The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

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Saturday, December 21, 2002
Dueling colonialisms

French forces today became involved in the fighting in Côte d'Ivoire, engaging in a running battle with rebel forces near the city of Duekoue about 210 miles from Abidjan. According to scattered reports, the advancing rebels encountered the French after taking the town of Blodi, securing a secondary road that would allow them to bypass French positions and continue toward the capital. At the end of the day, the rebels - who were using the same pickup-truck convoys that gave the Chadian army the mobility to defeat Libya in the 1980s - had retreated eight miles north of Duekoue, but were considering their options for tomorrow.

With France promising to have 2500 troops in Côte d'Ivoire by the end of the year, the nation's civil war is increasingly taking on the appearance of a clash between old and new colonial powers. The old power, of course, is France, which held Côte d'Ivoire until independence in 1960. The new one is Libya.

Although the Libyans deny being involved in the Côte d'Ivoire conflict, there are persistent allegations that they are aiding the rebels. The rebel forces also include soldiers from Liberia, whose dictator, Charles Taylor, is Libyan-trained and a longtime Qaddafi ally. If the rebels succeed in taking Abidjan or forcing the government to share power with them, then Libya is likely to gain influence in Côte d'Ivoire.

Libya's African ambitions are no secret, and date back at least to its clashes with Chad over the mineral-rich Aozou Strip. In recent years, Qaddafi has increasingly shifted his focus from the Arab world - where he is a relatively marginal player - to Africa, where Libyan oil revenue and military power give him considerable leverage. This year, Qaddafi withdrew from the Arab League, promised aid to Zimbabwe, and toured Africa on a campaign for unity.

That campaign may not be as quixotic as it sounds. Ethiopia recently announced plans to host a summit to discuss Qaddafi's idea of creating a pan-African state with a unified army, a move opposed by South Africa but supported by several Libyan allies south of the Sahara. In the meantime, Libya has taken an increasingly aggressive stance in African affairs. The Central African Republic is virtually under Libyan occupation, with Libyan soldiers keeping unpopular president Ange-Félix Patasse in power and bombing rebel-held villages. It is believed that Libya's price is a monopoly over the CAR's gold, diamond and uranium resources. Libya's support of the MLC rebel faction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo also paid dividends when the December 17 peace accords guaranteed the MLC a quarter-share of the transitional government. A rebel victory in Côte d'Ivoire will give Libya a seat at the table in yet another African country, plus the prestige of having beaten - or at least stalemated - a European power.

The role of regional power in Africa has historically been shared by its most populous country, Nigeria, and its most modern, South Africa. Nigeria, as the leader of the ECOMOG peacekeeping force, played a major role in mediating the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Newly democratic South Africa, at the head of the SADC, wields economic and political influence over the countries at the southern end of the continent, and has played a part in the resolution of the Congo conflict. Nigerian power, however, has increasingly been diluted by internal religious warfare, South African influence north of the Congo is slight, and Zimbabwe has become alienated from its southern neighbor. Libya - which conceals unabashed, old-fashioned imperialism behind a nonaligned facade - has increasingly filled the power vacuum, and has reached the point where it must be taken seriously as a regional power. In Côte d'Ivoire, neo-colonialism is a game that two can play.

Of course, the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire isn't only a matter of dueling imperialisms; it is also rooted in the divisions that have grown up in Ivoirian society during the past decade. I'll discuss the domestic roots of the civil war tomorrow.

Campus roundup

Kesher Talk has linked to a Forward article suggesting that anti-Israel activism on campus is waning, and citing Ehud Barak's speech at UC-Berkeley as an example. Apropos of this, here are Stefan Sharkansky's and Mike Silverman's comments on the Barak speech, along with Sari's latest on Concordia University and UQAM. Sari also links to an article by Ruth Wisse on campus anti-Zionism and anti- Semitism, and how the lines between the two are sometimes blurred. (Of course, the Wisse article, which doesn't seem to distinguish the two phenomena at all, may be an example of the lines being blurred in the other direction. But I digress.)

UPDATE: Two members of the Friends of Israel organization at a Brussels university have received anonymous death threats for putting up posters.

Friday, December 20, 2002

In the comments section to my article about Israeli EU membership, I recently had occasion to remark on the definitional creep that the term "Zionism" has experienced in recent decades. Like "feminism," the word "Zionism" has increasingly come to be identified with its most extreme form. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say, "I believe Israel has the right to exist, but I'm an anti-Zionist" - in popular usage, Zionism is frequently a synonym for Kahanism.

Even those who are sympathetic to Israel often perceive Zionism as an exclusivist movement - a movement for Jews alone, that ignores the rights and even the existence of Arabs. We're constantly reminded that some early Zionists viewed Israel/Palestine as "a land without a people," and Zionism is often portrayed as something Israel will have to overcome in order to be a truly democratic state. Left-wing Israelis - and others who share their sympathies - sometimes speak of Israel's future as a "post-Zionist" state in which all citizens have equal rights.

What nobody seems to remember is that the idea of a "state of all citizens" is a Zionist one as well. In fact, as Shlomo Avineri explains in his review of Theodor Herzl's Altneuland, equality of all citizens and the rights of the indigenous population were important to modern Zionism's founder.

Altneuland is a book with a great deal of personal meaning to me. I read it in English translation when I was 20 years old, and it was one of the things that shaped my view of Zionism and Israel. That was the time of my life when I was first beginning to develop a mature political viewpoint that depended on neither the Hebrew-school propaganda of my childhood nor my teenage flirtation with radical leftism. Herzl's charming turn-of-the-last-century progressivism didn't make much of an impression on me, but Altneuland's portrayal of Zionism profoundly influenced my conception of what Israel should be - and, particularly, my views about Arab Israelis.

Arabs are important characters in Altneuland. The book repeatedly makes the point that Arabs in Herzl's utopian state have equal rights, and one of them, Rashid Bey, is deputy prime minister. The villain of Altneuland is not an Arab but a Jew - a rabbi who runs for office on a platform of depriving non-Jews of citizenship. In the end, his party is defeated at the polls and the partnership between Arabs and Jews continues.

In other words, Herzl saw Jewish exclusivism not as merely alien to Zionism but anathema to it. Throughout the early twentieth century, many Zionist leaders - Chaim Weizmann among them - spoke of the importance of protecting Arabs' rights in a country that was a homeland to both Arabs and Jews. Even Ze'ev Jabotinsky favored a Lebanon-style power-sharing arrangement in which either the prime minister or the deputy prime minister would always be an Arab.

