president 2016

In 1992, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Bill. I didn’t care for Bill’s willingness to sacrifice her to the wolves of the health insurance and medical industry, or his unwillingness to spend some real political capital. But in 2016? The bank and security industry wants her, the defense industry has no objection, the neo-cons are getting ready to work with her, the pro-Israel right thinks she is a new Cyrus the Great. See the Intercept. It’s already done, a fait accompli, unavoidable. Conclusion: no need for me to go and vote for her.

state of Palestine

Now that the midterm elections have sent a more reactionary House and Senate to Washington, the Israeli right and its US supporters couldn’t wait to resume their dance with the US representatives. They share a loathing of Obama and his administration, mostly because of his early attempts to take his distances from damaging Middle-East policies of previous US governments that they favor, and his later vain efforts to get real negotiations going between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. So, various openings are quickly being made, for instance in the shape of an opinion in last Friday’s NYT by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of the economy and leader of the right-wing Ha-bayt ha-Yedudi, The Jewish Home party. He proposes to do away with the idea of a negotiated settlement between the two peoples. No UN, no resolution, no Oslo agreement, no pursuit of a two-state solution, no Palestinian people.

The urgency has deeper reasons than the occurrence of a new political situation in Washington. Here are three main reasons that, in my opinion, guide the intensity of the right wingers’ agenda regarding Palestine and the fate of Palestinians.

  1. The major reason is that the core of the zionist religious right’s enthusiasm is the continuation of the classic zionism’s national dream on a re-energized religious basis. It creates difficulties because it blurs the separation of religion and state on which the modern state of Israel was based, though it was not formalized by a constitution. It claims ownership of the whole area on the basis of divine will revealed to Abraham and putative successors. It is a messianism and often a temple-centered messianism (witness Feiglin and Yehuda Glick recently). This messianism has been developing in the recent months, according to Vincent Lemire (see links below). It is the mirror image of the Muslim fervor surrounding the Haram esh-sharif, a fervor that Hamas may also have an interest now in exacerbating and turning into a central piece of its religious politics. Not that this will bother conservative US representatives who wish to do the same blurring here in the US and furthermore share at least superficially the messianic beliefs of the Israeli religious right. It remains to be seen whether our house representatives and senators will be willing to push things along these messianic lines or prudently back off. An incorrigible optimist bets on the latter.

  2. Secondly, an international movement of recognition of Palestine is spreading. Sweden has just recognized the state of Palestine and was the 135th country to do so according to today’s Le Monde debate on the topic. About twenty countries still refuse to do so, most importantly the remaining superpower, the USA. Various parties in these twenty countries are contemplating a recognition. This international movement of recognition of the state of Palestine is seen as most dangerous by the Israeli right because it moves towards giving the same legal basis to the state of Palestine as the UN gave Israel on 29 November 1947. M. Abbas and the Palestinian authority have long been pursuing a policy of legitimate authority founded on international law. The US refusal to budge on this matter will not remain tenable much longer.

  3. Finally, there is the demographic evolution in Israel and Palestinian territories. See the wiki on the demographics of the Palestinian territories.The case of Jerusalem is paradigmatic. The status of Jerusalem and the return of the refugees are two tightly linked issues that need to be negotiated in future final status negotiations.

    The population within the municipality of Jerusalem is now at circa 800,000: 500,000 Israeli Jews and 300,000 Palestinian Arab inhabitants in East Jerusalem, including 35,000 in the old city. Since 1967, the Arab population of Jerusalem has grown by a factor of 4, that of the Jewish population by a factor of 2.5 (figures given by Vincent Lemire, historian, see his interview in Libération and the Open Jerusalem Project). The distribution of the population of the old city by religious affiliation is: 26,000 Muslims, 6,000 Christians, and 4,000 Jews. Most religious Israeli Jews don’t live in the old city. But many of them in turn (of various obedience), faced with the demographic resistance of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem, increase the pressure on Arab quarters just outside the old city: Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. The belt of colonies just beyond the city perimeter of Jerusalem expands and thickens: Maalei Adumim, Har Homa, Pizgat Zeev, etc.

