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),
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).
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.
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…
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:
A week after the dramatic terror alert that shut down 19 U.S. embassies, experts are starting to weigh in on what it means, and specifically what it tells us about the state of Al Qaeda. If I can sum up the answer in two words, it would be: not much.
Here’s what Fareed Zakaria has to say in this week’s Time magazine:
On the broader question of the state of al-Qaeda, there’s room for debate. Al-Qaeda Central, the organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is battered and broke. But the idea of al-Qaeda remains vibrant in other places … in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and northern Nigeria.
Now look at this new analysis by Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel, who headed the Middle East desk at the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:
In case anyone needed reminding, the recent global terror alert illustrates that, 15 years after its first attacks on America, Al Qaeda is thriving. … Failed revolutions and failing states are like incubators for the jihadists, a sort of Pandora’s Box of hostility and alienation.
Riedel points to the “rapid growth of these franchises—associated cells and sympathetic movements from Algeria to Aden”—as the newest element in the Al Qaeda puzzle. He recalls the tensions within Al Qaeda that hurt the movement in 2005, when “the CIA revealed [Osama bin Laden’s then-deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri’s communication with “Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.”
But the Forward’s Marc Perelman was reporting a full year earlier, in March 2004, that Zarqawi was operating an Al Qaeda franchise—apparently the first—in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Even if Zakaria and Riedel can’t agree on whether the fragmenting of Al Qaeda into many loosely-linked cells means it’s “thriving” or “battered and broke,” they do agree that the regional branches are doing well. The Yemen chapter is strong. The Syria branch is on the rise. And everyone agrees that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the African branch active in Mali and elsewhere, is a star player. Except the ones who think it’s falling apart.
Talking Points Memo on Friday ran an Associated Press story out of Timbuktu, Mali, reporting on a bundle of letters from Yemen AQ leader Nasser al-Wahishi (sometimes spelled Wuhayshi) to Algerian AQIM boss Abdelmalek Droukdel, full of chatty tips on how to govern once you’ve captured territory. The letters are part of a trove of documents the AP found in Timbuktu after AQIM was driven out of the city in January by French troops (you know, the ones that are afraid to fight wars):
Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.
On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.
From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.
Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.
The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.
Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:
Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.
America loves a juicy sex scandal, heaven knows, so it’s natural for the sudden explosion of three at once, all involving prominent politicians, to attract an avalanche of national attention in all the major media—print, broadcast, Internet and late-night comedy.
But the fact that all three of the principals are Jewish creates a ticklish situation for us media types. Is there something to be learned about Jews and their place in American life from the fact that Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Bob Filner are all Jewish? If there is, is it O.K. to talk about it when the gentiles are listening? And if there isn’t, should we mention the fact that they’re all Jewish, if only to acknowledge the glaringly obvious?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most coverage of what New York Times columnist Gail Collins dubbed “New York’s Weiner-Spitzer summer” has left out the J-word, including Collins’ own columns (here’s her other one). Most journalists, especially non-Jews, are skittish about writing stories that make Jews look bad, for fear of opening themselves up to a charge of anti-Semitism. (That obviously doesn’t include coverage of Israel.) No surprise, then, that the handful of journalists who have dared to tackle the Jewish aspect have all been Jewish.
For those of us who write about Jews on a regular basis, the temptation to take on a big, juicy story like this is just about irresistible. The trouble is, there’s no obvious angle. The three cases have little in common other than the fact that they all involve Jewish politicians caught in sexual misconduct. One is a San Diego mayor neck deep in allegations of serial sexual abuse. One is a former congressman who was forced to quit Congress in 2011 after being caught in some weird online sexual exhibitionism and is now running for New York City mayor, only it’s not clear he’s stopped his sexting. The third is a former New York State governor, once celebrated as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” who quit in 2008 after being caught in a federal prostitution probe and is now running for city comptroller.
JTA’s Ron Kampeas was the first to try and cover the three scandals as a Jewish story. You’d expect no less from the so-called Jewish AP. He did a pretty good job of summing up the various cases, pointing out the legal differences (Spitzer broke the law, Filner might end up in court, and “Weiner’s is just bizarre”). He also threw in a fourth episode involving Memphis congressman Steve Cohen, who was caught texting during the State of the Union address to a young model who turned out to be his recently discovered love-child, and then turned out not to be. Nobody seems to know what to make of that story, but it’s another Jewish politician engaged in odd behavior of a vaguely sexual nature, which puts it in roughly the same category as the other three. Hardly anybody has mentioned that Cohen’s ex-lover, the mother of the daughter-not-daughter, was later married to Frank Sinatra Jr. I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but then again, I’m not sure what the significance of any of this is.
