Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 2007

A Reply to Max Boot

Editor’s Note: Read Max Boot’s post here, and Herman’s original article here.

At one level Max is perfectly right: every war is sui generis and comparisons between them are bound to distort or ignore important differences. Iraq in 2007 is not Algeria in 1957, or even Vietnam in 1967. Yet the sequence of shifts in tactics in combating a terrorist insurgency, and the interplay between the military and political fronts, seem to me strikingly similar. Hence my article, and hence the lessons to be learned from how the French managed to win on the battlefield but lose at home.

All the same, I think Max may be over-stressing some of the differences between Iraq and Algeria. For starters, I’m not sure whether describing the FLN guerrillas of the 1950’s as “nationalists” or “secularists” in contrast to today’s al Qaeda makes sense. In fact, our recent experience with al Qaeda figures like Zarqawi sheds a lot of light on what made men like Ben Bella and Boumedienne and Belkacem Krim really tick. Essentially, they were power-hungry nihilists willing to use any ideological excuse in order to pull down the existing order and grab power for themselves and their followers. In the 1940’s, they looked to Jerusalem’s Mufti and the Nazis for inspiration; in the 50’s, they mouthed pan-Arabist slogans in order to get support from Egypt and Tunisia. Yet once in power, the different factions within the FLN turned on each other; and the ultimate winner, Boumedienne, proceeded to declare Algeria an Islamic state and to punish women for not wearing the veil!

Nor was the FLN any less inchoate or disorganized than today’s Iraqi insurgency, especially in Algeria’s rural areas, where Galula had to develop his tactics. It certainly followed the same pattern, with the murder of moderates and with a handful of committed terrorists using family and clan connections to intimidate an entire village or neighborhood into supporting (or at least acquiescing to) their attacks on government forces.

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Editor’s Note: Read Max Boot’s post here, and Herman’s original article here.

At one level Max is perfectly right: every war is sui generis and comparisons between them are bound to distort or ignore important differences. Iraq in 2007 is not Algeria in 1957, or even Vietnam in 1967. Yet the sequence of shifts in tactics in combating a terrorist insurgency, and the interplay between the military and political fronts, seem to me strikingly similar. Hence my article, and hence the lessons to be learned from how the French managed to win on the battlefield but lose at home.

All the same, I think Max may be over-stressing some of the differences between Iraq and Algeria. For starters, I’m not sure whether describing the FLN guerrillas of the 1950’s as “nationalists” or “secularists” in contrast to today’s al Qaeda makes sense. In fact, our recent experience with al Qaeda figures like Zarqawi sheds a lot of light on what made men like Ben Bella and Boumedienne and Belkacem Krim really tick. Essentially, they were power-hungry nihilists willing to use any ideological excuse in order to pull down the existing order and grab power for themselves and their followers. In the 1940’s, they looked to Jerusalem’s Mufti and the Nazis for inspiration; in the 50’s, they mouthed pan-Arabist slogans in order to get support from Egypt and Tunisia. Yet once in power, the different factions within the FLN turned on each other; and the ultimate winner, Boumedienne, proceeded to declare Algeria an Islamic state and to punish women for not wearing the veil!

Nor was the FLN any less inchoate or disorganized than today’s Iraqi insurgency, especially in Algeria’s rural areas, where Galula had to develop his tactics. It certainly followed the same pattern, with the murder of moderates and with a handful of committed terrorists using family and clan connections to intimidate an entire village or neighborhood into supporting (or at least acquiescing to) their attacks on government forces.

At first, the French responded in much the same way as the Americans did in Iraq. They mounted regular patrols to protect their forces and key assets, interspersed with large-scale sweeps to capture weapons and take out the FLN leadership. But they soon discovered, just as the Americans did, that the leadership wasn’t the key to the problem: kill or capture one insurgent leader, and another takes his place. The key was the grassroots support, as Galula (who was Tunisian by descent) himself had said. Assessing the situation in November 1956, he wrote that as long as those who want the war to end and the killing to stop “fear us less than they fear the rebels, they will never dare come out. As long as they avoid a commitment,” he continued, “we shall never succeed in pacifying Algeria.” And that clearly is also the key in pacifying Iraq.

The question is how—and that is the salient issue. Certain facts are plain. The counterinsurgency tactics developed by Galula and his colleagues to do the job in Algeria worked, and they represent the last, best hope for turning things around in Baghdad and Iraq.

Max will be in a better position than I by this time next month to know how successful they will be. But regardless of how the Petraeus offensive (which seems a more accurate term than “surge”) goes, the decisive factor in victory or defeat will be perceptions in Washington. The Bush administration had better stop hoping that positive results alone will silence critics: it hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work this time. As Galula wrote in that same 1956 memo, “Our actions seem to [the insurgents] inspired by our mood of the moment, whereas we ought to impress on them that we are acting according to a well-thought-out plan that leaves them no room for maneuvering.” The Bush people might do worse than to start applying some of the same tactics against the “insurgency” here at home before time runs out on Petraeus, and on the future of Iraq.

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Val Goes Free

Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.

Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.

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Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.

Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.

Quite a number of public personalities who should have known better sided with the Islamists, and argued that the cartoons should have been banned. One particularly creepy apologist of censorship was the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw—and he in the chair of Canning and Palmerston. The French press, on the other hand, was rather robust. L’Express, the magazine once graced by Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel, published all twelve cartoons. Val published only three, including the one showing the prophet’s turban as a fizzing bomb, and the one which has the prophet exclaiming, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots,” though the word used for idiot in French is rather rude. Special print runs followed, more than doubling Charlie Hebdo‘s circulation.

It is not clear why Charlie Hebdo and Val were prosecuted for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” and L’Express was not. President Jacques Chirac wanted a trial, and seems to have pressured the Grand Mosque of Paris to bring a charge. The Grand Mosque comes under the umbrella of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), which is itself under the thumb of the Muslim Brotherhood. Val claims that Dalil Boubakeur, the imam of the Grand Mosque (an Algerian originally and by all accounts a decent man) told him that he did not want to prosecute, but the authorities were eager to do so. Val thinks that Chirac is out to appease the Arabs, or maybe is just chasing commerce. At any rate, Chirac offered the UOIF the services of his personal lawyer, Francis Szpiner, who in court spouted a lot of nonsense about racism. A second lawyer for the prosecution had a name—Christophe Bigot—that a satirical magazine might have invented.

The three judges of the Paris tribunal were having none of it. Throwing the case out, they rendered a judgement that Le Monde approvingly called “a model of clarity.” The three cartoons were all fair comment. Gratuitous offence to Muslims would be objectionable, but there was none. The UOIF says that the verdict is “unsatisfactory,” and it will appeal. But in the city where Voltaire was once thrashed by a nobleman and then locked up, free speech is still safe.

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Weekend Reading

Passover begins on Monday evening. This weekend is an excellent time to read up on the holiday, and COMMENTARY’s archive is the most lucid entry point, as well as the most accessible (both physically and spiritually). A terrific introduction that lays it all out is Theodor Gaster’s “What Does the Seder Celebrate?”

