Michael Oren is Right (Sort Of)

Michael Oren’s recent contribution to Foreign Policy magazine (“The Ultimate Ally,” May/June 2011) provides a clear and carefully worded justification for the enduring alliance between Israel and the United States. Oren’s argument contains few surprises; for the most part it’s exactly the sort of piece one would expect from the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He makes salient points regarding Israel’s tactical importance to the United States, yet his piece is not remarkable for them. They are the same points every advocate of Israel parades before a skeptical audience: Israel’s strong military presence in a hostile region, its support of US foreign policy, its thriving economy and its legacy of democratic government. Yet Oren veers into strange territory before the close of his first paragraph as he lauds Israel’s commitment to America’s “global vision,” an ideological imperative he vaguely defines as an embrace of democratic ideals. He reminds his American readers that Israel boasts streets named after Washington and Lincoln, that it hosts memorials for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. and owns two replicas of the Liberty Bell. Oren’s pride in these tributes to American history clearly demonstrates his disregard for Western colonialism’s impact on the region. He ignores the implications of Israel’s relationship with America for Israelis and Arabs alike in order to present a case for Israel’s commitment to democratic ideals, ideals that he believes are shared by Americans.  Gender equality, rights for GLBT citizens, and a viable justice system exemplified by former President Moshe Katsav’s recent conviction for rape are pillars of his apologetic. This shows that Oren is ignorant of the many ways these ideals aren’t truly represented by American society.

He ignores  similar failures in his own country. The rising power of the Orthodox Shas party, which does not value gender equality or GLBT rights, is of concern. It is also hard to accept his portrayal of Israel’s justice system since an equitable application of the law does not extend to the IDF’, whose tactics in the recent invasion of Gaza included documented war crimes like the use of white phosphorous. The victims of these crimes could offer a countering view to Oren’s perspective on Israeli justice. Nor is the argument even applicable to all Israeli politicians: Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party continues to serve in his position as Foreign Minister despite facing charges of corruption. The double standard is continued as Oren lauds his country’s commitment to international law and states that settlements are not an impediment to peace, even though these same settlements are considered violations of international law.

For these reasons, the legacy of Israel’s democracy has been tarnished far more than a casual reader would surmise from Oren’s piece. He boldly states that Israel has “never experienced interregna of nondemocratic rule,” and this is true, if only partially so. Israel can boast of fair elections. But its elected officials do not represent its occupied territories, and despite the ambassador’s claims regarding his country’s commitment to the peace process, Al Jazeera’s recent release of the “Palestine Papers” reveal Israel’s decades-long reticence to the numerous compromises set forward by the Fatah administration of the West Bank, as well its refusal to negotiate with the democratically elected government of the Gaza Strip. That reticence is demonstrated again this month as Israel announced it will not negotiate with the new Palestinian unity government since it will necessarily contain members of Hamas. This exhibits a lack of respect for the democratic process of the Palestinian people and substantially weakens Oren’s argument. So does a new loyalty oath proposed by the Israeli government, which will require new citizens to swear allegiance to an explicitly Jewish state. The concept of  a Jewish state is inherently racist and is incompatible with democracy, since it promotes one racial identity above all others and therefore undermines the free expression of cultural differences. A state that defines itself by a specific racial identity cannot truly be considered free. But Oren makes no reference to the loyalty oath in his piece.

As disturbing as these omissions are, they are topped by Oren’s inexplicable praise for Christian Zionism. The points analyzed in the above paragraphs follow a defense of Christian Zionism that extends for over four paragraphs. As Oren begins to describe the historical context of the Israeli-American relationship, he writes: “And yet, for all their urgency, the close ties between the United States and Israel are hardly new. Their roots extend further than Israel’s creation 63 years ago — rather, they took hold with the Pilgrims’ arrival in North America.” Oren continues the Pilgrim theme, and reminds readers that the Pilgrims considered themselves the founders of a “New Israel.” He is correct that this motif figures prominently in the history of colonial America, and that the Judeo-Christian influence on American culture has led to an embrace of Israel, first as a concept and later as an established state. Oren mentions Truman’s membership in the American Christian Palestine Committee, and also correctly identifies it as a Zionist organization. In its time, the Committee provided powerful lobbying on behalf of Zionist causes. It is a role filled today by organizations like Christian Action Israel, Christians United for Israel, and Christians for Israel International among others. The position finds extensive support in mainline evangelical churches. But Oren does not understand the implications of this support.

Yes, Christian Zionists are a powerful ally of Israel. But the movement has its own objective. According to the dispensationalist theology taught in most evangelical churches, Israel will be the site of Armageddon. Certain major events, like the desecration of a restored Temple, are described in the Book of Revelation and must take place in order for Christ’s Second Coming to occur. Furthermore, Revelations states that Israel must dwell securely in order for the Antichrist to arise. For Christians that believe a literal interpretation of the Bible, support for the state of Israel is necessary. But it’s not for Israel’s sake alone. Nor should Oren expect to find sympathy for Jewish beliefs among the Christian Zionists. Judaism rejects Jesus as the messiah, which is the primary tenet of Christianity. So evangelicals support Israel. But they also believe that practicing Jews are destined for hell, and that the existence of Israel is required in order for the Messiah these same practicing Jews do not worship to return. It is worth noting that this literal interpretation also teaches that Israel will be the site of a massive battle in this event and that only 144,000 Jews will ascend to heaven. It is disturbing that Israel’s ambassador to the United States is so clearly unaware of the Christian Zionist movement’s motivations.

