Thursday, March 03, 2011

New Letter in The Jewish Star

David Nesenoff is the new publisher of The Jewish Star, and like most people associated with the Star, he appears to be somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.  A couple of weeks ago, he wrote a piece about being a former liberal that can be found here.  It was called Liberals Anonymous, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

So I responded with the following:

To the editor:

"Hi, my name is Heshy.  I'm a Republiholic.  For years now, I've thought being Republican is synonomous with being Orthodox.  For years, I thought supporting Republicans who outdid each other to make the most right-wing political statements on Israel was the only thing that mattered for Orthodox Jews in American politics, whether their rhetoric provided any real benefit for Israelis or not.  While doing so, I helped turn Israel into a partisan issue in America by claiming, falsely, that the Democratic Party was not pro-Israel.
I spouted mantra about fiscal responsibility while supporting tax cuts for the wealthy most economists opposed as irresponsible.  I voted for people who opposed luxuries like clean water.  And when it came to social justice, an American value that has parallels in my own tradition, I stood up with Glenn Beck and called it communism.  I called lots of things communism - any attempt to provide a health care option to those who couldn't afford it, any legislation with the word "environmental" in it, and of course, any attempt by government to increase taxes.  And when non-partisan bodies like the Congressional Budget Office said that the health care reform would save the country money, I simply told bald-faced lies about death panels, confusing the public and creating unnecessary panic.  My party lied so often that by the time the bill came up for a vote, the American people could not tell the lies from the truth.  Some celebrate the disputatious nature of Judaism and call themselves free-thinkers; I celebrated the bombast of Rush Limbaugh and called myself "dittohead."
When it came to military issues, I defamed my fellow Americans who disagreed with me on controversial policies like the war in Iraq by accusing them of being insufficiently patriotic.  
When it came to abortion issues, I became an honorary Southern Baptist by adopting their stance on abortion, even though the legislation they favor conflicts with my own tradition that favors the life of the mother over the life of the unborn child should the mother's life be in danger.  
When it came to the right of Americans to worship freely, I favored it, unless, of course, they were Muslims in New York.
In the American Orthodox world, being politically right-wing is often confused with being Jewish.  And support for Israel is often confused with validating each and every stupid thing Israel does, from celebrating whackjobs in Hebron who have a habit of throwing rocks at Arab kids on their way to school to promoting the philosophy of Avigdor Lieberman, a crude boor of a man whom most of the Israeli government tries hard to ignore.  Being pro-Israel is not enough; we have to be substantially to the right of Israel, because right is right and anything else requires brainpower. 
Someone, please, help me."
This is what they published:
"To the editor:
[RE Liberals anonymous, Feb. 18] “Hi, my name is Heshy.  I’m a Republiholic.  For years now, I’ve thought being Republican is synonomous with being Orthodox.  I thought supporting Republicans, who outdid each other to make the most right-wing political statements on Israel, was the only thing that mattered for Orthodox Jews, whether their rhetoric provided any real benefit for Israelis or not.  While doing so, I helped turn Israel into a partisan issue in America by claiming, falsely, that the Democratic Party was not pro-Israel.
In the American Orthodox world, being politically right-wing is often confused with being Jewish.  Being pro-Israel is not enough; we have to be substantially to the right of Israel, because right is right and anything else requires brainpower.
 Someone, please, help me.”
Gotta say, I'm not thrilled with the cuts.  I think the original is way better.  

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

For those with a poor sense of history

Thaddeus Russell's piece on Daily Beast has, predictably, generated considerable comment, particularly in the anti-Zionist community. Russell makes a simple, unoriginal argument: The US is less safe because of Israel existence because there were no Arab terror attacks against America before 1968. Israel makes Jews less safe for the same reason. Perhaps the only unusual part is the silly argument that Bobby Kennedy's assassination was Israel's fault because Sirhan Sirhan was Palestinian.

In a predictable overstatement, Mondoweiss has dubbed this a landmark piece.

It's difficult to read arguments that claim that Jews are worse off for Israel's existence, especially when that argument is dated to 1948. It is the ultimate in historical myopia. In fact, there is no question at all that Jews are infinitely safer since Israel came into existence. Before 1948, Jewish history was a series of pogroms periodically carried out by Europeans and Russians culminating in the Holocaust. Since 1948, save for societal discrimination behind the Iron Curtain, Jews have enjoyed success and prosperity in the United States and Europe, widespread physical attacks have greatly diminished, and Jews have the security of knowing that should this change, there is a place in the world where Jews do not live as a subjected minority, but as a majority, a majority that exercises power over its own destiny. Since 1968, antisemitic attitudes in America have dropped precipitously according to virtually every poll.

It is also historically fanciful to argue that Arab terrorism directed against Americans has much to do with Israel. Yes, Sirhan Sirhan was a mentally unstable Palestinian who shot Bobby Kennedy. But all of the attacks against Americans since then have been the work of Al-Qaeda, and the presence of American troops in the Saudi Peninsula is thought to far outweigh any policy of Israel's.

Moreover, to accept such an analysis is to deflect blame from the parties responsible - Middle Eastern Arabs who have not suffered in any way because of Israel's policy - and blame another victim of those same people. It is to buy into a self-serving myth in the Arab world, namely that Israel is responsible for the many ills that plague the Arab world. It ignores the widespread use of terrorism by Muslims against other Muslims in places like Egypt and Pakistan and the overall decrepit state of human rights in the Islamic world.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

New letter in the Jewish Press on gay marriage

A new letter in the Jewish Press. This one is on gay marriage and a response to an article by Rabbi Yair Hoffman. You can find a link to Hoffman's original article below. I am also including Rabbi Hoffman's response to me, which appears directly after my letter.

My letter may also be found here:

Rabbi Hoffman's original article may be found here:

Discredited Arguments

Rabbi Hoffman offers several tired and discredited arguments against the legalization of same-sex marriage.
In his overheated language, "undermining an institution that has been designed by history and Natural Law to vouchsafe the future of mankind can be compared to unleashing chemical and nuclear hazards with the potential to undermine mankind's future."
He gives no facts to support this claim. There is no evidence that allowing gay couples to marry keeps straight couples from doing so. There is no evidence that children of gay couples are worse off than children of straight couples. Little if any evidence exists that children raised by gay parents are more or less likely to be gay. There is no evidence that people are having fewer children because of gay people.
There is, however, evidence that many children who today have no home might have one if gay couples could adopt them and evidence that gay couples who want children use the avenues of adoption, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy to have them.
Hoffman argues that legalization of gay marriage will lead to legalization of incest and bestiality. Suffice to say, Hoffman presents no evidence of a constituency advocating for either one.
It is true that having a mother and father is optimal. But using this argument against gay marriage is itself dangerous. In the first place, little evidence exists to show that children raised by gay couples do not develop normally. In the second place, prejudging the suitable environment for a child based on "normal psychosocial development" suggests that the government should be quick to interfere in all circumstances that are less than optimal.
Why shouldn't the government remove children from a home where the parents are unemployed or poor, since studies show that rich children do better in school than poor children? Why should single parenthood or divorce be legal? Should one's personal beliefs be examined before one is permitted to reproduce?
Yes, as Hoffman points out, we certainly give homeowners a tax break based on the belief that home ownership brings more social stability than a "transient lifestyle." We also have a tax credit for those who have children. But we have not outlawed the renting of apartments, and we have not forced childless parents to divorce.
Finally, Hoffman reveals his true purpose: "[R]edefining the parameters of marriage amounts to a subtle and insidious attempt to undermine the beliefs and principles of those who uphold the sanctity of Natural Law. It is an insult to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and practitioners of other religions in this country."
Legalizing gay marriage places no restriction on my ability to be a heterosexual or my ability to reproduce. Neither does it prejudice anyone's ability to argue that heterosexual marriage is superior. If anything, it strengthens the institution of marriage, which has been eroded by high divorce rates, the frenetic, self-destructive pace of modern life, and the narcissism that pervades our society these days.
As a member of a religious minority, I believe legislating personal religious viewpoints can only hurt us and our open society. Our fight against Islamic extremism is in part a fight against that kind of thinking, where so-called religious insult serves as justification for curtailing civil liberties and in extreme cases, organized violence.

Rabbi Hoffman should relax. Legalization of gay marriage is not going change things, and humankind will be just fine.

