What is normal? On the changing of American social discourse.

I was reminded of this post today and decided to re-up it. Because why not?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the broad American social struggle of the past 60-odd years, about what ties the whole messy package together. I’ve been thinking about how for the vast majority of human history, men have ruled the roost, but only men of a certain socio-economic standing — something that has varied from culture to culture (much as the ethnicity, religion, and geographical seat of these men has varied), but has always translated to “power.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in this country, in this time, when white, Christian men of a certain socio-economic standing (and heteronormative identity) complain that something is being ripped from their hands, that order hangs in the balance, they’re right.

They’re right, because ever since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement (or, in fact, ever since abolition and universal suffrage, but more comprehensively since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement), more and more people have been chipping away – tchink, tchink, tchink – at that order, and the central American discourse has become about who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior.

Like everything else in human history, there’s no straight trajectory, if only because the Human Venn Diagram is too messy. Black men are men; white women are white; rich Asian Americans are rich; Christians with handicaps are Christians; and every one of them is something else besides.

But if we look at the arc of American social and political upheaval since about 1955, that’s what it comes down to: Who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior?

Within those questions are, of course, many other questions (not least, of course: Where does your right to help shape our discourse impinge on mine? And: What are the words with which we may reasonably hold that discourse?), and every individual and community struggle is unique. I’m not trying to draw unwarranted parallels, or erase diversity of experience — it just strikes me that when history looks back in 100, 200 years, that’s what people will see: A massive upheaval of norms and mores, from all corners and all comers, a mighty tussle, often with individuals and communities tumbling over and on top of each other and each other’s needs and rights as we all continue to chip away  – tchink, tchink, tchink – at what was once Normal.

Seeing this arc, seeing a unifying question that goes beyond the rather imprecise metrics of “equality” and “perfecting our union,” helps me also to grasp what we in social justice circles so clumsily call “intersectionality” — because really, if in my struggle to achieve the space to contribute to the social compact and determine its parameters, I leave others behind, what have I accomplished? My struggle to achieve, say, the right to decide my own body’s future is entirely of a piece — is wrapped in the same garment of destiny — as that of a black man to wear a hoodie without suspicion, and a trans* woman to live as her most authentic self, and a Muslim in a wheelchair to both wear her hijab and have access to her classes.

What we’ve been saying for the last six decades, with more and more people listening as the years fly and crawl by, is that all of this belongs to all of us. We all get to say what society is and does. We all get to set and then move the boundaries of what’s ok. We are — all of us, even (often) the straight, white dudes — rethinking and reshaping the social compact itself.

This strikes me as a fundamentally American thing to do — wasn’t Independence the breaking of one compact to build something new? Isn’t our very Idea rooted in an ever-expanding circle of rights and interconnected responsibilities? Our system is flawed, positively riddled with imperfections, but it’s structured to allow us to continuously fix those flaws. It’s fundamentally American to do so.

Maybe this isn’t a particularly new idea. Many people have probably said and written similar things, and I’m late to the understanding. But this has been a fascinating notion for me to consider, and, ultimately, a tremendously hopeful one. This is our conversation, and we’re changing the rules — right now. Together. All of us.

My first piece at Haaretz: Ariel Sharon, the recalcitrant and brutal.

I’ve decided (h/t Jen Marlowe!) to post the top of all of my Haaretz posts here, just so folks know they’re out there. This is hugely exciting for me, as Haaretz is really Israel’s paper of record, and I have long, long admired it. My work will be appearing online and occasionally in the English-language print edition (for instance, the editors liked this first piece enough to be running it in print tomorrow) and I imagine that if I do something really extraordinary (we can hope!), they may translate it for what I think of as “Real Haaretz,” aka: the Hebrew-language print edition.

The website is a subscription site but I think you only have to register (that is: not pay) to see opinion pieces. Click here for their subscription information. If you can subscribe, please do. They do terrific work, and terrific journalism requires funds and support. And they pay me! : )


Arik the recalcitrant and brutal

Jewish America’s institutional leaders have been responding to the news of Ariel Sharon’s death with sorrow, admiration, and the occasional “We didn’t always agree, but…” This was to be expected, and in a way, is as things should be. The immediate aftermath of a person’s death is ordinarily a time to either praise, or be silent.