Given these reasons, there is an internal consistency to what a representative of the religious extreme right suggests in his NYT article. It is a logic that has catastrophic consequences. The article rejects the notion of a state of Palestine and replaces it, unsurprisingly, with the logic of a greater Israel.

What of Gaza under Hamas? Bennett asserts that “It cannot be a party to any agreement.” It can remain the biggest open-air prison in the world. The systematic debilitation and sub-human status of 1.6 million people, almost half of whom are under 15 if I believe the statistics, will continue.

For the West Bank, Bennett uses the security and terror rhetoric that is accepted nowadays by so many people (not only Republicans). Notice that he doesn’t use Biblical names in this article directed to a non-religious readership and calls “West Bank” the Palestinian areas that go also under the post-Oslo letters A, B, and C. His letter advocates a land grab under the general claim of security that he knows has a good chance of getting the US house and senate—including many democrats—on his side, at least for a moment. He writes that “for its security, Israel cannot withdraw from more territory and cannot allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank.”

So, he proposes four measures regarding the West Bank that will further demean Palestinians in their aspirations to freedom and self-government and will continue a massive enforcement of the open-air prison characteristics in that area. His suggestions are the following:

  1. “We would work to upgrade Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank in the areas already under Palestinian control.” This refers to areas A and B, as was made explicit in the e-version of the article that reads: “First, we would work to upgrade the Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank, in the areas largely under Palestinian control (known as Areas A and B, according to the Oslo Accords)”. These areas were defined by the Oslo II agreement, a process whose viability according to Bennett has been upended by “the new reality in the Middle East.” He relies upon it as a weapon against Palestinian aspirations. Areas A and B happen to have about 90-95% of the West Bank’s Palestinian population. See the maps and details. In terms of territory, however, area A has about 3% of the West Bank—exclusive of East Jerusalem—and area B has 23-25% of the West Bank, with about 440 villages and no Israeli implantations. Together with the other suggestions by Bennett, this would be left to the “Palestinian entity.” No state. No independence. Hardly any territory, but a reservation where the population would have to make do with whatever the Israel government grants it. A subhuman existence not unlike that of Gaza, given the security measures likely to develop in response to any violence.
  2. A “huge upgrade of roads and infrastructure, as well as the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank.” Exactly where? In area C? Will these roads continue to be penetration roads? Will there be strict control of the Palestinian population living in areas A and B, that is, will the roadblocks and checkpoints be moved between area C—annexed by Israel—and areas A-B? I suppose that’s the idea.
  3. “economic bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians:” that is, more industrial zones in illegal colonies. This idea presumably would concern area C.
  4. “Lastly, I propose applying Israeli law in the part of the West Bank controlled by Israel under the Oslo Accords. (Palestinian who live there would be offered full Israeli citizenship).” This is Area C, as made explicit, once more, in the electronic version of this opinion piece: “Lastly, I propose applying Israeli law in Area C, which is the part of the West Bank controlled by Israel under the Oslo agreement.” This assertion of “national sovereignty” is illegal land grabbing. What is Area C? It constitutes at least 61% of Palestinian territories East of the 1967 Green Line as of now (disputed question: actually almost 75% of the West Bank). It conveniently has about 5% of the Palestinian West Bank population only at the moment, for all kinds of reasons (previous land occupation especially). See the map and articles on B’tselem.org site.

Bennett concludes by mouthing platitudes on “new realities” that have “brought an end to the viability of the Oslo peace process.” Obama may have been hated by the right and the not-so-right. Imagine, he had the audacity to visit Arab countries at the beginning of his first mandate. Even worse, he and his government mentioned again, after a long hiatus, the language of just, negotiated settlement on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242, with swaps. Anathema of course, because it is the only basis for some semblance of just settlement.