Michael Brenner

Woodmere, NY
Rabbi Hoffman Responds: I would like to thank Rabbi Shapiro and Mr. Brenner for reading and responding. This is an issue that must be taken seriously.
Mr. Brenner describes the arguments offered against redefining marriage as "tired and discredited."
To reiterate the first argument: There is such a thing as Natural Law, which is why the founding fathers established this country as one nation under God. This is neither tired nor discredited. It is not overheated to say that redefining marriage undermines this institution - the fact that the nuclear family has all but disappeared in entire neighborhoods has contributed to a deterioration of society in terms of education and crime. This too is neither tired nor discredited.
As for my second argument - "the slippery slope" where other marriages will become legalized - is Mr. Brenner really saying there is no constituency for multiple wives? There are tens of thousands of people in this country who have multiple wives and they do want to legalize it. From schismatic Mormons to certain Islamic groups, there are strong voices that wish to legalize second and third wives.
On the third argument - that having a mother and father is optimal for psychosocial reasons and that it is in the state's interest to preserve the traditional definition - it would seem the statistics comparing children from no-fault divorce states to states with no such laws prove the point. No amount of dressing up and role-playing will replace the essential fact that a child needs a mommy and a daddy.
It's interesting that Mr. Brenner claims my true purpose is revealed in argument number four. My main point actually lies in the first argument. The Midrash tells us that no society ever went so far as to redefine marriage. My op-ed merely pointed out that the motivation behind the movement to redefine marriage is, quite likely, to "stick it" to those religions that consider the practice of homosexuality an abomination.
Further, no one is advocating a justification for "curtailing civil liberties." Let us not fool ourselves. There are no civil liberties being argued for in this legislation. What is being argued for is the right to hijack terms and institutions.

Like Mr. Brenner, I believe legislating personal religious viewpoints can only hurt us and our open society. But Natural Law has historically been and still is at the very heart of our society. And there is a higher moral power that has defined the institution of marriage. We live in a free country, and we all value those freedoms. But let us not make the mistake of confusing freedom with the wanton hijacking of terminologies.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Barack Obama and the Distortive Polemicist, Daniel Pipes

In my research on Barack Obama, I came across an article written in late April by Daniel Pipes, a "scholar of Islam" who has been embraced by all too many people in the Jewish community who cannot tell the difference between a reliable source and a deceitful polemicist who engages in fearmongering. The article appears in on the Jewish World Review website. Perhaps my deconstruction of this article will prove once and for all that Pipes is not a man any of us should take seriously or use as a source and that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. Pipes' screed is a breathtakingly transparent and brazen example of his fundamental dishonesty, because all one need do is click on the links he himself includes to see just how misleading he is.

The article is entitled "Barack Obama's Muslim Childhood", though nowhere in the article, which is one-hundred percent innuendo, does Mr. Pipes ever actually prove or even bring evidence that Obama had a "Muslim childhood." I start with the second paragraph, first sentence. Pipes is in red. The extended quotes I have included from his sources are in blue.

Obama asserted in December, "I've always been a Christian," and he has adamantly denied ever having been a Muslim. "The only connection I've had to Islam is that my grandfather on my father's side came from that country [Kenya]. But I've never practiced Islam."

The source for this sentence is an MSNBC web article covering a campaign-stop conversation Obama had with a group of women over pumpkin pie. His basis for claiming that he had always been a Christian was sound; his mother is Christian, he was raised by his mother, and the only religion he has ever practiced was Christianity. His "adamant denial" (Pipes' words) consists of an assertion that he had never practiced Islam. He supports this assertion first by telling the women that his father, who was not involved in his upbringing, was not actually a practicing Muslim, and that during the time he lived in Indonesia, a Muslim country, he himself did not actually practice Islam.

In February, he claimed: "I have never been a Muslim. … other than my name and the fact that I lived in a populous Muslim country for 4 years when I was a child [Indonesia, 1967-71] I have very little connection to the Islamic religion.

Pipes' source for this quote is the rough transcript of a closed-door meeting Obama held with Jewish leaders in Cleveland. Of course, no self-respecting writer or journalist would quote from a source like this, but the quote as excerpted by Pipes omits that which Obama said which is hurtful to Pipes' case. Here's Obama's entire quote (which is broken up and contains misspelling because it's a rough transcript from a blog):

If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim. We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to ipods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia. Where I attended for two year prior to coming back to Hawaii. If you look at Nicholas Kristof’s article today it gives you an indication of where I got my name. My grandfather who was Kenyan converted to Christianity then converted to Islam, my father never practiced he was basically agnostic and so other than my name and the fact that I lived in a populous Muslim country for 4 years when I was a child I have very little connection to the Islamic religion.
Seems a little more than a simple assertion when Obama mentions that CNN (as have many others) investigated the so-called Islamic school in Indonesia Obama attended as a young child and found that it was in fact a secular school for wealthy middle and upper-class students of several faiths. It's easy to make an argument when you ignore the facts presented by your opponent.

In the next paragraph, Pipes states his thesis:
"Always" and "never" leave little room for equivocation. But many biographical facts, culled mainly from the American press, suggest that, when growing up, the Democratic candidate for president both saw himself and was seen as a Muslim.
As we'll find out, none of the article Pipes culls support this view.

Pipes begins his list:

Obama's Kenyan birth father: In Islam, religion passes from the father to the child. Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. (1936-1982) was a Muslim who named his boy Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. Only Muslim children are named "Hussein".
The first sentence is, of course, a true statement. It would also be true to say that Barack Obama was Jewish if his mother had been Jewish, because in Judaism, religion passes from the mother to the child. But if Barack's Jewish mother had abandoned the family when Barack was a year old, and he was raised by his Christian father, and attended Church every Sunday, would it be fair to say that Barack was Jewish in the context of proving the he was distorting his background by claiming that he was not, and never was, a practicing Jew? It would, of course, be a complete distortion.

The second sentence is indefensible, because Pipes cannot prove that no non-Muslim child is named Hussein. Pipes is simply suggesting here that the fact Obama has the middle name Hussein is proof of his Muslim identity. But let's give Pipes the benefit of the doubt and assume that what he really meant to say is that Hussein is a Muslim name and that it is uncommon for non-Muslims to have it. I think Barack "Barry" Obama agrees. That's why Obama, a Christian, doesn't (and never did) use his given middle name. Those who do insist on using it have only one reason for doing so: Playing on the public's post-9/11 fear of Muslims by suggesting that Obama is a Muslim, because as Pipes says, only Muslims are called Hussein.

Next assertion:
Obama's Indonesian family: His stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was also a Muslim. In fact, as Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng explained to Jodi Kantor of the New York Times: "My whole family was Muslim, and most of the people I knew were Muslim."
The quotes are, once again, highly selective and highly misleading. Here is the entire paragraph in which Ms. Soetoro-Ng's quote appears, along with the sentence that precedes it:

His mother’s tutelage took place mostly in Indonesia, in the household of Mr. Obama’s stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, a nominal Muslim who hung prayer beads over his bed but enjoyed bacon, which Islam forbids.

“My whole family was Muslim, and most of the people I knew were Muslim,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s younger half sister. But Mr. Obama attended a Catholic school and then a Muslim public school where the religious education was cursory. When he was 10, he returned to his birthplace of Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attended a preparatory school with a Christian affiliation but little religious instruction.

So, in fact, we learn that Lolo Soetoro was a "nominal Muslim" who was peckish for pig, and that Obama actually attended first a Catholic school and then a Muslim public school where religious education was cursory. That's the elite secular one we learned about above. And as far as the "whole family being Muslim", it's certainly a fair description of Mr. Soetoro's family because Mr. Soetoro was a Muslim, albeit a nominal one who ate haram.

Pipes offers a second assertion to support his point about Obama's Indonesian family:

An Indonesian publication, the Banjarmasin Post reports a former classmate, Rony Amir, recalling that "All the relatives of Barry's father were very devout Muslims."

Three questions should be asked by any inquiring mind who wishes to hold this assertion up to scrutiny: What does it mean? Who is Rony Amir? Are there others who knew Obama in Indonesia who say the same? And what is the Banjarmasin Post?

