Archive | October, 2021

ON DENIGRATING THE HUMANITIES

18 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Having spent more than 70 years within privileged enclaves of advanced education, my only regret is the weakness of community cohesion due to evaluations of the worth of faculty members by relying on market assessments, that is, what a person could earn outside the university if put up for sale, or what a rival university might offer to lure a person elsewhere. My vague thoughts along these lines were given focus by the brutal frankness of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Joshua Angrist. This post reflects on Professor Angrist unqualified rationale for leaving his faculty position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a higher paying professorship at MIT. It would might seem crass to choose your country of residence by reference to its material offerings, especially if your preferred country provided you with a decent living, as was the case here, but to denigrate the humanities because they were being equally valued at an Israeli university with economics and computer science is what makes Professor Angrist emblematic. The put down of literature is mindlessly irresponsible and civilizationally obtuse at a time of unprecedented bio-ethical-ecological crisis when the humanities alone offer essential insight into prospects for a transformational adjustment.]

On Denigrating the Humanities

I was reading with interest the profile of Joshua Angrist in the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli-American MIT economist who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in economics with two others when I came upon this uncongenial sentence:Angrist said he was frustrated that many salaries, particularly in academia, were set using fixed pay grades, with professors in fields such as computer science and economics being paid the same as professors of literature, instead of being set by market forces, as they are elsewhere.”

Angrist apparently was much earlier deeply at odds with the way in which academic salaries were set in Israel. His words of 15 years ago were reprinted in The Jerusalem Post:  “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system, and it’s not very flexible.” It seems to me that Israel was engaged in admirable initiative–treating a university as a community of scholars where knowledge flourished across disciplinary borders without affixing price tags on the comparative value of differing ways of knowing to be determined by market forces. An alternative approach would be to seek higher, apparently more appropriate salaries for the faculty across the board, which might have helped create a contented community instead of alienated economists and computer geeks who rushed for the exits whenever a foreign university offered more money to attract an Israel professor.

There is a further disturbing implication of Angrist’s invidious comparison. It is as if literature, and presumably the humanities overall, were a superfluous luxury in a society where computer science and economics are valued highly by the market. The language used Angrist made clear in his view that it is the market without a scintilla of doubt that deserves to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of comparative educational valuations, and specifically faculty salaries. The Israeli journalist reported what Angrist declared without comment as his article was primarily concerned with solving the puzzle of why talented Israelis, such as Angrist, were emigrating elsewhere, in effect, interpreting a damaging brain drain. It is seems that Angrist’s personal reasons for leaving Israel were not only honest but descriptive of why many other professors valued highly in the academic marketplace were drawn elsewhere by the lure of larger paychecks.

Perhaps, displaying my own cultural malaise, I recall my educational experience as being primarily valuable for what I learned and retained from courses in the humanities. As an undergraduate at Penn’s highly rated Wharton Business School. I took 17 economics courses without any lasting effect on my sense of the world, or effectiveness in it, but received inspiration and an enduring worldview from several charismatic professors in the humanities that continues to enrich my life more than 70 years later.

Especially as an undergraduate I learned to love literature and philosophy, precious lifelong gifts. I suppose I would have been less put off by Angrist’s comment if it had been uttered with even the slightest show of regret or collegial sensitivity rather than uttered in a derisive tone that conveyed, at least to me, an crude economistic attitude ‘that the market knows best.’ I should observe that Angrist and his wife deeply regretted leaving Israel, explaining the decision as purely one of choosing the material benefits offered by the job at MIT. Although American born, Angrist emigrated to Israel in 1982 when he was in his early twenties as someone committed to the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, turning down a job at Harvard after earning his PhD at Princeton so that he might resume his life in Israel, being married to an Israeli woman and having a son born in Israel. Angrist has clearly lived a bi-national life with acknowledged tensions between the material rewards of a high salary and the unproblematic satisfactions he apparently continues to derive from the Israeli dimensions of his life.

The issue is far larger than one of personal preferences. Humanities mirror the culture, its deepest strivings, grievances, shortcomings. In my experience we cannot look to economics and computer science for how we could collectively live better together as distinct from guidance as to policy and technical problems of digital communication. Humanities are the repositories of wisdom, beauty, romance, and moral grandeur in human experience, although even poets can sometimes subscribe to demonic constructions of the world around them. At this time, more than any other, when the species is struggling with a severe bio-ethical-ecological crisis we desperately need to nurture the visionary apertures of the imagination rather than disparage them.