Now, with Bennett and other tenors of the religious extreme right, not even a two-state solution is advocated as part of a hypocritical discourse that the present Israeli government has kept up for a while under US pressure. The little pressure there was is gone. Nothing for Palestinians. On the contrary, the measures proposed by Bennett spell a new era of increased repression. The hope of the extreme right wingers: continue the annexation of area C—60-75% of the whole area conquered in June 1967— and “give up” all of areas A and B, while making sure it becomes another Gaza=open air prison.

Do our new representatives and senators want to be part of this injustice and what it spells for the whole area?

silence of goodness

Last weekend, Toni Morrison gave a talk at UCSC on literature and the silence of goodness. It was part of the 2014 Founders Celebration events at UCSC.

She gave a similar talk at Cornell last year (“Translating goodness”), and in the Ingersoll 2012 Lecture at Harvard Divinity School. She began with a non-literary example of forgiveness, that of the Amish community’s reaction after the shooting of nine young girls (five died) and the suicide of the killer in 2006. They responded with support for the families, media silence, and no vengeance. The silence particularly impressed Toni Morrison and started her thinking about this broader topic of the silence of goodness. Evil exercises no fascination on her. She wondered about its attraction for others, what she called its worshipping. Why is evil so captivating? In the nineteenth century, she said, whatever the forces of malice, redemption was there at the end. She spoke of the effects of WW I, the disappearance of happy endings. With WW I and one could add even worse with WW II, the dynamics of evil and redemption set up in nineteenth-century bourgeois fiction didn’t quite fathom anymore the depths human misery could reach, and any morality play looked trite and hypocritical. Acts of goodness were greeted with suspicion or irony. True heroes were dead ones.

It all sounded so categorical. I wondered about Saint-Exupéry’s works. Or children’s literature. I granted the point however that the force of goodness is more mysterious than that of evil, this crafty grabber of the intellectual platform. Before giving examples of the role of goodness in the drama of her own books, she mentioned Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, fascinating, distant, scornful of good intentions. In Roth, Bellow, etc., goodness seemed comical and frail. She noted an exception to this chorus of minds fascinated by evil: Marilyn Robinson. I thought of others still.

All along the talk, I kept thinking of Apollinaire’s line in La jolie rousse: “Nous voulons explorer la bonté contrée énorme où tout se tait” = “We want to explore kindness enormous region where all falls quiet.” Apollinaire the wounded soldier of WW I. The drama of good vs evil swirls around kindness, goodness, self-giving, forgiveness, as the hurricane around its eye. Forgiveness, the broad giving of everything that counts without calculation or expectation of recognition (hence its no-name, no-image) is at the center of being human or pan-human, or is all that this noosphere may consist of. A fiction of it is rather paradoxical. Better if fiction continues to function as a reminder of the eye at the center of the storm. The father of the prodigal or lost son in Luke 15—another story—looks so weak, so un-patriarchal, yet so dramatically decisive and speedy in restoring the younger son to original status. It was the right thing to do, he says to his older, envious, raging son. He begs him to enter into this pacified, giving society “where everything falls quiet.”

Modern society presents many opportunities to give and forgive in ways that are more splendid and sublime than ever before because completely invisible to others. In fact, the raison d’être of modern economic development, with its systematic erasure of stifling local, traditional bonds and the explosion of enticing, temporary, greedy freedoms of capitalist structures, is its enabling of un-named, quiet, transforming, non-reciprocal and assymetric giving. I’m not thinking about philanthropy, certainly not the name-rich philanthropy of Founders’ Day at a fast-corporatizing UCSC and its expensive speech on the silence of goodness (20,000$+ if I’m not mistaken). I’m thinking of hidden forms of generosity, beyond our anonymous taxation and social security systems, though they are at the heart of it too. This giving and forgiving beyond public morality, this thousand-fold com-passion or em-pathy in families, offices, streets, companies, that is our work of fiction, a negative of the printed and electronic one, the heart of a moving coral reef. Like a coral reef, it is capable of establishing “lasting institutions” in spite of what Melville’s Billy Budd says, quoted by Hannah Arendt (On Revolution, p. 86). Printed history and fiction sometimes hesitatingly point in the direction of this old, unmarketable story.

