There could be trouble brewing for the congressional resolution (PDF), now circulating for signatures in the House, that condemns the United Nations’ Goldstone Report on alleged Israel and Hamas war crimes in Gaza.
The House resolution, H.Res. 867, has collected 124 signatures so far for its appeal to the Obama administration to oppose any international consideration or endorsement of the report, which it calls “irredeemably biased.” The resolution was initiated by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and is co-sponsored by Democrats Howard Berman of Los Angeles and Gary Ackerman of Queens, along with Republican Dan Burton of somewhere in Indiana.
But Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is having second thoughts about the resolution, according to this Friday blog post by Spencer Ackerman of the on-line Washington Independent. Berman’s staff is said to be consulting with Ros-Lehtinen’s staff about how to proceed. The reason: a hard-hitting letter to the committee from Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who authored the U.N. fact-finding report. Goldstone goes through the resolution paragraph by paragraph and points to a hefty list of distortions, misrepresentations and borderline fabrications about his 575-page report.
By way of background (if you’ve been following the case, skip this paragraph), Goldstone was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council last spring to lead a fact-finding mission probing alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead last December and January. Goldstone’s report found evidence of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. It was submitted September 15 to the Human Rights Council, which voted October 16 to refer it to the Security Council. The Security Council can send the report to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of suspected war-crimes perpetrators, unless Israel acts beforehand to launch its own independent investigation.
One point Goldstone has been making over and over since his report was published is that the international court may act only when a nation can’t or won’t conduct its own credible, independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes. Israel has conducted numerous such inquiries in the past, to worldwide acclaim. This time, for some reason, the Netanyahu government has been refusing to launch an inquiry, instead leaving it to the army to investigate itself.
Investigator: “Hey, O’Reilly, did you beat up that kid?”
Investigator: “Glad to hear it. Say hi to Marge and the kids.”
Israel tried at first to ignore the Goldstone commission. Now it’s waging an international campaign to discredit the report. Lehtinen’s resolution seems to be the campaign’s latest sortie; in fact, much of its language comes straight from Netanyahu government talking points. (I posted last week that Netanyahu now seems to be reconsidering his refusal to launch an inquiry.)
More on the details of the House resolution and Goldstone’s critique after the jump.
Pressure continues to mount on Israel to honor its commitments on West Bank settlement construction by dismantling illegally-built structures and halting new ones. It’s not going smoothly.
The latest critic to pile on the Jewish state is Dorit Beinisch, chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. Beinisch ripped into the Israeli Defense Ministry during an October 28 hearing for repeatedly failing to carry out existing demolition orders and offering a shifting array of excuses. The court was hearing initial arguments in a suit filed by human rights groups over nine homes built in Ofra, a settlement near Ramallah, on privately-owned Palestinian property.
According to a Ynet report on the hearing, government representatives acknowledged that the homes were built illegally on private Palestinian property and are under court order for demolition. The government representatives told the justices that the decision to delay carrying out court orders had been made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, because of the delicacy of the timing. Barak, alert readers will recall, is the embattled Labor Party leader who brought his party into the Netanyahu coalition, over the objections of most of his Knesset caucus, in order to protect the peace process.
“The court is aware, I’m sure, of the ongoing political process,” Barak’s adviser on settlement affairs, Eitan Broshi, told the justices, according to Ynet. “The defense minister has been wracking his brain with this question and we ask the court’s understanding on the matter.”
Beinisch’s reply: “You say ‘priorities,’ but there is no implementation of priorities. Illegality is being ignored. Ofra isn’t the first instance. There are so many cases up in the air. The impression is that you changed your position about your willingness to demolish.”
Associate Justice Ayala Procaccia added her own criticism of the government’s inaction, saying that “When there are allegations of stolen land, that has to be at the top of the list.”
Happily, the Forward can report that Israel is not entirely ignoring illegal construction in the areas captured in 1967. This week alone authorities demolished at least six illegal structures, a record five of them on a single day, October 27. It must be said that the added alacrity shown in this week’s demolitions might be connected to the fact that they involved Arab homes in traditionally Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The homes were demolished because they had been built “without proper construction permits,” in the words of municipal officials quoted in the Jerusalem Post.
The demolitions are part of a growing trend that could threaten the stability not only of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, but of Jewish homes in West Jerusalem and throughout Israel, as we’ll explain after the jump.
Israel is softening its early hard line against creating an independent commission of inquiry into the army’s conduct during the Gaza war. Typically, though, the debate is being conducted via name-calling and exchanges of invective and ultimatums.
The floodgates were opened when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post in a Friday interview that he was “looking into” setting up an independent inquiry, though he insisted immediately that it was “not because of Goldstone but because of our own internal needs.” The publication of the interview on Saturday touched off an uproar of protest in Israel, and Netanyahu immediately changed his story. On Saturday night he released a statement through his office saying he saw “no need” for an independent inquiry. His aides are now hinting that if there is an inquiry it will be because of international pressure, not internal needs — precisely the reverse of what he told Weymouth.
The battle lines inside Israel are a bit surprising and a bit frightening. The strongest opponent is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the chairman of what used to be the Israel Labor Party. His most important ally is Eli Yishai, chairman of the haredi Shas Party. Calling for an inquiry are, among others, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, one of the Likud’s top legal/constitutional minds and leader of the party’s humane wing (yes, there is one), and Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman, who left the presidency of Ben-Gurion University to join what’s left of the progressive wing of what’s left of the Labor Party.