In my preferred academic community, there would be no differentiations based on price tags, and a sense that different knowledge traditions were equally indispensable if graduates were to be engaged citizens at a time of planetary emergency as well as enjoy productive careers outside the ivy walls.

In concluding, I wish that I could dismiss Joshua Angrist’s uncongenial worldview as a regressive and idiosyncratic departure from the cultural norms rather than being compelled to acknowledge that he is far truer representative of the national, and even the global body politic, than I am. Mine remains a voice at the outer edge of cultural relevance, yet I hear faint signs of a civilizational  awakening in the primary forms of surrounding birds, trees, and flowers, and that is enough for me, yet I know it is not sufficient to rescue the collective destiny of our species speeding toward calamity. Such a liberating rescue if it comes, will come from transformational wisdom best encoded in the humanities. In the meantime, self-satisfied economists and software engineers can collect Nobel Prizes and earn lofty salaries for their day jobs, superciliously denigrating humanists from the comfort of their deck chairs on the final cruise of the restored Titanic.

The Rebranding of Antisemitism after the Holocaust

12 Oct

[Prefatory Note: there has been past influential writing taking critical aim at the Holocaust as a cover for unrelated wrongs, most notably Norman Finkelstein’s brave critique The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, 2000, updated 2015). This post is concerned with distorting the legacy of the Holocaust by appropriating antisemitism as a policy tool relied upon by Irsrael and Zionist activists to intensify Palestinian suffering and deflect attention from Israeli wrongdoing. Such exploitation dishonors and unduly complicates by (mis)remembering the justifiably hallowed and grotesque reality of the Holocaust. Perhaps, the primary expression of this phenomenon of wrongly appropriating ‘antisemitism’ is the conflation of Zion and Israel in the widely promoted and influential definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that has been used to discredit the BDS Campaign and defame its supporters.]  

The Rebranding of Antisemitism after the Holocaust

There are no legitimate doubts about the magnitude and depravity of the Holocaust arising from mobilizing the socipathic obsession with hatred of Jews, which culminated in the satanic German resolve to puts all Jews to death solely on the basis of their ethnicity. It is no wonder that a primary legacy of the Holocaust was to render the embrace of antisemitism a hateful embodiment of evil in the post-World War II West. Yet by making the Palestinian people and their supporters bear the ongoing burdens of this grotesque genocide perverts the legacy of the Holocaust, extending the dark shadows of racism over Israel experience and identity in ugly reactive forms. As W.H. Auden reminded the world “those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

This unfolding post-Holocaust pattern of injustice originated in the lethal interactions between Hitler’s extreme racism and the Zionist Project. Zionism is best considered a utopian undertaking of a political movement within the wider community of the Jewish people. It was launched in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to European antisemitism to establish a Jewish, ‘democratic’ state in an essentially non-Jewish society (the Jewish population of Palestine was less than 10% in 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration) on the basis of an arrogant colonial pledge by the British Foreign Office. It had little prospect of succeeding even with European backing expressed through incorporating the Balfour pledge into the League of Nations approach to Palestine, given the declining leverage of European colonialism. Even this pre-fascist show of largely European support for the Zionist Project was ironically motivated in part by a soft version of anti-Semitism. An attraction of Zionism to non-Jews was its programmatic dedication to reducing the Jewish presence in Europe, an approach that the Nazis later absolutized in the years following gaining control of the German government in 1933. It is of course relevant that this encouragement of Zionist goals preceded the advent of fascism in Germany, but its consummation by way of the 1947-48 War would probably not have happened had not the Holocaust turned a visionary project with little hope of realization into a real world opportunity to make the Zionist dream come true. Yet realizing this dream was organically intertwined with a prolonged Palestinian nightmare. The nakba expressing the Palestinian tragedy featuring the de facto expulsion of between 700,000 and 750,000 Palestinians in that portion of historic Palestine set aside by the UN partition resolution for a Jewish political entity. The nakba is best understood as catastrophic experience of expulsion, but underscored by denying Palestinians a right of return, which was their entitlement under international law. As Palestinian intellectuals have pointed out in recent years, the continuation of Palestinian subjugation, victimization, and discriminatory demographic policies, make it more accurate to consider the nakba as a processrather than an event in time.