Michael Oren’s blatant omissions, his selective interpretation of the facts and his praise for Christian Zionists obscure the legitimate points he makes regarding the economic, political and military benefits of the American alliance with Israel. However, this alliance must sustain a critical examination of its ethical ramifications for human rights and the preservation of international law. As presented by Ambassador Oren, it simply does not, and it instead raises serious questions about Oren’s judgment.  Rather than being the titular “ultimate ally,” Israel’s violations of international law and its history of war crimes call the credibility of the United States as an advocate for human rights into question.


Revising humanitarian parole: now it’s the White Man’s Burden to adopt

In case you thought the White Man’s Burden has been consigned to the ash heap of colonial history, this article by Kathryn Joyce will help dispel the illusion.  Joyce, author of “Quiverfull,” examined the current evangelical craze for international adoption and its connections to the federal government. Joyce does an excellent job of establishing a factual background to a growing trend that recently resulted in the arrests of ten Christian missionaries by the Haitian government. These missionaries stood accused of child trafficking after they “rescued’ Haitian children in order to set up a Christian orphanage. It is charity, you might protest, the Christian motivation to protect the widow and the orphan, that led these individuals to commit such a rash action. And they would agree with you. So would Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the deeply conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Not only has Moore authored a book that describes international adoption as a “priority” for Christian families, his pride in his “rainbow” congregation does not derive from its cultural diversity. According to Joyce: “These children don’t recognize the flags of their home countries, Moore proudly noted at a 2010 conference, but they can all sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

This lack of regard for the cultural backgrounds of adopted children is reflected in the case of 10 American missionaries arrested for kidnapping shortly after the January 12, 2010 earthquake.  The missionaries attempted to remove 33 Haitian children from the earthquake-ravaged region without documentation. Upon their arrests, they stated that they planned to place the children in a Christian orphanage in the Dominican Republic. ABC News quotes the group’s leader, Laura Silsby, offering a justification for their actions: “We came here with the intention of being able to offer and share God’s love and hope with these children that have just gone through so much.” It’s an attitude remarkably similar to the one portrayed by Moore and his peers in Joyce’s piece. For the 33 children, God’s love and hope meant removal from intact families. Silsby and her fellow missionaries found support from major figures within the evangelical movement. Among them is Albert Mohler, Russell Moore’s boss at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This arrogant response to tragedy reflects a modern embrace of a colonial mindset, justified by Christian theology. And it has its backers in the federal government. In January 2010 the Department of Homeland Security announced a revision of its standards for humanitarian parole, a policy established to provide temporary relief for foreign nationals otherwise ineligible for entry into the country. Under the revision, Haitian orphans with proper documentation (a requirement the overzealous missionaries failed to recall) would be eligible for admission into the United States so long as they met certain standards, like placement with adoptive American parents. The revision, designed to facilitate international adoptions, ceased in April 2010 after protests from the Haitian government. Yet support for this sort of facilitation remains, as Joyce makes clear in her article. She cites a Huffington Post article that attributes the following statement to an official charged with drafting the revision:  “The idea was to help the kids. And if we overlooked Hague, I don’t think I’m going to apologize.”

On the subject of international adoption, the US government and the religious right stand united in their disregard for the international legal structures established to regulate adoptions. This further disenfranchises regions already devastated by conflict, economic disaster, or natural disasters. The drive to loosen restrictions on international adoptions not only reflects a refusal to honor the national sovereignty of other states, it is fueled by the belief that Western society is somehow inherently superior. For evangelicals, it is colonialism theologically justified by the most prominent conservative figures in the movement. The goal is evangelism, costumed in the language of redemption that is Christianity’s most attractive feature. Christians who advocate international adoption as a fulfillment of the Great Commission are abusing the system, subverting it to satisfy their own religious objectives. For advocates like Russell Moore, international adoption is necessary because he believes that Christian culture should actively replace all others. It is also hypocrisy, as evangelicals continue to lead the war on reproductive choice in the US while they fight to facilitate international adoptions. The “culture of life” so promoted by these leaders is not quite as universal as they would have the American public believe. It’s about one culture: theirs, and its triumph in the United States and abroad.

Speaking of ableism: Sorry, Jezebel, but no.

Bipolar II is not less severe than Bipolar I. You are right that the symptoms are different. Kudos to Catherine Zeta Jones for being public about her illness, and congrats on hiring publicists who can intelligently explain it. Would we were all so lucky. If you’re unaware, however, here’s a quick rundown: Bipolar I is characterized by periods of mania followed by periods of depression. Mania’s a euphoric state. Individuals can go without sleep for days, for example. And states may last from hours to months. Bipolar II does not usually feature classic mania. Typically, there are periods of hypomania, which can be understood as a state of heightened creativity, energy and impulsivity that does not meet the requirements for mania.

