Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 1, 2011

James Zogby’s AAI: Ros-Lehtinen, Others Like Her Are “Israel-Firsters”

If you type “Israel-Firster” into Google or Bing, the first hit you get is to a Jeffrey Goldberg post tracing how it and other anti-Semitic tropes are entering mainstream anti-Israel discourse. The rest of the top links are to hate sites like davidduke.com, america-hijacked.com, stormfront.org, and waronyou.com, where the dual-loyalty canard gets routine play.

Presumably search engines will soon pick up the most recent use of the phrase, this time courtesy of James Zogby’s Arab American Institute (AAI):

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If you type “Israel-Firster” into Google or Bing, the first hit you get is to a Jeffrey Goldberg post tracing how it and other anti-Semitic tropes are entering mainstream anti-Israel discourse. The rest of the top links are to hate sites like davidduke.com, america-hijacked.com, stormfront.org, and waronyou.com, where the dual-loyalty canard gets routine play.

Presumably search engines will soon pick up the most recent use of the phrase, this time courtesy of James Zogby’s Arab American Institute (AAI):

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was not happy with this legislation, telling Ros-Lehtinen, “There’s no question that when the United States is in debt to the United Nations, when we fail to meet our treaty obligations to pay our assessed contributions, that our influence is diminished, our standing is injured, and our ability to pursue important initiatives that advance U.S. national security and U.S. national interest is gravely undermined.” Whether Israel-Firsters (as MJ Rosenberg calls them) like Ros-Lehtinen will bother to heed Rice’s cautions is doubtful.

The legislation in question is Ros-Lehtinen’s bill to defund the United Nations, should the organization go along with the Palestinians’ Oslo-abrogating concession-pocketing unilateral statehood declaration. Jonathan blogged yesterday the White House opposes the accountability measure for the same “we have to preserve our influence” reasons articulated by Rice.

That we obviously don’t have much influence–inasmuch as we can’t prevent the General Assembly from attacking the last stable and reliable ally we have in the region–seems to be getting less argumentative play than the point might. It’s also not exactly clear how trying to protect a U.S. ally is so detrimental to U.S. interests that it becomes a matter of dual loyalty rather than legitimate debate. But civic deliberation isn’t really what’s at stake here. The goal is to vaguely link supporters of the U.S./Israel relationship to literally ancient anti-Semitic canards, and to erode public debate until those smears become acceptable in polite discourse.

When asked about the incident on Twitter, whoever is behind the Arab American Institute Twitter account responded glibly: “The term is actually that of MJ Rosenberg. If you want to argue that he’s an anti-Semite, good luck with that.”

While it’s true Rosenberg once made John Mearsheimer’s “Good Jews” list, there’s reason to suspect looking to him for a certificate of rhetorical kashrut on this issue will not have the intended anodyne effect. He does not seem like a credible example of someone who trots out “Israel-Firsters” minus its anti-Semitic connotations. His use of the phrase has instead been in the context of railing against the influence of Jewish money, in between paranoia about Israeli warmongering and nudge-wink crossed-out assertions that “Jews control America.” In any case, “Israel-Firster” is not Rosenberg’s phrase, but rather that of anti-Jewish hate groups. He just adopted it, before passing it on to the AAI.

Ros-Lehtinen isn’t technically a Jew, although she often plays one on hate sites. It’d be nonetheless interesting to know what the AAI meant when they said that others “like” her are Israel-Firsters. Women? Floridians? Congresspeople with vaguely Jewish last names? Maybe someone can ask them.

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Breathless AP Report Reveals… NYPD Is Doing its Job

The Associated Press’s Adam Goldman continues his jihad against the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division. Following up on a previous, long article that alleged wrongdoing by the NYPD without providing much evidence of it, Goldman has a second story that essentially restates the alarmist premise of the first installment. Here is what Goldman has to say this time:

The Demographics Unit, a team of 16 officers speaking at least five languages, is the only squad of its kind known to be operating in the country.

