Monday, June 23, 2003

Standard Errors

Those who cling to their faith in demography should consider the sad story of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, which though still unreleased has been badly undermined. Or perhaps more tellingly, the faithful should ponder implications of the 1990 and 2000 U.S. decennial censuses. These were mandated by the Constitution and conducted with the full authority of the federal government, so that all were required to participate. There has been much controversy over the data, as well as litigation all the way up to the Supreme Court.

The problem with demography is not that it is error-prone. A more serious affliction is immodesty, the failure to acknowledge that what is being presented is nearly always based on assumptions and extrapolations that certainly contain errors and that the final set of statistics is, at best, an approximation of a social picture that cannot be fully rendered. This failure is enhanced by the tendency of the media to highlight the data and to gloss over the obvious warts and shortcomings.

We now have a study of New York’s Jews, the first in nearly a dozen years. There are, we are told, 972,000 of us in the city and 1.4 million in the metropolitan area. There is no way of knowing how accurate these figures are. They may be off by 100,000 or 200,000. My guess is that they are on the low side and yet I recognize that those who conducted the study went about their work honestly and developed several attractive conceptual twists that are improvements.

The primary methodological tool of Jewish demography is Random Digit Dialing (RDD). A huge number of telephone calls are made according to a pre-determined geographic pattern, the aim being to locate households with at least one Jew who is willing to respond to questions relating to Jewish identity. While RDD is an acceptable method for political polling and marketing surveys, it is highly suspect when employed to root out Jewish respondents, if only because it is often difficult to determine who exactly is a Jew. Furthermore, as Americans have become more resistant to telemarketing, the utility of RDD has been sharply compromised.

In order to plan the distribution of calls, it’s necessary to make in advance assumptions as to where Jews live. This means that a survey which is designed to determine how many Jews there are and where they live is directly based on earlier decisions as to how many there are and where they live. If this doesn’t raise eyebrows, Jewish demography is beset by difficulties and disagreements in identifying Jews. The household and not the individual is the standard unit in population surveys. This is fine when questions relate to gender, age and other neutral or readily ascertainable matters. But in contemporary American Jewish life, there are a great number of so-called Jewish households in which the majority of the residents are not Jewish. One doesn’t need to be a demographer to know that this circumstance can foul up the data.

The New York study defines a household as Jewish if it includes “an adult who self-identifies as a Jew, or a child who is being raised Jewish.” This definition has to result in the inclusion of persons of dubious Jewish status and also in the exclusion of persons who are Jewish according to religious law but who do not regard themselves as Jewish.

In order to reduce reliance on RDD, the survey contacted a considerable number of persons known to be involved in Jewish life who are included on lists provided by Jewish agencies. The device increased the response rate and it also means that the current study is not fully comparable with its predecessor, a point that has already engendered controversy. Another probably consequence is that the survey gives greater weight to involved Jews and has undercounted secular/advanced assimilated Jews.

This helps to account for the unexpectedly low intermarriage rate suggested by the data. Whether measured by individuals or couples, the rate among New York Jews is, I believe, considerably higher than what we have now been given. I am also skeptical about the claimed number of Russian Jews, a figure that is inconsistent with U.S. census data and what information we have about immigration patterns. The subject deserves additional scrutiny.

In a throwback to a bygone era when some Jews actually kvelled when they heard bad news, our media have pounced on the dubious finding of many more poor Jews than was previously believed to be the case. Our povertycrats and others have reacted with glee, probably because they believe that this will result in greater philanthropic and governmental funding. While there are substantial pockets of poverty among New York Jews and some are very severe, the claim of more than 200,000 poor Jews is absurd. It needs to be underscored that RDD is a fraudulent way to study money matters, whether income or wealth or poverty, as the respondents on the other end of the line are apt to be unwilling to disclose such information, assuming that the person who answers the telephone knows the facts, something that often is not the case.

For forty years or since the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson with its layers of self-serving agencies acting as intermediaries between the poor and government, povertycrats and their agencies have had a field day milking the poverty issue, with scant benefits going to the poor. When we fall prey to exaggerations – and especially among Russians – about income, we are opening the door wider to those whose rhetoric speaks a good game about the poor, while in fact the hard core poor continue to be neglected.

We will have to wait about six months for more comprehensive data and a fuller discussion of certain technical issues. From what we have seen so far, we have a fine effort to get at an elusive subject.

