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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, May 28, 2021

TGIF: About that "Real Estate Dispute" in Sheikh Jarrah

When the Israeli government describes the conflict over the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem as just a "real-estate dispute," it has a point. Palestinian families are at risk of eviction (and some have already been evicted) from homes they've lived in for many years so that Jewish settlers, many of whom were born in Brooklyn, N.Y., can move into them. This is being done on the basis of a 1970 law that permits Jews to acquire Palestinian properties that are said to have been once owned by Jews. Also, under a 1950s law, the Israeli government claimed the properties of so-called "absentee" Palestinians, even if those individuals displaced by war and other means were refugees living elsewhere in Israel.

Demonstrated solidarity with those besieged Palestinian families by worshipers in the Al Aqsa mosque and the Gaza Strip--and the Israeli military's (IDF) overwhelmingly destructive punishment--produced nearly two weeks of cruelty against the tiny (5-by-25-mile) and densely populated Gaza Strip, in which over 200 Palestinians, including about 70 children, were killed and many more wounded by the IDF, and about a dozen Israeli Jews were killed by Hamas projectiles. A ceasefire was reached and seems to be holding.

What's the actual story about this "real estate dispute"? To answer that question in a way I would be fully confident in I would need to undertake a long and costly research program. In lieu of that, I will rely--for the sake of discussion--on a narrative that seems plausible, though it will satisfy neither side's hardliners.

In other words, I will stipulate for this article that the government of Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, expelled, drove, and otherwise pressured Jews to leave their homes in the 1950s and allowed Palestinian families to move in. As I understand it, Jordan also forbade Jews from visiting Jerusalem sites they regard as holy, especially the Western Wall. I do not defend those policies.

For the record, I note that Jordan was not an antagonist of Israel when the the self-identified Jewish state declared its independence in territory containing many Palestinian Muslims and Christians in May 1948. On the contrary, Israel and Jordan (then Transjordan) colluded to deny the Palestinians an independent state by dividing Palestine between them. Israel would get what the UN General Assembly had recommended for the Jewish state (55 percent)--in fact by the end of the "war of independence," it had expanded to 78 percent--and Jordan would get the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. (Egypt ended up in control of the Gaza Strip.) The secret Israel-Jordan agreement did not include Jerusalem, which the UN had recommended as an international city, under neither Jewish nor Palestinian control. Of course, Israel's 1967 war against Jordan and Egypt, among other Arab states, led to the current status of the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied territories"--although after almost 54 years, it is absurd not to see those lands as illegally annexed, if only de facto.

Here is how John Kunza of the website Jewish Unpacked, a Jewish publication that says it seeks to bring nuance to the Israel-Palestine controversy, describes Sheikh Jarrah:

In 1905, an Ottoman census that included Sheikh Jarrah and its surrounding areas found 97 Jewish families living in the area alongside 167 Muslim and six Christian families. Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jewish population was expelled from Sheikh Jarrah since the area fell on the Jordanian side of the new border.

Eight years later, in 1956, Jordan relocated 28 Palestinian families who were displaced during Israel’s War of Independence to Sheikh Jarrah. The move was approved by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and the organization stipulated that the families would be given ownership of their homes after three years which would then end their refugee status. The Jordanian government never did formally transfer over the property rights to the Palestinians.

By the 1950s Sheikh Jarrah had changed hands several times from Ottoman rule, to British Rule, to Jordanian rule, to Jordanian rule with assistance by UNRWA which was in part stipulating property rights in the area. By this time the Jewish population, which had been documented living there for thousands of years, had completely moved out or was expelled and a Palestinian population had moved in or was relocated to the neighborhood.

To complicate the story, Israeli-American Kalmen Barkin noted in an interview with Scott Horton that some of the homes of Jewish families before the founding of Israel were owned not by those families but by nonprofit Jewish organizations that then disbanded. I will ignore that because, while important, it is not relevant to the point I want to make here.

