Readers may recall a Time magazine article from July, “The Last Jews of Baghdad,” reporting that, in the Iraqi capital, only eight Jews remain of a population that numbered around 150,000 in the 1940’s, before decades of anti-Semitic persecution forced them to flee. This Diaspora is the subject of a moving, deftly written 1975 memoir Farewell Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad by the Baghdad-born Canadian author Naïm Kattan (born 1928). The book is newly reprinted by David Godine Publishers.
In his book, Kattan describes the culture of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community, which produced the Babylonian Talmud. By the modern era it was a teeming, multi-lingual society that was doubtless inspiring to a young writer. One of Kattan’s boyhood friends, described in Farewell, Babylon, was Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), the distinguished anti-Marxist historian (who memorably asserted that Marxism turned the Middle East into a “wilderness of tigers”).
We now take note of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s announcement of new appointments to his department’s Defense Policy Board. One of them is Peter Rodman, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and, before that, an occasional COMMENTARY contributor. He joins, among others already on the board, two other well known writers for the magazine: Aaron Friedberg and James Q. Wilson.
Evidently, the neoconservative crack-up is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, is the Defense Policy Board, under its new chairman, the former Clinton defense adviser John J. Hamre, all that it’s cracked up to be? Bill Gertz in today’s Washington Times takes up that question.
When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.
This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”
Should We Expel the Jews From Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi?
The open-government lobby in Washington is highly influential. From the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the First Amendment Center, and with many stops in between, there are dozens of organizations fighting against government secrecy, even in cases where secrecy is essential for the protection of our national security.
But if some of this is heedless and even mindless, it does not follow that everything the open-government lobby does is bad. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), one of the most influential groups in the lobby, is on the Left–sometimes the far Left–on many issues. FAS posts an immense collection of documents pertaining to national security, some of them open-source material, some of them declassified by the U.S. government, and some of them “declassified” after being published by FAS itself.
Whether such private acts of declassification are a good or bad thing is a subject for another day. But the FAS website, especially its Secrecy News blog run by Steven Aftergood, almost always touches on important subjects and is a daily stop on my tour of the World Wide Web.
In its most recent post, FAS features some open-source material from the American Civil War. The subject is, of all things, “Abraham Lincoln and the Jews.” More specifically, it is Order No. 11, issued by General Ulysses S. Grant on December 17, 1862, expelling all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, where his forces had taken the field. Why did Grant take this action, and what was Lincoln’s response? To find out, click here.