The Week's Conversations: Israel's Dilemma, Airbnb, Informal Caregiving, Mbembe, Xenofeminist Manifesto, Silent Evidence

A weekly conversation between friends.

Israel's Everlasting Dilemma

Back in 2013, during a month-long exchange at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, my professor laid out for us what is often considered the fundamental dilemma that has for decades obstructed the pathway towards a peaceful, two-state resolution between Israel and Palestine.

The dilemma is complex, but extremely helpful for understanding the conflict — at least from an Israeli perspective.* It goes something like this:

The state of Israel wants three things: i) to be a Jewish state, ii) to be a democracy, and iii) to maintain control of the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). These three ‘things’, however, are in conflict — choosing any two of them will make the third impossible.

That’s because the majority of people living in the occupied territories are not Jewish. Therefore, an Israel that includes these territories must be either a Jewish state, or a democracy. It cannot be both.

This dilemma was best articulated in an outstanding article from 2003 by the late historian and essayist Tony Judt. After laying out the dilemma, he outlines Israel’s three options, given the above formulation:

1. “It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.”

2. “[Israel can maintain control of the occupied territories], whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.”

3. “Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.”

The first option forms the basis of the two-state solution, which has long been considered the ‘international consensus’ for a peaceful resolution — despite the conspicuous fact that little to no progress towards such a resolution has been made in decades.

The reason why the two-state solution has failed so magnificently is, of course, up for debate. Those inclined to see the conflict through the lens of settler colonialism will argue that such a solution was doomed from the get-go. Edward Said gave up on two-state solution with the signing of the original Oslo Accord in 1993, though most commentators will trace its downfall back to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Regardless, in the intervals between the Second Intifada, three wars in Gaza, and one in Lebanon, the steady expansion of a deliberately disruptive web of Jewish Settlements and ‘security barriers’ throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem has made the prospect of an independent Palestinian state all but impossible (not to mention the multitudinous ways in which the Israeli government has extended its control over nearly all aspects of Palestinian life).

To be blunt, though diplomats around the world remain committed, or least pay lip service to, to the peace process, the two-state solution is dead.

The second option describes the so-called status quo — a condition that was entrenched following the Six-Day War.  Indeed, Secretary John Kerry drew on this very formulation in his recent ‘farewell speech’, in which he blasted Israel: “It can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.”

Though it sounds innocuous, the status quo has in fact been devastating for Palestinians and Arab Israelis, who have for decades lived as second-class citizens in what the scholar Oren Yiftachel has termed an ‘ethnocracy’: “which denotes a non-democratic rule for and by a dominant ethnic group, within the state and beyond its borders.”

I was personally overwhelmed by the untenable nature of the status quo when I visited the Shuafat refugee camp, located just a few minutes from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Home to some 22,000 Palestinians, Shuafat is a sprawling, violent, and anarchic slum, completely encircled by the Israeli ‘security barrier’. Unable to pass into the valley below, a massive pool of sewage had collected along a section of the towering cement barrier. The camp was built over half a century ago.

Though the most radical, Judt seems to suggest that the third option best describes the direction that the state of Israel was choosing to follow:

“Anyone who supposes that this third option is unthinkable above all for a Jewish state has not been watching the steady accretion of settlements and land seizures in the West Bank over the past quarter-century, or listening to generals and politicians on the Israeli right, some of them currently in government.”

These words, written in 2003, seem even less radical today. Israel has tacked even further to the right, electing a governing coalition that “contains no parties that even rhetorically accept a two-state solution, or anything more than an ersatz Palestinian statelet.” Led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and supported what appears to be unconditionally by President-elect Trump and his hardline, ultra-right ambassador to Israel — the government has shown little interest in peace or international law, opting instead to accelerate the settlement of the West Bank.

Just a few weeks ago, David Shulman, a professor and activist for peace in Israel-Palestine, filed a devastating report from the West Bank that details the Israeli government’s ongoing, systematic expulsion of some 15,000 Palestinian Bedouins from their homeland in the Jordan Valley: “We are now witnessing in the Jordan Valley an accelerated process of what must, I fear, be called ethnic cleansing. It’s not a term I use lightly.”

So here we are. The Israeli dilemma, as it is commonly formulated, appears insurmountable. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new framework.