Let's take the last part first. The Banjarmasin Post is an Indonesian daily newspaper in Banjarmasin. It's in Indonesian. So anyone who wants to read the article must run it through a translator. If you do that, you'll find that the article basically says this: I played with Barry when he was little kid in Indonesia. (Nowhere does Rony Amir refer to the middle name "Hussein", by the way.) His family was Muslim. He was a lot of fun as a kid, he's a great guy now, and we're all proud of him.

Is Rony Amir considered an authority on Barack Obama? Apparently not, because a Google search of his name shows that Mr. Pipes is the only one to have quoted him, and all other cites on the internet are derivative quotes of Pipes' article.

Most importantly: Do others who knew Barack Obama during his time in Indonesia support Amir's view? As we'll see in the sources for Mr. Pipes' next bullet point, the answer is no.

Mr. Pipes next suggests that Mr. Obama's Catholic school attendance is not dispositive of his non-Muslimness:

The Catholic school: Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press reports that "documents showed he enrolled as a Muslim" while at a Catholic school during first through third grades. Kim Barker of the Chicago Tribune confirms that Obama was "listed as a Muslim on the registration form for the Catholic school." A blogger who goes by "An American Expat in Southeast Asia" found that "Barack Hussein Obama was registered under the name 'Barry Soetoro' serial number 203 and entered the Franciscan Asisi Primary School on 1 January 1968 and sat in class 1B. … Barry's religion was listed as Islam."

Documents listed Obama as a Muslim when he attended Catholic school. He must have been a Muslim, then, right? Apparently not, accord to that very same Chicago Tribune article quoted by Pipes, which is actually entitled, "History of Schooling Distorted." As the very same Kim Barker reports, during the three years Obama attended Catholic School in Indonesia, "he prayed as a Catholic." So then why is he listed as a Muslim on the school's registration forms?

At the time, the school most likely registered children based on the religion of their fathers, said Darmawan, Obama's former teacher. Because Soetoro was a Muslim, Obama was listed as a Muslim, she said.

The enrollment form from the Catholic school, which has been cited as evidence that Obama was a Muslim in Indonesia, also was rife with errors. It listed Obama as an Indonesian, listed his previous school incorrectly and failed to list his mother, Ann, at all.
So Daniel Pipes' Catholic school proof that Obama was a Muslim while in Indonesia consists of an enrollment form that also lists Obama as Indonesian, lists his previous school incorrectly, and omits the name of his mother entirely. Obama former teacher, a reliable source on matter of enrollment, offer a perfectly plausible explanation: Since the school registered children according to the religion of the father, Obama's religion was listed as Muslim.

And what of the claim that Obama was a Muslim according to Rony Amir? Is it shared by others who knew Obama at that time? Barker informs us of her journalistic work:

Interviews with dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends show that Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia, despite being listed as a Muslim on the registration form for the Catholic school, Strada Asisia, where he attended 1st through 3rd grades.

Hmm, interviews with dozens of classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends versus some guy name Rony Amir. I'll take the dozens of classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends as my source.


The public school: Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times learned from Indonesians familiar with Obama when he lived in Jakarta that he "was registered by his family as a Muslim at both schools he attended." Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star visited the Jakarta public school Obama attended and found that "Three of his teachers have said he was enrolled as a Muslim." Although Siddiqui cautions that "With the school records missing, eaten by bugs, one has to rely on people's shifting memories," he cites only one retired teacher, Tine Hahiyari, retracting her earlier certainty about Obama's being registered as a Muslim.

Still with the registration. Pipes is so hung up on the registration that he actually misses evidence that helps his case in the LA Times article, which quotes Obama's first grade teacher as claiming that Obama prayed in the Catholic way but was also a Muslim, whatever that meant for a first-grader, and however someone can p.

Next up:

Koran class: In his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Obama relates how he got into trouble for making faces during Koranic studies, thereby revealing he was a Muslim, for Indonesian students in his day attended religious classes according to their faith. Indeed, Obama still retains knowledge from that class: Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, reports that Obama "recalled the opening lines of the Arabic call to prayer, reciting them [to Kristof] with a first-rate accent."

So everyone who studies the Koran is a Muslim, right? I assume Daniel Pipes and others who have quoted the Koran in their articles have studied it to some extent. That must make them Muslims too. Except that it turns out that Obama was placed in Koran class because of his faith, which, you guessed it, came from his registration card. And apparently, he actually learned the Adhan while in Indonesia and can still recite it today. The Adhan is something he would have heard over a loudspeaker five times a day living in a Muslim neighborhood.

He'd have to have a pretty bad memory not to remember something he heard five times a day for four years.

Pipes draws on some of his past sources to make his next bullet point:

Mosque attendance: Obama's half-sister recalled that the family attended the mosque "for big communal events." Watson learned from childhood friends that "Obama sometimes went to Friday prayers at the local mosque." Barker found that "Obama occasionally followed his stepfather to the mosque for Friday prayers." One Indonesia friend, Zulfin Adi, states that Obama "was Muslim. He went to the mosque. I remember him wearing a sarong" (a garment associated with Muslims).

It's back to the selective quoting again. It is hardly a surprise that the Soetoro family would attend the local mosque in a Muslim country for communal events. But did they attend regularly for prayer?

Here's what the LA Times article actually said:

Obama's younger sister, Maya Soetoro, said in a statement released by the campaign that the family attended the mosque only "for big communal events," not every Friday. (emphasis mine)

Sound like another distortion. Indeed, the article quotes Maya Soetoro-Ng more pointedly later on:

In her statement, Obama's sister, who was born after the family moved to Indonesia, said: "My father saw Islam as a way to connect with the community. He never went to prayer services except for big communal events. I am absolutely certain that my father did not go to services every Friday. He was not religious."

Pipes only bothers to quote the part about the communal events and of course, makes it seem as though he has proved that Obama attended the mosque when no one had denied that kind ofattendance in the first place. In fact, Obama said that he sometimes attended the local mosque for community events. This decontextualization serves to obfuscate the truth. Pipes claims that Obama occasionally went with his father to the mosque. That would be pretty typical for a young child whose father went to the mosque for the occasional big communal event.

What about that friend, Zulfin Adi? Well, it turns out that he's quoted in both the LA Times article and the Chicago Tribune article. Pipes cites from the LA Times article, which appeared on March 16, 2007. Barker's appeared a few days later, on March 25, 2007, and by then Adi was already a suspect source. From the Chicago Tribune article:

Zulfan Adi, a former neighborhood playmate of Obama's who has been cited in news reports as saying Obama regularly attended Friday prayers with Soetoro, told the Tribune he was not certain about that when pressed about his recollections. He only knew Obama for a few months, during 1970, when his family moved to the neighborhood.
Hmm, Barack Obama's sister, who was part of the family versus Zulfan Adi, a guy who is not certain what he remembers and only knew Obama for a few months. I'll take the sister. Pipes distorts what the sister says, quotes Adi, and neglects to tell us that Adi is not a reliable source.

Finally, having failed to prove anything, Pipes sinks even lower:

Piety: Obama himself says that while living in Indonesia, a Muslim country, he "didn't practice [Islam]," implicitly acknowledging a Muslim identity. Indonesians differ in their memories of him. One, Rony Amir, describes Obama as "previously quite religious in Islam."
Once again, Pipes is fundamentally and willfully dishonest. Having failed to prove that Obama was ever a Muslim or a practicing one, he suggests that Obama acknowledges that he had a "Muslim identity" by - get this - using Obama's denial that he ever practiced. Then he claims that Indonesians differ in their memories of Obama's religiosity by citing Rony Amir, that old friend who wrote for the Banjarmasin Post. I guess if one considers Amir's opinion against the
"dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends" who say that "Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia," one could consider it a difference of opinion.

Pipes concludes with no apparent sense of irony:

Obama's having been born and raised a Muslim and having left the faith to become a Christian make him neither more nor less qualified to become president of the United States. But if he was born and raised a Muslim and is now hiding that fact, this points to a major deceit, a fundamental misrepresentation about himself that has profound implications about his character and his suitability as president.

