President Obama used his March 24 press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as an opportunity for a lengthy discussion of his plans to reevaluate America’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
It runs 10 minutes, from 34:10 to 44:54. He starts off by inviting a question from Associated Press White House reporter Josh Lederman. Below the video is my transcription of the bulk of Obama’s remarks.
Prime Minister Netanyahu in the run-up to the election stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister, and I took him at his word that that’s what he meant. And I think that a lot of voters inside Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.
Afterwards he put forward that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But of course the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon.
So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time, which was always the presumption.
I don’t think anybody ever envisioned in any peace agreement, certainly not one that Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to, or the Israeli people would agree to, that overnight you would suddenly have a Palestinian state next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security conditions that had to be met and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.
So the issue has never been do you create a Palestinian state overnight. The question is do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility that down the road they have a secure state of their own standing side by side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.
J Street / Facebook
Speaking at a press conference on the margins of the J Street national convention today, a group of left-wing Knesset members split over the role they’d like American Jews to play in American diplomacy, particularly at the United Nations.
Responding to a reporter’s question, Zionist Union lawmakers Yoel Hasson and Ksenia Svetlova said they opposed a UN resolution on a Palestinian state. “We all support a two-state solution,” Hasson said, “but the UN is not the place for it. The only way is for Obama to be active, to talk to the Palestinians, to talk to Netanyahu. And the Arab states in the region can play an important role.”
By contrast, Tamar Zandberg of Meretz welcomed the prospect of a UN resolution as a way of helping Israelis and Palestinians come together around a joint framework. “A UN resolution is something Israel should support,” Zandberg said. “How can you support a two-state solution inside [Israel] but oppose it outside?”
Zandberg said she was pleased with the election results, because “the right-wing victory is clear.”
In a clear dig at Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, she added: “The most dangerous phenomenon we saw last time was parties running as left-wing, winning votes from the left and then taking them into a right-wing government. This time all the left is in opposition. It’s much clearer and more unified.”
Zandberg said she was happily surprised by what she found at the J Street conference. “I came to this conference three days after the election and was sure I would find depression and sadness. I was surprised to find energy. I met people who said they decided to come here after seeing the election because they wanted to feel the energy.”
In the end it wasn’t even close. Pre-election polls had Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud trailing the Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni by four Knesset seats, nearly 4% of the popular vote. Analysts around the world were falling over each other to write Bibi’s political obituary. Then came election day. Exit polls found he’d amazingly closed the gap. With the two parties effectively tied, Netanyahu suddenly appeared far better positioned than Herzog to form the next coalition.
When the actual vote-count ended, it was a Netanyahu landslide. He’d left his challenger gasping in the dust, winning 30 Knesset seats to Herzog’s 24. He’s now poised to shape Israel’s next government more or less as he chooses. The only question, it seems, is whether he’ll choose a narrow coalition of the right or a broad unity government with Herzog.
So it seems. In fact, though, his situation is devilishly complicated. En route to his come-from-behind victory he left a trail of bad blood that will haunt him for months. His last-minute outcry to save Israel from the votes of its Arab citizens arguably won him the election. But it opened a deep rift in society that will take a long time to heal. He presides over a society wounded by his own hand.
The immediate damage of Netanyahu’s the-Arabs-are-coming slur mustn’t be underestimated. It infuriated Israel’s Jewish liberals and moderates along with non-Jewish minorities. It reverberated worldwide, evoking shock and revulsion even among Israel’s admirers. It will deepen rifts within the American Jewish community. It will be cited endlessly by Israel’s enemies as evidence in their ongoing campaign to demonize and isolate Israel as a racist, apartheid state. Worst of all, this is one bit of evidence they won’t be making up.
Nor was the slur an isolated incident. It came just a day after Netanyahu’s cynical declaration that he won’t allow a Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister. Put together, the two bombshell statements make him look more than ever like a far-right extremist. They’ll increase tensions with Western capitals at a time when healing is badly needed.
Ben Caspit at Maariv reports that internal polls of the two main parties show the race too close to call, Herzog camp “deeply worried.” Race might be too close to call for 4 p.m. exit polls to be particularly meaningful. Last minute surge of right-wing voters from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Eli Yishai’s Yahad back to the Likud may be doing the trick, leaving serious doubt whether Lieberman and Yahad will cross the threshold and make it into the Knesset.