If Altneuland is the utopian expression of Herzlian Zionism, it is also a rebuttal to Resolution 3379, better known as the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution. Zionism, as envisioned by its founder and as practiced by many of its subsequent adherents, was an anti-racist movement - neither an ideology of racial superiority nor one of racial exclusivity. There are Zionists who have been racists, and there are offshoots of Zionist ideology - Kahanism, certainly - that are racist in nature, but these are perversions of Zionism rather than integral parts of it.

At the present time, with the conflict between Jews and Arabs creating divisions both within Israel and between Israel and its neighbors, it might be time to rediscover what Zionism is, and re-examine the conception of Arabs in the original Zionist vision. Professor Avineri believes - rightly - that this is particularly important for Israelis:

It would be worthwhile to have Israeli high-school students encounter the image of Zionism as seen by its founders: a national and universal movement, which champions equal rights for Arabs as it implements the vision of a Jewish state; an enlightened movement that provides a place for religion in a Jewish society in the process of renewing itself; a realistic utopia, which does not ignore the flaws that emerge as the Zionist vision seeks to realize itself.

At the same time, it is also important for those who condemn Zionism, especially on the left, to understand what they are condemning - to realize that Zionism is a force that can inspire social justice and equality, and that Zionists who are racist are that way despite their Zionism rather than because of it. Maybe Altneuland should be required reading for European leftists in addition to Israeli students.

Goodbye, Trent

This just in: Trent Lott has decided to step down as Senate majority leader. Any bets on how long it will be before someone claims that he was "borked?"

Peace dividend

Zvi Bar'el informs us that, since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has become a country of net immigration, particularly from Syria:

There are other reasons for the larger flow of Syrians who are trying to leave their homeland. "Lebanon is rehabilitating itself and Syria is stuck," the journalist said. "A new restaurant, movie theater or luxury boutique opens in Beirut every week. Young people have things to do. In Syria all they can do is sit in cafes, read newspapers and wait for tomorrow.


"Would you leave Lebanon for another country?" asked one of the chat participants.

"Of course not. This is my country. The fashion of emigrating is over and done with here. The war has ended and people are coming home and not leaving it. I have relatives who came back from South America this year and they have houses in the southern part of the country. We are not Syria."

Rafting package tours along the Litani River have become the latest thing, and even southern Lebanon has begun to pick itself up since the IDF's departure - among other things, youth councils now bring Muslim, Christian and Druze teenagers together to learn dispute resolution. Finance and tourism are booming. And the Lebanese, although still under Syrian occupation, are at least asserting cultural independence:

"`We are not Syria' is a declaration of principle," explains the Lebanese journalist. "This doesn't refer only to the Syrian presence in Lebanon but also to the fact that a small country like Lebanon, with its level of education and knowledge, with the fast pulse of its economic life, sees how the citizens of a neighboring country - `a sister country' as they say here, where the only advantage is its military strength - are looking for quality of life here. Lebanon sends out a message of culture, it creates trends, sets standards and its citizens speak foreign languages more than in any other country in the Middle East. Its orientation is European and it hosts more performances by foreign artists than all the other countries of the Middle East put together. It seems to me that more international artists come to us than to Israel. There is no argument here about the way girls dress at the university. Liberalism is not an issue for discussion, it simply exists. And when a country like this is run by remote control from Syria, while there are a million citizens looking for work throughout Lebanon - citizens are entitled to say `We are not Syria.'"

Since the civil war ended and the power-sharing arrangement between Muslims and Christians was rearranged, Lebanon has increasingly become an answer to those who say that Arab and Western cultures are incompatible. The Lebanese have an elected government, a raucous political culture, a free-wheeling press - all the trappings of democracy in addition to a liberal, outward-looking culture.

The Palestinians could have had that as well. One of the great tragedies of Palestine is that the Palestinians - especially those in the diaspora - are among the best educated and most technically experienced people in the Arab world. Palestinian culture - even now, when Islamist movements like Hamas have unprecedented appeal - is predominantly secular, and includes a rich intellectual and artistic tradition. The holy sites of the West Bank have the potential to draw tourists, and Palestinians have the technical expertise to build their own industries and businesses.

Just before the al-Aqsa intifada, they were heartbreakingly close to doing exactly this. Palestinian hotels, casinos and town markets were drawing Israeli customers. Light industry, including the famous Taybeh brewery, was beginning to develop. Palestinians from the diaspora were investing in the West Bank, and many were thinking of returning there to start businesses. A joint offshore natural gas project, developed in tandem with Israel, was in the offing, and other Palestinian businessmen were eagerly building alliances with Israeli and American Jews.

About a year ago, I remember reading a New York Times article about a meeting in Ramallah during the summer of 2000 between Palestinian, Israeli and American business leaders. At the time, the mood was one of virtual euphoria; Arab and Jewish businessmen made deals, planned projects and predicted that the Palestinian economy would soon take off. Well, we all know what happened next.

Now, the phrase "Palestinian economy" is a cruel joke. Much of Palestine's infrastructure has become a casualty of war, investment has dried up, and only an insane tourist would venture to Ramallah or Hebron. Palestinians with money and education are leaving the West Bank and Gaza rather than returning to build it. The intifada not only killed the incipient Palestinian economic boom, but destroyed so much of Palestine's material and financial resources that it will be very difficult to rebuild. Gone, too, is the mutual trust and goodwill that enabled Palestinians and Jews to make deals; any peace that results from the present situation is likely to be a cold and separate one for the foreseeable future. The Israeli and Palestinian economies are now completely disconnected, and there is no great desire on either side to reconnect them - with the result that, even when peace comes, the investment pool from which Palestine can draw will be much smaller.

If not for its leaders, Palestine might now be a vibrant, liberal society like Lebanon. It may still become one, but the task will be long and arduous, and might not be finished in time to benefit this generation. Was three percent of the West Bank really worth it?

Paging Sigmund Freud

The Mitzna campaign has hired a team of psychologists to find out why Israeli voters support Sharon:

Mitzna's campaign staff has decided not to import spin doctors from America, like Bibi, Barak and Sharon. Instead, they have hired two local psychologists to accompany the election campaign from beginning to end. Their job is to figure out the mystery behind the public adulation of Sharon. If he's so good that most people are wild about him and anyone who dares to say a critical word is tarred and feathered, then why is the situation so bad? And if things are so bad, why the love affair with Sharon?

One explanation is that a portion of the public is suffering from shell shock and doesn't believe in changing generals in mid-battle. Mitzna's psychologists will also try to figure out how come most of the people who plan to vote for Sharon can't explain his policies. Maybe these guys will submit an evaluation or two, but to really crack the code and get to the bottom of this insanity, you need more than psychologists. You need psychiatrists.

Or maybe psychoanalysts. Who knows - maybe all the campaign-season rhetoric and political arguments are really therapy!

Red letter day

The Head Heeb got record-breaking traffic yesterday, probably because Imshin, Diane, The View From Here and Procrastination all gave me a mention. Thanks, guys.