Barak and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, are putting out a novel line of argument against the independent commission. They’re saying that bringing military personnel before a civilian inquiry is outright illegitimate, that it’s dangerous to morale and a threat to soldiers’ lives. That is, the civilian political system has no right to oversee the military. The army makes its own rules and it alone enforces them. It is above civilian law. That logic has the additional benefit of ending the painful debate over whether Israel is to be a democracy or a Jewish state. Do away with that pesky democracy stuff right now and be done with it.
One of the points that gets lost in the debate is a pragmatic one. If and when the Security Council takes up the Goldstone Report, it has the right to refer it to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. But, under the treaty that created the court, (in Article 17, for you legal eagles) the court must rule “that a case is inadmissible” if it “is being investigated or prosecuted by a State which has jurisdiction over it, unless the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.” That is, if you conduct your own inquiry, the court can’t step in. If you don’t feel like, the international court will gladly do it for you. And no, having your army investigate itself does not qualify as an inquiry, except in the fertile minds of Gabi Ashkenazi, Eli Yishai and the leader of Israel’s social democratic labor movement, zichron tzadikim levracha.
Goldstone has been telling Israel for months that it should set up a commission, not as a confession of guilt, but as an opportunity to make the international court go away and decide its own guilt or innocence without international interference. Based on what Netanyahu has been saying this weekend, it seems he’s finally begun to figure that out.
A very intriguing piece by Politico’s David Gibson in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section claims, much as I argued in a column back in August (but in greater depth), that Pope Benedict XVI is engaged in a sweeping campaign to remake the church. In large part what he’s trying to do is to roll back some of the reforms of Vatican II and make Catholicism what it once was, at least as he remembers it.
Thus far, Benedict’s papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics — or Protestants — are usually criticized for pursuing. In Benedict’s case, this liberalism serves a conservative agenda. But his activism should not be surprising: As a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, Ratzinger has long pushed for what he calls a “reform of the reform” to correct what he considers the excesses or abuses of the time.
Gibson sees the latest big-ticket change, inviting conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians into the Catholic church, as part of his overall strategy. It’s frankly a bit hard to see this particular reform as conservative; after all, he’s letting Anglican priests join with their wives, which theoretically opens the door to letting other priests marry. The bottom line, though, seems to be shoring up the church’s conservative wing by bringing in a whole new constituency. Some of the other changes we’ve noted, including the restoration in various places of prayers for conversion of the Jews, are part of this overall Ratzinger plan, Gibson writes. Worth a look.
The Anti-Defamation League reports in an October 15 press release that it has received an apology from the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Liberty Commission, Richard Land, for a September 26 speech to the Christian Coalition in which he described the congressional Democrats’ health care reforms as “exactly what the Nazis did.” In the same speech Land also quipped that he had given “the Dr. Josef Mengele Award” to Ezekiel Emanuel, President Obama’s chief health care adviser (and Rahm’s brother), for his “advocacy of health care rationing.”
In an October 14 letter to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, Land said he had been “using hyperbole for effect and never intended to actually equate anyone in the Obama administration with Dr. Mengele.” He promised to “refrain from making such references in the future,” and added: “I apologize to everyone who found such references hurtful.”
Land was responding to an October 9 letter from Foxman, complaining that the “Nazi comparison is inappropriate, insensitive and unjustified. As a Holocaust survivor, I take particular offense. Such comparisons diminish the history and the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who died at the hands of the Nazis and insults those who fought bravely against Hitler.”
Foxman had a busy summer on the health-care-is-Nazism front. Among those he scolded was Rush Limbaugh, who, among other things, repeated Glenn Beck’s riff about the Obama health-care logo looking Hitlerian. Another scoldee was syndicated radio talk jockey Bill Press, who had accused opponents of health care reform of using tactics that were “straight out of the Nazi playbook.”
The battle didn’t start this summer, though. Holocaust abuse is a continuing theme among Jewish community advocates. Sometimes, as in the case of Land, it yields results. Other abusers, like Limbaugh, remain unbowed.
One of the most celebrated successes was the 1998 campaign by the Zionist Organization of America to derail the appointment of Holocaust scholar John Roth as chief historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
America’s Catholic bishops, responding to Jewish protests, are backing away from a controversial policy statement they issued last June in which interfaith dialogue was portrayed as a forum for promoting Christianity.
Jewish organizations that partner with the church in ongoing, formal dialogue, here and in Rome, had warned in August that the controversial June statement could threaten the future of the historic, four-decade exchange. As I wrote in a column at the time, the dispute seemed to be the latest in a series of jolts to Catholic-Jewish relations since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
The bishops’ new statement looks like an attempt to calm the waters. It offers a revised version of the June statement that drops the offending passages. But, as I’ll show, the edited version looks like a clumsy job that leaves part of the offending passage firmly in place. Well, it’s either a mistake or an indication that they’re not really backing down, and that we have indeed entered into the Age of Benedict. And a close read of the bishops’ new “Statement of Principles in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” suggests pretty strongly that it’s no mistake.
The controversial June statement was itself a reversal of an earlier statement from 2002, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” which had affirmed the post-Vatican II Catholic view of Judaism as a living covenant with God.
A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely-given mission to Jews to witness to God’s faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.
“Reflections” was the product of an annual dialogue between the National Council of Synagogues, representing the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist wings of Judaism, and the ecumenical affairs committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Two Orthodox participants, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, broke away from the synagogue council in 1992 and have maintained their own separate dialogue with the bishops ever since.
