May 28, 2015
Chosen peoples

The founding myths of numerous tribes describe them at the center of creation, along with their version of an almighty force which created them and everything else.

Us, too.

But who else has something like the Hebrew Bible, where our ancestors described themselves, and their relations with lesser others.

Some believe that God Himself composed the key books, with people (mostly men) who heard His words and wrote down much of the rest.

With all its problems, that collection of writings has done well.

And it has marked us for constant attention, much praise, and perhaps just as much scorn.

We're still close to the center of things. Maps no longer put Jerusalem in the middle, but we get far more than our share of media attention.

A Palestinian student once told me that his people's good fortune was to be associated with the Jews. Anything else would have caused their disappearance from the world stage after one or another of their demands that were too much for a more powerful neighbor.

Among the correlates of being the Chosen People is being "a light unto the Gentiles." This means being held to a higher standard than others, perhaps all others.

Some of the disproportionate condemnations from the United Nations and other international organizations may reflect expectations of our being that light. Mixed with that, and perhaps more important, is the power and nastiness of the Muslim voting bloc. And one suspects the weight of anti-Semitism, which has been around about as long as we have been the Chosen People, although it only acquired the label of anti-Semitism in recent centuries.

Also involved in the world's attention to the Jews--including those of Israel--is our success. Our disproportionate share of Nobel prizes may match the disproportion of international censure. Jealously may come from the economic and cultural successes of Jews wherever they have been free to express themselves and invest in enterprises. It is symbolic that Israel's climb out of poverty began at about the same time as the most distinguished American universities dropped the quotas meant to minimize the number of Jews among their students.

Americans are another of the tribes with founding myths that put them at the center of things.

Yet it was a myth taken from ours. The Puritans thought of themselves living in a "city on a hill," or the New Jerusalem. Mormons altered things a bit. They claimed to be the true Christians, and located Zion in Missouri, with what became their most prominent of competing Mormon Churches bringing the idea to Utah.

The real base of Americans' sense of superiority may come from its size, large population, natural resources, geographical isolation, and being the only one standing at the end of World War II. Its sense of being the New Promised Land--along with a sizable and successful Jewish population--helps explain its affinity for our Promised Land.

And like those of us in the Old Promised Land, Americans' sense of superiority contributes to political bluster from its politicians, and to the animosity of others

Benjamin Netanyahu reflects much that is associated with Israel's prominence, and the discomfort of numerous overseas Jews. Not a few Israelis are also uncomfortable with him, but he ranks with David ben Gurion and Shimon Peres as among Israel's most successful politicians.

Bibi is a great speaker in two languages.

He expresses a strident view of national needs, in a way that attracts considerable attention overseas. His hyperbolic bombast also puts him in a league with the Jewish nouveau riche who provoked the wedding scene in Goodbye Columbus. Admiration and distaste compete in the feelings about Bibi, with Sara adding to the picture.

Bibi's appearance before Congress was his peak, to date. It wasn't the first time he spoke there, and he wasn't the first head of a foreign state to appear. However, he differed from most other visitors to Congress by dealing with a matter of importance, that was highly controversial in American politics.

He challenged the President, who clearly didn't want him in Washington.

The results are hard to gauge, but we can say, mixed. The President has had to concede at least a minimum role for Congress in dealing with Iran, and has spoken in ways to suggest that he will not appear as a pushover for the mullahs.

At home, Bibi is behaving like Bibi. He did not give a major appointment to the Likudnik (Gilad Erdan) viewed as positioning himself as Bibi's successor, provided appointments to firm right wingers from Jewish Home and Likud thought by some to be extremists, but has always shied away from implementing any clear move to the right.

France has sought to move forward the peace process with the Palestinians in the UN, but it is far from certain that--if anything passes--it will be more than a symbolic utterance. President Obama often says that he remains committed to a two state solution, but is saying that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are ready for a commitment.

Alan Dershowitz comes down both on Bibi's side and on Barack's side in a recent op-ed. Neither were as elegant as Alan would have preferred, but both scored okay.

In short, we aren't leaving the headlines. We may not have as many as the Americans, but we get a lot of attention despite having a small population and a tiny homeland.

Compared to our long history with imperial powers (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Britain, and now the US), we now have the capacity to avoid being pushed to where we don't want to go.