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The Associated Press’s Adam Goldman continues his jihad against the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division. Following up on a previous, long article that alleged wrongdoing by the NYPD without providing much evidence of it, Goldman has a second story that essentially restates the alarmist premise of the first installment. Here is what Goldman has to say this time:

The Demographics Unit, a team of 16 officers speaking at least five languages, is the only squad of its kind known to be operating in the country.

Using census information and government databases, the NYPD mapped ethnic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Rakers [i.e. undercover officers] then visited local businesses, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicity and gauge their sentiment, the documents show. They played cricket and eavesdropped in the city’s ethnic cafes and clubs.

When the CIA would launch drone attacks in Pakistan, the NYPD would dispatch rakers to Pakistani neighborhoods to listen for angry rhetoric and anti-American comments, current and former officials involved in the program said.

The rakers were looking for indicators of terrorism and criminal activity, the documents show, but they also kept their eyes peeled for other common neighborhood sites such as religious schools and community centers.

The focus was on a list of 28 countries that, along with “American Black Muslim,” were considered “ancestries of interest.” Nearly all were Muslim countries.

To an average reader this sounds like precisely what the NYPD should be doing. The fact that the NYPD has created a larger cadre of foreign linguists than the FBI–and that it is utilizing those linguists to monitor possible terrorist activity before it explodes in our streets–is very much to its credit.

What, exactly, is the outrage here? That the NYPD is focusing its efforts on immigrants from primarily Muslim countries? Should the Intelligence Division be allocating its scarce resources to monitor Lutheran churches because an al-Qaeda bomber might be hiding among migrants from Minnesota? Or should it be monitoring immigrants from Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries that are hotbeds of anti-Western terrorism? The question answers itself–to anyone except a reporter in a quest for a Pulitzer. If the NYPD were trying to stop abortion-clinic bombings, it might well be advised to infiltrate fundamentalist churches; but if it’s worried about Islamist terrorism–as it should be–then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it should look in Muslim communities.

Based on the evidence presented so far, Goldman will have to try harder if he is to justify the outraged tone of his reports. I doubt many readers will share the hyperbolic reaction of Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat who is so desperate for attention that she absurdly compares the NYPD’s innocuous monitoring activities to the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Where exactly are the New York Gulags where Muslims are being locked up?

My reaction on reading about the NYPD’s activities was to wonder why more law enforcement agencies aren’t doing the same thing. If they did, we would all be safer.

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White House: Unemployment Will Stay Above 9 Percent

The White House’s mid-session review carried some grim news today, projecting that unemployment rates will stay at 9 percent next year with a scaled-back overall economic growth rate. That 9 percent is the key number, because, as ABC News reports, “no president in modern times has won re-election with unemployment as high as 9 percent.”

That may be true, but has any other president been forced to deal with Mideast uncertainty followed by a severe earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by Tea Partiers mucking up the debt ceiling debate in congress? The Obama administration made sure to add this “string of bad luck” into its report, once again:

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The White House’s mid-session review carried some grim news today, projecting that unemployment rates will stay at 9 percent next year with a scaled-back overall economic growth rate. That 9 percent is the key number, because, as ABC News reports, “no president in modern times has won re-election with unemployment as high as 9 percent.”

That may be true, but has any other president been forced to deal with Mideast uncertainty followed by a severe earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by Tea Partiers mucking up the debt ceiling debate in congress? The Obama administration made sure to add this “string of bad luck” into its report, once again:

Second, 2011 has seen drags on the economy in the form of a sharp rise in oil prices, the disruption to global supply chains as a result of the earthquake in Japan, a slowdown of growth in Europe, a sluggish rebound in the housing market, and uncertainty surrounding congressional action on the debt ceiling, all of which have delayed the recovery further. In sum, economic growth and job creation, while positive, have not been strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate to an acceptable level.

It’s not that these issues haven’t had an impact on the economy, but what president doesn’t have to contend with natural disasters, the Middle East, and congressional gridlock? The more Obama rehashes this litany of grievances, the more it sounds like he’s in over his head. There was a way to include these incidents in the review without making it sound like the economic recovery would have been in fine shape if it weren’t for events outside the president’s control.

