Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Take the Deal

My beautiful and talented spouse writes a blog called "Tachlis". Tachlis is a Yiddish word meaning "reality", often in the sense of "the harsh reality". There is today no harsher reality than the Iran accords.

Let's ease into this subject by starting with something most American and Israeli Jews can agree on: the deal on the table isn't the deal we wanted. It does not strip anti-Semitic, anti-American, terror-sponsoring Iran of all of its nuclear capabilities. It does not stop them from exporting terror, nor force them to accept the reality of Israel. Indeed, the threatening rhetoric continues to stream out of Tehran. And, even to the extent that the deal does manage to put the brakes on Iranian nuclear momentum, the agreement starts to phase out after only eight years—a relatively short interval, historically speaking.


We knew it was coming. For some time, it's been apparent that the tense negotiations were not going to result in a nuke-free Iran. And so we lobbied, we argued, and we protested—anything to leverage the Obama administration to push harder for a better deal, or to walk away in favor of imposing ever harsher sanctions.

And perhaps we were successful. It's difficult to say to what extent pressure from the American Jewish community and other opponents of Iran stiffened the resolve of the US negotiators. It's easy to imagine that the deal could have been much worse. Indeed, the US might well have conceded the inevitability of an Iranian bomb, pursuing a strategy of containment rather than prevention. With most parties now acknowledging that Iran is only several weeks from having enough raw material for a weapon, containment could well have been seen as the best of a set of bad options.

Fortunately, the administration did not abandon its long-stated principle of denying Iran a nuclear bomb. But while most experts agree that the deal does just that, it is more than reasonable to ask how long such an arrangement will actually last. Yes, sanctions will, in theory, "snap back" if Iran is found to be violating the agreement. But in such a circumstance, the reinstatement of sanctions also terminates Iran's obligations: the deal becomes moot, a dead letter. In that event, the world would find itself more or less where it is right now, but facing a far wealthier Iran, and without the momentum and collaboration amongst the P5+1 nations that characterized the recent negotiations.

In short, while there is some consensus that the deal will delay Iran's production of nuclear weaponry, it will not in and of itself prevent that unthinkable development in the long run. In the interim, Iran will be greatly enriched by the lifting of sanctions, and it's fair to assume that it will use some of that windfall to intensify its proxy wars with Israel and the West.

In the past week we've been favored with direct appeals from two heads of state: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, and American President Barak Obama. Bibi pointed out the many flaws in the current deal, while President Obama underscored the enormous achievement represented by a coalition formed under American leadership forcing Iran to the table and ultimately producing an agreement supported by nearly every country on Earth.

And so the battle lines have been drawn. Numerous Jewish organizations have publicly announced their opposition to the deal (though not without controversy). AIPAC, the premiere pro-Israel lobbying organization, has even formed a separate venture—kind of like a subsidiary—to push for the deal's defeat in Congress. The decision by AIPAC to take on a sitting President on an issue of this magnitude is unprecedented. But is it a good one? Are AIPAC, various local Federations, and other Jewish organizations making the right choice in publicly lobbying against the Iran agreement?

Friends, the tachlis is that putting the defeat of the Iran accord at the top of our agenda is a huge mistake, one whose consequences we might still be feeling years into the future. Given the path we appear to have chosen, there really are only two possible outcomes. Both are awful.

Outcome 1: The agreement is defeated. Well, congratulations to us: our famed influence and activism have once again helped us to reach our goals. But, um... now what?

Tachlis: There is no other agreement, no continuation of sanctions, no way to improve on what was already agreed. It was fine for us all to talk about the deal's shortcomings, and how they should be addressed, when it was being negotiated. As I observed earlier, it's entirely possible that the influence of Israeli diplomacy (such as it is) and American Jewish activism helped the final agreement be stronger than it might otherwise have been.

But now an accord has been reached. If we fail to ratify it, do you expect that the coalition that came together to produce it will simply shrug, and with a wry "oh, those crazy American Jews!" will sit down and start again? Not a chance. As the President pointed out: we have a deal that each of those partners, and indeed, most every other country, have accepted. Even the Gulf nations, who live in fear of a nuclear Iran in much the same way as the Israelis, are quiet. Voiding the agreement will simply strip America of our leadership. It will leave us without a deal and without the leverage to produce a better one. The other countries of the world, having been left at the altar, will no longer be willing to sacrifice their financial interests to reinstate a sanctions regime that, in their view, had already met its goal. Now unfettered, Iran will simply continue building both nuclear devices and the missiles that can deliver them anywhere in the world. The Gulf nations, enemies of our enemies but not remotely our friends, will surely follow suit.