Indeed, let us trumpet the first sentence of this concluding paragraph from the hilltops. Let us also remember the (completely unsuccessful) lengths Daniel Pipes has gone through to suggest that from the ages of 6 to 10, Barack Obama was a Muslim. And let us do exactly what Pipes suggests we do to Obama to Pipes himself - hold him accountable for his major deceits and fundamental misrepresentations and make the appropriate conclusions about his character and his suitability to be any kind of source of information for our community or for anyone else's.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Obama for President

My cousin Ryan becomes a superdelegate for Obama.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Initial Impressions of the Old City

I'm in Israel right now, and I feel both like it's the first time I've been here and also that I've been here many times before. Neither is exactly accurate. I've been in Israel once before in 2004, on a Birthright trip. This trip is the first I've taken on my own, though I'm travelling with a friend. I think this feeling is a personal version of what the tour guide at the Tower of David calls the difference between the historical record of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem of the Heart that Jews, Muslims, and Christians possess on a religious and personal level.

Right now I'm sitting in Ali Baba's Internet Cafe on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City; since it's close to the Sabbath, the Jewish Quarter is mostly shut down. I just took a walk through part of the Shuk here; I get the feeling the shopkeepers are insulted by people who browse without entering their shops. But they seem to all sell the same stuff.

I arrived here yesterday, early in the morning, and so far, I've davened at the Kotel (Western Wall), bummed around Ben Yehuda Street and its environs (yesterday), toured the Burnt House and Wohl Archaeological Museum and the Tower of David, taken a Camel Ride outside of the Jaffa Gate, and walked through the Shul.

Yesterday, after checking in the hotel around 7 AM, we walked over to the Kotel to daven Shacharit. It was not the greatest time to go. Thursday morning is Bar Mitzvah day at the Kotel. I am always touched when a Bar Mitzvah boy chooses to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel instead of a lavish celebration. I have always thought it was choosing substance over style. I'm somewhat less impressed by the fact that such an occasion requires the Bar Mitzvah to share his celebration with a dozen or more similar celebrations taking place in the same place at the same time. It's complete chaos there. It's ironically hard to find a minion in this atmosphere because everything is in progress. You kind of have to be in the right place in the right time. Nothing is posted.

From the Kotel, we walked to Ben Yehuda Street. While my friend decided to return to the hotel to rest, I stuck it out for a few hours to walk around, eat a falafel, and look in the various Judaica shops. The streets in and around Ben Yehuda are an object lesson in how Jerusalem is not New York. No grid of straight lines exists here. Everything seems to run together. You walk on Ben Yehuda and you hit King George. You walk on King George and you hit Jaffa. You walk on Jaffa and you hit Mordechai Ben Hillel. And back to Ben Yehuda again. After a few hours of this, I found my way back to King George Street, and walked the mile or so back to the King Solomon Hotel. By then, I was pretty much ready to crash, and slept for a couple of hours.

We ate dinner nearby the hotel at Rosemary, a dairy restaurant. The food was pretty good; I haven't had french onion soup in a while. We ate outside and enjoyed the remarkably good nighttime weather here, at about 65 or 70 degrees. After that, to walk off the meal, we took a quick tour of Liberty Bell Park, so named for the replica of the Liberty Bell in the center of the park. Most interesting to me, besides the alligator sculpture, was the Roman theater, where there are concerts from time to time. My friend went back to the hotel, and I decided to go across the street for a cup of tea at the Cup O' Joe cafe, a nice coffee house that is like Starbucks, only much more classy. The tea was served loose in an infuser, and was very good.

Today, we had planned to start with the Kotel tunnels, but found that we needed a reservation, so we put that off for next week. So we went to the Burnt House Museum, which is basically the ruins of a house believed to have belonged to the Katrios family of Kohanim. Their house was destroyed, along with many others, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. The museum is really the showing of a film that dramatizes the both the destruction of Jerusalem and the internal conflict between the Zealots and the Moderates by presenting the wealthy Katrios family as being divided, the father favoring moderation, the son fighting with the underground. The presentation was quite good and effective.

After that, we went to see more ruins in the Wohl Archaeological Museum, which is across the street from the Burnt House in the Jewish Quarter. The centerpiece of the museum is the several ruined homes upon which the museum is built, including several mosaics built in the homes of the rich Jews who inhabited these houses. But the most interesting part for me was the museum's recounting of how the Old City, the Jewish Quarter in particular, was rebuilt after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. This rebuilding continues today. The latest project is the restoration of the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed by the Jordanians during the 1948 War of Independence. For those of you who have been here before, the arch is gone. In its place stands the structure of the Hurva Synagogue.

After this, we went to the Tower of David Museum located in the David Citadel, and took a very good tour that highlights the museum's focus on the history of Jerusalem and the Old City, from Roman times to the present day. We also went down to the gardens, which was really just an excuse for me to sit down and rest for a couple of minutes. Lo and behold, one of the many members of Jerusalem's feral cat population, often friendly to tourists because they grow up around them, jumped in my lap and started to take a nap. He didn't want to leave when I got up, either, and I had to literally lift him off of me.

After that, we walked out of the Jaffa Gate. There, I encountered a camel. I was offered a camel ride. Without thinking, I took the camel ride, and the proprietor of the camel took pictures of me with my camera on the camel with the Jaffa Gate in the background. (The picture are good pictures.) Then he took me for a ride and told me the price. I bargained him down a little, but the cautionary tale is always agree on the price before you take a ride on anything in Israel, animal or vehicle. I'm not going to say what it cost me, but let's say the camel herder could probably buy a second camel for what he charged me.

After a rest at a hotel, I ventured back out, and now I'm here in the cafe typing this post. One thing I notice: The Muslim Quarter smell of mint from all of the shops in the Shuk. It's nice. The Jewish Quarter smells like sewage. Uri Lupolianski (mayor of Jerusalem) needs to pick up the garbage. Shabbat is close, so I've got to get going. There will be more to come.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Anderson Cooper 180

I normally enjoy watching Anderson Cooper on CNN, but this week he, and just about everyone else in the media did something that was typical of a media that doesn't understand the difference between reporting news and reporting non-news. I'm referring the whole non-story with John Kerry.
Don't you hate when the media reports about a non-story, tells you it's a non-story, and then analyzes the impact of their own reporting of this non-story? This is what heppened on AC 360 on Tuesday. John Kerry makes a gaffe about education and the soldiers in Iraq. Cooper reports the story, tells us the President is making hay of it and how this could hurt the Democratic Party. Then he has David Gergen on to tell us how John Kerry just needs to get off TV and let the whole thing pass with the newscycle.

Pass with the newscycle? How about ignoring the story in the first place? This is how the media becomes a massive tool of the political parties, usually favoring the incumbent. If they didn't report the story, the President likely wouldn't make a big deal out of it and we wouldn't be focusing on nonsense instead real political issues.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A New Letter in the Jewish Week

I've got a new letter in the Jewish Week in reaction to the ads the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has been putting out lately.

The Jewish Week has been printing these ads lately and I thought someone should say something about them. There were two ads in the newspaper the week I responded. One appears on the RJC website and is an ad that includes two quotes from former President Jimmy Carter. The two quotes are: "I don't think that Israel has any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon.” and "I represent the vast majority of Democrats." The clear intention of the ad is to suggest that Jimmy Carter is stating that it is the view of the vast majority of Democrats that Israel had no legal or moral justification for their recent bombing of Lebanon in response to the unprovoked kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. The quotes are from an interview Carter gave to Der Spiegel, a widely-read German magazine. In fact, as you probably can guess, they're highly misleading and were given in answer to two separate questions. In short, the first quote is Carter's own view. The second is given in answer to a more general question. In short, it is not clear at all that the vast majority of Democrats agree with Carter's views on Israel.

This is accompanied by poll results suggesting that while 84 percent of rank-and-file Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Arab states, only 43 percent of Democrats do. (It's a reasonable question to ask how they came up with this, since news reports of the poll did not include breakdowns by party.)

At any rate, one might think that the Democratic Party is abandoning Israel. Of course, it's not; the recent congressional resolution in support of Israel during the war in Lebanon was passed by an overwhelming majority of Democrats.

I wrote that the RJC ad is irresponsible. Here is why:

Israel is a bipartisan issue. It has been that way for at least a generation. It must, for the good of Israel, stay that way. Responsible Jewish party politicking has usually been based on those issues in party platforms which actually distinguish the parties. Taxes, social programs, domestic legislation - these are the types of things we're talking about. But not Israel. The parties agree on Israel, and there is all the evidence in the world if one looks at Congressional votes, the only ones that matter.

