Letters to the editor

A Jewish Democracy

Both the dilemma Jeffrey Goldberg delineates (“Unforgiven,” May Atlantic) and David Grossman’s quarrel with the Israeli policy of not ending the Occupation reflect the historical lacuna at the heart of virtually all Israeli discourse: the long-planned, forcible, and often violent dispossession of 800,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes, farms, businesses, and personal possessions from 1947 to 1949, in the view that Jews’ need for a homeland and the Zionist determination to locate it in Palestine trumped Palestinian Arab residents’ basic human rights.

By the end of the massive cleansing operation in the summer of 1949, more than 5,000 Palestinians had been killed. Israel controlled 78 percent of Palestine and within a short time had effectively stolen approximately 84 percent of the real estate behind the Green Line and had leveled most Palestinian villages.

Goldberg, Ehud Olmert, and Grossman alike acknowledge only post-1967 Palestinian grievances. This continued moral amnesia allows Israel’s dismissal of internationally recognized Palestinian refugee claims and its brazen pretense of generosity in offering to give up an East Jerusalem hinterland and the poorer half of the West Bank, which is divided by settle­ments and Israeli-only roadways. The reality remains: the wronged Palestinian millions refuse to go away.

William H. Slavick
Portland, Maine

Jeffrey Goldberg correctly notes that the Palestinian national movement “is perhaps the least successful national liberation movement of the 20th century.” Ironically, this has been as much a problem for Israel as for the Palestinian Arabs. Had the Palestinians at any time from 1948 on achieved statehood, Israel would likely not be at its present unfortunate pass.

What are we to make of this failure? It is certainly not for want of money, arms, or international political sympathy and support, which the Palestinians have reaped to an extraordinary extent. (What would a Kurdish nationalist give for a mere slice of the Palestinian pie?) Nor is it for want of territory. The Palestinians were offered half of the Palestinian Mandate in 1948 but refused it; and Arabs controlled the West Bank and Gaza from 1948 to 1967, yet no Palestinian political entity arose in either place, not even provisionally. Now Palestinians completely control Gaza, but rather than building a state there, they claim that they are under Israeli occupation.

The common explanation is that the Palestinians want a state encompassing the entire former Palestinian Mandate. But a more likely explanation is that the Palestinian national movement is not and has never been a national movement in the ordinary sense of the term. It was for a long time the vanguard of the Arab nationalist movement and is today the front line of aggressive Islamism. The establishment of a state is not the goal. The elimination of a foreign, non-Arab, non-Muslim entity in the Levant is.

Jonathan Keiler
Bowie, Md.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece sets forth a stark and arresting reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: democracy is paralyzing the Israeli government. Ehud Olmert’s words of peace and withdrawal have thus far led to no action. How can they, when one body of citizens, led by the pioneering settlers of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, claims that God will punish the Jews if they divide the holy land, while another sector of society, led by David Grossman, screams for immediate withdrawal? If Israel is to accomplish anything on the road to peace, it must find a way to square its democracy—the linchpin of its legitimate standing as a nation among nations—with its ability to enter into meaningful compromise with the Palestinians, while still safeguarding the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The answer is not easy, but as Jeffrey Goldberg reveals, it must come fast.

Jake Englander
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ehud Olmert may be inarticulate and lack vision, but I fundamentally disagree with Jeffrey Goldberg’s assertion that the “prime minister of Israel should be able to muster an argument for the necessity of his country.” Is there any other country in the world whose leader is subject to this demeaning test? Let’s just pick a few of the B’s: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina. None of them were independent states in 1948. Are their leaders ever asked to muster such an argument? When the “necessity” quiz is applied everywhere, then we can start critiquing Olmert’s answer.

Ron Fein
Arlington, Mass.

Cosby’s Crusade

Contrary to what Ta-Nehisi Coates writes (“‘This is How We Lost to the White Man,’” May Atlantic), I Spy was not the first weekly show to feature an African American in a lead role. Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams Jr., Tim Moore, and Ernestine Wade were the ensemble black cast of a comedy called Amos ’n’ Andy (1951–1953). Ethel Waters, Louise Beavers, Butterfly McQueen, and Ruby Dandridge were principal players in Beulah (1950–1953).

