Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 9, 2007

Muzzling Free Speech

What is the meaning of freedom of speech? You might think it means simply the right to say what you want, constrained only by a few common-sense barriers against injuring others. There is, however, another definition of free speech propounded by the likes of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter, and other Israel-bashers. By this definition, freedom of speech consists of their right to say what they want without having to suffer demurral or criticism. They complain that supporters of Israel “stifle debate” by, well, debating with them.

This audacious polemical stratagem now has been elevated to the status of a full-fledged campaign. On the web page of the New Israel Fund, I found MuzzleWatch, its logo a mouth taped shut. This is a blog sponsored by something called Jewish Voice for Peace, a group led by such luminaries of the hard left as Ed Asner and Adrienne Rich.

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What is the meaning of freedom of speech? You might think it means simply the right to say what you want, constrained only by a few common-sense barriers against injuring others. There is, however, another definition of free speech propounded by the likes of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter, and other Israel-bashers. By this definition, freedom of speech consists of their right to say what they want without having to suffer demurral or criticism. They complain that supporters of Israel “stifle debate” by, well, debating with them.

This audacious polemical stratagem now has been elevated to the status of a full-fledged campaign. On the web page of the New Israel Fund, I found MuzzleWatch, its logo a mouth taped shut. This is a blog sponsored by something called Jewish Voice for Peace, a group led by such luminaries of the hard left as Ed Asner and Adrienne Rich.

According to its statement of purpose, “MuzzleWatch is dedicated to creating an open atmosphere for debate about U.S.-Israeli foreign policy by shining a light on incidents that involve pressure, intimidation, and outright censorship of critics of U.S.-Israeli policy.” Among the repressive incidents exposed on the website were a critique of Jimmy Carter by Alan Dershowitz, a jibe at George Soros by the New Republic, and a report on Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International by the group NGO Monitor*. Seen through this warped looking glass, criticism of these individuals or groups amounts to a threat to civil liberties.

Most blogs, like contentions, allow readers to post comments. MuzzleWatch did too—during its first four months of operation. Then it announced that it had “decided to change course and shut down the comments capability of this blog.” This explanation followed:

It seemed clear that there was a need for a space where people could freely debate challenging political issues related to Israel, Palestine, and U.S .foreign policy. Over time, however, the comment boards seem to have drawn in those who communicate in a more polarized fashion, and have chased away people seeking more thoughtful dialogue. . . . Clearly, this experiment in unfettered free speech hasn’t worked.

Now MuzzleWatch posts its opinions without any risk that a reader might attempt to “stifle” or “muzzle” it by expressing a different opinion.

*Originally misidentified.

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Misreading Christopher Hitchens

Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.'”

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Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.'”

Hitchens, as anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Islam will know, is literally correct. But it is the figurative meaning of this contention that so upsets the morally and culturally relativist Silverstein. He writes:

What is misleading about Hitchens’s statement is he neglects that “Islam” connotes the peaceful “surrender” of a believer to the will of God, but not the “surrender” of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam. Such peaceful surrender, which some see as the essence of faith, is a feature of many of the world’s religions. Hitchens is spinning Islam as a religion of violence and domination. So it’s convenient to distort the religion’s name as well. We see here the power of a guileful ideologue used to stir the pot of intolerance and Muslim-bashing.

Leave aside for the moment that Islam, at least to untold millions of its practitioners, most certainly does “connote” the violent “‘surrender’ of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam” in a way that is most certainly not “a feature of many of the world’s religions.” What Hitchens really is getting at—and what Silverstein apparently cannot understand—is that for many Muslims, “surrender” means to abandon one’s reason and belief in common humanity to an ancient and conquering creed. It is for this reason that precious few Muslim-majority states are secular democracies that respect human rights and minority faiths. Alas, this is a truth that Silverstein and the useful idiots at Tikkun will never acknowledge.

* CORRECTION: Richard Silverstein is not associated with Tikkun, but has a blog entitled Tikun Olam. I regret the error. But his views are indistinguishable from those espoused in that publication, and I stand by my contention that he and its editors are “useful idiots.”

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China’s “Nuclear Option”

In the past few days two Chinese officials have threatened to employ the “nuclear option” against the United States: selling dollars and U.S. Treasury obligations to retaliate against possible American legislation. Congress is now considering bills meant to counter Beijing’s tight control of the value of its currency, the renminbi. China possesses somewhere in the vicinity of $1.3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves. Analysts believe that the Chinese government holds about $900 billion in dollar assets.

