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Time’s Angel, or A Birthday Letter to Myself

13 Nov


            We live our public holidays by the Gregorian calendar, but what of our private holidays? I decided to create my own, happening to coincide with a birthday, but also an occasion to push the pause and reset buttons on this blog of mine that commenced about a year ago as a ‘gift’ from our daughter and her high-tech husband. I am grateful to them for sending me off on this new voyage of discovery and self-discovery, although at times of controversy I become aware that silence might have served me better, as I am grateful to my other wonderful children for teaching me so much about love and live. It has brought me into contact with tender, wise, and joyful persons from around the world.


            For those loyal folks who have followed my posts even periodically, they realized that the blog has sometimes also provoked anger and even venomous hostility, especially on the part of those who disapprove of my UN role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, a role that has led me to be harshly critical of Israel’s policies and supportive of Palestinian struggles for their rights under international law. As someone reluctantly present in public spaces, this atmosphere of insult and injury has made me nostalgic for the serenity of the ivory tower life widely thought attainable in the groves of academe. I would like to retreat at this stage of my life, but it is unseemly to do so as a result of pressures mounted from without, while the Palestinian ordeal persists. Although tempted, I will not use this occasion for the dreary work of responding to my critics beyond saying that I have tried throughout my work at the UN and elsewhere to be truthful without hiding my affinities and identifications with those who are struggling to survive in dignity in the face of oppressive circumstances. In this regard, my debt to the Palestinians is far greater than theirs to me as I have so often been inspired by their courage and steadfastness, and benefitted by their warmth and good spirits.


            Overall, doing a blog reminds us of the art of amateurship (affirming the French root meaning of ‘lover of’), almost lost in our age caught between the mind of the specialist and the nihilistic effects of various cynical brands of postmodernism. The specialist impact on language exhibited by its impoverishment of the word ‘amateur’ to mean dabbler, or superficial idler who should never be taken seriously, and of the nihilist postmodern success in discrediting all forms of belief in a better tomorrow. I find great pleasure in exploring unfamiliar terrain, and feel an exhilarating permission to be foolish on occasion, something that is woefully lacking in universities where it is almost always prudent to be silent and sullen (except when endorsing the views of administrators or right-wing alumni) than to appear engaged and enthusiastic. So for me, when not commenting on the injustices that persist before my eyes, I feel that the blogosphere is basically an arena of exploration and community, especially when a flourishing friendship is bestowed as a form of cyber-grace, the digitized religiosity of this new century. Doing a blog regularly is somewhat akin to keeping a public journal of observations, opinions, and ideas, although for me not a substitute for a private and uninhibited enclave of recollected wrongs and satisfactions, attractions and repulsions, confessions and indictments.  


            Lifting my gaze from these essentially personal concerns, I find a vivid resonances at this moment of reflection in the great opening lines of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:


                        Turning and turning in the widening gyre

                        The falcon cannot hear the falconer,

                        Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

                        Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

                        The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

                        The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

                        The best lack all conviction, while the worst

                        Are full of passionate intensity.


I meant ‘resonance’ not ‘agreement,’ at least not altogether. I find that during this past year it has been ‘the best’ that have been ‘full of passionate intensity’ as in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. These have been remarkable unanticipated challenges directed at overcoming the injustices and abuses of a variety of established orders, whether or not their still unsettled outcomes are successful in the worldly sense of bringing enduring gains for those involved. What matters now is this mass demonstration of a will to dignity exhibited in so courageously and admirably at Tahrir Square and in many, many other sites of struggle, a magnificent display of the resilient human spirit, which I view as partly expressed by its organic attachment to nonviolent struggle as being in Yeats’ sense the essence of an uplifting ‘ceremony of innocence.’ Yes, ‘the center cannot hold,’ but that might, if true, be welcomed rather than lamented as it is the center that is mainly responsible for ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ that has been ‘loosed upon the world.’ Instead of (re)constructing centers, especially governmental centers, more responsive to our needs and desires, maybe we should think more about revitalizing peripheries or finding ways to dispense with or at least all centers of hard power for a while.


