Monday, May 01, 2017

Political winds of high school debate

The California High School Speech and Debate Association (CHSSA) held its annual state championship last weekend.  As a high school debate coach I've been attending state tournaments (when students qualify) for about 13 years, and I've noticed a shift in the political expression of students.  This tournament in particular was different.

California is, numerically, a blue state, but CHSSA includes many school districts in red regions: in suburbs, non-urban coastal areas, and inland.  Through the W. Bush years the political commentary from debate competitors at state tournaments, and even at local tournaments in Southern California, tended to be conservative and relatively kind to Republican presidents.  There were frequent references to the wisdom of President Ronald Reagan.  I recall little criticism of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Young people's views appear to have changed over the last few years. At this year's states, I judged a round of Extemporaneous Speech (Extemp) in which students have thirty minutes to prepare a five to seven minute speech on political topics that often involve foreign policy. In the round I judged the speeches on foreign policy were eye-opening. Below is a list of three topics from the round, followed by a summary of students' points.

Topic: Trump's strike on the Syrian military 

Student's points:          

The strike made no strategic sense beyond enhancing the President's image and was counterproductive by generating bad PR for the U.S.

The North Korean "crisis" 

Student's points:                  

The North has been firing missiles into the ocean for years without any crisis. Trump is manufacturing the crisis for his own political benefit.

The Mother of All Bombs (MOAB)     

Student's points:  

Trump continues Obama's policy of drone strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East that has killed hundreds of civilians and turned people in those regions against us.  On top of this, Trump dropped the MOAB, the strategic purpose of which does not appear to extend beyond the political needs of the President.

Granted this is a small sampling of students, but they are representative of a high achieving group that is sensitive to the relative persuasiveness of various arguments.  For them, the prevailing wind is skeptical.

What makes this seeming shift in students' political views especially interesting is that high school debate is often prep school for future politicians. Many presidents and other political leaders competed in high school debate (former Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have had a formidable "kill shot").  This batch of kids, whom we call Millennials, has apparently either noticed on its own or picked up from its parents the idea that, even in the case of national security, or maybe especially in that case, the government's actions and claims should be viewed skeptically.

Could this trend in young people be part of an overall, bipartisan trend? Listening to NPR's Wait wait don't tell me on my way to the tournament Saturday morning, I heard a harsh assessment of former President Obama's hands-off posture towards Trumpism, with a fair amount of outrage that instead of helping a troubled nation figure itself out, Obama allocated time to earn $400,000 for speaking to an investment group.  I don't recall the Clintons being reviled by NPR for the hundreds of millions they squeezed from the 1%.  Is American political thought waking up?

It's an exhilarating idea, but I'm not sure that people who fear our military industrial complex as much as they fear North Korea should take much heart in this partial awakening.  Bear in mind that it won't be represented in the media.  None of the student positions detailed above has been promoted on CBS, NBC or ABC network news, the organs of our state. Quite the reverse: the North Korean crisis is presented as a real thing, requiring breathless presentation of fast breaking events; the attack on Syria, we were told, made Trump look "presidential," not crazy; the MOAB was necessary because of a North Korean threat 3,000 miles from its target.

There's a reason Cialis and Polident sponsor the network news: Old people watch it; the young are too skeptical.  We need those high school debaters in office as soon as possible!

Do you find my prose stilted and a bit slow?  Try my friend Harry the Human, a not-yet burned out psychic hippy from the '60's. To sample his latest - "James Comey vs Wonder Woman" - go to:

http://harrythehuman.harrythehumanpoliticalthoughtsfrombeyondthepale.com/

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Meretz tour of Israel

This account, slightly updated, of my first trip to Israel in 1995, contains a surprising share of the same names, parties, positions and arguments that we hear today.  Our basic vocabulary has not changed since 1995.



In early January, 1995, my father, a member of Peace Now, a left-leaning pro-Israel organization, was invited on a tour of Israel sponsored by the Israeli Meretz party, but he could not go.  He asked me if I would like to take his place. He explained that Meretz is a left of center party which, after years out in the cold during Likud governments, had progressed to become a minority member of a Labor coalition.  I had never been to Israel and was interested, so I agreed to take my dad's place on the tour.

On January 12th I was picked up at Ben-Gurion airport by my parent's friend, Yitzhak, who was a tour guide by profession. He took me directly to the Western Wall, a relic of the Second Temple of ancient Israel and thus a symbol of historic Jewish presence. 

At the Wall an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) ceremony was under way. Hundreds of 18 years olds stood at attention, each carrying an automatic weapon.  In fact throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, and throughout Israel, IDF teenagers carry automatic weapons.  It occurred to me that this is perhaps an enlightened system.  In L.A. we have around 70,000 armed teenagers, totally unregulated and uncontrolled. In Israel, all boys and girls join the IDF at 18, and every boy (at least from what I saw) is issued an automatic weapon, with the proviso that he shoot it only in self-defense, or defense of others, or when ordered, so at least there is adult supervision. Nevertheless the guns made me nervous, and I asked Yitzhak if they had good safety mechanisms.  He said the M-16's were safe, but that the Uzi's were subject to accidents.