Imshin also corrected some of the facts in my article about cooperation between Jewish and Arab criminals. Evidently, the traffic in stolen cars between Israel and the occupied territories has declined; the statistics I was using were about a year old, and this year's escalation in the intifada must have put a damper on things. I'd expect that the security fence will also make it harder to smuggle contraband from Israel to the West Bank.

Thursday, December 19, 2002
Low bono

There was an interesting article in the metro section of the Times on Monday, describing how some law schools are encouraging their students to start their own practices rather than applying for jobs at white-shoe firms. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is due to the difficult legal job market, but some socially conscious law schools also believe that "corporate largess and government programs barely dent the nation's legal needs." The schools hope that recent graduates will provide the community with "low bono" legal services - for a fee, but less than what the big firms charge.

The independent practice movement is supported by a foundation called "the consortium," which is sponsored by 10 law schools (including, to nobody's surprise, the City University of New York School of Law). The consortium provides recent graduates with training on the business side of law practice - finding clients and office space, billing, getting malpractice insurance - and offers social support including free yoga classes. In other words, "almost anything to help make life a little easier for those trying to hang out their shingles."

"Low bono" is certainly a good idea, given the $300-per-hour fees charged by big law firms. Bringing the law within the reach of the poor and middle class, however, will require more than encouraging young law-school graduates to go out on their own. Even a small start-up firm represents a major investment by its partners - a law degree involves seven years of post-secondary education and, for many students, a crushing debt burden. The fees that a firm - even a "low bono" firm - can charge have a floor that is set by the partners' fixed capital costs, and education - which, when college and law school are combined, can easily total $150,000 or even $200,000 - is high on the list. "Low bono" partners must either set their fees high enough to make their student loan payments, or take other jobs to make ends meet - and if they choose the latter course, they won't be able to devote full attention to their clients.

A more complete solution would be for more states to emulate California and allow paralegals to practice on their own. This would, essentially, turn the American bar into a barrister-solicitor system, with lawyers going to court and independent paralegals handling such routine matters as wills and real-estate closings. Paralegals - whose training consists of a four-year degree or even a certificate program - won't have the fixed educational costs that keep even small-firm fees so high, and they'll be able to provide basic legal services at a price the middle class can afford.

The legal profession has, for the most part, taken an exclusivist attitude toward allowing nonlawyers to practice law - ostensibly because nonlawyers are not bound by the rules of legal ethics, but actually due to fear of competition. Independent paralegals, however, won't compete directly with lawyers - they'll provide services to a market that lawyers currently don't reach. Paralegal practice is the logical conclusion of the "low bono" movement, and it's about time it became the law.

Crime, politics and the Likud central committee

I've been holding off writing about the Likud corruption scandal, both because I wanted to wait long enough to do some sober analysis and because I wasn't sure it would last. It's only become bigger, though, and with two arrests and connections between Omri Sharon and organized crime, it looks like it isn't going away. Hell, even the New York Times got the memo this morning.

Imshin doesn't seem to think that the scandal will cost Likud too many voters (although she seems to be wavering). Likud says the same thing, at least in public. However, Sharon has been in full damage control mode for days, and internal Likud polls show the party losing support. Both a Ha'aretz poll and a Marketwatch poll reported in the Jerusalem Post also show Likud with no more than 35 seats, down from 40.

Of course, Avoda would feel left out if it didn't have a corruption scandal of its own. Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein is currently investigating reports of vote-buying by Tsali Reshef, a candidate for the Druze Sector reserved slot. At the same time, three missing ballot boxes from the Avoda primary mysteriously appeared, containing ballots that would have caused the candidates in the ninth and tenth slots to change position if they had been counted.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, though, but I don't think that Avoda will be hurt nearly as badly by this as Likud. For one thing, Likud's central-committee selection process lent itself far more easily to corruption than Avoda's open primary, and the allegations against Likud seem to be much more widespread. The corruption in the Avoda primary - at least, the corruption that has thus far been alleged - is relatively minor, involving a few votes bought by a single unsuccessful candidate. The three missing ballot boxes didn't change anything important - barring a catastrophe, the candidates in both the ninth and tenth slots will be elected - and they seem to have gone missing because of negligence rather than chicanery.

This also isn't the first time that organized crime has been linked to a Likud government. The Netanyahu administration is often considered a high-water mark for criminal involvement in Israeli politics, with Yisrael Ba'aliya functioning as a back channel for the Russian mob and criminal organizations influencing nominations for the 1999 party slates. The Knesset isn't yet the Russian Duma, nor is Israel comparable to India (where about 20 percent of state legislators have criminal records), but organized crime and the Israeli right are no strangers. The Alperon-Sharon connection - which arises from Musa Alperon's control of a local Likud party organization - won't be seen as an aberration.

(For the record, Ha'aretz is wrong in stating that the Alperons have been allegedly involved in organized crime since the 1980s. In fact, they've been reputed organized crime figures far longer than that - since the early 1960s, or even earlier. And I say "reputed" advisedly because, as The Talking Dog reports, the Alperon family is threatening to sue Avoda for its slogan, "Vote Sharon, get Alperon." I don't want to be the next defendant. But I digress.)

And even if Avoda does get hurt, the left as a whole probably won't. Disaffected Avoda voters won't go to Likud - they'll go to Shinui or Meretz. And if disaffected Likud voters decide that Avoda is equally unattractive, they'll also go to Shinui. There may not be much of a net gain for Avoda when all is said and done, but there's likely to be a net loss for the right. Likud support has always been soft, and, with 15 percent of Likud voters either contemplating switching parties or already doing so, the left and right are beginning to "inch toward parity."

With Avoda beginning its campaign in earnest, this election might not be the walk in the park for the right that everyone assumed it would be. In fact, for the first time, I actually see an outside chance that Avoda might end up the senior partner in the next government - it still has a good deal of catching up to do, but events are breaking its way.

That is, of course, assuming that nothing blows up. The Talking Dog believes that there will be a wave of Palestinian terrorism late this month to swing the election toward the right, and it's a disturbingly likely possibility. As I've said before, the most powerful politician in Israel right now may be, not Mitzna or Sharon, but Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Let's hope he doesn't decide to become a candidate.

Ban the bans

The Israeli Attorney General has petitioned to ban Balad from competing in the Knesset election. Balad, for those who don't know, is the party of controversial Arab Israeli MK Azmi Bishara, who was a candidate in the first direct election for prime minister in 1999 and is now under indictment for advocating armed resistance against Israel during a Damascus speech. That evidently wasn't the only one:

... in September 2000, Bishara met in Hebron with leaders of Hamas. During the course of the meeting, Bishara said that they should realize that even if he is a member of the Knesset, he is merely a vessel for disseminating their ideas and promoting the struggle against Israel.