The danger in politicizing Israel in the way the RJC has done it is twofold. In the first place, it is plainly offensive to suggest, as the RJC does, that Jews should vote for political candidates on Israel alone. Our community does not need this image, and we don't deserve it. If, as the RJC claims, the radical left is becoming a force in the Democratic Party, the Party, including those opposed to the Iraq War, isn't listening to it, at least where Israel is concerned. Ned Lamont is a good example. Despite the fact that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson stood behind him after his defeat of Joe Lieberman, Lamont says "It is not for the United States to dictate to Israel how it defends itself . . .We should not seek to impose a resolution on Israel." It is true that Lamont believes that the US should work to achieve a peace settlement, but this hardly defines him as anti-Israel.

It is furthermore irresponsible, and frankly reprehensible, to use Israel to divide the Jewish community in order to get votes.

The second is that in our polarized political atmosphere, there is the danger of polarizing political pronouncements becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. If a party tries to define itself as holier-than-thou on a political issue, there may be a temptation for the other party to define itself in opposition. Parties have little use for positions which get them nowhere with voters. The Democratic Party is not anti-Israel. But like any other issue, if the Democratic Party sees an opportunity to define themselves as anti-Israel as a way to get votes, the opposing party defining itself as the "pro-Israel" party will only encourage them. Being pro-Israel is, thank G-d, a bipartisan position. Partisan political ads can only affect this state of affairs negatively because frankly, there is nothing to be gained in this atmosphere.

There should be a moratorium on partisan use of Israel by Republican and Jewish political party organizations. The New York board members of the National Jewish Democratic Council who also wrote to the Jewish Week had it right, it seems to me: "For the U.S.-Israel relationship to remain strong, support for Israel must come from across all political lines. Jewish Democrats invite Jewish Republicans to join us in educating and working to strengthen the strategic bi-partisan support for Israel. "

Anyway, my letter (and theirs) will be available for this week here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Liszt Trascendental Etude F minor

Cziffra plays Lizst - Lizst's way.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Recent Letter

A new letter in the Guardian, responding to the common anti-Zionist argument that at one time in the 20th century, communist and Bundist Jews outnumbered Zionists:

It is true that during the first half of the 20th century, anti-Zionist Bundists and communists represented a larger proportion of Europe's Jewish population than the Zionists. Their ideas on Jewish nationalism, however, were thoroughly discredited by the Holocaust, which proved beyond all doubt that Jews could not rely on the good grace of their Christian brethren for survival.
Michael Brenner
Woodmere, New York, USA

The letter I was responding to can be found here. Tony Greenstein is an anti-Zionist activist in the UK. His letter contains some of the more rancid anti-Zionist arguments I've seen; in addition to totally misstating the history of the Dreyfus trial, he actually argues that French opinions were responsible for saving a few French Jews during World War II and compares these to the 3000 Argentinian Jews who disappeared during the Argentian junta.

Anti-Zionism, antisemitism, falsehood, or stupidity?

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Return of Sovereignity

Here is the problem with Lebanon (and Iraq and the Palestinian Authority):

It has been said before, but it needs to be said again: Part of being a sovereign state means having a monopoly on the use of force. This is the lesson that represents the chastisement of the democracy hawks. It is the lesson of power and stability that outsider democrats like to ignore and dictators love to apply. States which cannot establish a monopoly on the use of force cannot bring real stability to their polities. If they bring stability to themselves, they will bring instability to others.

This prerequisite of state sovereignty makes the decision of the coalition of the willing to dismantle the Iraqi army all the more baffling. Stabilizing Iraq was going to difficult enough. Without the army, it became impossible. All the elections and constitutions in the world cannot bring stability to a divided country where every mullah has a militia and/or a private army and the government has neither the power nor the will to put these opponents of state power down.

This is why, though I strongly support Israel's right to take action in Lebanon, I question the tactics. What is the end game? Destroying Hezbollah's military capability is a band-aid solution. Doing it while causing mass civilian casualties, though I don't doubt that Israel is taking every precaution to avoid these casualties, risks sending the rest of Lebanon in Hezbollah's arms. We are not out for territory here. We will not make it much easier for the Lebanese government to do the job we're doing now. It seems to me that sooner or later, we will have to go after Syria and Iran in some fashion. They are the real culprits here. We have to have an idea of what Lebanon is going to look like when we finish with it.

On a troubling note, the New York Times has featured some poor reportage lately that betrays something of an editorial bias. I am usually not a proponent of the bash-the-Times crowd, but after seeing Steven Erlanger mention in an article that some people accuse Ariel Sharon of war crimes when it clearly wasn't necessary, reading Patrick Healy's article on a pro-Israel rally in New York at which Senator Clinton spoke and writing that she failed to "mention of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza who have been injured in the fighting" accompanied by a Clyde Haberman column in the same section decrying the fact that no one is talking about peace, it's hard not to conclude that some journalists are letting their personal opinions get in the way of their reportage. Healy shows contempt for the intelligence of his readers when he mentions something like this in an article that is about a pro-Israel rally. Erlanger is giving voice to unwarranted speculation by mentioning that some accuse Ariel Sharon of war crimes.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Another New Letter in the Jewish Press

OK, it's a couple of weeks new.

This letter was written in response to a letter written by a Kahanist about how Meir Kahane proved that a Torah-true Israel cannot be a democracy. I wrote that I did not remember the Torah advocating any particular political system, and that even if it had, a hothead demagogue like Meir Kahane would not be the best guy to run it. Among the arguments (or lack thereof) in the letter were that the anti-kosher slaughter laws passed by Sweden and Norway proved that democracy could result in anti-Jewish legislation (as if a dictatorship could be relied on for being in perfect harmony with Jewish law).

Torah And Democracy

It was amusing to see reader David Ferster (Letters, May 5) use Meir Kahane as a source for his disagreement with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. (I’ll take Rabbi Riskin.)

I am not clear on where the Torah "opposes" Western-style democracy. I don’t believe the Torah weighed in on the issue. The idea of a king comes from Nevi’im. (The idea of monarchy, lest we forget, was not especially well regarded by Shmuel, who resented having to set the whole thing up.)

The question is, Which system of government will best leave us in a position to uphold the Torah’s values? It is not a question of whether the two are compatible, though those who argue that democracy is a derivative of Judaism are probably engaging in some wishful thinking. No system of government is "compatible" with the Torah; it would devalue the Torah to make such a pronouncement.

In a democracy we are free to practice the Torah and to try to persuade those who disagree with us. The way of the Torah is not closed to us in a democracy. There is no such assurance in a dictatorship, and certainly not one run by someone like Meir Kahane.

The policies of Sweden and Norway are red herrings in this discussion. (For the record, the anti-shechita laws in these countries are very old, and though the laws are unfortunate, they do not prevent one from being a Torah-observant Jew in those countries.) They certainly do not prove that dictatorship is preferable to democracy.

Michael Brenner
Woodmere, NY

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Music Review: Rushing though the Ballades

Jonathan Gilad is a five-tool concert pianist. He has technique, tone, musicality, the willingness to take risks, and the stage presence to make himself interesting. The first half of Mr. Gilad's program at Washington Irving High School, consisting of Beethoven's energetic and difficult C major Sonata, Opus 2, number 3 and Prokofiev's equally energetic and difficult 2nd Sonata, established, made his pianistic skills clear. Mr. Gilad is willing to push tempos as far as they can be pushed, and this made for a particularly exciting opening to the Beethoven and conclusion to the Prokofiev. He showed off his musical qualities in the Andante of the Prokofiev.

Knowing that this young pianist possessed these hallmarks of pianism made the second half of the program, the four ballades of Chopin, all the more frustrating. Each tool present in the first half deserted Mr. Gilad in second, a mess of reckless, rushed banging that served neither Chopin nor Mr. Gilad well.

The Ballades are the crowns of Chopin's oeuvre. They are works of great contrast and feeling. Mr. Gilad's rushed, monochromatic performances, sans rubato, seemingly failed to grasp any of the emotion and drama that runs through these works. That he was rewarded with hearty applause seems, unfortunately, to prove only that very fast playing will win over an audience.

This critic admires reckless abandon when it heightens the drama of the piece of music, even if the pianist in question drops a few notes along the way. (The best example, to my mind, is the coda of Beethoven's Appasionata Sonata as played by Arthur Rubinstein). Reckless abandon that is merely reckless is unmusical. And though Mr. Gilad has a good technique, he does not have the super-duper technique necessary to play so fast without mistakes, nor the sophistication to do so with musical ideas intact.

