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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Israel's sad loss.

There is noting positive to be said about Israel’s election.  Nothing.  I know it’s just hours after the results have been published and one has to wait to see the makeup of the government.  But, whatever that may be, there is no question that hard line conservatism prevailed.  Bibi’s deplorable campaign built on fear, reneging on his previous commitment two states and finally an appeal to racism, astoundingly made on election day while the polls were still open won the day.  It is said that he is charismatic.  He certainly is a skilled orator and effective spokesman for his point of view.  My view is of a demagogue driven as much by personal ambition as by anything else.  In this vote, he used negativism and scare tactics to convince constituents of other rightest parties to vote Likud.  That gave him enough of an edge to virtually insure another term.  It didn’t change the ideological balance in the country or necessarily in the new Knesset.

Elections are not only won, they are also lost.  Israel’s left has been at sea and adrift for years.  They performed marginally better this time around because they forged a political alliance.  The same is true for Israeli Arabs.  But throughout the campaign we heard that Herzog suffered a substantial charisma-deficit.  It’s hard to see how that works at a time when a party and point of view is trying to reenergize itself.  An Israeli relative who thinks his country is headed in the wrong direction told me months ago that the election would make no difference.  He’s a visiting academic in the US for this and perhaps another year, but will return home thereafter.  My guess is that he didn’t vote.  If Herzog lacks charisma, people on the left or even left of center suffer something worse: a passion-deficit. 


While campaigning, Barack Obama often asked the assembled, “are you fired up and ready to go?”  Yes, they responded.  Whipping up the crowd never hurts.  But I think the question, or the need to ask it, implied that, unlike those on the right, liberals seem to have lost their fire.  They complain about the state of things, have the best of instincts and even intentions, but aren’t sufficiently fired up enough and ready to go.  Israel’s left definitely has that problem.  So do we, but that’s another subject for another time.  If real estate comes down to the three L’s, so too does politics.  Leadership, leadership, leadership is what changes the dynamic.  Israel’s right seems to have it.  The Zionist Union and Israel’s left does not.  At the very least, they have been unable to evoke the passion necessary to win the right to govern.  So Israel, with a government that will likely be more cohesively dominated by the political and religious right, remains on a course.  

If we take Bibi at his latest word, that translates into a path toward a single state with all of its concurrent possibilities, none of them good in either the short or long term.  I don’t think the early Zionists were dreaming about the potential of a one sided “democratic” apartheid state.  Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, and also the birthday of the late Stephen S. Wise, a great American rabbi, liberal and an early Zionist leader.  He was my father's friend and mentor.  I don't think Wise would be happy about what happened in Israel on the anniversary of his birth.  What might follow is too awful and painful to contemplate.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

If not treasonous, certainly treacherous.

In July of 1972, the actor and political anti-war activist Jane Fonda made a controversial visit to North Viet Nam.  Once there, she appeared in the media and posed for photographs, which she now calls a “huge mistake”.  Many of those who supported the war considered her a traitor — “Hanoi Jane”.  Some veterans continue to be bitter.  Just this January when she made an appearance in Maryland, a protester was quoted by the Frederick newspaper: “She encouraged North Vietnam to pull away from the negotiations table…She got Americans killed.”  Fonda was a private, albeit high profile, citizen.  But her alleged interference with negotiations being conducted by the Nixon administration was considered treasonous.  While the president was a Republican, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  That was also the case when months later he negotiated with China, considered one of our archenemies.  No one on Capital Hill questioned the president’s right to do so, much less inserted themselves in the process.  They understood the constitutional role of the executive branch.

When elected legislators insert themselves into the conduct of foreign policy, into the negotiating process, it’s not like Fonda in Viet Nam but another matter entirely.  It was bad enough when the House Speaker circumvented diplomatic norms by inviting Bibi Netanyahu to lobby against a potential treaty before a joint session without consulting the White House.  Seeking to directly undermine negotiations under way by the president and secretary of state is beyond the pale.  Perhaps the letter sent by GOP senators to the Iranians isn’t treasonous but it surely is treacherous.  If this were merely the ill-conceived work of freshman Tea Party Senator Tom Cotton, we might see it as an inexperienced faux pas.  With forty-seven signatories including those of Mitch McConnell, John McCain and a number of would be presidential candidates, it borders on being un-American.  It flaunts the separation of powers and makes us look a banana republic.


