Noah’s arc

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Last Friday at NYU, Noah Feldman, the terrifyingly-successful Harvard Law School professor and former Iraq war apparatchik, raised one of the central points in the pro-Israel argument when he said in essence that the Palestinians are not ready for democracy. I’ll get to his argument in the body of this report, but I wanted to flag it at the top. This really is the key issue for a lot of Israel lobbyists and their fellows, and it has a real logic. Look around at the Arab world and there are countless big men and dictatorships. Why do you think you can plant a democracy in Palestine?

The occasion was Feldman’s speech on American religious freedom at an NYU Law school conference about the First Amendment under attack. A friend, sending along the info, said, “Noah gets to be a liberal at home” – in distinction to his hawkish foreign policy positions.

I wanted to see Feldman because I like to study Establishment success, sometimes with a clothespin on my nose, and Feldman didn’t disappoint. He is a small guy with a confident, kinetic but slightly aggressive manner, very attractive, a strong profile under the well-known pouffe of blonde hair. He looks very young. For 20 minutes, he spoke about the political reaction against the Islamic center in lower Manhattan and what it reveals about a “grave” shift in American political culture, and then he answered four or five questions. He was on and off in 30 minutes. He is facile in the best and worst senses of the word. I saw a few flashes of brilliance, a hint of arrogance, no no no passion, and he made one joke. He said that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t really belong to any political party, because he’s a billionaire. Good joke. The speech was inoffensive, and you had little idea where Feldman’s heart lies. The most interesting moments in the performance were the asides.

The speech was premised on what Feldman said was Madison’s initial opposition to the First Amendment because he believed that unless there was a vibrant and diverse political culture, no constitutional provision would guarantee freedom of expression and worship. And Madison was right about the structure of democracy, but this diverse tradition, Feldman said, was now at risk. The battle over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan had become partisan, and the claim that there should be limits on Muslims’ freedoms had entered the mainstream public discourse, the two-party structure. Grave and serious. 

Let me get to the asides.

Aside 1 came when Feldman was saying that the argument against the Islamic center had begun at the periphery of the political discourse till it was responded to by two “significant” figures, Mayor Bloomberg and Barack Obama. The first opposition “began as an argument that was politically acceptable”: that this specific location was “inappropriate” for a mosque. But then it had snowballed into a larger anti-Muslim sentiment that was not acceptable.

Feldman didn’t unpack these ideas, and I don’t think he wanted to. He wanted to stay on the easy/valiant political ground that Muslims have the right to free religious practice. He wanted us to glide right by his view that it was OK to argue that Muslims couldn’t build near Ground Zero. I don’t know what that means. I need to say frankly here that I have good friends who said in July or so that it was inappropriate that the mosque be built there, and I admit that I wondered if they were right; and then I watched them change their position, to one of vigorous support for the right of the Park 51 to be built there, due to the leadership of people like Mike Bloomberg. To me this was actually the revelation of the episode. That when leaders like Mike Bloomberg stood up for their right to do so, what Feldman had styled a “politically acceptable” argument vanished. But it took moral leadership to draw that line. I remember other folks like Ali Abunimah and Steve Walt and MJ Rosenberg speaking out forcefully on the question and leading. So I felt that Feldman was less than sincere. If it was really a “politically acceptable” argument that the mosque not be built near Ground Zero, well, he should have explained this belief and stood up for it. But the speech was dry. There was really no personal exposure in the speech.

Aside 2 was that the U.S. had maintained religious diversity because there is no single majority religion and that even the “made-up religion, Judeo-Christianity,” was made up in the ’50s for a good reason, in order to be inclusive, “to try and communicate the message to a Jewish minority that they weren’t wholly excluded and they would be honored with the great privilege of being associated with Christianity.” Laughter.

Aside 2 upset me. Feldman and I are both beneficiaries of this wonderful process of inclusion; and there was no acknowledgment of what this had really meant, what a boon it had been to our little 2 percent, the Jews, and actually there was a kind of chippiness towards the Protestant establishment in his comment rather than an awareness of the social revolution that lifted Noah’s arc, and mine, way below his. And out of that spirit of inclusion, is the American experiment finished? No no. We Jews were once other and lesser in many ways; what extension of spirit is now demanded of us in the Establishment?