On one hand, if those two disappear, it could make it easier for Herzog to form a coalition from the parties that are actually represented in the Knesset. On the other hand, the narrow gap might make it harder for him to get the president’s nod to take the first shot at negotiating for a coalition, given Bibi’s advantage in party recommendations. Remember, Herzog will need Shas and Kahlon to form a government. Shas might be available for a Herzog coalition, but in stage one (recommendations to the president) Deri promised to recommend Bibi.
So it’s really anybody’s game right now, and we may not know anything until the soldiers’ votes are all counted a week from now. And in the final analysis, it may prove true that all votes are counted equally, but the only vote that will really count will be Moshe Kahlon’s.
Forget the pre-election spin from enthusiastic Israeli lefties and despondent righties. Forget the three-day-old polls. Don’t start popping the champagne or sitting shiva (whatever your preference). At the voting booths, it’s still anybody’s game.
Overall turnout, which was expected to be high due to the intense emotions surrounding the campaign, has been unexceptional. As of 6:00 p.m. Israel time (noon Eastern) it was 54.6% according to Maariv, almost a full point below the 55.5% who had turned out by 6 p.m. in 2013, the last time Israelis voted. (Ynet has a chart here of voter turnout going back to 1984.) It’s also not clear who would be helped or hurt by turnout. Would a strong showing mean Israelis were pouring out to register their discontent with Prime Minister Netanyahu, or that Bibi had managed to rally his troops at the last minute to turn back the leftist tide? Unclear.
There are conflicting reports about turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens. Activists have been predicting for weeks that the unification of the three Arab and Arab-backed parties — Islamist, Palestinian nationalist and Jewish-Arab communist — would increase enthusiasm and turnout, boost the Joint List up from the 12 seats predicted in the polls to 14 or 15 and effectively block the right from returning to power. Prime Minister Netanyahu played on that to raise fears among his own voters, “warning” in a video this morning that Arabs were being bussed to the polls “by the left” and voting “in vast numbers.” The left-leaning Haaretz reported just after noon that turnout was above average in Arab precincts. But Ynet reported just before 4 p.m. that Arab voter turnout was about average or slightly below, and Maariv reported the same thing from its own sources at 6:45 p.m.
Maariv said turnout was high in cities where the communist-led Hadash faction runs strong, but lower in villages where the Islamist Ra’am dominates. Ahmed Tibi, a veteran Arab Knesset member who’s regularly waved in front of Jewish voters like a red flag, told Ynet that Netanyahu’s morning video about “vast” Arab turnout had actually depressed Arab turnout by convincing potential voters that their vote wasn’t needed.
Yeshiva students pray for safe return of three kidnapped youths
With the terrorist kidnapping of three teenagers dominating the news cycle and nearly every private conversation for the past two days, Israelis have had little attention to spare for America’s national agony in Iraq.
It’s hard to think of a time when the two nations’ fates were so closely linked, yet their concerns were so utterly disconnected. It seems like neither public has time for the other’s troubles.
The similarities of their situations go beyond their struggles with Islamist terrorists. In both countries, it seems, the initial horror of the events themselves — the fall of Mosul, the disappearance of the three yeshiva students — quickly gave way to anger at the perpetrators and their enablers.
And at that moment, when thoughts turned to the enablers, each country’s political sides began to turn on each other.
In America, of course, it’s those who blame Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq before the mess there was fixed versus those who blame George W. Bush for creating the mess by going into Iraq in the first place.
In Israel, it’s those who blame Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas for opening the door to Hamas — and by none-too-subtle implication, the supporters of the Oslo peace process that created an openly armed Palestinian presence on Israeli-controlled soil — versus those who accuse the right, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, of freezing forward motion and threatening the tentative stability that’s been won in the past few years.
Boy aims toy gun at wreckage of a Baghdad car bombing, one of 9 across Iraq that killed 14 on March 5. And that wasn’t Iraq’s worst day in March. / Getty Images
Mission Accomplished: Just in time for the 11th anniversary of America’s war to liberate Iraq, a leading global business consulting firm comes forward with what could be the most telling measure of our success. According to an annual ranking prepared by Mercer, the human resources consulting subsidiary of Marsh & McClennan, the Iraqi capital of Baghdad is the worst city in the world to live in.
Mercer comes out with an annual ranking of 223 world cities, in order, its website says, “to help multinational companies and other employers compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments.” Cities are ranked according to a variety of measures including political stability, crime rate and air pollution.