New scientific and academic studies of climate change—its causes, pace, cost, impact—continue to pour out almost daily from institutions around the world. They come at us so fast that it’s hard to keep track—and yet many of them are essential to understanding what’s coming down the pike and what, if anything, can be done about it.
One of the latest and most alarming, published yesterday in the uber-authoritative journal Science, finds that wars and interpersonal violence increase as global temperatures rise, and that current patterns suggest a 28% to 56% increase in wars and civil conflicts between now and 2050, along with an 8% to 16% rise in interpersonal violence. The researchers, economists and earth scientists from University of California-Berkeley, collated some 60 existing studies that cover every continent and look back several thousand years, examining everything from tree rings, sea levels and crop yields to traffic and road rage in Phoenix. The reasons are speculative at this point, but likely include documented short tempers induced by heat, as well as increased competition for scarce food and water.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, the estimates are based on the assumption of a 4 degrees Fahrenheit average global temperature rise by 2050, predicted by the World Climate Research Program in Geneva based on current patterns. This BBC report on the study is also worth reading. Among other things, it has some useful links to other related information, plus some smart questioning of the findings by (reputable) climate researchers.
More scary stuff: a study by two Stanford climatologists, reported in ScienceDaily.com, estimates that the expected changes in climate over the next century will occur 10 times faster than any comparable climate change in the past 65 million years. Average global temperature rose about 5 degrees Celsius when the earth emerged from the last ice age. The process took place over a period of several thousand years. A comparable temperature rise is currently expected to take place over the next two centuries.
Although some of the changes the planet will experience in the next few decades are already “baked into the system,” how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond.
And how will humans respond? Well, consider this: climate change appears to be causing an increase in the size and destructiveness of wildfires in the American West, according to a new study out of Michigan State University geography department, published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology and reported today at Redorbit.com. This provides some hefty scientific backing for reporting on the climate change-wildfire link by The New York Times, CBS News, PBS, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and others in the wake of the deadly wildfire disaster that killed 19 firefighters July 1 in Yarnell, Arizona.
But as Katherine Bagley reported in mid-July at InsideClimateNews.com, the Arizona press has barely mentioned (except for a “throwaway line” in an Arizona Republic editorial) the possibility—much less the scientific consensus—of such a link to the tragedy. The reason, Bagley writes, is that the subject is considered too controversial and divisive to bring up at a time when relatives are grieving. The discrepancy between local and national coverage, she writes,
Here’s today’s press conference at the State Department. Note how firm and detailed Secretary of State John Kerry was in his 11-minute presentation, how poetic Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s 4-minute remarks were (starting at 12:15) and how strikingly brief and downbeat Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was in his one minute and 10 seconds (starting at 11:00).
If you want to know what’s going on, you can get Kerry’s information by reading the transcript. To get a feel for how it went and what’s ahead, though, I recommend watching the video of Erekat and Livni (start at 11:00):
Two intriguing backgrounders from the Hebrew press about Secretary of State John Kerry and his Israeli-Palestinian peace mission. One, by Yediot Ahronot veteran Washington correspondent Orly Azoulai in the Friday supplement (print, Hebrew only) contrasts Kerry’s intense commitment to the peace effort with President Obama’s utter skepticism. Obama lets Kerry have his way, she writes, because of their deep personal connection, going back to 2004 when Kerry introduced the obscure young Illinois state senator on the national stage by giving him the prime speaking slot at his nominating convention.
But why does Kerry seem so personally obsessed with this insoluble trouble-spot? Azoulai claims it’s partly due to his “many” conversations with his brother Cameron, who converted to Judaism 30 years ago, about their family’s Jewish roots and their links to Jewish destiny. She writes that they were deeply moved by the 2004 Boston Globe scoop that both their paternal grandparents were Jewish and several close relatives died in the Holocaust. (I’ve translated the key passage below.)
The other fascinating piece is this Walla News story by Amir Tibon (Hebrew only) about Kerry’s close personal bond with his aide Frank Lowenstein, point man in on-the-ground talks. Lowenstein, who joined Kerry’s campaign in 2004 as a foreign policy adviser and stayed on as chief of staff of the Senate foreign relations committee, is the son of the late, legendary antiwar congressman Allard Lowenstein. It was Lowenstein senior who first recruited Kerry to the antiwar movement in the 1960s, when Kerry was a junior at Yale and Al Lowenstein was a Senate aide. Anyone who was a young antiwar activist from Long Island in the 1960s (or not so young—I recall how shaken my own father was) remembers the shattering day in 1980 when Lowenstein was murdered by a former volunteer suffering from schizophrenia.