Many anecdotal accounts of the seder have appeared in our pages, too. Leslie Fiedler wrote about a “Seder in Rome” in 1954, and Sidney Alexander wrote about Passover in Venice in 1951. Closer to home, perhaps, is Morris Freedman’s “Grossinger’s Green Pastures,” the fabled Catskill vacation resort and site of many 20th-century American Jewish seders.

If scholarly is what you have in mind, COMMENTARY published (March 1953) selections from an 11th-century commentary on the Song of Songs, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon that is read at the synagogue during Passover. The commentary is by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi. A more recent meditation on the same biblical book is “Levels of Love,” which appeared in COMMENTARY’s April 1958 issue; this essay is by Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish return to the land of Israel. Still more recent, not to say with-it, is Hyam Maccoby’s “Sex According to the Song of Songs” (June 1979).

Finally, if you think that the Wall Street Journal’s kosher wine lists are a modern invention, check out “Wine Like Mother Used to Make” (May 1954), which begins: “Kosher wine, once bought exclusively by Jews and only during Jewish holiday seasons, seems on the way to becoming as popular as the cola drinks.” Indeed. And if you think Passover nouvelle cuisine is really nouvelle, read Ruth Glazer’s review of “The Jewish Festival Cookbook” (March 1956). Glazer opens: “Not the least of places in which the Jewish revival has caused added bustle is the kitchen.” To quote from a different book by King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun.

Passover begins on Monday evening. This weekend is an excellent time to read up on the holiday, and COMMENTARY’s archive is the most lucid entry point, as well as the most accessible (both physically and spiritually). A terrific introduction that lays it all out is Theodor Gaster’s “What Does the Seder Celebrate?”

Many anecdotal accounts of the seder have appeared in our pages, too. Leslie Fiedler wrote about a “Seder in Rome” in 1954, and Sidney Alexander wrote about Passover in Venice in 1951. Closer to home, perhaps, is Morris Freedman’s “Grossinger’s Green Pastures,” the fabled Catskill vacation resort and site of many 20th-century American Jewish seders.

If scholarly is what you have in mind, COMMENTARY published (March 1953) selections from an 11th-century commentary on the Song of Songs, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon that is read at the synagogue during Passover. The commentary is by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi. A more recent meditation on the same biblical book is “Levels of Love,” which appeared in COMMENTARY’s April 1958 issue; this essay is by Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish return to the land of Israel. Still more recent, not to say with-it, is Hyam Maccoby’s “Sex According to the Song of Songs” (June 1979).

Finally, if you think that the Wall Street Journal’s kosher wine lists are a modern invention, check out “Wine Like Mother Used to Make” (May 1954), which begins: “Kosher wine, once bought exclusively by Jews and only during Jewish holiday seasons, seems on the way to becoming as popular as the cola drinks.” Indeed. And if you think Passover nouvelle cuisine is really nouvelle, read Ruth Glazer’s review of “The Jewish Festival Cookbook” (March 1956). Glazer opens: “Not the least of places in which the Jewish revival has caused added bustle is the kitchen.” To quote from a different book by King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun.

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A Reply to Arthur Herman

In his article in the April issue of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman has provided a valuable service by increasing awareness of David Galula and the French experience in Algeria. I agree with much of what he has to say but feel compelled to register some disagreements as well.

First, a minor peeve: I dislike the breakdown of warfare into four generations—a conceit launched by William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation and picked up by Herman in this article. “4GW” theorists, as they are known in military circles, posit that insurgency has now replaced traditional “maneuver” warfare, just as in World War II maneuver warfare replaced industrial warfare. The reality is considerably more complex: maneuver warfare still exists (an example: the three-week U.S. blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003), and terrorism and guerrilla warfare, though growing in importance, are nothing new—they date back to the dawn of warfare. This isn’t meant to deprecate the importance of low-intensity conflict; rather to suggest that it isn’t new and it isn’t necessarily the sum of all warfare today. (Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College, London, has written a good refutation of 4GW theory.)

This is a relatively minor matter of categorization. A more serious flaw with Herman’s article is his presupposition that the U.S. will have the same level of purely military success that the French had in Algeria. Maybe so, but there’s little evidence of that yet. Even with the small successes that General Petraeus has registered with the initial stages of the troop “surge,” Baghdad remains infinitely more dangerous than Algiers ever was. We are not close to military victory in Iraq—certainly not as close as the French were in Algeria in the late 1950’s.

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In his article in the April issue of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman has provided a valuable service by increasing awareness of David Galula and the French experience in Algeria. I agree with much of what he has to say but feel compelled to register some disagreements as well.

First, a minor peeve: I dislike the breakdown of warfare into four generations—a conceit launched by William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation and picked up by Herman in this article. “4GW” theorists, as they are known in military circles, posit that insurgency has now replaced traditional “maneuver” warfare, just as in World War II maneuver warfare replaced industrial warfare. The reality is considerably more complex: maneuver warfare still exists (an example: the three-week U.S. blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003), and terrorism and guerrilla warfare, though growing in importance, are nothing new—they date back to the dawn of warfare. This isn’t meant to deprecate the importance of low-intensity conflict; rather to suggest that it isn’t new and it isn’t necessarily the sum of all warfare today. (Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College, London, has written a good refutation of 4GW theory.)

This is a relatively minor matter of categorization. A more serious flaw with Herman’s article is his presupposition that the U.S. will have the same level of purely military success that the French had in Algeria. Maybe so, but there’s little evidence of that yet. Even with the small successes that General Petraeus has registered with the initial stages of the troop “surge,” Baghdad remains infinitely more dangerous than Algiers ever was. We are not close to military victory in Iraq—certainly not as close as the French were in Algeria in the late 1950’s.

Another problem with Herman’s article is that, though it is based on an Algeria-Iraq comparison, the differences between the FLN and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq are pretty vast. The FLN, as I understand it, was primarily nationalist, not Islamist, in its orientation; if anything its ideology was secular pan-Arabism of the Nasserite variety. Indeed, the heirs of the FLN, who rule Algeria today, put down an Islamist uprising in the 1990’s with great violence.

The FLN was also a classic, tightly directed insurgency in the mode of the Chinese or Vietnamese communists, with a hierarchical leadership and a clear goal–kicking out the French. The Iraq insurgency is much more inchoate and lacks any central organizing principle or leadership, making it harder to deal with. There are numerous Shiite and Sunni factions pursuing their own agendas, which often involve killing one another as well as coalition forces. This complexity is a source of frustration for counterinsurgents—strategies designed to deal with one enemy in Iraq may actually exacerbate tensions with another group. (For instance: empowering Shiites alienates Sunnis.) Whereas the fight in Algeria was purely about the future of foreign rule, the fight in Iraq is much more about which sectarian groups will rule in a future Iraq.