I had arrived several days before the Meretz tour in order to accompany two couples on a side trip to Jordan that had been prearranged with my father.  The morning after my arrival, Friday the 13th, I met my fellow travelers in a hotel lobby in Tel Aviv and we took the two hour taxi ride to the Allenby bridge, a major crossing point to Jordan.  I noticed that our driver, when stopped in traffic for a red light ahead, would beep his horn as soon as the light turned orange.  Many drivers around us did the same thing, so that there were never ending waves of horns honking, to no purpose. Out on the highways, where speed is considered an absolute good above all others, our taxi driver defied the laws of physics by getting us to the Allenby Bridge alive.

After a two hour bureaucratic ordeal at the bridge, we entered Jordan and met our young Jordanian guide, Abdullah. We drove non-stop to the ancient ruins of Petra, arriving at near sundown as the last tourists were leaving.  Hurrying to catch the light, our party fairly bolted from the car and into the vertiginous Siq, a narrow winding path with sheer rock walls that shoot straight up hundreds of feet, said to be created from a tap of Moses' staff.  The Siq helped the builders, a people called the Nabataeans, conceal their stunning city from the Romans, who would have envied it to death.

I lost track of my companions and found myself alone in the Siq, disturbed only by the occasional returning rent-a-camel. After about twenty minutes- suddenly and without any signs- I turned the last corner and beheld the "Treasury," a fantastic palace carved directly into the sandstone mountain.  I had seen engaging photos of the Treasury, but the reality, at twilight, without another person in sight, was powerful. This structure was built to engender hallucinations of what human existence might be, with the right gods on your side.  The Nabataean civilization was one of the last gasps of polytheism before the Judeo-Christain-Moslem dominion, and the power of its monuments is unnerving.  It was all I could do not to have visions as I wandered into the increasingly dark and ambiguous inner chambers of the Treasury.  I even had an impulse to commune with the Nabataean mountain god Dushara, but for this I was punished with two days severe need of lomotil.

We stayed one night in Amman, at the Grand Hyatt, whose lobby was bombed in 2005.  That evening we walked around the city, under the care of Abdullah, and saw some Roman ruins.  I noticed that all the men had dark mustaches, and that their facial expressions were serious.  Amman is probably the only Arab capital where a group of Jews can walk around without fear.  I wanted to know why that was, but that secret was not revealed by the serious faces in the city.  We met even more serious, and armed Jordanian men at a series of checkpoints on our way back to Israel, where we faced lengthy periods of silence while uniformed men slowly inspected our papers, turning to study our faces in between pages.  Each time we were approved for passage, I wondered again what force within Jordanian culture produced this acceptance, or at least tolerance.  

Abdullah took us past the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.  It stretched for miles, rows of tents and small buildings. The inhabitants were clearly not incorporated into Jordanian society, quite the reverse.  I wondered why there was relative peace around this arrangement, compared to the strife in Israel.

On Sunday evening we entered Israel at the Sheik Hussein crossing.  During the two hour taxi ride through the West Bank, one of my companions, Judy, explained that Meretz was actually a coalition of three parties: Ratz, a civil-rights party, Shinoui, a capitalist party, and Mapam, a formerly Marxist party.  I commented that these were strange bedfellows, and Judy said this was characteristic of Israeli coalitions.  She added that Americans demonize our adversaries to the extent that crucial coalitions are impossible.

It turned out that all the members of my tour were Ratz supporters. Above the entrance to our hotel in Jerusalem was a banner reading, "Welcome, friends of Ratz!"

We were in time for the opening dinner, and Member of the Knesset (MK) Naomi Chazan's remarks about the settlements in the territories, which she said needed to be "totally dismantled and dispossessed."  The other members of my tour were in alignment with this, as was my dad, but I was new to the subject and not sure.  
That evening I read the texts of recent agreements, the "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements," and the "Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities," signed in 1994, the year before my trip, pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Authority (PA), which then governed the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli Government.  To my puzzlement I found no references in the documents to the settlements and their future.

The next day we went to the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to meet with Hanan Ashrawi, a familiar spokeswoman for Palestinians in world media.  I asked Ashrawi if she believed the settlements would have to be totally dismantled in the course of a final phase of the agreements.  She replied that the settlements were built on "stolen, confiscated property."  I mentioned the lack of reference in the 1994 documents and she said the settlements would be dealt with in 1996.  [That did not happen]

From the American Colony we went to the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence.  A Swedish man named Anton talked to us about non-violent principles of Palestinian resistance to Israel. A British woman extolled the Intifada, telling us that "Intifada" means a "shaking out," as of a carpet, and that rock throwing was the least of it.  A Palestinian named Jibril told a moving story about difficulties encountered in trying to get his ill father across Israeli checkpoints to the nearest hospital.  Afterward I asked Jibril if his non-violent principles prevented him from supporting the rock throwing of the Intifada.  He said he supported the rock throwing.

