Something absolutely astonishing is going on right now in northern Syria along the Turkish border: refugees streaming on foot across the barbed-wire frontier by the tens of thousands, fleeing the advance of the terrorist army known as the Islamic State. As many as 100,000 refugees, mostly Kurds, have crossed the border in the past week — up to 60,000 on Saturday alone — while ISIS enters and occupies village after village with tanks and heavy artillery.
National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer, reporting by phone Sunday morning:
Twenty to 40 cities fell in the last 24 hours, and ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is moving in with tanks and artillery and killing people in its path, so everyone dropped what they were doing. I was told it was a fairly stable Kurdish area until 24 hours ago.
The bizarreness of it all is that this was an influx of many middle class people wandering in wearing slacks and dresses and jackets, even carrying elegant handbags. It’s clearly a group of people that have not migrated like this before. They only brought the clothing on them or a roller, as if they were heading to the airport. Seeing them, I feel like I’m photographing myself, I’m witnessing the reality that can befall upon anyone of us.
Reuters, amid a flood of essential details about the situation, quotes one refugee, “Muhammet Abbas, a 40-year-old teacher who wore a blue cap as protection against the blazing sun” and “led a group of about 20 people including his wife and six children:
Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.
Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.
On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:
This is what is known as deranged wishful thinking on the part of anti-Bibi liberals. http://t.co/Z6XMWO9HVY— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 22, 2014
Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.
It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide in print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.
More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.
I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:
Profiles in democracy: The latest New York Times-CBS News poll indicates that voters are favoring Republicans over Democrats 42-to-39 in the upcoming midterm congressional elections.
The reason? They’re angry at Democrats for failing to implement their agenda, which voters largely favor — including greater economic equality, higher minimum wage, abortion access, marriage equality, legalized pot, higher taxes as part of budget reform — in the face of unremitting Republican opposition. That is, they want to punish the Democrats for letting themselves get stymied by Republican obstruction, unprecedented use of the filibuster, refusal by the Tea Partied House GOP to pass any of the measures Democrats and most voters see as important. So to punish the Democrats, they’re going to vote Republican.
Put differently, they’re going to vote Republican to punish the Democrats for failing to prevent the Republicans from doing things they don’t like.
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.
That bombshell Associated Press report on Sunday about the months of secret U.S.-Iranian talks that led up to the Geneva agreement has added whole new layers of mystery and intrigue, not to mention venom, to the news of the nuclear agreement itself.
What’s fascinating is how much isn’t being said. The story was first broken not by the AP but by Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker in a Channel 10 TV News report on November 17, seven days before the AP story. According to Drucker, the secret talks began not in March 2013, as most outlets are reporting, but more than a year ago. And the American side was led not by relatively obscure mid-level officials but by President Obama’s close friend and top adviser Valerie Jarrett.
The White House at first flatly dismissed the entire report as “absolutely 100% false.” Then on November 24, hours after the Saturday night Geneva deal signing, it gave its version to the AP, which said it had caught wind of the talks in March but didn’t report them because it couldn’t confirm. The official version, the one now making the rounds, says Kerry was at the center of the process, which was led by his deputy William Burns and vice-presidential national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The talks took place mainly in Muscat, the capital of the Gulf emirate of Oman, and were brokered by Oman’s chief, Sultan Qaboos.
Drucker replied Sunday evening with a report stating that the White House was intensely eager to keep the full story secret because Obama wants to keep the secret channel open for further negotiations. Channel 10’s respected foreign news editor Nadav Eyal, in an in-studio commentary following Drucker’s report, said Obama is aiming for a wide-ranging agreement, involving America, Iran, Russia and “perhaps Saudi Arabia,” that would address regional issues like Syria.
Rachel Maddow commenting Wednesday night on MSNBC on the new Gallup Poll that showed the Republican Party’s approval rating plummeting to 28%, the lowest for either party since pollsters first began asking the question:
“That apparently is the reward that you get if you can stretch your government shutdown to be longer than Hanukkah. It is more than eight crazy nights now. We are into Day 9.”