Another difference: the presence of the French settlers in Algeria and the much greater number of French troops in proportion to the population, along with the much longer standing French familiarity with Algeria–all major advantages we don’t enjoy in Iraq. The French deployed some 450,000 of their own troops, along with lots of Arab auxiliaries, to pacify a population of 10 million (of whom one million were pro-French pieds noir). In Iraq the coalition has never had more than 170,000 troops for a population of 26 million—and indigenous soldiers in Iraq have proven less useful than in Algeria.

A final difference worth noting: While there was some coverage of French misdeeds in Algeria, like torture, media coverage was much less intense than in Iraq today. The French approach, which proved effective on the ground, was pretty brutal—more brutal, I think, than what Galula advocated in his book. The result: France won all the battles but lost the war by losing the support of public opinion back home.

I don’t dispute Herman’s conclusion about the central importance of domestic public opinion in this war (or just about any other war, for that matter). I also agree about the importance of applying Galula’s dicta in Iraq—something I’ve advocated in the past. But I would caution against assuming that all we have to do is win hearts and minds back home. To a substantial degree, the trajectory of U.S. public opinion follows the success or lack thereof of our forces in Iraq. If we were having more success on the ground, we’d be getting more support at home. Of course the French experience in Algeria showed that even on-the-ground success may not be enough to win over public opinion if that success is achieved using repugnant methods. Still, showing progress in pacification is necessary, if not sufficient, for keeping public support.

So how are we doing in Iraq? That’s hard to figure out. While opponents of the war have been prone to excessive pessimism, supporters of the war effort—including myself in the past—have been guilty of excessive optimism. A more balanced assessment is needed, which is what I will try to provide in the next few weeks. I’m now heading off to Iraq to spend much of April visiting with coalition forces. I will try to report periodically while I’m there, if I can find time and Internet access.

*Editor’s Note: Arthur Herman will respond to Max Boot’s criticisms tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion.
Bernard Harrison
Rowman & Littlefield. 224 pp. $22.95.

According to the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), “Anti-Semitism is a passing phase in the history of culture.” Since that sanguine declaration, anti-Semitism has had several very good rolls of the dice, culminating in the destruction of European Jewry.

The latest recrudescence of anti-Semitism is by now the subject of at least a half dozen books, published in America, England, France, and Italy. Their shared conclusion, set forth from a variety of perspectives, is that the physical violence of the new Jew-hatred is largely the work of young Muslims, but that the ideological violence is the work primarily of leftists, battlers against racism, professed humanitarians, and liberals (including Jewish ones). The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism, Bernard Harrison’s superb new book, deals almost entirely with this drifting of liberals and leftists into anti-Semitism, and it brings to the subject a new authorial identity, a different academic background, and a distinctive and (despite the topic) exhilarating voice. Resurgence is also the first book on contemporary anti-Semitism by a Gentile, and a British one to boot. (According to Harrison, a professor of philosophy, this has also made him privy to the expression of anti-Semitic prejudice by apparently respectable academic people “when Jews are absent.”)

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The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion.
Bernard Harrison
Rowman & Littlefield. 224 pp. $22.95.

According to the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), “Anti-Semitism is a passing phase in the history of culture.” Since that sanguine declaration, anti-Semitism has had several very good rolls of the dice, culminating in the destruction of European Jewry.

The latest recrudescence of anti-Semitism is by now the subject of at least a half dozen books, published in America, England, France, and Italy. Their shared conclusion, set forth from a variety of perspectives, is that the physical violence of the new Jew-hatred is largely the work of young Muslims, but that the ideological violence is the work primarily of leftists, battlers against racism, professed humanitarians, and liberals (including Jewish ones). The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism, Bernard Harrison’s superb new book, deals almost entirely with this drifting of liberals and leftists into anti-Semitism, and it brings to the subject a new authorial identity, a different academic background, and a distinctive and (despite the topic) exhilarating voice. Resurgence is also the first book on contemporary anti-Semitism by a Gentile, and a British one to boot. (According to Harrison, a professor of philosophy, this has also made him privy to the expression of anti-Semitic prejudice by apparently respectable academic people “when Jews are absent.”)

Recent years have furnished a great deal of material suited to his talents and expertise. Harrison brings to his subject the “habitual skepticism, bitterly close reading, and aggressive contentiousness” produced by “forty years in the amiable sharkpool of analytic philosophy.” His merciless deconstruction of the anti-Israel invective and smug clichés of the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, and other bastions of anti-Jewish sentiment in England reminds one of the powerful literary scrutiny pioneered in this country by the New Critics.

Harrison’s method is to scrutinize the statements of Israel-haters for internal contradictions, inconsistencies, specious reasoning, misstatements of fact, and outright lies. To read the fulminations of such people as John Pilger, Robert Fisk, or Jacqueline Rose concerning Israel ordinarily requires the mental equivalent of hip-boots; Harrison, however, takes up a rhetorical scalpel and dissects their ravings with surgical precision.

He devotes all of the book’s second chapter, for example, to a single infamous issue of the New Statesman. The cover of January 14, 2002 showed a tiny Union Jack being pierced by the sharp apex of a large Star of David, made of gold. Below, in large black letters, was a question posed with characteristic English understatement: “A Kosher Conspiracy?” It would not have been out of place in Der Stürmer; and the articles that followed it had at first suggested to Harrison that he entitle his analysis of them “In the Footsteps of Dr. Goebbels.” (He decided, however, that this would be “inadequate to the gravity of the case.”)

Among the many canards that Harrison dismembers in the book: “Israel is a colonialist state”; “Israel is a Nazi state, and the Jews who support it are as guilty as Nazi collaborators were”; “Anybody who criticizes Israel is called an anti-Semite”; “Jews do not express grief except for political or financial ends.” Take, for example, the way in which he draws out the implications of the Israel-Nazi Germany equation, without which people like Noam Chomsky would be rendered almost speechless: “To attach the label ‘Nazi’ to Israel, or to couple the Star of David with the swastika is . . . not just to express opposition . . . to the policies of one or another Israeli government. It is to defame Israel by association with the most powerful symbol of evil, of that which must be utterly rejected and uprooted from the face of the earth.”

Harrison consistently criticizes contemporary liberals who have allowed their moral indignation on behalf of Palestinians to pass into something “very hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism of the most traditional kind.” Yet he just as consistently refrains from calling them anti-Semites. (He does, however, wonder whether, in their dreams, they call themselves anti-Semites.) Thus the editor of the New Statesman who approves a cover worthy of Julius Streicher is “an entirely honest, decent man,” and Dennis Sewell, author of the essay on the Anglo-Jewish “kosher conspiracy” belongs to the rank of “sincere humanitarians.”

Two factors play a role in Harrison’s mitigation of his criticisms. One is his assumption, oft-repeated, that liberals and leftists in the past were almost always opposed to anti-Semitism. But this is open to question. In France, for example, the only articulate friends of the Jews prior to the Dreyfus Affair were conservative writers who denounced anti-Jewish attitudes as “one of the favorite theses of the 18th century.” French leftist movements of the 19th century had been outspoken in their antipathy to Jews until the Dreyfus Affair forced them to decide whether they hated the Jews or the Catholic Church more. (They became Dreyfusards.) In England, Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and father of Matthew, called English Jews “lodgers” and wanted them barred from universities and citizenship. Gladstone referred to Disraeli as “that alien” who “was going to annex England to his native East & make it the appanage of an Asian empire.” Ernest Bevin, Labor foreign minister from 1945-51, was notoriously short of sympathy in the Jewish direction.