Today, Tibon writes, Lowenstein junior is something like an alter ego to Kerry, head of his Middle East team and the guy he leaves in the region to speak in his name after his shuttle missions. Tibon has a telling anecdote about Kerry returning to Jerusalem at 4 a.m. from a grueling negotiating session in Ramallah and deciding to get out and walk the streets of Jerusalem, accompanied only by Lowenstein.
For non-Hebrew readers, the Washington Post ran this story by Laura Blumenfeld about the Kerry-Lowenstein connection back in 2004, when Frank Lowenstein first left his real estate law practice and joined the Kerry campaign. Here’s her version of a powerful anecdote (which Tibon also recounts) about how Lowenstein left real estate to follow Kerry:
After attending Yale and Boston College Law School, Frank worked for a Boston law firm. One day, at a Democratic fundraiser, he met Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who had known his father. Lowenstein recalled their conversation:
Marine Corps General James Mattis, who retired May 22 as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said in a speech at the prestigious Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last Saturday (July 20) that America needs to work “with a sense of urgency” to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because resentment of U.S. support for Israel hurts America militarily throughout the region.
He said the “current situation is unsustainable” and that America must act “with a sense of urgency” toward a two-state solution, because the chances “are starting to ebb because of the settlements and where they’re at.” If it fails, he said, the result will be “apartheid.” And then this bombshell:
I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.
Mattis’ predecessor as chief of CentCom, General David Petraeus, made much the same point in a briefing paper he submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, shortly before he handed CentCom over to Mattis. The passage on Israel (on Page 12) caused an explosive reaction (here is what the ADL had to say), though his actual testimony was far more equivocal than his written report. Commentary had a good rundown of the flap a few days later with both the written and spoken remarks in full. Petraeus tried to clear up the mess—some called it backtracking to cover his butt—in an ABC interview a week later.
Here’s a video of Mattis’ talk in Aspen (66 minutes in all). His comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict start at 41:22, and he returns to the subject in response to an audience question at 47:28.
Here’s the full text of Mattis’ Aspen comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
The European Union’s decision to slap the terrorist label on Hezbollah’s military wing, but not on its political wing, has been getting decidedly mixed reviews from Israel and the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee said it “welcomes” the move as a “significant step forward in recognizing the true nature of Hezbollah,” even though AJC shares the U.S.-Canadian-Dutch view that Hezbollah is actually “a single organization.”
On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League called it “a positive political statement, but a flawed counter-terrorism strategy,” since it “missed” the “high-value counter-terrorism target” of Hezbollah financing. B’nai Brith Canada went even further, saying the EU move gives “false legitimacy to Hezbollah’s supposedly non-violent wings,” which will “weaken international efforts to combat terror,” strengthen Iran and “cost more innocent lives.”
Yori Yanover wrote in the Jewish Press, citing a Reuters report, that the double-identity idea, “like most of the fun things coming out of the EU, is the brainchild of its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.”
Awkwardly enough, it now appears that differentiating the military and political wings for separate treatment was actually proposed to the EU by Israel’s negotiators. So reports Eli Bardenstein, the usually well-informed diplomatic correspondent of the right-leaning Israeli daily Maariv, in a detailed backgrounder (in Hebrew) on the Israeli campaign to secure the European ban. Launched by then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the year-long campaign was the work of a task force that was led by the Foreign Ministry and included Israel’s National Security Council and main intelligence agencies. The split-identity proposal, Bardenstein writes, was devised as a way to ease France’s fears of losing influence in Lebanon’s byzantine politics, which it feared would strengthen Hezbollah and reinforce Syria’s Assad regime.
The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace published an English-language summary (PDF) of Bardenstein’s analysis. Here are the main points:
Well, surprise, surprise. After months of hearing from all the wise pundits from left to right that Secretary of State Kerry was beyond his depth in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, that he was “naïve and ham-handed” (מגושם in the original), “dumb” and “clueless,” it turns out they all got it wrong. Of course, they’re still a long way from a peace agreement. They haven’t even launched peace negotiations. But they’ve agreed to try, and that’s more than anyone thought possible just a week ago. It looks like Kerry gets the last laugh, at least for now.
