Saturday, July 26, 2014

Why is America Pro-Israel?

Based on public opinion polls, America is one of only a very few countries in which at least half of respondents report favorable attitudes toward Israel. And in terms of international policy, the U.S. frequently finds itself alone among members of the United Nations in defending Israel’s actions.

Most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban has said, “My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting. Start talking. And take on the root causes of the conflict, so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” adding “We must address these underlying issues – including mutual recognition, occupation, despair and the denial of dignity – so people do not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances.” 
Public Opinion Toward Israel

Secretary-General Ban’s appraisal of the situation is, in the opinion of this writer, eminently reasonable. According to this view, both sides share blame for the current situation and both sides share responsibility for improving the situation. But when the Secretary-General mentions occupation and the denial of dignity, he is revealing an acute sensitivity to the plight of the Palestinian people who have been effectively imprisoned within a blockaded Gaza. 

Ever since that blockade, Gazans have been unable to import food or building materials, unable to travel, and forced to rely on a tattered infrastructure. And it bears emphasizing that Israeli defense forces have repeatedly targeted infrastructure. They tore up the airport that the international community had helped to build. They’ve blown up the power stations that provide electricity to the Gazan people and the treatment plants that provide them with water to drink. 

The U.S. position, in contrast, states unequivocally that Israel has the right to defend itself, and ignores the question of whether the Palestinian people also have the right to defend themselves. National Security Advisor Susan Rice declared, when speaking to AIPAC, her contempt for the many international agencies which deplore the abuses of the Palestinian people. “When pre-cooked anti-Israel resolutions come up by the dozen at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, UNESCO, and elsewhere, we consistently oppose them, and we press others to do the same (source).” 

Returning to the earlier question regarding public opinion, I’ve included a graph from the Jerusalem Post. It shows that, in many nations, 25% or less of the population is favorable toward Israel, and typically, large numbers report distinctively unfavorable views toward Israel. In trying to discern a pattern, one can look at nations which are unusually supportive of Israel such as Nigeria. In that country, the Igbo people are the third largest ethnic group, and they identify as Jewish (even though they are not recognized as such by Israel's Rabbinate). Kenya has a large Christian population and correspondingly very few Muslims; and indeed, it has struggled with an insurgent Muslim population just as Israel has had to do. Generally, countries with large Muslim populations are harsh in their assessment of Israel. Pakistan, Indonesia, Ghana, and Egypt are examples. 

Now, the rough correlation between Muslim influence and negative attitudes toward Israel should come as no surprise. Muslims will naturally exhibit sympathy toward their co-religionists in Gaza and the West Bank. The Arabs and the Jews have historically had a contentious relationship, to put it mildly. But it also bears pointing out that when Jews were subject to persecution, Arabs in Spain gave them sanctuary. 

The reverse does not appear to be the case. Some countries are pro-Israel despite having small Jewish populations. The United States, for example, has a very small Jewish population in comparison to its total population. However, AIPAC has an indisputably powerful influence over legislation and public policy. Recently, the United States Senate unanimously voted in favor of a resolution supporting Israel in the latest Gazan conflict (source). The resolution reaffirms U.S. “support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens and ensure the survival of the State of Israel” and places the onus for ending the conflict on Hamas. The unanimous resolution demonstrates that regardless of whether one is a Republican or a Democrat – and even, in the case of Bernie Sanders, a Socialist – a U.S. Senator will unequivocally throw his or her support behind Israel. There may be some lip-service given to the necessity of addressing the suffering faced by Palestinian civilians, but that is where it ends. 

Now, even if we were to suppose that one-sided support for Israel is the correct choice, it is hard to recall instances in which the U.S. Senate is unanimous in support of anything. The resolution marking Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday was not unanimous, and neither was a resolution in support of an Equal Rights Amendment. One could not expect unanimous support if there were a resolution favoring Darwin’s theory of evolution over Biblical creationism in public schools. 

It may be the case that the sheer uniformity of bipartisan support for Israel has encouraged the American people to be more strongly pro-Israel than one would otherwise expect. The American people are not troubled by the fact that Israel is second only to Afghanistan in terms of the amount of U.S. foreign aid it receives (over $3 billion per year). The American people do not question how Israel uses that money, but they will question how Palestinians use foreign aid money. 