The fundamental problem with the ‘international consensus’, according to Judt, is that it is based on an outdated understanding of statehood, sovereignty, and nationalism. We’ve moved on from a world divided into distinct ethnic nation-states, he explains, to a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law: “Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

He concludes his essay with what was, at the time, a bold alternative:

“The time has come to think the unthinkable… The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinian.”

The notion (and the feasibility) of a binational state has been widely studied, and is supported by a number of thinkers and groups on the left. And yet, 14 years later, this alternative remains largely on the sidelines, even as the ‘international consensus’ withers away.

*A recent article by Rashid Khalidi in The Guardian explains how the entire discourse around the two-state solution not only gives Israel “the upper hand”, but also “ignores the basic rights of the Palestinian people, and the requirements of international law, of justice and of equity.”


The Ethics of Airbnb'ing

I Airbnb’d for the first time in San Francisco and, out of curiosity, asked the hosts (a married couple) why they decided to join the Airbnb economy. To paraphrase: they couldn’t afford the rent on the entire 3-story Victorian, so they had to have a roommate for a while. But, they just found it really inconvenient having to share the kitchen and living room, plus put up with someone else’s weird habits all the time. Then, they realized they could make more money renting single rooms on Airbnb, only when they wanted, and they didn’t have to share the kitchen or living room at all! Yay, optimization! It confirmed my worst fears about Airbnb - that it gives landlords/subletters an easy, lucrative, and flexible cashflow solution that reduces rentals available for long-term residents. Basically, it perpetuates housing inequality and commodification of living space.*

New data (from a consulting firm started by Airbnb hosts) suggests that Airbnb may not be reducing rental stock and driving up rents as much as activists are saying, but a third of Airbnb’s revenue does come from listings that are of particular concern for critics: homes/rooms that are rented out for a large portion of the year (and come with coffeemakers and tiny shampoo bottles!). Airbnb’s incentive to build this “commercial stock” is obvious: it’s more profitable because the units are used more often (thus gaining a higher ranking and higher nightly rates), provides a more dependable and uniform experience for the guest (see the globalization of airbnb-style minimalism), and presents a lower liability risk.

I recently learned that Airbnb has created an innovation studio called Samara; their first project was to assist a rural Japanese town with the building of a ‘community centre’ for hosting guests, which will be maintained 100% by and 97% for the town. Samara has suggested this is a replicable model for other dying towns (maybe they’ll become like casinos on reserves?). As ever, according to Airbnb, it’s not building “hotels;” it’s on the cutting edge of social innovation.

*The Awl has had great, openly-questioning coverage of Airbnb (and the sharing economy generally) for years, like: "What if renting [out] your apartment is just another item on the list of things you have to do to get it, right after “getting a terrible loan?” Then how will you think of Airbnb? What kind of relationship will hosts have with it? And what will they want?”



The holidays have officially come to a wrap. The few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are an annual check-in for families and friends. Parents get older. Someone might be scheduled for a major surgery in the new year. Revisiting each other and seeing another year go by is a reality check for the time bygone.

Informal caregiving, the unspoken responsibility of families, is a big deal. In 2012 (which is the latest year Statistics Canada has available results), 30% of Canadians provided some form of caregiving to family or friend members. Most are women and unpaid for this work.

It’s also difficult work without much preparation or training. NPR’s article highlights the uncharted territory that family members face. Families struggle to figure out if they should take their wife to the hospital if a wound starts to drain more fluid than it has been or if their mom is having more pain than usual.

Caregiving is also an important aspect of connecting with someone during their illness. Christina Frangou recounts a tale of losing her husband to renal cell carcinoma. An aggressive cancer meant that her husband died 42 days after his diagnosis. She recounts the experience of “an ‘off-time’ death,” and having such little time to say goodbye.

It’s not a problem that’s going away anytime soon. It will be important for us to figure out how to support caregivers as we have more living with major medical problems. Working at the hospital, I see this discussion come to light. Patients and their families are constantly asked to figure out how they are going to manage at home after their discharge. Feeling like you are on an emotional roller coaster is the rule rather than an exception.

Naheed Mukadam won The Lancet’s Wakley Prize for her essay “Stay with me.” It is a tale of the unconditional love that caregivers display for their loved ones.


Mbembe on the Ending of the Age of Humanism

Contribution from Daniel Sherwin

Achille Mbembe is one of Africa’s leading political thinkers, and he’s not feeling great about 2017.

