J.J. Goldberg

Mahmoud Abbas Preaches Peace to the Jewish Choir

By J.J. Goldberg

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Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a group of prominent American Jews in New York Monday evening for a dialogue over a dinner of trout and saffron rice. Also on the menu were servings of hope, flattery, mutual frustration and a just soupcon of evident peace-process exhaustion and perhaps a hint of unstated despair.

Abbas, in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, seemed intent on driving home his views on peace, which Palestinians claim are frequently misrepresented by Israelis. He repeatedly condemned the recent murders of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, declared himself committed to a “two-state solution” with Israel and “the state of Palestine” living “side by side in security and peace,” and he insisted that “70% of Palestinians” share that goal.

And, in a seeming rebuke to persistent Israeli and Western skepticism, he stated several times that his goal in negotiations is a “comprehensive agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end further claims” by the two sides against one another. Pro-Israel analysts commonly claim that the Palestinian leader has no intention of agreeing to a final end to the conflict and cannot agree to sign a deal ending all further claims against Israel.

The 30-odd Americans in attendance, mostly liberal activists, peppered him with questions about how he planned to convince Israelis of his sincerity, at times seemingly wanting to be convinced themselves. Of 13 guests who were called on to ask questions, no fewer than six asked him bluntly to use the U.N. pulpit to reach out to Israelis, to let Israelis “hear words of hope from you,” to “dispel the pessimism” plaguing the diplomatic process and “make clear that you are a partner for peace.”

Abbas’s replies to each were variations on “no”: “I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that two states are good for them—they want their state and we want our state.” And: “My speech will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time, but when we talk we don’t have double language.” And, after being asked the same question a sixth time: “It’s not my job alone to dispel pessimism — we both have to work, both me and Mr. Netanyahu.”

To numerous guests chatting among themselves afterward, the most notable feature of the dinner was who wasn’t there. The Abbas dinner has become something of an annual September ritual when the Palestinian leader comes to address the General Assembly. It’s organized each year by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is named for the Slim-Fast diet food mogul who founded it and is headed by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. In past years guests have included heads of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main synagogue unions and others.

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Jews Now Minority in Israel and Territories

By J.J. Goldberg

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The ticking demographic time-bomb

One of the most common arguments in favor of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the so-called demographic threat or demographic time-bomb. Proponents worry that if Israel continues to control the Palestinian territories, with or without formal annexation, the different birthrates of Jews and Arabs will eventually result in Jews being a minority in the territory under Israeli control. At that point Israel will no longer be a Jewish state — or, alternatively, will be a Jewish state with a non-Jewish majority that is disenfranchised because of its ethnic identity. There’s a word for that. I won’t say it, but I’ll note that it’s Afrikaans in origin.

How far off such a situation might be is a topic of considerable debate. Some say the threshold will be crossed within a decade or less. Others suggest a longer timeline is possible. A few on the right believe there’s no threat at all, either because Jewish and Arab fertility rates are converging or because Palestinian population figures are inflated. By and large, though, demography appears to be a very mainstream worry.

Well, worry no more. It turns out we’re there already. Comparing the annual Rosh Hashanah population report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, released September 2, with the midyear (July 1) population figures for the West Bank and Gaza in the CIA World Factbook, it turns out that Jews are now (as of Rosh Hashanah) outnumbered by Arabs under Israeli sovereignty by a grand total of 50,827. So the question is no longer whether or when the Jewish state will feature a minority ruling a majority. The question now is what to do about it.

Here are the numbers:

Palestinian Arabs, West Bank: 2,676,740

Palestinian Arabs, Gaza Strip: 1,763,387

(Total Palestinians, Israeli military-administered territories: 4,440,127)

Israeli Arabs (citizens): 1,666,800

Total Arabs under Israeli sovereign administration: 6,106,927

Israeli Jews: 6,056,100

A few notes on the figures:

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Poverty Shock: Stats Show Ills Began in 2001, Not '07

By J.J. Goldberg

Cruikshank/Wikimedia Commons
“Please, sir, I want some more”

Just in time for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the U.S. Census Bureau has published what we might call a 2013 update of America’s own Harvest of Shame: a comprehensive annual report on the state of income, poverty and health insurance in the United States.

To be fair, it’s not all bad news. For example, the report shows that 2012 was the first year since 2007, before the economy collapsed, that America’s median household income didn’t decline. It was statistically the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, roughly $51,000. That was also the first year since 2007 that there was no statistically significant increase in the number of people in poverty (46 million) or their percentage of the population (15%). All three numbers are still worse than they were in 2007, but at least they’ve stopped deteriorating. That’s the good news.

Pretty much all the rest of it is bad news, some of it shockingly so. Between 2000 and 2012 the median income for non-elderly households declined a whopping 11.6%, or $7,490 after correcting for inflation. Among African-American households the decline was 14.8%. A full 27% of blacks live in poverty, nearly 11 million people in all. Close to half (44%) of all Americans in poverty are living in what’s called “deep poverty,” with an income that’s less than half the poverty line. And the number of people under 65 receiving health insurance on the job dropped by 13.7 million or 10.8% in those 12 years (almost all before Obamacare kicked in).

