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:
The news of Amos Kenan’s death in Tel Aviv August 4 came as a surprising, almost physical shock. A bohemian artist and journalist from Israel’s founding generation, Kenan has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks. I met him only a couple of times, probably 40 years ago, when I was a teenager and he came to talk with our Habonim group in New York. He made an enormous impression that’s still vivid.
He’s been on my mind because of something he wrote back then, an article in Yediot Ahronot titled “A Letter to All Good People.” (If you can’t download a PDF, find the html version here.) It described in starkly emotional terms the sense of abandonment, isolation and even loneliness among left-wing Zionists in those months after the Six-Day War when the general left turned against Israel. Kenan described it from the point of view of a habitué of the cafes along the Left Bank in Paris who was suddenly cut off from his social, cultural milieu. Young Jews in America felt it in the sudden hostility coming from the New Left, from the antiwar and civil rights movements that had been our home and reference point throughout our formative decade. Cut off by former friends and comrades, alienated from the values of the conservative establishment that now embraced Israel, a generation raised to identify home with political solidarity found itself homeless.
Kenan’s “Letter” was translated into English and handed out in leaflet form by the tens of thousands on American and Canadian campuses. It became a rallying point for a new Jewish counterculture that was emerging. Kenan’s “Letter” was part of our birthright. Re-reading it, there’s a line or two that sounds dated, but it’s as powerful today as it was then. Maybe more so.
Meeting Kenan was an electrifying experience. For someone raised in a Zionist home, coming of age in the New Left and youth culture of the 1960s, here was someone who had been living that life and those values since the 1940s — in Tel Aviv, noch. It was a revelation. Personally he was charming, witty, a wonderful story-teller. He talked about Sartre, espresso, French wines, about fighting in the War of Independence, about his comrades-in-arms in the pre-state Stern Gang or Lehi (about a third of Lehi was socialist, he said). He confided that as left-wing as he was, most of his best friends were on the right, because “they’re more fun, less serious.” Once he brought along the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to talk with us. That was a life-changing experience. Kenan himself was a life-changing experience.
I’ve been thinking about Kenan lately because these times so closely resemble those times — the savagery of the Left’s hatred of Israel, the attacks on the Jewish left by the Jewish establishment, the machers’ rightward turn, the horrible sense of isolation. I had heard that Kenan was ill with Alzheimer’s, but I thought it might be possible to go see him one more time. Now I guess that won’t happen.
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