Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points

As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

One Week Later: Israel’s Right and its Responsibility

Written for the Emory Wheel:

Consider a hypothetical situation.

About a year ago, someone took a hammer to my kitchen window, leaving shattered glass strewn about the floor.

My family and I aren’t of retaliatory blood, so we swept up, replaced the panel, and put the incident behind us.

A few days later, we awoke to another mess. Our front lawn had been dug up, spilling dirt into the driveway and leaving the carcasses of daisies to shrivel in the sun. Again, we cleaned up quietly and went about our lives.

But it wasn’t long before my family couldn’t keep up with the damage.

We awoke each day to a new sordid surprise: paint scraped off of the side of our house; rain seeping through where roof panels had once sat; sewage pipes uprooted; damage with such consistency and such severity that the very foundation of our house began to rot away. Each time, we swept up the mess. Each time, we kept quiet.

You’re wondering: You allowed all this? You didn’t take legal action? You didn’t seek out the people who’d been carrying out an unprovoked assault on your home? It sounds, to you, absurd. Because it is absurd.

None of this happened to my family, nor to my home. My telling is diluted. In reality, the narrative was much worse.

Instead of a hammer, it was a rocket. Instead of a shovel, it was a rocket. Instead of a scraping tool, or an axe, or a jackhammer, it was a barrage of rockets. And instead of my family’s home, it was the schools and streets, playgrounds and homes of Israel’s southern region.

For anyone to live in constant fear that they may die by rocket fire seems a way of life unbefitting of the civilized.

It’s now been more than a week since Operation Pillar of Defense ended. We’ve had time to reflect. The regional conflict remains hazy and oft times complex – even impenetrable. But one thing is clear: Last week, Israel rightly defended itself against those who sought to bring its citizens into that shadow of constant fear.

Israel is not without profound, sometimes devastating flaws. It is a society whose legal statutes often pull from the norms of biblical antiquity; one which is deeply and continually invested in an occupation of the West Bank that poses threats to its own democratic principles and to its Jewish underpinnings; one with a system of government that proves inefficient time and again.

Because the Israeli government’s constituency extends far beyond the borders of the Jewish state, it has already begun to face criticism on these issues.

The era of a subservient global Jewish community has passed. These issues are difficult and important.

But the action that Israel took last week doesn’t fall under that umbrella of flaw. The sobering truth is that Israel’s use of force was warranted. Consider a concise sequence of events – a far cry, I hope, from the convolution of the news cycle:

Yielding to international pressure, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. The withdrawal granted Palestinians living in Gaza full power to assemble (by whatever means) its own governing body, its own internal legal systems, its own investments. A few months later, the people – whether by coercion or by choice – elected Hamas, who vowed to bring years of prosperity to Gaza.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. In its founding charter, it calls for the destruction of the Jewish people in the Jewish state.

Not a century ago, someone carried out a similar vision – a memory seared vividly into the collective psyche of the Jewish people. By absolutely no means is the Holocaust the basis for Jewish self-determination, but by all means is it a reason to shudder and recoil at Hamas’ words.

Since its ascent, Hamas has opted away from substantial investments in infrastructure or medicine. It hasn’t moved toward opening a robust competitive market. Instead, it has prioritized weaponry supplied in large part by its allies in the Iranian regime. Those weapons are katyusha and qassam rockets.

Hamas launches them from schools, mosques, and hospitals. The rockets land in Sderot, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon, Kiryat Malachi – Israeli towns where Israeli kids play on playgrounds and rush to shelter when their afternoons are pierced by warning sirens.

It’s easy to fall victim to certain western conceptions that compel us to view Hamas as a political opponent or ideological dissenter of Israel’s. But Hamas is not a righteous army of freedom fighters. Its militants are not “activists.” They are terrorists. Hamas does not protect its citizens. It plants fear in the hearts of both Israelis and Palestinians and dispatches the cursed and capable hands of death upon them.