The only income group reported by the Census Bureau to have gained income since 2009 is the top 5%, which saw a median gain of 0.6%, or $1,846. Everybody else lost.

Some of the information in the report is quite surprising. Remember President Reagan’s quip in 1987, “In the 60s we waged a war on poverty and poverty won”? It turns out he was dead wrong. The poverty rate plummeted during the 1960s, from about 22% of the population in 1959 to about 11% in 1973. It stayed roughly level until about 1978 and then started climbing, reaching 15% in 1982, the second year of Reagan’s presidency. (Hence the increase in poverty that he correctly perceived in 1987 was actually his handiwork.) It stayed up around 15% until 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when it began dropping again, reaching 11.3% in 2000, Clinton’s last year. The next year, the first of the Bush administration it began climbing steadily, reaching 15% in 2011. In fact, contrary to what you might think, there was no dramatic jump in poverty after 2007. It’s just been a steady climb since 2000.

Likewise, median income declined between 2000 and 2007, though only a bit, then proceeded to plummet. In other words, some of our troubles began when the economy collapsed, but important parts of the disaster began directly after the Supreme Court’s historic December 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore. It takes some digging to find out, though. The Census report doesn’t highlight this at all. It’s all built around the post-2007 collapse.

A separate income study, this one based on Internal Revenue Service figures, was released September 3 by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley. It shows that average family incomes (as opposed to median) grew by 6% between 2009 and 2012. But nearly all the gain went to families in the top 1% of the population, whose income grew 31.4%. The other 99% saw an average gain of 0.4%. (And based on the above Census Bureau numbers, even that paltry increase seems to have gone mostly to the top 5%.) The Los Angeles Times published a summary of the Berkeley study on September 11.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed Washington think tank, pulled out some of the most interesting numbers from the Census Bureau’s report:

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'Half of Syrian Rebels' Are Radical Islamists

By J.J. Goldberg

ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian Jihadists take aim at Kurdish position, August 25, 2013.

Nearly half the rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists linked to Al Qaeda or hardline Islamists fighting for a strict Islamic state, according to a study that’s about to be published by IHS Jane’s, the respected British defense consultancy.

Advance word of the study appears in Monday’s edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The Jane’s study is said to be due out later this week.

The study reportedly claims there are about 100,000 fighters in the Syrian insurgency, divided into about 1,000 independent and often hostile units. About 10,000 belong to “powerful factions” of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda. These groups are fighting for an Islamic state within a larger Middle East caliphate.

Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists whose philosophy is similar to the jihadists, but are focused purely on Syria rather than an international revolution. In addition, according the Telegraph, there are “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.”

The remainder, some 25,000 to 30,000, belong to secular groups with a democratic or nationalist orientation. In other words, between 25% and 30% of the total rebel force consists of groups considered friendly to the West, according to the British study.

According to the Telegraph, the assessment

accords with the view of Western diplomats [who] estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.

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When Putin Speaks

By J.J. Goldberg

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Vladimir Putin, Man of Peace

It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed essay in Thursday’s New York Times. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans agree with his call to avoid American military engagement in Syria. On the other hand, very few of us want to come out and agree with Putin. Apparently we don’t like dictators telling us what to do, even when we think they’re right.

Bloomberg News probably hit the note that would resonate with most people, declaring in an editorial that while much of what Putin wrote was misleading, self-serving or downright false, it advances a plan that could disarm Syria’s poison gas without war. “In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more—and certainly must be more persuasive—than his words.” Go Vlad.

Some went a bit further, into what most of us might consider uncomfortable territory. Former Reagan White House aide Pat Buchanan told Greta Van Sustern Wednesday evening on Fox News, responding to the Times piece, that “in the last week Vladimir Putin looks like a statesman.”

But Buchanan is someone who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable territory. He’s the guy who once called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” He also, it’s generally believed, was the Reagan aide who pushed hardest for the Gipper to visit that Nazi military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. So hearing that he’s Putin’s most prominent defender in the public square at this point is, somehow, not surprising.

That’s the funny thing. The blogosphere was filled with cheers for Putin from folks you never heard of at outlets like policymic and Daily Kos, but virtually all the mainstream pols and pundits were falling in line behind Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who apparently spoke for all of us when he told CNN that on hearing about Putin’s op-ed during dinner “I almost wanted to vomit.” After all, Menendez said,

I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.

Menendez is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’ll be in the driver’s seat when Congress takes up President Obama’s war powers request. In a democracy like ours, decisions about our national interest are placed in the secure hands of our own elected representatives, as Obama wisely did when he asked Congress to decide whether to take us into another war in the Middle East. We trust Congress.

