Thursday, May 2, 2024

Newsletter: Summer of 2024

This looks like the development I've been imagining for the last five months among the Israeli public, as the hostages become more and more salient and the need for revenge less and less so. It's evidently connected to the video released a little over a week ago by Hamas of the American-Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin (Hersh was my dad's Yiddish name, as it happens), in which he denounced Netanyahu for abandoning the hostages and made the claim that 70 of the hostages have been killed, so far, by Israeli bombs, which may well be true (I've expected from the start that IDF would kill more hostages than Hamas would), even though the video is plainly released for propaganda purposes, and it seems that a lot of Israelis believe it.

The really curious thing is it seems to be where the Hamas leadership is at too, asking for a permanent ceasefire and release of many prisoners in Israel in return for release of hostages held in Gaza. The odd man out is Binyamin Netanyahu, who can't accept the permanent ceasefire, which would prevent IDF from killing everybody in the Hamas leadership.

I know, I know, Hamas is bad (but "you don't make peace with your friends," as a wise man once said, "you make it with very unsavory enemies"). At the same time, if you think about it, you can understand why they might be reluctant to get killed. That's definitely not the most evil thing about them. It's even kind of normal. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken thinks Hamas ought to accept the "very generous" offer Israel has put on the table, with a 40-day ceasefire, asking them to return "more than 30" hostages in return for almost a full six weeks before IDF goes back to trying to kill them full-time along with anybody else who's still in Rafah (which would presumably include some hostages), but I'm having trouble seeing why they would. I can't stop gaming out in my head how it might work—if Hamas accepts the deal, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich denounce Netanyahu for offering it and carry out their threats to leave the government and it falls, and then there's an opening for something serious to happen—but I'm pretty sure none of the main actors are interested in what I want.

It would be nice if they could get interested in what the plurality of Israelis want, though.

And what Americans want too, as the traditional bipartisan consensus view on Israel, that it can do no wrong, begins to collapse among the politicians, and college campuses go nuts, driven by the unending horror in Gaza. I can't fault the students, or professors either, for getting upset. I wish they could take a more lenient view of President Joe Biden in the matter, as I've been arguing for months—an understanding of how limited his power is to stop the ongoing violence, and an appreciation of the sweeping ambition of what he's trying to achieve instead (and the real possibility that he could make it happen), in the establishment of a Palestinian state and a long-term peace in which Israel can continue to exist. But I can understand why they don't: the violence is just too terrible, and I just can't truthfully say the US isn't complicit in it; we are.

I'm also wishing Biden had a better idea of how to talk about it, obviously. I was especially disappointed last weekend with the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and the obligatory serious windup portion of his standup routine, dedicated as that segment always is to praising the press, that he didn't take an opportunity to say something about Gaza, where dozens of heroic local journalists phone in stories to NPR and BBC and some other outlets—he could have mentioned them, and the Israeli journalists too (some of whom, at Haaretz and Times of Israel as well as lower-budget outfits like +972, hit the Netanyahu government much harder than anyone in the US dares to do, but he didn't have to mention that). And when he was demanding freedom for journalist hostages in Russia and China, maybe he could have mentioned Israeli hostages in Gaza. And when he was making the customary invocation to freedom of speech, maybe he could have mentioned the hundreds of protesters exercising their freedom of speech outside the Washington Hilton. But he didn't. (Kelly O'Donnell did mention the 100 journalists who have been killed covering the war so far, most of whom were Palestinians.)

Is the student movement taking us to a bad place reminiscent of 1968, from the disastrous Chicago convention to a Republican victory? God I hope not. It's certainly not the same, in many very important ways: such catastrophic hope-killing things happened to the political environment in 1968, with the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Young Americans aren't personally threatened by Gaza the way they were threatened then by Vietnam and the specter of the draft. Nixon and his people were far more skilled and better focused as criminals than Trump and his, even if the latter are led behind the scenes by Roger Stone.

Aaron David Miller, who has been around a lot of those blocks himself (he was at Tulane University in 1968 though, presumably being an extremely well-behaved student), has been offering a take on that: he blames the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey not for his failure to side with the antiwar kids, but the opposite, his failure to condemn them. Not on moral but on political grounds: Humphrey shouldn't have allowed Nixon to own the law-and-order issue, Miller believes, and that's why he lost the election. He might have won if he'd condemned the hippies for the violence in Chicago much more strongly than he did, if he hadn't been so damn nice and trying to please everybody. And Miller suggests that Biden is most likely to do what he thinks Humphrey should have done then, take sides with the university administrations and the cops, again for political purposes, I suppose because of where the reliable votes are, and the campaign money.

I think this will be deplorable even if it works, and I'm not sure it will. Biden's constituencies of young people, Black people, single women, suburban women, immigrant communities including Muslim ones, are all much better at voting than they used to be, and Biden can't win if they're too discouraged to do it; while the law-and-order caucus, even as it seems to be acquiring more Black and Latino (and male) voters, is worse at voting than it used to be, as we saw through 2022 and the special elections of 2023, and can't win on their own. At the higher level, if Biden cuts off his own constituencies the way Clinton seemed to do after 1994 and wins, his government and legacy aren't going to be as good as they should be, they won't be the affirmation of democracy I'm wanting them to be.

In that perspective, I thought his brief address this morning on the campus situation, following on his decisive rejection of the idea of calling in the National Guard, at least touched the right notes, of trying to placate both the sides of freedom of speech and of order on campus (expressed in terms of the right of non-protesting students to attend their classes and their graduations). I can't guess if it's enough, and I wish he would avoid saying that the protests are violent when they 99% are not, and even where they are the violence is largely by cops (at the Columbia and City College campuses in uptown Manhattan) or stick-wielding anti-Palestinian counter-protesters (at UCLA).

Let's try to point that out in every forum, and make this summer look more like the summer of 2020 (meaning the rightwingers will be convinced all the colleges are burning to the ground no matter what we say, but a voting majority may notice that they aren't and that the demonstrators have a point). But another thing Miller noted is definitely correct: time is not our friend, not in the Trump legal epic, not in Gaza and Israel, not in the academic calendar: everything is happening way too slowly, and that's a big problem, maybe the biggest.

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