“I personally believe we have so many foreign exchange reserves that we should be smarter in setting the issues,” said Xia Bin, one of the officials, at the end of July. “It should at least be a bargaining chip in talks.” This is the first time that a senior economic adviser to Beijing publicly has suggested using China’s reserves for political leverage. He Fan, the other official, wrote in the China Daily on Tuesday about Beijing’s causing “a mass depreciation” of the greenback.

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In the past few days two Chinese officials have threatened to employ the “nuclear option” against the United States: selling dollars and U.S. Treasury obligations to retaliate against possible American legislation. Congress is now considering bills meant to counter Beijing’s tight control of the value of its currency, the renminbi. China possesses somewhere in the vicinity of $1.3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves. Analysts believe that the Chinese government holds about $900 billion in dollar assets.

“I personally believe we have so many foreign exchange reserves that we should be smarter in setting the issues,” said Xia Bin, one of the officials, at the end of July. “It should at least be a bargaining chip in talks.” This is the first time that a senior economic adviser to Beijing publicly has suggested using China’s reserves for political leverage. He Fan, the other official, wrote in the China Daily on Tuesday about Beijing’s causing “a mass depreciation” of the greenback.

We should thank Xia and He for revealing the thinking in the inner circles in Beijing. They provide a useful reminder that we need to pay down our debt and rebalance our economic relations with China. Yet let’s not panic and give into the bluster of China’s autocrats. Unfortunately for them, their holding of dollars is not much of a weapon. Imagine the worst-case scenario: Beijing tries to dump all of its dollars in one day. What would happen? The Chinese would have to buy something—say, for example, euros and yen. The values of those currencies would then shoot up through the ceiling. The Europeans and the Japanese, to stabilize their currencies, would then have to buy . . . dollars. In short, there would be a great circular flow of cash in the world’s currency and debt markets.

There would be turmoil in those markets, but it would not last long—two quarters at the most, perhaps even just a few weeks. And we would end up in just the same place that we are now, except that our friends, instead of our adversary, would be holding our debt. Global markets are deep and flexible and can handle just about anything.

Hillary Clinton once said we can’t argue with our Chinese bankers. I think we can.

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New York City Under Attack Again

Three-and-a-half inches of rain fell here yesterday, causing immense chaos and raising once again the question of whether the city is prepared for the possibility of something worse, like six inches of rain, not to mention a major terrorist attack.

One of the critical issues raised by yesterday’s episode is the way information is distributed in a crisis. As I noted after a steam pipe burst in Manhattan on June 18, New Yorkers were left in the dark about the nature of the blast whose plume was visible for miles. The news media did not get on the story for at least an hour, and the city did not have any means of its own by which to address the public.

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Three-and-a-half inches of rain fell here yesterday, causing immense chaos and raising once again the question of whether the city is prepared for the possibility of something worse, like six inches of rain, not to mention a major terrorist attack.

One of the critical issues raised by yesterday’s episode is the way information is distributed in a crisis. As I noted after a steam pipe burst in Manhattan on June 18, New Yorkers were left in the dark about the nature of the blast whose plume was visible for miles. The news media did not get on the story for at least an hour, and the city did not have any means of its own by which to address the public.

Responsibility for yesterday’s disarray—in which most of the city’s subway system was out of commission for half a day—fell on the MTA, a body whose structure is designed to let elected officials escape blame for its failures, but which ultimately is under the control of Governor Spitzer. Whether the subway infrastructure can be fixed so as to avoid recurrent shut-downs is not the central issue. The flow of information—or lack thereof—is.

Yesterday, once again, the authorities were unable to provide information to the public for hours. The MTA’s website was not updated until 11 AM, more than five hours after the storm had passed. At the same time, a lack of bandwidth kept information-hungry commuters from tuning in. Faulty computer equipment is now being blamed, but that was hardly the only deficiency. The New York Times reports that for much of the morning, the MTA’s subway information office “had only one employee on duty; the others were trying to get in.”

Even if the MTA failed abysmally, the city could have stepped in and played a critical role. But Mayor Bloomberg’s much vaunted 311 telephone-information system was also overloaded with callers who could not get through. The lucky ones, like me, who did reach operators were transferred to an MTA number featuring a busy signal. The city’s website, too, was left unchanged; throughout most of the day, it displayed information on alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations.