Richard Nixon, already under the cloud of Watergate, negotiated a reversal of a years old China policy unchallenged by the Democratic majority on the Hill.  Everyone understood their respective roles.  When our duly elected president is engaged in something of relatively less consequential nature — Iran is no China — the Republican leaders in today’s Congress act far out of line.  It seems that their irrational hate for our president has no bounds.  They are hardly the loyal opposition; they’re an embarrassment.  They also put the country and the world in greater danger and if blood is shed it will be on their hands.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bibi's disturbing misadventure.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of the State of Israel.  As its elected leader, he rightly speaks for his nation.  He may speak as a Jew, but he does not speak for the Jewish people.  No one does.  Indeed, what’s different for Jews relative, for example, to Roman Catholics, is that we have no pope-like figure.  In the few places where there is a Chief Rabbi, even in Israel where he has some government authorized functions, he speaks only for his specific community, in this case some of Israel’s orthodox Jews.  Bibi, is in the final days of an election campaign.  Even if he continues as prime minister, he will remain in power only through a coalition.  Polls suggest that his party is likely to gain some seats in the Knesset, but even then only the low 20s out of 120.  That of course is the nature of parliamentary systems, especially one like Israel’s where thirteen parties currently hold seats.  Contrast that with the UK, where coalitions are rare and where two parties dominate.  So, Netanyahu, by virtue of his office speaks for Israel, but not for the Jewish people.  Certainly not for me.

Listening to Netanyahu’s speech today, was eerily like listening to members of the Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq war.  It was a war that he had both urged and supported.   Listening to his words, I could help thinking about Dick Cheney and Condi Rice’s warnings about a mushroom cloud.  The applause  of the assembled, accompanied by loud hoots on the Republican side, again brought back echoes of the weapons of mass destruction frenzy built up only to be followed by a war based upon deception and salesmanship.  Sadly, Netanyahu did the same. This is not to suggest that Iran is an innocent or that it does support some very bad actors and may have broad ambitions.  It is rather that what we witnessed today was a sales pitch by a political candidate who will undoubtedly use video of the applause he garnered to strengthen his position back home. 

Not everyone is the room was happy.  Here’s is how Nancy Pelosi reacted to his remarks, “That is why, as one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”  Remember how Bibi lectured Obama in the Oval Office, well he’s done it again, this time to the howls of a highly partisan audience.

Like the former House Speaker, and for much deeper and personal reasons, I too count myself as a firm supporter of Israel.  Bibi may not speak for the Jews or for me, but make no mistake the survival of Israel is of key, perhaps even existential, importance to the Jewish people, regardless of their political and even religious beliefs.  For that reason alone, I opposed Netanyahu’s appearance which, in my view, in addition to all other considerations was detrimental to Israel and its cause.  I can’t think of a single foreign leader who has, his protestations today notwithstanding, so overtly aligned himself one of our political parties.  Beyond all else, this was a major breach with diplomatic norms, one that in the long run can’t possibly be good for Israel.  Injecting himself into what is already our highly polarized political scene, undermines the historic bipartisan support for Israel.  A few nice words about Obama at the outset of his talk, doesn’t mask the total repudiation of the president’s diplomacy.

Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, and rightly so.  But it must also stand up to the fact of its own armaments and being among the very few nations who have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  Doesn’t that undermine the case it makes on the current negotiations?  Whether Iran, with its expressed hostility toward Israel and unquestioned aggressive role in the region, should have nuclear weapons is a legitimate question.  But the better one is whether any country including Israel and all the other nuclear powers should be so armed?  It’s a fact that nuclear weapons, by definition, make the world less safe.  The prime minister’s protestations about Iran, without even acknowledging Israel’s own stockpile, undermines his argument and, in the eyes of its critics, comes off as being a bit hypocritical.  Whether that judgment is fair is not the issue here, rather than if Bibi is asking Americans to face up to “facts”, then all facts are on the table.


Israel is a remarkable country.  It’s the only true democracy in its region — one that has orderly elections and stands by the rule of law.  Nobody is more vigilant in that regard that its own supreme court.  At the same time, Israel continues to occupy its neighbor and in so doing has alienated many of its adversaries but also its natural allies.  It is an essential Jewish state, but its policies have troubled many within the larger Jewish community and, worse, turned off many young Jews.  That isn't good for Israel nor is it for Jewish survival around the world including here in the United States.  I am old enough to remember the thrill of Israel’s birth in the aftermath of World War II.  To see its emergence was an emotional Jewish experience, in some ways solidified for us as Americans in seeing Yitzhak Rabin address a joint session of Congress in 1976.  Israeli leaders have done that eight times and in a mark of our mutual relationship more often than any other country, except the UK.  I trust that will happen again, but under very different circumstances.

Monday, February 23, 2015

High horse deception.

Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, President Obama addressed the challenges we face at a time where terrible acts of violence are, as he put it, “so often perpetrated in the name of religion”.  His audience included lawmakers asked to authorize military action against ISIS, which has used the Internet to broadcast its now all to familiar acts of atrocity.  The challenge of militant Islam hung over the room, and with good reason.  In that context and in the spirit of Mathew 7:1 — Judge not, that ye be not judged — the president expressed these cautionary words, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Predictably, Republicans jumped on the president’s remarks culminating this past week in a venomous attack by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  Leaving aside his (debunked by fact) code-tinged questioning of Obama’s love for America, Giuliani made this assertion: “Now we know there’s something wrong with the guy. I thought that one [the comment about the Crusades] sort of went off the cliff.  What I don’t find with Obama…is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.”  Really?  Are we now to add Crusades denier, to evolution denier and climate change denier in the Republican songbook?  “Dilettante’s knowledge of history”, wow! 