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The West Needs to Get Priorities Straight in Libya

In the Wall Street Journal today, I warn against declaring victory in Libya and moving on. A lot can still go wrong. Indeed, there are worrying reports from Tripoli and other parts of the country of a vacuum of authority developing. But what really worries me is the hands-off attitude of the international coalition which brought about Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Despite signs of dangerous fractures among the Libyan rebels who ousted Moammar Kadafi, the United States and its European allies have ruled out a significant nation-building role or major infusions of aid to the postwar government in Tripoli.

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In the Wall Street Journal today, I warn against declaring victory in Libya and moving on. A lot can still go wrong. Indeed, there are worrying reports from Tripoli and other parts of the country of a vacuum of authority developing. But what really worries me is the hands-off attitude of the international coalition which brought about Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Despite signs of dangerous fractures among the Libyan rebels who ousted Moammar Kadafi, the United States and its European allies have ruled out a significant nation-building role or major infusions of aid to the postwar government in Tripoli.

The moves toward disengagement reflect the allies’ desire to scale back after a 5 1/2-month air war that strained their militaries and treasuries, and exposed their leaders to criticism at home.

The United States, France and Britain were the leading participants in the NATO campaign. President Obama and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, are especially eager to put the war behind them because of approaching elections.

Instead of focusing on how to stabilize Libya, too many American politicians seem to be fixated on what is in the grand scheme of things a minor issue: the fate of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber who was shamefully released by Scotland and is now back in Libya. Reports are that he is slipping in and out of a coma and is at death’s door. Yet Sen. Chuck Schumer is demanding the U.S. cut off aid to the rebels if they refuse to extradite him. I can understand the emotional impact of this issue, but justice for the victims of Pan Am 103 should not be the top priority at this pivotal point. The priority must be to help Libya emerge as a stable, law-abiding, democratic state–one that will not participate in any acts of terrorism in the future.

Unfortunately, the lackadaisical attitude in Washington, London and Paris toward the post-war phase risks undoing the progress made during the past six months in ridding Libya of Qaddafi’s odious tyranny.

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General Petraeus and the Achievement of Excellence

Yesterday, one of the finest military commanders in American history, General David Petraeus, retired. His new tour of duty will bring him from Kabul, Afghanistan to Langley, Virginia, where he’ll become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

There are many achievements one can point to that demonstrate what a remarkable figure Petraeus is, but here is one: For the first time since the 2003 American war in Iraq, an entire month (August) has passed without a single United States service member dying.

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Yesterday, one of the finest military commanders in American history, General David Petraeus, retired. His new tour of duty will bring him from Kabul, Afghanistan to Langley, Virginia, where he’ll become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

There are many achievements one can point to that demonstrate what a remarkable figure Petraeus is, but here is one: For the first time since the 2003 American war in Iraq, an entire month (August) has passed without a single United States service member dying.

I was in the White House when General Petraeus took over command in Iraq, which was descending into civil war and caught in something close to a death spiral. In America, public support for the war had collapsed. Virtually the entire Democratic Party, including then-Senator Barack Obama, wanted to withdraw, even if it meant an epic defeat for our nation. General Petraeus was the object of libelous attacks (remember “General Betray-Us”?). Republican members of Congress, including Senator Mitch McConnell, were going wobbly. And yet President George W. Bush, facing gale force political winds, embraced what became known as the surge, which led to a remarkable, and remarkably swift, turnaround in the war.

There were many intrepid hearts and hands responsible for the success of the surge, but none were more important than those belonging to David Petraeus. What eventually becomes of Iraq is now largely up to the Iraqis. But the fact that they have a chance to make Iraq a more decent, self-governing society, given the tangle of pathologies afflicting the Arab Middle East, is fairly remarkable. And because al-Qaeda made Iraq the central testing ground in the war on terror and was defeated there, that war “was bin Laden’s great moral undoing,” in the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht.