Baghdad was founded as capital of the Abbasid caliphate in the year 762 C.E. and was for centuries the cultural and intellectual capital of the world. It went into decline along with much of the Arab world after the Mongol invasion in the 1200s, but remained an important city and regained a good deal of stature in the 20th century with the rise of the oil industry. As recently as the 1970s it was described as “a model city in the Arab world” and even “one of the great cities in the world.”
The Washington Post notes that it’s been at the bottom of Mercer’s rankings since 2004, the first survey to be conducted following the U.S. invasion 2003.
The top five cities in the world, according to Mercer, are Vienna, Zurich, Auckland (New Zealand), Munich and Vancouver. Ranking just ahead of Baghdad at the bottom of the list are Bangui in Central African Republic and Port au Prince, Haiti.
As hard as leaders of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, are trying to maintain a politely bipartisan tone among the 14,000 activists gathered for the lobby’s annual conference, unhappiness with the Obama administration keeps surfacing in small conference rooms and chats in the corridors.
Occasionally rancor surfaces in the mass plenary sessions, despite the leadership’s best efforts to roll back the partisanship that hurt the lobby during the recent confrontation over Iran sanctions. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain received loud standing ovations on Monday morning when he blamed the Ukraine crisis on President Obama’s “feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
Nor is the rancor always partisan. New Yorker Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, delivered a direct attack Monday evening on Secretary of State John Kerry, moments before Kerry was to take the stage, thundering that “those who warn that Israel must make agreements that she feels are unjust because the boycotts will get worse are wrong. Those quote-unquote friends should be in every possible way condemning the boycotts.” He was referring to Kerry’s February 1 warning at a security conference in Munich, which drew furious protests from Israeli leaders.
It’s in the smaller sessions, however, that the gloves sometimes come off in the course of what begins as a dispassionate expert analysis of anything from Syria to the Pacific rim.
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Even in a political culture as poisonous as ours is of late, there’s still something deeply disturbing about the perverse dishonesty of the right-wing attacks on Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.
There are so many layers of bad faith at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. On the broadest level of principle, the president is taking the nation’s most articulate proponent of international action to prevent genocide and putting her in the very spot where she’s most needed. All those conservatives who rail against American lassitude in Syria, Libya and so on back to the Holocaust should be thrilled. But no. Instead, we’ve been hit with a barrage of accusations over the past 24 hours.
Far more startling is the substance of the attacks. Most of them are based entirely on two statements she made years ago, which are twisted to make her sound anti-Israel. One is an outrageous distortion, turning her response to a bizarre, hypothetical “thought experiment” during an obscure 2002 interview into a clarion call for invading Israel. The other is a flat lie – a repetition of two sentences, one about the malign influence of lobbyists, the other about our “important” alliance with Israel, and making them sound like a single thought by removing the middle of the paragraph. (A handful of attackers have dredged up a sprinkling of other statements that are more difficult to distort, though they’re trying.)
The most popular charge is that she “advocates” sending a massive U.S. invasion force into Israel and the territories to “impose a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is based entirely on two-minute segment in an obscure, undated 2002 interview she gave to a Berkeley professor, Harry Kreisler, now circulating on YouTube. He asks her to respond to a “thought experiment”: if she were an adviser to the president, how would she advise him to act if it looked like either Israel or the Palestinians were “moving toward genocide.” Her answer was to take the same action she recommends in other genocidal situations: send in troops to stop it.
If you’re not familiar with Coteret.com, you should be. It’s a must-read group blog by young Israeli progressives. Most of what they do is translating important news and analysis from the Hebrew press that doesn’t appear anywhere else in English. The blog also posts original musings.
This one is a month old, but worth the read:”Liberal Jews and Israel — A case of split personality disorder.” It’s by Noam Sheizaf, a member of the Coteret collective. He’s looking at the inability of American Jewish liberals to acknowledge and talk about Israel’s flaws. What’s most striking about it is not his analysis of the phenomenon, but simply his description of it as it appears to an Israeli, and his obvious distress over the fact.
Sheizaf opens with a description of a conversation with an American. He observes that with few exceptions, American Jews look on apathetically, or disbelieving, at Israeli actions that would have them leaping to the barricades if they occurred in America — for example, the arrest of a woman for wearing a tallis while praying at the Cotel. He writes:
I’ve became more aware of this issue myself since I started writing this blog. Things I say or write which are well within the public debate in Israel are sometimes viewed as outrageous by American Jewish readers; at the same time, events which would make the same readers furious if they happened in the US – for example, the Israeli municipality which tried to prevent Arabs from dating Jewish girls – are met with indifference.