How did everyone get it so wrong? Four main reasons, I think. First, a major epidemic of cynicism, reinforced by the fashionably jaded, world-weary pose so beloved of journalists. Second, wishful thinking by ideologues who oppose the idea of two states for two people and cling to the idea that it can’t happen. Third, a deep distrust of the two leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, and of the political systems they lead.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, months and months of no news. It’s an old truism that if you want to bring two sides toward painful compromise, you have to keep the deal under wraps until it’s all done—otherwise each side can be accused of giving away the store and getting nothing in return until skeptics on both sides have nibbled it to pieces. But past rounds have been so leaky that everyone on the outside got used to hearing about every step as it happened. Consequently, the lack of incremental progress reports this time looked like a lack of progress. So when the deal was unwrapped, it took everyone by surprise.
But the image of Kerry as a clueless naïf blundering his way through the thicket isn’t the only myth that’s been exploded in the last two days. Here are a few others:
This year’s Major League Baseball All Stars game had two arguably Jewish players on the roster (out of 78 players total): second-baseman Jason Kipnis of Cleveland (American League) and first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona (National League). Both have Jewish fathers and Christian mothers (same as the two arguably Jewish players on last year’s All Star roster, Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun).
Two out of 78 comes to 2.5%, slightly above the Jewish percentage in the overall population. So what, you ask? We’ll get to that.
As luck would have it, those two happened to be the guys who made the game’s final plays for their respective leagues. Goldschmidt got the last hit for the losing National League, a two-out double in the bottom of the ninth inning. In the next play, Kipnis wrapped up a 3-0 win for the American League by catching a pop-up from Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh.
Does it matter, if their mothers aren’t Jewish and they don’t practice Judaism? I’d say it does. Braun (“the Hebrew Hammer”), Kinsler and Kipnis all consider themselves proud Jews (don’t know enough about Goldschmidt). They willingly put themselves forward as role models for Jewish kids looking for heroes and, all too frequently, struggling with issues of masculinity and Jewish identity. We should count ourselves blessed to live in a time when people are yearning to get counted in, not out.
So here’s my question: what’s with all the Jewish first basemen?
By now most of us have heard the big numbers involved in gun violence in this country. Given the anguished cries of protest following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it’s time we started paying attention to some of the smaller numbers.
In 2010 there were 31,672 deaths from firearms in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control figures cited in a Pew Research Center report this past May. Just under two-thirds (19,392) were suicides, and just over one-third (11,078) were homicides. No surprise so far, right?
Here’s a shocking fact you may not know: Of those 11,078 gun homicide victims, 55% were black, although blacks comprise about 13% of the nation’s population. Whites were 25% of the homicide victims, although they are 65% of the population. Hispanics were 17% of the victims, and 16% of the population. Relative to their share of the population, black Americans are about 11 times more likely to be shot to death than white Americans.
There’s something even more shocking: Fully 94% of black victims were killed by blacks, while 86% of white victims were killed by whites. That’s according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics figures cited in a Wall Street Journal article last August. Of the black victims, 85% were men, mostly between ages 18 and 40.
Put differently, some 6,092 black people were shot to death in 2010, including 5,178 men and 914 women. Of those victims, 5,726 were killed by other blacks and 366 by whites, Hispanics or Asians. At the same time, 2,769 white people were shot to death that year, of whom 2,381 were killed by other whites and 388 by non-whites.
What do those numbers teach us? First, whatever the precise circumstances under which Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin — and we will probably never know exactly what happened, which is why “reasonable doubt” was the necessary verdict — it was rare. The claim by protesters across the country since the verdict that the shooting of young Martin was the typical black experience in America is statistically untrue.
On the other hand, so is the widespread white fear of victimization by young black men that leads to the suspicion and profiling experienced by so many black Americans. Killing of whites by blacks is as rare as killing of blacks by whites in absolute numbers. Proportional to their total population numbers, it’s even more rare: the killing of a black person by a white person, as rare as it is, is about five times more likely than the reverse. Either way, though, racial killings are a tiny proportion of the slaughter.
There is an epidemic of murder in this country. It’s killing young black men at a horrifying rate. Americans, including black Americans, have hardened their hearts to that terrible reality. We’re all glued to our television sets, taking sides in a symbolic drama that’s supposed to prove who is the greater victim.
The race for Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel keeps getting uglier. The lead contender, Safed’s municipal Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, is the subject of a legal investigation by state attorney general Yehuda Weinstein. Weinstein’s action comes in response to a formal complaint by Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel over Eliyahu’s 2010 ban on sale or rent of homes to Arabs, as well as certain statements about gays that may have broken laws on incitement.