Having been given command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus was making significant process there as well. (My fear is President Obama’s decision to withdraw more than 30,000 troops by next September, a decision which cut against the recommendations of the entire military command structure, may well undo what has been achieved in Afghanistan during the last two years.)

To see excellence on display in any field of human endeavor is inspiring; but to see it demonstrated on the battlefield, over the course of a lifetime, is ennobling as well. That is what we have been privileged to witness with David Petraeus. He has been the expression of the ethic of the American soldier. And he’s not done yet.

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The “Ethical” Case for the Keystone Pipeline

For the past few days, environmentalists have gathered outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL, a project that would extend the current transportation pipeline for Canadian oil into the U.S. The daily protests have been star-studded events, drawing celebrities from Daryl Hannah to global-warming peddler James Hansen. But today the event was crashed by some unexpected (and probably unwelcome) “supporters.”

The burka-clad women holding pro-OPEC signs are part of a satirical counter-protest staged by EthicalOil.org, a Canadian group that supports the Keystone XL pipeline. The organization argues for Canadian oil sands production from a human-rights perspective, pointing out that buying oil from OPEC countries props up oppressive, autocratic regimes.

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For the past few days, environmentalists have gathered outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL, a project that would extend the current transportation pipeline for Canadian oil into the U.S. The daily protests have been star-studded events, drawing celebrities from Daryl Hannah to global-warming peddler James Hansen. But today the event was crashed by some unexpected (and probably unwelcome) “supporters.”

The burka-clad women holding pro-OPEC signs are part of a satirical counter-protest staged by EthicalOil.org, a Canadian group that supports the Keystone XL pipeline. The organization argues for Canadian oil sands production from a human-rights perspective, pointing out that buying oil from OPEC countries props up oppressive, autocratic regimes.

“The world is going to be using oil for the next few decades at least. So the choice that people, businesses and governments have to make is where do we get that oil from?” EthicalOil.org’s founder Alykhan Velshi told me when I caught up with him after the protest. “And it’s my view and the view of EthicalOil.org that we should be getting that oil from ethical countries like Canada, it’s oil sands and other liberal democracies, as opposed to conflict oil countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela that oppress their people and don’t respect basic human rights.”

It’s a compelling argument, one that was initially made by conservative Canadian commentator Ezra Levant in his book “Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.” Developing alternative energy sources is a worthy endeavor, but we’re not near the point where we can give up oil without serious economic repercussions. So until we can rely on alternative energy sources, Velshi says the ethical option is to get as much oil as possible from democratic countries.

“Oil is a commodity like coffee is a commodity,” he told me. “So you can make it ethically or you can make it unethically. And I see ethical oil from Canada as being like the fair trade choice for oil.”

Velshi describes EthicalOil.org as a “Green Peace for the other side, without the law-breaking,” and the group doesn’t deal in the typical arguments you’d expect from advocates of the oil industry. Instead, Velshi uses terms like “conflict oil” (which comes from oppressive regimes) and “ethical oil alternatives” (which isn’t an energy alternative at all, just a round-about way of describing oil from places like Canada).

Maybe the archetypal “progressive” language is the reason why the group enrages its critics so much. One environmental activist shoved a camera in Velshi’s face at the protest, insisting to know who was funding the group (“Is it AIPAC?” the activist demanded, incongruously). Velshi doesn’t specify outright, but told me that EthicalOil.org won’t accept money from foreign corporations and governments.

That aside, critics of the pipeline might find it hard to ignore EthicalOil’s arguments. There are plenty of reasons to support the Keystone XL – the massive number of jobs it would create is one of them. But there’s no denying we’re still going to have to rely on oil from somewhere for the foreseeable future. And in the end, the less oil money that goes to support autocratic regimes, the better.

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Is Obama’s “Reset” Hurting Russia’s WTO Chances?

One of the unintended consequences of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia is that it seems to have made Russia’s coveted accession to the World Trade Organization even less likely than before. Because Georgia can block Russia from joining the WTO, it has been using that power as a bargaining chip to resolve the border and trade conflicts between the two countries.