The other, more positive motive for Harrison’s use of such delicate epithets stems, perhaps, from his education in philosophy: he seems to believe genuinely in the ability of people to self-correct, to be swayed by reason. Let us hope that he is right. My own, darker view is that a thinker’s ideas are an expression of character. If Harrison believes that he can reason into decency people like his fellow philosopher Ted Honderich, who espouses “violence for equality” and effusively sings the praises of Palestinian suicide bombers, I wish him joy in his efforts. But deductions have little power of persuasion, and I have no great hopes for his success.

Despite my quibbles, Harrison’s book is one of the necessary and indispensable utterances on the subject of these new, liberal anti-Semites, the people who are busily making themselves into accessories before the fact of Ahmadinejad’s plan “to wipe Israel off the map.” The fact that this eloquent and elegantly argued book has until now been totally ignored by book review editors is itself testimony to the alarming dogmatism that Harrison has so vividly criticized.

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Time to Close Gitmo

The New York Times recently ran a story revealing that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favor the closing of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. My friend David Rivkin has now co-authored an article with Lee Casey in the Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of keeping terrorist suspects locked up in Gitmo. My heart is with Rivkin and Casey, but my head tells me that Gates and Rice are probably right at this juncture.

On the merits, Rivkin and Casey have, to coin a term, a slam-dunk case. Terrorists captured on the battlefield can’t be treated with the niceties of normal criminal law. Even if there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt,” some terrorists are so dangerous that they need to be locked up anyway. And Gitmo is as good a place as any to keep them confined. It’s on a U.S. naval base but beyond the jurisdiction of domestic criminal law, and the facilities there are now as nice as any in a domestic prison.

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The New York Times recently ran a story revealing that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favor the closing of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. My friend David Rivkin has now co-authored an article with Lee Casey in the Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of keeping terrorist suspects locked up in Gitmo. My heart is with Rivkin and Casey, but my head tells me that Gates and Rice are probably right at this juncture.

On the merits, Rivkin and Casey have, to coin a term, a slam-dunk case. Terrorists captured on the battlefield can’t be treated with the niceties of normal criminal law. Even if there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt,” some terrorists are so dangerous that they need to be locked up anyway. And Gitmo is as good a place as any to keep them confined. It’s on a U.S. naval base but beyond the jurisdiction of domestic criminal law, and the facilities there are now as nice as any in a domestic prison.

I completely understand why the Bush administration decided to go down this route. Unfortunately, unfair as it is, the President’s decision to confine terrorism suspects at Gitmo has turned into an international debacle. Al Qaeda members have skillfully played on the sympathies of foreign audiences by claiming all sorts of abuse. Even if the claims are false—as most surely are—they have been widely believed. Gitmo has been demonized, especially in Europe and the Middle East, as some kind of American Gulag. The allegations are absurd but they have become the received wisdom abroad—in part because the administration has done such a poor job of defending its detention policies.

The public relations damage is so severe and continuing that I’m afraid it probably warrants closing Gitmo. Of course that doesn’t mean the detainees should be released to return to a reign of terror. Ship them to other detention facilities in the U.S. or abroad—for instance the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where dirty-bomb suspect Jose Padilla was held. Rivkin and Casey are right that some “human-rights advocates” will never be satisfied until all terrorist suspects are granted trials either in domestic courts or, better still, in the International Criminal Court. It is worthwhile exploring whether laws and procedures can be created to make this a viable prospect; it is very much in our interest to have an international tribunal that can imprison international terrorists, taking the onus off us. In the meantime, simply closing Gitmo will have tremendous symbolic value and will allow us to win a valuable victory in the court of international opinion. That, in turn, will make it easier to win the kind of cooperation abroad we need to successfully prosecute the struggle against jihadist extremism.

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Pope Benedict, Dr. Johnson, and Hell

The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

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The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

Yet the universalism of Stein, Balthasar, and perhaps John Paul II himself has never been the authoritative doctrine of the Church. Pope Benedict adheres to the authoritative 1994 edition of the catechism, which he largely wrote as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and which was one of the great landmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate. The catechism is explicit: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. . . . The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. . . . To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.”

The catechism leaves open the question of who, if anybody, is damned, but it rejects Calvinist predestination, stating that “God predestines no-one to go hell” and that hell is a state of “definitive self-exclusion.” Only those who freely persist in their defiance of God’s love “to the end” will suffer damnation.

Any belief in damnation, however, is regarded by many people as morbid and hence wicked. Its public restatement as a necessary part of the true faith will arouse bitter hostility from those who see hell as a relic of the superstitious, guilt-inducing caricature of Catholicism that persists in popular imagination. Ironically, as the Church has grown reluctant to reaffirm its belief in hell, the secular culture has appropriated the idea in its gothic horror. It ignores the essence of hell—separation from God—in favor of imagery drawn from other, often pagan, underworlds.

Pope Benedict’s words put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated conversation on the subject, reported by Boswell in his Life. It took place at Oxford on June 12, 1784, when Dr. Johnson was visiting friends at Merton College. In the course of a conversation with “the amiable Dr. Adams” about the goodness of God, Johnson admitted his terror of death and what might follow it:

. . . as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.” (looking dismally.) Dr. Adams. “What do you mean by damned!” Johnson. (passionately and loudly) “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Dr. Adams. “I don’t believe that doctrine.” Johnson. “Hold, Sir, do you believe that some will be punished at all?” Dr. Adams. “Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.” Johnson. “Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatsoever. There is no infinite goodness physically considered: morally there is.

At this point, Boswell, who rightly considered himself much more of a sinner than his older and wiser friend, intervened:

But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?” Johnson. “A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.” Mrs. Adams. “You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” Johnson. “Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.

Boswell tells us that Johnson was now “in gloomy agitation” and concluded the conversation abruptly. He was 75, a great age for that time.

Johnson died exactly six months later, imploring God’s forgiveness for “the multitude of my offences,” but sufficiently at peace with himself and his maker to show more concern for the salvation of his black servant, Francis, than for himself, saying: “Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of the greatest importance.” If this isn’t exactly repentance, it’s close enough.

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Zbig, Andrew, and the War on Terror

The often percipient Andrew Sullivan was up too early when, at 6:15 yesterday morning, he posted an attack on my attack on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s attack on the “war against terror.” Sullivan said he found it “depressing that Josh retreats to anti-Carter arguments and ad hominem slurs instead of addressing the fiasco that neoconservatives have helped engineer in Iraq.”

As it happens, I have addressed that very subject. In the February issue of the Foreign Service Journal I wrote:

Bush has gotten himself and our nation into trouble in Iraq. For that, he and those of us who extolled his actions deserve to take our lumps. . . . But . . . that does not prove that Bush’s overall strategy of promoting democracy or his decision to treat terrorism as a matter of war rather than law enforcement were wrong.