Like the Jezebel article states, people with Bipolar II tend more toward the depressed end of the scale. There are exceptions. Some people may never experience full-blown mania or hypomania and still have bipolar disorder, and even if they do experience hypomania, they’re not necessarily better off than people with mania. Everyone’s experience is different. I have a diagnosis of  Bipolar II, and my symptoms have changed over the eight years I’ve lived with the label. For me, the one constant feature of my illness is depression.

Here’s the deal, Jezebel. Depression kills. In fact, people with Bipolar II are as prone to commit suicide as people with Bipolar I. Bipolar II is a life-threatening illness and it is just as severe as the other points on the bipolar spectrum. Don’t trivialize the disease because you’re too lazy to look it up.

Update: The Huffington Post made the same error. Why the hell can’t people do their research?

On ableism, manipulation, and feminist flame wars

Some of my readers might be familiar with this weekend’s Feministe debacle. I’m referring to this thread, and I feel that I should include a trigger warning for anyone with particularly strong memories of being bullied. Because that, dear readers, is exactly what happened to guest blogger David Futrelle. His terrible crime against humanity? He used the word “idiot.” Not, as you might guess given the post has nearly 200 comments, in reference to an individual with intellectual challenges. He used it in reference to Men’s Rights Activists. Again, my readers might be familiar with these activists; they frequently troll feminist blogs, mine included.

David’s alleged faux pas was derided, over the course of 200 comments, as unacceptably ableist. And in the past, these commenters might have had a point. Idiot had negative connotations for people with disabilities (PWD). However, it’s no longer commonly used in this way, and while I acknowledge that some PWDs, particularly those with learning disabilities, might object to the term, I am appalled at Feministe’s response to it in this context. Let me repeat that: context. It’s important. And I believe it needs more of an emphasis in feminist circles.

Feminists as a group have a heightened awareness of privilege. Some may be less informed on certain aspects of privilege, like trans erasure, but the feminist movement is bound by an awareness that privilege exists and is harmful. Ableism is harmful, without doubt. Though I hesitate over how public to make my diagnoses, I will disclose them in the interest of providing readers with relevant information on the development of my perspective on this issue: I have a diagnosis of Bipolar II and a genetic blood disease called hereditary spherocytosis. I don’t commonly refer to myself as disabled-I believe I’m very able indeed-but by any acceptable standard I am a PWD. And I have faced discrimination due to this.

The commenters who accused me, and other similarly minded PWDs, with internalizing ableism in our lack of objection to “idiot” had no way to know that at the age of fifteen, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder made me a target for humiliation in my small Christian high school. I was taunted daily. I was told I was only sick because I didn’t have enough faith in Jesus. My Bible teacher declared that “brain problems” didn’t really exist. Finally, I was expelled from the school despite being an honor student with a clean disciplinary record. The excuse? I was a “disturbing influence.” My brother was also expelled.

Thanks, but I think I know what ableism is.

Which brings me back to my original argument, that context is an absolutely vital factor in determining what is or is not ableism. I have used the word “crazy” in this blog, and was trolled for it. I don’t find the word inherently ableist, in fact, to suggest that any word is inherently bad is simply ludicrous and reflects a poor grasp of language. Certain words have developed negative connotations due to their misuse. I agree that this is wrong. And in certain situations, “crazy” is ableist. My use of the word was not ableist. And David’s use of “idiot” was not ableist. He used the term specifically in regards to misogyny. Misogyny is idiotic. I’d hope we can all agree.

Furthermore, I’d like to make something powerfully clear: if you are not a PWD, you do not decide what is ableist. Ever. You have no business participating in a discussion over the definition of ableist because you lack the essential life experiences that would equip you to understand exactly what ableism does to PWDs. You do not speak for me. You are not my defender, my proxy, or my guardian. Society has enforced each of those things on PWDs and I will not tolerate seeing the same discrimination in feminist circles because it has no business there. If you are able-bodied, you are participating in the very structure you are attempting to protect me from when you attempt to be my voice.

However, that doesn’t address the reality that PWDs often disagree with each other on what exactly constitutes ableism. This was an issue in the Feministe thread. And it’s tricky. Even as PWDs we each have different experiences, due to culture, location, and diagnosis, among other factors. We need to respect each other’s differences without accusing each other of somehow siding with the enemy. It’s utterly unacceptable to accuse any PWD of internalizing ableism because they disagree with you on word usage. We’re in the same fight, on the same team. Calling someone out on ableist privilege can be easily manipulated to silence someone that you simply disagree with. I don’t know whether that was a factor in the Feministe thread. I suspect it was one of many, given that David stated that he had depression and that was completely ignored by the moderator and the self-appointed defenders of the disabled. So it is something we should be aware of when we address someone’s privilege.

It saddens me deeply to see reactions like this in the feminist world. Pile-ons are not ok. It’s bullying, and it defeats our own cause by portraying an ally as an enemy. We owe it to ourselves and our allies to be aware of the importance of context in determining privilege. And the infighting has got to end. That will derail our movement far more than any bill the Republicans could dream of introducing.