At this point, one does not expect much of anything from Governor Spitzer, who is both new to office and preoccupied with his self-inflicted political wounds. Mayor Bloomberg is something else. He made billions by finding innovative ways to provide information to those who need it via “Bloomberg boxes.” But the city has either not yet put in place even the most rudimentary emergency-communications tools, or it has not figured out how to activate them in an emergency.

Either way, New York is not remotely prepared to deal with the havoc that could be wreaked by another Muhammad Atta. Before a truly major disaster strikes, the city sorely needs a Bloomberg-box system of its own.

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Endgame for the Jerusalem Symphony?

Last month’s decree by the Jerusalem Regional Court—that the 78 musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) must be paid their salaries until October 14—is a reprieve for the much-beleaguered orchestra. In June, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority cut funding of the JSO from $2.7 to $1.2 million, and the orchestra was expected to disband by July 15. Judge Ezra Kama ruled that the JSO and the Broadcasting Authority must develop a recovery plan for the future. Let’s hope so.

The JSO’s annual budget is about $4.2 million, only one quarter of the annual budget of the Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which is funded in part by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic. The JSO has its own American Friends organization, befitting an ensemble founded 69 years ago.

The IPO (which feted its own 70th anniversary this year) has attracted a series of star conductors from its first concert in 1936 led by Arturo Toscanini, and continuing with William Steinberg, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Paray, and Jean Martinon. Zubin Mehta has been the orchestra’s flamboyant and charismatic Music Director for some 30 years. The IPO has made over 100 recordings with conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Paul Kletzki, Carlo Maria Giulini, and István Kertész.

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Last month’s decree by the Jerusalem Regional Court—that the 78 musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) must be paid their salaries until October 14—is a reprieve for the much-beleaguered orchestra. In June, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority cut funding of the JSO from $2.7 to $1.2 million, and the orchestra was expected to disband by July 15. Judge Ezra Kama ruled that the JSO and the Broadcasting Authority must develop a recovery plan for the future. Let’s hope so.

The JSO’s annual budget is about $4.2 million, only one quarter of the annual budget of the Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which is funded in part by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic. The JSO has its own American Friends organization, befitting an ensemble founded 69 years ago.

The IPO (which feted its own 70th anniversary this year) has attracted a series of star conductors from its first concert in 1936 led by Arturo Toscanini, and continuing with William Steinberg, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Paray, and Jean Martinon. Zubin Mehta has been the orchestra’s flamboyant and charismatic Music Director for some 30 years. The IPO has made over 100 recordings with conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Paul Kletzki, Carlo Maria Giulini, and István Kertész.

The JSO has experienced less glittery (if solid) podium leadership from Americans Lukas Foss and Lawrence Foster, as well as Israeli musicians Mendi Rodan, Gary Bertini, and David Shallon. In 2000, Shallon died unexpectedly of an asthma attack on a musical tour of Japan, dealing a severe blow to the JSO’s future. More recently, the conductor and President of Bard College Leon Botstein has labored for the orchestra’s survival by fundraising and updating the orchestra’s repertoire. The JSO’s U.S. tour last year earned mixed reviews, but its programming of works by Martinů and Prokofiev was refreshing.

The JSO has made few studio recordings of note, yet the doughty small label Doremi has published a series of its live recordings with the pianist Pnina Salzman (1922-2006), who was known as Israel’s First Lady of the Piano, and who had been student of the famed keyboard pedagogues Alfred Cortot and Magda Tagliaferro. Salzman’s lively temperament matches the JSO’s rough and ready enthusiasm in Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” from 1968; d’ Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air for piano & orchestra” from 1973; and Chopin’s “Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante” from 1979.

More than political or financial debates, such concrete examples of performances on CD persuade us of the JSO’s irreplaceability. If the orchestra does fold, Israel will still be left with the IPO, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, and the Rishon LeZion Symphony Orchestra, among others. Yet we cannot help feeling that Jerusalem the Golden would become a trifle tarnished if its orchestra were somehow allowed to fold. Music lovers, wherever they may be, should therefore paraphrase the Psalmist and declare: “If we forget thee, O Jerusalem Symphony, may our CD players lose their cunning…”

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