Mr. Gilad has the tools for a good career. But if he rushes like he did Saturday night, he will not have the chance to make his case.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dropping the Ball on Reality

John J. Mearsheimer's (don't forget the middle initial) foreign policy outlook, at least at first glance, is hardcore realist. Where some talk about Democratic Peace Theory and international alliances based on something other than power politics, Mr. Mearsheimer stands by with the bucket of cold water. Here is what this (certain to be) champion of the pro-Palestinian movement has said:

"Countries must singlemindedly pursue their interests, Mr. Mearsheimer said, no matter what anybody else thinks . . . Power is the currency of the international system, Mr. Mearsheimer argues, and the United States should use it when it sees fit." Stille, Alexander. "What Is America's Place In the World Now?" New York Times, New York, N.Y.: January 12, 2002. pg. B7.

It is through this lens that his recent diatribe against Israel and the "Israel lobby" must be viewed.

What makes Mearsheimer's critique interesting is that just a few short years ago, in 2001, he published an op-ed in the New York Times on the Clinton plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the President whose Administration Mearsheimer now characterizes as having worked for Israel against the Palestinians) in which he commented:

"Because of security needs, Israel cannot grant the Palestinians a truly independent state of their own. . .

"One might argue that the Palestinians would have no beef with Israel if they had a legitimate state of their own. This is possible, but Israel can never be certain about future Palestinian intentions. Indeed, given the bitter conflicts of the past century and the fact that Palestinians widely believe that Israel was built on stolen Palestinian land, the Israelis have good reason to fear continued Palestinian revanchism against Israel. Therefore, common sense says that Israel should not let the Palestinians acquire the capability to settle old scores.

"In sum, it is hard to see how the Palestinians could get a viable state that would not threaten Israel. Independence for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis are fundamentally incompatible. . ."

He concluded:

"Israel cannot be secure alongside a securely independent Palestinian state."

Mearsheimer, John J. "The Impossible Partition", New York Times, New York, N.Y.: Jan 11, 2001. pg. A31.

The article was not a pro-Israel piece. But it acknowledged one essential truth about Mearsheimer's thinking, which was that making peace was not in Israel's interest. Therefore, one should make no mistake about the conclusions Mearsheimer reaches in his new study, where he claims that the relatively pro-Israel position of the United States has, in reality, hurt the Israelis, and that Israeli withdrawals would have saved both Israeli and Palestinian lives. He's not arguing for a policy of, as he puts it, "even-handedness". He's arguing for a US foreign policy of selling Israel down the river, and with it, the concept of a Jewish state, in favor of a policy favoring the Arabs. Mearsheimer's critique does not argue for a middle road. It argues for a switching of sides and for promoting a policy that he himself believes is diametrically opposed to Israel's self-interest, a self-interest which he ignores, by the way, in his Israel-lobby tantrum.

I will leave it to others (for now) to expose the many simple errors and mistruths Walt and Mearsheimer's piece contains. Here is a list of what sticks in my mind:

1. Out-of-context quotes on the origins of the conflict from David Ben-Gurion. Here is M + W's quote, along with the context they placed it in: "The fact that the creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people was well understood by Israel’s leaders. As Ben-Gurion told Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, 'If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. . . . We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?'"

Here is the rest of the quote, which goes on for a few more sentences: "They may perhaps forget in one or two generations' time, but for the moment there is no chance [for peace]. So it's simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out."

Looks much less like an acknowledgement of a moral failure on Ben-Gurion's part and a lot more like an acknowledgement of Ben-Gurion's pessimism. That's Goldmann's characterization. And it looks like Mearsheimer and Walt might be guilty of plagiarism since their selective quoting looks suspiciously like the kind found on pro-Palestinian websites.

2. A fatuous claim that most major American Jewish organizations will support whatever Israel does. M + W: "Many of the key organisations in the Lobby, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, are run by hardliners who generally support the Likud Party’s expansionist policies, including its hostility to the Oslo peace process. The bulk of US Jewry, meanwhile, is more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups – such as Jewish Voice for Peace – strongly advocate such steps."

This is misleading nonsense. It is first of all false - AIPAC and particularly CPMJO have long been run by people who hew close to whatever policy is favored by the Israeli government precisely because they believe it is in America's best interest to support that policy. When the Labor government was in power, they had AIPAC and CPMJO support. And more importantly, there are many, many mainstream Jewish organizations who support the moderates and the doves without being anti-Zionist, as a Jewish Voice for Peace is. They include Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Jewish Appeal (long opposed to funding settlements), and many, many others.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Norman Finkelstein at Columbia

What stinks about Norman Finkelstein is not his scholarship. Plenty of academics holds views similar to his on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People can disagree. It's his rhetoric, his demogoguery, his intellectual dishonesty, his hypocrisy, and his bad faith toward those who disagree with him that has gotten him into trouble.

Finkelstein was at his demagogic best on Wednesday night at Columbia University, where he gave a speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that focused on two main themes. The first was that the conflict was uncontroversial because everyone agreed that Israel was violation of international law and was the conflict's aggressor. The second was that reports of increased antisemitism around the world were a hoax and were driven by the goal of stifling criticism of Israel.

The coalition of student organizations responsible for bringing Finkelstein to the campus consisted of the school's major Muslim and Arab groups.

Real intellectuals acknowledge differences of opinion. Finkelstein, who has always chosen the path of mocking polemicism to civil intellectualism in his public addresses, chose to argue that the other side didn't really exist. He used a mix of half-truth and demagoguery to do it. Finkelstein quoted at length from the International Court of Justice's opinion to back his assertion that there was nothing controversial about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of the agreement of all 15 judges that Israel was in contravention of international law. The World Court, he claimed, was the world most important legal body, and thus, the verdict being in, there was simply nothing to argue about.

He then went on to say that a similar consensus exists among human rights organizations on the issue of Israel's culpability and that this was further proof that there was little to argue about.

But like most weak arguments, this one rested on the faulty assumption that there was nothing whatsoever controversial about international law, human rights law, or the international arbiters who create and apply these laws, and that a World Court opinion was the final say on whatever issues of international law there were as applied to the conflict.

Of course, neither one of these assumptions is accurate. International law, particularly as applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continues to be a highly controversial discipline, an unregulated, unbalanced, unacountable concept. General Assembly resolutions, so often cited by pro-Palestinian propagandists for their lopsided support of anti-Israel resolutions, prove only that the Arabs wield the powerful weapon of oil effectively and that third-world states continue to hold a misguided view of Israel as a colonial power and hold its association with the United States against it. It proves nothing about the feeling of these states for the values of human rights, both because many of these states are human rights violators themselves, and because they are unwilling to spend any comparable amount of ink condemning much worse situations, from the Sudan to Libya to Congo to China to Saudi Arabia. Israel is thus a political issue, not a human rights issue, and a controversial political issue at that. It is true that the UN Human Rights Commission has condemned Israel early and often. It is not true that these condemnations are not controversial, because many of the countries that run the UNHRC are among the world's worst violators of human rights laws.

International law, because of these political imbalances, does not yet contain a definition of terrorism. This is solely because most of the Arab and Islamic states are unwilling to accede to any definition that would define the killing of Israeli civilians as terrorism. This adds to the controversy of international law, at least as promulgated by the General Assembly and the World Court, as a reliable medium for assessing the conflict.

And though Mr. Finkelstein would like us to believe that the World Court is, in essence, a Supreme Court of the world on issue of international law, the system simply doesn't work that way. Like the resolutions of the General Assembly, the opinions of the World Court are non-binding. They are advisory. They are not the final say. They are only binding if the parties before the Court agree to be bound by its decisions. That is why, outside of an occasional advisory opinion on something like the legality of the use of nuclear weapons, the World Court mostly settles highly technical border disputes and things like water rights.

As any honest scholar of the conflict knows, only certain resolutions of the United Nations Security Council are binding, and that is why, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most major human rights organizations, as well as most governments, affirm that UN Security Council resolution 242 is the operative resolution. 242 calls for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and does not, as Mr. Finkelstein claimed, call for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. It is not the case that there is a consensus that such a withdrawal is the solution to the conflict; even many Palestinian negotiators are willing to accept the assumption that there will be adjustments made so that Israel can keep large settlement blocks and sovereignty over the Western Wall. To the extent that 242 contradicts views expressed by the World Court, it is 242 that controls in international law, not the World Court.