An overall account of  Sheikh Jarrah, of course, may not tell us the truth about the particular homes and land at issue right now. Al Jazeera sheds light on those homes here. In part, Al Jazeera states:

Israeli settlement groups said Palestinian families had built their homes on land owned by Jews before 1948 and that they must vacate these homes, but Palestinian cartographer Khalil Toufakji refuted those claims.

Toufakji said he found the land deed that negates any Jewish ownership of the area at the time after digging through the archives in Ankara 11 years ago.

I can't confirm or refute Toufakji, so I will tentatively accept the settlers' side in order to show that even their version does not get them where they want to go.

Taking Kunza's account at face value, it must be pointed out that many more than 97 Palestinian families were driven--by terrorism and outright massacres--from their homes not just in West Jerusalem but throughout what would become and then became Israel in 1947-48. During that time, some 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their land. At least 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed to make way for Jewish villages. In 1967 additional Palestinians were dispossessed. All of this and more later was done to "Judaize" the entire "land of Israel." Critics call this "ethnic cleansing," but the perpetrators and their defenders themselves used the Hebrew word for purify. Even right-wing Israel partisans, including historian Benny Morris, say that expelling the Palestinians was necessary for the creation of a Jewish state. (For details see Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. For my summary see Coming to Palestine.)

Here's the upshot: when Israel's partisans justify the evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, they prove too much from their own point of view. If, as they insist, Jews--any Jews--have the "right of return" to any land previously owned or occupied by Jews, then so must Palestinians have a right to return to land previously owned or occupied by Palestinians anywhere in the territory between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Rights cannot be applicable only to individuals of particular religious or ethnic. Today some Palestinians still have deeds and keys to homes they or their families were driven from in 1948. They have claimed a right of return or at least compensation, but Israeli law recognizes only a Jewish right of return. This is one reason that Israel, from the river to the sea, is increasingly described as one apartheid state dedicated to Jewish supremacy or domination. (See the recent reports from Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem, the Israeli human-rights organization.)

When we acknowledge that if a right of return exists, it must be applicable to all, then we can see at least the start of way out of the turmoil in Israel-Palestine: good-faith discussions among all the parties in which all disputed property claims are considered with respect and fairness.

I opened by saying that the Israeli government has a point when it describes the fight over homes in Sheikh Jarrah as a real-estate dispute. But it is not merely a real-estate dispute. It's much more because it is part of a decades-long comprehensive program to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the Palestinians from what Israel and the Israelis regard as exclusively Jewish land.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Hamas, Israel, and the United States

For obvious reasons, I cannot endorse Hamas's firing projectiles at residential centers in Israel. But if is wrong to terrorize Israeli noncombatants into changing their government's outrageous anti-Palestinian policies, then it must also be wrong for Israel and the United States to terrorize noncombatants into changing their rulers' policies, which those countries routinely do through sanctions and other, explicitly military ways.

One morality--one set of individuals rights--for all!

Friday, May 21, 2021

Discussing Israel-Palestine on Year Zero

 I discussed what's going on in Israel-Palestine on the Year Zero podcast. Have a listen.

TGIF: Biden Labor Department Undermines Gig Economy

Why should government at any level have the power to overrule how workers and companies define their relationships? This question has become more important than previously with the rise of the gig economy, in which workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers are regarded by their companies and themselves as independent contractors rather than conventional employees.

The Biden administration thinks the central government, not private parties, ought to set the rules no matter what those parties want. So his labor department has cancelled a Trump-era rule that left this decision in the private sector. Why? For the good of the workers. Or so we're told.

According to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, “By withdrawing the Independent Contractor Rule, we will help preserve essential worker rights and stop the erosion of worker protections that would have occurred had the rule gone into effect.... [T]oo often, workers lose important wage and related protections when employers misclassify them as independent contractors.”

Among said protections are the minimum wage and overtime compensation under the national Fair Labor Standards Act.

Walsh also says the gig economy is inconsistent with "the economic realities test and court decisions requiring a review of the totality of the circumstances related to the employment relationship.”

That is, individual freedom must take a backseat to judicial and bureaucratic rules that interfere with freedom of association. What are the grounds for that assertion?