Had my family taken action against simply the first act of aggression (the mere broken window) we would have been justified beyond doubt.

Israel has seen an average of three rockets per day over the last 11 years; more than 22 thousand pieces of burning metal crashing into small towns over the last year alone. Can you imagine even one rocket landing in your neighborhood – even one time?

I mourn for the infant whose only crime was serving involuntarily as a terrorist’s shield.

I thirst for a partner for peace who will cease to cloak itself in smoke and bullets. I pray that combatants in Gaza and in Israel will lay down their arms and labor for their own safety, their neighbors’ safety. But we aren’t there yet.

Last week, Israel carried out its obligation to unshackle Israelis from the chains of existential fear. In a heap of shattered glass, a hammer is not a valid partner for peace.

Barack Obama is Not Anti-Israel

Written for the Emory Wheel:

I hear the conversation everywhere.

Well, I suppose it isn’t so much a conversation as it is a statement. My Jewish friends say it all the time: “I’m voting for Romney because Obama doesn’t support Israel.” More often, the statement comes in a blunter form: “Barack Obama hates Israel.”

Each time, I cringe. Each time, I’m perplexed.

There is no nation on earth that this country, under this administration, supports more comprehensively and more fervently than it supports the State of Israel. Barack Obama does not hate Israel.

At a meeting in February 2011, the month’s U.N. Security Council president entertained a resolution condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank.

When more than 115 nations moved to pass the condemnation, only one delegate from one country raised her hand: American Ambassador Susan Rice. Because America’s status as a permanent member affords it veto-power (and as per the policy of Rice’s boss), the vote failed and the draft-resolution vanished from the international docket.

Last November, President Obama was recorded having what was meant to be an off-the-record conversation with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama told Sarkozy that the United States would “have to impose economic sanctions” if the September 2011 Palestinian bid for statehood went through. In a room bereft of TelePrompTers and absent of television cameras, the American president affirmed his support for policies of the Jewish state.

That same month, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro – a de-facto representative of and spokesperson for the Obama Administration– delivered a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In his remarks, he declared that “Israel is a long time democratic ally and we share a special bond.”

Shapiro went on to note that “some skeptics are questioning whether that’s enough of a reason to continue to spend hard earned American tax payer dollars on Israel’s security.” His rejoinder was frank: “We don’t just support Israel because of a long standing bond,” he said. “We support Israel because…ensuring Israel’s military strength and its superiority in the region is (critical) to regional stability and as a result is fundamentally a core interest of the United States.”

The cash sum that the United States spends on aid to Israel has increased steadily since Obama’s first year in office. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, in 2009, the administration spent about $2.81 billion on aid to Israel; in 2010, it spent about $3.04 billion; in 2011, about $3.49 billion. That’s an average eight percent increase in each of those three years – not to mention a 14 percent increase between the second and third years.

Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the second world war.

Obama has preserved and prolonged that commitment; his budget request for the 2013 fiscal year consists of $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, which includes $99.8 million specifically allocated to joint American-Israeli missile defense development.

President Obama has also sculpted American foreign policy to quell the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran. In his first appearance at the United Nations as president, Obama asserted that if Iran chose to “put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability…then they must be held accountable.”

He echoed such sentiments in comments during his 2010 and 2011 U.N. remarks. And just last month, he told delegates, “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” and vowed that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

And if Obama’s words speak, his actions scream. During the summer of 2010, Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which enacted severe penalties for companies who do business with the Iranian petroleum sector. And under the Iranian Transactions Regulations as amended by the Obama administration in March 2012, anyone involved in breaching said laws may be slapped with up to a $1 million fine or jailed for up to 20 years.

Last August, Obama signed yet another set of crippling sanctions against Iran. The law, according to the Wall Street Journal, “closes loopholes in existing sanctions law on Iran, and adds penalties…(and) broadens the list of available programs under which sanctions can be imposed on Iranian individuals and entities.”