Monday, June 16, 2003

No Exit

After all of the smart analysis and after all of the finger-pointing, what most remains after the latest violence and collapse of the embryonic Middle East peace efforts is searing, deep-rooted pain, the feeling that the Israel-Palestinian situation is nearly hopeless and no road map or change in Palestinian leadership or intervention by the United States or Israeli retaliation will alter the fundamental reality that Israel is trapped in an endless mini-war against terrorism. This is a frightening thought.

It is not unimportant to know the root causes, to recognize that in much of the Arab mindset Israel has no right to exist and therefore any peace agreement is an expediency that must be canceled when the opportunity to do so arises. Palestinian insistence that what it refers to as the return of refugees is an issue that needs to be negotiated is telling proof of the inability to accept Israel as a permanent state in the Middle East.

Still, the details and how they are interpreted do not submerge the pain or alter the feeling of despair. The emotions that are now so evident create a reality that cannot be ignored. We are confronted with the fear that Israel is condemned to live permanently with terror, that each day may bring bad news.

This pessimism becomes overwhelming when we consider that each new and presumably sincere effort at peace-making can serve as a catalyst for new violence, that when the peace-makers seem to be at the brink of even modest success, the peace-haters are likely to do what they can to disrupt the process. Could it be that maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo is preferable to attempts to alter it because such attempts may come at a high price and bear little fruit? Likely, Hamas needs no special provocation or excuse to send suicide bombers, yet it appears that its hands are bloodiest when there is peace on the horizon.

Except for their inconsequential political activity and rhetoric, those on the Israeli and Jewish side who have opposed Prime Minister Sharon’s willingness to use the road map as the backdrop for peace negotiations did little to derail it. However, they aren’t suppressing their satisfaction over this outcome, although they ought to consider certain of its consequences, ranging from the lesser – but still quite significant – impact on Israel’s economy and what this means to many Israelis to the expanding roster of victims of terrorism as Israel confronts Hamas and others. I have not mentioned the emotional costs and they are also high.

While there are grounds to criticize Mr. Sharon’s policies and choice of words, he spoke the truth when he acknowledged that a Palestinian state needs to be established and also that it is unacceptable for Israel to permanently exert control over Palestinian areas that are slated to become part of such a state. He referred to this as “occupation” and the term was immediately pounced upon by friends and foes of the road map. Lost in the shuffle was the underlying principle that the status quo is not good for Israel.

Where there is no exit, it is pointless to suggest exit strategies. No formula for settling the Middle East conflict has endured for long and the odds are strongly against any new approach having much prospect for success. But since the stakes are high and the alternative is terrifying, new ideas are certain to be advanced and there will be more meetings, documents, planning, diplomacy – in short all of the familiar paraphernalia of peace-making. As I write, there are renewed efforts to broker a cease fire and to get the peace process back on the road. As in the past, these efforts are likely to have initial success, but it is hard to be optimistic about their long-term prospects.

One approach now favored is the old idea considered by successive U.S. administrations of stationing American and perhaps other forces in critical places where they can serve as a buffer between the two sides. In view of U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not likely that this approach will find favor in the White House, although it is possible that it will be pursued as a desperation measure. Even more problematic is whether outside military forces can serve as a barrier against terrorism. Of all of the media distortions in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none is greater than the failure to portray how many Arabs live permanently in Israel and how many additional Palestinians regularly cross into the country to find work. I wonder whether U.S. troops will be able to interdict terrorism, whether they can prevent suicide bombers dressed in Israeli army fatigues or as charedim. I also wonder whether inadvertently their major role might be to prevent Israel from acting in self-defense.

While it will not happen or gather much support, my preference is for the speeding up of the time-table for a Palestinian state. Perhaps wrongly, I cannot see any greater downside to Israel’s security and I can think of reasons why such a critical step is preferable to the situation that now prevails. States have responsibilities and while they may be violated, they are more readily held accountable for their misdeeds.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Supremely Undemocratic

Can it be that Justice Aharon Barak, the President of Israel’s Supreme Court, is at long last getting the message that his brand of super-judicial activism is contrary to fundamental democratic principles and the notion of constitutional government? For years he has ignored calls for restraint, contending that Israel’s highest court has a nearly sacred obligation to look at legislation and other matters in terms of the values of what he regards as an enlightened society. Since much of the criticism of this imperialistic view of the judicial role has come from religious groups and others who are unhappy with what the court has decided, it has been easy for Justice Barak to portray his opponents as remnants of some dark age who reject contemporary jurisprudence.