That’s why I look to Robert Menendez when I want to know how to judge a foreign dictator’s announcements. The idea that a former spook from the KGB should be taken seriously as a world leader is, well, spooky. A former head of the CIA like our 41st president, George H.W. Bush—now that’s a different story. But the KGB? Perish etc. I always leave my big thinking to guys from Jersey.

And the idea that the New York Times would put itself in the service of the president of Russia so he can reach over the heads of our government and talk directly to the American people, as though he owned the place, must raise the question of which side the Times is on. Freedom of the press is one thing, but that doesn’t mean it should let its opinion pages be the plaything of foreign bullies.

It tells you something about the Times—that “it’s REALLY Pravda-on-the-Hudson,” as John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and former opinion editor and current columnist of Australian-British-American media bully Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, tweeted on Thursday.

Unfortunately, Putin has a sorry track record in this appalling behavior. Usually, though, it’s been more subtle. When he’s tried in the past to manipulate American public opinion, he’s usually written his op-eds in his former capacity as prime minister of Russia rather than president. I guess that’s different. For example:

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This Week in Milestones: War, Peace, Deep Space

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Jupiter (top), as photographed by Voyager 1 (bottom), January 1, 1979

We’re in a season of anniversaries and memories, many of them exceedingly melancholy: the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy that ignited the global financial crisis, September 15, 2008 (5 years ago); the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, September 11, 2001 (12 years ago); the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, 10 Tishri 1973 (40 years ago by the Hebrew lunar calendar). And, wandering only a little further afield, the outbreak of World War II, September 1, 1939 (74 years ago). And, on a more ambivalent note, the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, which was either a great hope that’s been dashed (as I believe) or a tragic error (as some of my friends and relations believe), September 13, 1993 (20 years ago).

But something unambiguously great happened today, September 12, 2013: NASA confirmed that Voyager 1, the spacecraft launched to Jupiter and Saturn on September 5, 1977 (36 years ago), has left our solar system and entered the cold zone of deep space, the first man-made object ever to enter the vast, unknown realm between the stars, interstellar space.

The crossing actually occurred a year ago, on August 25, 2012, according to NASA’s calculations. But, as Space.com reports, the instrument that would have detected the crossing and transmitted it back to earth broke down in 1980, so scientists had to rely on complicated calculations from other instruments. It took a bit of luck, too: “A massive solar eruption in March 2012 arrived at the location of Voyager 1 about 13 months later, making the plasma around the probe vibrate, NASA officials said.”

Voyager is currently about 12 billion miles from the sun—or about 11.9 billion miles from us—and radio signals traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) take about 17-1/2 hours to reach us.

As the Los Angeles Times reported today:

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Songs to Atone By: Dylan, Jolson, Streisand, Oysher

By J.J. Goldberg

YouTube Screen Shot
Al Jolson sings Kol Nidre in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ 1927

As we approach the holiest day of the year, I’ve put together a selection of songs that sum up the day and capture its spirit, at least for me. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, from the introductory prayer to Kol Nidre, the Maariv service, some highlights of Mussaf, the Jonah story and finally Neilah and absolution. Some selections are traditional liturgy in particularly excellent musical rendering; others are American songs that capture the message and the flavor IMHO. Included are performances by Bob Dylan, Al Jolson, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, Cass Elliott and Joni Mitchell, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and Louis Armstrong, among many others.

Note: Steve and Eydie are a late addition, erev chag. I don’t know how I forgot them, as you’ll see when you hear their tune. They close the concert. Eydie closed hers just a month ago, on the 4th of Ellul, August 10.

We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This is a live version of the Bob Dylan song, from his 1976 Rolling Thunder Review concert tour, and he’s joined by Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. By the way, the most emotionally devastating version of the song ever recorded might be this one; it’s sung by Warren Zevon on his final album, “The Wind,” reflections on his own upcoming death of cancer, which came just 10 years ago, on September 7, 2003, at age 56, a few days after the album was released.

Incidentally, Dylan originally wrote and performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for the soundtrack (here’s the original) of the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” At the time Dylan was living in New York and meeting with kibbutz aliyah shaliach Shaul Pe’er, who was negotiating for Dylan and his family to spend a trial year at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. But in late 1972 Dylan told Shaul he was putting the talks on hold for several months while he went to Los Angeles to make the film. He never left LA.

Next are the two most powerful versions of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. The first is the iconic rendition by Al Jolson at the climax of the very first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. It’s a tale that closely parallels Jolson’s own life of a cantor’s son who runs off to become a pop crooner and finally comes home on Yom Kippur to fill in on the bima for his dying father.

The second is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (“Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying. Not to be missed.

After Kol Nidre we enter the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim prayer, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. This is Bob Dylan’s approximate translation of the prayer, Father of Night, sung here by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:

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Chemical Weapons Are Different. Here's Why.

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images / AFP Photo/ YouTube / Local Committee of Arbeen
An AFP image grab from YouTube video, August 21, allegedly shows mass grave of Syrian gas attack victims near Damascus. The pro-rebel claim, not verified by AFP, was denied by Syrian government.