            Dumbing down for a few self-indulgent lines, I never imagined that I could keep my blog afloat in the over-populated blogosphere, and maybe I can’t, and maybe I didn’t, but there was a steady enough stream of positive feedback to keep me going, to make me feel that sharing my reflections on the passing global scene was something more than a narcissistic diversion for an ageing academic who decided to keep working because unfit for the comforts of a rocking chair on the final porch of life. I was also too much of a logistical coward to explore national parks in a systematic way or book tedious ocean cruises to nowhere in particular. I did manage to initiate two satisfying diversions during the past twelve months: solitary I-Pad chess, especially on long overseas trips and nurturing neighborhood birds with good food and attentive adoration, and I continue my search for beautiful glass crystal balls, always seeking better ways to divine the future, always falling short. Of course, these trappings of ‘the good life’ are only satisfying if blessed by love and partnership. And I am so blessed! 


            Since I am claiming the right to ignore the normal cycle of the year’s end, it is an occasion for my ‘New Year’s’ resolutions, or at least pondering how I might challenge myself during the year ahead, beginning with this damnable blog! Should I lighten the burden of my life by its abandonment, or should I relax a bit, and confine its role to registering intemperate outbursts from time to time, hopefully for your sake not too often? Or should I soldier on, both pleasing Hilal and possibly accommodating my declining powers by aiming in the year ahead to produce no more than 50 instead of the insufferable 100 of 2010-11? Or should I just shut up, and let the muse decide on when and whether? I know that ‘resolutions’ are supposed to be commitments not questions, but this is the best that I can do for now as my muse is mute, perhaps in deference to my birthday. At least, it is this repeated sense of failure to live up to the resolve of resolutions that haunts most resolution-makers, but seems to exempt from self-criticism those that hide their weak will behind a façade of unanswered questions!


            My most abiding lifelong political commitment is to side emotionally and actively with the underdog in conflict situations without attention to ethnic, religious, and class differences. This has been so since childhood. I have no idea why. My loving father was inclined toward elites,

respecting and trusting them, and worrying about, distrusting, and opposing those who would make things better, somewhat in the manner of being a principled Burkean conservative. He was deeply opposed to Communism in all forms, including if diluted to become ‘social democracy,’ and disliked even the New Deal response to the Great Depression. I suppose I would have to admit to forming a contrarian streak while still a boy as on the particulars of politics I found myself on opposite side of the political fence from the person who I then loved and respected most in the world. Although he died in 1956 I still feel his stern views as a judgment passed on my own, although softened by his loving tenderness that was always the dominant color of our relationship. It is strange how we never manage to move much beyond the shadows cast by our parents, nor do we wish to end this dialogue that is not ever interrupted even by untimely death.


            More prosaically, living in Montreal for a few months without friends, a car, sports life, and books has made me appreciate the daily good fortune of living in Santa Barbara! Although there are some new discoveries that have accompanied this ‘deprived’ condition, the prospect of returning to the known of the Pacific West is satisfying. And one more observation on being a blogger: you never feel isolated or lonely, there are always present some feelings of connectedness although depending on their character, they may sometimes disturb more than they please, but such challenges do not age the soul!


            The truth is that I am not sure what to do in this rapidly unfolding future. I am most thankful for love, friendship, and health as gifts from heaven, and I will probably keep doing what I have been doing. It becomes harder at this age to contemplate serious alternatives, although little detours into the unknown are still possible and often bring fresh delight, as well as restorative energy. As with other stages of life, even this late one is only satisfying so long as it remains a learning experience that is receptive to surprise and novelty!


            I do wish that a year from now the lines from the Yeats poem will seem quaint and obsolescent so far as the surrounding world situation is concerned, and will be replaced in 2012 by a more life-affirming lyric that thanks time’s angel for spreading its joy to the world. Maybe by then we will think about people as much as we now dwell on the perils of the Euro! Of course, happily, life didn’t begin or end for me at 80, and so I can only become 81 in a state of expectant bemusement!





On Jewish Identity

15 Jan

As someone who is both Jewish and supportive of the Palestinian struggle for a just and sustainable peace, I am often asked about my identity. The harshest critics of my understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict contend that I am a self-hating Jew, which implies that sharp criticism of Israel and Zionism are somehow incompatible with affirming a Jewish identity. Of course, I deny this. For me to be Jewish is, above all, to be preoccupied with overcoming injustice and thirsting for justice in the world, and that means being respectful toward other peoples regardless of their nationality or religion, and empathetic in the face of human suffering whoever and wherever victimization is encountered. With this orientation, I could, but will not, return the insult, and say that those who endorse the cruelties of Israel occupation policies are the real self-hating Jews as they have turned away from the moral clarity of Old Testament prophets, which is the shining light of the Old Testament overcoming the often bloody exploits of the ancient Israelites. So interpreted, the biblical mandate for just behavior extends to all of humanity.  As the great Rabbi Hillel teaches, “[T]hat which is hateful to you do not do to another..the rest (of the Torah) is all commentary, now go study.” Not hateful only to another Jew, but clearly meant to encompass every human being.

