Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Last Crisis at the University of California?

The Last Crisis at the University of California?

[originally published by Saree Makdisi on Huffington Post, 15 July 2009]

About to declare a financial emergency, the University of California is entering what could turn out to be its last crisis, the outcome of which may determine the fate not only of the greatest public university system in the nation, but of California as well.

For ultimately there are only two ways out of the present crisis, one of which will define the contours of California's future.

Either the price of a UC education will leap far beyond the reach of most Californians, which, combined with the cuts that are simultaneously devastating the California State University system (barring tens of thousands of eligible students from places there next year), will mean that a declining percentage of the state's workforce will receive the university education that is vital to the knowledge economy of the 21st century. That would condemn California--and with it America--to irreversible decline.

Or (and this will take considerable pressure from businesses, institutions, and voters) the governor and the legislature will do what it takes to enable UC and Cal State to carry out their missions, which will ensure that the state's higher education system continues to make California a place of innovation, invention and progress, and the engine of the national economy.

And what it takes is not all that much, in the scheme of things.

In the glory days of the 1970s, the UC system claimed a mere third of a percent of the state's personal income, or in other words 33 cents or so for every $100 earned. That's not much of a sacrifice compared to the benefits that a readily affordable and world-class university system returned to the state, enabling the development of its high tech economy through the 1980s.

A return to that level of public investment from the present outlay (a difference of less than one percent of the state budget) would allow the university both to safeguard its mission and to bring tuition back down close to what it was in 2000 (less than half what it is today).

But if the opposite path is taken, further cuts in state support will inevitably be made up for by ever increasing tuition hikes. UC would go the way of other state universities, like Michigan's--which charges twice what UCLA and Berkeley do.

A series of budget cuts since 1990 have sapped UC's vitality. State support once covered about 75 percent of the university's core spending: the money that is spent on its everyday educational mission. Today, it covers less than half, and it is set to decline even further.

Tuition is the only source of funding that can compensate for such losses, which is why it has been increasing.

The only other alternative is to cut spending, but reckless cuts cost far more in the long run than what they save in the short term.

For example, UC faces a cut in state support of $637 million for the current academic year. It plans to compensate for this with a combination of devastating layoffs and furloughs for faculty and staff, tuition hikes, and enormous slashes to academic programs.

Such cuts will have both immediate and lasting consequences for how the university functions. They are unsustainable.

Research and teaching are the two inseparable missions of UC. Faculty members teach what we discover, and we train our students not merely what we know but how to make discoveries of their own. Not only is what (and how) I teach in my classes today not what was taught five or ten years ago, but even my freshman students have immediate access to the product of my research as I move between my two roles of research and teaching. If I did not have time and resources to conduct my research, I would only be able to teach what I already know. Knowledge would stand still; or, rather, it would be developed by--and for--others, primarily at private institutions whose gates are barred to all but a lucky few.

The whole point of UC, in fact, is that it makes a research faculty equal to that of Harvard, Princeton and Chicago (UC has more Nobel Prize winners than any of those institutions) directly accessible to far more students, for a fraction of the tuition.

If the people of California want to preserve that access for their children, they must act now.

Reducing the size of the faculty while increasing the number of students per instructor--making classes larger and fewer--would diminish both the quantity and quality of instructional contact. Small seminars on specialized topics would go. Large anonymous lecture classes on general topics would prevail. Eliminating classes and majors would thin the academic offerings available to students and impoverish them. Professors would not get to know their students, to mentor and guide them, to write the highly personalized letters of recommendation that students depend on to get into graduate, medical or law schools. Students would pay far more and get far less than what was available to previous generations.

It does not have to be this way.

Now is the time to change course, by demanding that the state government do what is right for all Californians and save our higher education system from the devastation that otherwise might lie in store.

Netanyahu's Two State Goal?

Netanyahu's Two-State Goal?

[originally published by Saree Makdisi on Huffington Post, 8 July 2009]

To judge by the next day's headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu's policy speech last month was a great success. "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," declared the New York Times. "Israel Endorses Two-State Goal," said the Washington Post. "Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State," announced The Guardian.

He did no such thing, of course, unless by "state" one understands an amorphous entity lacking a definite territory, not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty (other than a flag and perhaps a national anthem), not allowed to enter into treaties with other states--and permanently disarmed and hence at the mercy of Israel. It would make about as much sense to call an apple an orange or a piano a speedboat as to call such a construct a state, and yet those are the conditions that Netanyahu imposed on the creation of such an entity for the Palestinians (if they get that far in the first place).