One of the strangest aspects of the Syria debate is how much energy and passion is going into it, on both sides — for and against American air strikes — and how little light is being shed on the central issue, namely chemical weapons.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in his supposedly game-changing speech August 26, forcefully declared that using chemical weapons is a “moral obscenity,” but he didn’t get beyond noting that they kill women and children, which is true of pretty much all weapons. He didn’t explain why chemical weapons killing 1,429 people is worse than standard munitions killing 100,000.

President Obama’s defenders, like New York Times moral internationalists Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof, defend intervention by citing the moral depravity of the Assad regime. Obama, however, has made it clear that regime change isn’t on the menu. It’s about chemical weapons. But why?

If you search on line for current discussions of the morality of chemical warfare, almost everything you find argues that there’s no difference. “Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful. But so is getting blown up by a bomb,” writes Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. And Chicago Theological Seminary’s Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, writing in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, adds: “The truth is, war is the moral obscenity. It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war.”

Well, OK. But ending war isn’t on the menu either. Folks have been trying to do that for about 5,774 years and gotten absolutely nowhere. Human society won’t be perfected, but that’s no reason it can’t be improved. (The same goes for American governments. So they (we) have ignored or abetted chemical warfare in the past. Does that mean we should continue with that repugnant practice?)

And no, bombing campaigns don’t end war. But they can put a price on violation of the laws of war.

Over the past century and a half, nations have tried to place limits on the conduct of war, in hopes of making it just a little less horrible. Thus, the laws of war. If you’re curious, here’s Yale Law School’s online archive of the laws of war, going back to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, the first Geneva Convention on battlefield wounded (1864) and right on through to the 1975 chemical and biological weapons ban. The latest, not in the Yale archive, is the Optional (!) Protocol on Child Soldiers adopted by the General Assembly in 2000.

The question remains, why chemical weapons? What makes them worse than conventional weapons? The answer is that chemical weapons make killing unconscionably easy and thorough. Consider: Over the past two years, the Assad regime and its opponents have managed to kill about 100,000 people, including combatants on both sides and innocent bystanders. On August 21, using chemical weapons, the regime was able to kill 1,429 people in a few minutes. And that’s not all.

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Holiday Songs: Robeson's 'Joe Hill,' Solidarity in WI

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Joe Hill

Some songs for the holiday. First, Paul Robeson’s immortal rendition of “The Ballad of Joe Hill.” It still has incredibly moving power. (Read this and this for some fascinating comment on Joe.)

Then, Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock (author of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”) sings Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”), after reminiscing about the day that Joe first brought the lyrics into IWW’s Portland, Ore., headquarters and Mac was able to perform it in public for the first time.

Then, two versions of “Solidarity Forever.” One is sung by Leonard Cohen, surprisingly (but appropriately, it turns out) hauntingly, almost as a lament. The second is belted out by Wisconsin state employees inside the state capitol rotunda in December 2011, complete with updated lyrics and some unpleasant interactions with the police. And, a few days after that, in January 2012, watch the Red Raiders Marching Band from Pulaski High School in Wisconsin, marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena and stopping in front of the reviewing stand to play Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” (lyrics). The moment is completely lost on the local TV newscasters.

Last, a slanderous but highly entertaining ditty, “The Cloakmakers’ Union,” attacking the leaders of the great Jewish-led garment unions (“the Dubinskys”) and the Socialist Party (“the Hillquits” and “the Thomases”). It was made up in the late 1920s by Yiddish communists, and is sung here tongue-in-cheek in the early 1950s by Dubinskyites Joe Glazer and Abe Brumberg. (The version I learned from my father, a lifelong employee of said cloakmakers’ union, was a little different. It went: “…The right-wing cloakmakers and the Socialist fakers are a bunch of strike-breakers by the bosses…”)

Paul Robeson sings “The Ballad of Joe Hill”:

Haywire Mac McClintock remembers Joe Hill and sings “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”):

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Ron Paul To Keynote Parley of Anti-Semites

By J.J. Goldberg

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Ron Paul

Former Texas Congressman and perennial GOP presidential contender Ron Paul is scheduled to keynote a conference in Canada next weekend of a “radical traditionalist” Catholic organization that’s described by human rights organizations as a major center of anti-Semitism.

Other scheduled conference speakers include John McManus, president of the John Birch Society, the hoary staple of the far right, and Italian politician Roberto Fiore, founder of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova and a close ally of the British National Front.

Another scheduled speaker, Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, best remembered for his efforts as U.N. peacekeeping commander in 1994 to halt the Rwandan genocide, withdrew from the conference on August 26, saying he had been booked by a speakers’ bureau months earlier and was “embarrassed” to learn who the sponsors really were.