But as those leaders have all attested, Arik was no ordinary person. He was larger than life, his military actions and political decisions among the most determinative of Israel’s character today. Sharon’s shadow will long fall on any Jew, anywhere, who loves the Jewish State. Some people do not return to mere dust when they die.

The eulogies are full of references to the love many Israelis felt for Sharon, but little is said about the rage he induced among others. I live in Chicago now, but for a long time I lived in Tel Aviv; I can be numbered in that latter group….

To read the rest, please click here. Thank you!



On Ariel Sharon and Gaza.

The Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip.

UPDATE 1/12/14: Haaretz ran a report today suggesting that newly revealed documents show that Sharon was already thinking about further territorial concessions in the West Bank at the time of his death. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions the writer draws, and will blog about it sometime this week, but I thought I should link to the report in the meantime — to read it, click here. [h/t and thanks to Brent Sasely]

News came out of Israel last week that the health of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who has been in a coma since January 2006) had begun to deteriorate; it’s been reported in the past few hours that he’s now in critical condition. It really is just a matter of time before the media will have to start publishing obituaries — and if they’re anything like last week’s proto-obituaries, it’s a good bet most will get the story of Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza wrong.

So before that happens, a few quick notes.

The way this story is generally told is some version of the following: “Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former general known throughout Israel as ‘the father of the settlements,’ surprised the world when he left the rightwing Likud to form a centrist party, Kadima, and took the difficult if pragmatic decision to withdraw Israel’s military from the Gaza Strip in 2005, despite fierce backlash among his once fervent supporters.”

The reason this version of the story is inaccurate is because it is incomplete.

The decision to withdraw from Gaza was fiercely contested, it did come as a surprise, and it was pragmatic — but not because Sharon had become somehow less hawkish. It was pragmatic precisely because Sharon was still a hawk, and he had understood that he had to lose Gaza in order to save the West Bank.

As former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Yossi Alpher pointed out soon after Sharon announced his plan to pull out of Gaza, “the advent of the Geneva Initiative and the frenzied response of the Israeli right – with every senior political figure espousing his or her new plan, and most advocating disengagement – precipitated this development.”

One characteristic of Sharon’s approach has not changed at all: He did not present a realistic strategy for peace. First he “hijacked” the [security] barrier and distorted it by transforming it from a legitimate means of self-defense into a political tactic for creating a Palestinian bantustan. Now he has hijacked the idea of disengagement and the dismantling of settlements – which was originally intended by the left to rescue Israel demographically… and seeks to reconstitute it as a rationale for fencing in the Palestinians and grabbing the rest of the West Bank.

Alpher’s reference to the Geneva Initiative is the key element here. The Initiative (also frequently called “the Geneva Accord”) is a draft plan for a two-state peace along the 1967 borders with a shared Jerusalem. Launched by a group of Israeli and Palestinian thought leaders in October 2003, the ideas represented by the Initiative quickly gained significant support among the Israeli public — by the summer of 2004, that support had reached as high as 76%.

Sharon had seen the writing on the wall, and knew full well that a two-state peace meant the loss of the West Bank and an end to any notion of Greater Israel. Always a very savvy politician, he grabbed some of the Intiative’s ideas and vocabulary in order to stem the tide.

Or, in the words of his close adviser, Dov Weissglas, in October 2004:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political [diplomatic] process with the Palestinians.

…The American term is to park conveniently. The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation. The decision is proving itself…. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote. It places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. 

The “disengagement” also included a withdrawal from four small Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, which Weissglas described thus:

The withdrawal in [the West Bank] is a token one. We agreed to only so it wouldn’t be said that we concluded our obligation in Gaza.

…Arik [Sharon] doesn’t see Gaza today as an area of national interest. He does see Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as an area of national interest. He thinks rightly that we are still very very far from the time when we will be able to reach final-status settlements in Judea and Samaria.

And finally, it’s very important to remember that Sharon refused to actually negotiate the pull-back with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, insisting instead that the withdrawal be unilateral — which in turn meant that two-state minded Palestinians had nothing to show for a decade of negotiations, and Hamas, which during the same decade had waged a brutal terrorist campaign, was able to claim victory.

The withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral act intended to freeze out the Palestinian leadership and put the peace process itself on ice, so that Israel could deepen its hold on the West Bank.

And guess what? It worked.

Israel’s Defense Minister calls settler attacks on Palestinians “terrorism” – some context.

