbound flock don’t grasp the universality of the powers they seek to acquire. Perhaps they think that only they will benefit by eroding the professional integrity of vote-counting, for example, not imagining that their opponents might use the same tactic. Perhaps they don’t see how a Democratic president could use the immense authority they seek for Trump should he be re-elected. In a society still largely subject to the rule of law, which carries with it a respect for precedent, consistency, and equal protection, systemic changes are just that: systemic. They flow through the entire system, no matter which faction is in charge, now or in the future.

It could also be that Republicans—privately—don’t really think Democrats are nefarious. Maybe right-wing politicians don’t believe what they say about liberals and progressives. Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, Republicans recognize that the “radical left” is not so devoid of civic and moral virtue that it would threaten democracy with the tools the Republicans are forging for themselves.

Indeed, that’s the flaw in this doomsday scenario: The Democrats are not the same, at least not now. Gore didn’t throw out Florida’s electors, and neither will Harris. Democratic state legislatures are not rushing to curtail voting rights or politicize vote-counting. There is no moral equivalency between Republicans and Democrats.

But will that be forever? Power is an aphrodisiac. The judicial system is growing more sharply partisan on both sides. Gerrymandering is a time-honored tradition by both parties. Imperious moves to stifle speech come from the left as well as the right. The danger of concentrating authority in too few hands, without sufficient checks, remains as acute today as when James Madison warned at the Constitutional Convention: “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”

So it also is in Israel, which has no constitution but a set of Basic Laws that are supposed to set the standards for governmental action. Without a constitutional text, the Supreme Court has overturned some statutes and practices as “unreasonable,” a squishy concept that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has just outlawed. (The Court itself will hear a case requesting that it overturn that new ban on its authority, setting up what Israelis loosely call a “constitutional crisis.”)

In addition, Netanyahu has proposed giving government officials a majority on the commission that appoints judges, and granting the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the power to overturn any Supreme Court ruling with a simple majority vote. The specter of emasculating the courts—the only check on executive/legislative power—has ignited vast street demonstrations, disinvestment, protests by respected former intelligence and military officers, and refusals to serve by numerous military reservists. At least the center and left are alarmed, even if the right is not.

Ironically, Israel’s Supreme Court has moved somewhat to the right as new justices have been appointed during years of conservative government. So, if the judiciary is weakened and the rightist coalition loses its narrow majority in the future, a more centrist or left-tilting government could presumably overturn conservative Supreme Court decisions.

These might include rulings limiting the rights of Arab citizens, for example, or allowing more Jewish West Bank settlements on Palestinians’ land, or permitting gender discrimination by Haridim, the ultra-religious Jews who increasingly demand the separation of men and women in public transportation and elsewhere.

In fact, for many Israelis on both sides of the conflict over the judiciary, the very nature of the country is at stake—whether it remains a secular and pluralistic state or becomes increasingly theocratic, run by extensively by religious law. A centrist or slightly liberal government, empowered to overrule the Supreme Court, could conceivably sweep away judgments that uphold an expanded religious authority in domestic life, open the door to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and other policies favored by the hard right. That is the risk that Netanyahu and his extremist partners run by changing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, citizens in both Israel and the United States will decide the momentous question, which is much larger than the personalities or slogans or temporal policies of the candidates. All democracies contain the built-in mechanism of their own destruction: the popular vote, which can elect those who will slice away the protections, usually little by little, until the citizens wake up one morning to find that their precious freedoms to choose how they are governed have disappeared. In a well-informed citizenry, the alarm sounds long before, across the entire political spectrum.

August 13, 2023

The Republicans' Ideology of Ignorance


By David K. Shipler 

                The Earth is on fire. And Republicans, led by Donald Trump, are poised to dismantle all the funding and regulations to combat global warming.

Racial bigotry runs rampant in plain view. And Republicans bar the topic from classrooms, emasculate the Voting Rights Act, and move to ban the military’s anti-discrimination programs.

The COVID pandemic triggers rapid, ground-breaking vaccine development. And Republican officials demonize scientists, fight protective measures, and hound numerous public health specialists out of their jobs.

And so on. The Republican Party has led the United States into a peculiar era of contempt for knowledge, disdain for the experts who have acquired it, and suspicion of fellow Americans who revere learning. “Expert” has become a dirty word.

From Republican-controlled state houses to public universities, secondary schools, so-called “news” organizations, and libraries, a concerted campaign is on to create deserts of ignorance where no fruits of accumulated understanding can grow. These blank landscapes are devoid of the conscientious research and reasoning gathered over decades. In the empty patches, weeds grow—the weeds of fabricated conspiracies and dogmatic thinking. They are producing a harvest of contempt for any truth that violates a predilection.

There is a class element to this, a bottom-up sense that the elites with all their schooling really know nothing about the real world and care nothing for those whose names are not followed by letters signifying advanced degrees. This phenomenon of disparagement is a symptom of powerlessness, marginalization, and alienation. It was accelerated by the Great Recession of 2007-08—triggered by elite wheeler-dealers in finance. Lower middle-class families lost equity in their homes, jobs that had seemed secure, and confidence in their futures—a logical sequel to the decline of manufacturing and the stability it had provided. People’s foundations were shaken.