Naturally, I’m generalizing here. Between millions of Jews you can obviously find all kinds of voices – and this is part of the reason I hesitated before writing this post – but I think one can recognize some sort of mainstream opinion within the Jewish community, which both echoes the official Israeli policies, regardless of the identity of the government in Jerusalem, and at the same time, turns a blind eye on events which might distort the image of Israel which this community holds. And this is something which is hard to understand.
The conflict between the Jewish state and the democratic state is growing apace. The rabbis’ letter forbidding Jews to rent homes to non-Jews (meaning, mostly, Arabs) is attracting a steadily growing list of signatories. As of Thursday night it had about 300 rabbis signed on, according to a report on Israel National News, the English website of the settlers’ Arutz Sheva (Channel 7) radio.
Of the total, 47 are said to be chief rabbis of Israeli communities or municipalities, which is to say, public servants whose salaries are paid by the Israeli taxpayer. The letter declares violators to be subject to niddui, a mild version of excommunication in which, among other things, the miscreant may pray in a Jewish congregation but may not have the honor of being called to the Torah.
The joint statement follows and expands a ban issued in Safed in the Galilee in October by that city’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu. He has spoken repeatedly against the growing number of Israeli Arab students enrolling in the local community college and seeking housing in the city. His initial statement had the backing of 18 other rabbis, mostly from Safed.
So far it’s being treated like another one of those unpleasant incidents where someone speaks out, opponents complain and everyone forgets. But this is a rebellion by a major segment of Israel’s religious leadership, working from what has become a very mainstream school of Jewish religious thought within Israel. Shame and moral condemnation seem to have no effect, because they believe theirs is the correct reading of God’s word.
A news analysis by Yaakov Katz in today’s Jerusalem Post makes the very sensible point that the Wikileaks super-dump evidently vindicates Israel’s arguments that the Iranian nuclear project is everybody’s problem, not just Israel’s.
Progressives and isolationists have been claiming more or less since the Iraq invasion in 2003 that the constant brouhaha over an Iranian threat is just Israel and its neocon friends trying to reprise the Iraq mess by pushing for an attack on Iran that would help nobody but Israel, while leaving the rest of the world in an unwanted mess. The Wikileaks documents indicate that Israel’s fear of Iran is widely shared and that whatever the consequences of a possible military strike, it has wider support than you might think.
For years now, top Israeli political and defense leaders have warned the world that a nuclear Iran is not just a threat to the Jewish state but is a threat to the entire region.
“If only we could say publicly what we hear behind closed doors,” Israeli officials would comment, following off-record talks they held with Arab leaders throughout the Middle East.
Well, now they can. According to one cable published by WikiLeaks on Sunday, Saudi King Abdullah “frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program” and to cut off the head of the snake.
According to another cable, King Hamad of Bahrain, a country with a majority Shi’ite population, urged in a meeting with former CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus that action be taken to terminate Iran’s nuclear program. …
Jordan is also cited at some length as eager to see the Iranian nukes stopped. Katz continues:
Progressive Zionists rightly insist on the right to declare one’s love for Israel and still point out when Israel is in the wrong and the other side has a legitimate case. The trouble is that one neglects to take note from time to time (to time to time to time, actually) when Israel is in the right and the other side is ridiculously, outrageously in the wrong.
Case in point: the incident on the Israeli-Lebanese border earlier this week, when Lebanese Army soldiers shot and killed an Israel lieutenant colonel who was overseeing maintenance work on the border fence that Israel maintains on the Israeli side of of the border. Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, trained a sharp eye on Western media coverage of the incident. Two points stand out in relief: first, the inherent vulnerability of the standard he-said/she-said style of objective reporting in the face of systematic mendacity; and second, the tendency in Middle East moments of doubt (which is most moments) to assume that Israel is the bad guy because–well, just because.