What the bishops produced this past June, “Notes on ‘Reflections on Covenant and Mission’,” was bluntly critical of “Reflections.” Its central point was an apparent dismissal of the hard-won understanding, key to the post-Vatican II rapprochement, that the church no longer aspires to convert the Jews. “Note” was issued jointly by the bishops’ ecumenical committee and the more hard-line committee on doctrine, which appeared to have stepped in to restrain the ecumenicals’ overenthusiasm. The Jewish groups complained that there was no advance warning, undermining the spirit of partnership that was the dialogue’s supposed foundation. Here’s the “Notes” money quote:
In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization, however, the document [“Reflections”] develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear. For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism.” Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.
The two Orthodox organizations responded immediately with a sharp letter to the bishops. The letter cites the first two of the three sentences I quoted, calling them
a dagger thrust into the heart of the entire enterprise of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on matters of religion. They undermine everything we were led to believe about that enterprise.
Every now and then, somebody you thought you knew does or says something so completely out of character that it catches you off-guard and forces you to look at things in new and surprising ways.
Take, for example, the recent statement by the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, calling on “international academic and labor groups” to drop their “boycott campaigns against Israel.”
Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I guess that ought to clear things right up.
Seriously, though, it’s hard to imagine whom the Wiesenthal Center thinks it’s going to convince. Its argument is essentially that the latest Nobel prize to an Israeli scientist shows that Israeli academia is doing a pretty good job and everyone should lay off. But the boycott crowd isn’t objecting to the quality of Israel’s academic or cultural opus. They’re trying to get Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians, and they’ve identified these boycotts as an accessible pressure point.
Common sense dictates, therefore, that to dissuade them, you need to explain why these boycotts won’t help the Palestinians. And to do that with any credibility – to your target audience, that is – you ought to come to the table with some sort of track record of sympathy for the Palestinians. The Wiesenthal Center doesn’t quite fit the bill. Its most recent statement on the Palestinians was an August 19 press release dealing with “Palestinian self-delusion.”
A powerful example of a smart, effective argument against Israel boycotts was published recently in the New York Review of Books. It came in a letter from Vanessa Redgrave and two fellow culturati, Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman.
No, that’s not a misprint. Vanessa Redgrave defending Israel. Here’s how:
Just about the best analysis of Obama’s Nobel that I have yet seen is this op-ed essay by Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York and a close ally of Ehud Barak (that’s more a compliment to Barak than to Alon).
His main point is that, as I argued in an earlier blog post, the radically different American presence that Obama brings to the world stage is in itself a substantive achievement. Here’s how Alon puts it:
Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize because of an intellectual effort, rather than diplomatic action. He won for his attempt to shatter old thinking and formulate policy and diplomacy of cooperation, not because of his achievements…
Alon elaborates on how the Nobel committee treats such “intellectual efforts”:
A close examination of the history of Nobel Peace Prizes attests to considerable expansion of the term and conditions for granting the prize. Henri Kissinger was awarded a Nobel for the agreement to end the fighting and bring peace to Vietnam – but there was neither an end to fighting nor peace. The same was true of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Arafat, who received the prize in 1994. In both cases the Nobel was awarded for breaking paradigms, an effort to shatter an intellectual impasse, and political courage, rather than achievements.
The Dalai Lama worked for peace and received the prize in 1989. Yet it’s difficult to quantify his contribution to peace. It’s also difficult to say that IAEA Chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who was awarded the prize in 2005, contributed to world peace in a more concrete manner than Barak Obama. The apex was of course in 2007, when the prize was given to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the expanding world of the term “peace,” Al Gore contributed to world peace by encouraging international cooperation on a worldwide problem.
Peace is mostly a journey, not a destination. The Nobel is memorable in large part because of its naming of the beacons that light the way forward, like the pillar of fire that was placed for us in Sinai.
Also useful reading on the Nobel is this blog post by E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post. He does a good job of going through the various takes (at least the minimally respectable ones) for and against the award and deconstructs them. One of his best points: he “liked Harold Meyerson’s take that the award should have gone to the American electorate for changing our country’s approach to the world.”
Late addition (call it my Monday-morning self-quarterbacking) is this counterpoint by Ross Douthat, the current conservative columnist on the New York Times op-ed page:
True, Obama didn’t ask for this. It was obvious, from his halting delivery and slightly shamefaced air last Friday, that he wishes the Nobel committee hadn’t put him in this spot.
But he still wasn’t brave enough to tell it no.
Obama gains nothing from the prize. No domestic constituency will become more favorably disposed to him because five Norwegians think he’s already changed the world — and the Republicans were just handed the punch line for an easy recession-era attack ad. (To quote the Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, anticipating the 30-second spots to come: “He got a Nobel Prize. What did you get? A pink slip.”)
Overseas, there was nobody, from Paris to Peshawar, who woke up Friday more disposed to work with the United States because of the Nobel committee’s decision — and plenty of more seasoned statesman who woke up laughing. …
But by accepting the prize, he’s made failure, if and when it comes, that much more embarrassing and difficult to bear. What’s more, he’s etched in stone the phrase with which critics will dismiss his presidency.
And to all dear readers, whatever your creed or background, a very happy and sweet Shemini Atzeret — or as a former editor of mine once referred to the festival, when I told him I had swapped shifts and would be out for yet another two days: You’re Making This One Up, Right?
hag sameach, ’id mubarak, have a good one, back Sunday night …
The Nobel committee may not have done President Obama much of a favor in awarding him the Peace Prize. At best it’s a double-edged sword. As Yediot Ahronot’s Washington correspondent Yitzhak Ben-Horin points out in a smart news analysis on the paper’s Ynet Web site (in Hebrew — not yet translated into English as I post this), the prize is apparently intended to encourage Obama’s efforts on the international scene. But it could very well boomerang on him back home by sparking ridicule and deepening public skepticism toward him.
