Israel, Palestine, and the Extreme Activist

I wasn’t going to say anything. I was going to keep my mouth shut. I’ve heard too much dogmatic stupidity on both sides of the issue to invite those responses once again.

But then #HitlerDidNothingWrong trended on Twitter yesterday thanks to some “peace activists.”

Now, let me first get a few things out there. The way Israel treats Palestinians is abhorrent. That a people in the 21st century are treated without rights and dignity is a stain on the world’s consciousness. That Israel and the United States oppose Palestinian statehood, despite the vast global consensus, is embarrassing. The disproportionality of violence is nothing short of brutal. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are indefensible and a clear affront to peace. Netanyahu is a thug, seemingly unwilling to compromise. The embargo is another brutal way of subjugating Palestinians to a lower class. And my own government’s fervent support of Israel is troubling, if not just flat out confusing.

Now, here’s the thing. I get all of this. I am the first to defend the Palestinian cause, and I have done so in many an argument. I can’t stand extremism, and I have definitely seen it on the Israeli side. But all that being said, I have seen extremism on the other side of things. I have heard some of the most ridiculous comments regarding the Holocaust, Jews, and Israel that I have had to come to the defense of the state of Israel.

This recent trending of #HitlerDidNothingWrong shows some of the problem. Yes, I know it’s definitely not representative of most Palestinians who are just interested in peace. But this extremism is still there. Anti-Semitism still exists (a Parisian synagogue was firebombed just yesterday), as does a refusal to accept a Jewish state. And I’m not convinced that some of these notions are not present among Palestinian leadership and neighbouring Arab states. We all remember the three no’s of the Khartoum Resolution (no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it).

I have a lot of trouble with anyone on either side of a debate that is unable to see the other perspective. There is a lot of that with Palestinian supporters. For all of the people calling for a stop to Israeli aggression, there is a seeming inability to recognize the impossible situation that Israel is put in and an inability to recognize the dangerous actions of Hamas.

Israel has a right to exist. Everyone needs to start there. It follows, then, that if Israel has a right to exist and all of its neighbours have some deep-rooted animosity towards it, the country is in a pretty precarious position. Israel has been on the receiving end of many unprovoked attacks. How is it supposed to respond? Can you really blame Israel for building up its military and seeking assistance from the world’s most powerful country? What else is it supposed to do?

Then you have Hamas. Many of those calling for a stop to Israeli aggression don’t really seem to grasp what Hamas is doing. Let’s look just at today. A ceasefire was brokered by Egypt. For six hours Israel halted its attacks on Gaza. Hamas, however, sent dozens of rockets into Israel, seriously disputing the notion that if only Israel would stop attacking Palestine, there would be peace.

While there is obviously thousands of years of history and complications, this recent flare-up of violence can largely be blamed on Hamas. Three Jewish teens were recently found killed in Palestine. In response, Israel arrested some suspects. A Palestinian teen was also brutally murdered by some Israelis in “response” to the killing of those three teens. In response to the arrests of these murder suspects, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets into Israel.

Again, what is Israel supposed to do?

What is especially frustrating about Hamas is that it benefits from Israeli attacks. Nothing draws more support for Hamas than when Israel starts bombing Palestine. They use their rocket attacks to draw Israel into a conflict. Hamas is never going to win a military battle against Israel, but they can gain popular support by putting Palestinians in danger. It doesn’t justify Israel’s disproportionate response, but what I am saying is that Hamas is not benign. They have a lot of responsibility in this, which the pro-Palestinian crowd is typically reluctant to admit. To them, Israel is bad and that’s the end of the story.

All of this leads me to be very pessimistic about the whole situation. If the end goals of the two sides are very different, how is peace even possible? Extremists on the Israeli side (which, sadly, are those in power) are not about to give Palestinians full rights in a unified and fully democratic state, just as they are not willing to compromise on a two-state solution when they are busy settling the West Bank. So in that way, the end goals are not the same. And similarly, Palestinian leadership does not seem interested in letting Israel exist peacefully as a Jewish state. If they did, they would not break today’s ceasefire, launching rockets at Israeli cities in an unwinnable and ideological war.

While I am definitely a huge critic of Israeli foreign/domestic policy, I have just become increasingly annoyed at those I am supposed to agree with. Among this group, I have noticed a reluctance to criticize Palestinian/Arab leadership and the role that they have played in this conflict. As well, there is a reluctance to accept the difficult position that Israel is in. There is either a naive utopian vision where, if only Israel would lay down its arms everything in the Middle East would be better, or a much darker vision, where Israel is not a part of the Middle East picture at all. This is troubling, as Israel is the most democratic and functional state in the region (something the anti-Israeli crowd again doesn’t want to admit).