Here’s Barry (the embedded links are his):
Today’s Example of Ridiculous Media Bias Against Israel
Along Israel’s border with Lebanon, east of Metulla, some bushes were pushing in on the border fence. The fence is set in slightly from the border precisely so that Israeli soldiers can work on it. The IDF called UNIFIL and informed the UN that this work was going to be done today so that they could tell the Lebanese army that there was no aggression going on but just routine maintenance. Soldiers from UNIFIL came to observe and can be seen standing next to Israeli soldiers in the photos. Photographers were also standing by to film the operation.
But Lebanese soldiers opened fire on the Israelis who were working and in no way acting aggressively. The fact that journalists were standing next to the Lebanese soldiers shows that they knew Israel was going to do this maintenance and were observing. After the Israeli soldiers were ambushed, they returned fire. One Israeli officer was killed, another seriously wounded; three Lebanese soldiers, and a Lebanese (?) journalist were killed.
So how did Reuters and Yahoo report this? By saying that Israeli soldiers had crossed into Lebanon and been fired on, thus implying the Lebanese army was acting in self-defense! Other news agencies merely reported: Israel says the soldiers were inside Israel; Lebanon says they were on Lebanese territory.
The biggest thing that’s missing in most coverage is the background to the incident.
Commentary magazine has come out with a star-studded symposium, titled “Obama, Israel & American Jews: The Challenge,” in which no fewer than 31 prominent American Jews were invited to comment on the tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government — tensions “of a kind not seen since the days of the administration of the first President Bush,” the magazine observes — and to assess the response of American Jews.
Kicking off the discussion with some objective facts as a focal point, the magazine notes that the current bilateral tensions present “an unprecedented political challenge” to American Jews,
who voted for Barack Obama by a margin of nearly 4-to-1 in 2008 after being assured by Obama himself and by his supporters in the Jewish community that he was a friend and an ally of the State of Israel despite his long association with, among others, the unabashedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The challenge, therefore: whether “Obama’s Jewish supporters” can do anything “to change the unmistakable direction of current American policy emanating from the White House,” or whether American Jews will “accept Barack Obama’s view that the state of Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American ‘blood and treasure’ in the Middle East” — and will continue to support Obama and the Democrats.
The 31 respondents span a broad, representative spectrum of American Jewish opinion, at least as Commentary measures it. Here’s how the responses break down, by my count:
Don’t count on those American Jewish blockheads to stand up for Israel: 11.
Well, they’d better / Hey, they just might: 7.
I’m hoping Obama will see the light and we won’t have to choose sides: 7.
Obama isn’t Israel’s enemy / This symposium is a right-wing set-up: 4.
Miscellaneous (Both sides are nuts / We haven’t properly taught Israel to our young’uns): 2.
See if you can match the participants to their respective positions:
The news this week is chock-full of outrage over the Israeli naval action that Turkey and others are calling an act of naked piracy on the high seas. And in the week’s other top story, by incredible coincidence, the oil slick oozing across the Gulf of Mexico made its first major landfall Thursday at, of all places, Grand Isle in Barataria Bay at the mouth of the Mississippi, 15 miles south of New Orleans. Barataria and its three islets are probably best known as the place where a private kingdom was established around 1800 by the greatest Jewish pirate of them all, Jean Lafitte.
Lafitte, as alert readers recall, was born around 1776 and won fame as a pirate and sometime privateer who specialized in attacking Spanish merchant ships. He played a critical, well-documented role in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, bringing his men and arms through the swamps to help Andrew Jackson stop the British.
It’s widely believed that Lafitte was born in France or the French Caribbean (various theories as to which island) and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Zora Nadrimal, a secret Jew who fled Spain as a little girl, one step ahead of the Inquisition. As commonly told, Bubbe Zora raised Lafitte and his three brothers, Pierre, Rene and Dominique You (who was portrayed by Charles Boyer in the 1958 Yul Brynner swashbuckler about Lafitte, “The Buccaneer”) to hate Spain for what it did to their people and to take to the sea for revenge.
Lafitte’s hatred of Spain is well-documented; he was close to Simon Bolivar and may have helped finance the Bolivar and San Martin revolutions that kicked Spain out of South America. His Jewishness, on the other hand, is a matter of furious debate among historians. Debunkers say the evidence of Lafitte’s Jewishness is thin and suspect, though they don’t offer much evidence to the contrary and they often sound like those grumpy old men who get all huffy when you talk about Jewish athletes and other ruffians, like it lowers their standards. (It turns out that some don’t like being associated with ruffians and others don’t like being associated with Jews.) I would have thought the debate would end four years ago when this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, in which a scholarly writer relates his recent encounter with Melvyn Lafitte, a direct descendant who lives in Switzerland and is a practicing Orthodox Jew. But no.
