Monday, June 27, 2011

Altalena, Irgun and Ben-Gurion --

Ships, their comings and goings, have lately been a fixation over at Israel's flagship left-wing (sporadically post-Zionist) Haaretz newspaper. Adding a new twist to what it means to be "embedded" with the enemy, one of the paper's stable of advocacy journalists, Amira Hass, has been writing adoringly about hooking-up with a pro-Palestinian flotilla that intends to smash Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

No less earnestly, the paper's front pages have been devoted to beating back challenges to the left's narrative about how the Irgun arms ship Altalena came to be sunk off the coast of Tel-Aviv 63 years ago this month (June 21, 1948) on orders from David Ben-Gurion. Haaretz has been incensed, too, by an Israel Defense Ministry reference to the fallen Irgun members as having been "murdered."

Now, historian Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009) has further undermined the leftist canon with Brothers At War, a succinct, emotive, and levelheaded summation of the Altalena tragedy.

Auerbach frames his Altalena account in terms of what he sees as Israel's ongoing identity struggle – "Jewish state, secular state, democratic state, democratic Jewish state, state of the Jewish people" – and the constraints this lack of clarity places on the legitimacy of massively consequential government decisions.

He asserts that this conundrum actually has ancient origins traceable to Josephus whose laments about the "seditious temper" of the Jewish people erroneously framed history's understanding of Rome's victory over the Jews for the past 2,000 years. In modern times, this dilemma manifested itself in the Altalena; in the 1952 Knesset clash over whether to accept German government reparations for the Holocaust; in the 1993 Oslo Accords, and has yet to find resolution notwithstanding the dreadful assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

It persists still over whether left-wing IDF reservists should be required to serve over the Green Line and whether right-wing Orthodox conscripts ought to be required, contrary to the wishes of their rabbis, to obey orders to dismantle unsanctioned West Bank outposts.

Put another way: Is the bigger threat to the Jewish commonwealth zealous Jews who reject disputed governmental decisions on divisive issues or the chronic failure of successive Israeli governments to foster consensus positions?

Where to begin the telling of Altalena calamity? Auerbach reasonably starts by differentiating the two Zionist camps; one led by Ben-Gurion which controlled Zionist officialdom and was inspired by a Jewish national renewal rooted in notions of socialist utopia; the other motivated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and carried forth by his disciple Menachem Begin whose vision was one of a society based on middle-class entrepreneurial values. Long before the Altalena, Auerbach points out, there was a record of bad blood between the two camps exacerbated by the mysterious murder of Chaim Arlosoroff, bitter disputes over whether and how to confront the heartless British policy of closing the gates of Palestine prior to and during the Holocaust and over how best to respond to Arab brutality against Palestinian Jewry in the years before Israel's independence.

The Altalena (Jabotinsky's pen name) was purchased in America by Irgun operatives and, ultimately, loaded at Marseilles, France with desperately needed weapons and munitions along with a "melting pot" of 940 recruits for the nascent Hebrew fighting force in Palestine. As far as its American Jewish captain knew, his mission had the "acquiescence of the Israeli government."

Begin had indeed been negotiating directly with Ben-Gurion's man, Israel Galili, over how to disburse the ships weapons and troops. The Altalena's mission was unfortunately tracked from the start by various intelligence agencies and its secrecy blatantly exposed in a BBC news broadcast.

A series of disastrous miscommunications, logistical blunders and lack of internal Irgun discipline led to the ship's arrival seemingly at the wrong place and at the wrong time while the Begin-Galili talks were still in progress. In fact, Auerbach writes, Galili informed Begin on June 16: "We [i.e. Ben-Gurion] agree to the arrival of the vessel. As quickly as possible." And in his diary entry that day Ben-Gurion wrote: "Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive." So it was Ben-Gurion himself who ordered the ship to land at Kfar Vitkin (near Netanya) to avoid UN aerial surveillance.

As the Begin-Galili talks proceeded, some of the weapons and almost all of the personnel on board were unloaded near Netanya. By then, Ben-Gurion had allowed himself to be convinced that Begin was planning a putsch against his authority even as the Irgun leader – perhaps naively – felt certain the weapons negotiations would succeed in the fullness of time. But there was no time. Ben-Gurion edgily ordered the Haganah (now the IDF) to start shooting. Six Irgun men and two soldiers were killed before the ship fled Netanya south and ran aground off the Tel Aviv coast not far from Palmach headquarters!

