Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 19, 2007

Iraqi Jews

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”).

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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”).

Kattan poignantly offers an eyewitness account of the 1941 anti-Jewish pogroms, which incited a mass exile of Jews from Iraq. During the so-called Farhud or “violent dispossession” of June 1 and 2, 1941, hundreds of Iraqi Jews were murdered. As Kattan related at a 2004 Jewish Book Week event in London, he was twelve years old at the time and

suddenly felt that I was going to be killed. We were sitting on the roof and then we tried to hide and listening to firearms coming closer and closer…. And all that my father could do to protect us, the only thing that he had to protect us, was to recite the psalms. He spent all the night praying and reciting psalms. Fortunately he knew a lot of psalms by heart.

Before this savage violence, despite ambient anti-Semitism, Kattan and his fellow Jews felt at home in Baghdad. An avid filmgoer, Kattan explains that he never went to the movies alone: “As I was a Jew, the young boys of my age, Christians or Muslims, would have attacked me with kicks and slaps.” Still, he recalls exulting in the Arabic films of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1898-1975) who made audiences “throb with joy.”

I myself met Naïm Kattan, a diminutive, mustachioed gentleman, at a 2003 Quebec writer’s conference at the time of the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I recall that Kattan kept silent as other Canadian writers around him expressed their outrage with anti-American tirades. Despite its context of grief and exile, Farewell Babylon has a tone of secure survival, inspired by the faith expressed by Kattan at London’s Jewish Book Week: “The Jews have this kind of difference: it is that they have a Book. Wherever they go they can refer to a Book…. They live by that Book and I hope they will continue to do so.”

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Five Minutes with Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel, a regular contributor to contentions and the author of Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life (2005), sat with us last week to discuss the Republican debates, good books, and the fortunes of the New York Yankees. You can see the interview below.

 

 

Fred Siegel, a regular contributor to contentions and the author of Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life (2005), sat with us last week to discuss the Republican debates, good books, and the fortunes of the New York Yankees. You can see the interview below.

 

 

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I Got My Job Through COMMENTARY

First there was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose COMMENTARY article, “The United States in Opposition,” ended up bringing him to the United Nations. Then there was Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, whose article for this magazine, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” brought her, also, to the United Nations.

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.

First there was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose COMMENTARY article, “The United States in Opposition,” ended up bringing him to the United Nations. Then there was Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, whose article for this magazine, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” brought her, also, to the United Nations.

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.

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Cheapening Free Speech

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.”

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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.”

What ultimately mattered was that a distinguished University lent credence to his views. Columbia’s physics department would never host a speech by a member of the Flat Earth Society, nor should it. People who think the moon landing was a hoax or that the Holocaust never happened have every right to utter and publish these beliefs; they have no “right” to a speaking engagement at an Ivy League School.

This crucial distinction is one that has long been lost on those people who organize events on college campuses. The latest example occurs across the pond at Oxford University, where the Oxford Union—the school’s prestigious debating society that counts leading politicians, journalists, and business leaders as alumnae—has invited a rogue’s gallery to take part in a “Free Speech Forum” set for the end of November. The Union has already been excoriated by critics, as noted on contentions, for staging a debate on the Middle East conflict and loading it with anti-Israel activists.

Among those invited to the “Free Speech Forum” are David Irving (the notorious Holocaust denier), Nick Griffin (the leader of the anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist British National Party), and Alexander Lukoshenko, the dictator of Belarus. The Union’s president told the Guardian that, “The Oxford Union is famous for is commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them.” Indeed, one Oxford Union committee member even used Columbia’s example as a justification for the invite: “If Columbia can invite Ahmadinejad, then why shouldn’t we invite Irving?” Thankfully, Lukoshenko is under a European Union travel ban and will not be able to attend. Unfortunately, both the fascist and the Holocaust denier have indicated their eager anticipation.

The primary outcome of this invitation is the Oxford Union’s discrediting of itself. As with Ahmadinejad at Columbia, there is nothing to be “learned” from engaging in dialogue with fascists and Holocaust-deniers. Oxford students are indeed an “intelligent” bunch: all the more reason that they do not need to spend an evening listening to these men, thus granting them legitimacy. One presumes that the motivating impulse behind Oxford’s “Free Speech Forum” is to present some of the most outlandish views possible. But the purpose of freedom of speech is to elevate discussion and broaden our common understanding, not to promote lies and hate (Griffin’s and Irving’s specialty).

To honor “free speech,” ought not the Oxford Union instead extend invitations to individuals living in countries where the principle is non-existent? Why not invite democracy activists in China or exiled Zimbabwean journalists, of which there is no shortage in the United Kingdom?

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Government Secrets

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.

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.

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