Brzezinski’s article, however—and here’s where Andrew needs to rub the sleep from his eyes—was not about Iraq. It was about the war on terror. “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror': How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America” was its title. Whatever you think now about Iraq, the question Brzezinski posed was whether our problems with terrorists are essentially self-inflicted and exaggerated or whether there is a real and menacing enemy out there. Andrew has trumpeted his own reversal on Iraq. Does he also repudiate his support for the war on terror?

The often percipient Andrew Sullivan was up too early when, at 6:15 yesterday morning, he posted an attack on my attack on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s attack on the “war against terror.” Sullivan said he found it “depressing that Josh retreats to anti-Carter arguments and ad hominem slurs instead of addressing the fiasco that neoconservatives have helped engineer in Iraq.”

As it happens, I have addressed that very subject. In the February issue of the Foreign Service Journal I wrote:

Bush has gotten himself and our nation into trouble in Iraq. For that, he and those of us who extolled his actions deserve to take our lumps. . . . But . . . that does not prove that Bush’s overall strategy of promoting democracy or his decision to treat terrorism as a matter of war rather than law enforcement were wrong.

Brzezinski’s article, however—and here’s where Andrew needs to rub the sleep from his eyes—was not about Iraq. It was about the war on terror. “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror': How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America” was its title. Whatever you think now about Iraq, the question Brzezinski posed was whether our problems with terrorists are essentially self-inflicted and exaggerated or whether there is a real and menacing enemy out there. Andrew has trumpeted his own reversal on Iraq. Does he also repudiate his support for the war on terror?

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The Arabs’ Turn

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

What wasn’t given due notice was Rice’s unveiling of a new philosophical component of the peace process, even though it cropped up across her whole trip, from her press roundtable in Washington on Friday to her closing statement in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Here it is, from that summary statement:

Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel. These paths do not substitute for one another; they reinforce one another.

The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel—to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East; and to demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war. Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community.

If pursued seriously, this new approach could be revolutionary. Rice is challenging a premise that has stood since the last Arab peace treaty with Israel over a decade ago: the idea that the Arab states can sit back and complain to the U.S. about Israel while taking no responsibility for moderating the Palestinians through their own example.

After Ehud Barak put a state on the table at Camp David, and Ariel Sharon disengaged from settlements in order to create one in 2005, there was not much more that Israel could do to demonstrate the obvious: it actively wants a Palestinian state. The Palestinians reacted to all this not by meeting Israel halfway, but by running in the other direction—becoming more violent and radicalized. And while all this was going on, the Sunni Arab world has been much more concerned about Iranian power in the region than about the Arab-Israel conflict, which has become a tool in Iran’s hands.

Rice is right: the Arab states need to help the Palestinians out of their radical spiral, and this means thawing Arab relations with Israel. But opening trade offices and holding low-level meetings will not be enough. Ultimately, the boulder that must be rolled aside to unblock the road to a Palestinian state is the Palestinian claim to a right of return, which infringes gravely on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The Palestinians are too weak and radicalized to make this move, so the Arab states have to start by saying there will be no “right of return” to Israel, only to Palestine. But why should the Arabs say this when even the U.S. hesitates to talk about it? Now that Israel has taken massive risks for peace and paid dearly, it is time for the U.S. and the Arab states to take much smaller risks with much greater chances of bearing fruit.

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Tiramisu, Andrew?

Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

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Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

One highly pertinent examination was Norman Podhoretz’s essay “Who Is Lying About Iraq?

As Podhoretz noted there, first and foremost among the reasons we went to war was the widely shared belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Podhoretz noted that in judging Iraq’s progress toward the acquisition of such weapons, Bush’s CIA director George Tenet

had the backing of all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States. In the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, one of the conclusions offered with “high confidence” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and—yes—France all agreed with this judgment.

So did Andrew Sullivan. Here is one sample of what he was saying before the war was under way: “The question with Iraq is simple,” Andrew wrote on October 20, 2002:

in trying to stop Saddam getting a nuke, do we follow the same policies as Clinton and Carter in 1994 with North Korea, or do we try something else? Amazingly, large swathes of apparently intelligent people seem to think we should try the Carter/Clinton approach to Iraq. My view is simple: if we do not disarm Saddam now, we never will. And if we don’t, a full-scale nuclear, biological and chemical war is inevitable in the Middle East; and that war, with the help of terror groups like al Qaeda, will soon come to LA and New York and London and Washington. So the choice is a dangerous war now; or a much more destructive war later. I know democracies don’t like to hear these as the two options; democracies rightly, understandably hate to go to war. But these choices, in my view, are the only ones we actually have. So what’s it gonna be? Or do we still want to change the subject?

After we were already in the war and had toppled Saddam Hussein, and doubts began to arise about whether Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction, Andrew continued his defense of the enterprise. On October 3, 2003, in the Washington Times, he wrote:

Today’s ubiquitous second-guessers would have us believe that there was an easy alternative to confronting Saddam earlier this year, and deposing him. But there were no good options—and none better than the difficult decision to go to war. President Bush should, in my view, say something similar at some point. I know that any concession with regard to prewar intelligence can lead to the anti-war hysterics piling on and the Democratic opportunists playing clairvoyants. But the point of concession is to say that he took the right decision—even if the intelligence turned out to be flawed—and may have to make a similar decision again. The threat has not gone away.

And a week later, also in the Washington Times, Andrew continued in the same vein, while adding some additional reasons we were still right to go to war:

The casus belli was not proof of Saddam’s existing weapons, but proof of his refusal to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors or account fully for his WMD research. Nothing we have discovered after the war has debunked or undermined any of these reasons. And the moral reason for getting rid of an unconscionably evil regime has actually gotten stronger now that we see the full extent of his terror-state.

And by late January, 2004, when it was becoming clearer that Saddam did not have the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction all had feared, Andrew continued to remain on board, writing in the Washington Times yet again:

I still believe in the need to take out WMD threats before they take us out. And I don’t buy the argument that you have to have proof of actual ready-to-go weapons in order to take action. All you really need is componentry. And the preliminary Kay report convinced me—and still convinces me—that the war was worthwhile, that Saddam Hussein had been lying, that he couldn’t be trusted, that we had no viable future alternative to war [sanctions were becoming grotesquely immoral and porous] and that the future threat was absolutely real. But—and it’s a big but—we made the case on the existence of actual, operational WMD and stockpiles of the same. We did so publicly, openly, clearly to as big a global audience as we could find. We said: Trust us. We know. But we didn’t. I cannot see how a single ally will support us in future similar circumstances because of that. Certainly, Britain won’t be able to. And I think a large swathe of American public opinion will be more skeptical than ever. It’s not exactly a case of crying wolf. The wolf was there all right. It’s a function of exaggerating a threat. I believe it was an honest mistake.