Now Eliyahu’s chief opponent, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, may be headed for his own legal troubles. Maariv reports that, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has asked Weinstein to examine possible legal responses to a variety of Yosef’s controversial statements and rulings. (For a rundown of statements by Eliyahu and Yosef, see my blog post from last week, here.) Yosef is the eldest son of former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the opposition Shas Party.
Six organizations, including the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and several women’s groups, have written to Weinstein to request that he summon Yosef for questioning and bar his candidacy for chief rabbi, Maariv reports. The paper quotes unnamed legal authorities saying that the request means Weinstein will be barred from defending Yosef if his case is appealed to the Supreme Court.
The race for chief rabbi of Israel has been getting ugly since the collapse of a proposed deal between Shas and Jewish Home to elect their respective favorites. The deal would have amended the Chief Rabbinate laws to permit a second term for the incumbent Sephardic chief rabbi, a Shas favorite, and eliminated the age limit to permit the election of a favorite of the hardline, pro-settler of Jewish Home. The deal collapsed over liberal support for a more moderate Ashkenazi contender, as well as opposition to anything that benefits Shas.
The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is now Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor of the National Religious Party. The younger Eliyahu is currently the subject of furious behind-the-scenes politicking by liberals who want to stop his candidacy, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel. The reason: a long record of extreme racism, including his notorious 2010 dictum forbidding the sale or rental of homes to Arabs.
Livni, whose Justice Ministry would be in charge of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu (since the Sephardic chief rabbi is the head of the rabbinical court system, which is under the Justice Ministry), met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last month to look for legal ways to block Eliyahu. Weinstein was dubious about the legal grounds, according to Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot Ahronot. Barnea quoted Livni as insisting: “This is intolerable. After all, we’re talking about the position of chief rabbi. What will his election do to Israel’s image abroad? He mustn’t be elected.”
Livni wanted to base legal action on an indictment issued against Eliyahu in 2002 on charges of racism after he called for the expulsion of the Arab population of Safed. Weinstein pointed out that the state attorney’s office dropped the charges in 2006 after Eliyahu agreed to apologize, which would undermine the legal grounds for blocking him now.
On Wednesday, however (presumably after Barnea had filed his Friday Supplement column), Haaretz reported that Weinstein had agreed to conduct a legal inquiry if Eliyahu’s name is formally put in nomination.
The Haaretz story linked above includes some of Eliyahu’s most controversial quotes. The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has put together a longer list of Eliyahu’s most objectionable public statements.
Barnea points out, however, that stopping Eliyahu could be a mixed blessing. His main competition, Barnea reports, is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, a son of the former Sephardic chief rabbi and current Shas party mentor Ovadia Yosef. Though less prominent in the press, Barnea says, Yosef could be considered even more racist—and misogynistic and anti-democratic, to boot—than Eliyahu. In part this is a reflection of their ideological backgrounds: Eliyahu comes from the religious Zionist movement and recognizes the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, while Yosef emerges from a Haredi worldview that’s much more ambivalent on the question. It’s said, though, that Avraham Yosef is considered something of an extremist even within his own family.
To make his case, Barnea put together a list of parallel statements by the two for comparison. Here’s my translation:
Looking at Egypt’s latest earthquake from the sober distance of a few solid hours, two important takeaways, each nicely captured in an eye-catching headline. One frames a fresh column by Bloomberg Businessweek deputy editor Romesh Ratnesar: “Revolt in Egypt Marks the End of America’s Illusions About Arab Democracy.”
The other sits atop a column by the canny Bulgarian journalist Victor Kotsev in the Hong Kong-based Asia Times: “Egyptian nightmare for Erdogan.”
Erdogan, of course, is Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AIR-doo-wan), prime minister of Turkey since 2003 as head of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which fancies itself the leading edge of a new wave of moderate political Islam. Kotsev writes:
While the Turkish government spent much of the last couple of years branding itself as a paradigm for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, the reverse is now taking place: Egypt is becoming the nightmare scenario for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It’s a nightmare in several senses. For one thing, Turkey has spent vast sums of money and political capital trying to tout itself and Egypt as leaders of the new wave. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood last year in Egypt, the Arab world’s most popular country, was Erdogan’s chance to show that his brand of democratic Islamism had graduated from test-case to movement. Now, as Wall Street Journal reporter-blogger Joe Parkinson wrote today,
Analysts said that the prospect of the fall of Egypt’s democratically-elected Islamist government, could represent a serious blow to Turkey’s aspirations of regional leadership.