The strange thing is that Netanyahu's speech marked both the definitive end and a symbolic return to the beginning of the two-state solution as that hapless notion has been peddled since the Oslo Accords of 1993-95. For what he said the Palestinians might--perhaps--be entitled to is pretty much what Oslo had said they might be entitled to fifteen years ago: a "self-government authority" not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty, etc. And on top of that they can also forget about Jerusalem--that is and will forever remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.

If it sounds so drearily familiar, that's because it is: we have come full circle. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

Oslo actually never mentioned the apparently magic words "Palestinian state," so Netanyahu actually outdid Rabin and Peres in terms of rhetorical magnanimity. But, rhetoric aside, by bringing the situation full circle back to what they "offered" Arafat back in the mid-nineties, Netanyahu also revealed to those last few Palestinians who might have believed otherwise that the only kind of Palestinian "state" any Israeli government has ever countenanced (or will ever countenance) will look like what was on offer at Oslo. Netanyahu is offering the same thing all over again because that's the only

Palestinian "state" that Israel will accept. Take it or leave it.

The Palestinians who still cling to the idea of a Palestinian state to be achieved through negotiations (from a position of weakness) with Israel had better absorb this once and for all and move on to other objectives--and other strategies to succeed.

That's why the return to the beginning also signals the coming of the end. For after all the agony of the past fifteen years no Palestinian in her right mind would want to go back to Oslo all over again. Those agreements led to three things: the permanent institutionalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the permanent separation of the occupied territories into shards of land cut off from one another and the outside world (and hence what Sara Roy calls--and the World Bank implicitly acknowledges as--the de-development of the Palestinian economy); and the doubling of the population of Jewish settlers illegally colonizing the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

There were just over 100,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank in 1993; there are around 300,000 there today, and a further 200,000 or so in occupied East Jerusalem. According to the UN, their population is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of Israel itself, and will double again to about a million within a decade.

This phenomenal expansion is what is referred to as the "natural growth" of the colonies, which in his speech Netanyahu--brazenly defying President Obama--said he would protect. A few more years of this kind of growth and the territory that might once (maybe, long ago) have been considered as the basis for a Palestinian state will be all but eaten up by the sprawling colonies.

There's hardly anything left of that territory anyway. The UN said two years ago that some 40 percent of the West Bank is already taken up by Israeli infrastructure off limits to Palestinians; the 60 percent that remains is broken up into an archipelago of islands so cut off and isolated from each other that a brilliant satirical map has been circulating on the internet representing the West Bank as a kind of Pacific island paradise, with dotted lines showing imaginary ferry routes from Ramallah to Nablus and Bethlehem to Hebron. It would be funny if it were not so sad. And even in most of that 60 percent, Israel retains security control (that's according to Oslo; today its army conducts raids wherever it likes--and it does so virtually every day).

What Netanyahu was saying to any Palestinians foolish enough to accept his terms is that if they want to stick a flag in their archipelago of little impoverished islands of territory and call it a state, they can go right ahead.

But for them to get even that far, they must first, he now says, recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is a new Israeli demand (it first came up during the buildup to the doomed Annapolis summit in November 2007), the latest in a sequence of such demands going back to the 1970s. First the Palestinians had to renounce terrorism; then they had to recognize Israel; then they had to rewrite their national charter; then they had to tear the charter up; then they had to say--again, louder--that they recognize Israel's right to exist; then they had to end all resistance to four decades of brutal military occupation. Tzipi Livni, Israel's previous foreign minister, even said that the Palestinians had to learn to purge the word "nakba" (referring to the catastrophe of 1948) from their vocabulary if they wanted to have a state. The one thing that Palestinians have not formally been asked to do is to say that they are terribly sorry for having dared to resist the occupation in the first place--and no doubt that demand is on the way as well.

In return, Israel has had to commit to nothing other than a few vague and craftily-worded--and endlessly deferrable--promises. And it has carried out (at its own pace and according to its own terms) a few tactical redeployments of troops and colonists (from a grand total of 18 percent of the West Bank, at the very peak of Oslo). Some of those redeployments have actually, as in Gaza, made the process of dominating and controlling the Palestinians that much easier (Israel could never have subjected the people of Gaza to the indiscriminate violence it rained on them day and night in late 2008 and early 2009 had the Jewish colonists there remained in place).