Bishara also said that he sees himself as a warrior in the fight against Israel, just like all the other participants at the meeting. He added that he had told Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat that before making a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, he should establish a united front off all Palestinian bodies, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At the meeting, Rubinstein says that Bishara predicted that, given the current situation, the Israeli Arab population would stand up to fight for Palestinian rights, acting as a 'second front' against Israel.

The Attorney General argues that statements such as these evidence a lack of support for the "Jewish democratic character" of Israel - qualities that, he believes, should also disqualify Baruch Marzel, a Kahanist running on the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu list.

In the meantime, two Avoda MKs submitted a petition to disqualify the far-right Herut party as racist and anti-democratic, the National Union wants to ban Abdul Malik Dehamshe, and Likud is considering filing a petition against Ahmed Tibi's Ta'al list. Most ridiculous of all, it seems that Yisrael Aheret wants to disqualify both Likud and Avoda.

Enough of this nonsense. Bishara's statements are, to say the least, intemperate, and Marzel is a racist, but Israel is a democratic country. One of the moral advantages that Israel has over its neighbors is that it is an open society in which opposition - even vehement opposition - is tolerated. Allowing Bishara to stand for Knesset won't make Israel look weak - it will show that Israel is strong and free enough to let even its worst critics sit at the table.

Not to mention that any banned candidates will be suddenly transformed from marginal MKs into martyrs. It's already happening, in fact - Shauki Hatib, chairman of the supreme monitoring committee for Israeli Arab affairs, has described the attempt to ban Bishara as an "illegal, political move which constitutes a dangerous slide toward fascism." In a statement issued yesterday, Hatib said that "any democratic regime would accept Balad's contention that Israel is a state of all its citizens."

Obviously, that particular contention isn't why the Attorney General is trying to ban Balad. But how many people - in Israel, and particularly in Europe - will think it is?

With nearly every political party now facing petitions for disqualification, maybe everyone can agree to withdraw them together. That's what democracies do.

Baghdad back online

Where Is Raed is back! Among other things, he lets us know about Uday's party and the three things you can do whenever you like in Iraq - get seriously ill, get arrested and get executed. ("It sounds better in Arabic, because it rhymes.")

I really hope he comes through safe.

UPDATE: This information courtesy of Diane.

Ritalin, anyone?

Steve Cuozzo has the best slander yet on the WTC designs:

For sheer ugliness, can anything beat the THINK team's "World Cultural Center" latticework towers that suggest the old Elmhurst gas tanks thrust more than 1,000 feet into the sky?

Or Richard Meier's bizarre, tic-tac-toe board towers? They supposedly "suggest screens of presence and absence," but more realistically reflect the LEGO fantasies of a Ritalin-dependent child.

Well, maybe they aren't that bad. Most of them, though, do commit the cardinal sin of modern architecture - they don't work with the neighborhood. A few years ago, some friends and I considered setting up an "Ugly Architecture Tour of New York," and most of the buildings we identified as stops on the tour were those that clashed horribly with the surrounding area. Some of them might have been architectural marvels in their proper place, but the human eye sees things in context. So, too, with the WTC proposals.

Most of them, anyway. I'm going to disagree with Cuozzo, who prefers Sir Norman Foster's design; I like the United Architects proposal, which enhances rather than disrupts the skyline and provides maximum open space at ground level. And, in Cuozzo's words, it's "normal-enough looking to attract great financial and corporate tenants." The THINK team's other idea, the "skypark" design, isn't bad either - at the very least, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Elmhurst gas tanks.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Jihad or Hirabah?

Al-Muhajabah lets us know the proper Islamic term for terrorism.

UPDATE: She supplies further readings.

SONDA music

It only took 31 years, but the New York State Senate has finally passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, otherwise known as SONDA. The act has already passed the Assembly, and Governor Pataki has promised to sign it into law.

This is not the first legal victory that non-heterosexuals have won in New York, although previous victories have come in the courts rather than the legislature. In Braschi v. Stahl Associates, 74 N.Y.2d 201 (1989), for instance, New York's highest court held that unmarried partners - including same-sex partners - were "family members" for purposes of inheriting rent- controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. These victories, however, have been isolated and far from comprehensive; particularly in the employment discrimination field, the courts have been unwilling to extend state law where the legislature has not done so. With SONDA, sexual orientation - including homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality - will be recognized as a protected class against all forms of discrimination.

When SONDA becomes law, the rest of New York State will also have caught up to New York City, where discrimination based on sexual orientation has been prohibited since 1991. Decisions under the New York City law provide some idea of how SONDA will be interpreted. New York City courts and the city's active Human Rights Commission have handed victories to gay and lesbian plaintiffs in a number of employment and housing discrimination claims, but the law has generally been interpreted as a negative protection from discrimination rather than a positive source of rights. For example, in Levin v. Yeshiva University, 180 Misc. 2d 829 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co. 1999), a court ruled that a university was not required to allow a lesbian couple to live in housing reserved for married students, because heterosexual unmarried couples were treated equally. The court proved unsympathetic to the plaintiff's argument that this sort of "equality" was not equal at all, because heterosexual couples had the option of marrying while same-sex couples did not. It is likely that SONDA will also be, fundamentally, a "thou shalt not" rather than "thou shalt" statute.

SONDA will also not apply to transsexuals; an amendment that would have included them in the protected class failed by a vote of 41 to 19. The tally of states that specifically prohibit discrimination based on transgendered status thus remains at two - Minnesota and Rhode Island - although the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has ruled administratively that the state prohibition against sexual orientation discrimination includes transsexuals.

The law of New York City, however, may again provide greater protection to transsexuals than in the rest of the state. This is due primarily to a 1995 court decision, Maffei v. Kolaeton Industry, Inc., 164 Misc. 2d 547 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co. 1995). This court, unlike the Connecticut commission found that transgender status was not a "sexual orientation:"

Subdivision (20) of section 8-102 of the Administrative Code defines "sexual orientation" to mean "heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality". The term is thus dealing with sexual preferences and practices, i.e., the sex of a person's sexual partner, with heterosexuals being persons sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex, homosexuals being those attracted to members of the same sex, and bisexuals attracted to both sexes. There is no claim that the harassment alleged herein is the result of any sexual preferences expressed by plaintiff.

On the other hand, the court found that transsexuals were protected by the city law prohibition against discrimination based on sex - or, to be more accurate, "gender:"

In examining the City statute, it is noted that as originally enacted by Local Laws, 1965, No. 97 of the City of New York it referred to discrimination based on "sex". However, subsequently the term "gender" was substituted for the word "sex". While the reason for this change is not apparent, one court, which determined that transsexuals are not covered by the word "sex" in title VII, observed that the result would be different if instead the term "gender" had been used, stating: "The term 'sex' in Title VII refers to an individual's distinguishing biological or anatomical characteristics, whereas the term 'gender' refers to an individual's sexual identity.