Ben-Gurion insisted on unconditional surrender or else. Yitzhak Rabin, age 26, was appointed on the spot to command the beach fighting. When the Altalena crew hesitated perhaps because of poor communications with Irgun headquarters, Palmach commanders ordered an all out attack on the ship. Even though the crew raised a white flag, Rabin's snipers continued to pick off targets bobbing in the waters. Begin, who had earlier boarded the ship expecting a deal with Galili, barely escaped with his life. The ship went down along with 300 Bren guns, 500 anti-tank guns, 1,000 grenades and millions of bullets that could have been used during the War of Independence.

Auerbach's conclusion, citing historian Ehud Sprinzak, was that there had been no "mutiny on the right" no intention to defy the legitimate authority of the land and certainly no intention by Begin to challenge Ben-Gurion militarily with a putsch. Begin had only wanted enough men and guns earmarked to carry on the fight for Jerusalem's Old City (which Ben-Gurion had abandoned) and thought he had Galili's tacit approval.

Begin abhorred the idea of a Jewish civil war and ultimately, swallowing his pride, ordered his Irgun men into the IDF on September 20, 1948. It was Ben-Gurion's "quasi-totalitarian" personality that led the socialist leader to "a reprehensible abuse of state power," as Begin later plausibly asserted.

Auerbach's sensitive re-telling of this tragic chapter in Israel's early history concludes with the unhappy, though sadly correct, assertion that Israel's "problem of legitimacy" remains unresolved.

How can Israeli decision makers emphatically steer clear of future Altalena's in implementing wrenching policies that have monumental consequences for the country's survival and character? Auerbach argues simply that they can't. In connection with dismantling settlements, my reading is that he believes the right to disobey orders is scared.
Yet surely for most Israelis, in the unlikely event that a Palestinian leadership emerges ready to make genuine peace, the legitimacy of the deal could be appreciably bolstered and the moral justification of violent disobedience diminished by some combination of Knesset vote plus national referendum.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Druse (Druze) in the Arab-Israel Context

A Druse physician from the Golan Heights, who works at an Israeli hospital, was one of 24 members of his community arrested for pummeling IDF troops with rocks during so-called Naksa Day protests. Just a few miles south in Daliyat El-Carmel, located on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, the Israeli Druse community is planning a memorial museum that will tell the stories of the 400 Druse soldiers who fell in defense of the State of Israel. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the Druse leadership has become an essential constituent in the Hezbollah-dominated government.

Just where do Druse loyalties lay?

An understanding of their history can help answer that question. The Druse are a breakaway stream of the Ismaili strain of Shi'ite Islam, followers of an ascetic Egyptian ruler named Al-Hakim (996-1021) in whom they see manifestations of the divine. (Al-Hakim was a descendant of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali revered by the Shi'ites.) Influenced in part by Greek ideas, Al-Hakim's persecuted followers broke away from orthodox Islam and eventually coalesced in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, Syria and Israel awaiting his messianic return and salvation (reincarnation being fundamental to their dogma).

Druse keep their religious practices mostly mysterious. Unlike Muslims, Druse Arabs do not observe Ramadan nor make pilgrimages to Mecca and do not proselytize. They venerate Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses as a main prophet. Marrying-out is considered an unforgivable breach of communal solidarity. Indeed, strong ethnic identity, martial skills and mutual aid are part of the Druse canon. Today, there are perhaps 2.5 million Druse living mostly in Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel with smaller communities dispersed as far away as North America and Australia.

In predominantly Sunni Syria, the Druse are mostly concentrated in the southwest abutting Jordan and between Aleppo and Antioch in the north-west. They comprise perhaps four percent of the population. After the First World War with the arrival of the French, the Druse were encouraged to maintain their own autonomous region. Druse attitudes toward the French were conflicted though the community ultimately embraced emergent Arab nationalism.
Syrian independence in 1946 was accompanied by long decades of political convulsions. During the early 1950s for instance, Adib ibn Hasan Shishakli, the military dictator, pursued a Syrian nationalist line yet violently persecuted the Druse whom he perceived as a threat. Shishakli's overthrow paved the way for yet more turmoil during which factions within the Ba'ath Party competed violently for control.

By the time Hafez al-Assad (Basher's father) took power in 1970, the Druse had been purged from positions of influence in the party, army and security services. However, the Assad dynasty, itself rooted in the Alawite minority, relied on the Druse, and true to form, the Druse displayed remarkable loyalty to the regime. In recent years Bashar may have become more distant from them, perhaps because he wanted to draw closer to the Sunni majority, according to Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University. Druse fidelity has begun to crack only as anti-Assad demonstrations have gained inexorable momentum and security forces have targeted the Druse. Kedar speculates that if Syria does disintegrate, the Druse could seek to restore their earlier autonomy.