One outcome has been fear, particularly among whites without a college education. Not just fear of personal economic vulnerability, but also anxiety about change in demography and society: rising  numbers of non-whites, shifting social attitudes on sexual orientation and other issues, declining trust in such big institutions as government. That perspective sees an America drifting from some idyllic essence. Make America Great Again—Again.

That idyl is a myth, of course, picturing a supposedly homogeneous United States—white, Christian, socially traditional, heterosexual, family-based—a comforting Norman-Rockwell culture with non-accented English and red-blooded “American” names. It’s no surprise that it is nurtured mostly in rural areas where the myth is closer to reality, and where the new Republican Party finds ready voters.

Fear is convenient to certain brands of politicians, especially those aspiring to autocracy. As we have seen, fear has been cynically stoked by Trump and his fellow co-conspirators in the great takeover of a once-responsible political party. Where Republicans once garnered more electoral support than Democrats from voters with college degrees, it’s now the opposite. Democrats have largely lost their appeal among the white working class, where Republican fear mongering has gained ground.

That is not to say that a thirst for knowledge—and its delightful ambiguities and contradictions—is monopolized by the college-educated. Smarts and curiosity are widely distributed up and down the socio-economic scale, blessing those without university diplomas and also skipping many of those who have them. But informing yourself these days takes more time and skill than long working hours and defective schooling usually allow, a handicap for those who lack leisure and luxury.

Republicans have profited from the deep inadequacies of the country’s education systems, which mostly neglect to teach students how to check facts, discern truth from propaganda, and filter through the internet maze of reports and claims. (The News Literacy Project has developed curricula and online tools to help teachers do just that.) Under the guise of awarding parents control over their kids’ schooling, Republican lawmakers in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere are moving aggressively to erase honest history and relevant contemporary discussion from classrooms, and to remove books on race and sexual orientation from courses and libraries. The objective, it seems, is to create pockets of abject ignorance in the rising generations.  

That will work to the advantage of a party that wants to manipulate instead of educate. Even more troubling than the Republican schemes to fool the public is the capacity of large parts of the public to be fooled.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” as an aesthetic component of readers’ acceptance of literature’s plausibility. But he meant it as a conscious, creative process. In American politics, the willing suspension of disbelief allows mendacious actors room for mischief.

Hence, the Republicans’ ideology of ignorance. It is easier to convince citizens to ignore racial bias if you obliterate its history from classrooms. It is easier to foster contempt for your political opponents if you impugn their support for transgender people as morally harmful to children. It is easier to frighten people that they are losing parental authority if you brand relevant books and classroom discussion on race and gender as self-blaming, pornographic, or perverted.

It is a cleverly constructed strategy at the heart of Trump’s spellbinding appeal and his intellectual corruption of the Republican Party, once a responsible bastion of tempered governance. Trump and his copycats create areas of ignorance with their perpetual tempests of lies. They conjure up a mirage of candor but obliterate knowledge.

I am reminded of a day off the coast of Maine, sailing through a heavy rainstorm. The radar, unable to penetrate the downpour, displayed a screen entirely lit up in vivid orange, blotting out all traces of nearby boats, buoys, and treacherous land—the reality that I needed to see. Thankfully, the storm soon passed.

March 19, 2023

The Mixed Human Rights Record of Israel's Judiciary


By David K. Shipler 

                The right-wing Israeli government’s plan to eviscerate the powers of the country’s courts has generated massive demonstrations in the streets, worries by foreign investors, and boycotts of military service by hundreds of reservists in elite special forces and air force units. But the “independent judiciary” the protesters are defending does not have a sterling record on civil rights, especially those of Palestinian Arabs.

                The Supreme Court has refused to rule against the government’s inflammatory strategy of settling Jews in the occupied West Bank, a practice barred by the Fourth Geneva Convention. It has generally permitted the army to demolish the family homes of Arabs accused of terrorism, a form of collective punishment that the Geneva Convention also forbids. (Demolition is never used against Jews charged with terrorism against Arabs.) Inside Israel, the court has upheld a form of segregation by allowing rural villages and kibbutzim to reject would-be residents for “incompatibility with the social-cultural fabric of the town.”

The justices have only tinkered around the edges of the government’s tough practices. They have occasionally ordered a small Jewish settlement dismantled for taking Palestinian land. For similar reasons, they have required minor changes in the route of Israel’s security wall built on the border of the West Bank. They have ruled against demolishing a house where the accused did not actually live, and where a family tried to prevent the terrorist act. But the justices have typically avoided sweeping judgments on major policies affecting Palestinians’ rights, deferring to security concerns and gradually reducing the influence of international law.

                “Over the years,” says B’Tselem, an Israeli civil liberties organization, “the Supreme Court has permitted nearly every kind of human rights violation that Israel has committed in the Occupied Territories.”