But in a more fundamental respect my own evolution has always been suspicious of those who give priority to tribalist or sectarian identities. In other words, it is fine to affirm being Jewish, but it should not take precedence over being human or being open and receptive to the insight and wisdom of other traditions. We have reached a point in the political and cultural evolution that our future flourishing as a species vitally depends upon the spread of a more ecumenical ethos. We have expressed this embrace of otherness in relation to food, with the rise of ‘fusion’ cuisines, and with regard to popular culture, particularly music, where all kinds of borrowing and synthesis are perceived as exciting, authentic, valuable.

For me this rejection of tribalism takes two forms, one negative, the other positive. I do not feel exclusively Jewish. Also, even if I did, I would never claim the superiority of the Jewish religion over other religions. I have felt uncomfortable since childhood with biblical claims, often repeated in contemporary social settings, that Jews are ‘the chosen people’ of God even if this is understood benevolently and temporally as a special destiny associated with doing justice rather than as a matter of societal achievement via wealth and professional success. As soon as exclusivity or superiority is claimed for any ethnic or religious fraction of the human whole, there is implicitly posited a belief in the inferiority of ‘the other,’ which unconsciously and indirectly gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare and gives a moral and religious edge to many forms of persecution, culminating in a variety of inquisitions.

And, of course, the historical climax of inverted exclusivity was the Holocaust, a process in which Jews (along with the Roma and others) were chosen for extermination. Claims of exclusivity often usually pretend to possess privileged access to truth that helps disguise monstrous intentions and behavior. To have such access, whether from a divine or secular source, treats all those outside the select circle as tainted by falsehood, the logic of which generates a societal license to kill, even to exterminate. Extreme tribalism is genocidal at its core given material scarcities and inequalities that exist in the world, which would otherwise be indefensible.

Besides, the disturbing historical record of exclusivist approaches to living together there is increasing confirmation of the artificiality of the ethnic foundations of the claims of distinct national identities, often at the expense of those exclusions. Benedict Anderson has seminally linked nationalist aspirations with distinct political projects in his Imagined Communities. More recently the Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People has shown the absence of a Jewish ethnos that might justify the claim of being a distinct people, and the degree to which in the Zionist embodiment of their conception of Jewishness in Israel, the Palestinian minority has been subjugated, a cruel ideological side effect of this type of ethnic nationalism. One of the achievements of European secularism and the move to modernity was to denationalize the state while asserting its sovereign control over people living within its bounded territory, which in effect disconnected juridical nationalism from ethnic and religious nationalism, and thus created the basis in law and morality for treating all people subject to the state as equal before the law. Of course, societal beliefs and traditions, along with class conflict and racism and religious prejudices persisted, but not with the blessings of the state. Toward the end of his book Sand poses the question that exposes the raw nerve of the Zionist insistence on Israel as a Jewish state, an insistence given great salience by the current leadership: “It is hard to know how much longer the Israeli Arabs, who represent 20% of the country’s inhabitants, will continue to tolerate being viewed as foreigners in their own homeland.” (p. 325) It should be borne in mind that even the initial purely colonialist encouragement of the Zionist project  in the form of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 looked with favor only to a Jewish homeland, and only then if it did not encroach on the rights and prospect of the indigenous population then resident in historic Palestine.

Turning to the positive effects of rejecting tribalist and sectarian approaches to truth and spirituality, I would emphasize the fabulous opportunities at this stage of history to learn from and participate in diverse religious traditions, especially in a globalizing world. In my own case, I have drawn spiritual sustenance from the other great religions ever since my student days. Although celebrating the distinctive traditions of one’s own birth or chosen religion can be personally enriching, and is for most people, I have found that the quality of the sacred and divine can be experienced from many different points of entry with interactive and comparable benefits. In my case I have at various times been inspired and enlightened by the practices and wisdom of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, and indigenous peoples. And in a more mundane sense, I think that the future of humanity will be greatly enhanced if these various religious and wisdom traditions are ecumenically and inclusively embraced by more and more people throughout the world, providing a thickening societal and civilizational fiber for human solidarity. I have always been skeptical of the rational case for global humanism that is quite prevalent in the West, an aspect of the Enlightenment legacy, which is also partly responsible for secular excesses relating to technology culminating in the development and normalization of nuclear weaponry. This exclusion of the spiritual is also responsible for those forms of materialism that underpin predatory capitalism that prevails in many parts of the world today. Beyond this, such homogenizing types of universalism, associated with both consumerism and its military twin, imperialism, tend to erode cultural differences, and do not touch the experience of most of the people living on the planet.