So you want to kill the deal? Great. Tell me your plan. But if it's, "we pick up where we left off and continue pressuring Iran until we get a better deal", then save it. You're simply dreaming.

Outcome 2: The agreement is not defeated. Oh dear, we seem to have come out on the losing side. Oh well: at least we tried.

Tachlis: There is a cost to fighting a losing battle, especially one to which we have committed such an enormous amount of political capital. If we declare the Iran deal as the hill we're willing to die on, we need to keep in mind that dying on it is indeed a possibility. By failing, in a huge and public way, on an issue we've declared to be of the utmost importance to us, we will be exposing ourselves as weak. Ineffective.

The worst part is, we will have chosen as a moment to neuter ourselves that very instant in history that Israel most needs us. For the duration of the accord, Iran will be on the brink—perhaps a year away, perhaps less—of a nuclear weapon. The US, aware of Israel's situation and of America's complicity in creating it, will be somewhat inclined to make it up to the Jewish state. But how?

That is when we must step up. Sure, the US is probably game for more joint R&D projects, like the one that produced the Iron Dome and Arrow anti-missile systems. And we'll surely share intelligence, combining US signal and satellite information with Israeli human intelligence to gain a complete and ongoing picture of what's happening within Iran. Similarly, joint air and naval exercises, increased US military aid, and so forth, are likely there for the asking.

But an intact American Jewish community can push for so much more. We can point out that Israel has taken an enormous, even unprecedented risk for peace by accepting the deal. In return, it is fair to ask our leaders to press the Palestinians to take a few risks of their own—to stop whining about Ariel and E1, to dismantle their terror infrastructure, neutralize Hamas, and finally accept the state Israel has been trying to give them for decades.

We should insist that the US push the Gulf states (independently of the Palestinian track) to reach an accommodation with Israel, including recognition and ambassadorial exchanges, in order to formalize an Iranian counterweight in the Middle East. And we should demand, and demand, and demand, that the US commit substantial resources to forcing Iran, through any means necessary, to disarm Hezbollah and its other terrorist clients.

Of course, we'll be lobbying for all of these concessions and more no matter what Congress ends up doing about the Iran accord. The question is: will anybody be listening? Congressfolk are notoriously uninterested in the concerns of toothless interest groups. In any event, foreign policy is largely the domain of the executive branch. If we alienate the executive, and worse, if we are publicly disempowered, having failed to gain traction on the single biggest issue for American Jews since the days of Soviet refuseniks, what leverage do we have?

The only thing worse for Israel than a nuclear Iran is an indifferent America. Such a scenario could surely never come to pass; never, that is, unless Israel's most passionate defenders have lost their way, and in doing so, lost their voice as well.



Saturday, March 1, 2014

Different

I really want to see you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord
                      — George Harrison 
With the holiday of Purim approaching, the countdown to Pesach (Passover), just one month later, has begun. Pesach begins with a ritual dinner, the Seder. There are as many types of Seder as there are Jewish families, but virtually all share a common theme: a sustained focus on the asking of questions. The questions aren't necessarily meant to be answered—as has often been noted, the Haggadah does not even provide a direct answer to the famous Four Questions.  At the Seder, it is the question—or, rather, the questioning—that is important.

Ironically, this subordination of answers may itself be the best response to the root concern of the Seder: why is this night different from all other nights? From our first breath through our last, we search relentlessly for the reasons behind the mysteries and obstacles life puts in our path. Tonight, though, we will expect no answers. We are reminded that the answers to most of life's questions will remain elusive; and that nonetheless, year after year, we must continue to ask.

Depiction of 19th century Seder in Ukraine
When it comes to Judaism, I'm rather partial to one particular question from the Seder: What do these symbols and rituals mean to you? A seemingly obvious inquiry, and yet it is the only one for which the Haggadah chides the questioner, calling him "evil" and explaining that by by saying you rather than us he sets himself apart, and should therefore be reprimanded.

