Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Theological objection to extracting one cell from an embryo

Scientists report that it is now possible to extract a cell from an embryo that has grown to a size of eight cells without killing the embryo. The extracted cell can then be grown and made to divide and be the source of many stem cells. Some scientists believe that this technique will allow embryonic stem cell research to proceed without raising objections from ethicists and theologians.

Not so! One theologian argues that although taking one cell doesn’t kill the embryo, taking the cell without obtaining the informed consent of the embryo is wrong. He argues that we do not take organs from a convicted criminal after execution without first obtaining his or her permission to do so. It is equally wrong to take a single cell from an embryo without its permission. The embryo is just as human as the convicted criminal.

How ridiculous! An embryo of eight or even a hundred cells has no brain and no nervous system. It has not yet started to differentiate into the various organs and limbs of a human body. It has all the self-awareness of an apple or a carrot. It feels nothing; it knows nothing. It does not yet know that it is human. It is still in a vegetative state. One might as well ask permission of the apple tree before picking a fruit from it. An apple is alive and contains seeds that can conceivably grow into another apple tree. Eating the apple and destroying the seeds is morally equivalent to killing an apple tree.

Let’s consider another situation. An embryo has developed normally for a time inside the womb of a woman. After six or seven months of pregnancy, doctors discover a potentially fatal problem. Perhaps the fetus has a blood type that is different from that of the mother. In the process of giving birth, either the mother or the fetus may be poisoned by the strange blood of the other. The blood type of the fetus must be determined to decide what sort of procedure should be used to give birth. How is it to be done? A doctor thrusts a small hypodermic needle into the fetus to obtain a sample of blood for analysis. Do theologians have a problem with that procedure? A part of the fetus is removed in a way that does it no harm. However, the doctor and the mother do not obtain the informed consent of the fetus before doing the procedure.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The Power and Influence of Privateers

Perhaps some of you would prefer that I had used the word "privatizers" in the title. I like privateers because it expresses my own feeling of disgust, alarm, and fear about two items of news in the Los Angeles Times this morning.

The first item is the news that the State Legislature in California has passed a bill to set the State on a path to create a single-payer health insurance plan to cover every resident of the State. The State Legislature has a Democratic majority in both houses. Our Republican governor, Mr. Schwarzenegger, is reputed to oppose the single-payer plan and will veto the bill. He favors an approach like that of Massachusetts, in which private insurers continue to sell and provide health insurance to residents, and in which all residents are legally required to buy health insurance. The State has a budget surplus these days and will provide a subsidy for low-income residents to help pay for the insurance.

We have a constrast here between what I call the Democratic and Republican plans for fixing our broken system of public health care. The Democratic, or single-payer plan, gets rid of the profit and overhead costs of multiple private health insurance providers and replaces it with an efficient, low-overhead universal provider. The Republican plan would protect the profits of the private insurers.

The other item was an opinion article by Naomi Klein, entitled The flood next time -- disaster relief for profit. She cites the pitiful, inept performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in dealing with the crisis a year ago in New Orleans when the city was flooded by the hurricane Katrina. She reports that the Red Cross has decided to team with Wal-Mart to provide disaster relief in future crises rather than depending on any help from FEMA or other government agency. In fact, the federal government has already started outsourcing or privatizing some emergency relief functions. Some firms are enjoying generous contracts at present and are using the money to built up their own infrastructure and other equipment for use in future disasters. Ms Klein foresees that this equipment will then be leased and sold back to the government during the next devastating natural disaster. In time, she predicts, this approach to disaster relief will lead to help for those who can afford to pay the private providers. If you need to be rescued from the roof of your home during a flood, a helicopter will be available for a fee. If you need an expensive medical procedure, the service will be available for a hefty co-payment to your insurance company.

The privateers seem to be having things their way. Primarily it is the Republican Party that advocates for them and, as we know, the Republican Party dominates the federal government.

You can read these articles for yourself by going to the web site of the Los Angeles Times.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


We Don’t Need New Ideas to Change the Course

It has been said of the Democratic Party that we Democrats shouldn’t expect to win an election simply by being against the policies of the Bush Administration and the Republican Party. Even though the public has turned away from supporting Bush and even though the Republican Party is favored by fewer voters than the Democratic Party, the public won’t take a chance on changing parties without knowing what the Democrats are for. It isn’t enough simply to be against the Republicans.