Watching from the other side of the border, Israeli Druse parliamentarian, Deputy Galilee and Negev Development Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) has tried to muster Jerusalem's support for some kind of intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition only to be rebuffed. Lately, he's turned to the Turkish authorities asking to be allowed to lead an Israeli aid mission to the Turkish-Syrian border.

On the Golan Heights, a very small number of Druse accepted Israeli citizenship when the Knesset applied Israeli law to the territory in 1981, while most remained loyal to the Assad regime. On the whole, though some Druse have been arrested for spying for Syria, most have simply sought not to fall afoul of either Jerusalem or Damascus knowing that control of the Heights could flip in any peace deal. Israel has been generally sensitive to the Druse predicament. In mid-February, for instance, 12,000 tons of apples grown by Druse farmers near Majdal Shams were exported to Syria despite the de facto state of war between the two countries. At the start of the anti-government protests in Syria, some Golan residents demonstrated in support of Assad. But as the demonstrations gained traction more Golan Druse have turned against Assad and expressed solidarity for the opposition.

The Druse need to coldly calibrate their alliances is nowhere more pronounced than in the failed state of Lebanon. There's been no verifiable census there in decades, but there are believed to be hundreds of thousands of Druse in Lebanon with a stronghold in the Chouf Mountains. After his father Kamal was assassinated (in all likelihood by the Assads), Druse leader Walid Jumblat actually drew closer to Syria. Over the years he has switched sides intermittently most recently in March 2010. Nowadays he backs Lebanon's new hegemon, the Shi'ite Islamist movement Hezbollah, clients of the Assad dynasty though ultimately beholden to Iran.

Emphasizing his Arab credentials, Jumblat has aligned the Druse with Arab "leftists" -- essentially nationalist secularists – through his Progressive Socialist Party. His anti-Israel rhetoric has been unwavering. The Druse have been sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs, permanent "refugees" in Lebanon, and have advocated for them being granted the right to own property. This has not guaranteed the Druse immunity from attack by uncompromising Palestinian Islamists.

All the same, earlier this month Jumblat lauded the Golan Druse who collaborated in Syrian-inspired Palestinian efforts to storm across the Golan boundary with Israel. He has long urged his coreligionists in Israel not to serve in the IDF. Yet as the Assad regime wobbles, possibly weakening Hezbollah, the Lebanese Druse are becoming more assertive. A Druse member of the Hezbollah-dominated new cabinet recently resigned to protest the dearth of patronage posts allocated to his community.

Which brings us back to the 127,000-strong, overwhelmingly loyal, Druse citizens of Israel. Their young men have long been conscripted into the army where many have served with distinction. A Druse journalist, Rafik Halabi, was news director for Israel's Channel 1 during the 1990s. By 2001 a Druse had been named to Israel's cabinet (by Ariel Sharon). Patronage delivered by the Likud to the Druse town of Daliat el-Carmel has encouraged many locals to join the party. However, the acculturation process has not been effortless. Since many Druse schools teach the sciences in Arabic, Israel’s education ministry has been trying to encourage a shift to Hebrew so that graduates can better integrate into Israeli higher education. The Netanyahu has (belatedly) budgeted substantial sums for the socio-economic developing of the community. Efforts are also underway to prepare Druse young people for jobs in Israel's hi-tech sector.

This is not to suggest that Israel could not do much more to reward Druse loyalty or demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity. Earlier this year, the government defused simmering tensions by reaching a compensation deal with Druse landowners whose properties had been confiscated for a planned natural gas pipeline.

The seemingly Machiavellian character of Druse loyalties reflects what it means to be a minority people in a mostly intolerant Muslim Middle East. Just as the Druse have found it strategically prudent to concentrate mostly on high ground away from urban areas, their political strategy toward outside powers has been one of "adaptability and fluidity" according to the University of Haifa's Gabriel Ben-Dor. The Druse prefer to be loyal to the country in which they reside. At the same time, their survival depends on a knack for aligning with what Lee Smith has called the Strong Horse, offering an artful political barometer for gauging the ever-shifting balance of power in the region.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Does Israel's Labor Party Still Live?

Laboring On

Whatever became of Israel's Labor Party some five months after its leader Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly quit to establish his breakaway Atzmaut (Independence) Knesset faction?

