Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 30, 2007

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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