A representative of AIPAC recently told me that these Obama administration policies are “the most severe sanctions the U.S. has imposed on any country – even the Third Reich.” Barack Obama does not empathize with the Iranian regime.

The Obama years have seen no adverse change in the way of American policy towards Israel; and yet, Obama’s stronghold on Jewish voters (who traditionally support Democrats overwhelmingly) slips from his grasp each day.

The president’s support among Jewish voters has dropped 19 percentage points since last election season, from 78 percent in 2008 to just 59 percent today.

Why is there a disparity between steps Obama has taken and the approval he’s gained? In truth, today’s underlying “tensions” between Israel and the United States amount to a handful of personal gripes between leaders, a series of ultimately trivial comments on West Bank settlements, and hyperbolic questions surrounding Obama’s ties to the Islamic religion.

These conditions have acted as a frustration in the realm of PR and messaging, but by no means have they given rise to a real shift in policy.

Every day, I hear it from close friends, in op-eds by billionaire Jewish donors, pervading the blogosphere: President Obama is anti-Israel; he exercises evasion in the face of the Iranian threat; his policies are crippling or harmful to Jews, Israelis, or Zionists. I respond to my Jewish friends in a voice that I hope will resound: Any such claim is a rash one, based on perceptions plagued by exaggerations and misreadings. We know anti-Israel; we have seen anti-semitism. President Obama embodies neither.

If you intend to support Governor Romney in this election because you believe that the top 2 percent of the American populace should see its taxes decrease, or that women should have their bodily decisions checked and regulated by wealthy men, or that immigration reform should begin by way of expulsion, I wish all the power to you. But if your allegiance to Israeli security is holding you back from casting your ballot for the Democratic ticket, it’s time to rethink your vote.

An Open Letter to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – For the Emory Wheel

Written for the Emory Wheel:

Dear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,

On Wednesday, you will speak before the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan. As you approach the stage, many of the world’s leading diplomats will rise from their seats and leave the hall. I have a proposal for how you might proceed.

I am a Jew. When I was in high school, realizing my own ignorance toward the Islamic tradition, I worked with a Muslim friend to start a Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

During the program, Jewish and Muslim teenagers in Los Angeles spoke candidly to one another. The overarching response was that of relief and satisfaction: we discovered that we have more in common than not.

I am, in American political parlance, a liberal. I believe that the government can serve an active and key role in the lives of its citizens.

But I find myself sifting through the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page and listening to Bill O’Reilly nonetheless, because I’m 18 years old; my views are malleable.

I don’t know all the answers. I have something to learn from the “other side.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad, I believe in the value of face-to-face interaction; I believe in engagement; I believe that those who disagree should pursue open discourse and that opinions serve best when heard, not when quelled.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, you do not.

Some will argue that the community of nations should lend you its spotlight if only to make known your inflammatory views and your toxic aspirations, your deplorable history and your frightening and ever-manifesting plans for the future. But those who walk out are right to walk out.

The Irish poet and cynic Brendan Behan was on to something when he noted that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” For you, Mr. Ahmadinejad, I propose an apt and only slightly inverted iteration of Behan’s adage: for lethal dictators – for you – there’s no such thing as bad publicity, period.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, the United Nations first lent you its lectern in September 2005. Less than a month later in Tehran, you delivered a speech during which you made clear, for any remaining doubters, your views regarding the modern State of Israel and your wish for its inhabitants. “Our dear Imam (the Ayatollah Khomeini) said that the occupying regime (Israel) must be wiped off the map,” you declared, “and this was a very wise statement.”

When you were invited to speak again at the General Assembly in 2006, you pressed other member states, “Who, or what organization defends the rights of the oppressed, and suppresses acts of aggression and oppression? Where is the seat of global justice?” – implying that such values aligned with yours.

In your speech in 2007, as debate over your country’s unstable and misguided nuclear program escalated, you proclaimed that “the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed,” blocking any remaining diplomatic options.