Most of the ridicule of the prize is off-base. As admirers and critics alike are pointing out, the peace prize has been used over time in two different ways, sometimes to honor achievements and sometimes to recognize efforts in hopes of encouraging them and moving them along. The mere fact of Obama’s winning the presidency on a platform of multilateralism abroad and a stronger welfare state at home has changed the nature of discussion around the world. America came to be viewed during the Bush years as an obstacle to human progress in countless areas where it very much counts, particularly reducing tensions between the West and Islam and addressing climate change. America is now part of the game. There’s hope once again for progress on basic global crises. That itself is an accomplishment.
Still, it’s at home that his legacy will ultimately be determined. The American right tends to take the Nobel Peace Prize as a badge of shame, in line with its general views of Europe, the United Nations, multilateralism and the rest. Will ridicule of Obama’s prize hurt him politically and slow his legislative agenda? That’s the core question right now. He needs to pass credible health reform or he’ll lose momentum and credibility on every other front. He needs to find a way to get the economy moving on the ground, where it counts, in employment and access to credit. He needs to pass climate change legislation, or the whole Kyoto-Copenhagen will stall once again.
Speaking of Obama’s credibility, it’s worth checking out this essential analysis of the current moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn. Among other things, Benn argues that the administration’s efforts to deflect the Goldstone report effectively touched off the latest rioting in Jerusalem. The administration bluntly pressured Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority not to push for action on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. That badly weakened Abbas politically. The Jerusalem riots are the response, the Palestinian Authority’s way of showing its public that it still knows how to stand up to Israel.
Israel is preparing to adopt a new diplomatic strategy that is nothing short of breathtaking in its originality, according to a new report in Ynet, the Yediot Ahronot Web site. It’s all spelled out in a document that was submitted yesterday (October 8) to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Ynet reports.
The new strategy reportedly starts from the premise that there is no point in trying to forge a permanent peace accord with the Palestinians, because there is no realistic possibility of reaching agreement. Continuing to pursue futile peace negotiations, it’s feared, will create frustration in Europe and America that could lead, God forbid, to strained relations with Israel.
Instead, Israel is urged to negotiate long-term temporary agreements with the Palestinians that don’t entail Israeli withdrawal or Palestinian sovereignty. This, presumably, is a realistic possibility.
At the same time, Israel will work to improve its image around the world and end its international isolation. It will do this by focusing attention on economic and environmental matters.
“The age in which Israel could allow itself to be isolated is over,” the document says, according to Ynet.
The author of the document is said to be diplomat Naor Gilon, who was plucked out of Israel’s Washington embassy last April to become Lieberman’s chief of staff. The document reportedly will be discussed in the next few days by the Foreign Ministry’s senior staff, after which it is to be adopted formally as Israel’s official new foreign policy.
It sounds like a spoof from Yediot’s popular fake-news page, but that page only appears on Friday, so this must be intended seriously. If Ynet is right, the plan is on track to become Israel’s new diplomatic master-strategy. In essence, the plan is for Israel to explain to the rest of the world that since it has no intention of accepting a deal with the Palestinians, withdrawing from the West Bank or ending the occupation, everyone might as well calm down and accept what every single nation in the world has flatly rejected for an unbroken 42 years. The Palestinians will be asked to forget about their goals of independence and sovereignty and settle down under the Israeli rule that they have given up thousands of lives to be rid of. Avigdor Lieberman is going to explain to the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League that they’ve all been operating under a silly misunderstanding which he would be happy to clear up.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be understood by a hostile world. It’s scary, though, to think that the Jewish state is now represented on the world stage by someone who’s delusional enough to think, even for a moment, that the world can magically be remade if one only wishes hard enough.
Incidentally, if the name Naor Gilon sounds familiar, here’s why: As political counsellor at the Israeli embassy in Washington, he enjoyed a moment of fame a few years ago when he came under FBI scrutiny as the suspected Israeli contact allegedly receiving classified material from former AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. Just the guy you want as your good will ambassador in tense times.
The course of Middle East politics probably won’t be changed drastically by the news, reported October 3 in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born Jewish. But the disclosure is intriguing enough to spark a whole new line of speculation. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman suggests that Ahmadinejad’s obsessive Jew-bashing may be an extreme case of Jewish self-hatred. Nathan’s being playful, but the Telegraph quotes scholars who take the idea seriously.
According to the Telegraph, Ahmadinejad was born to a Jewish family named Sabourjian, which can be translated “tallis-weaver.” Mahmoud’s father Ahmad Sabourjian changed the name when the family converted to Islam — which took place, the paper says, after the future president’s birth.
The Telegraph actually isn’t the first to out Ahmadinejad as a Jew. Radio Free Europe carried the news back in January 2009, following a blog post on the topic by the son of a pro-Ahmadinejad cleric. But the Telegraph goes further: It found an official document that seems to confirm Ahmadinejad’s origins.
Not everybody is buying it. Politico quotes Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar, who wrote a biography of the Iranian leader, pooh-poohing the whole notion. On the other hand, it’s possible that Javedanfar is just peeved because he missed the scoop.
It’s important to recall that Ahmadinejad is not the first prominent Jew-hater with roots in the community. Indeed, he joins a proud line. Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, perhaps the most influential antisemite in post-Soviet Russia, admitted in a 2001 book — after years of denying it — that his father, Wolf Eidelshtein, was Jewish. Zhirinovsky himself bore the name Eidelshtein until he had it changed at age 18.