Finkelstein went on to discuss what is now the tired topic of how Zionists stifle debate by accusing critics of Israel of antisemitism. Finkelstein's most outrageous rhetoric came in this section of the program, where he made the totally unsupported and false accusation that it was now common for critics of Israel to be referred to as Holocaust deniers, and that he thought that soon, Holocaust epithets would enter the slang lexicon, such as "mother-Holocauster" and the like. A joke to be sure, but a joke in very bad taste, based on a total lie. Finkelstein also cited last year's controversy over anti-Israel bias in the classroom at Columbia as another example of a false controversy.

As a questioner who had appeared in last year's documentary on anti-Israel bias in the classroom at Columbia reminded Finkelstein, no person who appeared in Columbia Unbecoming accused anyone of antisemitism, proving what many of us already know, which is that rather than critics of Israel being accused of antisemitism, it is far more common for critics of Israel to pronounce any criticism of themselves personally or the pro-Palestinian movement in general as an accusation of antisemitism. This is a valuable lie, because it justifies outrageous rhetoric of the type Mr. Finkelstein and others are known for. If one creates the impression that accusations of antisemitism are de facto without basis, one can immunize oneself from that charge. And indeed, the tactic appears to have been successful, because the reality is that there has been no stifling of debate. Mr. Finkelstein came to Columbia and gave his speech. If the Middle Eastern Studies Association is any measure, academe is dominated by people who share many of Finkelstein's political opinions. They haven't been silenced. There is not one case that I know of where a pro-Palestinian academic was fired for his viewpoint.

Mr. Finkelstein was no more honest in his surprisingly thin argument that there was no spike in European antisemitism. Mr. Finkelstein's sole support for this part of his thesis was a Pew survey finding a lessening in antisemitic attitudes among Europeans. No mention was made of the rise in actual antisemitic incidents. The logic of his argument was that Jews should take comfort if antisemitic viewpoints drop 20 or 30 percent, even if attacks rise 40 or 50 percent. In other words, it isn't a big problem if the fascists killed 100 more people than last year, so long as they dropped a couple of seats in the Parliament.

Mr. Finkelstein concluded his speech by attacking Alan Dershowitz's book, The Case for Israel, claiming that it was a hoax and a fraud, exemplified by Mr. Dershowitz's claim that Israel's human rights record was generally superb. Like so much else, this was a half-truth because Mr. Finkelstein did not tell the audience that Dershowitz's argument was not based on the assessments of human rights organizations based on the controversial discipline of international law, but was a relativistic argument based on the reality of conflict and the comparison of the conflict to other situations both past and present. Thus, Dershowitz could argue that whether a policy of targetted killing was considered legal by this or that human rights organization, when compared to, for instance, US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel's record was indeed superb. When compared to the responses of other states faced with terrorist insurgencies, such as Syria in 1982, Jordan in 1970, the US today, and so on, Israel's response had resulted in far fewer casualties, evinced a much greater respect for the principles of proportionality that are at the heart of international norms of armed conflict, and on this relative basis, could be reasonably characterized as generally superb.

Finkelstein also mischaracterized, as many have, the position of Benny Morris on the expulsion of Palestinian refugees in 1948. Morris has said that Israel's mistake was not expelling all of the Palestinians in 1948. He was almost certainly saying this tongue in cheek to illuminate the irony that states who perpetrated a complete ethnic cleansing, a "successful" ethnic cleansing as it were, came in for far less criticism than those that hadn't. The proof is that Morris also made the point that had the Arabs fulfilled their aims in 1948 and expelled the Jews, the world would not now be clamoring for repatriation of Jews to the region. They don't clamor for repatriation or restitution for Jews expelled from Arab countries, largely because these ethnic cleansings were by and large successful.

Finkelstein's mocking bad faith and nastiness were on display during the question and answer period. To a student who asked how Finkelstein could argue that antisemitism in Europe was on the wane when his own synagogue in Istanbul had recently been bombed, Mr. Finkelstein's response was that technically, Turkey was not part of Europe. To another question (mine) challenging Mr. Finkelstein's citation of casualty statistics as support for his thesis that Israel was a worse aggressor than Hamas by asking what Mr. Finkelstein would say if one of Hamas's many attempts to perpetrate a mega-terror attack were successful and resulted in thousands of casualties, Mr. Finkelstein compared it to asking if Grandma grew wheels, would she be a baby carriage.

I responded, by now fed up with Finkelstein's lack of good faith, by reminding Mr. Finkelstein that whereas Grandma was not trying to grow wheels, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had tried many times in the past to perpetrate a mega-terror attack. (I was shouted down by members of the crowd.)

Like so many other times that night, Finkelstein was responding to an argument by claiming that it didn't exist. That's intellectual dishonesty.

The promotion of your viewpoint as the only legitimate one of right-thinking people and the belittling and mocking of all others is demagoguery.

Accusing others of debasing the Holocaust when you are given to comparing Israelis to Nazis early and often is hypocrisy.

Claiming that the term "Holocaust denier" is used with any regularity as an epithet is a simple fib.

Claiming that the term "antisemite" is used with any regularity as an epithet began as an invidious exaggeration, and now has turned into a full-blown fabrication to legitimize hate speech.

Mr. Finkelstein is thus an intellectually dishonest, demagogic, lying hypocrite, and he did the groups that brought him to Columbia no good.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Radical Left Antisemitism

Tomorrow I am to participate in a discussion on why the Left hates Israel.

Here is my analysis:

Of course, it is not the whole Left that hates Israel. The left-wing of this country can not be said to hate Israel. People who support Israel's right to exist but believe Israel was correct to withdraw from Gaza and should withdraw from the West Bank can not be said to hate Israel. In the minds of many on the hard right who have adopted Israel as a pet cause, and are always looking to demonize someone, those who fail to silence any criticism tend to labelled negatively as either anti-Israel, and by some whackjobs, as antisemitic. I have been clear in the past on what I consider antisemitism and have been vocal in this space on the many instances of it around the world, particularly in Europe.

I have also written on the radical left (and it is really the radical left, not the "Left" that we are talking about) tendency to guiltily accuse supporters of Israel of accusing them of antisemitism when no such accusations have been levelled.

It is a major myth that antisemitism on the radical left in the West, the brand found on college campuses and amongst pinkish activists, is anything new. Benjamin Epstein and Arnold Forster, two ADL leaders of the last generation, wrote about it in the early 1970s in their book, "The New Anti-Semitism", which made Phyllis Chesler's recent book of the same title somewhat passe. Epstein and Arnold's book included chapters that could have been written yesterday: "The Radical Left", "The Media and the Arts", "Arabs and pro-Arabs", and only one chapter given over to "The Radical Right".

I agree somewhat with those who see the new antisemitism partly as a post-Communist search for meaning; though I would say that the leaders of those on the radical left responsible do not see themselves as "post-Communist". These are the International Action Center types who pine for the USSR. They are the unreconstructed radical left. They have long seen Zionism in its early 20th century form as a competitor to Communism and like good Stalinists, have treated it with the appropriate venom. A typical text is the volume of Marxist essays, "Antizionism and Antisemitism", published not long before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1987. In its introduction, Daniel Rubin, the editor of the volume refers to Soviet persecution of Jews as a "lie". In includes such comical sentences as this: "[Jewish-Americans] are unaware that socialism long ago eliminated all governmental and organized expression of anti-Semitism and all other forms of national oppression and that anti-Semitism is a crime in the Soviet Union." If antisemitism is the socialism of fools, sentences like these would certainly inspire the sentiments of those zealots on the hard-right, who promote the unfair converse of that statement: socialism is the antisemitism of fools.

And yet, one thing about Rubin is notable: his firm support for the two-state solution. He calls for a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel, not in place of it, even as he and his co-authors criticize Zionism as a form of chauvinistic nationalism that exists because of imperialism and pulls the wool over the eyes of the Jewish masses.

Today's radical left is not so accommodating. They by and large appear to prefer one state and a full right of return for Palestinian refugees, long Arab code for a reversal of 1948, ie, a reversal of Israel's founding. People seem to have little capacity for critical thought. They adopt the ideologies of others nowadays. It is not enough to want a Palestinian homeland, no, they must out-Palestinian the Palestinians and call for the right of return, demonize the Jews, and make utterly unfortunate comments about how it is not their place to criticize tactics like suicide bombings.