Well here is what the late historian Edgar F. Johnson wrote in his two volume Introduction to The History of the Western Tradition.  Johnson, a Christian, quotes a contemporaneous 11th Century source (page 490):
The amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible…Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies, others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers, others tortured them longer by casting them into flames.   Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city….Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers. 
This was the work of warriors sent forth by no less than Pope Urban II in the name of Christianity.  Even so, we don’t assume that it represented the essence of Christian teachings and faith.  Indeed, Jesus would likely have been appalled.  For sure it doesn’t represent Christianity as we know it today or necessarily all Christians at the time.  That said, it is eerily and shockingly similar in both deed and detail to what’s proudly claimed by ISIS.  Hence, the reminder and a word of caution delivered at a prayer breakfast by a president who actually does have a sense of history. Speaking truth, however unpleasant and disturbing.

I am sure that people with Rudy Giuliani’s deep knowledge of history are likewise “scholars” of Islam and the Quran.  From their careful and comprehensive study they know that ISIS and other militant fundamentalist are following the obvious intent, the only proper reading, of Islam’s teachings.  Right. Does that make any more sense than to say those Crusaders, sanctioned by none other than the pope, were following the only logical read of Christianity?  The Crusades are a dark chapter in Christian and world history.  It is one that many Christians would like to forget, and understandably so.  Is it credible to think that the violence done today in name of Allah is any more reflective of Islam and its traditions than were the Crusades of Christianity and its teachings?  I don’t think so.  Now this is not to suggest the religious fringe, across many faiths, cannot find textual justification for their deeds.  Indeed many of the most brutal chapters of history relate to religious wars justified by selective reading of Scripture, but more importantly by a claim of possessing absolute truth.  They act in the name of God, an assertion that I characterized in my book, as “the arrogance of attribution”.  Claiming the one and only truth is always dangerous, and in fact can apply to atheists as well as those who profess a god-belief. 

President Obama is being criticized in some quarters for not characterizing our battle against violent extremists as a war against Islam.  Not only would it be a mistake to make such a blanket assertion, and an inaccurate one, but it should be noted that those who advocate it are not in office.   Even George W Bush avoided depicting Islam as the enemy, if for no other reason than that we rely on alliances with Muslim countries in combatting extremism.  The fallacy of tarring one religion with a broad and indiscriminate brush perhaps is no better illustrated than in the brutal murder of three young and very promising American Muslims — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — just a short distance from my home here in Chapel Hill.

In this case, the killer who turned himself in is an avowed atheist.  Whether it was a hate crime, as many of us fear it was, is yet to be determined.  What we do know is that blanket hate for Muslims and their religion is in the air, heightened by conflicts in the Middle East and wide coverage in both traditional and social media of brutality carried out in God’s name.  People like Giuliani, despite all their protestations to the contrary, add flame to that fire.  His comments about Obama are not racist, he laughably claims, because the president had a white mother.  That surely proves it.  In the same vein, how could one possibly hate Muslims when they were born in America and speak such perfect English?  Did Craig Hicks target these young people, as opposed to his other neighbors with whom he had similar “parking” disputes, because Yusor and Razan wore traditional hijabs?  Time will tell, but you may remember that in the aftermath of 911, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turban wearing Sikh, was killed in front of his Arizona gas station because he was erroneously thought to be a Muslim.  Blanket and misguided hatred does that.  As a Jew, I can attest to what it has done to my people, including during those Crusades referenced by the president at the prayer meeting.


We are living in troubling and dangerous times.  And, yes, as Obama’s caution suggested, we all live in “glass houses”.  A medieval pope unleashed religious warfare and horrendous barbarism in sending forth a murderous mobs clad as soldiers.  In this century, we have a pope who speaks of serving the poor and calls for humility.  A violent but, relative to the many millions who follow Islam, small Muslim fanatical fringe group are proving once more how monstrous humans can be.  They claim to be doing their evil in Allah’s name,  But concurrently a young Muslim dental student living the peaceful university town of Chapel Hill spends his spare hours providing help to the disadvantaged here and in far flung lands.  A gentile life driven by his faith, snuffed out by, at best, irrational misplaced hatred.  ISIS and Deah Shaddy Barakat; does one speak for Islam and not the other?  How we view the two and what we attribute to them and their religious beliefs says everything about who we are.  It also says a lot about history, the kind Barack Obama knows and that the Rudy Giuliani’s of this world can only distort with their ignorance or self imposed blindness — sitting on their high horses.