Then there’s Brooklyn-born chess master Bobby Fischer, who had a Jewish mother and a German father. He began spewing wildly antisemitic ideas during his eccentric, paranoia-plagued later years in self-imposed exile.
But no one has yet matched the self-loathing antisemitism of the champion antisemite of all time, Adolf Hitler. He may or may not have had a Jewish grandfather but he was haunted by the possibility that he might have. Hitler’s father Alois was born out of wedlock, and the identity of Alois’s father — Adolf’s paternal grandfather — remains unknown. One persistent theory is that the old guy was Jewish, possibly a businessman who employed Alois’s mother Maria as a domestic. Most respectable Hitler scholars dismiss the idea, but it seems unquestionable that Hitler himself was quite anxious about it, as psycho-historian George Victor wrote convincingly in his 1998 book “Hitler: The Pathology of Evil.” Among the bits of evidence of Hitler’s anxiety is the widely reported fact that Hitler went into a panic when his British-born nephew William tried briefly to blackmail Uncle Adolf in the 1930s by threatening to go public with the family secret.
An odd sidebar: Nephew Willy Hitler ended up settling on Long Island during the war years, and after a brief lecture tour (based on his Look magazine article, “Why I Hate My Uncle”) and a stint in the U.S. Navy he married and changed his last name in order to sever the family link. Three of his four sons still live in Patchogue, L.I., where they tried for years to avoid publicity and tried to keep their new last name secret. None of them ever married or had children, reputedly so that the Hitler line can come to an end. Curiously, though, Willy’s oldest son is named Alexander Adolf, something the son still says he’s at a loss to explain. And the family name that Willy chose for his sons to bear is Stuart-Houston, a seemingly transparent homage to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the father of the theory that Germany has a historic mission to destroy the Jews. Whoops.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, was warned by Israeli government attorneys this week to leave England and head home after Palestinians filed suit for an international arrest warrant on war crimes charges.
Barak decided to ignore the warning and continue his visit, according to reports in Haaretz and Ynet/Yediot. He was scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and on Wednesday with Foreign Minister David Miliband. He’s also scheduled to address a Labour Friends of Israel event at the annual Labour Party conference taking place in Brighton this week.
Barak is the second ranking Israeli official to face possible arrest in Britain under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to arrest and try foreign nationals for crimes committed in another country. Retired General Doron Almog, former chief of Israel’s southern command, went to England in September 2005 to address a conference on childhood autism, but returned home without even leaving his plane after Israel’s London embassy warned him about a warrant for his arrest in relation to the July 2002 airstrike against Gaza Hamas leader Salah Shehada, which killed 14 people including nine children. Britain later canceled the warrant.
The case against Barak is reportedly based on the Gaza war last winter. It comes just a few weeks after the release of the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, on alleged war crimes in Gaza. The London suit doesn’t appear to be related directly to the report – except for the fact that it would be neutralized, along with other universal jurisdiction efforts against it, including the Goldstone allegations, if Israel were to mount a serious, independent investigation into Gaza-related allegations, along the lines of the acclaimed investigations it launched following the 1973 and 1982 wars. So far the Netanyahu government refuses.
Haaretz columnist Brad Burston recently wrote a powerful piece on the mounting efforts by Palestinians and human rights activists to isolate Israel, and the damage it does to the cause of peace they claim to be pursuing. It’s a cry from an increasingly helpless Israeli left, marginalized at home and now abandoned by its supposed allies abroad.
Here’s Doron Almog discussing the 2005 incident:
Here’s a British news report from last spring that sympathetically describes universal jurisdiction cases against Israel currently working their way through Spanish courts – also stemming from the Shehada bombing:
Here’s Philippines legal scholar Ralph Sarmiento discussing the legal theories behind universal jurisdiction:
Here’s Bob Dylan on the harmonica at a Chabad event, accompanying his son-in-law Peter Himmelman and actor Harry Dean Stanton in a lively if somewhat off-key rendition of Hava Nagila.
While the attention of world Jewry was riveted on the United Nations, Israel’s Knesset quietly gave initial approval on September 22 to legislation that’s intended to ease the process of conversion to Judaism in Israel. The bill authorizes local rabbis to perform conversions at the request of would-be converts, permitting converts to seek out friendly rabbis and loosening the control of the national conversion court system. The bill also bars the growing practice of rabbinical courts unilaterally annulling conversions that were performed elsewhere, usually because a convert is not maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle.
The bill must pass two more Knesset votes to become law.
The measure was drafted by lawmaker David Rotem of the hard-line, Russian-immigrant-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu party, and is aimed primarily at helping the estimated 300,000 Russian immigrants who are not considered Jewish under Orthodox rabbinic law. It was initially opposed in committee by the Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, out of fear that it would loosen the strict standards now imposed on converts. They were won over before the floor vote, however. The bill passed its first reading by 54 votes to one.
Reform Jewish leaders are objecting to a provision in the bill that would formalize the Israeli chief rabbinate’s control over conversions. The provision is seen as a way to win backdoor approval for the long-debated “Who Is a Jew?” amendment that would legally bar Israeli recognition of any conversions other than Orthodox ones. Rotem has promised to correct that before the bill becomes law, but it’s not clear whether he can do that without losing crucial Haredi support.