Wracked by infighting, fuming over being tethered to the diplomatic policies of the Netanyahu government, and headed by one of the least popular politicians on the scene, the once-dominant Labor Party seemed moribund. Barak had surprised colleagues in January 2010 by pulling out before they could oust him; taking along four comparatively right-leaning loyalists. Barak got to retain his cabinet seat while Labor ministers Yitzhak Herzog, Avishay Braverman and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had no choice but to go into the opposition. In 2006, Labor lost several luminaries including Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik to Kadima.

Now, tabloid pundits were quick to write Labor's obituary. Yediot's Nahum Barnea, doyen of left-leaning columnists, said the party had actually "died" during Barak's short failed term as prime minister in 2000 but had only now been buried. His colleague Sima Kadmon wrote that "the public doesn't believe the Labor Party can be revived." The perennially caustic Ben Caspit at Ma'ariv adjudged Labor to be "a pile of rubble." Barak had dealt Labor "the final blow" wrote another anti-Netanyahu Ma'ariv columnist Shalom Yerushalmi.

These writers had captured the popular sentiment: A poll in Yediot the day after Barak's exit found 53% of Israeli voters thought it heralded "the end of the Labor Party." Yet even then there was a glimmer of hope: the same poll revealed that Labor would manage to retain 8 of its 13 Knesset seats were immediate elections held.

Forecasts of Labor's demise appear to have been exaggerated. Since Barak's leaving the party brought back former general-secretary Micha Harish to be its temporary chairman and tasked him with overseeing Labor's revival. Tens of thousands of new members have been recruited as part of a dynamic race on for the party's leadership. David Ben-Gurion's grandchildren, Orit Etzioni and Moshe Ben-Eliezer, have publicly invested in the movement he once led. Even rudderless, recent polls continue to show the party capturing at least eight seats.

Of course, how Labor will ultimately fare in national elections (expected before 2013 when the current Knesset's term expires) will depend on what position it stakes out on the political spectrum and that, in term, very much depends on who becomes the party's new leader. The field includes MK Isaac Herzog, son of Israel's sixth president Chaim Herzog; MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former left-oriented journalist; Amram Mitzna, a rehabilitated previous party leader; millionaire entrepreneur Erel Margalit; MK Amir Peretz, another renewed former party leader and Shlomo Buhbut, a local government politician.
Labor is hardly likely to ever again become a ruling party. One reason is that its leaders and functionaries continue to shill for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in promoting the message that no diplomatic progress can be made because of the Netanyahu government, and not – as most Israelis believe – through any fault of the Palestinian Arabs.

Each of the leadership contenders claimed to have signed-up thousands of new members ostensibly pledged to vote for them in the September 12th party primary and subsequent run-off contest. By that yardstick, Peretz claims to have brought in the most signatures followed by Herzog and Yachimovich. Assuming the petition claims are true, Labor's membership base could emerge as the second biggest behind Likud.

With a leader – Mitzna, Herzog, Yachimovich or Perez – preliminary polling suggests that Labor could, at least hypothetically, capture 17-19 mandates. Yet when the dust settles much depends on whether the party, which still defines itself as social-democratic, can be positioned at least within shouting distance of the center-left enabling it to pick up votes from Kadima. That will not be easy.

Mitzna says outright that he's returned to politics to mobilize the "peace camp." Perez professes that he would not require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; Yachimovich prefers to take vague stands on security issues and to focus instead on promoting greater government involvement in the economy. Margalit supports an interim Palestinian state now along the parameters of the security barrier. Herzog has been arguably more judicious while still calling for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. All these positions are essentially out of kilter with public sentiment.

So while the obituaries were premature, for Labor to avoid being permanently relegated to the margins of party politics alongside Meretz whoever wins its September primary would be wise to navigate toward Israel's post-Oslo center.
As for Barak's new party, were elections held today, Atzmaut would not to cross the electoral threshold.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Public Opinion & the US - Israel Relationship

Liking Israel

The depth of empathy for the Jewish state among ordinary Americans -- persistently critical media coverage of Israel's West Bank, settlement and security policies notwithstanding – ought to be cause for positive amazement.

In stark contrast to strikingly negative European attitudes, a far-reaching CNN poll released May 31 presents an uplifting picture on American public opinion toward Israel: 65 percent of those surveyed had a generally favorable attitude. Equally heartening is a recent Rasmussen poll which found that 71% of Americans want the Palestinian Arabs to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

What regular folks think about foreign policy has often been disparaged. Winston Churchill warned politicians against keeping their ears to the ground because it would be hard for the public "to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture." Moreover, a vast swath of the American public remains blissfully ignorant about current affairs.