In April 2004, around the time the Abu-Ghraib story broke, Andrew Sullivan came to have great misgivings about the way the Bush administration was handling the war. He’s been a shrill critic ever since and has expressed his “shame and sorrow” for his initial support of the war.

Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Many of them, expressed in lacerating—sometimes self-lacerating—tones, are not. But when it comes to the basic decision to go to war, Andrew has disavowed his initial position for reasons that hindsight, and only hindsight, can provide.

Given what we knew at the time, going to war was a necessary move. A legitimate debate can be held now about the mistakes made along the way, about the path forward, or about whether and how to exit. But in conducting that debate, let us not erase the past. By all means let us examine the premises that led us into this war. And let us examine exactly who shared those premises and why.

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The Future of Health Insurance

Monday’s New York Times highlighted one of the many ways that existing models of medical insurance are beginning to come undone. In this case the subject was long-term-care insurance, which is supposed to help cover the exceedingly high cost of intense chronic care required by some elderly Americans—especially those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As policy-makers have looked at the economic forecasts for old-age health care in the past few decades, they have increasingly used tax incentives and other spurs to encourage middle-aged and older Americans to buy such insurance.

Insurance companies at first jumped right into the newly burgeoning field, but as the years have passed and more patients have made claims, insurers have come to realize that the economic model of long-term care does not work like the rest of their business: demographic changes mean much more demand than originally anticipated, costs are enormous and stretch on for years, and the normal insurance premium structure is often not adequate to make such insurance a profitable enterprise. Several of the biggest early players have suffered mightily. Conseco, which at one point was the leading insurer, actually went bankrupt.

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Monday’s New York Times highlighted one of the many ways that existing models of medical insurance are beginning to come undone. In this case the subject was long-term-care insurance, which is supposed to help cover the exceedingly high cost of intense chronic care required by some elderly Americans—especially those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As policy-makers have looked at the economic forecasts for old-age health care in the past few decades, they have increasingly used tax incentives and other spurs to encourage middle-aged and older Americans to buy such insurance.

Insurance companies at first jumped right into the newly burgeoning field, but as the years have passed and more patients have made claims, insurers have come to realize that the economic model of long-term care does not work like the rest of their business: demographic changes mean much more demand than originally anticipated, costs are enormous and stretch on for years, and the normal insurance premium structure is often not adequate to make such insurance a profitable enterprise. Several of the biggest early players have suffered mightily. Conseco, which at one point was the leading insurer, actually went bankrupt.

The result is what the Times described this week: some patients who counted on their insurance have been let down as the industry has begun to come to terms with the economic realities of an aging society. The Times story goes too far in its criticism at some points—one California lawyer is quoted saying, “these companies have essentially turned their bureaucracies into profit centers.” Well, yes, that’s what companies are. But the article does get at a growing set of problems for the insurance industry.

The aging society is one source of the trouble, but advances in biological science are another. As genetic knowledge improves, some of the premises of the insurance system could come undone. Insurance is based on an assessment of risk that in turn relies on the inherent unknowability of the future, including our medical future. If that changes, if we become better able to predict with genuine precision our likelihood of falling prey to certain medical conditions, it will begin to make less and less sense for insurers to cover us for those illnesses. If they know with near certainty that we are likely to need a particular treatment, then insuring us for it would cease to be a risk, and would become just bad business judgment.

In both cases—long-term-care insurance and improving genetic knowledge—we find that the problem is not so much a lack of coverage or care, but a business model that’s failing to keep up with reality. The age of biotechnology, which has only begun, will certainly bring many more such challenges.

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Welcome, Wilfred McClay

contentions would like to welcome as a guest blogger Wilfred M. McClay, holder of the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a veteran COMMENTARY contributor. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans). He’ll be blogging from Rome, where he is spending a term as senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome. Wilfred brings with him tremendous erudition and a distinct voice, and we’re delighted to have him.

contentions would like to welcome as a guest blogger Wilfred M. McClay, holder of the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a veteran COMMENTARY contributor. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans). He’ll be blogging from Rome, where he is spending a term as senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome. Wilfred brings with him tremendous erudition and a distinct voice, and we’re delighted to have him.

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God and Man in Rome

When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

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When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

None of my students, so far as I can tell, consider themselves believers in any conventional sense, though I assume that most are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and have been baptized and confirmed. Italians, like most of us, hedge their bets; and given the remarkable closeness of Italian families, and the still-formidable presence of the Italian mama, I suspect that such young people go to mass more often than they let on.

But they are utterly without the kind of anti-religious or anti-clerical edge to their sentiments that one might expect, and seem genuinely curious to understand the reasons behind the otherwise inexplicable (to them) persistence of religion in America. They came into the course knowing nothing whatever about Protestantism, and are astonished to find out that the New England Puritans were such formidable intellects, to read documents like James Madison’s magisterial “Memorial and Remonstrance,” and to see the truth in Tocqueville’s assertion that in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion actually supported one another, and that the Enlightenment and Protestantism coexisted with remarkable comfort.

Above all, they are curious: curious about revivalism and its relationship to social reform movements, curious about Mormonism, curious about all the utopian experiments of the 19th century and all the other wild edges of American religion, curious about the centrality of the conversion experience in American evangelicalism, about how Protestants understood the authority of the Bible, and perhaps above all, about the voluntaristic character of American religion. The Baptist emphasis on the primacy of the uncoerced conscience: this is an ideal that clearly intrigues them.

In other words, it is all entirely new to them, so that the experience of teaching them has been energizing, and has caused me to see my own subject afresh. (Thank you, Senator Fulbright.) From the inside of American culture, one is at times impressed by nothing so much as the anarchy and inanity of American religion: its thinness, its institutional chaos, its individualism, its trendiness, its willingness to pander to the consumer and to the culture. These observations remain as valid as ever. And yet my experiences here, listening to students who have grown up in a largely monochromatic religious culture, in which the choices placed before them are far more stark, cast it all in a different light.

We Americans take our freedoms too lightly in other respects, and our highly voluntaristic religious culture—and the boisterous vitality and variety of religious expression that have resulted from it—is no exception. Not all of what it produces is to my taste. But the exercise of freedom is not the same thing as good taste. “It is the duty of every man,” Madison said, “to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him.” My Italian students help me to see anew the grandeur in those words.

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Brzezinski’s Paranoia

Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

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Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

Brzezinski’s goal, he says, is an end to “this hysteria . . . this paranoia.”

How to react to this? Would that one could say simply that it is sad to see a former high official go off the rails, and leave it at that. But the very fact that the Post chose to give the man such prime space shows that he will be taken seriously, although he no longer deserves to be. So here are a few comments.

It is rather rich to decry hysteria and paranoia in the same breath that one likens the slights to Arabs in the American news media to the depiction of Jews by the Nazis, and to imply that these slights may be the prelude to another Holocaust.

It is also rich to hear Brzezinski sneer at “security entrepreneurs.” How, exactly, would Brzezinski describe his own career? The Encyclopedia of World Biography’s entry on him reminds us that “Brzezinski was openly eager to be appointed assistant to the President for nation security affairs and delighted when President-elect Carter offered him the position in December 1976.”