This brings us back to the matter of AIPAC. It turns out that the remarkable effectiveness of AIPAC in influencing U.S. policy is related to the massive amounts of money AIPAC has at its disposal. To understand where that money comes from, consider this quote from AIPAC employee Keith Weissman: “Prince Bandar used to send us messages. I used to meet with Adel al-Jubeir a couple times a year. Adel used to joke that if we could force an American embargo on Iranian oil, he'd buy us all Mercedes! Because Saudi [Arabia] would have had the excess capacity to make up for Iran at that time (source).” 

John Kerry, who sometimes gives the impression of being well-intentioned, hired Mel Levine to be a top advisor on Middle East issues. Mr. Levine is a former AIPAC board member (source). Thus, an example of the infamous revolving door.
And indeed, when AIPAC sought to starve Iran of oil revenues, it allied itself with the oil lobby in an effort to win U.S. support for a key oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan, bypassing Iran, and terminating at Turkish ports on the Mediterranean. 

AIPAC is directly responsible for the circulation in the U.S. news media of certain memes which bias Americans against the Palestinians. One need only visit the AIPAC website to be confronted by a giant headline reading, “Hamas uses children as human shields.” This meme helpfully minimizes American concern that Israel’s attacks on Gaza are less “pinpoint” than the Israeli government claims. It also reminds many Americans of that villain of yore, Saddam Hussein, who was also charged with using human shields. And an American consumer of mainstream news may be easily persuaded that these heinous acts are typical Arab behavior.

I am not alone in supposing that AIPAC explains American policy (and perhaps public opinion) regarding Israel. An expert on international affairs recently stated that AIPAC is the only explanation that makes sense (source).

Finally, turning back to that international comparison of public opinion on Israel, one may see that Southeast Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan hold Israel in low esteem. Japan’s official stance on the Middle East crisis can be traced back to 1973. During the oil crisis, Japan recognized its severe dependency on Middle Eastern oil and chose to join the Arab boycott of Israel. And so, one may conjecture, just as the oil industry indirectly shapes American popular opinion, the same may be true of Japan (but with a different result). One may be reminded of Spinoza's quote, "we do not desire a thing because it is good. A thing is good because we desire it."

Further reading: An excellent analysis of the illegality of Israel's occupation of Gaza may be found here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Rights of Man [Humanity]

On July 11, 1789 the Marquis Lafayette recommended to the National Assembly that they enact a Declaration of the Rights of Man. This idea came to fruition during Lafayettes’s long friendship with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and his first-hand exposure to the still relatively new U.S. Constitution and state constitutions. In this short essay, I remember the Declaration and speak briefly about the political and economic situation that gave rise to it.

Lafayette was in the enviable position of having these American documents as a starting point, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man is more explicit in its language. It clearly identifies “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man” as the sole cause of political and economic calamities and the corruption of government. 

The purpose of the document is also clearly stated: the rights mentioned the Declaration, “being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected.” The subtext here is of interest. Lafayette clearly expects that ordinary citizens will be able to understand their rights and decide whether the courts and other organs of government are protecting these rights. It is supposed to be a means by which the people can demand a measure of accountability from their political leaders. 

The First and Second Estate, crushing the Third.

More to the point, however, is that the French Declaration squarely takes aim at the abuses of power by privileged nobles: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” Social distinctions – such as titles of nobility – were routinely abused during the ancien regime.

With regard to taxation, the Declaration stated, “a common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.”

The Declaration also stated, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” The resemblance to American conceptions of Natural Rights is plain, but that added phrase – “resistance to oppression” – is remarkable. When these words were heard by members of the French colonies and in particular Haitian slaves, it sparked revolution abroad. 

The martial and clerical orders, doing nothing to ease the burden.
Unmistakably, the Declaration was a response to the prevailing situation in France during the 1780’s. The country was, in a word, bankrupt. The king was obliged to indefinitely postpone the repayment of debt and made arbitrary reductions to interest rates. Thomas Jefferson, in Paris in 1788, observed with horror Louis XVI's incompetence in allowing the “wheels of government, even in its most essential movements,” to stop for lack of money. 

An article of the Declaration reads, “Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration,” and the motivation behind this is clear. The Royal Government had kept its expenditures and accounting practices under strict secrecy, and secrecy invites abuses. 

Still, one may ask, how had one of the most prosperous countries in the world come to the brink of economic collapse? The Crown had squandered public money on a succession of wars. Vast sums were spent building vast mansions for members of royalty. Gold-plated putti were being churned out by the dozens. The king had 100 personal servants and his own choir to brighten up his mornings, performing a new song each day. If he chose, he could hunt in his private, well-stocked hunting grounds. 