The conference, titled “Fatima: The Path to Peace!,” is sponsored by the Fatima Center, which promotes devotion to the miracle of Fatima, in which the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917. The Fatima Center was founded in 1977 by Father Nicholas Gruner, a Canadian priest who preaches a melange of conspiracy theories about Jews, Masons and Communists supposedly diverting the Catholic Church from the message of the Fatima miracle. I confess that after studying their literature I still don’t exactly get what the message of the Fatima miracle is, much less how it relates to worldwide Jewish and Masonic conspiracies. Thankfully, the Vatican seems to have problems with it, too - it suspended Gruner from priestly activities in 2001 because of his extremism and defiance of disciplinary measures.

The conference runs from September 8 to 13 at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Paul is scheduled to speak September 11, which, considering everything we know about him and his expected audience, doesn’t sound like a coincidence. Paul’s participation was first reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on August 20. The report was reposted on Salon.com August 21.

A report on the Fatima gig by Henry Decker at Joe Conason’s National Memo blog takes note of Paul’s long history of trafficking in bigotry (look here and here, for example), as well as the weird mix of distinguished scholars and cranks he’s gathered at his Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, and goes on to wonder whether Senator Rand Paul can escape his father’s shadow - if indeed he wants to - to turn himself into a credible presidential candidate.

Strangely, beyond the Salon and National Memo pieces and this cute brief by Jonathan Chait at New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, appropriately headlined “Ron Paul Expecting the Spanish Inquisition” (for Monty Python fans only), Paul’s upcoming keynote has gone pretty much unnoticed in the mainstream media. The guy was a serious presidential candidate just a few months ago, for goodness’ sake, and he’s still got a serious following. Whatever we thought we knew about him, this kicks it up several notches.

The SPLC, an Alabama-based civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, claims that Catholic radical traditionalist groups including the Fatima Center “may form the single largest group of hard-core anti-Semites in America.” Their best-known advocate is Hutton Gibson, the father of Mel Gibson. In fact, for those with long memories, it was this in-depth profile of Gibson Senior and his beliefs by Christopher Noxon in the New York Times magazine in March 2003 that ignited what became the furor surrounding Gibson Junior’s “The Passion of the Christ,” released almost exactly a year later.

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As War Nears, Ghosts of Bush's Iraq Haunt Obama

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
President Obama discusses Syria, August 30. In background: Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

The United States moved several steps closer Friday to attacking Syria. President Obama strategized by phone with the British and French leaders, and briefly addressed reporters (video here, transcript here), just before a meeting with Baltic leaders, about the options he’s considering for responding to Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons. French president Francois Hollande responded in an interview with Le Monde to the British Parliament’s refusal to authorize military action against Syria, saying France would join an American action regardless of Britain’s decision. The British press was filled with anxious speculation on whether Parliament’s virtually unprecedented rebuff of a prime minister on a question of war and peace would force Cameron to resign. (The general consensus was that it won’t.)

Meanwhile, the United Nations confirmed that its weapons inspectors have completed their work on the ground and will leave Syria tomorrow (Saturday). Yediot Ahronot military affairs commentator Alex Fishman reported in its print edition, presumably based on his usually excellent Israeli military intelligence sources, that “the Americans will attack” within “12 to 24 hours after the U.N. inspectors leave Syria.”

Earlier, Secretary of State Kerry delivered a forceful speech (transcript here, video below) describing U.S. intelligence on Syrian chemical attack and laying out a moral case for action. The White House also released a four-page report summarizing the intelligence community’s assessment of the August 21 chemical attack, including advance planning, delivery systems and level of regime involvement. It said 1,429 people had been killed, including “at least” 426 children.

Hovering over all these actions, though, was the ever-present ghost of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq under then-president George W. Bush. That war, of course, was ostensibly prompted by intelligence about non-conventional weapons, but the intelligence turned out to be wrong and the war turned into a prolonged quagmire. Both Obama and Kerry took pains in their remarks today to mention the Iraq war and insist that this case was nothing like that one. The Iraq experience was also the central issue in the British parliament’s shocking decision not to authorize military action against Syria. Thirty members of Cameron’s majority Conservative Party defected to vote with the Labour opposition. Cameron lost by 13 votes in the 650-member House of Commons that he supposedly controls by a hefty majority.

The extent to which the Iraq invasion still poisons debate and policy-making is evident everywhere in the Syria crisis. BuzzFeed reporters Evan McMorris-Santoro and Ben Smith, summarizing Obama’s dilemma yesterday, wrote:

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'Daily Show' Picks Jon Stewart's Top Jewish Bits

By J.J. Goldberg

Opensource.org
Jon Stewart

On the eve of Jon Stewart’s return from his long film-making absence, “The Daily Show” compiles a few minutes’ worth of what they apparently consider his best Jewish routines. (Hat tip to Chemi Shalev for finding and tweeting this.)

For my money, though, they left out at least two of his most memorable Jewish bits, one of which is his absolute No. 1 in my book. I refer, of course, to his Passover vs. Easter “faith-off” on April 10, 2012, which was not just hilarious but a deeply thoughtful critique of the state of Jewish continuity.