It is amusing to be lectured that “America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor” by the national security adviser of the President who delivered the infamous “malaise” speech, telling Americans that our problems arose from “a crisis of the American spirit” and a “los[s of] confidence in the future.” Aside from being rich, Brzezinski’s claim is false. Fear of the enemy is not the opposite of determination and confidence in ultimate victory. There was much fear of the enemy in 1941, including some that was quite hysterical. The main difference in regard to self-confidence between World War II and the war on terror is that after Pearl Harbor, one no longer heard voices like Brzezinski’s claiming that the real enemy was ourselves.

In a further sneer, Brzezinski writes: “President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging [the war on terror] lest al Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.” Quite a fool, that Bush. Terror here in the United States? Absurd, indeed! How could al Qaeda cross the Atlantic? In airplanes? Ha, ha.

Between sneers, Brzezinski waxes professorial. “Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique,” he explains. Quite so. The enemy might more precisely be described as jihadism, a political ideology that claims that the Christian and Jewish worlds are at war with Islam and that the Islamic world must make war on them. This ideology traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the 1920’s. But it only took wing after a jihadist government seized power in Iran in 1979, much as Communism only emerged as a major force after a Communist government was established in Russia. And where was Brzezinski when this enemy was taking shape? At the very pinnacle of the American government, flapping about pathetically, pursuing policies that enabled this strategic disaster to happen. His qualification for instructing us about how to deal with jihadism is therefore clear: there are few Americans who did us much as he to create the problem.

* Editor’s Note: You can read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s response to one of Muravchik’s critics here.

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Bookshelf

• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

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• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

Should Wilder’s other plays be staged more frequently? The question, I fear, is irrelevant, for The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker both require too many actors to be easily produced outside of a festival setting, which is one of the reasons why Our Town is the only one of his full-length plays that continues to be revived regularly. The other reason is that it’s by far the best thing he ever wrote, though reading The Skin of Our Teeth for the first time in a quarter-century has made me curious to see how it would look on stage (it comes across on the page as more than a little bit twee). For all its obvious weaknesses, Our Town is still a great play and a quintessentially American work of art. It reads surprisingly well, too, though the best way to experience it at home is to watch Sam Wood’s mostly straightforward 1940 film version, which preserves the performances of Frank Craven and Martha Scott, who played the stage manager and Emily in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was scored with exquisite and indelible appropriateness by none other than Aaron Copland.

This collection includes the lengthy and fascinating series of letters between Wilder and Sol Lesser, the producer of the film version of Our Town, along with the bulk of Wilder’s writings on theater, all of which are very much worth reading. I was especially struck by this passage from his preface to Our Town: “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal, it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” I couldn’t have put it better—nor could anyone else.

As for Wilder’s novels . . . well, I’ll get back to you on that. Presumably the Library of America plans to reissue them at some point, which would give me a good excuse to reread The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I recall with fondness) and Heaven’s My Destination (about which I had my doubts when I read it in college). But Our Town will always be with us, as well it should be. If I were to choose a half-dozen works of art that collectively sum up the American experience, it would be one of them.

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Cleaning Up Israel

The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

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The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.

The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.

It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”

“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”

“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”

“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.

My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”

We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.

All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.

Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.

If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.

Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.

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Getting Real about Immigration

Many of the commenters on my earlier post ¡Viva la Inmigración! take me to task for not distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. The former is commendable, they suggest; the latter, despicable. This antipathy toward lawbreaking is understandable, if sometimes overly zealous. I mean, c’mon: among all the problems we face—from paying for the baby boomers’ retirement to defeating al Qaeda—how high a priority should we assign to the “problem” of millions of people wanting to move here to take jobs that few if any Americans are willing or able to perform? Even if you do think this is a major problem—and I admit that a small portion of the immigrant population consists of criminals and freeloaders—the question is, what do you do about it?

The immigration restrictionists want to erect ever more formidable defenses along our border to keep immigrants out and to send the authorities out to round up and ship home all the illegal immigrants already here. I don’t think either of these approaches is a very realistic solution to the immigration “problem.”

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Many of the commenters on my earlier post ¡Viva la Inmigración! take me to task for not distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. The former is commendable, they suggest; the latter, despicable. This antipathy toward lawbreaking is understandable, if sometimes overly zealous. I mean, c’mon: among all the problems we face—from paying for the baby boomers’ retirement to defeating al Qaeda—how high a priority should we assign to the “problem” of millions of people wanting to move here to take jobs that few if any Americans are willing or able to perform? Even if you do think this is a major problem—and I admit that a small portion of the immigrant population consists of criminals and freeloaders—the question is, what do you do about it?

The immigration restrictionists want to erect ever more formidable defenses along our border to keep immigrants out and to send the authorities out to round up and ship home all the illegal immigrants already here. I don’t think either of these approaches is a very realistic solution to the immigration “problem.”

No matter how much more we spend on the Border Patrol or what kind of fences we erect, immigrants will continue to show up in the U.S. as long as the economic opportunities here are so much greater than in the countries south of us. The U.S.-Mexico border is the longest land frontier between a first-world and a third-world country, and it is inevitable that workers will continue to come here in search of opportunity. Since we are not about to authorize a shoot-on-sight policy, nor turn our southern frontier into a Berlin Wall, it seems unlikely that security measures alone will appreciably stem the inflow. Nor is it terribly realistic to expect that we will divert the attention of overstretched police departments to round up millions of illegals already here—most of them gainfully employed.

The obvious solution would seem to be twofold. First, provide more slots for foreigners to move here legally, whether to work in the fields of the Central Valley or the high-tech labs of Silicon Valley. This alone has the potential to reduce dramatically the number of illegal immigrants, allowing law-enforcement agencies to concentrate their resources on that tiny number of wrong-doers—drug smugglers, terrorists, and the like—trying to cross our frontiers illegally. Second, provide a path to citizenship for those who have already come here and are working hard. I have previously suggested one such avenue—service in the military. But there should be others as well.

I suppose this will get me branded as “soft” on illegal immigration. I prefer to think I’m realistic. All the sound and fury from the nativist Right about “illegals” only alienates—much to the political detriment of the Republican party—honest, hard-working Hispanics who are already here, without solving the problem of illegal immigration.

 

 

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What Human-Rights Violations?

On Friday, March 23, Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, gave a speech before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He took the Council stingingly to task:

Six decades ago, in the aftermath of the Nazi horrors, Eleanor Roosevelt, Réné Cassin, and other eminent figures gathered here, on the banks of Lake Geneva, to reaffirm the principle of human dignity. They created the Commission on Human Rights. Today, we ask: What has become of their noble dream?

In this session we see the answer. Faced with compelling reports, from around the world, of torture, persecution, and violence against women, what has the Council pronounced, and what has it decided?

Nothing. Its response has been silence. Its response has been indifference. Its response has been criminal.