It is against this background that several regressive linkages to the Holocaust warrant articulated as not frequently acknowledged for fear of being misunderstood as a mode of belittling this pinnacle of criminality. The intention here is solely to show how the Zionist experience of coping with the Holocaust while working toward their goals of Jewish ethnic sovereignty in Palestine has persisted since the establishment of Israel in ways that are harmful not only to the Palestinian people but to Jews the world over:

            –the ultra-pragmatism of those Jewish political figures who pursued and led the Zionist Project reached its heights in negotiating with the Nazi regime to arrange the permissive departure of Jews from Germany as part of the effort to achieve demographic credibility for Zionist efforts to establish a Jewish entity in Palestine. [See Tom Suarez, State of Terror for extensive narration and documentation] Such opportunism undoubtedly was responsible for saving Jewish lives, but carried over in ways that help explain Israel’s willingness to reach diplomatically and economically advantageous relations with a variety of unsavory governments in the course of its history since 1948. Again, this was an understandable embrace of an extreme form of ‘political realism’ given the degree to which Israel was regionally isolated in what was called by its leaders as ‘a dangerous neighborhood,’ and its central mission of creating a exclusivist Jewish state in an essentially non-Jewish society was subject to censure throughout the non-Western world.

This ultra-pragmatism has taken an ugly turn in recent years when Israel and its more militant supporters themselves made use of irresponsible allegations of antisemitism as a policy tool to puss back against censure and delegitimation. Critics, as well as international institutions, were stigmatized and defamed as guilty of antisemitism. In other words, this term of opprobrium was twisted, describing not the behavior of neo-Nazis and other persons clearly motivated by hatred of Jews as an ethnicity and Jewishness as a religious tradition and cultural orientation. Netanyahu’s immediate response to the International Criminal Court’s finding earlier this year that Palestinian allegations of Israeli war crimes since 2014 should be fully investigated by the prosecutor was to castigate this legal finding as ‘pure antisemitism,’ a typical if crude example of recourse to this tactic. Any fairminded jurist would appreciate the legal diligence of the ICC Chamber decision and applaud this show of political independence. Similarly, to respond to the release of a 2017 academic report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) concluding that Israel’s patterns of governance overwhelmingly justified the conclusion that Israel had become an apartheid state. [“Israeli Practice Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” E/ESCWA/EC R1/2017/1; available by accessing ,old website ‘palestine studies./org/default/files/ESCWA/2017); in the spirit of transparency, the controversial report was written by myself in collaboration with Professor Virginia Tilley. ]. A more recent example is the ongoing effort to discredit the Durban Process by maligning this UN laudable effort to launch an anti-racist initiative twenty years ago calling for the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action, which are neither anti-Israel, nor by any stretch, antisemitic. [the Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, 2001, with outcome document the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action, A/CONF. 189/12, 8 Sept 2001. Discussed in my essay, “Demonizing the Durban Process,” Transcend Media Service, Aug 16, 2021]

Legacies of the Holocaust: Impacts on Zionist political style, European Diplomacy, and the Rebranding of Antisemitism

My contention is that this kind of discrediting maneuver with its reliance on false accusations of antisemitism can be best interpreted as a hangover from the Zionist opportunistic style that included a willingness to cooperate with the Nazis to advance its policy priority of inducing Jews to populate Palestine. During the Nazi years Zionist opportunism extended to cooperation with the worst of antisemites, while during the existence of Israel it took the form of characterizing as antisemitic anything that the leadership found objectionable.

–A second unfortunate legacy of the Holocaust is to make mere accusations of antisemitism such a potent and intimidating weapon in the domain of symbolic politics. What the Holocaust did was to make antisemitism the crime of crimes by its foundational relationship to the Nazi genocidal ‘final solution.’ The mere prospect of being so accused of antisemitism is intimidating in the way that, for example, comparably severe criticism of Islamic policies and practices is not, at least in the West. This issue has become complicated since right-wing extremists and evangelical Christians affirm Israel for their own reasons and thus join in the condemnation of its critics. [although often accompanied by similar genuine antisemitic tropes—encouraging Jews to leave so that Jesus can return]

–A third unfortunate legacy of the Holocaust is the compensatory mechanisms active in Europe and North America for the failure to act with a greater show of empathy for the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the 1930s. This is especially true for obvious reasons of Germany. Angela Merkel observed, in a casual remark, that no matter what coalition government succeeds her CSU leadership will continue to support Israel’s security, implying that no foreseeable German governemtn would dare voice criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people.