I don’t have a solution to the conflict. All I know is that Israel is acting unjustly, and Palestinians are, once again, at the disproportionate end of violence. What I also know is that smart enough people who criticize Israel are, for whatever reason, often unable to criticize Hamas and the role that Palestinians have in this recent violence. While it’s easy to just say that everything is Israel’s fault, that ignores the reality and complexity of the situation. People getting killed is a terrible tragedy, and until all of us step back from dogmatic extremism, people will continue to die. That means that pro-Israelis have to accept the plight and rights of the Palestinian people. And it also means that pro-Palestinians have to accept Israel’s place in the world and support leadership that actually seeks peace.

Pope Francis

I am not Catholic, nor do I have any great affection for the Church as a powerful institution. And yet, I, like many others, find myself fascinated by the new pope. Elected just over one year ago, Pope Francis has been making headlines as a radical and progressive figure.

From day one, it was clear that Francis’ papacy would be different. Choosing to be named after Francis of Assisi, the new pope clearly wanted to show a new face of the Church – a face of the poor. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his wealth for poverty, is a striking example of simple living and the acceptance of all.

Pope Francis takes this simplicity to heart, ditching the papal Mercedes in favour of a 1984 Renault 4. He also dresses more simply than his predecessors and lives in a guesthouse instead of the more luxurious papal apartments.

The pope also made news by, for the first time, including women in a Holy Thursday ceremony. The ceremony’s location – a prison – was also a first. There, he washed the feet of 12 men and women, two of whom were Muslim. In a different visit to Muslim migrants who had illegally landed in Italy, Pope Francis showed his compassion, saying, “We are a society that has forgotten how to cry.”

His inclusiveness, his humility, and his unrelenting championing of the poor have given him universal appeal, from Catholic to non-Catholic and from believer to non-believer. But it is perhaps Francis’ input into economics where he will have his biggest impact.

He is an outspoken critic of unchecked capitalism, calling it a tyranny that results in the cult of money. It is not that money is wrong; money is, after all, inherently neutral. But it is the idolatry of money that is wrong – something brought about in capitalist economies. Furthermore, Francis recognizes how unchecked capitalism results in huge disparities of wealth. Critics, such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, have pounced, calling Francis’ concern over income inequality “Marxist.” If you’re upsetting the likes of Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably doing something right.

Pope Francis has made the rich uncomfortable, calling into question the morality of living so lavishly while others cannot afford to eat. And yet he, unlike anyone else, might be best able to enact political change. In Washington, conservative leaders have taken Francis’ words seriously. Newt Gingrich said that the pope “may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.” While the Church has been a traditional ally of conservatives, Francis’ downplaying of divisive social issues and prioritizing of social justice may play an important role in making the GOP more tolerant.

While Vatican talk of humility and service to the poor has often been met with accusations of hypocrisy, one cannot help but feel a sense of sincerity emanating from Pope Francis. Despite the power and wealth of the Holy See, here is a pope who reportedly sneaks out at night to minister to Rome’s homeless community. He does not want to change the Church into something it is not; Francis is simply re-orienting it more closely to Christ-centred teaching. Gay marriage should not be the world’s top priority, but the economic needs of all people should be.

When you really stop to think about it, Francis’ appeal is simple: he is acting in the likeness of Jesus. It is infectious, and should be a model for every Christian. At the end of the day, Francis is only human. But better than any pope before him, Pope Francis is giving the world an insight into the heart of Jesus. Which leaves me with a very basic conclusion: if you like Pope Francis, you’ll really love Jesus.

the president of zimbabwe

Originally posted on travel hard:

Because the United Nations is completely impartial, for the past six months I have had to do my best to hold my tongue on matters of Zimbabwean politics. But now that I am no longer employed by the UN, I feel the need to share some of my thoughts on the notorious Uncle Bob.

In short, Robert Mugabe is terrible. This much is pretty well accepted universally. While I have heard some people defend him in some bizarre attempt to appear trendy and different, everyone else rightly sees Mugabe as the thug that he is. Still, I think it’s worth talking about him and the things that he has done.

What’s interesting about Mugabe is that he used to be held in high regard by the international community. He was considered for the Secretary-General of the UN the year that Kofi Annan was appointed instead. He also received many awards and honours (before they were…

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GDP Turns 80

Tasked with estimating the income of the U.S., in 1934 Simon Kuznets developed the prototype for Gross Domestic Product (GDP). First used to help increase production during WWII, GDP is now the single most important economic indicator. It is assumed that an increase in GDP benefits everyone; therefore, its growth should be the primary focus of policy.

This is despite Kuznet’s own warnings that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Later, in 1962, he criticized the scope of GDP’s use, saying, “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth.”

As GDP turns 80 this year, it is worth questioning why we measure our economy this way. It is a topic of great interest to me, and I wrote my Master’s thesis (available here) on the topic. But I’ll just make some summative points here.