The Israelis have always been able to find some Palestinian leader or other to go along with their endless demands, to jump ignominiously through one hoop after another, more like a third-rate court jester than the leader of an unvanquished and defiant people. When one leader finally said enough was enough (as Arafat did at Camp David), he was dismissed and another more pliant one (the hopelessly compromised and unimaginative Mahmoud Abbas) was found to take his place, from among the dwindling ranks of those candidates the Israelis deemed not worth assassinating or imprisoning in a campaign of violence going back to the 1970s. (Indeed, it bears repeating that Abbas and his hangers-on survived to this day only as the result of Israel's anti-Darwinian process of unnatural selection of potential Palestinian leaders, in which the fittest were eliminated and the most inept were allowed to reproduce).

But this latest demand is too much for any Palestinian leader--even one as endlessly obsequious as Abbas--to accept.

For to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would be not only to renounce (which no leader and indeed no individual Palestinian has the authority to do) the right of return of those Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948. It would also be to abandon to their fate the remaining million or so Palestinians (including their descendants) who survived the nakba and have been living as second class citizens of Israel, and perhaps even to give Israel license to expel them all and complete the "job" (as Benny Morris puts it) of 1948.

Israel today is no more Jewish than America is white or Christian. The big difference, though, is that, whereas America (for the most part) embraces its own multiculturalism, Israel still desperately wants to be Jewish. Its absurd demand to be recognized as such (no other state goes around impetuously demanding that others accept its own sense of its national character) is an expression of its own profound insecurity: not its military insecurity--the only serious military threat Israel faces on its own territory is imaginary--but rather its anxious awareness of its status as a botched, and hence forever incomplete, settler-colonial enterprise. Unlike Australia, there were too many aboriginals left standing when the smoke cleared over the ruins of Palestine in 1948. And to this day the Palestinians have refused to simply give up, go away or somehow annul themselves.

That fact--and its attendant anxiety among Zionists--poses a real problem for the million Palestinians inside Israel, whose fate is far from settled.

Western liberals consider Avigdor Lieberman to be right wing because he says openly that he wants the indigenous Palestinians removed from what he considers to be the Jewish land of Israel (to which he came as a Russian-speaking immigrant). What they fail to acknowledge is that Tzipi Livni, who ran in the recent Israeli elections as the voice of peace and moderation--the darling of Western liberals--hinted at exactly the same dark fate ("Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them "you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere,'" she said during the electoral campaign--i.e., you are equal, but not really, and ultimately you must look elsewhere for a sense of home). And Netanyahu has long espoused a similar position.

How could he not? This is not rocket science or linear algebra: it is what it means for a state to insist on having a single cultural identity irrespective of who happens to actually be living on the territory it considers its own. It is all too rarely thought of in the same terms, but the violent insistence on monoculture is just as ugly in Israel as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, among the cadres of the British National Party, the followers of Jean-Marie le Pen, the hoodlums of Aryan Nation or the hooded posses of the KKK. The drive to obliterate or expunge cultural difference from a homeland conceived of as an exclusive space will always be inherently ugly.

And the fact of the matter is that the expulsion or "transfer" of Palestinians has been a core feature of Zionism as it has been practiced since 1948. It is inherent in Zionism as a political program--from right to left--because, if the idea behind Zionism is to establish an exclusively Jewish state (which it is), the only way for a would-be Jewish state to have been established on land that began the twentieth century with a population that was overwhelmingly (93 percent) non-Jewish was through the removal of the land's non-Jewish population. The sense that there is an inherently Jewish land inconveniently cluttered up with a non-Jewish population that needs to be dealt with somehow or other drove Zionist planning all through the 1930s (the "transfer" of the Palestinians was planned more than a decade before the 1948 war). And, as grotesque as ever, it was on full view in Netanyahu's speech.

The key moment in the speech came when he said that "the truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians." This attitude comes straight out of the primitive racialism and imaginary civilizational hierarchies of the nineteenth century. The Jews are a people with a homeland and hence they have a right to a state; the Palestinians are not a people at all, or certainly not one of the same order. They are merely a collection of vagabonds and trespassers intruding on the Jewish Homeland. They have no rights, let alone a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: the Palestinians must accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. "We" are a people, Netanyahu was saying; "they" are merely a "population." "We" have a right to a state--a real state. "They" do not. "They" have to recognize "our" rights; "we" owe "them" nothing in return, except, possibly, a curt nod of dismissal from "our" view into the walled-off ghettoes and cantons which we might (perhaps, if "they" behave well) be persuaded to build for "them" on "our" land--and "they" had better be grateful even for that.