There was a reluctance of liberal democracies to admit Jews as refugees or asylum seekers heightened by the economic strains of the Great Depression, a posture incidentally encouraged by the Zionist Movement that sought to close off all possible places of sanctuary other than Palestine for Jews in need of refuge. Despite this, the behavior of liberal goverments during the Nazi years helps explain the faint sense of liberal complicity in this period of Jewish ordeal, and may help account for international passivity in Europe and North America with respect to addressing Palestinian grievances. There were some signs that this mood may be slightly changing during the May 2021 assault on Gaza.

Concluding Remarks  

My main contention is that the Holocaust experience accentuated the tendencies of the Zionist movement to be opportunistic in the course of its long effort to attain, little by little, its territorial and ideological goals. This opportunism has had the further effect of greatly hampering the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, particularly the right of self-determination. Such assessments do not pretend to be the whole story of Zionist success and Palestinian frustration. Many factors also contributed shaping present circumstances, including the geopolitical muscle provided by the United States.

The UN after 75: What Next?

6 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of a text published in TMS (Transcend Media Service) on 5 October 2021. It assesses the record of the UN over the decades on the basis of its constitutional design, its operational experience, and the gap between UN capabilities and the global need for dramatically enhanced human solidarity mechanisms.]

Worthy, Worthless, and Harmful

I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was in different settings worthy and worthless, or actually worse than worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal if based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter or the stirring familiar words of commitment at the beginning of the Charter Preamble: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Such a pledge could be called almost worthless, especially its apparent grant of agency to ‘peoples’ on such grave matters of state as recourse to war, as well as by purporting to have substituted a global rule of law for war as a social institution and to have displaced the primacy of geopolitics. The implication that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or for transgressions of fundamental legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious even by only reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this pretense of reaching for the stars is far from the whole UN story.

To begin with, the UN didn’t ever seriously aim as high as the words of the Preamble would lead one to believe. The UN was primarily hoped to become a lasting presence on the global stage, and this it has accomplished. The Organization managed to induce nearly every country on the planet to join, and afterwards value its membership sufficiently to stay involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced deep splits in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether establishing and maintaining this arena providing many venues for diplomatic contact between adversaries had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that likely would have been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the League of Nations the fate of UN was not decided before it was even tested by aggression and war. The original champion of the League, the United States, refused to join. This stuck a heavy blow to the birthing process of the League, whose reputation was further seriously undermined by the subsequent withdrawals of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following for a variety of reasons.

By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms the beliefs prevailing even among the most cynical political leaderships among national governments that it is more advantageous to be active within the UN than to rely on going it alone. Understanding why this has become so, even among detractors of internationalism as is the case with virtually the entire political class of foreign policy advisors in P-5 states who continue see global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ Such realists see the UN as a useful enough foreign policy tool to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests. The UN’s survival and usefulness is a partly a result of Members and high-level UN civil servants understanding and respecting the strong constaints on its effective authority.

Framing Faustian Bargains

This mild, but indispensable governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to entail an unconditional surrender to the machinations of geopolitics. First, and foremost, by constitutional design the UN gave the winners in World War II permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council the only organ of the UN with authority to reach obligatory decisions. In effect, this was an acknowledgement that the UN had neither the authority nor the intention of overriding the political will of these five permanent members, and would have to live with or without their discretionary adherence to Charter norms and procedures, especially in the domain of international peace and security, and behavioral patterns based on self-restraint and prudence. Such hopes of voluntary compliance were not entirely in vain, but often seemed so, particularly at times of geopolitical confrontation, perhaps most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis( 1962). Catastrophic adversity was avoided throughout the Cold War mostly by good luck, although some would give credit to doctrines of mutual deterrence and the related fear factor arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons poised to launch missiles if attacked. The UN was usually on the sidelines anxiously watching international crises unfold, reconciled to its role as a virtual spectator, or at most, a helpless commentator. [See definitive exploration of this assertion in Martin Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2021)] In other words, the UN by its constitutional framework and its operational reality defers to the most dangerous states in the world as signified by hard power capabilities. This affinity between hard power capabilities and P-5 status was reinforced by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also the first five countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

The second rationale for this hierarchy of membership in 1945 was to make a maximum effort to avoid a repetition of the League experience. From this perspective it was imperative to keep major states involved as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing in specific contexts. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong as in the early UN experience the Soviet Union was consistently outvoted on central peace and security issues. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given recognition and free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members acting on their own in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm throughout World War II would stay together to assure the peace.

