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What Happened Today: May 30, 2023
Drones in Moscow; Taliban-Iran skirmish; Jewish Currents vs. Iron Dome; Gutentag on Teachers Unions
The Big Story
The Russian capital of Moscow was hit early Tuesday morning with a series of drone strikes by an as-yet-unconfirmed adversary. An adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine told reporters that Kyiv was not “directly involved” in the attack but was “happy” to watch. No one was killed in the strikes that mostly hit residential buildings in Moscow’s Rublyovka district where many elites reside. The attacks, which Russia has blamed on “the Kyiv regime,” consisted of eight drones, five of which the Russians claim to have shot down. In a television interview later on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters, “Ukraine has chosen to try to intimidate Russia, intimidate Russian citizens, and launch strikes on residential houses. It’s a clear indication of terrorist activity.” He also claimed the strikes were retaliation for Russia’s recent, and successful, missile strikes on Kyiv.
After a drone attack on May 3 against the Kremlin, U.S. intelligence officials said it was likely orchestrated by a Ukrainian special military or intelligence unit. As the war seems to be expanding to include more strikes inside Russia proper, Sam Bendett, an adviser on Russian Studies at CNA, a nonprofit research organization based in Virginia, told The New York Times that Russia may be vulnerable to drone strikes because its air-defense systems are designed to counter larger threats. The latest attack comes at a pivotal moment, as the United States has agreed to start training Ukrainian pilots on the American-made F-16 fighter aircraft, indicating a potential future supply of the aircraft to the war effort, something President Biden had previously promised would not happen.
On Monday, chief of the general staff of the Czech armed forces, Karel Řehka, told his parliament that while war between NATO and Russia would be the “worst-case scenario,” it’s not only possible, but increasingly probable. He said Russia is “on a course towards conflict with the alliance” and that “it is necessary to prepare for it in the long run.” In April, as if on cue, new NATO member and Russian border buddy Finland became the first nation to purchase the Israeli anti-missile system David’s Sling.
In The Back Pages: How the Teachers Union Broke Public Education
→ Former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is worried that the agriculture industry is standing in the way of reaching “net zero” carbon emissions. “Emissions from the food system alone are projected to cause another half-degree of warming by mid-century on the current course that we are on today. … We have to fight on multiple fronts simultaneously,” Kerry, now the Biden administration’s envoy for climate change, told the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate conference on May 10. A group of congressional Republicans sent a letter criticizing Kerry’s remarks to President Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “Although the world agriculture industry accounts for 22 percent of global GHG emissions, Kerry’s alarmist narrative does not tell the full story of American agriculture.” The letter cited data that shows American farmers have already made huge strides in reducing their emissions, which account for just 1.4% of the global total. Rep. Mark Alford (R-MO) also pointed out that Mr. Kerry frequently uses a private jet to attend these types of conferences.
→ RIP Rav Gershon Edelstein, 100, of Bnei Brak. Edelstein was a giant of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian movement in Israel, emigrating to Mandatory Palestine in 1934 and ultimately serving in the Knesset as a part of the United Torah Judaism Party as well as leading the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Edelstein was highly respected by leaders across the spectrum of Israeli life for his wisdom, commitment to Torah, and some level of détente with his secular co-religionists, though he did veto a plan to increase secular studies in Haredi schools. Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf said in a statement that “together with all of the House of Israel, his many students, and those who cherish his memory, I bitterly mourn the passing of the great Maran HaGaon Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, of blessed and pious memory.” And Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said that in their last meeting, “The light that shone from his eyes was full of Jewish wisdom, and that wisdom left an indelible mark on me.” Zichrono livracha.