That evening we met at the hotel with settlement spokesman Yisrael Harel.  He told us that Jews had a biblical and archaeological claim to all of Israel, that Jews were, in fact, there first.  I asked Harel if he thought the entire United States should dismantle itself and leave the North American continent because the Indians were there first.  I meant this as a serious question, but Harel laughed and I got no answer.

Later we dined with MK Benny Temkin.  I asked him my question about the settlements.  He answered as Ashwari had, that settlements will be decided in '96.

Tuesday, January 17, my birthday, we toured the Gaza Strip.  A few miles from the entrance, we stopped at a busy restaurant for lunch. I used the restroom, which was filled with IDF soldiers.  I was the only person at the urinals without an automatic weapon.  

In the parking lot I encountered Sylvia, from the tour of Jordan, who had been very  kind to me during my post-Petra intestinal distress. Sylvia was in a thoughtful mood.  She told me that she had been a lifetime supporter of the State of Israel, but that if things didn't change she would have to reassess her position.  She said she had visited Gaza two years earlier, and that I was going to see unspeakable conditions in the Gazan camps.

We left the restaurant and entered Gaza City.  This is a bustling town, with signs of construction everywhere.  The people on the street walked purposefully, and were dressed fairly well, sometimes in designer clothes.  At the south end of Gaza City we saw a large lot with hundreds of parked cars, and hundreds of people walking around.  Our guide told us it was a car auction.

We went first to Fatah headquarters, which then governed Gaza (a conflict in 2007 split Fatah from the Palestinian Authority).  Fatah's leader, Yasser Arafat, was in Morocco, so we were greeted by Freih abu Medein, Minister of Justice for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).  Medein went through a long list of grievances against the Israeli government, from the settlements to Palestinian prisoners.  He did not have anything particular to say about Gaza.

We traveled next to the Red Crescent Society where we net Haider Abdel Shafi, who had been in the news earlier that week after calling for a hard line alternative to Arafat.  Members of our group asked Shafi if it was true that as an original member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks he had resisted removing the call for destruction of Israel from the PLO charter. He said he had, and that he continued to support this provision as an important card against Israel.  My group was split on this (Sylvia was incensed).

We moved on to the PNA police headquarters, formerly Israeli headquarters.  A man named Ahmed Oreia showed us a large map of Gaza.  He particularly wanted us to see sections of beach which at that time were still controlled by Israel.  He found this to be an outrage.  He said that leaving and entering Gaza was more difficult now than before Oslo [Gaza became legally autonomous in 2005, when Israeli forces and settlements were removed].  When asked about concerns in Israel about dangerous Gazans, he said that when Israelis walk around inside of Gaza, they do not feel threatened. He talked about unemployment in Gaza, and complained that, unlike the Egyptians after their stay, the Israelis had left the infrastructure of Gaza destroyed, even taking out the phones from the PNA building.

Back on the bus, we were told not to eat the food we had picked up at the restaurant because we were going to the best fish restaurant in Gaza.  After a few minutes ride, we arrived at a pleasant building on the beach.  Walking around for a minute, I was struck by the beauty of the ocean and the long sandy beach.  The fish was excellent.  If ever there was a resort town waiting to be born, Gaza is it.

After eating we were told to get on the bus for the trip back to Israel.  Sylvia and others expressed concern that we had only heard political statements and had not seen any of Gaza's notorious camps. After some negotiations, it was agreed that we would drive through the Jubalya camp, with 50,000 residents, the largest in Gaza.  A Palestinian named Samid would accompany us.  Sylvia said I was going to see the true misery of Gaza.  

As our bus entered the outskirts of Jubalya, our guide pointed out an intersection where the Intifada had begun over an incident with Israeli police.  Jubalya is a criss-cross of unpaved streets and alleyways.  The homes are makeshift one story shelters of corrugated steel, plywood and whatever material is at hand. The first thing that struck me was the huge numbers of young children. They ran around in groups of twenty to thirty everywhere we went, and children were visible  as far as we could see down the alleys.  My impression was of driving across a crowded elementary school playground (I taught elementary school at the time).  The children seemed occupied with their games.  They were adequately dressed.  I saw no signs of malnutrition.  I was puzzled by the absence of teenagers.  I asked Samid about his.  He said the teenagers were "at jobs."

Sylvia had told me of raw sewage in the streets.  There was water running in narrow ditches, but it seemed clear and there was no stench.  Syvia said the camp had improved considerably since her visit two years earlier.