Oz

Amos Oz on Israel and Palestine, Yedioth Aharonoth, Oct. 25, 2014:

There is no chance and no point, after a hundred years of hatred and violence, of trying to put the Israelis and the Palestinians into a double bed and hope for a honeymoon. If we don’t become two states, and quickly, there will be one state here, and it will be an Arab state. If there is an Arab state here, I don’t envy our children and grandchildren.

Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s books are striking for their great precision of place and time: toponymy of cities, especially Paris, its cafés or bars, streets, squares, subway or railway stations, house numbers. Dates, hours… Against this police-record accuracy, the impression of a fog à la Simenon in which people are conjured up, but from what hidden, secret pasts, and for what, louche, projects? They pass each other by, though they look or stare, speak, joke a little, meet again, and come to life in public. These lives have a few zones of contact where little is exchanged or shared. We follow them in different guises, from different viewpoints. They all go missing or fade away in what becomes a fog of time that reminds me of the end of Fellini’s Amarcord. The transformation of pale and mysterious human lives fuses with that of the evolving physical surroundings. Cafés that were cosmopolitan, mysterious, congenial meeting places have become boutiques or agencies. What looked like a motivated pursuit of a where, what, and why dissipates in infinite peregrinations or searches that echo each other. The clash between the precise evocation and the progressive erasure of moments, places, and people creates an emptiness and dislocation, a dark dream from which there is but fleeting moments of wakefulness. Correction: a daze rather than a dream, from which the absent, so near, so close, calls us to emerge.

Stangneth

Today’s NYT op-ed about Stangneth’s book on Eichmann (Eichmann before Jerusalem, translation of a 2011 book in German), focusses on Hannah Arendt. Seyla Benhabib, philosophy professor at Yale, argues Arendt didn’t get it wrong regarding Eichmann, as Stangneth herself agrees, if somewhat cautiously. What was not seen by Arendt perhaps was the depth of Eichmann’s antisemitism. But his “thoughtlessness” (heedlessness?), Gedankenlosigkeit, which was a concept important for Heidegger, and that Arendt perhaps kept for that reason, is not to be confused with Eichmann’s lack of intellectual ability or drive. For Arendt, it was a fundamental absence of reliance on reason (not sure of my formulations here), hostility to it actually, exemplified by the twisted understanding Eichmann showed he had of Kant’s moral imperative, at the trial in Jerusalem:

She [Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem] quotes Eichmann saying, “I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.” But Arendt notes that Eichmann’s meaning perverts Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Whereas “In Kant’s philosophy the source, that source was practical reason, in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.”

Seyla Benhabib defends the concept of banality of evil inasmuch as Eichmann’s fanatical antisemitism was banal and widespread among National Socialists.

So, I ask myself, no hidden last play by Eichmann? I’m still curious to know if anything happened in his youth when he abandoned (slid off?) the Christian beliefs (which exactly) of his parents? Or did his parents already have strange volkish, anti-universal beliefs? In other words, from what world did nazism’s belief “system” emerge and why did it find such a powerful mix of sympathy, cowardice, heedlessness, and efficient bureaucratic power? I grant it is important not to go along with so much fantastic Western thinking concerning “evil” and ascribe it to demonic, irrational forces. I don’t think it is enough either to ascribe it to an inability or refusal to think à la Kant (or à la Heidegger?). I keep coming back to this crux: how could a Christian country, profoundly antisemitic but also reminded daily by its Christian structures both of human fallability and divine forgiveness, come to abandon this latter part of its ideology completely and revert to a notion of justice and morality that looked no further than blood and narrowly defined nation?