On Wednesday Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, termed attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians “terrorism.”

The unacceptable trend known as ‘price tag’ is in my opinion terror in every sense of the word, and we are acting and will act against the perpetrators, firmly and with zero tolerance, in order to eradicate it.

price tagThis is a perfectly accurate description (acts of terrorism being violent acts intended to achieve political ends), and it is particularly interesting given that in the summer, the cabinet in which Yaalon serves took a vote and decided that price tag attacks are not terrorism. The fact that Yaalon is a staunch member of the Likud’s right flank (bearing in mind that the Likud is the core of Israel’s right to begin with) makes his comment more interesting still.

It’s important to remember a few pieces of context, however, starting with the rift within Israel’s far right, which runs largely along generational lines.

The settler movement’s failed efforts to halt Israel’s  2005 withdrawal from Gaza led to marked upheaval in the ranks, with many in the younger generation feeling they had been failed by leaders who’d tried to woo the rest of Israel to their cause, rather than go head-to-head with the government. While Jewish terrorism is not new, the “price tag” phenomenon was a direct response to the failure in Gaza — it’s meant to extract a “price” for government actions with which especially extremist settlers disagree (to learn more about that, click here).

I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect there’s an element of this internal, generational tension at play when Yaalon scolds his movement’s young hotheads. Note also that all of this comes in response to a group of settler vigilantes being caught, detained and beaten on Tuesday by the Palestinians in whose village they were trespassing — and a member of Yaalon’s own party, the even-farther-right Moshe Feiglin, is blaming Yaalon for the treatment afforded the vigilantes.

Furthermore, it’s very important to note Yaalon’s next sentence: “[Price tag terrorism] is a stain on Israel and it undermines the settlement enterprise.” [emphasis mine] Yaalon’s primary concern is and remains the settlement enterprise.

(I’ll digress for a moment to say that while I understand the Palestinians’ actions on Tuesday, that’s still no excuse for the violence. They might have reasonably restrained the settlers, given that heretofore the Israeli military has never taken real action against the price tag phenomenon [never], but the vigilantes should not have been beaten. I will also note that if Israel starts to actually treat settler violence as terrorism because the Defense Minister himself is mad, I’ll be only too happy. But I’ll also be surprised).

And finally: It’s also important to remember that, like many on Israel’s right, Yaalon is, himself, an inciter to hatred and violence. I’m sure he would disagree with that assessment, but bear in mind that he once called Israel’s left “a virus” (a comment that he tried to walk back with a classic non-apology apology) and while still serving in the military he was given to saying that “the politicians brought the dove of peace and the army had to clean up after it.” He once said that Israel should cut off Gaza’s “electricity, water… fruit, vegetables, [and] cash,” adding “we’ve become accustomed to Arabs being allowed to live everywhere… [but] there are areas forbidden to Jews. We’ve ended that.” He maintains that there’s no difference between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (a man who has publicly supported a two-state solution since 1977, well before Israel did) and Hamas, and just last month told a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders working together to promote a two-state peace: “Don’t delude yourselves. We don’t have a partner on the Palestinian side for a two-state solution,” adding that John Kerry’s current proposal

is bad and will destroy the economy, apropos talk of boycotts. If we lose freedom of military action, the West Bank will turn into Hamastan, missiles will be fired at Tel Aviv and the economy will be destroyed.

So what I’m hearing is not “My God, I never noticed before, but this is terrorism!” but rather: “Violence is and will always remain necessary, but only the people in power should decide how and where it’s used.” This is not entirely unlike members of the GOP’s right wing being shocked — shocked — to discover that anyone in the Tea Party would take their words as an encouragement to violence.

And so: Yes. It is good that one of the highest ranking members of Israel’s government has used the T word to describe the violence of Jewish settlers. It’s important that linguistic taboos be broken, and this may yet prove an important moment in Israeli political culture.

But remember the source, and don’t misunderstand or overstate his aims.



Kid President sez: We should say these 20 things more often.

Full disclosure: I laughed out loud at #5.

Happy New Year, y’all!

h/t Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Absolutely gorgeous flashmob tribute to Nelson Mandela by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Just watch.


For the story behind this, and a translation of the lyrics, click here.

And not for nothing, but if you’d like to hear Mandela himself sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (“which he loved to use as an ice breaker when speaking to wide-eyed four and five year olds”), click here.