Aside 3 was the most important aside. It came during the Q-and-A. Someone asked him about the degree to which Republicans demonize the Other, and Feldman had a really interesting answer, interesting because it had such scope and knowledge, and even touched on the Jewish rise into the Establishment (at the end of the answer), and his sense of anti-Semitism (at the beginning). But the answer was also assumptive, and in the end, disturbing.

Here’s a partial transcript: 

It’s a fair and legitimate question…There has traditionally in the United States been substantial nativist sentiment coming from the left, not the communist left, but the progressive labor left but also from the right… No one has a monopoly in the American political context on these issues.

Notice the sensitivity to Jewish oppression. Feldman is referring to anti-Semitism among the isolationist LaFollette types, the time when Minneapolis was the capital of anti-Semitism.

Feldman then moved to George W. Bush’s commitment to religious liberty and then to the “compatibility” of Islam and democracy.

In my own view, very far from being purely instrumental is [Bush’s] defense of religious liberty, he was actually saying things that he truly believed….And he and others on the conservative side were far more open to the argument of compatibility than was anybody on the Democratic side, certainly in the foreign policy establishment.  Now you might say about Bush he believed that as a pure article of faith, he didn’t believe it as a matter of cold rational logic…What I think is indisputable is that he believed it and said it many times, and it often led to very bad policy decisions. You know, his view for example that holding elections in Iraq in particular but one could add Palestine and some other examples, his belief that having such elections would not have any negative consequences for politics, because, you know, democracy and Islam are perfectly compatible, I think is a view that he unquestionably sincerely believed.

Feldman then took the question back to the field of religious tolerance in the U.S. And again we have a sense of the Jewish presence in his comments.

So I think it’s very complicated in the American context. It has to do specifically with the way that different religious denominations in the United States have seen themselves as in or out of power, and there there are plenty of circumstances where religious minorities have been conservative in American political history and have therefore have stood up for the general principle of religious liberty and indeed have embraced the idea of religious difference from the right

The answer offers what Feldman offered throughout– a clinic on power, where it lies, how to find it. It touches on his earlier statement that the debate on the Islamic Center had gone on in “fairly peripheral” places till “significant” figures, Obama and Bloomberg, picked it up. Well actually the debate had gone on among very smart people before Obama picked it up. They just didn’t have nearly his power.

As Feldman would not say publicly, because he lacks intellectual courage, Jews are a religious denomination that are now “in … power.” And there was throughout his speech not the least acknowledgment of that power, nor of Madison’s famous fear in the Federalist papers about factions dominating our political life: “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison’s warning anticipates the Israel lobby, and what you see in Feldman’s description of the Palestinians is the Israel lobby in action. I even think there’s some Jewish superiority buried in his statement. Think about it, the Israelis– citizens of a country that a majority of the residents did not want established in the first place— have been able to hold elections for many years, and have lately elevated a rightwing government with fascistic leanings, and meantime the Palestinians have had no rights of self-determination for more than 60 years and have lost land and rights again and again. 90 years ago the British Mandate was established in part because British lawyers believed that the Palestinians “are not able to stand alone” (as Strawson tells us) and Feldman is merely the American version of that legal condescension, a century on. 

I don’t know how you accept such a double standard and meantime exalt the 1950s inclusion of Jews in America–Jews being a fractional minority. I imagine that Feldman is a secret Bernard Lewisite, that he would say that US political culture and Islamic political culture are two different animals. And there’s obvious truth there; but does that justify oppression and a complete absence of democracy? Palestine has been shattered politically again and again because it has no political representation. If you don’t like Hamas, or the Jewish-supremacist party, Yisrael Beteinu, maybe the answer is to actually imagine a full democratic transition in Israel and Palestine, with an undivided polity, in which the reasonable middles on both sides would then have to find one another in campaigns, and support centrist candidates. As it is, the two sides are divided, and they are led by their extremist bases. 

What you see in Feldman is high intelligence yoked to the most conventional ideas. He is wed to the standard Establishment (read Israel-lobby) take on Islamic political culture and on that basis can justify what we’ve seen forever in Israel and Palestine, the denial of democracy for everyone but Jews.

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