Given our history, things aren't all that bad.

Also given our history, we're arguing about all of the above.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:26 PM
May 24, 2015
Someone else's politics

It's not easy. Perhaps it's not wise, to comment on someone else's politics.

American officials, and lots of American Jews, especially those to the right and left extremes, often sound like loonies when expressing themselves about Israeli politics.

Israelis have also blundered, at high cost. The greatest was Ariel Sharon's certainty about the bridges he thought he was building with the Christians of Lebanon. We should remember Sabra and Shatilla, and everything else the Israelis did not get from the Christians. 

With all the appropriate reservations, recent events in Britain are too juicy to overlook.

Among the insights that may or may not be useful are those concerned with the problems of family squabbles spilling over into national politics, whatever we want to call anti-Semitism, and the problems of a Jew running for the top office in a country other than Israel.

Brits are referring to the political competition between the brothers Miliband as a soap opera, with no end of commentary about brotherhood and enmity. 

No one this far away, or even a lot closer can sort out, summarize, and judge such things. Nonetheless, it does seem apppropriate to wonder about pursuing family competition along with national politics at the same time.

Anti-Semitism in the election?

No doubt, but how much is impossible to determine given the slippery nature of the beast. Referring to Ed Miliband as weird, different, clumsy, strange, and/or "not one of us" may or may not be codes for something worse, or may simply summarize one's view of a man made vulnerable by his candidacy, always being photographed and recorded, and not always capable of presenting himself fully scripted.

The adjectives used for Miliband remind me of George W. H. Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1998.  Bush was efusive in commending Dukakis and his family for struggling and succeeding as newcomers in the United States.
The subtext was something like, "This little Greek did well in becoming Governor of Massachusetts, but he's not really one of us."

Miliband's status as a Jew cut several ways, and may serve as a caution against any other non-Israeli Jew running for a top national office.

As long as Palestine and everything else in the Middle East is in the headlines, being a Jew is problematic. Not, perhaps for someone running for a national legislature or some other office below the national level. But someone wanting to be head of government will have to express him/herself on Israel and on everything associated with it. 

One can bet that whatever is said will win some and lose some voters. It's hard to avoid specifics, and those are deadly to a campaign.

Miliband's campaign showed him expressing support for Palestine, reminding voters that he had been critical of Israel, and losing the vote of British Jews. It may not have helped with some Jews that he declared himself to be an atheist, and was videod chewing his way--not elegantly--through a bacon sandwich.

Was that video meant to hurt him among those suspicious of Jews who are not like the main stream and don't know how to eat a bacon sandwich? Or among Jews, many of whom may eat what is not kosher but may wonder--even bristle--about a Jew making a point of it?

It's also the case that none of us are elegant when we are eating. Thick sandwiches are especially dangerous for someone wanting to look attractive. It's something to be done without the presence of cameras, although that may be impossible for a prominent politician in the age of smartphones. A Jewish Israeli politician dealing with a symbolic pita stuffed with falafel, salad, and french fries eaten among the Middle Eastern Jews of Mahne Yehuda--with no doubts about kashrut--won't be any prettier than Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich.

Whatever the reasons, Miliband lost the election, decisively. Then he did the honorable thing of resigning from his party's leadership.

Back home there is no shortage of politics that invite commentary. Since we left, the Defense Minister declared that Israelis and Palestinians must ride on separate buses in the West Bank, and then backed off under pressure. The Deputy Foreign Minister declared that all of the Land of Israel was ours,  thanks to the Almighty.

No doubt there has been more, and the Jews of Israel will keep us all busy, thanks also to the Almighty.

We can expect more of what we know from Bibi and his colleagues-- hyperbolic blather far to the right, and little or no implementation. The left will moan the dangers to עם ישראל (the people of Israel, including overseas Jews), and the right will blast Bibi for timidity.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:31 PM
May 19, 2015
Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York has become one of the American cities we have visited most often in recent years. This reflects our son's graduate work at the University of Rochester, and meeting the woman we are now pleased tp have as our daughter-in-law.

We have enjoyed opportunities to walk through the parks along the Genesee River, Eire Canal, and Lake Ontario. It's a great place to think about history while enjoying the views and the weather, if one is careful to visit only during the better parts of the year.

My own thoughts go back to Dad's camera store, with Kodak's logo on almost everything.