I’d also bring in his conversation with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol on November 4, 2004, two days after George W. Bush’s reelection.

Here’s their collection:

Here’s my key excerpt from the 2004 Bill Kristol interview:

Stewart: I always think about this wild word, “elite.” Because they always throw it around, you know, “the liberal elite.” And I kept thinking to myself, you know, the Christian right – what’s more elite than believing only you will go to heaven? Like, I always wondered why that – isn’t that elitist, or no?

Kristol: You should ask one of your Christian guests that. But you know, we Jews believe in the Chosen People. We have our own kind of elitism.

Stewart: I’m a Jew who believes in a bagel buffet.

As for the Passover bit, you’ll have to watch the clip itself. It’s right after the jump (as is the full interview with Kristol):

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Democracy's Creative Tensions? Take That Back!

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Ofer Shelah

Our old friend Ofer Shelah, former Maariv military and sports reporter, former Forward Israel correspondent and currently Yesh Atid Knesset caucus whip, has come out against the phenomenon of “nationality laws” that seek to define the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and democratic qualities or assign preferential standing in law to one over the other (usually favoring the Jewish side).

As Shelah wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, the law is superfluous (מיותר), and laws that are superfluous are laws that shouldn’t be enacted.

… I prefer the fascinating duality (שניות) inherent in the term “Jewish and democratic state” over any attempt to define the components in the dry language of law.

The wonderful thing about this concept is that it’s clear to all of us, to anyone who reads those three charged words with open eyes, that there is a certain contradiction (סתירה) implicit in it. But it’s no less clear what it says. In this matter, it seems to me that the brightest light is to be found in the gray area.

To a certain degree it can be said that Israel’s 65 years have been a walk along this narrow line, with the wonderful democratic strength that’s possible precisely because we never stopped to define it precisely. Our legal system, freedom of speech and political vitality, all these are alive and kicking and impressive to anyone who watches us from outside precisely because we live this dialectic every day, without a law that presumes to define exactly what the great mix of identities living here is made of.

Or, as the Jerusalem Post summed it up, in a Saturday news article by Knesset correspondent Lahav Harkov, “Shelah: ‘Jewish and democratic state’ an oxymoron.” Harkov writes:

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Abbas: We'll Sign Deal To End Conflict With Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

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Mahmoud Abbas at earlier meeting with Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On, August 2012

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting group of Knesset members on Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean an end to Palestinian demands from Israel, and that Palestinians did not aim to return to “Haifa, Acre and Safed.” As the British Guardian newspaper reported:

In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said: “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”

He also said that the Palestinian state did not need a military capacity, but only “a strong police force.” He was speaking in Ramallah to the members of the Meretz Knesset caucus.

Abbas said critics had misunderstood his July 29 statement in Cairo that “in a final resolution” to the conflict there would not be “a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center jumped on the remark as evidence of anti-Semitism, and the Knesset’s anti-Semitism caucus discussed it at a meeting the following day. Abbas said his point had been that the Palestinian state would be established as a newly sovereign entity and would not agree to inherit prepositioned Israeli soldiers or settlers on its territory as relics of occupation.

This is not a new position. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have said in the past that once their state is established, Jews would be welcome like anyone else to apply for residency or citizenship in a Palestinian state. They describe leaving settlements in place as risky because many settlers are committed to Israeli sovereignty over the territories and are considered likely to resist Palestinian rule. Still, Abbas told the Knesset members he would be prepared to discuss leaving individual settlements in place if Israel brought it up in negotiations.

Abbas’s remarks seem intended to dispel the Israeli right’s laundry list of reasons for believing the Palestinians are not prepared to make peace. Skeptics claim Abbas and his Fatah movement are not ready to declare a final end to the conflict, that they’re unwilling to give up future claims to Israeli territory, abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their former homes or accept limitations on sovereignty such as demilitarization. Abbas dismissed all those claims, one by one.

He further told the visitors, Haaretz on Friday, that he was “unhappy with the slow pace of the negotiations” and that there had been “no advances” in the first three rounds of talks, which were predictably devoted to presenting existing positions. But he voiced hope that the pace would pick up. According to Haaretz, he said:

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Hagel, the Israel Lobby and Kerry's Peace Bid

By J.J. Goldberg

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Chuck Hagel introduced at confirmation hearing by ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, Jan. 31, 2013.

The Daily Beast just posted a magazine-length article by yours truly looking back at the Chuck Hagel confirmation battle and the role (or lack thereof) of the Jewish community and the notorious “Israel lobby” in the affair.

What’s surprising about the whole affair, on close reexamination, is how absent the Jewish advocacy community was from the whole thing. It’s also critical for what it shows about the evolution and prospects of Secretary of State Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

If the Republicans had hoped they could join forces with the vaunted Israel lobby to shoot down the president’s nominee, they learned that they were firing blanks. In retrospect, it’s apparent that the Israel lobby had never even shown up for the fight.