For a while I bought into this cant. Now I’ve decided it’s propaganda put out by desperate conservatives who know that although Republicans have many ideas, they are not popular ideas or ideas that will lead to an end to our unfortunate involvement in Iraq. I really believe that to say that we Democrats are opposed to the Republicans and all their bad, unpopular, unworkable ideas is more than sufficient to convince the public that it is a good time for a change.

What are some of these bad Republican ideas that we oppose? Privatizing Social Security is one. Social Security is a very popular program. The public likes it and wants it to be continued as it is. Another bad idea is tax cuts for very wealthy people that have the effect of creating a permanent deficit. This tax cut idea is coupled with the idea of reducing or eliminating many of the services that government provides. These services benefit middle-class and poor people. In effect, the Republican idea is to take from the poor and the middle-class and give to the wealthy. Another bad idea is to create a “prescription drug benefit” for people on Medicare without placing any controls on the prices that pharmaceutical firms can charge for the drugs. A better plan would be for the Medicare Administration to buy the drugs itself at negotiated prices and sell them to the Medicare patients for nominal fees that would be set so that even poor people could afford their prescriptions.

A big issue is how to disengage us from Iraq. The Bush Administration has no idea. Its program is to “stay the course” and let the next President figure out how to get our troops home. Note that I do not charge the Republican Party with this particularly bad idea. There are many Republicans who have some very useful ideas about disengagement from Iraq, just as there are many Democrats who have such ideas. I charge the Republican Party, the party in control of both houses of Congress, with doing nothing to force the Administration to change course. Instead, the Republican Party persistently defends the Administration even in the commission of the most egregious errors and mistakes in foreign policy.

I can go on and on about bad Republican ideas. It is enough to say that we Democrats oppose these ideas. It is important also for us to say that we have open minds about the problems facing any administration and that we are not blinded by an ideology that lets us believe that since the United States is the only remaining superpower it can dictate to the rest of the world how to behave and doesn’t need to practice the give and take of diplomacy to achieve its objectives.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Everyone Picks on Wal-Mart

Poor Wal-Mart! They just can't please everyone. An article in the Los Angeles Times for Friday, August 25, describes the reactions to a decision by Wal-Mart management to
conduct workshops for gay and lesbian business owners on how to break into the Wal-Mart supplier ranks ....

According to the article, Wal-Mart
is joining the corporate advisory council of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. But not all of its usual supporters — nor some gay activists — welcomed the announcement.

Members of the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, have decided to stop shopping at Wal-Mart because the firm has shifted away from a "pro-family" policy. Wal-Mart has been trying to widen its appeal beyond it's base in the rural South. It carries products of interest to a wide spectrum of groups who live in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. It has been trying to attract people who are favorable to environmental groups, unions, and people in various homosexual and bisexual relationships as customers. It has been more "relaxed" in the kinds of products offered for sale. On the other hand, it has acquiesced to complaints from the AFA and has stopped selling racy magazines and in 2002 it removed a pregnant Barbie Doll from its inventory because it was thought that the doll might encourage teen-age pregnancy. The doll wore a wedding ring.
Wal-Mart's attempts to appeal to different interest groups might be more palatable to Wall Street than some other changes that critics demand, [Professor] Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara said. "It's easier to open their arms to the enormously divergent aspects of American cultural lifestyle," he said. "It's cheaper and easier than trying to satisfy their critics who are looking at their wage and health-benefit policies."

Now let me reveal my own bias, or my addiction to what my friend H calls "group-think." I think that Wal-Mart's wage and benefit policies toward its employees are abysmal. As the nation's largest retailer, these policies set a bad example for other retail firms that must compete with Wal-Mart. I am appalled that the AFA, an organization based in the tenets of the Christian religion, would support the firm with no objection to its wage and benefit policies but turn against it because of a pregnant Barbie Doll and some racy magazines, along with a decision to add gay and lesbian firms to its list of suppliers.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


"Soft" (?) Democrats

My conservative friend H assures me that Democrats are soft on terror, just as they were once soft on communism. It doesn't do me any good to try to convince H that he is wrong about Democrats being soft on anything. He believes it with just as much certainty as the devout Catholic who believes in the virgin birth and the immaculate conception.

