Haneen Zoabi’s black and white argument

Haneen Zoabi, the Israeli Arab MK, writes a vitriolic piece for Comment is Free on the deportation of banned Israeli Raed Salah. I won’t go into the details – you can peruse the contents as you wish – but there was one point that particularly jarred.

She says: “There is no other meaning to a “Jewish state” except the recognition of the legitimacy of granting privileges to Jews in Israel at the expense of Palestinian citizens, annulling the legitimacy of our struggle for real democracy.”

So, question from the class. If there is “no other meaning” to a Jewish state than the denial of privileges to its non-Jewish citizens, what exactly would a Palestinian state amount to?

Presumably, by Zoabi’s logic, one which would inevitably entail “granting privileges” to Palestinians at the expense of those who are not Palestinian.

Which may well be what she wants, but it makes a mockery of her dream to see “democracy in our own land”.

If she truly believes that, when states are defined by one singular characteristic, they cannot still tolerate the characteristics of others within them, does she then also imagine that a Palestinian state would be the exception?

Or does she fall into that well-trodden trap of believing what is not OK when done by the Israelis is perfectly OK when done by anyone else.

If states can be viewed only in Zoabi’s starkly black and white terms – a prism of “all for one and none for the other” – what hope is there for peace and a two state solution at all?

Christine Largarde: Well done, little lady

Let’s discuss something that would never happen.

Say Mexico’s Agustín Carstens had been chosen as the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Would we have seen a nice graphic about other influential men?

Of course not. After all, there are just too many to count.

Nobody would even suggest it.

But The Times greeted Christine Largarde’s selection as Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s successor with oodles of praise for the new “First lady of finance” and a delightful sidebar of other “Women at the top”. Incidentally, all they could come up with was Hillary, Oprah, Angela Merkel and Irene Rosenfeld.

Well done, little lady, screamed this article and many others. You’ve overcome all the obstacles, risen against the odds.

You can wear a bra and still rule the world. You go girl.

Now, I’m well aware Lagarde is the first woman in charge of one of the post-war financial institutions. That is an achievement, and it’s not wrong to discuss the implications for the so-called glass ceiling.

Still. There’s no need to be quite so patronising about it.

There’s no need to mark the success of one individual, who happens to be female, by making her a poster child for every other successful woman out there.

Can’t we judge each one on their own merit, and acknowledge that just as some will succeed, others will fail. And that their gender has nothing to do with that.

Because if the glass ceiling had really and truly been smashed, we wouldn’t need a list of successful women just like Christine to illustrate it.

Circumcision: the phoney debate

Since I am one of four female siblings, introducing me to Judaism through a ceremony carried out at the age of eight days was not something my parents had to consider.

Seeing circumcision as something for Jewish parents to consider is a relatively recent notion. In the past, the Brit milah was as natural a step for the average Jewish family as lighting Shabbat candles or saying Kaddish for a loved one; an integral part of our heritage, the original covenant between man and God.

But we live in sceptical times. This chimes with Jews. Challenging accepted wisdom is one of Judaism’s greatest characteristics. Jews do like to debate. There are rules in debating, of course: times when you can intervene, limitations on heckling from the crowd etc. In a good debate, arguments are won on sound reasoning and hard evidence.

Come November, the people of San Francisco will have the chance to decide whether they want circumcision to be banned for males under 18, punishable with a fine or even a prison sentence.

In a country where religious freedom is not merely encouraged, but constitutionally inscribed, the idea of blocking parents from observing religious practice is bizarre. Individual states aren’t even able to ban the burning of the American flag.

This comment piece originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. Read the rest of it here.

New College: a degree from A Good University

Depending on who you talk to, the planned New College of the Humanities is the saviour of British education or its death knell.

To some, setting up a private college is a long-overdue move to put Britain back into competition with the diverse (and pricey) halls of academia across the Atlantic.

To others, it’s a step backwards, a return to a time when higher education was limited to the sons (not daughters) of the wealthy and entitled.