As we left Gaza, buses of Palestinian workers were unloading.  The men seemed upbeat, many smiling, happy to be back from work.  They streamed through a hole in a chain link fence to a large parking lot.  Apparently many owned cars.

The next morning we headed for an infamous hill near the settlement of Efrat, which had been in the international media recently after Efrat settlers had tried to grade a section for expansion and faced resistance from the nearby town of El Khader. In Bethlehem, we picked up Anton from the non-violent group. Ten minutes south of Bethlehem we entered El Khader, where we picked up a man named Hassan.  Anton acted as Hassan's interpreter.  Hassan directed our bus south, up the windswept, rocky hill in contention.  Near the top we parked and got out, in a freezing wind.  Hassan told us that his great grandfather had given his grandfather this land.  He said that it was holy land, where 7,000 martyrs had fallen, and that no one was supposed to wear shoes here (Hassan wore shoes).  Next to where we parked were some olive trees, which Hassan said were cultivated to prove ownership of the area by El Khader.  South of the trees was an extensive garbage dump, which included an entire stripped bus. I asked Hassan why the dump was there.  He said "entrepreneurs" put it there.  When pressed to explain, he said car thieves used the area.

On top of the hill was a bulldozer which the settlers had left.  One IDF soldier stood guard.  Hassan pointed south to the next hill, about a mile away, where we could see the settlement of Efrat.  It seemed pretty clear that the bulldozing was a provocative act.  A typical extension would have been close to the settlement.

We boarded the bus and headed down the hill, into a small valley filled with plots cultivated by villagers from El Khader.  Moving up the next hill, we paused at the entrance to Efrat.  There was some discussion about the safety of driving through the settlement of 12,000.  There were no guards; no one seemed to be paying attention to our bus, so we entered.  The first thing I saw was an elementary school.  A couple of hundred children ran around the playground.  The school and all the buildings were white Jerusalem stone.  The settlement was attractive.  It could have been a community of upscale townhouses in Chatsworth.  There were some modest lawns, reinforcing our group's contention that the settlements appropriate too much water, but at least no swimming pools.  We left Efrat without getting off the bus and talking to anyone.  I found it ironic that the only group we shied from encountering was from our own tribe.

Passing out of the southern entrance of Efrat, we went down the hill into the next village of Wadi-Nis. Samid knew people here.  We parked next to a large handsome mosque, in the village center, and got out.  The villagers crowded around us.  The children stared at us without smiles.  Soon we were greeted by the Mukhta, the head of the largest family.  He welcomed us to the village and asked if we would like tea.  Everyone said yes, as we were quite cold. Charles from our group, a conservative rabbi from New York, asked the Mukhta what kind of relations Wadi-Nis had with Rabbi Riskin, spiritual leader and spokesman for Efrat.  The Mukhta said Rabbi Riskin was an honorable man who was a moderating influence on Efrat.  At this Hassan burst into a rage at the Mukhta, shouting and gesticulating until the Mukhta offered him a cigarette. The next moment we found ourselves boarding the bus, the tea forgotten.  Smiles and handshakes all around.

Back at El Khader, Hassan pointed out Highway 16, then under construction, which Israel was building to connect the settlements. Hassan said this highway proved that Israel will not remove the settlements.  The highway went right along the city wall of El Khader, but there would be no off-ramps for the village.

After dropping off Hassan, we headed for the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, in Jerusalem.  Anton stayed with us for part of the way. He told us of a big demonstration coming up at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem.  He warned "there might be violence."  I asked Anton what his specialty was.  He said, "conflict resolution."  It turned out there was no demonstration.

Visitors to the Knesset are intensely screened.  Young men with automatic weapons scrutinized each of us, asked if we were armed, took our cameras, and let us in.  We spent a few minutes in the gallery watching the proceedings.  By a coincidence, the whole of the Israeli government was in attendance.  Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir chuckled together, seeming relaxed and happy to be in the opposition.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated ten months later) and cabinet member Shimon Peres looked harassed and defensive.

We were led to a small conference room near the cafeteria and were endlessly fed while a succession of Meretz MK's visited us.  The first was the Minister of Environment, Yossi Sarik. Several of our group, inflamed after our visit to Efrat, demanded to know if the government was going to halt settlement expansion.  Sarik, like many Israeli politicians, is a master of the irritated shrug.  He said, "We are trying; we will see what happens," as one might say, "Excuse me for living!"

Next we met Haim Ramon, Secretary-General of the trade union organization, the Histadrut.  Ramon had been in the news for opposing Labor entrenchment and corruption in the Histadrut. When asked if he had made progress weakening corruption, he shrugged: "It's gone."