Walsh seems uninterested in the attraction that gig jobs obviously have for those who opt for them over conventional employment. Gig drivers work when they want and have other leeway that hourly employees tend not have. Does Biden and Walsh not care if those attractions disappear when they ban the gig arrangement? How is that good for workers who would lose options they now have and willingly chose? Whatever benefits gig workers give up, they apparently prefer what they get in return. Every choice in life has trade-offs. It is classic arrogance and paternalism when bureaucrats claim to know better what trade-offs should be made and then force their will on others.

Walsh mercifully says that "in a lot of cases"--why not all cases?--gig workers should be classified as employees. But why should bureaucrats have the power to decide which cases those will be?

In 2019 the California legislature passed and the governor signed a law to make classifying workers as independent contractors tougher. Companies like Uber and Lyft managed to get a proposition on the 2020 ballot, and Californians voted 58 to 42 percent to exempt some workers, particularly drivers for companies like Uber, which claim they are technology companies not employers of drivers. In other words, they they provide not transport service but the technological infrastructure in which drivers and riders can find and coordinate with each other.

Technology stimulates innovations in the production and distribution of goods and services, innovations that by definition defy old forms. As long as innovative firms get no favors from the government, they must satisfy consumers to thrive. If the well-being of all concerned is the priority, we should reject a regulatory regime in which innovation requires the permission of bureaucrats before it can be tried. Do we really want bureaucracies overseeing our lives?

Keep in mind, also, that an innovation will often be opposed by people who are invested in the old ways to doing things. Taxi companies are notoriously protected oligopolies if not monopolies in most places. Existing companies enjoy shelter from competition; for example, often they can veto applications by aspiring competitors, making the limited number of existing licenses highly valuable. Gig firms challenge the old form by enabling riders and independent drivers (who may work for more than one company) to find each other through a mobile-phone app. This revolution in taxi service has been a hit with consumers, and people looking to make a living or to supplement their income seem happy to have the option.

Anyone who holds individual freedom as a priority will wonder why anyone of good faith would want to hamper such innovations.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Palestine/Israel Erupts Again

 In Coming to Palestine I defended, from a libertarian perspective, the Palestinians against Israeli/Zionist oppression. I am reluctant to repeat that case in a far shorter form here, but the horrendous current events throughout Palestine/Israel, including the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, cry out for comment. I can do no better than to link to Caitlin Johnstone's piece "Fifteen Thoughts on Palestine." It deserves careful reading.

I will add only a few thoughts. The mainstream criticism of the Palestinians, who object to being dominated by a settler colonial state, boils down to "But Hamas...." (This is not to say, of course, that all would be well if Hamas disappeared.) My answer to that objection is this: how long will take to learn that relentless oppression of a group breeds and nourishes the most violent ("extremist") faction of that group? If you want the violence-minded constituents not to rise to the top or to fade away, you must stop oppressing the group! Don't make violence appear to be the only alternative because all peaceful paths have been blocked.

Yet that is what Israelis and their bipartisan American-backers have consistently done for decades with their phony "peace process" and other subterfuge.

I don't like Hamas. Even though it has moderated its aims and has given signs of accepting of two-state solution, it's a far cry from having a libertarian orientation. For one thing, launching even its crude rockets toward civilians is wrong, however understandable. I attach that final phrase because many residents of the Gaza Strip are refugees from earlier expulsions perpetrated by pre-state Zionist paramilitary forces and then the Israeli military. One of the places where refugees were driven from is Sderot, which is a rocket target favored by Hamas. Still, I condemn targeting civilians.

That said, we must never forget who the aggrieved party is: the Palestinians, who were driven from land they had lived on and worked for generations--all for the sake of building a Jewish state. Let's also remember that at one time much Jewish opposition was expressed against the idea of a Jewish state in part because it would require mistreatment of the Palestinians. (Again, see my book.)

Finally, ceasefire talk is in the air, both from Hamas and the UN (and opposed by the Biden administration). Yet Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat says, "We don't think this is the right time for a ceasefire."