One major sticking point, however, is Russia’s refusal to accept Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia–two regions within Georgian borders but which Russia sees as its independent allies (and the subject of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war). In the Obama administration’s rush to “reset” its relationship with Russia, it has stopped asking Russia to respect Georgian sovereignty. This has emboldened Russia, which in turn forced Georgia to dig its heels in further on WTO accession, since it cannot count on the U.S. Bloomberg reports that Russia is left asking the Swiss to coax Georgia back to the table:

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One of the unintended consequences of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia is that it seems to have made Russia’s coveted accession to the World Trade Organization even less likely than before. Because Georgia can block Russia from joining the WTO, it has been using that power as a bargaining chip to resolve the border and trade conflicts between the two countries.

One major sticking point, however, is Russia’s refusal to accept Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia–two regions within Georgian borders but which Russia sees as its independent allies (and the subject of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war). In the Obama administration’s rush to “reset” its relationship with Russia, it has stopped asking Russia to respect Georgian sovereignty. This has emboldened Russia, which in turn forced Georgia to dig its heels in further on WTO accession, since it cannot count on the U.S. Bloomberg reports that Russia is left asking the Swiss to coax Georgia back to the table:

Switzerland, neutral since 1815 and the place both Vladimir Lenin, father of the Russian revolution, and Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn found asylum, has mediated between Russia and Georgia in their WTO negotiations at least four times since March and a further meeting is set for Sept. 12 in Geneva, according to Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadz. The country’s autonomy from blocs such as the European Union and NATO give it added legitimacy in Russia’s eyes.

“Swiss neutrality and non-membership of the EU and NATO are a tremendous advantage because there is no hidden agenda,” said Daniel Warner, assistant director for international relations at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. “There’s nothing in this for them besides prestige.”

That prestige hasn’t moved the process very far. Georgia repeated its (quite reasonable) demands, and Russia responded with trademark bluster:

Russia won’t make any deals with Georgia to win WTO membership, President Dmitry Medvedev — the first Russian head of state to visit Switzerland — said in an Aug. 4 interview with Georgian and Russian broadcasters. “WTO accession is not too high a price to pay here,” he said.

And why should they make a deal? The Obama administration has steadily chipped away at American support for our allies in Russia’s near-abroad, Georgia very much included. Russia no doubt believes time is finally on its side with regard to the WTO. But as long as the U.S. keeps Georgia feeling increasingly isolated, expect the Georgians to keep a tight grip on this one piece of leverage they hold over Russia.

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Not Smart to Compete With Football

There are different metrics by which to judge White House ineptitude, but here’s a sure one: To have the president of the United States, who is politically weakened and a figure with whom the public is increasingly irritated, give a speech to a joint session of Congress on a night that conflicts with a fantastic match up on opening night for America’s most popular sport.

The game between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints not only pits the defending Super Bowl champions against the Super Bowl champions from two years ago; it also pits two of the five best quarterbacks in the league against each other (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees). And the president has to compete against this?

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There are different metrics by which to judge White House ineptitude, but here’s a sure one: To have the president of the United States, who is politically weakened and a figure with whom the public is increasingly irritated, give a speech to a joint session of Congress on a night that conflicts with a fantastic match up on opening night for America’s most popular sport.

The game between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints not only pits the defending Super Bowl champions against the Super Bowl champions from two years ago; it also pits two of the five best quarterbacks in the league against each other (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees). And the president has to compete against this?

This is not what a president coming out of an awful political summer, with a 15 point favorable-unfavorable gap, needs to recover ground. But perhaps this is a (very) well-disguised stroke of genius by David Axelrod. After all, it’s always possible Obama’s call for patent reform will stir and inspire a slumbering and dispirited nation.

 

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The Voice Is Jacob’s Voice

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

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Obama Just Found Media’s Limit

As Alana noted, President Obama has again opened himself up to the claim that he “backed down” from a fight with Republicans–a common theme of the president’s critics on the left. But by trying to schedule a major speech that would conflict with the scheduled Republican debate, Obama may have more to worry about from the press corps than accusations he isn’t tough enough.