This belief that we Democrats are soft on things like communism and terror has bothered me. I keep wondering, parhaps we really are soft. What does "soft" on terror or "soft" on communism mean?

Then I thought of something another friend once told me. This friend, named Henry, was a Catholic, a bathelor, and a conservative Democrat. It was in the days when Spiro Agnew, Nixon's first Vice President, was going about the country making speeches to shore up the morale of Republicans and to heap scorn and derision on Democrats. That was the principal duty of Vice Presidents in those days: bad-mouth the other Party. I was younger and less tolerant in those days, and one of my favorite descriptions of Spiro Agnew was that he was a lying bastard. Henry didn't comment on the legitimacy of Mr. Agnew, but he did say that the Vice President said things that he, Henry, liked to hear said.

And that may be the key to the question of whether Democrats are soft on terror and were soft on Communism. We Democrats didn't spend a lot of time and effort making speeches in which we damned the communists or terrorists to everlasting hell. The public then feared the communists and today fear the terrorists. There wasn't much either political Party could do in the old days about the communists except to keep the pressure on the Soviet Union and try to stamp out any indigenous reform movement anywhere in the world, and particularly in the Western Hemisphere, that dared to call itself "communist." But, by God, the Republicans sure lambasted the godless, cruel, inhuman, intolerant, etc., communists. We Democrats left the name-calling to the Republicans and concentrated our thoughts on how to prevent Americans from turning to the communists for help in achieving civil rights for all, decent living conditions for the poor, and so on. Our reward for not engaging in frequent and noisy communist-bashing was to be called "soft on communism."

Today the situation is similar. We Democrats know that our ability to combat terrorists in other countries is limited. We support and advocate efforts to root them out and bring them to some form of justice. We support improving the safety of our ports. We don't think it is worth while to make a big point of "talking tough" about terrorists. We have not learned from my friend Henry. Even though nothing very effective is actually being done to prevent another terrorist attack, the public likes to hear terrorists cursed and vilified by important elected officials. Thus, we are accused of being soft on terror.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Pension "Quick Fix"

The President just signed into a law intended to repair the pension system for millions of American workers. The law represents a minimalist approach to the problem. Companies that offer a pension benefit to their employees will be required to fund the program fully within seven years. Companies that have plans that would have to be taken over by a federal agency if the company defaulted would have to pay higher premiums to the agency. (I've forgotten the name of the agency at the moment.) There is no requirement that companies even offer a pension plan to their employees, or that a company that does offer a plan must continue to offer it to new employees. It's a band-aid approach.

Because of global competition, some companies are finding it too expensive to provide full funding for their pension plans, or to keep the plans at all. Some airline companies are shedding their pension plans as part of the process of going through bankruptcy. The plans are taken over by the federal agency I mentioned in the previous paragraph (whose name I still can't recall).

A serious fault of most industrial pension plans is that they are not portable. A person can work for a number of years for company A, then for company B, then company C. At retirement, this person may qualifiy for at three or fewer small pensions. Many companies have a vesting requirement in their pension plans; that is, you must work at the company a certain number of years (usually five, but ten in a few companies) before you are eligible for a pension.

There has been some talk in Congress about making pensions portable; that is, one can take the money invested in the plan with you when you change jobs. One difficulty with that is that different companies have different levels of benefit and different schedules of payment into the plan.

A better idea is to set up a national non-profit company to provide pensions for all indusstrial and service workers. An example of such a company is TIAA, the Teachers' Insurance and Annuity Association. Most universities allow their teaching employees to enroll in the TIAA plan instead of setting up their own pension plan. The teaching employee and the university both deposit funds into the TIAA plan. I worked for five years at two universities, both of which subscribed to the TIAA pension plan. As a result, I receive a small pension from TIAA for my five years of service to the universities. If my service at all the other places I have worked had been covered by the TIAA pension plan, I think I would now be quite a bit better off financially than I am.

Let's agitate for a national pension plan to replace all the different company and union pension plans!

American Business and American Foreign Policy

Responding to a recent opinion article in the paper, a writer to the editor of The Los Angeles Times today echoes the opinion that many of this nation's foreign policy mistakes have occurred because our government tried to assist some American business people. We (that is, the US Government) overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1953 and replaced it with the Shah. The motive was to protect and enhance the ability of American oil firms to exploit the vast oil reserves of that country, and keep Russian oil exploration and development out of Iran. We overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala and replaced it with a military dictatorship to protect the interests of the stockholders of the American firm that controlled the export of bananas and other fruit from Guatemala (and coincidentally the financial holdings of our Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles). We tried to overthrow the government of Cuba after Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista and made himself the dictator. Our beef with Castro was that he expropriated the sugar plantations of several American sugar firms and proposed to pay them only the value the firms themselves had previously submitted to the Cuban government for tax purposes. We couldn't overthrow or assassinate him, but at least we have imposed an economic embargo on Cuba ever since the days of Dwight Eisenhower.

Our roles in other overthrow of democratic governments and democratically elected political leaders are not as clear, but in most cases there was an obvious business motive for the change. A popular leader of the newly-independent Belgian Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. The stated motive was that he was a "communist sympathizer" who threatened to bring his nation into the Russian-Communist sphere of influence. The business motive was his proposal to nationalize the rich copper mines in one of the provinces of the Congo that would have deprived some American firms of some of the profit of the copper trade.

Most of these business-favorable overthrows occurred during the reign administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike was a popular President and respected as being honest, incorruptible, and a skilled administrator. One of his weaknesses was that he had a visceral and unthinking hatred of Communism. All that the Dulles brothers, Allan at the CIA and John at the State Department, had to do to persuade him to let the CIA overthrow Mossadegh in Iran and Guzman in Guatemala was to tell him that they were Communists. At the end of his reign administration he was persuaded to allow the CIA to mount an invasion of Cuba with exiled Cubans who had been training in camps in Guatemala. That attempt failed spectacularly.

I haven't figured out the business motive for the overthrow of the democratic government of Chile during Richard Nixon's time in office. It may have been done to forestall the plan of Salvador Allende, the newly-elected Socialist President, to nationalize Chilean copper mines.

These attempts, some successful for a time, some failures, to change the regimes in countries that were becoming unfavorable to exploitation by large American corporations, have had unfavorable consequences that are today painfully apparent. We now want a democratic Iran. We had one before 1953. Now we have an Iran that has a grudge against us for the despotic and cruel rule of the Shah. The truth of what happened in Guatemala after the imposition of military rule is now coming to light as an embarassment to us. Some unsavory actions by our CIA in our meddling in Nicaragua are becoming known, particularly the CIA's part in setting up the cocaine traffic in the US in exchange for funds to use to support the Contras.

President Coolidge once said "the business of America is business." I think it's time that we took foreign policy seriously and stopped using it merely to help certain American business people make a profit.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Paranoia is Alive and Well

Jonah Goldberg, writing in the Los Angeles Times today (August 17, 2006), conflates the feeling behind the Nazi program of exterminating the Jews of Europe during WW-2 with the feeling behind Islamic fundamentalist desire to get rid of Israel. He argues that in each case, the feeling was or is not racial or religious hatred, but rather fear. The Nazis really believed that the Jews were vary powerful and had brought on the depression and other problems that the Germans suffered from in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Goldberg writes that the Nazi paranoia about Jews is similar to Muslim paranoia about Jews, particularly Israel.

Jonah Goldberg is an American Conservative and should know a lot about paranoid, irrational fear. Many American Conservatives are well-known for their own paranoid fears. Before Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR and presided over its demise, these Conservatives feared International Communism. We now know that they greatly exaggerated the power of the USSR and of Communist parties in other countries. These same Conservatives now have another bugaboo to fear: International Terror. Their hysterical fear of Terrorism and formerly of Communism is certainly as great as the purported Islamic fear of Judaism.

This fear, or hysteria, leads our native Conservatives to lash out against anything that they perceive may be related to the thing they fear. Thus, Mr. Bush had no problem selling Conservatives on his war with Iraq. Conservatives still defend the war as a necessary fight against international Terror, even though there is ample evidence that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with various terrorist attacks on the United States.

To Jonah Goldberg and other Conservatives I say, “Do not look too closely at the paranoid fears of others until you have confronted your own paranoid fears.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


About Two Presidents

The two Presidents are George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After watching the interview with Mike Wallace last Sunday (August 13) on CBS, I have a different opinion of Mr. Ahmadinejad from what I'd gathered from things I'd read about him. He came across in the interview as friendly, humorous, intelligent, and well-educated. He and Mike Wallace seemed to have had a lot of fun in conducting the interview.

What did I think I knew about the President of Iran before last Sunday? I'd read that he was a popular person among the rural and poor people in Iran and had the reputation of being honest with the people's money and not corrupt. I'd also read that he was a fundamentalist Muslim and shared a Muslim belief in Armageddon. Apparently the Muslim belief is similar to the Christian belief, except that the person returning to rule the world is a Muslim and not Christ.

I had the opinion that he was the Iranian equivalent to our own President, George W. Bush. Mr. Bush is also popular among rural people in parts of our country. He is a fundamentalist Christian who believes in Armageddon. It seemed to me that the two Presidents shared the belief that perhaps the current unrest in the Middle East is a precursor to Armageddon, which is going to start almost any day now.

The Mike Wallace interview revealed a man quite different from George Bush. Mr. Ahmadinejad has thought a lot about the situation the world is in at present. Many of his opinions expressed in the interview have been written about by Americans and others. For example, even the most ardent defender of Israel must admit that the existence of Israel in the midst of a region that was Muslim and Arabic in nature before 1948 has been an irritant. Advocates of all opinions have different views on how to resolve the irritation. Mr. Ahmadinejad has one extreme view: dismantle the government of Israel. He doesn't say what is to be done with the Jews now living in Israel, so I don't know whether he would allow them to stay in a united Israel+Palestine with a representative government that would tilt toward the Arab majority. Perhaps he would have them forcibly deported, or even driven into the Mediterranean Sea by an army of angry Muslim fanatics. Another extreme view, expressed by the late Rabbi Kahane, is to make life so miserable for the former inhabitants of Palestine that they would simply go somewhere else and abandon any claim they have for the territory to become the recreation of Biblical Israel. A less extreme view is to buy them out, or bribe them to leave.

There is a lot of difference between the two Presidents. I can't imagine Mr. Ahmadinejad leading a horde of angry Muslim fundamentalists rampaging through Jewish Israel with drawn scimitars, cutting off the heads of all who refuse to acknowledge Allah and His Prophet Muhammad. I also can't imagine Mr. Ahmadinejad speaking of his enemies as "hating our freedom" as the reason for their opposition, the way Mr. Bush does. Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to be a pleasant and intelligent man. Of course, people used to say that about Hitler, also.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Failure of Good Intentions

Sometimes I’m saturated with news. Last night (August 13) I watched and listened to the interview between Iran President Ahmadinejad and reporter Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Both President Ahmadinejad and reporter Wallace seemed to enjoy the interview hugely. Mr. Ahmadinejad has been portrayed in the American press as having some extreme positions and beliefs that are completely at odds with those of most Americans. In particular, he is noted for having said that “the Holocaust is a myth,” and that “Israel should be done away with.”

In the interview, President Ahmadinejad said that locating Israel in the midst of an Arab-Muslim region was a mistake. He argued that, since the Holocaust occurred in Europe, it was a European problem and innocent Palestinians should not be made to suffer for it. That is, Israel should have been created in Europe, not in Palestine. He went on to say that the government of Israel is not legitimate. Mike Wallace didn’t ask him and he did not say what ought to be done with the Jews who now live in Israel after the State of Israel is demolished.

Another piece of news concerns miners in Mexico. I heard this story this morning on Pacifica Radio. Until around 1990, the Mexican state owned and operated the mines. The miners enjoyed fairly good pay and good working conditions. They enjoyed the protection of a union. Then Mexico undertook some reforms of its economy and followed the prescription of the World Bank and the Milton Friedman school of economic thought. Public enterprises were sold. The individuals who bought the mines became nearly instant billionaires. The owners of the now privately operated mines decided that the workers were costing them too much. They couldn’t fire the workers outright. Instead, they requested and obtained permission from the Mexican government to close the mines. Since the mines were closed, the workers were laid off.

The next day after closing the mines, the operators hired new workers at lower pay and without union membership. The mines were reopened. In addition, the operators hired contract workers for some of the more dangerous occupations. In that way, when workers were injured or killed on the job, the mine operators were insulated from any legal responsibility. Working conditions today are much worse and pay rates are lower than they were when the mines were publicly owned and operated. The workers no longer have a union to represent them. The workers that were laid off had no other jobs and many of them have joined the migration of undocumented workers from Mexico into the United States.

How are these two stories connected? Ahmadinejad faults Israel not merely for existing but for causing severe hardship among the Palestinian people that Israel has displaced to make room for immigrating Jews. A reporter faults Mexico for adopting the privatization plan advocated by Milton Friedman that has led to hardship among Mexican workers, particularly mine workers. Is it too great a stretch to connect both of these stories to faults in American foreign policy? It was the United States that led the effort in the United Nations to create a state in which Jews would be the majority and to locate that state in the Biblical land of Israel. It is the United States that leads the effort to force other countries to adopt privatization of many publicly owned and operated industries.

You can argue that, although both the creation of Israel and the privatization of Mexican mines are results of American policy, that policy is not malevolent. It was not our intention as Americans to inflict suffering on the indigenous population of Arab Palestine when we advocated creating a small state near Jerusalem in which Jews could be a voting majority and feel safe from persecution by Christians or Muslims. We hope and believe that in time the Israelis and the surrounding Arab nations will come to an agreement to live and let live and that in such an atmosphere it will then be possible to arrange some sort of restitution or repayment or reparation for the people who were displaced to make room for Israel.

It was also not our intention to inflict misery on the workers in Mexican mines, or in any other “privatized” industry in any country. We believed, and many still believe, that private operation and ownership of an enterprise yields better results in the long run than public ownership and operation. The necessity to compete and make a profit will force the operators to adopt new ways of operation that will be more efficient, safer, and enable the privatized firms to pay better wages to their employees. We believe that, in time, the workers in these industries will develop their own unions and will negotiate improved wages and working conditions.

We Americans have only the purest of intentions. We also have the belief that the good results that we hope for will come about automatically without any additional help from us. It doesn’t appear now that things are going to get any better without our help. In fact, something contrary is happening. The present Bush Administration has intervened in the Arab-Israeli world in a clumsy way by invading an Arab country. Our intervention has made matters worse, not better.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Obtuse about Israel and Palestine

Two writers have articles in the CURRENT section of today’s Los Angeles Times. One, by Aaron David Miller, is entitled “A new, messier Mideast.” The other, by Jonathan Chait, is entitled “Backing Israel is the best of a set of bad choices.” Although the titles of the articles neatly summarize the articles themselves, and though the writers come to different conclusions about American policy in the region, both writers, in common with most American commentators, are concerned with the techniques used by the various entities in the region. It seems that almost no American gives any thought to the basic causes of the various conflicts in the region.

For example, American commentators want to see Hezbollah disarmed and converted to a political party in Lebanon. No pundit seems to give any consideration to whether Hezbollah might have some legitimate grievances against the Jewish State. A similar “moral clarity” exists regarding Hamas. Our Republican Administration regards Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations and refuses to talk to them. Syria and Iran, who provide support for Hezbollah, are “states that harbor terrorists” and our Administration refuses to talk with them also. Our government concentrates on the “terror” and ignores the complaints and grievances that lead individuals to join organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that practice “terror.”

I assert, and I don’t think anyone disagrees, that our present administration has no expectation of finding a peaceful solution to the troubles in the Mideast in the near future, say, within the life time of people now alive in the region. There is no way that the troubles can be solved or even managed as long as we are not willing even to look at the grievances that members of Hezbollah, Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and other organizations have with Israel. Defanging and defunding Hezbollah is not a solution. The anger and frustration will still be there. Innocent Israeli citizens will continue to be at risk from missiles and suicide bombers. Innocent Palestinians and Lebanese citizens will continue to be at risk from Israel’s retaliation for acts launched from their territories.

I have traveled to many countries during my life, but never to Israel or other countries near it. The closest I ever came to Israel was a tour of Egypt in 1990. The closest I came to Israel was the city of Alexandria. I may, therefore, be a bit pretentious in listing what I believe are some of the grievances that Israel’s neighbors have. What I write here is based on things that others have written.

  1. Israel was placed in a region that had for centuries been occupied by indigenous people. We now call these people Palestinians. Many Palestinians were forced from their homes and their farms to make room for Jewish immigrants from Europe and America. Many Palestinian refugees have been living ever since in refugee camps in various parts of the region. These refugees want to return to their homes and farms. Israel refuses to allow them to return. That is a grievance that has not been addressed.
  2. Israel has created a “reservation” for the Palestinians. There is a de facto boundary between the Jewish area and the Palestinian area. In addition, the Palestinian area has been divided by roads and road blocks into small sections. Any Palestinian who moves from one section to another must wait for long times at the various road blocks.
  3. In 1990 an agreement was brokered between the government of Israel and the Palestinian authority. Under this agreement, there would eventually be a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in territory that Israel had not yet claimed for Jewish immigrants. However, several other conditions had to be met first before the boundaries and other properties of the state could be decided. In the mean time, Israel continued to build settlements in the area supposedly assigned to the Palestinians. More Palestinians were gradually forced from their homes and farms by Israel’s actions required to protect the settlers from the rage of the people they were displacing.
  4. A subsequent Israeli government effectively ignored the 1990 agreement and continued to expand the settlements into the Palestinian enclave. It was apparent to some observers, including me, that the Israeli leaders in power at the time were determined to push ahead with a program of ultimately reclaiming all of the Biblical land of Israel for Jewish immigrants and to remove the indigenous population to other Arab-speaking countries in the region. I remember many years ago seeing a map of Israel owned by a co-worker. The map showed the Biblical provinces of Israel, all in one nation, with no room whatever for Arab Palestine.
  5. Israel claims all water rights in the lands still occupied by Palestinians for the use of Jewish immigrants. The settlers get their fill of water. What’s left over is given to the Palestinians. As a result, Jewish farms in all of Israel and in the settlements are supplied with irrigation water. The Palestinians have to make do with much less water than the Jewish immigrants. In fact, the question of who gets the use of the available water was a big stumbling block in previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian authority. I suspect that Israel’s insistence on keeping control of the water was one of the reasons that Yasser Arafat was unwilling to accept Ehud Barak’s proposal during the last years of the Clinton administration.

There are, of course, many other grievances, but the preceding list is an example of topics that the United States has refused to get involved with. Our administrations have been motivated more by political survival than by a desire to find solutions to the problems associated with Israel and its neighbors. For religious reasons, many Americans, both Jews and Christians, give uncritical support to Israel. No President dares to do anything that would give that large bloc of voters a reason to vote for the other party in the next election.

The United States has more leverage than any other country with Israel. Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid. A President could simply cut off the supply of money if the leaders of Israel refused to follow his directions. A president could simply tell Israel to evacuate to the recognized international border between Israel and the Palestinian territory and abandon the protection of settlements on the Palestinian side. The occupants of the settlements would then have to decide whether to stay and live in Arab Palestine or move into Israel proper or, perhaps, return to their countries of origin. Giving the settlements back to Palestine and dismantling the system of road blocks would go a long way toward undermining support for Hamas and Hezbollah among Palestinians and Lebanese. However, considering present political reality in the United States, these things aren’t going to happen.

We will, instead, continue to muddle along. Successive Presidents will be as sensitive to the fundamentalist Jewish and Christian voters as past Presidents. Hezbollah and Hamas may be destroyed, but a new set of terrorists or guerilla freedom fighters (the name depends on your point of view) will spring up to continue to harass the government and residents of Israel.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Israel and Palestine

I happened to be looking through some essays on various subjects that I wrote some time ago. I came across the following one. I find it still expresses my opinion regarding the tension, the conflict, and the fighting between Israel and its neighbors.

What Ought to but Can’t be Done about Israel and Palestine

Let me start by baring my own biases and prejudices. I disapprove of “religious” states, in which one particular religious sect is chosen as the official state religion and the holy book of that sect and its interpreters are the basis and final arbiters of law in the state. There are at least two such states in the world today: Iran and Israel. Of the two, Israel is the more paradoxical. Although it is a vibrant democracy, with every political opinion represented by members of its parliament, or Knesset, it is in no way egalitarian. Only Jews are permitted to immigrate to the state. Non-Jews, who once lived in territory now under the jurisdiction of the State of Eretz Israel, are not allowed to return to their own homes. These are homes that they still own, in principle, and in which they and their ancestors had lived for generations. Iran has no legal restriction for a non-muslim to move there and take up residence. It is less “democratic” that Israel. A group of conservative clergy decides who can and who can’t run for seats in the national parliament, or Majlis. Israel has no such restriction on running for office.

The fight between Israel and Palestine began in 1948 when the state of Israel was established as a specifically “Jewish” state in the midst of land that had previously been predominantly Muslim. The new Jewish state stated in its constitution that any Jew living anywhere in the world was welcome to emigrate to Israel and become one of its voting citizens. It was obvious that the small territory granted to the new state could not possibly accommodate the millions of Jews in the world, many of whom were at the time eager to move to a place where they would at last be free of persecution. The state had to expand. It expanded into adjoining territory that was already occupied. The occupants had to be cleared out to make room for the Jews that were flooding to the new state, most of them survivors of the holocaust of the previous few years. These occupants, the Palestinians, resisted moving and were chased out during several wars by intimidation. They or their descendants are still living in refugee camps, waiting and hoping that some day they may return and again occupy their own ancestral homes.

The new occupants, the Jews that survived the Holocaust, Jews from Russia, even Jews from the United States, also had a claim to the territory of Israel or Palestine. Their claim was nearly 1900 years old. Their ancestors had been forcibly removed in 70 AD by Imperial Rome as a means of pacifying and occupying the fractious Kingdom of Israel. They had waited nearly two millennia to return to their homes.

There was at one time a plan to partition the British Protectorate (Palestine and Jordan) into two states: a Jewish and an Arabic state. This plan had been cooked up by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and the King of Saudi Arabia. No one consulted the Arabs who lived in Palestine and Jordan at the time. (Actually, I probably should not use the term “Jordan” here; the British Protectorate was known as Palestine and it included territory on both sides of the Jordan river. The part east of the river was known in 1948 as “Trans-Jordan.”) The new State of Israel would include at least part of the holy city of Jerusalem. A leading cleric at the time, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, took exception to having a non-Muslim state created that would occupy any part of Jerusalem. Jerusalem and territory surrounding it were part of “waqf” (if I have the correct spelling), or territory that, having been converted to Islam, must henceforth forever remain Islamic. He led a war against the newcomer. In spite of the odds, the Israelis won, and Eretz Israel was born.

Now, as a non-Jew and a non-Muslim, I have no patience with any religious claim to the territory of Israel or Palestine. I deny that Jews have any historical right to go there and displace the indigenous people. If they choose to do so, they must face the consequences. My country should not help them in this land theft. I deny also that Muslims have any historical right to retain control of land just because the people in it were at one time converted to Islam. My belief is that individuals should be free to choose any religion they wish. In spite of my belief, my country is helping the Israelis to steal land from the indigenous Palestinians. If I were in charge of our foreign policy, I would cut off all forms of aid to Israel and give them to understand that they were completely on their own in what they are doing. I recognize that any President who adopted such a policy would be overwhelmingly defeated at the next quadrennial election and his party in Congress would lose heavily in the next biennial election. In short, the American People sympathize with Israel and happily aid and abet it in any of its monstrous schemes to induce the Palestinians to “just go away.” Ideally, I would tell Israel that it must respect the rights of the dispossessed Palestinians to return to their homes, and give up the idea of creating an exclusively “Jewish” state. However, that would be unwarranted interference in their affairs. Let them and the Palestinians fight it out on even terms, with no help from the United States for Israel or help from Iran or Saudi Arabia for Palestine.

Machiavelli Up to Date

What advice might Machiavelli give the American and Israeli administrations if he were alive? My guess is it would be something like this:

A strong military force is necessary for the preservation of the state. It is more important that your neighbors fear you than love you. However, you must use your strong military force judiciously. You must not start a war that you can not win. If you do so, your neighbors will see that your military force is no threat to them and they will not do your bidding. It is better that your neighbors continue to believe that your strong military force is invincible than to show them that it is not.

If you are attacked and can not prevail by military force, it is very useful to be the object of sympathy of the neighbors who have not attacked you. If you attempt to avenge the damage done to you and inflict on your enemy greater harm than he has inflicted on you, other neighbors will sympathize with your enemy, not with you. This is true even if you were initially attacked and suffered much damage.

It follows that damage that you inflict on an enemy who attacked you must not be very much greater than the damage inflicted on you. You may have superior military force, but after you have punished your enemy in proportion to the damage you have suffered, you then begin to lose the sympathy that initially was given to you.

Certainly it is more important to be feared than loved. However, if your military might turns out not to be strong enough to induce fear in your neighbors, you must then try to make your neighbors love you. The worst thing that can happen to you is that your neighbors will regard you with both hatred and contempt.

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