Last year, granted time and audience on a seventh occasion, you asserted that world powers “still use the Holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay (a) fine or ransom to the Zionists.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad, you don’t seek “the seat of global justice”; you murder Iranians who don’t share your religious ideology and you actively support Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip and savage brutality.

Your abandonment of civil discussion over your nuclear program has isolated you further and further from the community of nations and only amplified suspicion. And, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the systematic murder of six million Jews was not, is not, and will never be an excuse for anything.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, the United Nations – be it effective or impotent, productive or gridlocked – is our stage for compromise.

Such compromise necessitates concessions on both sides; your sides seem limitless and your concessions are imagined. With you, there is no middle ground. For you, there is no rationality. To you, we grant no credibility.

We have heard enough; we know what you are going to say; we have no need to hear it again.

We have treaded beyond compromise. We have moved beyond listening. You, Mr. Ahmadinejad, never considered either. I’ve seen what you’ve done to your own people. I’m tired of hearing your plans for mine.

On Wednesday, where will I be? In synagogue, for the holiday of Yom Kippur, repenting for my sins, seeking to change my ways, and begging forgiveness of my Creator. At that formidable lectern, I suggest you do the same.

But There is No Peace – Why the Mideast “Peace Process” Needs to End

It was at my Uncle Mark’s fourth grade parent-teacher conference in 1970 that my Bubbe and Grandpa began to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mark had brought home his Chapter 2 math test, pressed with a ripe, shiny “78%.” There had been no teacher’s note, no call home, no indication that Mark had been struggling. The C+ wasn’t a failing grade, but it certainly signaled a fundamental misunderstanding of the material at hand. Why, my grandparents wondered, was there such a glaring lack of constructive follow-up?

By the time the conference came around, my Grandpa – whose charming frankness has bolstered a long career in business – was prepared to leave any sense of evasion at the door.

“Why did my son get a C on the last math test?” he asked Mr. Johnson.

The teacher explained that math grading was on a numerical basis, and the test had been worth a total of fifty points. Mark had scored thirty-eight of them, a C+. “We just present the material,” Mr. Johnson told my grandparents, “It’s up to the students to grasp it.” The teacher, it seemed, viewed his own reasoning as sound and effective.

My grandparents, however, saw a stark and damaging problem – one that could lead easily to more severe problems: Mark hadn’t been asked to study again or re-take the test, nor had Mr. Johnson made an effort to remediate the lessons of which his student had demonstrated such misunderstanding. Mark had likely not been the only fourth-grader to perform at a sub-par level. And yet, the class had continued on to Chapter 3.

There was no mention, at that fateful conference, of either Israel or Palestine. When I hear my Grandpa recount the story, I imagine the walls of the room being plastered with alphabet posters, shelves stacked with The Wind in the Willows dioramas and sheets upon sheets of smudged cursive letters. Admittedly, never, upon hearing that story, have my thoughts turned to the Middle East.

Until last week, when I sat in the back of a jam-packed ballroom at the Beverly Hilton hotel. There, I listened as Shimon Peres, Israel’s celebrated and articulate president, addressed a crowd of hundreds of supporters of Los Angeles’s Jewish Federation. The moderator of the discussion asked Peres about Palestinian feelings of irrelevance. “Peace is a process,” Peres said, “not just a decision.” As I thought about that, my mind flashed to the parent-teacher conference. The following is where my mind wandered.

“Peace,” as an ideal, is Chapter 7, where all key figures – political entities, leaders, militaries, religious and societal groups – wear Mark’s shoes, hardly keeping hold of chapter two. Pushing them toward peace is akin to asking an out-of-shape toddler to swim the length of an Olympic pool. Peace, its very essence abstract, nondescript, and romanticized, connotes almost nothing concrete. By its nature, it is conceptual, not tangible. Its pursuit has propagated seasons of volatility, unrest, frustration, and regression on which the sun has yet to set.