That's the worst thing a government spokesman or leader can say when that government is pulverizing essentially defense people. Keep in mind that under "normal" conditions the people of Gaza are treated worse than prison inmates, subjected to bad water, restricted food and medical supplies, and complete control over entry and exit by the Israeli military.

It's always time for a ceasefire, followed by real good-faith efforts to relieve the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere of the oppression they have suffered for so many years.

TGIF: FDA Targets Black and Other Minority Smokers

Just when we are reminded that unnecessary conflict between the police and the people, especially in poorer black communities, is a poison to be eliminated forthwith, the Biden administration has moved in the wrong direction. Late last month the administration signaled that it wants to ban menthol cigarettes, which are especially popular with black smokers.

"Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products," Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock said. "With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products."

For years the FDA had been pushed on this issue by a coalition of organizations, including some self-identified black advocacy groups, although other similar groups, along with the ACLU, have opposed the ban. The FDA has finally agreed to the ban. It will take time to put it in place because of the public-comment process.

Let's be clear on what is going down. The central government wants to stop certain minority smokers from indulging their preferences. That's paternalism pure and simple. Apparently blacks and others who prefer menthol smokes cannot be persuaded to stop, so they will have to be forced--for their own good. A far higher percentage of black smokers than white smokers prefer menthol to unflavored cigarettes.

Strangely, this is occurring during the height of concern about unjustified police violence against black men and women. As we know, product prohibition always prompts the creation of illegal markets, and this breeds a poisonous relationship between police and the communities in which the illegal activities are most likely to occur. The reason couldn't be simpler. Unlike with crimes of violence against person and property--that is, offenses with victims--vice laws attempt to stop consensual transactions. Since those transactions by nature have no complainant, the police inevitably resort to intrusive, rights-violating methods to catch people in the act. The methods include surveillance, use of dodgy informants with have incentives to lie and set people up, and other trickery. It couldn't be any other way. If laws against victimless "crimes" are to be enforced, the most egregious enforcement methods will be brought to bear as a matter of necessity. It's in the very nature of the legal suppression of vice. (I'm including gambling, drugs, prostitution, and so on.)

Considering that minority community trust in the police is is not exactly high, why would anyone want to give the police more authority to root out consensual interaction? It can only make things worse.

Anticipating this criticism, the FDA promises it will not target consumers; only manufacturers and distributors will be in the authorities' sights. But that statement is misleading. Plenty of damage can be done at the street level if the manufacturers and distributors of illegal menthol cigarettes turn out to be small-scale neighborhood operations, which they may well be. (Why would highly visible Big Tobacco take the risk?) If people demand menthol smokes, other people will creatively cater to their demand. Remember Eric Garner's fatal encounter with the police when he was illegally selling individual cigarettes ("loosies") presumably to get around the high New York tobacco tax. In Massachusetts, which has already banned menthol cigarettes, the black market is reported on the rise. When police efforts to stop black-market manufacturers and distributors fail, will the police turn on consumers? Stamping out demand (if it could be done) would surely stamp out supply.

This can't end well. For one thing, a ban on one product could morph into a ban on other items that contribute to the production of originally targeted product.

And let's keep in mind the larger context. While the government says it's trying to save smokers from themselves, it also demonizes vaping and has outlawed most vape flavors. True, the exceptions to that ban (for now?) are tobacco and menthol flavors, but still the FDA has made efforts to scare smokers from switching to vaping, which is known to be much safer than inhaling the smoke from burning tobacco leaves. If smokers are scared away from vaping, many will stick with smoking, menthol or no menthol.

Meanwhile the FDA is also looking into lowering the nicotine content of cigarettes to "nonaddictive levels," a futile act of mere signaling since smokers could simply smoke more cigarettes to make up their nicotine deficit.

When will government learn? Actually, that's the wrong question. Officials have no incentive to take seriously many things they must already know because it would cost them their mission, power, and prestige.

Abolition of all vice laws should be step number one in any effort to eliminate unjustified police violence. Forbidding the state's officers from looking for outlawed but consensual transactions couldn't help but create a better relationship between the police and the people, especially those in the most vulnerable communities.