We met with the mayor of the settlement of Ariel, Ron Nachman (Nachman is also a Likud MK, a legal double duty in Israel).  Nachman told us that Ariel has excellent relations with the surrounding Arab communities, and that they have no problems sharing water.  He also said the settlements are important in ensuring that there will never be a Palestinian state.

That evening at the hotel, we hosted Minister of Science, Technology and Arts, Shulamit Aloni.  She was introduced to us as Mrs. Ratz, because she had formed the Ratz party in 1973 [Ratz merged with Meretz in 1997].  Aloni invited each of us to speak of one concern.  When it was my turn, I said that I had been troubled by the lack of understanding between the parties over the settlements, and that my reading of the situation was that the settlements would not be dismantled, at least not entirely, and that it was perhaps time to talk of compromise.  I half expected the whole room to start yelling at me, but no one seemed troubled.  Aloni said my suggestion was a good one, and I remained on good terms with the friends of Ratz.

Thursday morning we traveled to Tel Aviv.  The headline of the Jerusalem Post that morning read, "Government Bends to Meretz Pressure- Promises Settlement Freeze." The article quoted a furious Shaas (religious party) MK saying that Meretz members were "spies and traitors" who brought "sympathizers from America to sneak into settlements and spread lies abroad." It was diverting to be part of a perceived conspiracy, and to note the irony of my total lack of influence on the politics around me.

We went to a bank in Tel Aviv where we had lunch with IDF Colonel Shalom Harari, in charge of Army Intelligence for Arab Affairs.  Harari's presentation depicted Palestinians as bunglers and/or crooks.  He said the reason that international money is not forthcoming for the Palestinians is that they are notorious for diverting money into the wrong pockets and will not account for the funds they receive.  He said the PNA in Gaza had made monopoly agreements with companies that supply Gaza in return for a 15% cut.  As an example he cited an agreement with an Israeli cement company.  Gazans must purchase cement from this company even though they could get it cheaper from Jordan. When our group pressed him about the destroyed infrastructure of Gaza, he said that some phones were taken, against orders, from the PNA building, but that three months of supplies were left in Gaza's main hospital, including three months worth of vaccinations.  The Israelis did this, the Colonel said, because "we knew what they were like, what they would say."  Concerning the difficult checkpoints, he said Israelis are afraid of the hostile Gazans, and are going to foreign workers, like Romanians, to replace Gazan labor.

After lunch, we drove to the Maccabee Center for a meeting with the Minister of Education, Amnon Rubinstein.  I told Rubinstein that I had read an article in the Los Angeles Times about his "peace curriculum," which is supposed to acquaint Israeli children with "the concept of living peacefully with Arabs under the new agreements."  I asked him how this program was going.  He said it was going very well, and that even when he had visited "famous Efrat" he had seen the curriculum presented, with flags of Arab nations adorning the classroom (presumably this was the elementary school I had seen).  It's fair to say that all of our party assumed the "peace curriculum" agreement applied to the Palestinian side as well, so that they would teach their children positive things about Israel and Jews.  That of course did not happen, so one does have to wonder what it means in the Middle East to "agree" on something.

Friday morning we headed towards Jericho, one of the world's oldest cities.  On the way we passed the huge settlement of Ma'ale Adumin, with 20,000 residents one of the hot spots in the debate over "greater Jerusalem."  Inclusion of Ma'ale Adumin in a greater Jerusalem would remove it from the territory of a Palestinian state. Critics charge that Ma'ale Adumin is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention's article 49, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory.  The Israeli counter argument is that such conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to the West Bank because the region was not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state at the time of the occupation.  These opposing legal arguments have not changed in 2017.  Anyone who chooses one of them over the other is vilified by the other side.  In hindsight, I feel I made the right decision in 1995 to never use the legal arguments in discussing the settlements.  I might as well try to prove that my house in Woodland Hills should not be reverted to Chumash ownership. Arguments of this nature are designed to defy resolution and last forever.

Moving down into the Jordan Valley we entered Jericho, a sleepy Arab town, no sign of trumpets blaring and walls falling, chosen by the government for autonomy, we were told, because of its apolitical, resort atmosphere.  A Mr. Erakat, Minister of Local Affairs, was with his ill father, so for twenty minutes we listened to a spokesman excoriate Israel.  I asked if he could speak about Jericho itself, and he said the economy was in bad shape because of Israel.  I asked if tourism was important to Jericho, and he said tourism was down since autonomy, because of Israel.

At this point in the journey I had become a bit fatigued by the inability of any sides in the region to say something nice about each other.  Arafat, Rabin and American Secretary of State Warren Christopher are the only people in the arena who see any good in the "peace process."  At lower levels, political credibility is gained only by proving you hate the other side.

Saturday morning we toured the citadel in the old City of Jerusalem. Our guide showed us how the city had originated with David's visions from God concerning the site for the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments.  Later visions, described on nearby plaques, included Mohammed's trip to heaven via the exact spot shown to David for the Ark, so that now, depending which side has jurisdiction, the story of Jerusalem's holy sites will be an affront to at least one of the world's three major religions.  I had to wonder, is this problem with property rights God's idea, or was it dreamed up by contentious humans?

I left our party to wander in the shuk,  a maze of hundreds of retail stalls.  Our guide told me to stay in the Jewish quarter, not to turn left or right (lest I be stabbed, Sylvia warned), but mesmerized by the seeming infinite corridors, I did turn left and found myself in the Muslim quarter.  The butcher stalls showed a lurid red.  In front of one stall blood had splashed all over the paving stones and I had to step through it.  I found myself walking behind a man in civilian clothes, sweater and jeans, carrying an automatic weapon.  I was told later that when people from the settlements come to the Old City they take private security guards with them, and that these guards are subsidized by the government.  I walked on and on, and came finally to a great wall with one door.  It was an entrance to the Dome of the Rock, a church built by the Ottomans to encompass holy sites related to Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (which is supposed to have happened on a "rock" within), the Ark of the Covenant (in the "Holy of Holies" spot, which my father-in-law warned me is not to be looked at by any but a high priest, lest God strike you dead for defiling the site, as He was reported in the Torah to have done to the disrespectful when the Ark travelled through the desert).  An Arab guard sat in a folding chair by the door of the Dome of the Rock.  I asked him if I could go in.  He said no, that visiting hours, which were not posted, were over.  [Back again years later for my son's bar mitzvah, I returned to the Temple Mount and was again told visiting hours, still not posted, were over]

Saturday evening we met with Meretz MK Ran Cohen.  The group questioned him about the settlement freeze, about Efrat, about greater Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumin.  Cohen sighed, then said that things looked difficult.  Mirroring my thoughts, he said that the time had come to consider a compromise on the settlements.  He speculated that such a suggestion could create controversy within Meretz, but no one in our group expressed a problem with the idea. 

Concerning an upcoming vote of no confidence in the Knesset, Cohen had a comment that turned out to be prophetic: "I pray to God there will be no terrorist attack in the next two days."

After Cohen left we went to a restaurant for a farewell party with many Knesset MK's and aides. Toasts were made, and we each received a gift from Meretz of candle holders in the shape of doves.

Sunday morning I took a taxi to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, planning to take a bus to Tel Aviv to stay two days with my wife's aunt.  The bus station was crowded with soldiers returning from the weekend furlough.  I waited behind a crowd of soldiers shoving their backpacks into the hold of the bus.  As they bent over, their weapons often pointed at me, sometimes poking into my body.  I wondered which were M-16's and which were Uzis.  On the bus I was the only civilian.  Automatic weapons bristled the length of the aisle.  I was not sure whether to feel protected or threatened.

Arriving at her flat, I found my aunt-in-law engrossed in the TV news.  She explained that two bombs had gone off that afternoon at a bus stop near Netanya.  The bus had been crowded with IDF soldiers. Sixteen had died.  I thought of the bus I had been on, and of Ran Cohen's words.

The next morning's news showed a jubilant rally in Gaza in support of the suicide bus bombers. What if this rally had taken place on the day we toured Gaza?  What questions might we have asked, and what answers received?

The news featured a woman at the bomb scene who said that the aftermath of the bombing was like a meat market, with "our boys thrown around like fresh meat."  This woman's statement was shown repeatedly on all the news shows.

My aunt took me to the shuk in south Tel Aviv.  While she bought fruit I wandered into an area of butcher stalls.  I saw a plastic tub filled with chicken heads.  On the floor in back of one stall I saw a flayed cow's head on a table.  A woman shopper eyed a barrel of slow moving fish.  She pointed to one and the shopkeeper grabbed it by the tail and shoved it into a plastic bag, head first.  Still holding the tail, he grabbed a short wooden club and whacked the fish hard on the head twice.  The bag was still.  The lady nodded in approval.  I mention these things only because I had never seen any of them before.  Such foundational elements of carnivorism are hidden from urban Americans.

That afternoon I took a train to Haifa to visit more of my wife's family.  The train was full of young soldiers.  They looked tired and apprehensive, no doubt thinking of the recent bombings.  The relatives took me to a mall north of Haifa, art deco style though it was built in the 80's.  They showed me an area that had been destroyed during the Persian Gulf War by an Iraqi Scud missile that had been intended for a nearby refinery.  No sign of damage remained, but framed photos showed cracked columns and the ruptured ceiling of the original rotunda.  The rebuilt rotunda enshrined the Scud rocket itself, retrieved from the rubble.

At home we watched a press conference by Rabin about the bus bombers.  My fourteen year old cousin translated for me, emphasizing the part where Rabin said, of the bombers, "We will keep fighting you!  We will chase you down!  No border will stop us.  We will liquidate you, and emerge victorious!"

The next morning, on the train back to Tel Aviv,  I read the Jerusalem Post: "Prime Minister: Goal of Peace is to separate Israelis, Palestinians."  There were various attacks on Meretz.  Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud [and current prime minister] charged that the government had become a
"greater Meretz."

I arrived that evening at Ben Gurion Airport for the long flight home.  The girl at one security check asked me why I had been to Jordan.  I said I had gone to see Petra.  She asked what I had done in Israel.  I said I had been part of a tour.

What kind of tour? 

A tour sponsored by the Meretz party.  

Whom did you speak to on the tour?  

MK's and Palestinian spokespeople.  

Did you become friendly with any Palestinians?  Were you invited to any of their homes?  

No.  

Did you receive any gifts or packages from anyone?  

Just my present from the tour organizers.  

Show me the present.  

She took the candlesticks, my passport and my plane tickets and left for about fifteen minutes.  She returned, handed me my stuff, and wished me a pleasant journey.  I felt that the international praise of Israeli airport security is well deserved.

At home, the L.A. Times was overwhelmed with O.J. Simpson stories.  On a back page I read that Israel's Labor government had approved a Greater Jerusalem, and that Palestinian leaders say the peace process is doomed.

The Middle East is a history factory.  We like to paraphrase historian George Santayana: Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.  It's an optimistic sentiment.  We may be condemned to repeat history whether we remember it or not.  Or more perversely, maybe the more history we remember, the more prone we are to repeat it.

Anyway, I had a great trip, and can look at Los Angeles in a new way: We may have earthquakes, floods, fires and riots, but at least we don't have a "peace process."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference, 2017

My wife and I attended our third annual American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 25th - 28th.  AIPAC is an American lobby group that promotes the U.S./Israeli alliance.  Last year's conference featured presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (see post below on the 2016 conference).  This year, not facing an election, neither spoke, though a number of government notables did.

Conference organizers were more concerned about terrorism this time, after a year of rising tensions in the Middle East and just about everywhere. Security was thorough at the two conference venues, the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, at least near the doors. The lines were long when high officials were scheduled, for instance the two hour line around the Verizon Center to see Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Police cars with flashing lights surrounded much of the perimeter, though not all, and people in line were vulnerable on those stretches since it would have been easy to launch an assault on portions of the streets without police. At one point a long, quiet line of protesters carrying Palestinian flags walked down the sidewalk between our line and the building.  I was a foot or so from them, my putative enemies. They walked silently, looking down and avoiding eye contact.  It seemed a predetermined strategy.

Sunday's general session opened with AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus' remarks.  She harkened back to last year's conference when tensions rose between younger members who cheered Clinton when she attacked Trump, and older members who cheered Trump when he attacked Clinton. Pinkus made a heroic attempt to maintain neutrality last year, but was perceived by some as leaning towards Clinton.  In her formulation this year she decried "people who want to divide pro-Israeli Americans," leaving wiggle room for interpretation.

There was a beautiful and intense presentation about the work of Amnon Weinstein, who salvaged discarded violins that Jewish prisoners in the Nazi camps were forced to play as people filed into gas chambers.  Weinstein restored the violins and gave them new meaning.  The presentation included a performance on one of Weinstein's violins by musician Hagai Shaham of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("The Hope") that shook the soul.

The first test of the attempted neutrality came that evening when Vice President Mike Pence said that America's bond with Israel is strong because of (loudly shouting) "Donald J. Trump!"  People throughout the auditorium stood and cheered wildly.  I did an unscientific survey of nearby sections and found that in each row about half the people were cheering and the other half were silent.  The woman sitting next to my wife stood suddenly and said, "I can't take this anymore" and left (she came back later with a giant bag of popcorn).

Jews are starkly divided on Trump, especially since the Obama administration abstained in December on U.N. resolution 2334, which stated that Israeli settlements in "Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," have no legal validity, a point of heated contention.  Many Jews, both Trump and Obama/Clinton supporters, were alarmed by the resolution because it took sides prior to negotiation. Trump played his card by opposing the resolution, unifying Jewish Trump supporters behind him and severely disorienting Jews who support Clinton. 

It was refreshing to veer away from politics for a while in the breakout sessions.   I attended one titled, "Women and the Struggle for Human Rights in the Middle East," partly as a follow-up to our visit the previous day to Washington's outstanding National Museum of Women in the Arts, which displays brilliant female artists sidelined in the art world by a bias towards males.  [An aside: The gift shop sold Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf dolls. I wondered how comforting they would be.  The exhibit included a Judy Chicago ceramic piece, in Chicago's signature vulvar shape, called "Virginia Woolf."  Does that make sense?  If I become a famous writer, should I be represented by a ceramic penis?]

The AIPAC women's rights session featured a panel of female speakers from State Department and university groups which addressed familiar aspects of female oppression such as genital mutilation, restrictions from education and politics, honor killings and more.  One woman from a university group said that empowering women in the workplace would add $28 trillion to the region's economy.  The woman from the State Department talked about the banning of Afghan women from the Loya jirga, a traditionally all-male Pashtun governing body.  She said that during the Afghan war her group lobbied successfully for a U.S. requirement that women be represented on the Loya jirga. At this point I felt some doubt. How fully were women represented on the Loya jirga?  Without the U.S. presence, are they represented now?

It seemed an important point.  The panel did not address the male Loya jirga members' reactions to and comprehension of the mandated female members, nor the efficacy of the American policy's attempt to change their culture.  My guess is that the policy had zero efficacy, and may even have been counterproductive, driving men into a smoldering resentment and encouraging them to bide their time until they could find violent release. Like most forums on women's issues, the panel did not appear to consider understanding of men's issues to be critical for achieving their goals.  90% of the panel audience were women, and I wondered how the presentation would be different if it had included men, on the panel and in the audience. One of the impediments to changing the world so that women have equality of power with men is that no one talks about the ways in which men are swimming against the tide. Do women understand in clear detail what it is like to be a man?  We joke about how hard it is for men to understand women.  Could the reverse be true as well? 

One question I would like explored in a more inclusive dialogue is, "Has the transition from hunter-gathering societies to agricultural and urban confinement frustrated male desires in ways that differ from females' reactions to those changes?"  A follow-up question might be, "Do male difficulties in adjusting to urban confinement matter as much as female difficulties?" Unless men are about to become obsolete through genetic engineering, the answer would appear to be yes, but that's just this reporter's opinion.  

The sense of incompleteness in the women's discussion extended to the political speakers.  Most of them said nothing beyond the obvious speaking points, so you can summarize the positions of Pence, Ryan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, commentator Alan Dershowitz, Israeli politicians Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennet, America's UN ambassador Nikki Haley and others as follows:

1. Israel is among the foremost technological innovators in the world and is helping mankind in a number of ways.

2. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east, and as such gives more rights to Palestinians than they get in any Arab country.

3. Obama's Iran Deal endangers America and Israel.

4. Israel is America's most loyal ally in the region.

Position #1 can be accepted without debate, but 2-4 are ideas subject to differing perspectives, useful for agreeing to disagree.  One person's democracy is another's deep state tyranny.  One person's ally is another's threat.  If the public knows nothing about the Iran deal, then flipping a coin makes as much sense as trying to figure it out. Positions like these are like the positions for and against abortion, producing no resolution, only endless debate.  How many times, for instance, do we need to hear an argument about whether a fetus has a soul, or whether God promised Abraham the West Bank, or the meaning of Muhammad's dream that he flew through the night to Jerusalem?   The positions have in common that none of them can be conclusively proven. That makes them useless for any purpose other than continued disagreement.

Reactions to the 2014 Gaza/Israeli war offer a good example of fruitless argumentation.  The asymmetry of casualties in that war- sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians killed versus 2,110 Gazans- troubled many Jews, including me. The usual course of argument for the Israeli side involves the allegation that Hamas, which rules Gaza, had built a system of tunnels deep into Israeli territory, under inhabited towns, from which it planned to detonate explosions on the Jewish High Holy Days, when families gather, that would have produced casualties comparable to 9/11, and that this necessitated a strong military response from Israel. Hamas denies the tunnel accusation, and people have been left with no criteria for choosing which side to support other than choosing the side they associate with.  

A more productive line of defense for both Israel and the Gazan people would be to question the strategic point and morality of the rockets Hamas routinely fired into Israel leading up to the 2014 war.  These were unsophisticated rockets which, though they produced sporadic physical harm, had no policy impact on Israel other than to rationalize its response. It would be fair to say that Hamas, in launching the rockets, betrayed the people of Gaza by giving Israel a rationale for an asymmetrical attack while not producing any tactical advantages for the Palestinian cause in Gaza. Why then should people who care about human rights not demonize Hamas along with Israel?  A discussion that paints one side as monopolizing evil will obviously reach no resolution. Of course, resolution may not be the goal.

There were many brilliant people at the AIPAC Policy Conference.  It was masterfully organized and engaging. Unfortunately, society's discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as with its discussions of gender rights, is incomplete.  Good intentions abound, but public discussion goes nowhere.



Friday, December 16, 2016

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html


Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu mayoral race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The U.S.is one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: So...you would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over three hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot, to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Lasken op-ed in the Orange County Register

My op-ed in today's Orange County Register opposes California Proposition 58 on the Nov. 8 ballot:  http://www.ocregister.com/articles/prop-732802-english-spanish.html .


For more Lasken's Log, click on "older Posts" below right.