Maddow links the Republicans’ collapse in public opinion to the growing phenomenon of default denial — that is, the surge in GOP lawmakers publicly declaring that the debt ceiling is no big deal, or even that it’s something Democrats made up to scare them, and that crashing it won’t make a difference. Or in extreme cases, like Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, say things like hitting the debt limit “would bring stability to the world markets.” Yoho’s district, incidentally, includes the University of Florida in Gainesville, ranked 14th among America’s public universities.
What’s scariest about this talk is not simply that the American and world economies are being held hostage by a group of extremists who are willing to take us all to the brink in order to achieve a policy goal that they couldn’t win at the ballot box. It’s that the American government, and through it the welfare of the developed world, are at the mercy of a group of profoundly uncurious ignoramuses, elected by a larger group of ignoramuses, who fundamentally don’t believe in knowledge.
It’s not just that they don’t understand global market economics—it’s that they don’t think there’s anything to understand, and they neither believe nor trust educated people like economists who try and explain the ramifications of these decisions that they’ve been entrusted with. We’ve seen this same attitude in action over the past few years in their contempt for climate science.
It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed essay in Thursday’s New York Times. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans agree with his call to avoid American military engagement in Syria. On the other hand, very few of us want to come out and agree with Putin. Apparently we don’t like dictators telling us what to do, even when we think they’re right.
Bloomberg News probably hit the note that would resonate with most people, declaring in an editorial that while much of what Putin wrote was misleading, self-serving or downright false, it advances a plan that could disarm Syria’s poison gas without war. “In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more—and certainly must be more persuasive—than his words.” Go Vlad.
Some went a bit further, into what most of us might consider uncomfortable territory. Former Reagan White House aide Pat Buchanan told Greta Van Sustern Wednesday evening on Fox News, responding to the Times piece, that “in the last week Vladimir Putin looks like a statesman.”
But Buchanan is someone who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable territory. He’s the guy who once called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” He also, it’s generally believed, was the Reagan aide who pushed hardest for the Gipper to visit that Nazi military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. So hearing that he’s Putin’s most prominent defender in the public square at this point is, somehow, not surprising.
That’s the funny thing. The blogosphere was filled with cheers for Putin from folks you never heard of at outlets like policymic and Daily Kos, but virtually all the mainstream pols and pundits were falling in line behind Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who apparently spoke for all of us when he told CNN that on hearing about Putin’s op-ed during dinner “I almost wanted to vomit.” After all, Menendez said,
I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.
Menendez is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’ll be in the driver’s seat when Congress takes up President Obama’s war powers request. In a democracy like ours, decisions about our national interest are placed in the secure hands of our own elected representatives, as Obama wisely did when he asked Congress to decide whether to take us into another war in the Middle East. We trust Congress.
That’s why I look to Robert Menendez when I want to know how to judge a foreign dictator’s announcements. The idea that a former spook from the KGB should be taken seriously as a world leader is, well, spooky. A former head of the CIA like our 41st president, George H.W. Bush—now that’s a different story. But the KGB? Perish etc. I always leave my big thinking to guys from Jersey.
And the idea that the New York Times would put itself in the service of the president of Russia so he can reach over the heads of our government and talk directly to the American people, as though he owned the place, must raise the question of which side the Times is on. Freedom of the press is one thing, but that doesn’t mean it should let its opinion pages be the plaything of foreign bullies.
It tells you something about the Times—that “it’s REALLY Pravda-on-the-Hudson,” as John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and former opinion editor and current columnist of Australian-British-American media bully Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, tweeted on Thursday.
Unfortunately, Putin has a sorry track record in this appalling behavior. Usually, though, it’s been more subtle. When he’s tried in the past to manipulate American public opinion, he’s usually written his op-eds in his former capacity as prime minister of Russia rather than president. I guess that’s different. For example:
One of the strangest aspects of the Syria debate is how much energy and passion is going into it, on both sides — for and against American air strikes — and how little light is being shed on the central issue, namely chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his supposedly game-changing speech August 26, forcefully declared that using chemical weapons is a “moral obscenity,” but he didn’t get beyond noting that they kill women and children, which is true of pretty much all weapons. He didn’t explain why chemical weapons killing 1,429 people is worse than standard munitions killing 100,000.