Looking back a half-year later, the entire episode might hardly be worth a second glance, except for this: the Hagel confirmation represents a crack in the decades-old working alliance between the Jewish pro-Israel advocacy community—the Israel lobby—and the Republican right. It’s just possible that the crack will prove wide enough for a secretary of state to drive a Middle East peace initiative through.

The article takes a particularly close look at Hagel’s January 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To my mind, what went on there is a portrait in miniature of the evolving relationship between the Jewish community and the Republican Party:

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Detained as Security Risks: 2 Cases. Compare.

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons, Getty Images
(Clockwise from top right) Edward Snowden; Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda; Abraham

Two weirdly similar articles showed up in my email this morning. Both are by political activists who don’t particularly regard themselves as political activists but as voices of reason. Both ran into intrusive law enforcement, in the name of national security, that violated the freedoms each one values—freedom of inquiry in one case, freedom of worship in the other, freedom of movement for both.

The thing is, I’m sure that both the writers would hate to be compared to the other. But the narratives are so similar that the comparison seems to me inescapable. I leave it to you to decide whether the situations are comparable.

One of them is Glenn Greenwald, the expat American lawyer-journalist who broke the Edward Snowden leaks in his column in the British Guardian. His Brazilian life-partner David Miranda was detained incommunicado for nine hours today at Heathrow Airport “under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000.” There seems little doubt that the detention was part of the Obama administration’s embarrassing effort to get at Snowden. As Greenwald writes in the Guardian, he was outraged.

Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.

If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further.

The other is David Wilder, a longtime spokesman for the Jewish settler community in Hebron. He was detained by Israeli Border Police this morning after trying to bypass the security guards who maintain separation between Jews and Muslims in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, sacred to both religions. He was trying to usher in a group of Jewish tourists from America, but he was made to wait for a Muslim ritual to be completed. As he wrote in his weekly email blast, he was outraged:

We entered the first, outer room, and I continued, leading the way, into the original structure. However, to my surprise, a border policeman stood in the doorway and told me: Entrance Forbidden. You have to wait.

For what? The Muezzin, the Arab Moslem who operates the loud speakers which blast out their prayers, five times a day, was being escorted to the room from which the audio is operated. Until he was safely tucked away in that room, we couldn’t go in.

What, I asked, are we back in 1929? Because of an Arab, we can’t go inside?

Wilder’s post doesn’t seem to appear on the Web, so I’ll paste it in full after the jump.

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Egypt Isn't Syria. One Is Fixable. One, Not So Much

By J.J. Goldberg

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Israel’s Walla News site offers a fascinating and, I think, crucial insight (in Hebrew) into the turmoil in Egypt and Syria. It’s by Dror Ze’evi, a professor of Turkish and Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He writes that the two conflicts, however similar or related they might appear on the surface, are fundamentally different. One, in Egypt, is essentially political in nature, and is amenable to a political solution. The other, in Syria, reflects the sectarian, communal and to a degree existential divides in that part of the Arab world, and it could go on for a long time. He might have added that the vastly different tolls in bloodshed—a few hundred vs. tens of thousands—reflect that difference in the nature and depth of the two conflicts.

The conflict in Egypt reflects the character of Muslim society in North Africa, from Morocco through Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt, the region known in Arabic as the Maghreb (“the West”). The population there is almost entirely Sunni. Shia has not had a significant presence since the 10th-century Fatimid dynasty. The conflict there is not sectarian, but is over defining the relationship between state and religion in the modern world. It’s not exactly a conflict between religious and secularist—“the true secularists in the region can be assembled in the lobby of a medium-sized hotel”—but a debate among religious Muslims over the role of religion in the state.

Even among the most conservative religious [Muslims], there are many who oppose the aspiration of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad to rule the state. Many groups call for deep social change, and stay away from politics.

By contrast, the conflict in the Mashreq (“the East”) is deeply sectarian and communal in nature. Since the 16th-century ascendancy of the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in the Fertile Crescent and the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty in Iran, the border between those two regions has roughly separated the region into areas of sectarian domination. The separation hasn’t been clear-cut, though. In the Sunni area, which roughly coincides with the Arab region (as opposed to Persian and Iranian),

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Cutting Egypt Aid Would Kill Mideast Peace Hopes

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons

At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, the current earthquake in Egypt has enormous implications for the well-being of Israel, and not in a good way. Put simply, the course of action that seems self-evidently proper to right-minded Americans — punishing the Egyptian military, ending military cooperation, suspending aid — will almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on Israel’s peace with Egypt. The irony is, it won’t particularly affect the course of events inside Egypt — the Egyptian military is too powerful internally, and too deeply hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, for an American spanking to deter it. Nor would restoring the Brotherhood to power make the lives of ordinary Egyptians better. On the plus side, it would make us feel better knowing we had struck a blow, however symbolic, for democracy in the Middle East. We Americans love symbolic politics.