(For the case against all laws against victimless crimes, see Lysander Spooner's Vice Are Not Crimes.)

Friday, May 07, 2021

TGIF: A Refreshing Way to Think about Immigration

What I'm going to say about Chandran Kukathas's latest book, Immigration and Freedom, does not constitute a book review. Think of it instead as a book alert. Even having read only the preface and a couple of chapters, I am confident it is a book that fans of liberty will be interested in. You can tell by the title.

Kukathas is a classical liberal professor of political science at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, whose previous books have argued that monopoly government, as opposed to a polycentric legal order, is inimical to human diversity (The Liberal Archipelago) and have delved critically but appreciatively into the thought of F. A. Hayek (Hayek and Modern Liberalism). I first met Kukathas when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies in the 1980s, so his remarkable academic accomplishments since then come as no surprise.

His latest book aims for a different take on the much-discussed controversy surrounding immigration. What Kukathas explores is how restrictions on immigration impinge on the freedom of the citizens of the country that imposes those restrictions. Of course, he does not neglect the people who wish to move, but in writing his book, he intended to address a matter that has at least been insufficiently addressed by others. He does not neglect the economic ramifications of immigration, which have been widely explored from all sides, but that is not his main concern.

I note in the most positive way that this is a formidable book. It is well-written, but that doesn't make it light reading. Chapter two emphasizes at length the often-counterintuitive point that terms like immigrantcitizen, native, and national are political constructs, not metaphysical categories. The rules regarding those terms vary widely around the world, and it is wrong to think the "right" way merely waits to be discovered. We're talking about the state here, and as is often the case, arbitrariness and interest rule supreme. As Kukathas puts it, for example, "Just as it is possible to deny that a native-born resident can be a citizen, so is it possible to identify someone who is a resident but not a citizen as a native, or as a national."

He stresses that terms like immigrant cannot be defined without simultaneously defining terms like citizen, and that means immigration restrictions must effect non-immigrants within the country in question. Once stated, this may seem obvious, but Kukathas seems right in saying it is overlooked. Because of this fact, immigration is a much bigger subject than border control, however important that is. This indeed is a rich and deeply textured work of scholarship.

In his preface Kukathas states, "As someone sceptical about the pretensions of the modern state, I have long been troubled by its claims to control the movement of people, and even more bothered by the consequences of its exercise of the power to do so." This is the right way to launch a critical look at restrictions on immigration.

He goes on: contrary to those who think

the movement of peoples from other parts of the world threatens to transform our society and to undermine its fundamental values ... [t]he argument of this book is that the threat to freedom comes not from immigration but from immigration control.... Immigration control is not merely about restricting border-crossing but as much, if not more, about constraining what outsiders might do once they have crossed the border in a society. But it is difficult to control outsiders without also controlling insiders, since insiders are all too ready and willing to hire, teach, rent to, trade with, marry, and generally associate with outsiders. Moreover, insiders and outsiders are not readily distinguishable unless there are instruments of control in place to identify one or the other. [Emphasis added.]

You can see where this is going. This is not a polemic on behalf of open borders, though Kukathas is "sympathetic ... to that ideal." It's a much deeper look at the matter, and that makes it noteworthy. And this is no simple work of a priori political philosophy. He is as interested in history, law, anthropology, and sociology as he is in political philosophy. As I said: rich and deeply textured.

In chapter one, Kukathas writes:

The point of this book is to put freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well.... The conclusion [the book] defends is that if we value freedom--as we should--we ought to be wary of immigration control.

Amen to that.

Finally, Kukathas moves to "a larger thesis that lies at the heart of this work." He thinks we have a problem in how we see society itself, that is, "the relationship between society and its inhabitants." Specifically, the prevailing vision is of society as "made up of members"; in other words, society "is some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies." (Emphasis is in the original.)

But wait, Kukathas writes. Why think of society that way? He writes:

The thought running through this book is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal--one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans.

I hope I've shown that this is a refreshing approach that deserves wide attention.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021


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