Namely, GDP growth is wrongly assumed to translate into increased societal well-being. (And yes, well-being can be measured accurately, but I won’t go into those details here.)

Take a look at how GDP growth in the U.S. compares to American life satisfaction.

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This is really the crux of the problem. People are no more satisfied with their lives despite huge advancements in the GDP of the country. The same is true in Canada and other developed nations.

Understanding that well-being and GDP do not correlate (in developed nations), we come across two main issues. First, there is a measurement issue. At the end of the day, the point of economic activity is to improve people’s lives. We want to “grow” the economy because we want to improve the way we live. We want increased well-being. But if we focus on a faulty metric that has no bearing on well-being, we are not measuring real progress. Included in GDP are many things we would not consider “good.” The costs of cleaning up an oil spill, hiring lawyers for divorce proceedings, going to war, increasing debt, smoking cigarettes – these all cause GDP to rise. Whereas air quality, poetry, leisure time, and community are not reflected in GDP and are therefore worthless. Only that which can be obtained in the market is given any value.

A multitude of alternative measurements have already been developed, including the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). GPI, and other measurements like it, take into account a wide variety of indicators that influence well-being, including pollution levels, leisure time, governance, and so on. These alternative indices more accurately reflect meaningful societal progress. Developing a superior alternative to GDP is not the problem; the problem is the political will to use such a measurement.

The second issue is that the measurement of an economy affects the direction and priorities of an economy. The famous economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi note that, “What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things.” In other words, changing what we measure changes what we do. If a History teacher began to grade her students’ essays only on their spelling, you would no doubt create students highly proficient in spelling with a low knowledge of history. The nation of Bhutan recently switched from GDP to GNH – Gross National Happiness. And while we can debate how much “happier” the people of Bhutan are today, it has undoubtedly altered the direction of the Bhutanese economy.

People are no happier than they were fifty years ago because they are pursuing the wrong goals. Research can tell us the factors that contribute to well-being – marriage, social relationships, employment, perceived health, religion, quality of government, etc. – and the factors that detract from well-being, including the pursuit of money and material possessions. Unfortunately, societal pressures encourage people to pursue the latter goals, and people are no happier as a result.

Now, I can already hear people criticizing this as subjective. If someone want to buy a Ferrari and work 70 hours a week, who am I to say that that is wrong? People should be free to pursue their happiness as they see fit.

My response is this: not everything is subjective and value relative. Wine is superior to crack, and I can make a strong argument to back this up. Academia in the past few decades has stopped promoting what it sees as the good life, and has instead treated everything as equal. This is a mistake. And while policymakers should not dictate what they believe is good, they can and should – based on evidence – push and encourage society in a direction that leads people to a better life while still respecting individual rights and freedoms. Modern liberal societies already do this. For instance, smoking is heavily taxed, the arts are highly subsidized, and marriage is a legal contract. Governments – and, by extension, the electorate – are making value judgements about what is good. And while mistakes can be made, the principle is not wrong.

I am making claims about well-being because they are proven and objective, not simply subjective matters of opinion. Having a strong relationship with your family is not better than buying a new house just because I say so. Years of research have proven it to be true (you can read my paper for actual citations and proof). Studies have shown that the pursuit of money and material possessions simply do not make people any more satisfied with their lives. What, then, is the point of pursuing them with such ideological fervor?

We do not want a society like the one illustrated in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where citizens are content but deprived of their autonomy. People’s satisfaction with their lives cannot be the ultimate and singular indicator of how society is doing. But still, there is something to be said for the importance of well-being, and the fact that it has gone down while GDP has gone up should give us some cause for concern. In a country where all of our basic needs (and then some) have been met, there is no longer a point in focusing efforts on GDP growth. We need to measure our economy differently in order to a) measure progress more accurately; and, b) focus societal goals on what actually improves people’s lives. Dumping GDP can get us there.

More From Veterans Affairs

Since my previous post on Canada’s Shabby Treatment Of Its Veterans, not much has changed. In fact, veterans have seemed to have just gotten angrier.

And it’s with good reason. A group of veterans that came to Ottawa to lobby against office closures felt disrespected after a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino went off the rails. He showed up late, didn’t listen to them, and was generally rude. Let me emphasize that this is the Veterans Affairs Minister. And although Stephen Harper is trying to suggest that service is better under this government, Thomas Mulcair is right in saying that these vets are “not in Ottawa to shake hands.” They’re mad, which is pretty evident in watching any of the videos attached to these two news stories.

It seems to me that the government should be moved by this. Veterans Affairs exists to serve veterans. So if you’re completely pissing them off, maybe change course. Maybe listen to the people you are pretending to serve. Don’t stand up in the House of Commons and suggest that veterans are actually better off, because that is clearly not how veterans see it.