But now Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – he assuredly is no charedi – has entered the fray and it is not possible for Mr. Barak to act as the beleaguered guardian of fundamental liberties. In an important speech and with President Moshe Katsav and Justice Barak in the audience, Rivlin charged that the Supreme Court has engineered a “constitutional revolution,” a “coup that today endangers the most sacred elements of Israeli democracy.” From the howls of protest by Barak’s claque and a subsequent speech that he made defending his court’s activism, it is evident that he is at least listening to what opponents, including within the legal profession, are saying about his hyper-activism.

In fairness, Justice Barak has by and large accepted a modest role for the Supreme Court when security issues are at stake, doubtlessly because he recognizes that these are sensitive matters and Israel’s situation requires that judges give substantial leeway to those in authority.
On ordinary domestic issues, Justice Barak and a majority of his colleagues have been fierce in their willingness to challenge the Knesset and government. Some of this arises from an arrangement that predates his tenure. Acting as the High Court of Justice, the Supreme Court has served as a national review board with power to determine the correctness of almost all that happens within Israel, including whether governmental appointments will go through and the adequacy of sentences imposed on those convicted of crimes. Little heed has been paid to basic procedural requirements, such as the standing of those who sue.

This wacky arrangement has drawn fire, mainly from within the legal establishment including judges, because it burdens the judiciary. There have been credible efforts to trim the judicial sails. However, on important issues that affect the country as a whole, Justice Barak has sailed on, imposing a personal ideological agenda on a society that often does not share that ideology. He has relied primarily on two Basic Laws enacted by the Knesset – Evelyn Gordon, the Supreme Court’s most trenchant critic, claims that these laws were enacted by Knesset votes of 32-21 and 23-0 – to impose secular norms on government and society.

As a consequence, religious and other social schisms have been exacerbated. Whereas the ordinary political processes operating in Israel, as in most democratic societies, promote compromise and the ideal of inclusion, the inevitable result of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has been to make religious Jews feel excluded. While some of the harshest criticism of the Court has come from this quarter, the Orthodox have not been alone in their distrust of Israel’s judiciary, as is evident from Speaker Rivlin’s critique.

Irrespective of how we may feel about particular rulings, extreme judicial activism should concern all who care about democracy. This is not a question of ideology or religion, but whether judges should override the will of the Knesset and the will of the people as expressed via the electoral process. As much as I do not like what Israel’s Supreme Court has done, I do not like what the Rehnquist-Scalia Supreme Court is doing in this country as it systematically erodes two generations of Court decisions and legislation in its ideologically-driven campaign to impose a right-wing ideology.

Judicial restraint is right, irrespective of the direction that activism is taking. While, of course, there are instances when courts must act to protect minorities, others deprived of access to the ordinary political processes and basic liberties, these must be exceptions and not the standard operating procedure for judges.

To make what is already bad even worse, Israel’s Supreme Court is essentially a self-perpetuating oligarchy dominated by legal secularists. While there is a mandatory retirement age that limits tenure, in an arrangement that may be unprecedented, the Supreme Court’s president plays the decisive role in selecting new members. This is an opportunity that Justice Barak has exploited to the full.

I imagine that there are sophists who will justify this system, presumably on the familiar ground that the end justifies the means and that the Knesset, elections and public opinion cannot be relied on to achieve the appropriate ideological ends. The remedy is rule by the elite and fiat and this cannot be reconciled with democratic principles.

As the Barak court was under attack by Speaker Rivlin for traducing the prerogatives of those who are authorized to legislate in Israel, there has now arisen a second source of discontent against the judicial imperialists. The three Knesset members who serve on the judicial selection committee for the Supreme Court refused to vote on the proposed new justices because they had not been given any opportunity to question the pre-selected candidates. This mini-rebellion against being used as rubber stamps surprisingly included a Labor member of the Knesset.

It’s probably too optimistic to think that Israel is on the road to serious judicial reform, that Justice Barak is capable of reversing course and recognizing that his approach is antithetical to democracy. Yet, by responding to his critics he is signaling that he can no longer ignore them.