It’s also said, with shakier documentation, that Lafitte’s death off Galveston in 1823 was faked and that he lived off his wealth into the 1850s, probably in St. Louis. In some accounts he got involved in labor organizing, met Marx in London and tried to introduce him to Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a vitriolic online back-and-forth about this theory. Here’s the Amazon page for The Journal of Jean Lafitte, purportedly written in the 1840s, describing his youth with his grandmother and much more, widely seen as phony but a fun read anyway. And here is Marx’s actual letter to Lincoln.
Where were we? Oh yes — the Big Spill meets the Flotilla…
Yair Lapid, one of Israel’s most influential journalists, wrote an important opinion piece (link is to the English translation) last week on Ynet, the Web site of Yediot Ahronot, reexamining the meaning of the Holocaust in Israel today. He says it’s time to step back, if only slightly, from the usual response of anger and defensiveness that characterizes most Holocaust commemoration in Israel (and, we might add, in organized American Jewish circles as well) and begin reminding ourselves of its universal human lessons.
His argument won’t be unfamiliar to progressive Jews in America. What’s important is that Lapid is not a radical or dissenter. He’s decidedly centrist, born and raised in the bosom of Israel’s Ashkenazic elite, anchor of the influential Ulpan Shishi Friday night TV newsmagazine on Channel 2 and lead columnist in the Yediot Ahronot weekly magazine. He’s also the son of the late Tommy Lapid, justice minister, outspoken journalist, chairman of Yad Vashem and a leading spokesman for Israel’s Holocaust survivor community. There was some buzz last month that Yair, the son, might be starting a new centrist political party (as his father once did) and the polls immediately showed him coming in third in a theoretical election, trailing Likud and Kadima but trouncing everyone else on the map.
So when Yair Lapid starts publicly rethinking the Holocaust, it’s a sure sign that something serious is percolating in the mind of mainstream Israel.
Here are some key passages:
…The Holocaust dismantled everything human beings knew about themselves, and then taught us two unforgettable lessons:
The first one is that we must survive at any price. The second one is that we must be moral. The thing we still don’t know is what to do when these two lessons contradict each other. Holocaust survivors came to Israel in order to establish a new human society where nobody would be able to hurt them just because they’re Jewish. This is both a furious and vulnerable message. Not only are we allowed to do everything — and I mean everything — in order to ensure no second Shoah, this is also our supreme duty. …
…However, if this summed up the lessons of the Holocaust, it would not pose any dilemma for us. The problem is that the Shoah also taught us that a part of survival — and possibly the most meaningful part — hinges on the existence of human morality. Without human morality, there would be no Churchill, there would be no partisans, the US would not have entered the war, and a Red Army regiment under the command of a Jew called Anatoly Shapiro would not have liberated Auschwitz.
Why should Israel have to freeze new Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem, when it has already conceded so much and the Palestinians and their Arab patrons have given up so little?
Well, for one thing, that Israel-gave-lots/Arabs-gave-little equation is not as cut and dry as it seems. But that’s a separate discussion for another day. The essential question is this: America says it needs the freeze for reasons of American security. Does Israel owe it to America to answer American security needs as America answers Israel’s security needs? And if it doesn’t, what are the consequences?
Haaretz has two opinion essays right now arguing that Israel should freeze construction because it needs to stop Iran’s nuclear project and it needs America to lead the effort. One piece is by Ari Shavit, the prolific and unpredictable center-left interviewer/essayist. Its bottom line is that Bibi Netanyahu has boxed himself into a corner through a series of missteps over the past year and he needs to do something dramatic to get himself out of it:
The road to Iran also passes through Palestine. The price of stopping the centrifuges is giving up settlements. Only if Netanyahu acts with determination in this spirit can he right the great injustice he has done to himself over the past year. Only Netanyahu can save Netanyahu from destruction.
The other piece is considerably more substantive and compelling. It’s by Ephraim Sneh, a reserve brigadier general, former West Bank civil administration head (military governor), former deputy defense minister, former transportation minister, former health minister (he’s also an MD). Unlike Shavit he stays away from personal issues of Netanyahu versus Obama and sticks to a cold analysis of Israeli strategic interest.