At the Washington Post, James Downie reviews the minor kerfuffle blow by blow, and can’t quite believe what he’s seeing:

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As Alana noted, President Obama has again opened himself up to the claim that he “backed down” from a fight with Republicans–a common theme of the president’s critics on the left. But by trying to schedule a major speech that would conflict with the scheduled Republican debate, Obama may have more to worry about from the press corps than accusations he isn’t tough enough.

At the Washington Post, James Downie reviews the minor kerfuffle blow by blow, and can’t quite believe what he’s seeing:

  • If the White House has spent months working to appear above the partisan fray – as they insist they have – then pulling a blatantly partisan stunt like this torpedoes all of that PR work.
  • Pretending the timing was a coincidence has backfired with the press and pundits. Did the White House really think, when it sent Jay Carney to his press briefing, that people would swallow his line that the timing was “coincidental”?
  • In the aftermath of the announcement, the narrative of the afternoon on cable news ran in part that the White House had not cleared the date with the speaker, with some outlets suggesting that Boehner’s office had only been given 15 minutes notice. If true, the White House was disrespectful and should rightly be admonished.

Obama was “blatantly partisan” and “disrespectful”–harsh language coming from the left. But you can understand why Downie is so upset when you look at the second bullet point. There once was a time the president could send his press secretary out to claim the president has “saved or created” this or that number of jobs–a patently ridiculous notion and deeply insulting to the intelligence of the public–and the press would repeat it. More often than not, the media would push the White House’s outrageous accounts of events without casting the shadow of doubt upon them.

As the 2012 election really gets going, Obama is no doubt expecting to be carried as close to the finish line as possible by the media. You can’t really blame him after watching the 2008 election. But Downie is signaling Obama has got to give them something to work with. Reporters are, after all, only human. They have pride, and they resent being insulted on national TV.

Downie also writes the strategy was foolish from the beginning; the scheduling of the speech would have been the story, not the speech, and fewer viewers would have actually tuned in.

If the president was wondering what the media’s limit was, he just found it.

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Obama “Frustrated” with Congress

Some were wondering yesterday why President Obama was calling a joint session of Congress to make his jobs speech, something presidents rarely ever do outside of State of the Union addresses. Based on this campaign email Obama sent out late last night (subject line: “Frustrated”), it’s because he wants to get them all in the same room to express how deeply disappointed he is in them — the ultimate Adult-in-the-Room moment:

Today I asked for a joint session of Congress where I will lay out a clear plan to get Americans back to work. Next week, I will deliver the details of the plan and call on lawmakers to pass it.

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Some were wondering yesterday why President Obama was calling a joint session of Congress to make his jobs speech, something presidents rarely ever do outside of State of the Union addresses. Based on this campaign email Obama sent out late last night (subject line: “Frustrated”), it’s because he wants to get them all in the same room to express how deeply disappointed he is in them — the ultimate Adult-in-the-Room moment:

Today I asked for a joint session of Congress where I will lay out a clear plan to get Americans back to work. Next week, I will deliver the details of the plan and call on lawmakers to pass it.

Whether they will do the job they were elected to do is ultimately up to them.

But both you and I can pressure them to do the right thing. We can send the message that the American people are playing by the rules and meeting their responsibilities — and it’s time for our leaders in Congress to meet theirs.

Forget the fact Obama has done zero to deal with the jobs situation. Apparently, Congress is to blame for failing to pass the myriad of job-creating proposals the president hasn’t even proposed yet:

It’s been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on.

I know that you’re frustrated by that. I am, too.

That’s why I’m putting forward a set of bipartisan proposals to help grow the economy and create jobs — that means strengthening our small businesses, giving needed breaks to middle-class families, while taking responsible steps to bring down our deficit.

I’m asking lawmakers to look past short-term politics and take action on that plan. But we’ve got to do this together.