To watch his first television interview, in 1961, in which you can hear him begin to hint toward a need to shift away from nonviolence, click here.

And finally, to listen to NPR’s special program, “Nelson Mandela: An Audio History,” click here.

Big h/t and thanks to my internet friend from way back, @Cthulhucachoo.

Nelson Mandela – 95 words on the complexity of righteousness.

Mandela strove for nonviolence, yet when forced, resisted violently. He refused to renounce the right of the oppressed to violent resistance, yet after being released from prison, Mandela worked closely with former enemies. His work was fundamentally political, both radical and practical. We should be made uncomfortable by Mandela’s example – not just celebrate it, but study it. We make assumptions, and cherry-pick, and want to file off edges we don’t like, but the work of the righteous should always make us uncomfortable.

Nelson Mandela זצ”ל – may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.

Honesty being the best policy and so on.

As this week has continued, I’ve realized that I don’t honestly know when or if I’ll be posting here again, and I just this minute [3:56 on Friday afternoon] decided that I wanted to say that, rather than appear to disappear. I’m particularly sorry to the people who have just recently followed In My Head — I can’t say that the blog is finished, because I don’t know that it is, but for now, for the next while, I’m not likely to be writing in this forum.

To everyone who’s been in and out over the last 4+ years (and wow, I honestly had no idea it had been that long), thank you so much for being here. I really do kinda love all y’all, but especially those who have hung out and chatted with me, and made suggestions, and corrected me, and supported me, and given me good ideas and all the happy feels. Thank you thank you thank you.


Why I would stop freelancing tomorrow if I could.

Because I am 49. Because I have two children. Because I have a mortgage. Because I need to sleep. Because I do not live in New York or Washington.

Because networking is difficult in the middle of the prairie. Because I’m talented and I know it. Because begging to have one’s talents recognized, much less used, is demoralizing. Because doing so for the better part of a quarter of a century is even more so.

Because the media industry’s business model is now rooted in free or near-free labor. Because not paying people is reprehensible. Because expecting creatives to produce their art, edit their art, fact-check their art, promote their art, and support their art, almost entirely on their own, is not only ridiculous, it’s very bad for the product being peddled.

Because I chose to be unsure when I could have made choices. Because I chose to tend to babies when I could have chosen to work differently. Because everyone makes mistakes, occasionally never knowing which choices were mistakes. Because I’m tired.

The tiny world that is foreign policy/Middle East writing found out on Monday that Open Zion, the outlet at which I’ve hung my hat for the past year and a half, will “sunset” at the end of the year. I’ve known that this was coming but wanted to allow the powers that be to tell the world on their own terms and in their own time; alas, as is the way with news, when a bunch of people know something, that information will find its way to the public.

For reasons that have to do with the weird way I’ve lived my life (early career spent in a foreign country; mid-career spent an ocean + half a country away from the first place), choices I made about parenting and activism, and no doubt a certain gormlessness, as well as the death of print, the Great Recession, and the general difficulty that has always attended a life in the arts, my career has not gone as I might have wanted it to. Open Zion was the single most steady gig I’ve ever had with my by-line attached, and without wanting to put too fine a point on it, it’s a blog. Extrapolate out from there what you will about money made and influence wielded.

If I were 27, or possibly even 37, this would look a lot different. But I am not. I am 49. I have two kids. I have a mortgage. I need to sleep. And I do not live in New York or Washington.

Having the luxury of being home when my kids walk in from school is worth more than any of this to me, and that is part of why I am where I am. But I would do almost any job in the world if it would allow me to maintain that, and stop freelancing.

Random pop star awesomeness.

Look at what happened to this Berlin busker, just out there trying to make a few Euros with his beat-ass guitar: He was playing Bronski Beat’s mid-1980s dance-pop hit “Smalltown Boy” — and along came lead singer Jimmy Somerville to sing it with him!!1!


Apparently Somerville lives in Berlin and was out walking his dog. Can you even imagine? “Is it you? Is it you?”

Finally, I would like to note that I once interviewed the Scottish-born Somerville, for the Jerusalem Post, before he came to Israel for a solo show. Sometimes in my life, I’ve gotten to pretend I was cool.

Here’s the song for which Somerville is probably best known, from his Communards days – “Don’t Leave Me This Way”:

(Could this clip be anymore 80s? I think not. The pants!).

h/t Gawker


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