America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s. It’s the carrot, or bribe, that keeps Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel, despite its enormous unpopularity on the Egyptian street. That treaty is critical to Israel. And no, there’s no reason to think that peace with the Palestinians would make the Egyptian agreement unnecessary, nor suddenly dissipate the hostility of the Egyptian street. More likely the opposite: a disruption in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship would have a devastating impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Egypt has been a critical mediating force for years, both between Israel and the PLO and between the PLO and Hamas. And this is without discussing the sudden new importance of Israel-Egyptian cooperation given the rise of Al Qaeda-linked actors in Sinai (which I’ve written about in my latest Forward column — watch for it).

Alex Fishman lays out the case in today’s Yediot Ahronot. The translation reproduced here is taken from the invaluable daily news digest of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

The horrific footage out of Cairo reflects not only Egypt’s worst dreams coming true, but Israel’s as well. The Obama administration is going to punish the Egyptians. At least that is how Washington began to act as of Wednesday evening. Congress has signaled that it might suspend military and economic aid to Egypt. Given the current atmosphere, there is a good chance that the Pentagon will suspend all cooperation with the Egyptian security establishment.

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As Peace Talks Begin, Good Will In Short Supply

By J.J. Goldberg

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Freed Palestinian prisoner Salah al-Sahair arrives at family home in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Secretary of State John Kerry had promised that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be kept confidential, so that the negotiators could exchange ideas without being subject to pressure from extremists on each side until a package of mutual concessions was ready that could show each side what it received in return for what it gave away.

But as Round Two took place Wednesday night in a secret location somewhere in Jerusalem with no Americans present, following the late-night release, at 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, of the first 26 Palestinian prisoners, the process is so secretive that it’s set off its own wave of speculation about the low level of shared trust, good will and faith in the outcome.

Avi Issacharoff, the former Maariv military analyst who now writes for the online Walla! News, writes (in Hebrew) that any possible pride either side might take in what should be a hopeful event is overshadowed on both sides by the humiliation of what they’ve already had to give away — for Israel’s Netanyahu, releasing prisoners with blood on their hands in the face of widespread popular outrage, and for Palestinian leader Abbas, resuming negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze and in fact amid a much ballyhooed wave of new construction plans. Issacharoff writes:

What began as a gesture toward Palestinian Authority chairman Abu Mazen, in advance of the renewal of negotiations, became as the release date approached a serious headache for the Israel government, which had agreed to release murderers. But instead of standing before the cameras and explaining the logic of releasing “senior” terrorists in order to strengthen Abu Mazen, the Israeli side preferred to hide the action from public awareness.

In fact, according to Alex Fishman, the veteran Yediot Ahronot military analyst, writing at Yediot’s Ynet website, Netanyahu turned the supposed goodwill gesture of a prisoner release into another opportunity to humiliate Abbas by picking a list of low-level thugs to release, and then sending half of them to Gaza instead of to the West Bank where Abbas could have arranged a festive reception to reap the credit.

Whoever signed the list of released does not really believe in the peace process. What we are seeing here is a political maneuver of horse dealers exchanging some construction in the territories for a few prisoners, winking at any possible coalition. It’s not a diplomatic move, with leadership, with a backbone, one that is worth a dramatic and painful decision to free murderers.

It’s a cynical, tactic move aimed at achieving one thing: Buying time from the American administration or for the American administration. It may be part of a larger regional diplomatic move, but it’s more likely that this entire maneuver was created so that the Americans would not blame Israel for thwarting the Kerry initiative at the current stage…

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Bibi's New Settlement Plan: Just Talk, Not Action

By J.J. Goldberg

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John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, May 23.

Israel’s latest announcement of permits for 1,200 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has stirred a hornets’ nest of angry responses. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it could undermine the negotiating process before it’s even started. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said America does “not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity” and had communicated its “concerns” to the Israeli government. And Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote in a scathing blog post today that Bibi Netanyahu still hasn’t decided whether he’s ready to “cross the Rubicon.”

The 1,200 units cleared for developers’ bids by the Housing Ministry are only one in a series of provocative moves in the last week. The Defense Ministry’s West Bank Civil Administration announced last week that 878 new units have received the second stage of clearance. And the cabinet voted August 4 to put 90 settlements, including four formerly illegal outposts, on the “national priority” list of 600 communities eligible for government grants, tax breaks and more. Haaretz’s Barak, quoting a “senior Israeli official close to the prime minister,” wrote that “on one hand,” Netanyahu

has stepped into the water and started marching toward the other bank. But on the other hand, he is looking back every few seconds, and for every step forward, he is allowing the current to push him back three steps.

Only the settler news service Arutz Sheva-Israel National News seems to have noticed that nothing actually happened. The new settlement announcements are just that—announcements, the service notes disapprovingly. Turning the talk into action requires a great many interim steps. Here’s how it breaks down:

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