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On Friday, March 23, Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, gave a speech before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He took the Council stingingly to task:

Six decades ago, in the aftermath of the Nazi horrors, Eleanor Roosevelt, Réné Cassin, and other eminent figures gathered here, on the banks of Lake Geneva, to reaffirm the principle of human dignity. They created the Commission on Human Rights. Today, we ask: What has become of their noble dream?

In this session we see the answer. Faced with compelling reports, from around the world, of torture, persecution, and violence against women, what has the Council pronounced, and what has it decided?

Nothing. Its response has been silence. Its response has been indifference. Its response has been criminal.

Neuer went on to note the strange fact that the Council, in the face of flagrant abuses of human rights, ranging from the murder by Hamas gunmen of three Palestinian children in Gaza City to the mass rapes and genocide in Darfur, has enacted numerous resolutions condemning Israel—and none condemning any other state. (Joshua Muravchik made a similar observation in this post.)

As shocking as this is, the response of Council president Luis Alfonso de Alba shocks still further:

For the first time in this session I will not express thanks for that statement. I shall point out to the distinguished representative of the organization that just spoke, the distinguished representative of United Nations Watch, if you’d kindly listen to me. I am sorry that I’m not in a position to thank you for your statement. I should mention that I will not tolerate any similar statements in the Council. The way in which members of this Council were referred to, and indeed the way in which the Council itself was referred to, all of this is inadmissible. In the memory of the persons that you referred to, founders of the Human Rights Commission, and for the good of human rights, I would urge you in any future statements to observe some minimum proper conduct and language. Otherwise, any statement you make in similar tones to those used today will be taken out of the records.

This is the first speech ever to be rejected in this way by the Council. Proof, one might argue, of the speech’s truth and value. Read the whole text of Neuer’s speech (and watch it on video) here.

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Discovering Nemirovsky

Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

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Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

She was only twenty-three when she married Michel Epstein, whose origins were Russian and Jewish like hers. Three years later, in 1929, she published her first novel, David Golder. No doubt it is painfully autobiographical: Golder, like her father, has risen from poverty by taking huge financial risks. His name “evoked an old, hardened Jew, who all his life had been hated and feared.” Golder’s friend Soifer, a miser, leaves thirty million francs, “thus fulfilling to the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.” (Nemirovsky drops summary sentences of the kind with terrible simplicity.)

The superficial shame in her depictions of nouveaux-riches Jews might be considered a type of self-hatred, except that Nemirovsky evidently felt pity for them, along with an underlying pride in the way that they dealt with so much contempt from everyone else. Old and hardened Jews do what they have to: they are not allowed a choice. In another early novella, The Ball, she describes Kampf, “a dry small Jew, whose eyes have fire in them,” and the pretentious Madame Kampf, no doubt modelled closely on her own mother. Their daughter wreaks a frightful revenge on them for the sin of social-climbing. And yet, under the savagery of the fiction is a redeeming quality—these people really do love, but don’t know how to show it. In her understanding of the waywardness of the heart, Irène Nemirovsky is the equal of Katherine Mansfield.

After the collapse of France in June 1940, and the installation of the Vichy regime, Irène and Michel were in mortal danger as foreign-born Jews. They hid their small daughters Denise and Elisabeth, but did not themselves try to escape. Instead, Irène’s artistry rose to the drama of the moment, and she wrote Suite Française, a full-length novel that describes the German occupation and the disintegration of France and its society. The novel is so detailed and vivid that it becomes, more or less, a historical document.

The French police came for her in July 1942, and she was murdered in Auschwitz the following month. That November, her husband Michel was also deported and murdered there. The manuscript remained in a suitcase in the possession of the two daughters who for more than sixty years found it too painful to deal with. Its survival and eventual publication was quite outside the bounds of probability.

The role of the artist ultimately is to bear witness. Irène Nemirovsky is in the select company of those who were able to do so in the face of death, thus bringing some hope to others. And how many of those murdered like her, one cannot help wondering, would also have been in that company if only they had been allowed the chance?

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A Muslim Magnet School?

Two weeks ago the New York City Board of Education announced that it would be establishing a new magnet high school to teach Arabic culture and language. A week later, the BOE revealed plans to place the school within an existing elementary school; the resulting hue and cry from concerned parents put an end to that. But the city is set to go ahead with the project as soon as it finds a physical space.

One goal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (for such is the school’s name) is to recruit enough native Arabic speakers to comprise 50 percent of the student body. It seems perverse to take immigrant students, who most need immersion in the language, culture, and values of the United States, and teach them more about the culture from which they came. As leading education historian Diane Ravitch told the New York Sun, “It is not the job of public schools to teach each ethnic group about its history.”

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Two weeks ago the New York City Board of Education announced that it would be establishing a new magnet high school to teach Arabic culture and language. A week later, the BOE revealed plans to place the school within an existing elementary school; the resulting hue and cry from concerned parents put an end to that. But the city is set to go ahead with the project as soon as it finds a physical space.

One goal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (for such is the school’s name) is to recruit enough native Arabic speakers to comprise 50 percent of the student body. It seems perverse to take immigrant students, who most need immersion in the language, culture, and values of the United States, and teach them more about the culture from which they came. As leading education historian Diane Ravitch told the New York Sun, “It is not the job of public schools to teach each ethnic group about its history.”

There is no intrinsic reason that Arabic language and culture should not be taught in city schools, as long as the curriculum can be kept free of political or ideological bias. But there is very little reason to believe that politics and ideology can be kept out of Middle Eastern studies, especially in an educational establishment in love with the ideology of multiculturalism, an establishment to which American cultural unity is a myth. And especially when one looks at the lineup of organizations responsible for the school’s design: the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Salaam Club of New York, and the Arab American Family Support Center of Brooklyn, all committed advocates for their own culture. The leading candidate for principal is a former teacher named Debbie Almontaser, an emigrant from Yemen, who routinely wears a hijab.

As much as supporters claim that there is no politics involved, that has rarely been the case when American curricula have dealt with Middle Eastern or Islamic matters. As the Family Security Foundation recently documented, the educrats tasked with creating these curricula have frequently inserted biased and partisan explanations of the region’s conflicts, out-and-out anti-Semitic slurs, and an uncritical portrayal of Islam into textbooks and approved curricula. (As a practical matter, the people most involved in writing these textbooks, as well as in reviewing them for state Boards of Education, are quite often advocates themselves of militant versions of Islam.)

While this essay cites numerous examples of Islam encroaching on education in the U.S., its assessment of how far this phenomenon has progressed in England (which has no equivalent of a constitutional Establishment Clause, and which has a number of state-subsidized Islamic schools) is truly chilling. Adrian Morgan, the author, points out that many such schools have graduated young men who have had short, inglorious careers as Islamic terrorists, at home and abroad. That fact alone should be a testament to the difficulty of proper oversight in these matters, and it should give the New York City Board of Education pause. The way to prevent the spread of Islamism in the U.S. isn’t to segregate Muslim children socially, but to encourage them to enter the broader cultural conversation that makes up American life. Whatever benefits the Khalil Gibran International Academy may provide, it will leave its students severely deficient in that respect.

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