In my experience what is most appropriate in our historical circumstances is an ecumenical and inclusive spiritual identity, and associated ethical and political commitments.  In effect, what would awaken the collective sensibilities of the peoples of the earth to the challenges confronting humanity is a movement of spiritual and ethical globalization that approaches the universal through an immersion in a variety of particularities. In this sense, I want to say, yes I am Jewish, and proud of it, but I am equally indigenous, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian to the extent that I allow myself to participate in their rituals, partake of their sacred texts, and seek and avail myself of the opportunity to sit at the feet of their masters.  Many persons living deprived lives do not have or desire such ecumenical opportunities, and can best approach this universal ideal, by seeking out the inclusive potentialities of their own religious and cultural reality.

I want to give the last word to an early nineteenth century American spiritual seer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, although with some hesitation, given his patriarchal use of language. I was slightly tempted to substitute ‘humans are’ for ‘man is’ but then I decided to respect the integrity of Emerson’s speech within the historical setting of its original utterance (unlike the recent purging of ‘nigger’ from the American classic, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and the substitution of the historically misleading, yet culturally less offensive word ‘slave’). Here are Emerson’s words as written: “The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all members.”

A Christmas Poem

23 Dec



How many time have I seen them together

Yet mostly near birth or just after death

Neglecting the hard passage through time

From infant Jesus to the cross is too quick

For my modern eye to see

And rarely caught the painter’s fancy

But holding the holy infant

Became back then the artist’s signature of belief

As holding the limp sacred body

Became the artist’s inscription of faith

This holy mother alone for centuries

Abandoned in hard times by Joseph

Or was it the other way around

Abandoned also by her only son

Or was it the other way around

Her son who finds the world to lose it

And is found again and mortally spurned

And found yet again to be so well remembered.

Personal Background and Blog Introduction

16 Nov

The idea of doing a blog never before occurred to me, but having been given the opportunity, I find it a welcome challenge at the start of my ninth decade on the planet. I hope it will allow me to find at long last unity in diversity, exploring several distinct concerns that constitute my private and professional life, my academic identity and my engagement as a citizen, and fulfill an ambition to write more poems than in the recent past.  I hope, also, that it will stimulate enough of a response to frame dialogues over time on a variety of themes, and that I will not feel either overwhelmed or completely on my own while navigating through cyberspace.

I am not sure, of course, that the interest in this venture will extend much beyond those who are family or unconditionally loyal friends, or even in such close quarters. Because I have had strong involvement with a number of activist struggles over the years, my awareness has to some extent been shaped by happenings in public space. My scholarly life, which has always been in tandem with this activism, is not likely to be of much interest except possibly to others working on similar problems from congenial perspectives. Only time will tell.

I started my teaching career at the School of Law at Ohio State University way back in 1955 after completing a law degree. Although I had never contemplated becoming a university teacher, I was immediately drawn to what seemed at the time a privileged existence: autonomy and the freedom to pursue deep interests. Of course, there was also some anxiety as to whether I could satisfy the academic gatekeepers and gain tenure. I had never lived outside the East Coast, but I found life in Columbus, Ohio socially warm, intellectually stimulating, politically challenging, and quite enlightening about the friendly yet provincial culture of the Midwest.

Two turning points in my life are worth mentioning in this exercise of introducing myself to this as yet phantom blog audience. First, was an invitation out of the blue to visit Princeton for a year in 1961, with a serious prospect of a longer term faculty appointment if I did not mess up too much. Princeton had a chair in international law, which had remained vacant for some years due to the inability to find someone who had a law background yet could fit into a liberal arts university atmosphere. The gatekeepers at Princeton were lenient in those years, and I managed to be invited to stay on more or less indefinitely. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would become a faculty member at such a leading university. It was a trancelike experience for some years as I struggled to overcome a high school and early college identity as an underachiever who was lucky to scrape by.