In early 1775, on the eve of the birth of a nation that would become the world’s flagship demonstration of progressive thinking, one colonial leader conceded that the notion of “peace” was naïve – that his revolutionary brothers were better off acknowledging antagonism as an inevitable constant. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Patrick Henry told his compatriots, “But there is no peace.”

History dictates that diplomatic agreements in the Middle East serve to carry out specific regional tasks, almost never an inkling of broad, blanket “peace.” Camp David created a military and economic alliance between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Oslo curbed the First Intifada in 1993. The disengagement from Gaza was a step toward Palestinian independence, even if at the cost of Hamas’ rise. In each case, the ideal of “peace” fell victim to its abstract nature, instead moving toward a concrete, more humble, and feasible goal. Peace is too vague to attain.

When dignitaries allude to “peace in the Middle East,” they do so with an equivocal pseudo-idealism – a diplomatic irony of sorts. Any “necessity” for a peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an illusion. Reaching for peace is futile. The Middle East needs a stability process.

Stability begins with the agenda. A Palestinian government, Mahmoud Abbas wrote in his application for admission to the United Nations, would devote itself to continuing talks on “final status issues” once a state existed. In his purview, those constitute “Jerusalem, the Palestine refugees, settlements, borders, security and water.” But, through an Israeli lens, a comprehensive resolution will ride on negotiations that seek to rectify the Jewish state’s own distinct existential challenges, most of them demographic.

A “two-state solution” is achievable only where stability exists; stability will exist where the raging fires that are the above issues are quenched. If they continue to burn even after the allowance of Palestinian state, a two-state solution will not have been reached; rather, the region would take on a two-state existence with perpetual two-state troubles.

Suppose that the agenda for the stability process had room for only two issues. One must be a primarily Palestinian issue, one a primarily Israeli issue, and one that truly requires bilateral policy decisions. Those two issues – which, if resolved responsibly and with a necessary degree of compromise, could usher in the beginnings of regional stability in this era – are that of Palestinian national governance and Israel’s West Bank settlement policy.

There are those who call themselves “Palestinians” living in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank – a disunited constituency. In the aforementioned document, however, Abbas refers to the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

For the last several days, the towns on Israel’s southwest side have fallen prey to an incessant rocket barrage by terrorists. On Sunday afternoon, two of the weapons fell in Be’er Sheva; one struck a school, and the other a car parked just outside of a home.

Hamas governs Gaza. A separate parliamentary coalition governs Israel. Under whose sphere of influence do those terrorists fall? Which leader, which government, is responsible for punishing those who commit such egregious acts, for deterring Palestinians from carrying out future attacks? Indeed, another state will come – stability will come – once all Palestinians know whom to call “Mr. President.”

By no means are settlements in the West Bank the sole roadblock to peace, but building and extending them only further agitates an ever-agitated people. House renovations in East Jerusalem needn’t end, but the Israeli government’s slews of new housing projects continue to edge more and more deeply into the West Bank and, thus, into the collective Palestinian psyche.

There is a legal statute in many American cities that states that if two neighbors have lived by certain property lines for a number of years, those lines become the lawful boundaries – even if they weren’t originally articulated as such by city plans. If Palestine is to be, effectively, the West Bank, then, before the state is established, Israel must act as though those lines already exist, and, accordingly, stop preemptively infringing upon national sovereignty. As of now, Israel has the right to establish its own housing projects in the West Bank, but it also has the power to cease.

This conflict is rife with more perplexing contortions than is an Escher painting, more hidden crevices than the canyons of Yosemite. I would never claim that this is the one and only way to solve this. That would reflect an arrogance that could have unsafe repercussions in this debate. For those reasons, I don’t call this a plan for peace; it is merely a few steps that might lead to more stability in a world in which “there is no peace.” Bubbe and Grandpa were right: Where we are Uncle Mark, a stable region is Chapter 3.

The Force of Apathy – A Piece for the National Journal Sh’ma

As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:

Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”

The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.

Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.

That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.

I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.

Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is CNN.com; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.

That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.

Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.

It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.