Perhaps. But I'd prefer to believe that Jewish culture has progressed to the point at which we can be comfortable asking the hard questions. Why is this night—this Seder, this Shabbat, this Kol Nidre—different from all other nights? And surely this question is a proxy for the oldest and thorniest challenge of them all: why is this people different from all others? Are our values so different? Must we perpetually set ourselves apart from the rest of society? Would assimilation—even total assimilation, the complete loss of our distinct identity as a people—really be the tragedy that our parents believed it to be? If so—if the distinction is well worth preserving—then what role do God, religion, and ritual practice play in that preservation? Can our community continue to exist without them?

What do these symbols and rituals mean to you? And, by extension, what should they mean to me?

In a recent article in the online journal Tablet, author Jonathan Zimmerman identifies himself as an atheist who grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Reaching adulthood, he set out to find a new home within the greater Jewish world, one that supported his rationalist beliefs. He describes his growing distress as he discovered that any community that satisfied him intellectually seemed to fall short emotionally. The liturgy and praxis that had nurtured him to adulthood were poisonous to those who shared his worldview, while his rational rejection of Abraham's God and the divine origins of Torah made it difficult for him to participate in those rituals, to recite those words, he found most comforting.

Zimmerman offers no answers. As the Seder reminds us, perhaps there are none. But we keep asking, even as, day to day, we continue to do the things that make us whole, that bring us peace, whether we understand why or not.

I really want to see you, Lord. I know you're not there, but I seek you anyway, in myself, in my children, in the world around me. I will address you, though my supplications remain forever unheard. I will ask your forgiveness, and perhaps in doing so I will be reminded to forgive others. I will proclaim you the ruler of the universe, who brought forth bread from the ground, because like my primitive ancestors it comforts me to believe—or in my case, to pretend—that you are conducting the whole orchestra, that your eye is upon me and upon the sparrow. Yes, yes: I know better. I am resigned to the real world, the world in which the hawk takes the sparrow, swiftly, remorselessly. But I will gladly spend a few hours in that idealized place in which the sparrow sings on, its trills threaded within the chanting and laughter of my family's Seder table.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Discrimination, Incarceration, and Political Stagnation

In his New York Times blog this week, Nicholas Kristof finds evidence of a deepening societal rift revealed in a story of law enforcement run amok.  The columnist reminds us that bank executives (some of whom are my former employers) have harmed millions through shady and deceptive business practices, without spending a single hour in prison. Meanwhile, single moms, teens, and others who have used marijuana have hurt no-one, yet many—usually the poor—will sacrifice years of their lives incarcerated alongside murderers and rapists.

There are some encouraging signs. In reference to the tide of states legalizing marijuana, President Obama recently said, "[I]t's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

It's a relief to finally hear any American politician—much less the President—finally acknowledge the obvious: that the unnecessary, unjust, and arbitrary war on drugs has left our prisons overcrowded and our socially disadvantaged understandably resentful.

So far, little has changed. What's worse, arbitrary drug arrests are only a part of a larger and more ominous trend in American jurisprudence. Incarceration rates in the US are far higher than those of any other nation—including those that routinely imprison political activists or engage in other human rights abuses. Higher than Iran. Higher than China. Higher than Saudi Arabia.

It's not that we have more violent crime than those countries (although we certainly have more gun crimes). Indeed, as many as half of these inmates have been jailed for non-violent crimes, with over 3,000 non-violent offenders serving a life sentence.

Absurd and hypocritical drug laws aren't the only problem. Our overflowing prisons are fed by many streams, including lobbying by private-sector prison operators, overreach of the post-9/11 security establishment, and failure of the mental health system to identify and treat seriously ill individuals before they act out.

Kristof is right when he suggests that selective enforcement is "a matter of profound social inequality", but he is, tragically, just as correct when he points out that "inequality in America has other dimensions" as well. Social mobility is stagnant, wealth inequality has reached record levels, and voting rights are now routinely abrogated through gerrymandering and voter ID legislation. Taken together, it's clear that American democracy faces its gravest threat since the Civil War.

Our way of life is novel; a historical aberration. If we abuse or neglect it, democracy, like every form of government before it, will simply disappear, a glimpse of sunlight fondly recalled in the long, dark night that is human history.