Rich Forman
Van Nuys, Calif.

On one level, many comparisons can be made between jazz and hip-hop and their respective impacts on black culture. I can even recall an interview on The Arsenio Hall Show (if I may date myself) where Quincy Jones compared his son’s boyhood love of hip-hop to his own childhood love of bebop (an earlier style of jazz). Sounds nice, but on every other level, this comparison is bogus and may in fact reveal something about what Cosby is saying. Just think for a minute about the thousands of hours it takes to learn to play and master an instrument, the relationship between the teacher and the student, the mentoring of a young musician on the road by older musicians, the sacrifices to find time to practice and play. In short, discipline and respect. I don’t think Cosby is blind to the parallels between his arguments about hip-hop and those made in the past about jazz, I just think he has a point.

Chris Cordone
Los Angeles, Calif.

Ta-Nehisi Coates replies:

I’d like to say to Chris Cordone, simply, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Take it from someone who, in his deluded younger years, did indeed try—hip-hop is a lot more complicated than rhyming couplets and stolen drum riffs. I’d ask you to spend some time with a few gems (Nas’s Illmatic or De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising are good starts) and a few stinkers (just turn on BET or your local pop-rap radio affiliate), and then form an opinion. I would not, from a mere sample of Kenny G or even John Coltrane, make any broad statements about jazz. Those of us who were shaped by hip-hop are only asking the same.

Back to the ’70s

We agree for the most part with Ross Douthat’s cultural analysis of current film trends (“The Return of the Paranoid Style,” April Atlantic) as harking back to the suspiciousness of the 1970s, but one recent film was overlooked, perhaps because it did not fit the contemporary mode of the films discussed in the article.

Like Tears of the Sun, the film 300 is an outlier that runs counter to the ’70s‑throwback hypothesis. In 300, we see freedom-loving Occidental men standing for vaguely democratic self-governance against what can only be described as a mob of swarthy foreign invaders directed by a megalomaniacal religious fanatic intent on subjugating or destroying the birthplace of Western ideology. Even the sacrifice made by the 300 Spartans is made to seem glorious compared with the empty and treacherous temporary victory of the Persians.

Where does 300 fit, in Douthat’s paradigm? The film was a box-office success, and it was attacked by many cultural critics for promoting prejudicial attitudes toward Middle Easterners, fostering a spirit of warmongering, and glorifying the kind of masculine violence Susan Faludi predicted.

Seth Tomko and Jenny Zimmerman
Macon, Ga.

Ross Douthat replies:

Seth Tomko and Jenny Zimmerman are correct: the Spartans-versus-Persians battle royal in 300 is an interesting case, and one that would have been worth touching on in my essay. As they point out, the movie can be read as a cartoonish war-on-terror allegory, so in that sense it’s an exception to my thesis. But it’s an exception that suggests contemporary Hollywood is comfortable siding with the West only when the West in question—in this case, a video-game version of ancient Sparta—is remote both from our own era and from reality itself. In this regard, it’s worth contrasting 300 with Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, a film whose contemporary resonances were more explicit, and whose politics, as a result, were much more in keeping with the paranoid style, casting Christian fanatics as the only villains of the story.

Polarization vs. Partisanship

The title and subtitle of Matthew Yglesias’s piece, “The Case for Partisanship” and “Why polarization is good for us” (April Atlantic), are at odds with each other. It’s vitally important to keep the two distinct.

Yglesias is right in saying that political scientists, unlike the average American voter, like political parties. Parties are efficient mediums for translating preferences among voters into public policy: vote Party A and get more social welfare, vote Party B and get lower taxes. When members of Congress routinely break ranks, it is hard to know what you’re getting when you vote for Party A. Partisanship as “party discipline” is unproblematic, and most democracies have much more of it than America does.

But polarization is different. Many issues demonstrate how polarization precisely fails to translate public wishes into policy. Abortion is one. Most Americans reluctantly support legal first-term abortions. But we are stuck with one party that wants to ban abortion entirely and another that wants to keep it legal until shortly before birth.