In his punchy, provocative essay, “The Age of Humanism is Ending”, Mbembe lays out in an unusually clear fashion the constellation of political trends that have dominated the last decade. His central thesis is that we are witnessing a break-down in the post-War Liberal order, which rested on an uneasy alliance between Capitalism and Democracy. “At its core,” he writes “liberal democracy is not compatible with the inner logic of finance capitalism”. 


The Xenofeminist Manifesto: the Emancipatory Potential of Technology

Francis Tseng writes in The New Inquiry:

Silicon Valley’s most powerful monopoly may be how we perceive technology. . . . New services and products are seldom designed for those who need them. If anything, they end up expanding the myriad ways in which exploitation can occur.
. . .

The Xenofeminist Manifesto, published by the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks lays out a new framework for technology’s role in social progress. “Why is there so little explicit, organized effort to repurpose technologies for progressive gender political ends?” the authors ask. “The real emancipatory potential of technology remains unrealized… the ultimate task lies in engineering technologies to combat unequal access to reproductive and pharmacological tools, environmental cataclysm, economic instability, as well as dangerous forms of unpaid/underpaid labor.”

Further reading:


Silent Evidence

The Heart is a podcast about sex and relationships, and provided one of the most powerful podcast series of 2016 with Silent Evidence.

Silent Evidence is about Tenessee Watson, an American journalist and documentarian, coming to terms with being sexually assaulted as a child by her gymnastics teacher. In four parts, Tennessee invites listeners on her journey from understanding and being able to express what happened to her, to confronting the person who violated her and the ensuing legal proceeding, to finally unpacking the process and its outcome.

The series provides an insightful, first-hand perspective on what survivors of sexual violence endure, and the courage it takes to find answers and justice.

The Heart is hosted by Kaitlin Prest, and was initially based at CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, before moving to the United States with Prest in 2012. There, it received the attention and funding it could never attain in Canada, and reflects a general trend Canadian podcasters face


'You Can't Go Home Again'

Part of adulthood is figuring out the person you want to be, and working to become that person. This can create distance with loved ones, as chasing one’s dreams may involve leaving your hometown, and more importantly, shared experiences and understanding with family and friends.

Understanding the distance that can be created with loved ones if becoming the person you want to be means leaving them is the subject of the Millennial episode “You Can’t Go Home Again.” In it, host Megan Tan tries to understand the distance that has grown with her mother through the one that has developed between her friend Lance and his mother.

Lance graduated high school, and immediately went to work at the gas station his mother also worked at, which was the likely trajectory for someone of his upbringing and family. However, Lance sought more. Lance attended community college, then obtained a university degree, and after years of hard work, was hired by the New York Times. Lance’s path moved him out of his mother’s world, and the ability to connect with her, which is a situation that many of us confront as we chase our dreams.


Links from the Week's Thread

The best of Canadian journalism in 2016, crowdsourced by Canadian journalists themselves. Spend an afternoon or two working through the list; there are some great pieces included (note: it's skewed towards smaller and niche publications, which will allow you to discover talented journalists and interesting stories that you may not otherwise come across). 

From the Columbia Journalism Review: The best (American) journalism of 2016 

On NPR’s Code Switch, one interviewee struggled to say “I didn't know how lucky I actually was to be born white. Lucky is not the word that I need to be using. I don't - how privileged it's been because of being born white - growing up.” But luck may be a good way of exploring the topic, with less judgment and burden. And then you can talk about the false promise of meritocracy too!

Michaela Coel wins a BAFTA for her performance in Chewing Gum, a genre defying comedy that Coel created, wrote, and stars in (currently on Canadian Netflix). Coel's remarkable acceptance speech.

A follow up to our discussion on Obama and the concept of White Innocence: Is God a White Racist?  

The weight of James Arthur Baldwin: "Baldwin seemed to have prepared himself well for his black death, his mortality, and even better, his immortality... On the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a new generation that once again feels compelled to march in the streets of Harlem, Ferguson, and Baltimore. What Baldwin knew is that he left no false heirs, he left spares, and that is why we carry him with us."

The Vast Bayleaf Conspiracy

The performance art of Tehching Hsieh: “Stripped of our papers, our possessions, our markers of social distinction, who are we? Hsieh challenged us to ponder this while he discarded all of it. A cage, homelessness, silence, the partition of the day’s hours. Without any measure to his life, Hsieh pointed at the infinite abundance of simply being alive.”

Milo Yiannopoulos's cynical book deal.

Amy Sanderson03/01/17