President Obama’s defenders, like New York Times moral internationalists Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof, defend intervention by citing the moral depravity of the Assad regime. Obama, however, has made it clear that regime change isn’t on the menu. It’s about chemical weapons. But why?
If you search on line for current discussions of the morality of chemical warfare, almost everything you find argues that there’s no difference. “Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful. But so is getting blown up by a bomb,” writes Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. And Chicago Theological Seminary’s Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, writing in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, adds: “The truth is, war is the moral obscenity. It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war.”
Well, OK. But ending war isn’t on the menu either. Folks have been trying to do that for about 5,774 years and gotten absolutely nowhere. Human society won’t be perfected, but that’s no reason it can’t be improved. (The same goes for American governments. So they (we) have ignored or abetted chemical warfare in the past. Does that mean we should continue with that repugnant practice?)
And no, bombing campaigns don’t end war. But they can put a price on violation of the laws of war.
Over the past century and a half, nations have tried to place limits on the conduct of war, in hopes of making it just a little less horrible. Thus, the laws of war. If you’re curious, here’s Yale Law School’s online archive of the laws of war, going back to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, the first Geneva Convention on battlefield wounded (1864) and right on through to the 1975 chemical and biological weapons ban. The latest, not in the Yale archive, is the Optional (!) Protocol on Child Soldiers adopted by the General Assembly in 2000.
The question remains, why chemical weapons? What makes them worse than conventional weapons? The answer is that chemical weapons make killing unconscionably easy and thorough. Consider: Over the past two years, the Assad regime and its opponents have managed to kill about 100,000 people, including combatants on both sides and innocent bystanders. On August 21, using chemical weapons, the regime was able to kill 1,429 people in a few minutes. And that’s not all.
The United States moved several steps closer Friday to attacking Syria. President Obama strategized by phone with the British and French leaders, and briefly addressed reporters (video here, transcript here), just before a meeting with Baltic leaders, about the options he’s considering for responding to Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons. French president Francois Hollande responded in an interview with Le Monde to the British Parliament’s refusal to authorize military action against Syria, saying France would join an American action regardless of Britain’s decision. The British press was filled with anxious speculation on whether Parliament’s virtually unprecedented rebuff of a prime minister on a question of war and peace would force Cameron to resign. (The general consensus was that it won’t.)
Meanwhile, the United Nations confirmed that its weapons inspectors have completed their work on the ground and will leave Syria tomorrow (Saturday). Yediot Ahronot military affairs commentator Alex Fishman reported in its print edition, presumably based on his usually excellent Israeli military intelligence sources, that “the Americans will attack” within “12 to 24 hours after the U.N. inspectors leave Syria.”
Earlier, Secretary of State Kerry delivered a forceful speech (transcript here, video below) describing U.S. intelligence on Syrian chemical attack and laying out a moral case for action. The White House also released a four-page report summarizing the intelligence community’s assessment of the August 21 chemical attack, including advance planning, delivery systems and level of regime involvement. It said 1,429 people had been killed, including “at least” 426 children.
Hovering over all these actions, though, was the ever-present ghost of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq under then-president George W. Bush. That war, of course, was ostensibly prompted by intelligence about non-conventional weapons, but the intelligence turned out to be wrong and the war turned into a prolonged quagmire. Both Obama and Kerry took pains in their remarks today to mention the Iraq war and insist that this case was nothing like that one. The Iraq experience was also the central issue in the British parliament’s shocking decision not to authorize military action against Syria. Thirty members of Cameron’s majority Conservative Party defected to vote with the Labour opposition. Cameron lost by 13 votes in the 650-member House of Commons that he supposedly controls by a hefty majority.
The extent to which the Iraq invasion still poisons debate and policy-making is evident everywhere in the Syria crisis. BuzzFeed reporters Evan McMorris-Santoro and Ben Smith, summarizing Obama’s dilemma yesterday, wrote:
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:
As Washington and Jerusalem jockey over terms for renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman insists that his organization will continue to support Israel. But he warns that Israelis make the job harder and hurt their own cause by allowing hardline opponents of Palestinian statehood to speak for them.