The Soviet Union came to a dramatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining participation when its absence from the Security Council in 1950 due to a temporary protest against the refusal of the UN to recognize the Chinese Peoples Republic as representing China meant that it lost the opportunity to veto the Council decision to condemn North Korean aggression and give its blessing to the action by Western governments to join in the operations of collective self-defense on behalf of South Korea. The Soviets reacted by immediately reoccupying their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake. It is significant that what they didn’t do was to threaten or actually withdraw.

In a sense, this deference to geopolitics involved a pair of Faustian Bargains. In both instances, the UN refrained from its inception to make any serious attempt to impose its authority on geopolitical actors, which introduced a gaping right of exception into all Security Council proceedings. It is mostly the operational reality of this concession to hard power that leads many in the public and media to the perception that the UN is worthless as it is seen as playing no role in wars that involve the participation of P-5 members. This perception has been reinforced by patterns of unlawful behavior on the part of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the more specific normative architecture of the UN’s own Charter. We cannot know what would have ensued after 1945 if there had been no permanent membership and no veto in the Security Council, but we can make a good guess. The UN might have turned into a Western anti-Soviet alliance or would have completely lost its relevance as a result of political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and uses of force in manifest violation of the UN Charter. Another line of conjecture would seek to imagine the likely UN evolution if the FDR image of keeping the East/West alliance vibrant with a new priority assignment of keeping the peace in the dawn of the nuclear age.

Achievements of The UN System

When we turn to the case for worthiness, the argument is on one level obvious and on anther is somewhat subtle and elusive. The obvious part is that the resources and energies of the UN System are concerned with much more than the peace and security agenda, providing guidance and valuable assistance in such varied areas as development, human rights, economic and social policy, environment, health, culture, and education. Beyond these substantive domains the UN provides indispensable auspices for the management of complex interdependence for many mutually beneficial transnational undertakings. Among the most important UN contributions is host a variety of cooperative activities comprising multilateral diplomacy of global scope. The UN has a strong record of offering its facilities and backing for lawmaking treaties covering a diverse range of global concerns including the public order of the oceans, peaceful uses of outer space, protection of endangered animal species, world trade.

The subtler case regarding the UN as a worthy contributor to a better world is its role in the domain of symbolic politics, which can be understood by regarding the UN as ‘a soft power superpower.’ The UN Secretary General is almost alone as a globally respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess and as a trustworthy alarmist with respect to climate change and the COVID pandemic. The periodically elected administrative leader of the UN exert some influence on world public opinion through their statements of concern, but rarely challenge directly  geopolitical behavior.

More relevant is the capacity of the UN, primarily in the General Assembly, but throughout the UN System to shape perceptions of legitimacy and illegitimacy in ways that exert important influences throughout civil society. The reality of such a perception can be most easily captured by the degree to which states struggle to achieve UN approval and to avoid having the UN pass critical judgment on their behavior. The UN endorsement of the anti-apartheid campaign is one of the factors that both mobilized activism in civil society and eventually led the leadership of the South African apartheid regime to reverse course. The frantic pushback by Israel to UN-backed allegations of racism and criminality, and more recently, of apartheid is further confirmation that what the UN does symbolically matters, and sometimes deeply.

Although Currently Worthy, a Stronger UN is Possible and Necessary, although it seems Unlikely

The COVID experience exposed the essential weakness of the UN when it came to promote and protect human interests in a health crisis of global scope. The ethos that prevailed was both an exhibition of the non-accountability of the geopolitical actors, and more broadly, the prioritizing of national interests and shared civilizational values in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to prevent the scandalous hoarding of vaccines, which made descriptive such pejorative labels as ‘vaccine apartheid’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ This experience is disturbing beyond COVID as it offers a metaphor for the global persistence of statist world order, which is partially enacted by marginalizing the UN in the face of an acute crisis of global scale. The record of response is only slightly better when it comes to fashioning a collective response to the dire expert consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. [See Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021)]

We are left with the haunting question of whether pressures toward unity and global public goods can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate such awakening into a movement capable of achieving a UN oriented and empowered to serve, at least selectively, the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the prorities of geopolitics.