Be that as it may, the 24/7 news cycle and a ubiquitous Internet means that foreign affairs can hardly be conducted beyond the purview of public scrutiny as it would have been in the Victorian era.

Mass attitudes on foreign policy tend to be malleable, shaped – rather than followed – by opinion "mobilizers" in the government, media and academia. Plainly, there is a connection between what is covered and what people become interested in. But whether they are interested or not, the American public is fed a heavy diet of Middle East and Palestinian-Israeli conflict news.

In the last week of May, for example, a whopping 10 percent of all coverage was Mideast related compared to 12 percent for the troubled U.S. economy. No surprise then that nearly 18% of Americans say they follow the Arab-Israel conflict "very closely." That's only two percent less than those who say they are tracking the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Positive attitudes toward Israel have held steady through the second intifada and wars in Lebanon and Gaza. In the CNN survey, 44% of respondents identified Israel as an ally, only Britain (at 64%) scored higher. Asked where their sympathies lay 67% said Israel against 16% with the Palestinian Arabs; contrast this to 1988 when 37% were sympathetic toward Israel.

This increased level support was roughly the same across educational background, income and political affiliation though backing among those who define themselves as conservative was more robust at 83%. Within the Tea Party movement, 36% identified themselves as "very favorable" against just 6% who were "very unfavorable." Separately, we also know that there is a well-spring of support for Israel among believing Christians.

That said, most Americans (65%) would rather Washington not take sides at all. This reflects an always present and now growing trend in favor of U.S. isolationism in world affairs.

Moreover, despite near-saturation coverage ignorance about the conflict remains deep-seated as evidenced by a survey conducted by Arab-American pollster John Zogby which found "a plurality" for the so-called Palestinian "the right of return" to what is today Israel and for dismantling "settlements."

On the other hand, lack of knowledge probably doesn't explain why 51% of the "political class" (those who take strong and active interest in politics and often exercise power) in the Rasmussen survey were optimistic about the peace process in contrast to 87% of the presumably less informed "mainstream" who thought progress unlikely.

No less important is the backing Israel has within the heterogeneous U.S. Jewish community. A recent Frank Luntz poll found strong (61%) support for a united Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction and implied solid support for the retention of consensus or strategic settlement blocs in any peace deal.

Despite intensified campaigns by subversive groups within the community to redefine the essence of the conflict and what it means to be pro-Israel, fully 75% of U.S. Jews recognized that the ultimate Arab goal is the destruction of Israel; 94% wanted the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state thereby signaling an end to further claims. On the political front, a massive 85% thought that under President Barack Obama US-Israel relations were not going well. Which makes the next series of findings as disconcerting as they are seemingly incoherent: 55% of U.S. Jews sided with the administration even though 57% approved of the Netanyahu government's handling of relations; and 48% favor a Palestinian state "in the current situation."

The Luntz poll also illuminated the character of the community: more Democratic (50%) and independent (32%) than Republican (15%); heavily identified with the liberal streams of Judaism (52%) or "just Jewish" (37%) – whatever that means – than Orthodox (10%). Yet regardless of these distinctions, just 15% said Israel was not very important in their lives.

What does all this add up to? When it comes to the perpetual Palestinian war against Israel, rank-and-file Americans may have only a slim grasp of the complexities, yet they display an innate appreciation for the justice of Israel's cause. This is providential because no other nation is more dependent on the goodwill of Americans than Israel. The more solid that support, the greater the political constraints on any president whose pro-Israel sentiments are ambivalent. And the more apt is an Israel-friendly Congress to dispute White House pressure on Israel.

George Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of State in the late 1940s, observed that, "No policy -- foreign or domestic – can succeed without public support."

In the face of encouraging polling data, it behooves Israeli policymakers to shun complacency and to never, never, take the benevolence of the American people for granted.


Israeli Soldiers Shoot at WHOM on Syrian Border?

Israeli Soldiers Shoot at Protesters on Syrian Border?

At what point do those who, in the words of the article,

"crossed a new trench and tried to attack the border fence"

become rioters or invaders?