→ On Saturday, Iranian and Taliban forces exchanged gunfire at the Milak-Zaranj border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan, with each side accusing the other of firing first. The exchange comes amid high tensions between the Islamic nations over water rights to the Helmand River, which originates in Afghanistan. A treaty signed in 1973 requires the Afghans to allow 850 million cubic meters of water annually to flow into drought-ravaged Eastern Iran, but the Iranians say that the Taliban has been erratic at best in following the treaty. Sina Toossi, a senior nonresident fellow at the U.S.-based think tank Center for International Policy, confirmed this to Al Jazeera, saying, “In recent years, this treaty has not been adhered to by Afghanistan’s rulers, including the Taliban.” Both sides claim to want de-escalation, but the Taliban has been seen rushing troops to the Iranian border, armed to the teeth with American vehicles and weapons left behind in the disastrous American exit from Afghanistan in 2021. On Saturday, Taliban commander and former Taliban governor of Ahmadabad district of Paktia province, Abdul Hamid Khorasani, said in a video released online, “If Taliban leaders allow us, we will conquer Iran within 24 hours, God willing.”
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→ Monday saw the 75th anniversary of the Israeli Air Force’s first strike against a column of Egyptian forces advancing toward Tel Aviv in the early days of the War of Independence. The strike took Egypt by surprise—they didn’t believe Israel had any air-attack capability—and halted their move toward the fledgling city. That one action may have saved Israel and, even, won the war. The four men who flew that sortie consisted of two foreign volunteer airmen, Lou Lenart and Eddie Cohen, future Israeli president Ezer Weizman, and sabra Modi Alon, who had previously flown for the Royal Air Force. Cohen was killed in the strike when his plane was downed by enemy anti-aircraft fire, and a plaque was dedicated in his honor at a ceremony near the site of the attack in Ashdod. “We arose thanks to Jewish volunteers and lovers of Israel, volunteers from abroad,” said current Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar.
→ Uruguay is facing a major water crisis, and a lot of salty drinking water, as its two major reservoirs have been depleted to support its burgeoning lumber industry, with new trees soaking up crucial water for the small nation. Earlier this month, Uruguayan officials started pulling water from an area that has very high salinity—twice as much as recommended by the WHO or even by Uruguay’s own guidelines. The government is advising people with hypertension or kidney disease to consume only bottled water for the time being. The main reservoir for the largest city, Montevideo, is just days away from being totally emptied.
→ Quote of the Day:
Rather than preserving space for diplomacy, Iron Dome enables Israel’s commitment to the status quo of permanent occupation. Its ultimate function is to entrench an already asymmetrical conflict into a state of ongoing bloodshed, dispossession, and devastation for the Palestinians of Gaza.
This absolute masterpiece of sophistry comes from Jewish Currents, in a May 25 piece by Dylan Saba, which argues that Israel needs to take more casualties if any final peace settlement is to be reached. Without more Israeli deaths, he argues, the Israeli government has no incentive to negotiate for a final arrangement. If you’re confused by what seems like a piece demanding that Jews wish for their own deaths, JC editor Arielle Angel explains that, uh, that’s exactly the argument here: “The orientation toward absolute safety for individual Jewish bodies over the prospect of long-term peace and safety for both peoples is one of the things at the root of the problem.”
→ The former head of prestigious research hospital IHU in Marseille, and one of the world’s most cited microbiologists, Didier Raoult is once again coming under attack, this time from 16 French research organizations for his behavior in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Raoult was one of the first to experiment with combining FDA-approved anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, FDA-approved antibiotic azithromycin, and zinc to combat COVID-19. After Raoult recently released retrospective data on more than 30,000 treated patients that showed a 71% reduction in death among outpatients, his colleagues in the French scientific community accused him in Le Monde of administering the treatment “without a solid pharmacological basis and lacking any proof of their effectiveness.” For his promotion of hydroxychloroquine, Raoult was repeatedly attacked in the early months of the pandemic, including in the American press. “Is it illegal to save people?” he tweeted recently. He also stated that due to the increased infectivity of the new Omicron variants, he didn’t believe hydroxychloroquine would still be effective, adding, “This is science, not dogma.”
→ In an unprecedented decision, the Israeli parliament’s ethics committee approved a request by Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel to bring her nanny along on an official work trip to Czechia. Normally, MKs are accompanied by their parliamentary aides, but Haskel, who has 10-month-old twins and is breastfeeding, appealed for the right to swap the aide for someone who could help her strike a better work-life balance. She’ll be paying for the nanny’s time out of pocket. Haskel told Israeli reporters she’s proud to continue and emphasize the importance of motherhood.
Directed by Ben Affleck
Air might be the best film yet in the Cinematic Age of Amazon. Produced by Amazon Studios and grossing $89 million so far, the movie celebrates a sneaker that you can buy on Amazon.com and have delivered within a day.
And what a celebration it is—of a shoe line that transformed Nike into one of the most popular brands on the planet and that today amounts to an estimated $400 million per year in annual sales. Arguably the ultimate example of a commodity fetish—Jordan’s jump transformed into strips of leather and rubber transformed into an iconic piece of footwear—the film, which tells the story of that shoe’s origins, turns the commodity into a spectacle, and an extremely enjoyable spectacle at that, wonderfully acted and mostly well directed, seemingly without a shred of irony or skepticism. At no point do we get a knowing wink that this is a fantasy about footwear; a passing reference—even just to appease the cranks!—to the brutal factory conditions where those shoes were made (factories paid workers less than 80 cents per day, employed children, violently crushed union efforts, etc.); or even a word of wonder or worry about the society that turns sneakers into holy totems. The sneaker industry has more than doubled in annual sales in less than 10 years, from $42 billion in 2014 to more than $100 billion in 2022; sneaker sales are expected to more than double again by 2031.
There are those who hope that Hollywood becomes less political, or at least less ideological in its politics. Air, a breeze of a film about a consumer good, feels so lacking in moral complexity or philosophical nuance that it’s dazzling.
TODAY IN TABLET:
‘The Jewess and the Synagogue’ by Jenna Weissman Joselit
The discussion about women’s roles in American synagogues began more than a century ago
A Cannes Diary by Vladislav Davidzon
With the pandemic receding, war dragging on in the East, and accusations of misogyny flying, Tablet’s European cultural correspondent files daily dispatches from the world’s most famous film festival
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How the Teachers Union Broke Public Education
A former public school teacher documents the profound betrayal of America's students
On May 17, the Oakland, California teachers’ union ended a two-week strike - the union’s third strike in five years. The district offered a substantial salary increase for teachers before the strike even began, but negotiations remained deadlocked for days over the union’s other demands. The Oakland Education Association (OEA) put forward several “common good” proposals that included drought-resistant shrubs, a Climate Justice Day, reparations for Black students, and converting unused school and office buildings into housing for homeless kids and their families.
Most of these “common good” issues were outside the legal scope of teachers’ contracts, but as The Wall Street Journal editorial board pointed out, OEA is not a rogue branch of the teachers' union. The National Education Association (NEA)—the largest labor union in the U.S. representing teachers and other school faculty—explicitly tells teachers to bargain for the “common good,” advising union branches that, “When we expand the continuum of bargaining, we build power, and go on the offense in order to fight for social and racial justice.”
What makes the NEA’s bargaining approach so remarkable is the fact that this union and its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have recently inflicted profound racial and social injustice on the country’s school children in the form of extended school closures.
As an Oakland public school teacher, I was a staunch supporter of the teachers' union and was a union representative at my school for three years. In 2020, however, I began to disagree with the union when it prevented me from returning to my classroom long after studies proved that school reopening was safe, even without COVID-19 mitigation measures. In my experience, the union’s actions were not motivated by sincere fears, but rather by a desire to virtue-signal and maintain comfortable work-from-home conditions.
Although union bosses like Randi Weingarten continue to obfuscate their role in school closures, the historical record is clear: the union repeatedly pushed to keep schools closed, and areas with greater union influence kept schools closed longer. Politicians, public health officials, and the media certainly had a hand in this fiasco, but the union egged on dramatic news stories, framed school reopening as a partisan issue, and directly interfered in CDC recommendations. Teachers saw first-hand that virtual learning was a farce and that children were suffering. While there may be plenty of blame to go around, teachers’ abandonment of their own students was a special kind of betrayal.
I am well-aware that there were many problems plaguing public education before school closures, and that teaching was a challenging and exhausting job. Today, however, the crisis teachers face is an order of magnitude worse than it was in 2019, and this crisis is almost entirely self-inflicted. Public school enrollment is plummeting, kids are refusing to go to school, and disciplinary problems are spiraling out of control.
Many districts are in freefall. In Baltimore, one high school student told the local news that, “The rising number of violence within city public schools has been unfathomable.” More than 80% of US schools have reported an increase in behavior issues. Nearly half of all schools have teacher shortages, and teachers continue to leave in droves.
Nationally, the chronic absence rate doubled, and it is not showing signs of improvement. In one San Francisco elementary school, almost 90% of students were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year. In New York City, 50% of all Black students and 47% of all Latino students were chronically absent. Parents have no idea how far behind their kids really are, and schools cannot repair learning loss on a mass scale because the available workforce is simply not up to the task.
What happened in 2020 was the result of a long process in which the union replaced labor-related goals, which are finite and measurable, with activism, which is infinite and abstract. In 2018, a group of West Virginia teachers kicked off a national teacher strike wave. Most of these strikes had reasonable goals and broad public support, but, like all social movements, this strike wave gave birth to insatiable fanaticism.
In his 1951 book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer explained, “The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down… The taste for strong feeling drives him on to search for mysteries yet to be revealed and secret doors yet to be opened. He keeps groping for extremes.” The teachers' union may have once had noble intentions, but these intentions have been hijacked by histrionic fanatics whose thirst for extremes might have contributed to the deaths of thousands of children and teenagers.—
Although it still has the veneer of a labor organization, the teachers’ union is an arm of the Democratic party. Since 2016, progressive leaders of the AFT and the NEA have increasingly prioritized political causes like Black Lives Matter and their opposition to Donald Trump. What’s more, external elements have also parasitized the union for their own objectives. For several years, left-wing publications and organizations pressured the teachers’ union to embrace social justice goals unrelated to those of traditional organized labor. The Democratic Socialists of America (an organization mostly composed of college-educated millennials) even made open attempts to infiltrate and influence the union.
At one time, the teachers proudly viewed education as an engine of social mobility. Today, the union is a captured institution, and it argues that the country must be remade for education to even be possible. Favoring ideological indoctrination over academic achievement fundamentally devalues teaching and learning. It is this devaluing that was the nail in the coffin for the school system.
Public education itself is one of the most important “common goods” there is, and treating it as “non-essential” has had profound consequences. Kids feeling depressed, not wanting to go to school, and misbehaving when they get there is a natural response to the message adults have sent them. There were many forces that made public education so fragile to begin with, but it was the teachers’ union that dealt the final blow.
In 2020 and 2021, like many other sectors of society, the teachers' union lost the capacity for moral reasoning and developed a monomaniacal obsession with “safety.” The sentiment expressed in the infamous Chicago Teachers' Union Tweet (“The drive to reopen schools is rooted in racism, sexism, and misogyny”) exemplified the degree of hysteria in large, urban school districts. Ignoring the clear harm they were doing to children, union leaders made increasingly cruel, hypocritical, and illogical decisions.
School closures were a year-long exercise in anti-solidarity. Teachers expected essential workers to deliver food for them, pick up their trash, and literally keep the lights on - all while the union withheld real education from these workers’ children. In July 2020, I offered to return to teach students with severe disabilities in person, but a union leader told me no teachers could go back. To provide federally mandated Special Education services, the school district hired a private agency to go house to house for some students, which was supposedly safer than allowing me to teach them in small groups outside. Despite the union’s claim of doing something righteous, it had simply displaced the “risk” of teaching onto a private contractor.
In early 2021, the district also set up after school pods for some Special Education students, but teachers like me were not allowed to supervise them, so the district used low-wage aides to staff the pods. Again, the teachers' union displaced “risk” - this time onto under-paid workers. At my school’s union meeting, teachers complained about the fact that small groups of disabled students were now coming to campus for a few hours a week, citing their concerns about “safety protocols,” even though these teachers were still working remotely.
Read the rest of Alex Gutentag’s piece tomorrow in Tablet.