The government also freely gave up sources of revenue by exempting the wealthiest members of society from the requirement to pay taxes. Members of the First Estate, the clergy, were not only exempt from paying taxes but had the right to levy taxes and collect dues from their serfs. Because they owned 10% of all the land in France, they were in a very strong position to use their power as rentiers to accumulate wealth and prevent new entrants (e.g., small land-holders) from competing with them.

Members of the Second estate, the aristocracy, likewise benefited from the twin blessings of being tax exempt and able to levy taxes without the consent of the people. By virtue of having documents attesting to their privileged status, they were granted preferment in terms of employment and financial services. Tradesmen dared not ask a noble for money up front, and as a result were easily swindled by nobles who’d gambled and whored away their wealth. Members of neither the First nor Second Estate were required to perform military service and were granted legal authority over the serfs occupying their lands.

Part of the problem came from the fact that the membership of the Third Estate – that is, the 99% – had already been bled dry. They had no more money to give up in the form of taxes. Nearly every commercial and economic activity had its own tax. And although the country had at first managed to escape mass unemployment, but before long the floodgates were opened to cheap foreign imports. As a predictable result, domestic manufacturing declined and the ranks of the jobless grew.

In reflecting on the political context in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man appeared, and those words, “resistance to oppression,” one may wonder how many ordinary French truly grasped that they were being oppressed. After all, it is easy enough to say “this is how it has always been” and decide that poverty and disenfranchisement does not constitute oppression but is merely part of the natural order of things. Even when a country squanders its way into massive debt and puts off its obligations to pay back its debt, engages in a succession of costly military adventures abroad, permits the accounting of public money to occur under a veil of secrecy and obscurantism, allows the favored few to pay no taxes at all even as it heaps new forms of taxation on those who are least able to pay, and deprives the people of any meaningful interest on their savings, is it oppression? Or is it necessary to allow the situation to deteriorate further, to a state of endemic starvation and the brutal suppression of dissent?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Liberty and Slavery

Some academics, the ones who have allowed sanctimony and self-interest to subdue their intellect, will say that the fact that many of our Founders held slaves is enough to cast their collective integrity in doubt. The day will come when our descendants look back on us and pronounce similar judgments. “How could Americans, who fought and died in the Civil War, choose to resurrect the institution of slavery in foreign lands? How could they countenance child labor and despotism in China and Mexico, and pretend that it has nothing to do with them?” This is only to say, when we judge others, we are usually giving ourselves too much credit.

Nonetheless, it does warrant reflection that some of the Founders held slaves even as they championed Republican virtue and liberty. But it is wrong to impugn the integrity of all the Founders on this account. John Adams provided a moral example: he never owned a slave. George Washington believed that if he freed his own slaves they’d be enslaved by others, and chose to keep them and treat them humanely. Others among the Founders, such as John Jay and Thomas Paine, were leaders of the earliest abolitionist societies in America and spoke out for abolition even when doing so threatened their livelihoods and social standing. 

The reason for bringing up the question of slavery on a day that ought to be reserved for celebration is this: there is a lesson to be learned from Benjamin Franklin’s evolving attitudes toward slavery. It is a lesson that is very germane to the spirit of liberty which we honor on the 4th of July. 

For a portion of his life, and despite his passion for scientific rigor and undeniable genius, Benjamin Franklin believed that Africans were an inferior race. However, the historical record shows that he became increasingly aware of the arguments of the anti-slavery writers starting at around the 1730s, his attitudes underwent a change during the 1760s, and that his final writings consisted of appeals to end slavery and polemics aimed at elected representatives who hypocritically defended slavery as a “states’ rights” issue while personally profiting from the institution of slavery.

The historical record also provides a likely explanation for why his attitudes changed. During the 1760s, Franklin had the responsibility of advocating for the people of Pennsylvania during trips to London. Of particular concern to Franklin was the fact that Pennsylvania was a proprietary province. In other words, unlike other territories that attained the status of Royal Colonies and were granted some small measure of liberty, Pennsylvania was governed by unelected oligarchs. 

This was of little concern when the proprietor was William Penn – who was by all accounts a man who respected liberty and was loved by his people. It became a concern when Penn’s descendants showed little interest in the welfare of the common people but showed a keen interest in the profits that might be gained from their position.