Why, then, is the extreme political right so intent on emasculating the judiciary? First, the Supreme Court has gone the other way in a few important areas. It struck down a law exempting the state from liability for damaging civilian property during security operations in the West Bank. It limited the length of time that “infiltrators,” namely illegal immigrants from Africa, could be held in a desert prison camp that was designed as a deterrent to further arrivals.

And, most politically charged, the court overturned, as discriminatory, the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from the military service that all other Israeli men and women must perform. (Although, with ultra-Orthodox parties giving governing coalitions their parliamentary majorities, governments have repeatedly obtained the court’s permission to extend the exemption.)

                Second, if Israel annexes the West Bank as many on the political right desire, the military’s authority there would presumably end, along with the military courts that have tried Palestinians on both security and criminal charges since the territory was captured in the 1967 war. It is conceivable that the Supreme Court would grant Palestinian residents access to the same rights in the same criminal justice system as Israelis. That would not be welcomed by the virulent anti-Arab members of the current government.

                Last but certainly not least, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to stay out of prison if his endless trial on corruption charges, which began in May 2020, ever ends with a conviction. An independent judicial system is such an inconvenience to authoritarian-minded leaders, as former president Donald Trump might soon discover.   

Nevertheless, Israel’s Supreme Court seems less of a threat to some of the right-wing agenda than the protests in its favor might suggest. It has grown more restrained and more conservative in recent decades, especially since the retirement in 2006 of its president, Aharon Barak, a jurist revered both in Israel and abroad for his capacity to apply human rights to the exigencies of security interests.

In 2011, for example, the court essentially reversed a 1983 judgment by Barak against ten Israeli-owned quarries that were extracting building materials from the occupied West Bank. Citing the Geneva Convention and the Hague Regulations, Barak’s court had ruled, “An area held under belligerent occupation is not an open field for economic exploitation.” He reaffirmed the judgment in 2004. But in 2011, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch found that the long period of occupation “requires the laws be conformed to meet reality on the ground,” which she said included “the right to utilize natural resources in a reasonable manner.”

  In retirement, former Justice Barak recently called the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan “a string of poison pills” that would be “the beginning of the end of the Third House,” meaning the third historical period of Jewish sovereignty after the eras of the ancient First and Second Temples.

Barak’s warning was airily dismissed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who declared that the former Supreme Court president “does not understand the essence of democracy,” endangered, in Levin’s view, because “all power rests with the judges, and they decide what’s proportionate and reasonable. That’s not democratic.”

But it is the Justice Minister who does not understand the essence of democracy, which relies on the separation of powers, a cardinal principle recognized by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets. Israel’s Supreme Court is the only institution standing in the way of unfettered political diktat. With a parliamentary system whose majority always controls the executive branch, no other check or balance exists.

The country has no constitution; a failed constitutional assembly after Israel’s creation in 1948 led to the enactment by the Knesset, the parliament, of what’s called Basic Law, a dozen principles on “human dignity and liberty” derived from the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Basic Law figures in the Supreme Court’s rulings on the “constitutionality” of statutes passed by the Knesset. Yet the court has been cautious, overturning only 22 laws since the power of judicial review was established in 1992, an annual rate lower than the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

It appears that even as the authority to annul laws has been rarely used, its existence has restrained the executive and legislative branches in the past. Not so much today, as the government has shifted to the right, and “elected officials have become less likely to accept legal advice to amend or withdraw bills that are constitutionally problematic,” according to Yuval Shany and Guy Lurie of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Ironically, given all the protests, the Supreme Court has suffered a decline in public trust, from 80 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2021. “While the words ‘there are judges in Jerusalem’ used to put an end to public debate, today they provoke it,” wrote Yedidia Z. Stern, former dean of the law faculty at Bar-Ilan University, back in 2010. Dissatisfaction reigns on both the right and the left of the political and religious spectrums.

Yet for the sake of democracy, large numbers of Israelis seem to realize, the center has to hold. If Netanyahu and his justice minister looked around the world or into history, they would see how every dictatorship subverts and expropriates its judiciary. In the Soviet Union, pro-democracy dissidents used to speak of “telephone justice,” delivered by judges who first called Communist Party officials for instructions. In today’s Russia, supine courts mostly do the Kremlin’s bidding. Hungary’s semi-autocrat Victor Orban has emasculated the courts, which are also lapdogs of the regimes in Iran, China, and other authoritarian systems.

                Netanyahu and his extremist, anti-Arab cabinet are ramming through legislation that would require an 80 percent majority on the Supreme Court to invalidate a law, and would empower the Knesset to annul that ruling or any other with just a one-vote majority of legislators. Justices would be appointed mainly by governing politicians in a restructured Judicial Selection Committee, instead of the one currently dominated by nonpartisan judges and lawyers.

                That would set the stage for a kind of elected autocracy, placed in office by the voters but unchecked by the rule of law—or of any law other than the one enacted at the whim of the legislature, the executive, and their hand-picked judges, all three branches flowing into a single stream of authority.

                The sad question is whether Palestinians would notice much difference. Maybe not, since they haven’t had much success anyway, through Israel’s independent courts, fighting discriminatory laws and regulations.