It’s getting a bit frightening watching the unfolding of the Israeli government’s campaign to discredit the Goldstone report on suspected Gaza war crimes. The spluttering, frantic rage, the contradictory arguments, the transparent drafting of Diaspora Jewish organizations to put their credibility on the line — it adds up to a demeaning performance that can only weaken Israel’s credibility at a moment when it needs credibility more than ever. The Israeli defense strategy seems to be painting the report as though it were a death sentence from a Nazi commandant, rather than an initial fact-finding report by a distinguished international jurist. It only makes Israel look like it’s hiding something.
Some of Israel’s presumed defenders are claiming that the report gives Hamas a free pass and ignores the years of rocket attacks on southern Israel. Others are complaining that the report treats Hamas the same as Israel, ignoring the moral difference between a democratic state and a terrorist gang. But they can’t both be true. If the report is treating Hamas’s actions the same as Israel’s, then it obviously isn’t ignoring them. In fact, Hamas’s rocket attacks are treated seriously in the report and acknowledged as the trigger that prompted Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead. The report examines their physical damage to Israeli property and lives, their psychological impact on Israeli children and their demoralizing impact on the population. They’re anything but ignored. To say they’re ignored is simply a lie.
As for treating Hamas and Israel with moral equivalency, that indicates a failure of historical memory. Israel has been complaining for years that human rights organizations like Amnesty International criticize Israeli behavior but ignore worse behavior by terrorist organizations. For years Amnesty and other groups have replied that their mandate is to examine actions by governments, not non-state actors however heinous. Now, finally, a human rights investigation with the full backing of the United Nations has subjected Palestinian terrorist actions to the same scrutiny applied to Israel, and now the problem is that they shouldn’t get the same treatment.
There’s a larger problem with the moral equivalency argument. It’s been applied to the U.N. with increasing vigor in recent years by Americans, mostly conservatives, who don’t think the organization should allow the participation of dictatorships. They would rather see a league of democracies, and put the dictatorships beyond the pale. But the very purpose of the U.N. is to bring nations together without distinction, in order to maintain channels of communication, to seek some minimal standards that might be accepted on all sides and perhaps forestall armed conflict and save lives. It’s supposed to act as a neutral forum, and a forum can’t be neutral if it starts dividing participants into good guys and bad guys. It’s a bit like asking a court of law to treat nice people better than nasty ones when judging the facts.
The next few days feature a surprising string of important anniversaries in contemporary history. Here are a few of the key dates:
September 15, 1959. Next Tuesday, for all you 20th-century history buffs (and you “Car 54, Where Are You?” fans) is the 50th anniversary of the day Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev landed at Idlewild, now known as Kennedy International Aiport, for the first-ever U.S. visit by a Soviet leader, a turning point in the Cold War. Khrushchev was the post-Stalin party boss who exposed Stalin’s crimes, eased up East-West tensions and opened up some cultural freedom (including permitting the launch in 1961 of the Soviet Union’s first Jewish periodical in a generation, the Yiddish literary magazine Sovietish Heimland). He should be remembered as the granddaddy of glasnost but mostly he isn’t because memories are short and vindictiveness is enduring.
September 14, 1965. Next Monday is the 44th anniversary of the opening by Pope Paul VI of the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council. The session ran for three months and adopted (among other documents) the historic Nostra Aetate proclamation ending the accusation of deicide and calling for historic reforms in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Also on this date, in 1946, Hank Greenberg hit 7 RBIs, including 2 home runs, to lift 1945 world champion Detroit over the Yankees in the final game of the season. Unfortunately, Boston won the American League pennant and then lost the World Series to St. Louis.
September 12, 1991. This Saturday is the 18th anniversary of the congressional lobbying day, organized by the Council of Jewish Federations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, that brought about 1,200 local community leaders to Washington to press for a $10 billion federal loan guarantee to help Israel resettle Soviet immigrants. President George H.W. Bush was making the loan guarantees conditional on an Israeli settlement freeze, which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to accept. The lobbying day was Shamir’s attempt to go straight to Congress as an end-run around Bush. Bush held a press conference that afternoon and complained, banging angrily on the podium, that he was “one lonely little guy” standing alone, “up against some powerful political forces,” meaning the Jewish community. It sounded anti-Semitic to a lot of Jews and the collective anger on all sides contributed directly to the fall the following year of both Bush and Shamir.
September 13, 1993. Sunday is the 16th anniversary of the signing ceremony on the White House lawn at which Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat formalized the peace accord negotiated that spring in Oslo, ushering in what promised to be a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
September 11, 2001. Friday is — well, you know. As they say in Yiddish, “man tracht un Got lacht” — man plans and God laughs.
But soon after, of course, comes September 18. Friday evening is, so our sages teach, the mother of all anniversaries, the birthday of the world. A time for new beginnings. And since that day ushers in the 10 Days of Teshuva, I wish all of us many happy returns (ba-dum-bum) and a happy 5,770th birthday.
One of the most spectacularly knuckle-headed advertising campaigns in modern Jewish history was unveiled in Israel September 2 by an international organization devoted to strengthening Diaspora Jews’ attachment to Israel.
The organization, Masa (“Journey”), promotes long-term gap-year and junior-year study programs in Israel for Diaspora young adults. Its latest recruitment strategy involves a new Hebrew-language television commercial, laden with Holocaust imagery, somberly warning Israeli viewers that “more than half” of young Diaspora Jews “are assimilating, and we are losing them.” Viewers are asked to pass along the names of their overseas relatives and acquaintances so Masa can save them from being “lost.”
Here’s what the ad looks like. Note the recurring, ominous image of railroad cars.
English translation: “More than 50% of young Jews overseas are assimilating and we are losing them. Do you know a young Jew overseas? Call Project Masa, and together we will strengthen the tie to Israel so we won’t lose him. Masa — a year in Israel, a love for a lifetime.”