Sneh lays out 10 “assumptions” that he says must be taken into account when attempting to unravel the current “fundamental and serious” crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. I won’t try to summarize them, because Sneh presents them in a terse, compelling flow. Here’s how he puts it:
Israel’s national-religious/Modern Orthodox community is in an uproar this week following a published report accusing the charismatic, widely respected Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon of sexually molesting teenage boys.
The accusation was made public Monday, February 15, by an organization that seeks to fight sexual abuse by rabbinic authority figures. The organization, Takana, said that it had confronted Elon four years ago and pressured him to withdraw from educational or pastoral work. Israel’s attorney general agreed at the time to let the matter be kept out of the courts and handled privately within the rabbinic community. Takana spokesmen say the accusations were made public this week because the organization learned that Elon had returned to teaching and spiritual counseling, in violation of the agreement.
Takana is a public forum whose members include some top rabbinic leaders of Israeli modern Orthodoxy, including Rabbi Yuval Sherlow and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
Elon is one of Israel’s best-known rabbis, a popular lecturer, writer, former dean of the renowned Yeshivat Ha-Kotel and host of his own weekly television program, often touted as a future chief rabbi. He is as famous for his family lineage as for his own work: His father, Menachem, is a former deputy chief justice of Israel’s supreme court. One brother, Rabbi Benny Alon, is a former Knesset leader of the pro-settler National Union party and a minister in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet. Another brother, Ari Elon, teaches and writes on progressive Jewish religious thought.
Elon has publicly denied any wrongdoing, calling it a “blood libel,” and many of his former students and colleagues have rallied to his support since the charges were made public. However, the Takana organization claims that Elon confessed to the allegations when he was first confronted four years ago.
Takana also reported this week that additional alleged victims have come forward since the affair broke and complained to the Takana organization of past abuse by Elon.
Coincidentally, a group of prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbis published an open letter this week declaring that the biblical ban on homosexual behavior does not justify intolerant treatment of individual gays and urging more open attitudes toward gays within the religious community.
You may or may not have noticed this story on the front page of The New York Times. Its main point is that the dizzying growth of our national indebtedness poses a threat not just to America’s economic health and future but to its role in the world.
Even if you don’t much follow global economics, keep reading anyway, if for no other reason than this: As America’s role goes on the world stage, so goes Israel. A weak America can’t protect an embattled Israel. If Israel doesn’t find a way to normalize its relations with its neighbors by the end of the decade, it may have to adjust to life without the protection of the world’s sole superpower. As if.
It’s a shocker, all right — that is, unless you remember this Forward editorial from September 2004. We called this one way early. More about that below.
According to today’s Times, President Obama’s new budget shows next year’s federal deficit — the difference between the government’s income and its spending for the year — reaching 11% of the total Gross Domestic Product (all the money earned and spent anywhere in the country during the year). That’s a higher proportion than at any time since World War II. And back then, remember, borrowing ballooned to pay for a world conflict, and settled down again when the emergency was over. Our current imbalance isn’t an emergency response. It’s just our new normal. Obama’s budget, the Times writes, “draws a picture of a nation that like many American homeowners simply cannot get above water.”
The problem is more than just a matter of annual borrowing. Three decades of borrow-and-spend government (the numbers are below) have piled up an accumulated national debt that recently topped a colossal $12 trillion. That’s about 83% of our Gross Domestic Product. If we were any other country, the IMF would have put us in receivership by now. Fortunately, we run the IMF. For now.
Even scarier, the new budget forecast shows the situation continuing to the end of the decade if not beyond, according to the Times (I’m not sure they’re entirely correct on that detail). Absent “miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises,” the Times reports, America faces a steady decline in clout on the world scene.
Or, as Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”
Is this just fear-mongering? No. The screws are already getting set to tighten.
The Chinese leadership, which is lending much of the money to finance the American government’s spending, and which asked pointed questions about Mr. Obama’s budget when members visited Washington last summer, says it thinks the long-term answer to Mr. Summers’s question is self-evident. The Europeans will also tell you that this is a big worry about the next decade.
Mr. Obama himself hinted at his own concern when he announced in early December that he planned to send 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, but insisted that the United States could not afford to stay for long.
Without a strong economy to pay for it, Obama said in that December speech at West Point, “even a ‘war of necessity,’ as he called Afghanistan last summer, could not last for long.”
So what does this have to do with Israel? Well, here’s what we wrote back in September 2004, just before that year’s election: