Liberal Israel lobby: Update I

Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby” complains that I misrepresented his views in a post on Tuesday. I wrote that “I reject the claims of Mearsheimer, Walt & groupies that a pro-Israel cabal controls American policy toward the Mideast.” He’s right that I should have avoided the word “cabal,” which implies a well-coordinated, secret group.

In fact, one of the infuriating aspect of the book is that the “the lobby” they attack is such a “loose coalition” that it changes shape from page to page. Is Tom Friedman part of “the lobby’s” media contigent, or a victim of “the lobby’s” efforts to silence critics? Is the dovish Israel Policy Forum part of the lobby, or opposed to it?

A serious work of scholarship would have chosen a specific organization or organizations, and closely followed their work – using primary documents and interviews with the people involved. Mearsheimer and Walt did not perform 

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The Politics of Measurement: Drugs and Fences

To continue a conversation with Haim about politics and physics: Faux pas, shmaux pas. In physics, action and reaction refer to motion. In Israeli-Palestinian relations, actions and reactions raise the temperature but, to our sorrow, usually produce absolutely no political movement. Hence the rule that for every action there is an opposite and unequal reaction is indeed the First Law of Political Thermodynamics.

Then again, maybe I should have avoided using a scientific metaphor for politics. Scientists can be touchy about metaphor. They prefer metaphors with a strict one-to-one relation between the symbol and the reality. Political metaphors are more likely to be suggestive than precise.

On the other hand, I do suggest applying some political analysis to science. For instance, random controlled testing of new drugs as a way of determining the best way to do medicine. On the surface, nothing could appear more objective.

But ever since Thomas Kuhn‘s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it’s been clear that science involves more than objective gathering information. There are subjective choices about the nature of the problem to be solved, and what constitutes evidence in solving it. The debate about Kuhn is vast. But I don’t think his genie can be forced back in the bottle.

If science includes subjectivity, it is also influenced by society, politics and economics.

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Colleges in Crisis

My children are reaching college age at an inauspicious time. My oldest daughter, Mizmor, matriculated last fall. My son, Asor, will start his studies in three years or so, when he completes his army service and, most likely, spends the usual year traveling overseas. I recently read an article on how to invest in student property as I’d like to be able to provide with them some decent accommodation that I can make a profit on later down the line, it’s a win win if you have the capital.

Higher education is one of those issues that Israeli governments like to procrastinate about. Put out fires and fix leaks but don’t make any long-term policy commitments—that, in the big picture, has been the approach for the last decade. And, as with our sharply dwindling water supply, a disaster is about to happen that will be difficult to reverse.

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Organ Donation and the Rabbis

The passage of a new organ donation law by the Knesset on Monday is good news in this country, which has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world. The new law will be trumpeted by some as a victory over the benighted Orthodox rabbis that have long opposed organ donation, and lambasted by others who will claim that it goes too far towards the rabbis.

As usual, the story is a lot more complicated than that. Undeniably, a lot more people in Israel, particularly religious and traditional ones, should be encouraged to allow organ donation when a tragedy occurs. But the rabbis’ concerns are important ones and this law has succeeded because it has addressed those concerns.

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Journalism lesson: Avoid innumeracy

As Richard Silverstein points out at Tikkun Olam, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report cites anonymous Israeli police sources asserting that:

…20 percent of Jerusalem’s 220,000 Palestinians have been involved directly or indirectly in terrorism…

Excuse me – 44,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians involved in terrorism? This is a classic example of innumeracy in journalism. Someone in the reporting or editing process wrote this sentence without thinking about whether the numbers made any sense. They don’t, and they constitute incitement

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Hagee v. Hagee

John Hagee, for those who have been vacationing, is a Texas mega-church pastor, founder of Christians United for Israel, and a man whose endorsement John McCain sought and won. A short interview with him appeared in The New York Times last weekend. The strict Q&A format did not allow the interviewer to point out where Hagee was, shall we say, disagreeing completely with Hagee, or at least with what Hagee tells his fundamentalist followers. A key section

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A liberal Israel lobby? If you will it, it is no dream

My cover story in Prospect Magazine on the need for a liberal, dovish Israel lobby in Washington is now up on the UK magazine’s site. I’m making a careful argument here: I reject the claims of Mearsheimer, Walt & groupies that a pro-Israel cabal controls American policy toward the Mideast. However, the key lobbying group, … Read more A liberal Israel lobby? If you will it, it is no dream

Refugees and the Jewish Question

My friend and colleague Ben Lynfield forwarded me a news report he wrote a couple of days ago on Prime Minister Olmert’s response to the continued flow of African asylum seekers from Egypt to Israel. In both the foreign and local press, Ben has done his best to make people aware of the refugees’ plight. Several months ago, when I wrote about the obtuseness to Jewish history that Olmert was demonstrating by turning back refugees from Darfur, Ben pointed out to me a flaw in my story: Refugees from elsewhere in the Sudan were fleeing similar dangers, and were equally desperate for asylum.

Since I haven’t seen Ben’s most recent story up yet on the Net, I’ll quote some of it here with his permission:

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Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Supreme Court briefs

The Israeli Supreme Court recently issued a temporary ruling on a petition brought by residents of six Palestinian villages who have been barred from using Highway 443. The highway is an Israeli-built road running from the Modi’in area near Tel Aviv, through the West Bank to the northern side of Jerusalem (actually, the north end of annexed East Jerusalem).

The petitioners, represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), asked the court to “repeal the IDF’s complete restriction on Palestinian movement on Route 443,” according to ACRI. Instead, the court gave the state six months to report on its efforts to built an alternative road for Palestinians only. Though this isn’t the final ruling, it looks like court approval for separate roads in the West Bank, segregated roads,

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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