It's an interesting question for the headline writers at the Times.

and at the Washington Post

and at the BBC

Friday, June 03, 2011

Jews and Capitalism

Why are some Jews uncomfortable with capitalism? Not merely the cliché of capitalism as rapacious speculation and exploitative profiteering, but the mere idea of organizing the economy along free-market lines. While Jewish poverty is still with us chances are most Jews are more embarrassed by Jewish wealth. Perhaps the connection between power and money is the problem. Wealth is certainly one more excuse for anti-Semitism. Yet Jews would probably not have survived into the post-modern era without their genius for making money.

Free market countries tend to foster the kind of liberty and tolerance that have enabled Jews to thrive. Yet many Jews are inclined against political ideologies that champion the free market. A conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies on "Free Markets and Social Progress" held in Jerusalem on May 29 sought to come to grips with, among other things, this apparent discomfiture with capitalism.

Perhaps it’s a matter of branding. Promoting smaller government in order that voters can keep more of their own money is unappealing because it's perceived as boorishly self-centered, unfair, and for Jews the antithesis of tikkun olam, Russell Roberts of George Mason University argued. He sees hanging the free market idea on low taxes and small government in isolation as a mistake. Instead, people need to understand that the collective interest is manifested not in government but in a "subtle emergent order of cooperation" that transcends even market forces. For instance, in America – unlike Israel – government does not regulate religion with the result that America has a vibrant market place of religious ideas. In contrast, Judaism in Israel has been buffeted by being tethered to the state.

For Roberts the value of smaller government is that allows for informal bottom-up collective decision making that "just happens." Citing The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, Roberts argued that it is not the pursuit of wealth that makes people happy – "being loved and being lovely does."

People want to do good because they want to be liked. Capitalism understands that humans are self interested though they need not be selfish. Smaller government won't make people rich but it could make them freer and empower them to do better for themselves and their fellow human beings. Roberts believes that when left to their own devices people won't just give charity they'll cooperate with each other in ways that go beyond commerce. Therefore, those who fret over small government actually show a distain for the ability of ordinary citizens to make their own moral decisions.

What does Judaism have to say about the place of charity and generosity in the free market? Most scholars would say that the liberty inherent in the free market system encourages both these values. Provocatively, philosopher Joseph Isaac Lifshitz of the Shalem Center prefers to emphasize a distinction rooted in Jewish thought between purely altruistic charity, which he sees as laying "outside the market" in contrast to helping others enter the market which he terms "generosity."

Judaism accepts that in any choice between an individual and their neighbor putting the self first is perfectly all right. In fact, there can be no genuine fulfillment of the Biblical command to "love thy neighbor" without a healthy dose of self-interest. Lifshitz would like us to think of investment – specifically on the micro-level – as a normative good. An investor may profit but what matters morally is setting their fellow man on the path toward financial self-sufficiency.

Jewish survival, moreover, has depended not on individual charity but on communal prosperity, precisely the kind fostered by investment that is propelled not by self-abnegation but by healthy self-interest. "It is this type of political virtue that generates political power from bottom up," Lifshitz maintains. The higher moral good, then, is the "generosity" of investment rather than charity.

But how can Jews – or anyone else for that matter – fail to be discomfited by the upheaval resulting from the global financial meltdown? Isn't this the ultimate indictment of the free market and proof par excellence that society needs more economic regulation? Sam Peltzman, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago doesn't think so. He told the conference, counter-intuitively, that efforts to regulate economic conduct actually induced the very behavior that contributed to the financial crisis.

Bankers and CEOs, he said, will invariably behave in ways that offset the intended effects of any regulation. Such "offsetting behavior" begets more regulations, which beget even more offsetting behavior. The human proclivity for risk-taking can't be suppressed by bureaucratic regulations. Put plainly, economic life is far too complex to regulate. Moreover, the U.S. government's willingness to bailout banks and big corporations serves to reward rather than deter appalling economic decisions. Only the sobering prospect that bad business decisions will have bad consequences for those who make them can deter reckless risk-taking.

The views aired at the conference might seem iconoclastic only because they receive scant exposure in the media. To the extent that we give economics any thought at all, most of us adhere to conventional thinking. Jews like others prefer to adopt fashionable views on politics and economics rather than gravitate toward positions that have little resonance in the liberal newspapers we read, the public radio we listen to and the kind of television we watch.

Finally, historian Paul Johnson has pointed out, nomenclature may be another aspect of the problem. "Capitalism is an unfortunate name" for what is "not an ideology dreamed up by an economic philosopher" but a way of life that simply evolved "from the free and uncoordinated transactions and unimpeded movements of countless unknown individuals."


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