The ad campaign has drawn some blistering responses. Masa is a joint operation of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel; half of its $38 million is provided by the Israeli taxpayer and half by donors to Jewish federated philanthropies around the world. Members of both groups have weighed in to protest the ad’s wasting of their money. Major figures in Jewish philanthropy are reported to have sent written messages to Masa officials that can’t be printed in a family journal. Responses out in the field, like this and this, lean in the how-could-this-happen direction. Israeli media accounts report some tart responses over there as well.
Here, for example, is Kung Fu Jew, a popular blogger at Jewschool.com, one of the most influential sites of the new Jewish Web culture:
I am not lost. Fuck you very much, Masa, excuse my manners. The scary voices of Jewish continuity say that 50% of young Jews have only one Jewish parent. Which is great. It means my generation is twice as international, twice as multicultural, twice as diverse, and twice as blessed with mutt-like intelligence and fearlessness of boundary-straddling.
And a reply to Kung Fu Jew from a blogger identified as EV:
We should make a counter-ad to rescue Israelis lost to religious fundamentalism, lost to land idolatry, lost to rabid-eyed nationalism, lost to a propagandistic ideology that has distorted the Judaism of previous generations. We should make a counter-ad to save Israelis from themselves.
What’s the objection? To begin with, the ad’s 50% “assimilation” figure seems to a garbling of the intermarriage statistic published in 1990 — a generation ago — by the Council of Jewish Federations. The finding (later repudiated by the council as inflated, but now evolved into a durable urban legend) did not say that 50% of Jews were “assimilating,” but rather that they were marrying non-Jews. The pessimistic prediction was that their children were unlikely to be identified and involved as Jews, absent some strong educational effort. Nobody said these Jews would vaporize the moment the goblet was shattered.
Folks in the leafy New York suburb of Englewood, N.J., are up in arms, according to news reports, over plans by the Libyan government to pitch a tent on a Libyan-owned property in their town. The pavilion is supposed to house strongman Muammar Gadhafi while he attends the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Gadhafi traditionally puts up a tent whenever he travels abroad, so he can sleep outdoors under the open sky. Apparently he and his friends like to stay up late in their sleeping bags, tell ghost stories and make shadow animals on the tent flaps with a flashlight. Sometimes they sneak out and throw things at the neighbors’ houses. That’s when they get into trouble.
Englewood residents say they don’t want a dictator who supports terrorists camping out in their midst. Libya’s terror record hits close to home for New Jersey. The 189 Americans killed in the infamous 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, included 32 Jersey residents. Locals say Gadhafi’s presence overnight in the state would be an affront to the victims’ families. The issue is particularly inflamed right now because of the televised hero’s welcome that Gadhafi gave on the evening of August 20 to the convicted Pan Am bomber, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. The convict was serving a life term in a Scottish prison but won early release that morning on humanitarian grounds because of terminal cancer.
The issue raises numerous sensitive issues for New Jersey. The state doesn’t like to house individuals with a history of homicide, unless they have names like Tony or Uncle Junior. Moreover, the state has had some painful experiences of its own with sleepovers involving Middle Easterners. Just ask former governor Jim McGreevey.
Not everyone opposed the visit. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author and television host, who lives next door to the Libyan property, was in favor of welcoming Gadhafi, as he wrote in a Jerusalem Post essay published the morning of August 20. Well, he supported it until he was against it, following the al-Megrahi homecoming that evening.
The dispute raises some complicated legal issues. Englewood has clear laws against pitching tents outdoors, but it has granted a continuing exemption to a local synagogue that puts tents in its parking lot for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Denying Gadhafi the same right might bring charges of religious discrimination. We could end up in the International Court, site of so many Jewish nightmares. Imagine a late-August bar mitzvah suit dismissed in a summery judgment from the bencher. The suit: seersucker, no cuffs. (Add your own double-entendres here.)
There may be an elegant solution, however. The legality of putting up poles and anchoring them with long cords was addressed a decade ago in the next town over, Tenafly, which fought a three-year court battle to prevent local Orthodox Jews from erecting an eruv, a symbolic Sabbath barrier strung from telephone poles. The town’s formal complaint was that the eruv defaced public property, but the underlying motive, many believed, was fear that the eruv would bring in an undesirable element. The parallel is inescapable.
Tenafly ultimately lost the fight against the eruv, but it kept the issue tied up for three years, which is more than Englewood needs.
Alternatively, Englewood might simply argue that Gadhafi would be happier staying indoors. Sleeping outdoors in late September, someone might think he’s built himself a sukkah, which could get him in hot water back home. He might be better off getting a room at a charming beduin-breakfast. (Ooooh.) (Sorry.)
Every day, it seems, something else happens somewhere to prove again, if any more proof were needed, just who is the big winner from America’s six-year adventure in Iraq. We refer, of course, to the Islamic Republic of Iran. America’s successful toppling of Iran’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein, accidentally ushered in a golden age for Iranian influence and freedom of action, at home, in the region and around the world. There’s nothing like being a predator without natural enemies in the neighborhood. Who knew?