The 1760s were a period of embarrassment for Franklin. More a scientist and philosopher than a politician, he was naïve in believing that, just because they said so, British ministers and members of parliament were allies in his cause. He raised Pennsylvanians’ hopes for an end to proprietary government, and later had to admit failure. And it was also true that, as the British government descended further into corrupt and tyrannical modes, meaningful distinctions between “colony” and “proprietary province” had begun to evaporate. Because he sought to address the problems of Pennsylvania by working “within the system,” Franklin was slow to recognize that the only viable course for freedom-loving colonists was to declare independence. 

Under proprietary governance, oligarchs and not the people selected the governor. And the governor, in turn, performed the bidding of the oligarchs without the slightest concern for the common people. During a time when the French and their Native American allies harassed the outlying portions of the Pennsylvania territory, oligarchs were not asked to pay taxes toward the common defense. However, ordinary citizens were obliged not only to pay taxes but to fight and die on the battlefield. 

Taxes continued to rise, but only on the shoulders of the common people. Proprietors used tax revenue to create new patronage positions and new advantages for the privileged few. And there was, at the time, an additional form of taxation known as the quit-rent: the oligarchs owned the lion’s share of farmland in the territory, and if they were to live and work on this farmland, Pennsylvanian farmers had to pay a regular fee to the landowner.

Both Franklin and his friend and confidant Joseph Galloway declared that the people of Pennsylvania were falling into the “jaws of proprietary slavery.” If “slavery” strikes the reader as too strong a word – especially in comparison to the extent of slavery experienced by Africans brought into the colonies, consider the meaning of the word. 

To be a slave is to perform labor without sharing in the fruits of one’s labor, to be taxed by and brought into debt by the government, to be denied a humane standard of living by the government, and to be ordered to fight and die by the government, without being allowed to exercise the right to choose one’s own government. And Franklin knew that, in some respects, the people of Pennsylvania experienced a kind of slavery that was worse than that faced by the Africans. Whereas slave-owners had an economic interest in preserving the lives of their slaves, the proprietary oligarchs did not object to seeing the people of Pennsylvania die in the wilderness. To be free is to be a stakeholder in one’s government; to be a slave is to be forced to live in service to private interests. Because Franklin sincerely believed that he and his fellows were in fact slaves, this likely inspired his sympathy with the plight of African slaves.

In due time, outraged and embittered by the continuing proprietary system, Franklin declared in 1764, “our glorious Plan of public Liberty … is to be bartered away and we are to be made Slaves for ever!” And Franklin understood that slavery is an engine for increasing the movement of wealth out of the hands of the many into the hands of the few. In his studies of the African slave trade, he wrote,

The Negroes brought into the English Sugar Islands have greatly diminished the Whites there; the Poor are by this Means deprived of Employment, while a few Families acquire vast Estates; which they spend on Foreign Luxuries, and educating their Children in the Habit of those Luxuries; the same Income is needed for the Support of one that might have maintained 100.
Franklin characterized the proprietary government of Pennsylvania in these terms: a “fever of ambition and a lust for power” among a few oligarchs brought about “enfeeblement” of the law, corrupted courts of justice, and threatened the sanctity of property rights for all but a few. He spoke of the efforts by the oligarchs to divide the people of Pennsylvania into warring factions and thereby further their own advantage. In this connection, he alluded to Aesop’s fable of the lion and the bulls, to wit:

Three bulls fed in a field together in the greatest peace and amity. A lion had long watched them in the hope of making a prize of them, but found there was little chance for him so long as they kept all together. He therefore began secretly to spread evil and slanderous reports of one against the other, till he had fomented a jealousy and distrust amongst them.

No sooner did the lion see that they avoided one another and fed each by himself apart, than he fell upon them singly, and so made an easy prey of them all.

The quarrels of friends are the opportunities of foes.
I won’t extend this essay unnecessarily by providing examples of the many proverbs of Franklin which speak to the same point. He felt it necessary to proselytize endlessly to remind people that unity is of paramount importance if liberty is to be secured and maintained. Divisive partisanship, when it is observed, is evidence that private interests are at work attempting to preserve their separate advantages. When we as individuals worry about feeding our families, and tremble at the thought that our retirement savings have been plundered, pay ever higher taxes to ensure that private corporations remain untaxed or only lightly taxed, and feel helpless to change our government for the better, it is all too easy to succumb to partisan sentiment. That is why defending liberty is not an easy thing, but the Founders told us that it would never be an easy thing. 

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