As all courts agree, the antidiscrimination statutes are remedial and thus to be interpreted liberally to achieve their intended purposes. Our New York City law is intended to bar all forms of discrimination in the workplace and to be broadly applied. Accordingly, I find that the creation of a hostile work environment as a result of derogatory comments relating to the fact that as a result of an operation an employee changed his or her sexual status creates discrimination based on "sex", just as would comments based on the secondary sexual characteristics of a person. For example, an employer who continually made derogatory comments regarding an employee's breasts could clearly be found to be in violation of the law's provisions against sexual harassment. Thus, an employer who harasses an employee because the person, as a result of surgery and hormone treatments, is now of a different sex has violated our City prohibition against discrimination based on sex. In other words, an employee who has fulfilled a sexual identity urge by changing sex and is harassed because of such fulfillment is entitled to the law's protection against employer harassment.

Although, as indicated above, a person may have both male and female characteristics, society only recognizes two sexes. In the complaint plaintiff alleges that he is now a male based on his identity and outward anatomy. Being a transsexual male he may be considered part of a subgroup of men. There is no reason to permit discrimination against that subgroup under the broad antidiscrimination law of our City.

It is not likely that Maffei will be followed outside New York City. Unlike the City Council, the New York State legislature specifically considered and rejected transgender status as a basis for protection against discrimination, and courts are especially wary of going anyplace where the legislature has explicitly refused. Nevertheless, in New York City, where the Human Rights Commission has adopted the Maffei court's reasoning, transsexuals are likely to receive at least some protection under the law.

Wanna buy the...

Story overheard today while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge footpath: know, when they first built the bridge, everyone was afraid to walk across because there'd never been a suspension bridge this big. But the circus was in town, so the city borrowed about twenty elephants and marched them all across the bridge at the same time, and after that, people started using it...

My vote: urban legend.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002
The EU and Israel

Shimon Peres once suggested that Israel join the Arab League, but Bibi Netanyahu now seems to be looking in the opposite direction. According to Sharon Sadeh of Ha'aretz:

High-ranking officials in the European Commission, which last week hosted a delegation of journalists from Israel, are having a hard time recovering from Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration that Israel is interested in membership in the EU. "Is he serious?" they said, over and over.

It turned out he wasn't, at least for the moment. "The leaders of the Commission," explained Sadeh, "only breathed a sigh of relief when they realized the Foreign Ministry staff was in no rush to take any bold steps, and that the statement was evidently meant to serve domestic political purposes, as was also made clear to the Commission by high-ranking diplomats in Israel."

Nevertheless, this isn't the first time that EU membership for Israel has been floated, and the idea hasn't always come from Israelis. The European Radical Alliance, a bloc of about 20 members of the European Parliament that existed from 1994 to 1999, advocated the admission of Israel, and at least one of its members, the Radical Party, still does. Since the 1980s, high-level Israeli and European leaders, including President Moshe Katsav and European Commission chair Romano Prodi, have engaged in "friendly chatter" about the possibility of membership. Prodi has also recently advocated an associate membership of sorts for Israel - inclusion in the EU's "ring of friends."

Israeli membership in the EU, in other words, is an idea that deserves to be taken seriously. Whether it is a viable idea, though, will depend on the answers to several questions.

Does Israel qualify for admission to the EU?

Sharon Sadeh thinks not. Her analysis is as follows:

The truth is that along with realization of a dream of "joining Europe," membership in the EU could also incur what Israel might consider a very steep price. Israel would have to nullify the Law of Return - EU legislation stipulates that all citizens living within its boundaries are free to settle and work without restriction in all of its member states - and all of the laws that discriminate favorably toward Jews. Israel would be required to unilaterally adopt all sections of the European legislation, and the European Convention of Human Rights. In so doing, it would all at once become a "state of all its citizens."

Sadeh is, however, quite simply wrong about the Law of Return. Articles 15, 41 and 46 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights do guarantee nationals of EU countries the right to live and work in other member nations and to vote in municipal elections, but the charter does not entitle them to become citizens. One of the founding nations of the EU - Germany - has a Law of Return quite similar to Israel's, and Italy and Ireland also grant preferential immigration treatment to members of their respective

Article 21(1) of the charter - which existed, in substantially the same form, in previous charters - forbids discrimination on the basis of, among other things, religion, birth or ethnicity. Nevertheless, this provision has existed alongside the preference given to German aussiedler, as well as the restrictive citizenship criteria of other EU member states. The charter prohibits discrimination between citizens, but has never been interpreted as conferring a "right to citizenship," and it is difficult to imagine how the Israeli Law of Return would be any more offensive to the charter than the German one.

Nor is the designation of Israel as a Jewish state likely to offend the Charter. Many European states actively promote the languages and cultures of their majority ethnic groups. There's nothing to prevent Israel from promoting the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, as long as it grants minorities the cultural rights due them under the Charter - which it does.

There aren't very many other Israeli laws that violate the Charter. Since the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency's practice of reserving certain neighborhoods exclusively for Jewish settlement was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, there is surprisingly little de jure discrimination against Arab Israelis. The Muslim, Arab Christian and Druze communities of Israel have communal autonomy, but so do many "native minorities" in Europe, and minority religions stand on the same footing as Jews with respect to the authority of religious judges over matters of family and faith.

There is quite a bit of de facto discrimination, but this is mainly effectuated in three ways: preferences for military veterans, discriminatory budgeting and social prejudice. Veterans' preferences are not the same as discrimination against Arabs. Although Arab Israelis are not subject to mandatory conscription and most do not serve in the IDF, those who do get the same benefits as everyone else after they complete their term of service. Of course, the law relating to conscription discriminates between Jews and non-Jews, but it is not one that most Arab Israelis would want to overturn - and, even if it were eliminated, it is likely that the great majority of Arab Israelis would become conscientious objectors. In any event, I'm not aware of any clause of EU law that forbids veterans' benefits.

Budget discrimination is real, and it is a problem: Arab municipalities in Israel often receive less than their share of funding for infrastructure and education. None of this, however, is due to discriminatory legislation - there is no law or constitutional provision that mandates greater funding for Jewish municipalities. All it would take to correct the inequalities in the Israeli appropriation process is a reallocation of funds by the Knesset and government agencies when determining the annual budget. (Not to mention that the EU member and candidate states are hardly innocent in this regard; Romani community institutions don't often receive equal funding in the Czech Republic or Hungary.)