Obama’s in a tough position with his jobs plan, which is probably why he’s gearing up for a fight so early. Anything he proposes will upset some group he needs for the election. But by preemptively blaming congressional obstructionism, the president doesn’t even need to really fight or campaign for his proposals. As he said in the email, he’s going to simply make the speech and ask Congress to pass it (vague and insufficient as his plan might be). After that, it’s in their hands to hash out.

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A Response to Ron Paul Supporters

Who knew that Representative Ron Paul’s supporters were devoted readers of “Contentions”? It comes as a surprise to me. But based on the slew of e-mails I have received from Paul supporters in reaction to my critical post about him yesterday, they do follow closely what is said about their man.

Most of the e-mails I received, apart from being ad hominem and witless, argued I was wrong to say American “occupation” of Islamic countries couldn’t have been the triggering event for al-Qaeda’s attacks. I wrote, “There was no ‘occupation’ to ground jihadist hate in. We did have a presence in Saudi Arabia, but that hardly qualified as an ‘occupation.’” To which Paul’s supporters replied: We did too occupy Saudi Arabia! And who is the individual they cite as their source on the matter? Why, Osama bin Laden, of course. He insisted it was an occupation, so it was. Q.E.D.

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Who knew that Representative Ron Paul’s supporters were devoted readers of “Contentions”? It comes as a surprise to me. But based on the slew of e-mails I have received from Paul supporters in reaction to my critical post about him yesterday, they do follow closely what is said about their man.

Most of the e-mails I received, apart from being ad hominem and witless, argued I was wrong to say American “occupation” of Islamic countries couldn’t have been the triggering event for al-Qaeda’s attacks. I wrote, “There was no ‘occupation’ to ground jihadist hate in. We did have a presence in Saudi Arabia, but that hardly qualified as an ‘occupation.’” To which Paul’s supporters replied: We did too occupy Saudi Arabia! And who is the individual they cite as their source on the matter? Why, Osama bin Laden, of course. He insisted it was an occupation, so it was. Q.E.D.

Many orthodox Christians believe in something called biblical inerrancy; what Paul’s supporters are indulging in might be called Osama inerrancy. In this case, the equivalent of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are bin Laden’s fatwas. Who knew?

No reasonable person could argue America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s qualified as an “occupation” or, to use Paul’s words, “our invasion
of their land.” That bin Laden and his jihadist allies viewed it as such doesn’t make it so. And for Paul’s supporters to accept bin Laden’s bizarre and twisted interpretation of events as reality tells you just about everything you need to know about them, and about Ron Paul.

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Crisis Averted: Obama Concedes, Moves Speech Date

President Obama’s jobs speech will now take place September 8, the night after the GOP debate and the same time as the Saints-Packers season opener. So unless NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has any complaints, we can all put this gratuitously dramatic late-summer controversy behind us:

 The [White House] press secretary sent a statement Wednesday night urging leaders to focus full attention on the needs of the American public.

“The President is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy, so he welcomes the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8 and challenge our nation’s leaders to start focusing 100 percent of their attention on doing whatever they can to help the American people,” the statement said.

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President Obama’s jobs speech will now take place September 8, the night after the GOP debate and the same time as the Saints-Packers season opener. So unless NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has any complaints, we can all put this gratuitously dramatic late-summer controversy behind us:

 The [White House] press secretary sent a statement Wednesday night urging leaders to focus full attention on the needs of the American public.

“The President is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy, so he welcomes the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8 and challenge our nation’s leaders to start focusing 100 percent of their attention on doing whatever they can to help the American people,” the statement said.

At HotAir, Allahpundit wonders whether Obama “was trying to bait Boehner or some other prominent Republican into getting angry so that he could point to it and run through his tired ‘adult in the room’ shtick.” If that was the plan, Boehner kept his cool and handled the situation well. In the end, Obama likely realized he wasn’t going to win this fight, and took the easy out Boehner gave him. By keeping politics out of his request yesterday, and making legitimate points about security, the House Speaker let the president back down from the September 7 date while still keeping his dignity. Though Obama’s critics on the left probably aren’t going to see it that way.

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