Nightmare on J Street

Why can't Arab Americans work for peace, too?

At last, somebody found me out.

This week, former AIPAC and Israeli embassy official Lenny Ben-David published an article revealing that I had given a donation to the "pro-Israel and pro-peace" organization J Street. Because I am of Lebanese descent, this clearly indicates that my dollars must be intended to advance some pernicious anti-Israel agenda -- and that J Street must be the vehicle for those aims.

I would be only too happy to ignore Ben-David's article as a collection of cheap innuendo and loose associations, but the stakes are too high. With J Street's inaugural conference less than one week away, opponents are desperate that it fail. The attacks on the organization, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, its staff, and their supporters have taken on an all too-familiar form -- eschewing substance to malign the motives and associations of those they disagree with. Ben-David and his supporters are now attacking J Street for accepting contributions from Americans of Arab descent. The donations in question are largely symbolic, many of them in amounts between $30-$100, but his point is loud and clear -- an organization that receives Arab-American support must, by definition, be suspect.

But why on earth should J Street be ashamed to have the support of Arab-Americans like me? And why should Arab-Americans worry that participating in the political life of their country and exercising their freedom of speech might -- simply because of their ethnicity -- harm the candidates and causes they hold dear?

Ben-David's allegations offer two competing conclusions. Either J Street is not sufficiently pro-Israel (how else would it attract Arab-American support?) or there is a significant group of Arab Americans for whom being pro-Palestine and pro-Israel are not mutually exclusive. He assumes, and hopes everyone else will also assume, that the former is self-evident and the latter is impossible. He is wrong.

It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in both people's best interests.  I hold that belief as a result of years of work within the Arab and Jewish American communities, working in partnerships not just with J Street but also with such groups as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Israel Policy Forum. I have traveled to the region and remain humbled and inspired by the courage and tenacity of those Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to submit to the cynicism or pessimism this conflict so often demands.

The reason J Street causes such fury among certain detractors often has nothing to do with its policy positions. These people are angry because the political climate has shifted in a way that they no longer understand or control. The generation that elected President Obama is not interested in being divided based on religion or ethnic heritage. We are not interested in a zero-sum game. We believe our elected officials must play a leadership role in brokering a two-state solution to this conflict, and that Arab and Jewish Americans must work together to support them. How can anyone profess to believe in a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians will live side by side, if they view with suspicion Arab and Jewish Americans working together to get there?

As a staff member at the Arab American Institute (AAI), it was my job to engage Arab Americans in civic life, including giving time and money to the candidates and causes we believe in. AAI's founder, James Zogby, has dedicated his career to combating those who would seek to exclude us because of our ethnic heritage. We have the right to engage in American political life because we are Americans. That we do so is to our credit, and not a negative reflection on those we choose to support in our common quest for peace. At the United Nations in September, President Obama said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "absolutely critical" to American national interests. Many of us --Arab and Jewish Americans alike -- wholeheartedly agree.

Those Arab Americans who support J Street, like myself, do so because we are eager to work with an organization that views us as partners and does not seek to perpetuate the divisions and pathologies of the Middle East here in the United States. Contrary to Ben-David's assertions, those of us who work in coalition to support President Obama's efforts are not the ones with explaining to do.



A Prescription for Marxism

The next great battle between socialism and capitalism will be waged over human health.

Karl Marx may have suffered a second death at the end of the last century, but look for a spirited comeback in this one. The next great battle between socialism and capitalism will be waged over human health and life expectancy. As rich countries grow richer, and as healthcare technology continues to improve, people will spend ever growing shares of their income on living longer and healthier lives.

U.S. healthcare costs have already reached 15 percent of annual national income and could exceed 30 percent by the middle of this century -- and other industrialized nations are not far behind. Certainly, an aging population is part of the story. But if economic productivity keeps growing at its current extraordinary pace, Europeans, Japanese, and Americans could triple their current income per person by 2050. Inevitably, we will spend a lot of that income on improving and maintaining our health.

Which brings us to Marx. When the price of medical care takes up just a small percentage of national income, it is hard to argue with the notion that everyone should enjoy similar medical treatment. Sure, critics may gripe that the higher taxes needed to pay for universal health coverage may cut into economic growth a bit, but so what? A little redistribution won't suddenly transform the United States into a failed, Soviet-style "workers' paradise." But as health costs creep up to, say, 25 percent of national income, things get more complicated. Americans would see their tax bills more than double, while total taxes could reach 75 percent of many Europeans' income. With oppressive tax burdens and heavy state intervention in health -- already the largest sector of the economy -- socialism would have crept in through the back door.

Of course, smug Europeans, Canadians, or Japanese may think that exploding healthcare costs are a purely U.S. problem. Certainly, the British and Canadian governments successfully wield their monopolies over healthcare to hold down both doctors' incomes and prescription drug prices. And part of the rise in U.S. healthcare costs stems from the breakdown of the checks and balances that more centralized systems provide. (For example, Americans are several times more likely to receive heart bypass surgery than Canadians, where the procedure is reserved for extreme cases. Yet several studies suggest that patients are no worse off in Canada than in the United States). And even the most fanatical free marketers recognize that healthcare is different from other markets, and that the standard supply-and-demand principles don't necessarily apply. Consumers have poor information, and there is an obvious case for greater government involvement than in other markets.

But if all countries squeezed profits in the health sector the way Europe and Canada do, there would be much less global innovation in medical technology. Today, the whole world benefits freely from advances in health technology that are driven largely by the allure of the profitable U.S. market. If the United States joins other nations in having more socialized medicine, the current pace of technology improvements might well grind to a halt. Even as the status quo persists, I wonder how content Europeans and Canadians will remain as their healthcare needs become more expensive and diverse. There are already signs of growing dissatisfaction with the quality of all but the most basic services. In Canada, the horrific delays for elective surgery remind one of waiting for a car in the old Soviet bloc. And despite British Chancellor Gordon Brown's determined efforts to rebuild the country's scandalously dilapidated public hospital system, anyone who can afford to go elsewhere usually does. With public healthcare systems fraying at the edges, many countries outside the United States increasingly face the need to allow a greater play of market forces.

During the next few decades, modern societies will wrestle with very tough questions and tradeoffs: What, exactly, are people's basic health needs in an era where medical technology relentlessly advances the frontiers of the possible? How do we help people while still giving them the incentive to economize on their use of scarce healthcare resources? And who plays God -- the bureaucrats, the doctors, or the forces of the market?

Ultimately, the case for some government intervention and regulation in health care is compelling on the grounds of efficiency (because costs are out of control) and moral justice (because our societies rightly take a more egalitarian view of health than of material possessions). The issue is precisely how much redistribution of income and government intervention is warranted. With the health sector on track to make up almost a third of economic activity later this century, the next great battle between capitalism and socialism is already underway.