Social prejudice is also real. However, it's beyond the power of national governments to eliminate - and it's a problem in the EU as well as in Israel. In some cases, it may even be more so; for instance, anecdotal evidence indicates that Arabs are far more likely to be the victims of racial assaults in Paris or Brussels than in Haifa. Moreover, the Israeli government responds to racism and social discrimination in the right way - by fighting it rather than promoting it.

In terms of purely domestic human rights - leaving the occupied territories out of the equation for the moment - Israel probably has at least as good a record as several of the current candidate states. Israeli treatment of its "native minorities," including communal autonomy and linguistic rights, conforms at least minimally to European standards, and its laws on freedom of expression, labor rights and other fundamental freedoms are basically consistent with the European charter. If the occupied territories are not considered, Israel is similar to the Czech Republic or Slovenia - a country with a few scary political parties and issues of social prejudice, but basically civilized and democratic. Also, despite the current recession, Israel has a productive First World economy and a modern banking system and legal infrastructure.

According to the EU's own membership criteria, this is enough for Israel to qualify. At the Copenhagen Summit of 1993, the EU set the following standards for candidate nations:

the existence of stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;

the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union ;

the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Of course, the occupied territories do have to be considered, both because of human rights issues and because Israel's borders will be indefinite as long as the occupation continues. The EU isn't going to buy into a war. On the other hand, all else being equal, there's no reason why Israel couldn't be admitted as part of a process where its candidacy period occurs simultaneously with a negotiated end to the occupation. It qualifies in every other way.

Is Israel European?

More than qualification is necessary, however. Although the EU has stated that no country meeting the three Copenhagen criteria will be denied consideration, it has not guaranteed that such countries will be admitted. In the context of the debate over Turkish membership, officials of the EU and its member countries have frequently invoked an intangible quality of "Europeanness," which depends not so much on geography as on shared culture and values. Does Israel have this quality?

Israel has had close political ties to Europe since the 1950s. Israel - like the United States - has observer status on the Council of Europe, and is a signatory to several Council of Europe treaties, including the European Convention on Extradition and the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. In the United Nations, Israel has been part of the "Western Europe and Others" group since the 1990s. In the same decade, Israel also concluded agreements on economic, scientific and technical cooperation with the EU.

The Israeli legal system is, for the most part, adapted from the British Mandate, although there are still elements of Ottoman law in areas such as real estate and the communal autonomy of minorities. The Israeli financial system is European-derived - founded by exiled German Jewish bankers, and consciously modeled after the banking system of Switzerland - and its economic system is basically a European-style social democracy.

On the other hand, the role of religion in Israeli society and politics is quite atypical for Europe. Not even Poland has a religious establishment so openly involved in political life, much less one with constitutional powers. There is no equivalent to the Shas party in any European country; the Christian Democrats at their most Christian are, at best, a pale imitation. Israel's religious establishment is Middle Eastern - in fact, almost Iranian - rather than European.

The population and culture of Israel are also mixed. Israel's founders were mostly European and American Ashkenazim, and they left a powerful stamp on Israeli culture. However, a majority of Israel's citizens are of Middle Eastern origin - either Arabs or Mizrahi Jews - rather than being of European descent. Mizrahi and Arab culture have also penetrated increasingly into the Israeli mainstream - and there have been elements of these cultures in Israeli society for a long time, as evidenced by the current contretemps about who invented falafel.

Probably, the only thing that could be said about Israel is that it's partly European. Tel Aviv is European; Jerusalem is Middle Eastern. Avoda and Likud are European; Shas is Middle Eastern. The Israeli Supreme Court is European, the dayanim and qadis are Middle Eastern. Israel is probably, on balance, more European than Turkey, and possibly as much so as Bulgaria or even Greece. Whether that's European enough, though, remains to be seen.

Is Israel too European?

On the other hand, Israel's problem may be precisely that it is too European, in a place where many people believe that Europeans are intruders. Sharon Sadeh thinks that an Israeli application to join the EU will meet opposition because:

Israel is viewed by widespread population groups in Europe as a racist colonial brute, light years distant from the enlightened "New Europe." The attitude is based on an unofficial assessment of the situation according to which Israel is waiting for the propitious moment to carry out a transfer of the Palestinian population - for example, under the cover of the war in Iraq - and that the EU must take strong action to foil this intention.

I'm not sure she's any more right about this than she is about the Law of Return. There may be some Europeans who feel this way about Israel, but I think that anti-Israeli sentiment in Europe is based much more on what Israel is doing now than what it might do in the future. And one of the things that Israel is doing is being a Western, quasi-European state in the Middle East. The Europeanness of Israel, however incomplete, makes it a colonial state in the minds of many Europeans, not all of them on the left.

The same sentiment is often heard in Arab countries. It's common to see allegations in the Arab press that Jews aren't really "Semites," and that Israelis are therefore European interlopers rather than an indigenous people with historical ties to the region. It's a very simple equation, and it works the same way in both the Arab world and Europe - Westerners living outside the West are colonialists. For many Europeans, Israel is the moral equivalent of French Algeria or Rhodesia.

In a way, this sort of anti-Israeli sentiment is less tractable than opposition to the occupation. The latter objection will be cured when a peace settlement is reached, but the former won't. Even if Israel evacuates the West Bank and Gaza and retreats within the Green Line, many Europeans will continue to regard it as a colonial state, a Jewish Outremer. Israel's problem may not only be that it isn't European enough for Europe - it may also be too European for the Middle East.

Is EU membership good for Europe or Israel?

That's really two questions, but the answer to both is the same: "yes and no." Admitting Israel to the EU carries benefits and risks for both.

For the EU, accepting Israel as a membership candidate will give Europeans free access to a vibrant and developed economy with an innovative software industry - but most of all, it would give the EU influence. At present, the EU has very little leverage against Israel; it can condemn Israeli policies, but it has no real ability to change them. On the other hand, if Israel were a candidate for membership, the EU would have the power to impose conditions - and Israel would be far more likely to listen to them. As Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote in the New Republic, Israel's greatest advances in human rights and peacemaking have come precisely when it felt secure enough to make them. Or, in the words of Avraham Burg, "If you come and ask me what do you prefer -- the carrot of joining the EU or the stick of boycotts, I would say 'go for the carrot.'" Ritualistic condemnation will not cause any changes in Israeli policies, but the prospect of acceptance - particularly acceptance with security - will. If the EU wants to be a realistic arbiter in the Middle East conflict, it needs something to offer Israel.

For Israel, the benefits of membership are quite simple - Israel's membership in the EU would improve its security. By becoming integrated into the EU, Israel will obtain the diplomatic and military support necessary for a safe withdrawal from the occupied territories. Free access to European markets will also jump-start the Israeli economy, especially since Europe is already Israel's largest trading partner.