Parties in other Anglo-Saxon democracies have, since the end of the Cold War, been mostly de-ideologized, and they compete for the middle, floating voter: think of Britain’s market-friendly New Labour and its newly gay- and environment-friendly Conservatives. But in America, gerrymandering, the primary system, the power of lobby groups, and the lack of publicly financed elections are systemically pushing the parties apart ideologically. Add in opportunistic behaviors, like the cynical use of race, religion, and patriotism as wedges, and you have the polarization—not mere partisanship—that infuriates the centrist and sensible average American.

Robert Lane Greene
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Matthew Yglesias replies:

Robert Lane Greene draws an important distinction between the coherence and discipline of the parties (what he calls “partisanship”) and the ideological and emotional distance between them (what he calls “polarization”). These are, indeed, separate phenomena, and their merits deserve to be considered separately. My intention was to defend rising coherence—and the decline of the cross-party deal maker as the central figure in American politics—as an overall beneficial development.

The Decline of the English Language?

I read B. R. Myers’s piece with my usual appreciation for his style and erudition (“Keeping a Civil Tongue,” April Atlantic). Even so, I must nitpick. Myers writes, “Prophets are always choosy about their followers; Jesus spoke in parables so the multitude would not be saved.” With all due respect, this is completely wrong: Jesus spoke in parables specifically to reach his largely illiterate audience. He compressed some fairly tricky (and often unprecedented) theological concepts into stories that every single one of his listeners could understand. I’d ask Myers to pick a parable at random, read it to a group of third-graders, and watch easy, unforced comprehension spread like sunlight. The parables are effectively inclusive; that’s their singular and immortal beauty.

Steve Donoghue
South Boston, Mass.

In his review of Ian Robinson’s new book, B. R. Myers makes a minor point that constitutes a serious distortion of U.S. history and deforms contemporary debates over immigration. Myers observes that “many immigrants ... now refuse to learn more than a little transactional English,” revealing that “an economic community is all they want to be part of” (emphasis mine). Insofar as Myers’s now purports to signify that something important has changed, he couldn’t be more wrong.

Immigrants to these shores have always been a diverse lot, of course, and so have their motives, but since the beginning, economic opportunity has been the major component of America’s attraction—even for those who came for more-idealistic reasons as well. Most immigrants remained more comfortable using their mother tongue and lived in virtually homogeneous urban neighborhoods or rural communities where very little English was needed. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were published by the hundreds in Yiddish, German, Russian, and a dozen other languages.

Commitment to something richer and more valuable than mere economic advancement was what distinguished strong families and communities from the larger society. Indeed, their integrity was to a large degree bound up with their reluctance (or inability) to fully assimilate, and it was often their rapidly assimilating children who became associated with urban problems, from delinquency to cosmopolitan anomie.

The irony is not, as Myers contends, that pluralism will undermine prosperity. It is that the drive for upward mobility will erode cultural and linguistic pluralism, profoundly weakening a host of less durable but important values along the way. If anything, English is more hegemonic now than ever. If young aspirers from Seoul to New Delhi to Bucharest to Beijing are eager to learn English, you can be sure that their counterparts here will eventually do so, too.

John H. Haas
South Bend, Ind.

B. R. Myers replies:

I humbly refer Steve Donoghue to Mark 4:11–12, in which Jesus says he speaks to “them that are without … in parables: That … they may hear, and not understand, lest at any time they should be converted.” John Haas makes some excellent points, but I still think things have changed. I mean not just the recent increase in the number of U.S. citizens (a triple-fold one in some states) who speak no English, but also the general assumption that the government must serve them in their languages: this is new. So-called Global English will carry the day, all right, but among the many languages and value systems it will erode will be our own. Belonging to everyone, “the world’s language” belongs to no one; there is no national soul in the sterile thing. I’d rather speak Korean.

Editors’ Note:

The caption on page 79 of the April Atlantic should have stated that millions of people, not millions of pedestrians, are estimated to cross Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge each day. We regret the error.