This racialized sense of inherent entitlement and unique superiority--fueled (in just the way that a child is spoiled by over-indulgent parents) by over $100 billion of our tax dollars, the endless deference of our elected representatives, the open-ended diplomatic cover provided on demand by all our presidents after Eisenhower--is what allows Israelis like Netanyahu (and Lieberman, and Livni, and Olmert, and Sharon, and Rabin, etc.) to threaten, bellow at and admonish the Palestinians. It is also what allows Israel to occupy Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, starve Palestinian children, imprison and shoot Palestinian youths, tear up Palestinian olive trees, crush Palestinian aspirations, while believing--really sincerely believing--that Israel is the real victim of everything that has happened. And, unbelievable as it is, that idea too (that Israel is the real victim of Palestinian aggression) was repeatedly expressed in Netanyahu's speech. Make no mistake that he really believes it; it's astonishing to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history, but most Israelis, and most of their supporters in this country, really do believe in this totally inverted--and perverted--view of history.

Such attitudes, such views, are the inevitable products of endless indulgence.

No matter what the best way forward is--two states or one--it is absolutely vital for the American people to call their leaders to account and to demand that this indulgence must end, for the sake of everyone involved. And until our politicians learn (or are persuaded) to do the right thing, it falls on each of us to do what we can to end the indulgence and to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Heeding the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the obvious place to begin.

The Language that Absolves Israel

The language that absolves Israel

A special political vocabulary prevents us from being able to recognize what's going on in the Middle East.

On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that -- by categorically ruling out the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state -- ought to have been seen as a mortal blow to the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday morning, however, newspaper headlines across the United States announced that Netanyahu had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and the White House welcomed the speech as "an important step forward."

Reality can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States.

In fact, a special vocabulary has been developed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. It filters and structures the way in which developing stories are misread here, making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories -- and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write.

The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possible for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country.

Let me give a classic example.

In the U.S., discussion of Palestinian politicians and political movements often relies on a spectrum running from "extreme" to "moderate." The latter sounds appealing; the former clearly applies to those who must be -- must they not? -- beyond the pale. But hardly anyone relying on such terms pauses to ask what they mean. According to whose standard are these manifestly subjective labels assigned?

Meanwhile, Israeli politicians are labeled according to an altogether different standard: They are "doves" or "hawks." Unlike the terms reserved for Palestinians, there's nothing inherently negative about either of those avian terms.

So why is no Palestinian leader referred to here as a "hawk"? Why are Israeli politicians rarely labeled "extremists"? Or, for that matter, "militants"?

There are countless other examples of these linguistic double standards. American media outlets routinely use the deracinating and deliberately obfuscating term "Israeli Arabs" to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they call themselves -- and are -- Palestinian.

Similarly, Israeli housing units built in the occupied territories in contravention of international law are always called "settlements" or even "neighborhoods" rather than what they are: "colonies." That word may be harsh on the ears, but it's far more accurate ("a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state").

These subtle distinctions make a huge difference. Unconsciously absorbed, such terms frame the way people and events are viewed. When it comes to Israel, we seem to reach for a dictionary that applies to no one else, to give a pass to actions or statements that would be condemned in any other quarter.

That's what allowed Netanyahu to be congratulated for endorsing a Palestinian "state," even though the kind of entity he said Palestinians might -- possibly -- be allowed to have would be nothing of the kind.

Look up the word "state" in the dictionary. You'll probably see references to territorial integrity, power and sovereignty. The entity that Netanyahu was talking about on Sunday would lack all of those constitutive features. A "state" without a defined territory that is not allowed to control its own borders or airspace and cannot enter into treaties with other states is not a state, any more than an apple is an orange or a car an airplane. So how can leading American newspapers say "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," as the New York Times had it? Or "Netanyahu relents on goal of two states," as this paper put it?

Because a different vocabulary applies.

Which is also what kept Netanyahu's most extraordinary demand in Sunday night's speech from raising eyebrows here.

"The truth," he said, "is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians."

In other words, as Netanyahu repeatedly said, there is a Jewish people; it has a homeland and hence a state. As for the Palestinians, they are a collection -- not even a group -- of trespassers on Jewish land. Netanyahu, of course, dismisses the fact that they have a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: The Palestinians must, he said, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people (this is a relatively new Israeli demand, incidentally), and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. "We" are a people, Netanyahu was saying; "they" are merely a "population." "We" have a right to a state -- a real state. "They" do not.

And the spokesman for our African American president calls this "an important step forward"?

In any other situation -- including our own country -- such a brutally naked contrast between those who are taken to have inherent rights and those who do not would immediately be labeled as racist. Netanyahu, though, is given a pass, not because most Americans would knowingly endorse racism but because, in this case, a special political vocabulary kicks in that prevents them from being able to recognize it for exactly what it is.