Amidst all of this has come another frustrating story. Just two days after the funeral of a Canadian veteran who committed suicide, the government sent a notice to the deceased’s husband, informing him that he owed almost $600. This because Veterans Affairs “overpaid” his wife’s benefits since she did not live the full month of December.

Canada’s Shabby Treatment Of Its Veterans

Let me be frank here. Saying you “support the troops” is not the same as actually supporting the troops. Sorry, but wearing a red tie to work or putting a bumper sticker on your car is not “support”. You know what is supportive? Criticizing this ridiculous government for its treatment of veterans.

If anyone cares enough to look into the issue, there are countless ways that the Harper Government™ is treating the country’s veterans like garbage. Here are some examples.

Canada has a Veteran’s Charter, which was overhauled in 2011. You would think that overhauling something would, you know, make it better. But it didn’t. Under the new Charter, severely disabled veterans will have their benefits cut off at 65. For many severely disabled veterans, this all but ensures their living in poverty. The Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, also says that the new lump-sum payments that replaced pensions in the new Charter are inadequate. And compensation for pain and suffering is somehow less than what Canadian courts award for personal injury. Figure that one out. If I lost a leg in a car accident, I would receive more compensation in court than a soldier who lost a leg from a land-mine in Afghanistan would receive from the government.

Plus there’s all of the cuts. Nine Veterans Affairs offices are to be closed by February, and 25% of Veterans Affairs workforce are planned to be cut by 2015. More services are being moved online, which makes perfect sense for the 90-year-old veterans that stormed Juno Beach. What this means is that veterans can call Service Canada and talk to employees who have no particular knowledge about veterans’ programs. Or they can travel as far as 1,100 kilometres to the nearest remaining Veteran Affairs office.

Now, the cuts are of course defended because of the decreasing number of WWII and Korean veterans. But there are still 680,000 veterans (plus current military) in Canada that did not serve in WWII. Many veterans need one-on-one service, not over-the-phone bureaucracy. And if so many veterans are against the closures and protesting against it, shouldn’t that tell us something?

Then there’s the government’s attempt to scale back military pensions. Then there’s the critic of the Veteran’s Charter who had his personal information leaked by Veteran’s Affairs. Then there’s the plan to honour Afghanistan veterans that was scrapped. Then there’s the veterans who are booted from the military just before pension eligibility. Then there’s the fact that only 28% of money budgeted for the Last Post Fund (funding for funerals of impoverished veterans) actually gets spent. This followed the revelation that the fund rejected 67% of requests that it received. (Fun fact: Canada provides funerals for convicts that can’t afford it, but veterans have to rely on this fund.) Then there’s the smear campaigns against veterans who dare to criticize the Conservative Party.

But perhaps the most egregious example of the Conservative Party’s neglect is its flat-out rejection of the Canadian government’s long-standing promise to care for wounded soldiers. This is a promise that Prime Minister Robert Borden made in 1917, just before the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He stated:

You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.

The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.

But Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party argue that this no longer applies. The government, in other words, is no longer bound to care for soldiers wounded in combat.

The Conservatives are so cemented in this morally bankrupt position that they tried to have a class-action lawsuit from veterans of the war in Afghanistan thrown out of court. This lawsuit claims that the government has a duty to care for veterans. When throwing out the lawsuit failed, the government instead launched an appeal. They argue that this promise to care for veterans should not bound the current government. 

I’m sorry, but if the government sends you to war, they cannot then decide to abandon you. There is a moral and social obligation. And whether or not the Conservatives are legally right is not at all the point. The point is that they don’t much care for treating veterans with dignity and respect.

It just doesn’t make sense. For a government that wasted so much money trying to commemorate the War of 1812, why does it dismiss the actual people involved in war? Why try to make Canadians care about a two-hundred-year-old war while not caring about Canadians in war? I know that this Conservative government has its priorities mixed up, but that’s taking it to a whole new level.

I am the furthest thing from a war supporter. But if your government put you into combat, that same government has a moral duty to take care of you when your body or mind gets injured. Unfortunately, 400 Canadian veterans die in poverty every year. Our government loves photo-ops and cheap talk. But the way it actually treats veterans in this country is an absolute travesty. Something a lot of “supporters” fail to admit.

the maids

Originally posted on travel hard:

The UN requires its staff to have a certain level of security in their homes. They won’t let you live somewhere in Harare if it doesn’t have a gate, electric fence, guard, and so on. So, partly because of this and partly because our dollar just goes farther, I live in a pretty nice place. It is a house of four people, and so long as one is okay with sharing the space with others, it is a good arrangement.

When it came time to make an offer on the monthly rent (everything is negotiable), I offered a number a bit lower than the asking price. I also said that I would not require the services of the maid, as I am able to cook and clean for myself just fine. I was ready to accept the place no matter what; I did not really need the monthly rent to be…

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