On the other hand, acceptance of Israel carries obvious dangers for the EU. The influence that the EU will gain over the Middle East conflict will come at the price of becoming involved, which will increase the EU's vulnerability to Islamist terrorism. The EU's relationship with the Arab world will also be impaired, although perhaps less than many European officials might fear; the Arab countries can no more afford to alienate their European trading partners than they can the United States. The freedom of movement guaranteed by the EU charter might also, paradoxically, turn Israel into a back-channel for immigration from Arab countries.

But freedom of movement is far more of a risk for Israel. Border control is, literally, a life-and-death matter for Israel, and EU membership will place Israel at risk of infiltration for terrorists. In addition, if Israel becomes an EU member, there is always the possibility that Palestine will also obtain membership one day - which would, in effect, grant Palestinian citizens the right of return that they have been incapable of obtaining through direct negotiations with Israel. This may, in the abstract, be a desirable outcome - but in practical terms, it will be a monumental security risk.

Israel's most pressing objection to EU membership, however, may be loss of sovereignty rather than the right of return. As Aziz Poonawalla recently noted, Israel and the United States are among the nations that guard their sovereignty most jealously. And Sharon Sadeh details the loss of sovereignty that will occur:

Israel would also be required to make a series of structural changes to its economy, to comply with the rigid criteria of the Maastricht Treaty. Joining the European Monetary Union - another prerequisite for joining the EU - would place it in a pillory of fiscal and monetary constraints over which it has nearly no control or maneuverability, such as the determination of interest rates (an authority now given to the European Central Bank). Additionally, Israel would be required to make harsh concessions in its defense and trade agreements with the U.S.

And that's not all. Israel would also have to accept compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and, most likely, the International Criminal Court, both measures it has resisted taking due to the possibility of politically motivated prosecutions. It is likely that both Israel and the EU will decide, for the foreseeable future, that the risks are not worth the rewards.

Is a compromise possible?

So what is a quasi-European country like Israel to do? There's always Romano Prodi's proposal of membership in the "ring of friends" - a proposed ring that he believes will one day include the countries "from Morocco to Russia and the Black Sea." Membership in the "ring of friends," if Prodi's proposal is carried out, will involve "sharing everything but institutions" with the EU - in other words, free movement of people and capital, and full cultural cooperation. This would, in some respects, formalize a relationship that Israel already has with the EU, but in others it will integrate Israel more fully into the European economic and cultural sphere.

The mutual benefits of such an arrangement are obvious - but, again, so are the risks. If the "ring of friends" includes the entire Mediterranean world, Israel will have to allow free transit for nationals of such countries as Syria, Lebanon and Libya. When a peace settlement is reached in the Middle East, such transit might be a viable option - but for now, it appears that Israel's security requires slower integration.

For the time being, Israel will continue to be a country that is both Middle Eastern and European but not really part of either. Israel's unique political and cultural blend is its greatest glory - but, in this case, also its greatest liability.

But doesn't Trent support that?

New York State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno has apparently tried to defend Trent Lott by implying that he is the victim of a lynching.

The art of the deal

According to this morning's papers, the terms of the agreement between the TWU and the NYCTA are essentially as follows:

* No pay raise but a $1000 cash bonus in the first year of the contract, and 3 percent raises in the second and third years;

* Productivity increases, including a merger of the Manhattan and Bronx bus routes with the other boroughs and the assignment of new duties (including graffiti removal and light-bulb changing) to maintenance workers;

* A management contribution of $280 million to ensure the solvency of the system's health care plan;

* No increases in pension contributions;

* Improvements in safety procedures, including mandatory management walk-throughs before the start of any new project;

* An overhaul of the disciplinary process that is likely to lead to the number of citations dropping by a third and the majority of the rest being handled informally;

* An end to home investigations of sick leave for the 70 percent of union members with the best attendance records; and

* Management contributions of $2.4 million for a new child-care fund, $3.6 million for a skill improvement fund and $10 million for prescription drugs for retirees.

The contract will be submitted to a referendum of the TWU membership within the next two weeks, but I think the deal will hold. It's basically fair - and, more importantly, it's about as much as the union could expect given the current financial state of the NYCTA. Even the transit workers who are dissatisfied about the relatively low raises seem to be resigned to them.

The media's treatment of the deal has also been interesting. The Times had nothing to say on its editorial page today, preferring to remain above the fray. Yesterday's Post praised the TWU for its statesmanship in extending the strike deadline, but today it was back to criticizing the union for using "gun-to-the-head tactics." The Daily News considered the contract fair, but also condemned the union's hardball strategy.

They just don't get it, do they? The reason the TWU was able to get a fair deal was because it played hardball - if it hadn't, the NYCTA would have rolled over it. It did what a union is supposed to do, and, as it turned out, did a damned good job.

Monday, December 16, 2002
Name change

Due to greater than usual Blogger account trouble, Letter from Gotham is now Gotham 2003.

Behind the times

My spell checker doesn't recognize the words "intifada," "Meretz" or "Shinui." It does know "Likud," though.

The terrorist vote?

Zack Ajmal quoted the following passage about the purpose of terrorism:

"The purpose of political terrorism for a century and a half has been to provoke repressive countermeasures, so that more and more of 'your' people will feel forced to choose you over your enemy."

For the most part - as Zack agrees in the comments - this logic doesn't work. In places like Peru and Colombia, for instance, terrorists were indeed successful in provoking repression. The only problem is that most of the people the terrorists thought of as "theirs" ended up enthusiastically supporting the repressive measures as the lesser evil.

When terrorism is mixed with nationalism, though, the tactic of provoking repression sometimes does work, at least in the short term. And, because it works in the short term, some terrorist organizations keep on using it long after it has exhausted its usefulness. Nowhere is this more tragically obvious than in Palestine.

For a while, repressive Israeli responses to the first and second intifadas succeeded in radicalizing the Palestinian population, to the point where at least one poll indicated more than 80 percent support for suicide bombings. There are signs, though, that this radicalism is being replaced with war-weariness and recognition that the Al-Aqsa intifada has made things worse rather than better. A substantial segment of the Palestinian population now favors a return to the negotiating table, especially since Palestinian war-weariness is matched by growing moderation among the Israeli population; key Palestinian leaders have tried to broker a cease-fire in order to strengthen the left in the upcoming elections.

For another segment of the Palestinian population, however, the increasing moderation on both sides of the Green Line represents a threat rather than an opportunity. As Yoel Marcus pointed out recently in Terror Votes Likud, the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine is a threat to the maximalist goals of groups like Hamas. Their answer is the same as it has always been - to provoke repression, in the hope that just a little more will return the Palestinian public to a more radical position. It's a tactic that has led to tragedy and has largely outlived its usefulness, but it's one which dies very hard. It's no coincidence that every sign of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ended with something blowing up, and I wouldn't count out the possibility of a "January surprise" in the form of a pre-election terror attack. The unfortunate fact is that, in many ways, the most powerful politician in Israel right now is Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

While you're visiting Zack's web site, also make sure to check out his post on the Bharatiya Janata's victory in the Gujarat election - another example of how terror sometimes pays short-term dividends.