“The developments in Egypt are unfortunate, but along with the situation in Syria, it appears to mark the end of whatever dreams the Turkish government previously had of playing a leading role to a series of friendly Islamist governments in the region,” said Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Hass University.
And not just dreams of regional leadership. Turkey has been rocked by major street protests of its own for the past five weeks. The violent phase seems to have ended—with a brand-new court victory for the protesters, it’s worth noting, annulling the parkland development project that brought them into the street—the mere fact that the protests could topple his fellow Islamist to the south has to be making Erdogan a tad nervous. And on top of that, the coup de grace was delivered by the army, the institution that’s been Erdogan’s greatest bane since the beginning. Kotsev:
True, the danger of a military coup in Turkey at the moment is close to zero, if only because Erdogan has locked up an entire army college (some 330 officers) on charges of plotting against him. But the parallels between the two countries run far beyond the superficial. For the record, so too did Egyptian still-President Mohammed Morsi try to purge the army last year, although he only removed a few top generals
Most importantly, both countries are experimenting with moderate political Islam, and the experiments have produced mixed result as far as genuine democracy is concerned.
As for America’s broken dreams, they also began a decade ago, when President Bush decided to adopt the strategy of exporting democracy as the way to tame the Middle East and “defeat the terrorists.” This is where it’s gotten us. Here’s Ratnesar in Bloomberg Businessweek:
Some interesting new ideas today about inequality in America.
First, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson offers an important insight into the different kinds of inequality that exist and the differing responses. Over the past half-century, he writes, public pressure for black, women’s and gay rights has brought down barriers confronting those excluded because of their racial and sexual identities.
Changes in the law have followed the same pattern: First, a handful of generally radical activists brought attention to the existence of a legal double standard; then, a mass movement grew in support of eliminating discriminatory laws and practices; only after this did government respond with legal remedies.
It hasn’t been even. The Supreme Court’s assault on the Voting Rights Act, state attacks on abortion and other backlash measures have set back fights for equality. Still, the general direction of society has been toward equality.
But, Meyerson writes, the opposite has been true for economic equality. After nearly a half-century of government activism to reduce inequality, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, the last 30 years have seen a steady, radical rise in inequality, due in large measure to government policies like deregulating the financial industry and undercutting workers’ bargaining power. The trend not only reverses the legacies of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but also “makes a mockery of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of equality, which went beyond mere equality of creation” and looked to a “nation of yeoman farmers” to prevent “inequalities of wealth and power.”
He might also have mentioned Abraham Lincoln, whose freeing of the slaves served, as Andrew Zimmerman writes in today’s New York Times, as an inspiration to European radicals and helped fuel the socialist and workers’ rights movements that emerged in the decades after Lincoln.
More on economic inequality: two fascinating new studies from the Economic Policy Institute, not easy reading but well worth the slog:
In the latest climate news: heat waves and wildfires in the West, record flooding in the Northeast. But first—get this—top British and American military brass warn that climate change constitutes one of the most serious security threats (that’s the British view—the American says it’s the most serious) facing the two nations in the decades ahead.
The Brit is Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, who recently took over as the British foreign ministry’s top climate official. He says climate change is as serious a threat as terrorism or cyber-attacks, and that “governments could not afford to wait until they had all the information they might like. ‘If you wait for 100% certainty on the battlefield, you’ll be in a pretty sticky state,’ he said. The increased threat posed by climate change arises because droughts, storms and floods are exacerbating water, food, population and security tensions in conflict-prone regions.”
The American is Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. He says that changing climate is the most serious threat on the horizon to U.S. security in the Pacific—more serious than “hostile actions by North Korea, escalating tensions between China and Japan, and a spike in computer attacks traced to China.” Worth a read.
About that heat wave: Harvard University climatologist Martin Tingley talks to National Geographic about his study, published in Nature in April, that found that the years 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2011 were warmer than any year going back 600 years, to 1400.
Tingley says it’s impossible to blame anthropogenic (man-made) climate change directly for the triple-digit heatwave currently crippling the American West. What he does say, intriguingly, is that based on “the meteorological charts, it looks to be a blocking event. That happens when there’s a particular configuration of the jet stream that’s quite stable. So there’s a big high-pressure ridge on the West Coast and a low-pressure trough in the East Coast. That’s why it’s quite rainy here [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] and very hot on the West Coast.”
Alert readers will recall that I’ve written several times recently about the role of climate change in generating those jet stream-related “blocking events.”