He singled out Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett and deputy defense minister Danny Danon. Both have spoken out forcefully in recent weeks against the principle of a two-state peace agreement, contradicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated statements of support for the two-state approach.
“We say we support Israel, but you have to be credible,” Foxman said by telephone from Jerusalem on Sunday. “And with Bennett and Danon, you’re not credible.”
Foxman was describing what he said was the approach of mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations in the complicated crossfire between the State Department, the various factions within the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks a formula to restart peace negotiations.
In a June 3 speech to the American Jewish Committee, Kerry appealed for American Jews to speak out in support of his effort, which focuses in part on winning Israeli concessions to woo that Palestinians back to the table. The weeks since then have seen a steadily intensifying debate among Israelis and their supporters, highlighted by remarks by Danon on June 6 and Bennett on June 17 dismissing the possibility of a two-state peace agreement.
On the other side, Israeli army chief of Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the senior officer in charge of the West Bank, told a conservative Jerusalem think tank on June 18 that failure to restart negotiations could lead to a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and an eruption of unrest on the West Bank.
The festival of Shavuot has begun, which means it’s time to read the biblical Book of Ruth. It tells the story a non-Jewish woman who marries a Jewish man (no mention of rabbinic conversion, by the way), becomes a widow and ends up on welfare — or, as it was known in those days, gleaning the corners of a rich man’s field.
According to the Torah, as alert readers recall, it’s forbidden to harvest the corners of one’s field, which is to say, to extract every bit of profit from your enterprise, because a portion of it belongs to the poor. Put differently, redistributing your income to the poor is not recommended but commanded—not charity, but law. It’s not that taxes take a larger or smaller portion of your money—the money isn’t yours. The sustenance of the earth belongs to God, or whatever name you give to the universal oneness of the cosmos. No, you didn’t build that.
Well, in observance of the holiday, I’m linking two columns I’ve written in the past few years about Shavuot and gleaning. In this one, from Shavuot 2010, I observed that Shavuot is probably the least familiar of the major Jewish holidays to the average American Jew. In fact, you could say that it’s best known for the fact of being little-known. As such, I suggested, it might usefully be thought of as the Zeppo Marx of Jewish holidays.
In this one, from Sukkot (October) 2011, I described a wonderful concept proposed by a reader, Harriet Feinberg of Massachusetts. It builds on the principle of gleaning to develop a way for individuals and communities to combat poverty and unemployment. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried it yet, but I’d love to see someone try it.
If it’s not yet sundown, or if you’re using the computer on yomtov, you might want to check out these recent pieces you might have missed from the general press:
The New York Times touched off a lively little debate Wednesday morning, probably unwittingly, with an article from its Jerusalem bureau that was headlined “Jewish Nationalists Clash With Palestinians.” You don’t see the term “Jewish nationalist” very often these days, except in historical discussions of Zionism and its attempt to rebuild the Jewish nation. Suddenly, here it is in the newspaper of record, describing a group of people who probably wouldn’t get much sympathy from most Times readers. It seems that more than a few New Yorkers woke up Wednesday morning, scanned the paper over a cup of coffee, came to Page A-12 and suddenly found themselves wondering if the Grey Lady was now using Zionism as a term of abuse, equating the movement for Jewish liberation with its most extreme wing.
I heard about the buzz before I checked the paper that morning when I found an email from my friend Andy Silow-Carroll, the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. He had heard from an anxious reader who was wondering what to make of that headline. Then I heard about other people talking and emailing each other, trying to figure out what sort of insult was intended. The debate hit the media when the Huffington Post covered the clash in question, generating a thread of readers’ comments arguing the meaning and moral valence of the Times’ phrasing. Why would a distinguished newspaper with a large Jewish readership even think of using such charged language?
The answer is to be found, I think, in the ever-growing gap of incomprehension that divides Israelis and American Jews.
To begin with, the Hebrew word for “nationalist” is le’umi, from the word le’om meaning “nation.” (Le’umi also means simply “national,” as in Bank Leumi Le-Yisrael, or Israel National Bank.) It doesn’t particularly carry the emotional charge to Israeli ears that “nationalist” carries to Americans.
But there’s also a more subtle cultural message at work here.