Kodak just about ain't no more, with a spate of bankruptcy and a great downsizing from more than 60,000 local employees in 1982 to fewer than 2,500 recently. However, George Eastman's name is on a world class School of Music, and his statue remains in the center of the main campus.  

Not all of Rochester is commendable.

The murder rate has ranged between 14 and 25 annually per 100,000 population over the period 2000-2012, compared to the national rate of 5 per 100,000. 

Rochester is not in the league of Detroit with its murder rate of 40 per 100,000, but it does resemble Cleveland's rate of 19 per 100,000. Like those other Midwestern Rust Belt capitals, Rochester's population has declined-- from 332,000 in 1950 to 210,000 in a recent year.

Data from the younger generation, with a high school graduation rate of 43 percent (compared to a state average of 73 percent) does not bode well for the city's future. 

Rochester is far from the city it once was. Not only has the population declined and its major employer imploded, but the composition of the population has gone from nearly all white in 1940 (97.6 percent) to 42 percent African American and 16 percent Hispanic in 2010.

As in the case of most other large American cities, there are suburbs that are leafy, family oriented, and with few African Americans, Hispanics, or economically disadvantaged. Overall, the suburbs have about three times the population of the central city, and much better social indicators. While the city high school graduation rate was 43 percent, that of Brighton was 92 percent, Pittsford 96 percent, Henrietta.89 percent, and Irondequoit 94 percent.

Rochester makes a case study for those fascinated by the goods and bads of the United States, including its positive and negative dynamism. At one time it was at the focus of technical innovation, the Silicon Valley of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Kodak and Western Union were early names, then came Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. None of them proved capable of maintaining the dominance in their sectors, and the impact of two on the English language. Many used Kodak as a synonym for a camera, or the pictures resulting. Xerox still serves for some people as a verb to photocopy. Kodak may claim credit for inventing digital photography, but allowed the bonanza to slip out of its hands. None of those names that got their start in Rochester are anything like they used to be. Only Kodak maintains its headquarters in the city

Teenage pregnancy accompanies Rochester's other social indicators. About 7 percent of girls 15 to 19 years of age give birth each year, while the comparable figures for suburban towns is 1 percent and 2 percent for New York State as a whole. County health officials note that their actions have reduced the rate of city teenage girls giving birth, from 13 percent in 1990.

Infant mortality is part of the picture, with data for African Americans and Hispanics similar to those for Third World countries.  One article compared the data for Rochester to Jamaica and Albania.

Race and ethnicity may be the most obvious markers of undesirable social indicators, but they are misleading as well as prejudicial. Black and Hispanic students living in the better suburbs graduate from high school at rates close to, or identical with White students.

Such findings point to the weight of income and education of family members, more than race or ethnicity, as setting individuals on more or less desirable paths. Yet they do nothing to obliterate the gaps between central city and suburban Rochester (and many other cities), marked by sharp differentials in the bad and good indicators of life.

Recent surveys have cited Rochester for its slow growth, or continued decline as compared to other large cities. Nonetheless, unemployment rates score at about the national and New York State averages in the range of 5-6 percent unemployment.

The apparent dissonance between relative low unemployment, high crime rates and other dismal social indicators appears to be explained by high rates of poverty. While the New York State average is about 16 percent, it is more than double that in the city of Rochester (33 percent) with a childhood poverty rate even higher (51 percent). Thus, a large incidence of people living in Rochester may be working, but at jobs that are part-time and irregular, as well as low-wage.

A professional with a decent income can live well in the better neighborhoods or suburbs of Rochester, no matter their racial or ethnic background, just as such people can live well in the metropolitan areas of Cleveland, Detroit, and other places with unsavory inner cities.

The fortunate can achieve the best available in western democracies of health care, housing, education, culture and other amenities. Not better than their counterparts in Western Europe and a few other places, but equivalent. The worst of Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere is as bad as it gets in western democracies, and as dismal as in much of the Third World. The advantages of American inner cities is the ease of movement. For kids with an eye toward stable, productive, and comfortable lives, along with parents to nurture, prod, and protect them, it's only a bus ride to a better school, and later to higher education and a good neighborhood.

Unfortunately, not many of the inner city kids get on those buses.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)

Department of Political ScienceHebrew University of Jerusalem

Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325

Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:39 AM