As a graduate, I, like most of the most disgruntled commentators on the subject, won’t be able to study at New College. Though my graduate status isn’t the biggest obstacle; I’m not sure where in my pockets I’d find the £18,000 fees.

But while I can understand the rage about the price, I can’t get too excited about the “controversial” news that the College will teach “exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London” at double the price. Because it’s only the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

If I were a student at the University of London, I’d consider myself unbelievably lucky to be able to study on a course deemed exemplary by a bunch of Britain’s brightest intellectuals – but not pay what they considered it to be worth.

Students are chuffed when a bottle of wine is on BOGOF at the supermarket. I’d say a half-price degree would merit at least a cheer.

But more importantly, I think the critics have resoundingly missed the point. It doesn’t really matter what the New Collge students learn. They could spend their days finger-painting and meditating, safe in the knowledge that the hefty fee thair devoted parents forked out for will net them A Degree From A Good University.

A university degree is – and has been for a long time – about the piece of paper at the end and also what logo is on that piece of paper.

Whatever the content of the course at Cambridge was, compared with the content of the course at the University of Nowheresville – even if the content was exactly the same – Cambridge is always going to look more impressive than Nowheresville on a CV.

Students, the savvy ones anyway, choose their universities based on prestige.

I’m sure there were plenty of universities around Britain with politics courses tailored to what I wanted to study, but one of my key considerations was how well my choice of campus would be regarded.

Place trumped course, because I knew few employees would be interested in the specifics of what I studied. I knew they’d care far more whether it was a Red Brick or a former poly.

New College could end up with a terrible reputation. If it does, the critics can pat themselves on the back and go away smug in the knowledge that education is not for sale even though a few fools spent a lot of money trying to buy it.

But if it does grow to rival Oxbridge or the Ivy League, applicants will want to go there because of that, not because of what they could learn when they get there. How many Oxbridge applicants study the module guides (except as interview fodder)? Most of them see Oxbridge, not any particular course, as the holy grail.

To answer Shakespeare, when it comes to higher education, there’s an awful lot in a name.

Education should be the point of university, but it’s never going to be, so long as league tables are published and universities focus on publicity and self-promotion at the expense of teaching.

Attacking New College for playing the system at its own game is not going to change that.

On Assad, Israel and external enemies

In his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky says it better than I ever could:

“Non-democratic regimes always need to mobilise their people against external enemies in order to maintain internal stability.”

It is undoubtedly terrible to think of the 20 people who were said to have been killed yesterday on the border between Syria and Israel.

Their deaths achieved nothing, not for Israel – once again the subject of international condemnation – not for the Palestinians and certainly not for the peace process.

Well, not nothing. Because there is someone for whom those deaths were not an unmitigated disaster.

At this point, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s involvement in yesterday’s border provocations remains the subject of speculation, although Israel’s Danny Ayalon seems clear that Assad and his forces encouraged a group of angry Palestinians to go and effectively poke Israel with a stick.

Even more curious than the fact that yesterday, hoards of protesters could find their way to the border without intervention from the Syrian police, is the fact that today those protesters are being sent home.

Clearly, the Syrian authorities could have stopped yesterday’s protests quite easily (Assad’s forces have shown themselves quite capable of stamping out dissent). Surprising, then, that they didn’t.

At this point, it’s still only speculation. But if you were in public relations, looking to advise a dictator who had allegedly authorised the butchering of 1,200 citizens in the space of three months, what would your suggestion be? Bearing in mind the West had already put their money where their mouth was with another despotic regime not far away.

At a guess, I’d say it would be to change the story. Find a new headline. Distract the media and take the heat off.

And what better way to do that than blame everyone’s favourite bogeyman.

Israel is responsible for the deaths, as any state is responsible for enemy casualties during a war. But Israel didn’t send those protesters there; in fact, Israel repeatedly warned that doing so would be viewed as a provocation, just as Britain would be wary of an invading army of angry Frenchmen approaching the border.

As I said, what happened was horrific. Not least, because imagine living in a country under a leader who would deliberately and willingly send his countrymen to a situation which could only ever end badly.