transcendence

In Chinese religions in comparative perspective, an essay published on The Immanent Frame blog, and that presents some of the ideas of a chapter in his forthcoming book, Prasenjit Duara pursues the following question: How did state and religions manage the question of transcendence? Duara argues that contrary to what axial age theorists think (among those specialists might be Robert Bellah whose last book is: Religion in human evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard UP, 2011), transcendental dimensions existed in Chinese religions and have been missed by analysts because of the Abrahamic framework of their thinking. Given the brevity of the essay, it is hard to see what exactly he means by “Abrahamic framework,” so the following questions and comments regarding this “framework” can only be tentative. Is it a view of the divine as single, radically separate from creation, yet mysteriously engaged in human history? And this view would be so militantly bound to monotheism and so impatient with more embedded, complex pantheons, that it has long blinded its theologians and followers to the existence of other forms of transcendence? I agree (and many theologians would too, I suspect) that there is good reason to broaden the field and think of transcendence as a universal capacity to see beyond the immediate horizon; a capacity to anthropomorphize personal or impersonal, living, powerful forces hidden below, beyond, and above. A capacity to shape hopes. In that wider sense, it can be observed in all societies. Its figuration, access to it, and leveraging, have been and are a locus of political give and take. That is how I understand Duara’s contrast of “dialogical transcendence” with what he presents as radical transcendence and dualism. He is showing that the theologies and politics of transcendence are not the exclusive province of monotheistic faiths, far from it. They took many highly contested forms and no simple evolutionary scheme can account for their history. The complexity he sees in that history is not unlike Jullien’s reasoning on landscape and perspective: the intricacy of “mountain(s) and water(s)” versus the objectification in modern European painting.

In his essay, Duara starts with Guoyu, a fourth-century bce text that points to the monopolistic use of shamanism and exclusive access to heavenly powers by kings and their subordinate priests. Duara asserts that this “vertical division between state and people in relation to transcendence” was “different from that of other so-called Axial Age civilizations which often integrated states and believers vertically through the clergy.” This last sentence implies, I suppose, that priests were the leading element in first millenium bce societies of India and the Mediterranean region. What Duara calls an “integration,” however, was actually a claim by kings (sometimes kings-priests and priests-kings) to special and monopolizing access to divine power(s), very much like what the ancient Chinese text pointed to. In spite of occasional cycles of what he calls “Caesaro-papism” in Eurasia, and in spite of the long Confucian-led (or masked) attempts by (free-standing?) elites to assert authority over religious interpretation of divine will (my vocabulary: read Heavens, and metaphoric application to society of its perceived regularities), he sees the domination of the imperial state as being uncontested in this respect. It asserted exclusive power over expressing and interpreting two major religious aspects: first, divine will (“Heavens”), and secondly the ancestor cult, primarily via the primacy of the imperial ancestors (with Confucius eventually integrated into this cult).

That the first one (divine will, or heavenly power) is considered transcendent by Duara, and not the ancestors’ cult, puzzles me. It would be important to know if heavenly powers were considered part of the cosmos (constellations, laws setting courses of stars, etc.), or on the contrary external agents of creation. This is a key issue, I believe, that separates Abrahamic-style transcendence from other forms. Secondly, the ancestor cult seems to me to be another kind of transcendental activity, in that it reaches out to absent bodies whose past reconstructed lives can become and are made to be authoritative patterns for the living (social divisions, labor division, etc.).

Not surprisingly, as Duara makes clear, imperial claims in China didn’t necessarily carry much weight with the masses and even less with elites when they felt they could shake off the yoke. A parallel would be the Roman attempts at the beginning of our era to spread their own version of an imperial cult. In China, there was (and is, Duara implies at the end) a complex “interface” between local elites and the population regarding religious customs and beliefs. And this could lead to protracted, irreducible struggles over authority. From time to time, there were attempts by state powers and elites to eradicate popular forms of religion if they were perceived as outside the state or elite forms. These attempts could have the contrary effect. At this interface, there were complex games of power, of accommodation and resistance… And claims of access from within popular cults to heavenly power and knowledge, as well as claims to authority for utopian programs. Buddhism in particular provoked or elicited this complex behavior (an example given by Duara: world negation as potentially contrary to filial and familial duties, but tempered by stories of filial devotion).

Back to Abraham and Christian or post-Christian (European?) exclusivist claims on the notion of transcendence. Duara thinks the main difference between Eurasian and Indic or Abrahamic traditions was that the latter were controlled by priests, brahmins, ulamas. This was not true of polytheistic societies like Egypt or Mesopotamia. Kings were very much interested in controlling access to heavenly (or subterranean?) powers, which could be contentious, granted (think of Egypt’s Amenhotep’s attempt to wrest power completely from the temples). But it was not true either of more recent small kingdoms like Israel and Judah, or the dozen neighboring kingdoms of Iron Age Levant where palaces dominated temples. A most important change occurred in Israel/Judah when their monarchies were displaced (ca. 700-600 bce), the monarchy-related temples stopped functioning at the same time, and priesthood or prophets survived as the only trusted voices that could lead people in reshaping a kind of potentially universal access to divine power(s), formulated as exclusive monotheism. It is only then that the book of Exodus configured access to the divinity in a more radical way, though still ambiguously: without kings but via a mediator who disappears from the story and can’t be imitated (Moses), directly at times for the people (including direct access to the text/Torah), and still—secondarily—via the priests and levites. What seems clear, though, is that the divinity inherited from a semi-transcendent, astral, king-supported pantheon (Yahweh) saw its sphere of action expanded to all of human history by the end of the sixth century before our era, and its locus placed outside of cosmos and time. This way of framing a unique, personal power as radically transcendent made it possible to envision politics without kings, suffer empires, and keep hopes of freedom and dignity alive. The Abraham cycle of stories is written then and there as exemplary escape from politics as usual.

Prof. Salaita

In 2013, the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign searched for a new professor. Professor Salaita, who teaches at Virginia Tech and has written a number of books, was hired. The appointment letter was issued, contingent on Board of Trustees’ approval, normally a formality. Professor Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech and prepared to move. But a few weeks (two?) before teaching was supposed to start this 2014 academic year, the offer was rescinded, or rather the chancellor of Urbana-Champaign made the decision not to forward the appointment to the Board of Trustees. The board routinely approves hires, sometimes retroactively given its rare meetings (three a year, I believe).

What led to this potential violation of professional academic freedom and constitutional free speech, according to many, is the “concern” over the stridency of S. Salaita’s social media comments on Israel’s military actions in Gaza earlier this summer. See his Twitter site.

Strident alright, but clearly part of political discourse and protected freedom of speech. One may strongly disagree with Salaita’s active support of Boycott-Divestment-Sanction (BDS) and his views on zionism, yet defend his rights to express them and to see his appointment at UI-Urbana-Champaign confirmed. In regard to the latter, my only question regarding the judgment by the hiring powers would be: Does and will Professor Salaita engage viewpoints different from his in his teaching and writing? Will he welcome colleagues and students in this broad manner? The American Indian Studies program thinks so (see link below). Prof. Salaita himself addresses that question in the press conference today, at about the 17′ mark of the youtube recording (last link below). To be pursued….

Links:

  1. Description of events in article on blocked appointment in Inside Higher Ed.
  2. Vote of no confidence in Chancellor Wise taken by American Indian Studies Program at UI-Urbana-Champaign, with other links.
  3. Illinois AAUP section issued a statement asking that Salaita’s appointment be honored.
  4. Defense of decision by UI’s administration to rescind the offer by Cary Nelson, ex-president of AAUP, who seems to have had Steven Salaita in his crosshairs for quite a while.
  5. Resource guide by UI students. Links to circulating petitions can be found in this guide.
  6. Press conference of Sept 9, 2014, with Professor Salaita, Professor Warrior of American Indian Studies Program at UI/Urbana-Champaign, Professor Rothberg reading the MLA statement regarding the abrogation of due process in Prof. Salaita’s case and more grievously the violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression, students’ statements (including Jewish and Palestinian students), and a period of questions and answers.

Gildas Hamel