The other major difference is the proliferation of deceptive language. The radical left, always tending toward the self-delusional as we see from Rubin's fanciful account of Soviet treatment of Jews, have convinced themselves that as long as they call it anti-Zionism, it can't possibly antisemitic. This allows them to say the most outrageous things about Israel, its history, its people, and the 90 percent or so of the world's Jews who support its existence. The internet has allowed them to become more organized and to read more about some of bad things Israeli soldiers have done in the territories, with little context. They have less shame, less of a impetus to educate themselves about the entire picture, and in the post-Communist world of US superpower, an impetus to see Israel, a close US ally with too many people with white faces (forget Israel's nearly unparalleled racial and religious diversity), as an evil.

My response to all of this is the following:

1. The age of the problem suggests that it is not anything to be very worried about. These are not, by and large, grassroots movements. The people running them have always been more interested in running their mouths than in getting anything done. That's why they have accomplished nothing in more than three decades of the same thing.

2. We have to do a better job in the Jewish community of reaching left-leaning college students to keep them out of radical left clutches. Expanding Birthright Israel is a good idea. Disseminating literature is a good idea. Sending speakers from the Israeli mainstream is a good idea.

3. We have to do a better job of getting the same mainstream Israelis in the rooms of the progressive churches, and other large organizations who have the ability to move anti-Zionism from the fringe to left-wing mainstream.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Steven Spielberg's "Munich" has been called his "by far the toughest film of the director's career and the most anguished". A lot of people probably believe this. I don't know. I think Schindler's List was probably much tougher and much more anguished. It is a sad sign of the times that a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be considered more anguishing to make than a movie about the Holocaust.

I am not surprised Manohla Dargis, who is not a big Spielberg fan, wrote this. Those who find Spielberg a virtuoso filmmaker but purveyor of cheap, crowd-pleasing emotional thrills (not my assessment) doubtless find Tony Kushner, Munich's screenwriter and a reliable radical, a welcome influence. Kushner, the author of the great Angels in America, is no slouch.

Neither are on the top of their game here. Spielberg's great energy comes through unevenly here; his movie is an overlong graphic collection of assassinations. It is a mystery as to why Mr. Spielberg has not been criticized for cheap emotional thrills in a bizarre closing sequence where a sex scene is mixed with the murder of Israeli athletes or gratuitousness for the manner in which he depicts the killing of a female rogue Dutch assassin. Sex serves as both a foil and a corollary for the killing in this movie, an idea that is rather banal by now but oddly offensive here.

Kushner's script is transparently calibrated to promote his own personal political viewpoint. Anyone familiar with Mr. Kushner's stance on the conflict will recognize this. Mr. Kushner's theme, so simple and unoriginal but so well-regarded in Hollywood, is that violence begets violence, and that terrorists (Mr. Kushner would doubtless prefer "alleged guerrillas" or some other derivative that removes the linguistic violence of the word "terrorist") should be brought to trial rather than targetted for death.

It's a cinematic op-ed piece, not especially well-argued, ignorant of the complexity of the issues, and perhaps worst of all, ignorant of the facts, based as it is on a book with a discredited source. That makes it an arrogant op-ed piece, with Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner (and I believe Mr. Kushner is more responsible than Mr. Spielberg) ignoring the actual parties and forcing their interpretation on the conflict.

Every director and writer who chooses to make a movie about a subject like this ought to watch Gillo Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers" and learn its lessons. They are:

1. Keep your own political views at bay and stick to the facts. If you really believe in them, they should stand on their own. And if you're wrong, you're wrong. Pontecorvo's political outlook was, if anything, to the left of Kushner.

2. No big ideological speeches. Munich's script doesn't trust its audience to draw its own conclusions, so it has its characters tell them to the audience. Avner, the lead character, asks Ephraim, the Mossad head who recruits Avner to lead a team who will assassinate Palestinians implicated by the Mossad as terrorists, why the terrorists could not be brought to justice rather than killed. (The question is a serious one in this context, though not serious in today's West bank context.) But in a story where the accepted truth is that the Israelis who participated in the revenge killings showed little ambiguity about what they did, it is all the more unfortunate that Mr. Kushner chose to have them wear their emotions on their sleeves. Pontecorvo's French general was in a similar position to Avner. He was a hero of the French resistance from the World War II. He was honest about what was necessary to get the job done and said so. And by his saying so, Pontecorvo presented his argument without skirting the facts. He didn't have to invent lines about civilizations compromising with their own values, as Kushner has Golda Meir tell her security cabinet.

It's not surprising that Kushner doesn't trust his audience to understand him without these literary indulgences of his.

Kushner and Spielberg fail to heed these lessons, and as a result, Munich is a failure.

A couple of notes:

Many Arabs are unhappy with Spielberg for presenting the Israelis as conflicted men while presenting the Palestinians as fairly irredentist, most distinctly in a scene where a PLO member speaks to Avner about not resting until Israel is once again in Arab hands. In other words, one side is humanized and the other isn't. This is a strange criticism, given the movie's clear effort to present the targets as fathers with young charming daughters, intellectuals, poets, friendly guys who will offer you a cigarette, and so on. Taken with Kushner's effort to remind the audience that the evidence on these men was limited and certainly not public, it seems as though the criticism is hardly justified.

Irina has a different take. She argues that the lesson is that a guy doesn't have to wear a military uniform in order to kill people; he can be a poet who kills, an intellectual who kills. Scholarship and artistry is no barrier against evil. I doubt this was Kushner's intent given his politics, much as he would not hesitate to deliver such a lesson about American and Israeli civilian politicians. It is, nonetheless, a useful lesson to draw from this movie, particularly for those who think of Sheikh Yassin as a harmless paraplegic clergyman.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Meme from Ignoble Experiment

Name:Michael Leon Brenner
Current Location:Woodmere
Eye Color:Hazel
Hair Color:brown
Right Handed or Left Handed:Right-Handed
Your Heritage:Jewish
The Shoes You Wore Today:Allen Edmonds MacNeils
Your Weakness:Dark Chocolate
Your Fears:Nuclear Holocaust, messing up my children, and bumblebees
Your Perfect Pizza:Plain
Goal You Would Like To Achieve This Year:Be a better person
Your Most Overused Phrase On an instant messenger:Don't use instant messenger much
Thoughts First Waking Up:What time is it?
Your Best Physical Feature:Fingers
Your Bedtime:n/a
Your Most Missed Memory:Life without the internet
Pepsi or Coke:Coke
MacDonalds or Burger King:Burger King
Single or Group Dates:Single
Lipton Ice Tea or Nestea:Lipton
Chocolate or Vanilla:Chocolate
Cappuccino or Coffee:Coffee
Do you Smoke:no
Do you Swear:yes, but I'm trying to cut down
Do you Sing:Yes
Do you Shower Daily:yes
Have you Been in Love:Yes
Do you want to go to College:I already have
Do you want to get Married:Yes
Do you belive in yourself:Sometimes
Do you get Motion Sickness:No
Do you think you are Attractive:To who?
Are you a Health Freak:a little
Do you get along with your Parents:a little
Do you like Thunderstorms:not really
Do you play an Instrument:yes
In the past month have you Drank Alcohol:yes
In the past month have you Smoked:no
In the past month have you been on Drugs:no
In the past month have you gone on a Date:yes
In the past month have you gone to a Mall:no
In the past month have you eaten a box of Oreos:no
In the past month have you eaten Sushi:no
In the past month have you been on Stage:no
In the past month have you been Dumped:no
In the past month have you gone Skinny Dipping:no
In the past month have you Stolen Anything:no
Ever been Drunk:yes
Ever been called a Tease:no
Ever been Beaten up:no
Ever Shoplifted:no
How do you want to Die:of natural causes if possible
What do you want to be when you Grow Up:President
What country would you most like to Visit:Israel
In a Boy/Girl..
Favourite Eye Color:Don't care
Favourite Hair Color:Red
Short or Long Hair:Long
Height:doesn't matter
Weight:doesn't matter, unless morbidly obese
Best Clothing Style:wouldn't know
Number of Drugs I have taken:0
Number of CDs I own:150
Number of Piercings:0
Number of Tattoos:0
Number of things in my Past I Regret:who knows?