Well, someone managed to call it. Here’s a Forward editorial from October 2002. (It’s no longer on our Web site; this version appeared in the Jewish Journal.) Here’s Chemi Shalev’s report from Jerusalem from March 14, 2003, less than a week before the invasion. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Now, here’s the latest in the saga: This past Tuesday, August 25, we learned that the longtime head of the crucial Iraqi National Intelligence Service, one of the lynchpins in American hopes for stability, recently quit his job in frustration over U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “attempts to undermine his service and allow Iranian spies to operate freely,” in the words of Washington Post foreign-affairs pundit David Ignatius. Iraqi intelligence personnel are reportedly beset by politically-motivated arrests by Maliki’s forces and rubouts by Iranian hit squads, which have killed 290 Iraqi officers since 2004. Much of the violence that has erupted in Iraq in recent weeks, commonly blamed on minority Sunnis, is in fact Iran’s handiwork, Ignatius reports. As for Maliki, he is so tied in with Iran “that the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel.”
Then, on Wednesday, top Iraqi Shi’ite political leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a foe of the secularist Maliki, died in an Iranian hospital at age 59, leaving his powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council in the uncertain hands of his son and more susceptible than ever to Iranian influence and control. In effect, whichever of the two main rival Iraqi forces comes out on top, Iran is the winner. Ignatius writes:
Should the Americans try to restore order? The top Iraqi intelligence source answered sadly that it was probably wiser to “stay out of it and be safe.” When pressed about what his country would look like in five years, absent American help, he answered bluntly: “Iraq will be a colony of Iran.”
On the international front, meanwhile, Iran’s freedom of action is growing, not diminishing, despite the best efforts of Washington, Paris, Berlin and Jerusalem to hem it in. The 118-member Non-aligned Movement wrote to the International Atomic Energy Agency this week to endorse Iran’s call for an advance condemnation of any possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. And U.S. and European diplomats are becoming pessimistic, the Wall Street Journal reports, over the odds of President Obama’s planned drive to round up Security Council support for tightened sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
All of which goes to show you what a dangerous world we live in, and how the best of intentions can lead to unanticipated consequences.
Except that in this case, the consequences were entirely anticipated. I’m just saying.
Western culture reached a sort of a milestone August 17 with the publication in Sweden’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, the tabloid Aftonbladet, of an opinion essay suggesting that Israeli soldiers are killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs. Here’s how Yediot Ahronot sums up the fray.
The writer, photojournalist Donald Bolstrom, didn’t exactly say that Israelis are killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs. He merely said he had heard such claims from Palestinians, and given the latest now that an illicit organ-selling ring (actually one guy) in Brooklyn had been exposed, with links to Israel, he thinks it’s time for an investigation. He told Israel Radio on August 19 that he doesn’t know if the charge is true but he’s “concerned.”
Israel is responding with undiluted outrage. Foreign Ministry officials called in the Swedish ambassador, and have released a flood of public statements calling it a “blood libel.” The ambassador, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, issued a statement of her own saying the article was “as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens.” The Swedish Foreign Ministry promptly disavowed Bonnier’s statement, insisting that it was strictly her own view, “for local consumption,” and that the “Swedish government is committed to freedom of the press.”
Well, yes, freedom of the press is an essential building block of a democratic society. But, as A.J. Liebling once said, “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” Not every publisher publishes everything that comes across the desk. In fact, given constraints of space, printing and mailing costs and the like, publication in a major periodical is a highly selective process. Editors are deluged every day with material that authors are desperate to see published. The editors pick the items they think will most interest the readers, best serve the public interest or best advance their own and their publishers’ convictions.
So what does it say about Sweden’s largest newspaper that it chose to publish an article speculating that Israeli soldiers might be killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs? Well, first of all, it says that Sweden’s most important gatekeepers and tastemakers think it is plausible — and that their readers will think it plausible — that Israelis are capable of such behavior. It says that the Swedish government sees nothing wrong with innocently raising a fair question. It says that the image of Israel in the eyes of mainstream Swedes has passed far beyond the negative into the realm of the demonic.
Lest we take this as evidence of the eternal durability of Jew-hatred, though, let’s put it in context. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a whopping 45% of Americans believe it is “likely” that the government plans to decide when to stop providing medical care to the elderly — that is, to take up euthanasia. That speculation has been endorsed by the senior senator from Nebraska, Charles Grassley, and by the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in last year’s election, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. That is to say, close to half of the American people believe their government is capable of killing old people to save a few bucks, and some major American leaders are willing to give such delusions their asmachta seal of approval, f nihil obstat.
The simplest way to put it is that the tendency toward demonization of strangers is spreading like swine flu.
It was 15 years ago that America was rattled by a book authored by two academics, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, purporting to prove that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. The book became a best-seller, selling more than 300,000 copies. But here again, as in our other cases, it’s not just that the public bought in; it’s that supposedly responsible, mainstream publishers chose to put it before the public and give it their imprimatur. In October 1994 the ur-respectable weekly, The New Republic, devoted a special issue to the Murray-Herrnstein book, with a 10,000-word extract from the book and 17 pro and con essays by others.
Should The New Republic have given the book so much publicity and credibility? According to the magazine’s editor at the time, Andrew Sullivan, writing in an unsigned editorial in the special issue, “the notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief. It’s an empirical hypothesis, which can be examined.”
Liberal columnist Eric Alterman, revisiting the affair in 2007, had this to say in reply to Sullivan: “This defense of Murray and Herrnstein’s speech right to free speech rather than the validity of their argument, sounds plausible until one remembers that Holocaust denial is also an empirical hypothesis that can be examined.”
Holocaust denial is illegal in much of Europe. It’s legal in America because the First Amendment prevents government from outlawing forms of speech — except, the Supreme Court has ruled, in cases of direct incitement to violence. But it’s not published in respectable venues, not merely because it defies reason but because the very act of espousing it is presumed to be a knowing assault on decency. Just like the Murray-Herrnstein thesis.