The second turning point was political, and even more of a rupture with my past. I had gone through my college years under the influence of a very conservative father who loved the U.S. Navy and hated the New Deal; he had been a lawyer for some of the most prominent anti-Communists who were hostile to all forms of progressive thought, which were angrily labeled as ‘socialistic’ or ‘pink,’ with prominent adherents being cast either as Soviet agents or dupes of the world Communist movement. Gradually I liberated myself from such an ideological bondage, but it was my deepening opposition to the Vietnam War that served as my political coming of age. In the beginning, through extensive reading, I opposed the war on realist grounds that it was a repetition of the French failure in Indochina, a waste of lives and resources, and in the end would be a costly setback for the United States. I was also offended by the flagrant violations of international law, especially those associated with the extension of the war to North Vietnam in 1965. I wrote extensively in this vein, and considered myself a participant in the anti-war movement. But what transformed my political outlook was an invitation in June 1968 to view the bomb damage in the vicinity of Hanoi, and to meet the leaders of the North Vietnamese government. It was a deeply moving two weeks in which I came to understand the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese who were exposed day and night year after year to punishment from air, land, and sea, and lacked any capacity to retaliate against the United States. And I met many people while there and political figures who were humanly compelling, remarkably free from bitterness, and seemed genuinely to seek peace and even friendship with the United States and the American people, but at the same time were willing to pay any price in blood and suffering to attain national independence. I came back from Vietnam convinced that the flow of history was running against military interventions by the West, and that it was totally unacceptable for the United States to seek to fill the colonial shoes of France and the United Kingdom. From this time, I have never departed from an essentially critical view of American foreign policy regardless of the party in power, and have called attention to the best of my ability to a series of militarist policies that struck me as legally, morally, and politically deficient.

For complex reasons, after the Vietnam War I came to be increasingly concerned with the Israel/Palestine Conflict, and very opposed to the one sidedness of the American attempt to play the role of ‘honest broker’ in mediating the conflict and yet serve simultaneously as Israel’s most unconditional advocate. Unexpectedly in 2008 I was asked if I would agree to become Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine by the UN Human Rights Council if selected. Knowing of Israel’s public opposition to my appointment, and its influence in Washington, I assumed I would not be selected, but I was, and have taken on this contested unpaid position for a three year term. On December 14, 2008, while attempting to carry out a UN mission that involved visits to East Jerusalem, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip I was denied entry to Israel at Ben Gurion Airport, held in a detention cell overnight, and expelled the next day. As someone of Jewish identity this set of developments led me to reflect upon the relationship between ethnicity and politics in the context of Zionist efforts to stifle criticisms of official Israeli behavior by alleging anti-Semitism.  I received quite a bundle of hate mail, along with a few threats, but I have not altered my sense of the injustice of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the related feeling that associating a state in the 21st century with an exclusive religious/ethnic identity cannot be reconciled with human rights, particularly as is the case for Israel, there exists a significant Palestinian minority that endures an inherent structure of discrimination.

Throughout my professional life I have been concerned with devoting my teaching and writing to an understanding of world order and global justice. I have felt that nationalism and the state system, although performing some positive functions, were dangerously anachronistic given the realities of modern warfare, especially after the use of atomic bombs in the last days of World War II. In this work I have written several books, collaborated with scholars in many parts of the world, and tried to encourage a normative approach to international relations, bringing humanistic values to bear as analytical tools and envisioning better futures for humanity. I intend to continue to use this blog for further explorations in support of nonviolent geopolitics, but adding a special emphasis on the intensifying dangers of global warming as well as the sinister campaign to confuse public opinion about the mounting threats to human wellbeing.

Finally, I hope that this blog will over time become interactive, a way of engaging in digital communication about shared concerns and common interests.

It will be a continuing experiment with lots of questions to answer. Will anyone take note? Can I sustain my own effort to communicate regularly? Will the blog assume a predominantly political character? Or will it serve primarily as an outlet for mostly suppressed literary and philosophic interests? Will it come to please or embarrass relatives and friends?

For me in the end, undertaking a blog is a digital extension of my chosen identity as a ‘citizen pilgrim.’ To venture into cyberspace is to discover a new realm of engagement with a political community that seems without normal terrestrial boundaries. A genuine to an unknown, yet desired future, a time/space for renewal and exploration. To be a citizen pilgrim in the 21st century is to find creative ways to benefit from and enjoy the digital.
All I know is that for me at this moment I am about to dive into an unknown sea from a dizzying height!