We have a deal

According to the latest reports on Channel 4, the NYCTA and the transit workers' union have reached a tentative deal. Nothing's final yet, but it looks like the new contract will involve a lump-sum payment for the first year in recognition of productivity gains "already in place," raises of 2 and 3 percent in the second and third years (with the possibility of more if future productivity gains are implemented), and concessions on the safety and disciplinary issues.

This is more or less how I predicted it would go, and, if I may say so, it makes a great deal of sense. The NYCTA won't have to spring for major wage increases during a financial crisis, and the transit workers will see some reforms on the dignity issues that are important to them. (One of the transit workers interviewed on the news stated that 16,000 of the 34,000 union members were subjected to formal discipline last year, under a system that mandates formal hearings and harsh punishments for the most minor offenses.) If the deal holds, then the TWU will have obtained a major improvement in working conditions at little or no cost to the city, and its game of hardball will have been worth it. More as the situation progresses.

Another random thought

Crime is often the first area of an immigrant society to integrate. The American underworld during the Prohibition era, for instance, was a remarkably multiculti place. Old-line Irish gangsters rubbed shoulders and made deals with Jews and Italians, as well as smaller ethnic mobs like the Greek mob of Philadelphia and sometimes even African-Americans. There was no color or ethnic bar to cooperation between criminals.

This is not to say that organized crime was free of racism or ethnic prejudice. On the contrary, the criminals of the 1930s, like those before and since, were very much people of their time. On occasion, rivalries between ethnic mobs erupted into fierce battles, as when immigrant Irish and nativist gangs fought for dominance during the 1850s and 1860s, and when the Irish fought the Italians in their turn a generation later. Records and testimony concerning conversations between criminals - which was decidedly not polite - reveals that ethnic and racial slurs were a daily staple.

Unlike members of polite society, however, criminals could not rely on the coercive power of government to enforce their prejudices. The Italian mafia, for instance, could not go to the courts or the legislature and demand that African-Americans be kept out of its rackets. The only way for a criminal organization to eliminate its rivals was with its own muscle - and, if that failed, it had no choice but to accept its opponents' presence. Thus, in spite of prejudice and occasional combat, ethnic mobs made agreements dividing territories and spheres of operation and, over time, learned that cooperation on a basis of mutual tolerance was profitable.

The same thing has happened, more recently, with immigrant Israelis and Palestinians. In the mid-1980s, Moussa Aliyan, an Arab Israeli living in New York, established a heroin importing organization using Palestinians from the occupied territories. Before long, however, he also had Israeli Jews working for him. Long before anyone had heard the words "peace process," Israelis and Palestinians worked together in Aliyan's organization because that was where the money was. (As it happened, there may have been too much money in Aliyan's operation; in 1989, he was shot and killed on the orders of rival Israeli gangster Jonny Attias.)

In Israel itself, the criminal classes are also a step ahead of Likud and Hamas. For well over a decade, stolen cars have been smuggled over the Green Line by Israeli thieves, traded to their Palestinian counterparts (who are often alerted by a pre-arranged flashing of headlights) and resold on the streets of Hebron and Ramallah. This traffic has not been stopped by the al-Aqsa intifada, nor has the use of Palestinian banks by Israeli money launderers; the latter, in fact, has only increased since Israel criminalized money laundering in 2000 and subsequently cracked down on domestic banks. Israeli and Palestinian criminals have realized that they have no power to eliminate each other, so the only thing they can do is accept each other's presence and work together.

I've sometimes had occasion to compare national governments to organized crime. The analogy generally doesn't hold, but the two have important things in common - most importantly, the fact that neither is very accountable to outside forces. The threat of the police or the United Nations is always there, but it's rare for an outside agency to step in and settle disputes between nations. The Israelis and Palestinians, like the gangsters of the Prohibition era, have failed in their attempts to muscle each other out, and nobody else is about to solve their problems for them. The only course of action, therefore, is to accept each other's presence and reach an equitable division of territory - something that's apparently taking Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat longer than it took Al Capone.

I'll resist the temptation to nominate Moussa Aliyan for a Nobel Peace Prize, although he probably deserves one much more than some of the recent recipients. All the same, it may be time for Israel and Palestine to follow - in at least this one respect - in the footsteps of their criminals.

Palestinian jokes

Courtesy of Proletarios Epanastatis, a collection of Palestinian gallows humor about the matsav. Is it just me, or do these sound a great deal like the jokes currently going around Israel?

More meditations on the transit strike

I can understand why many people are afraid of a transit strike. People need to get to work. What I don't understand is the degree of anti-union hysteria that's been appearing lately in the media.

The New York Post, for instance, describes the TWU as "lunatics." The Daily News has editorialized that if the union strikes, it will have forfeited its right to exist. Op-ed pundits - more than one of them - have advocated firing all the transit workers and privatizing the entire system if the union walks out.

And then there's John Podhoretz. In a New York Post op-ed piece a few days ago, he wasn't content to denigrate the union - he went after the workers too. A transit worker, according to Podhoretz, is someone who "does nothing for 30 years" until someone else can "do nothing in his place."

Come again? I've known quite a few transit workers, and they all work a hell of a lot harder than any columnist who pushes papers around a desk. I'd be willing to bet a month's rent that Podhoretz wouldn't last a day down in the tracks. Not to mention that I've never heard of anyone getting killed doing what Podhoretz does, whereas the past two months have seen four transit workers die on the job.

Whatever one may think of the possibility of a strike, this sort of union-bashing and worker-bashing is way over the line, especially since the TWU is far from the only party to blame for the current mess. Sure, the union's position on salaries is unreasonable in view of the current financial situation - but so is the NYCTA's. The Transit Authority hasn't done a thing to reduce its top-heavy management costs, and waited until the last minute to make an offer despite knowing that the TWU's contract was coming up for renewal. And even if they have a case on the money issues, why have they also stonewalled on work-rule changes that will cost little or nothing, restore some dignity to the transit workers, and possibly prevent more deaths?

The TWU membership has done nothing to deserve the abuse it's been getting - and it may not be amiss, as Nathan Newman reminds us, to point out that the most hysterical drum-beaters against the union are often the same people who resist any effort to ease the financial crisis by rolling back tax cuts. There's room for disagreement with the TWU's demands, but the current feeding frenzy reveals the media's ugliness, not the union's.