Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 6, 2011

Justice, Poverty and the Presidential Race

“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. But what is the meaning of justice?

Justice has been variously defined as the quality of being impartial and fair, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. It implies integrity in dealing with others and conforming our lives to facts and to truth.

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“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. But what is the meaning of justice?

Justice has been variously defined as the quality of being impartial and fair, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. It implies integrity in dealing with others and conforming our lives to facts and to truth.

But for those of the Jewish and Christian faith, there is another, crucial element to justice. According to Timothy J. Keller, author of Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, according to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the justice (or mishpat) of a society is evaluated by how it treats the widow, the orphan, immigrants, and the poor. “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice,” Keller writes. “God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do
justice.’”

I point this out because as Republicans ramp up their case for the presidency, this broader, Biblical understanding of justice shouldn’t be neglected (as it has been, frankly, during the Obama presidency, when the poor have suffered disproportionately). A distinctive and lasting contribution of Judaism and Christianity is caring for the weak, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy,” David writes in the Psalms. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern,” according to Proverbs. “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me,” Jesus says in Matthew.

At its core is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. These are private concerns for sure, but they are public ones as well. Throughout Scripture, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited.

How this view of justice relates to particular areas of life where the powers of government are involved can be complicated and subtle, involving issues of crime and order; education, family, and the unborn; economic growth and prosperity; foreign assistance and global health. The temptation is that in the midst of our weak and slowing economy, with so many economic hardships being visited on virtually every strata of American society, the needs of those on the margins of society are forgotten. They don’t possess a powerful special interest group, and there simply aren’t that many public figures interested in taking up their case and their cause. But this neglects a vital, even ennobling aspect of politics.

I happen to believe conservatism, properly understood, is the political philosophy that does the most to advance a genuine Biblical understanding of justice. But the public won’t know that unless those carrying the banner of conservatism–including presidential candidates–begin to talk about it.

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Barnes Has to Be Favorite for Booker

Julian Barnes, shortlisted for the fourth time in his three-decade literary career, was among the six finalists for the 2011 Man Booker for Fiction, the prize committee announced earlier today. The Sense of an Ending, his 11th novel, is about four old school friends entering middle age. Barnes’s novel-writing colleague Anita Brookner reviewed it in the Telegraph here. Since he is one of Britain’s most celebrated novelists, Barnes has to be considered the favorite for the prize, even though The Sense of an Ending is a 150-page novella, rather slim for the best novel of the year, even in slim-book-loving England.

My money is on 35-year-old Stephen Kelman, whose Pigeon English is about an immigrant boy from Ghana who finds himself caught up in gang violence in London. Kelman skillfully weaves in sharp-tongued Ghanian slang in a novel that is as much about mastering the English language, and fashioning a distinctive narrative voice, as it is about the marginalization of African immigrants in British culture and society. Kelman revives a style and subject explored to great effect by Colin MacInnes half a century ago.

Two-years-older A. D. Miller was also shortlisted for a first novel. Snowdrops is a crime novel, and when it was nominated for the prize, controversy and celebration broke out in equal measures. Although “genre-bending” is all the rage, the Man Booker follows the parade rather than leading it. Miller is unlikely the win the prize.

Two Canadians, Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues, were both shortlisted for the Booker and longlisted earlier today for the Giller Prize, one of Canada’s top two literary prizes. Veteran 11-book novelist Carol Birch fills out the Booker half-dozen, but another historical novel has to be listed as a long shot only two years after Hilary Mantel won the prize for Wolf Hall.

Julian Barnes, shortlisted for the fourth time in his three-decade literary career, was among the six finalists for the 2011 Man Booker for Fiction, the prize committee announced earlier today. The Sense of an Ending, his 11th novel, is about four old school friends entering middle age. Barnes’s novel-writing colleague Anita Brookner reviewed it in the Telegraph here. Since he is one of Britain’s most celebrated novelists, Barnes has to be considered the favorite for the prize, even though The Sense of an Ending is a 150-page novella, rather slim for the best novel of the year, even in slim-book-loving England.

My money is on 35-year-old Stephen Kelman, whose Pigeon English is about an immigrant boy from Ghana who finds himself caught up in gang violence in London. Kelman skillfully weaves in sharp-tongued Ghanian slang in a novel that is as much about mastering the English language, and fashioning a distinctive narrative voice, as it is about the marginalization of African immigrants in British culture and society. Kelman revives a style and subject explored to great effect by Colin MacInnes half a century ago.

Two-years-older A. D. Miller was also shortlisted for a first novel. Snowdrops is a crime novel, and when it was nominated for the prize, controversy and celebration broke out in equal measures. Although “genre-bending” is all the rage, the Man Booker follows the parade rather than leading it. Miller is unlikely the win the prize.

Two Canadians, Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues, were both shortlisted for the Booker and longlisted earlier today for the Giller Prize, one of Canada’s top two literary prizes. Veteran 11-book novelist Carol Birch fills out the Booker half-dozen, but another historical novel has to be listed as a long shot only two years after Hilary Mantel won the prize for Wolf Hall.

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Koch, Obama and Quoting Saddam Hussein

Mother Jones published its “Secret Koch Brothers Retreat Tape!” this morning, as part of its important investigative series into the Koch Brothers summer fundraising event. So far, the biggest scandal is that Charles Koch may have referred to Obama as “Saddam Hussein”:

“We have Saddam Hussein,” declared billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, apparently referring to President Barack Obama as he welcomed hundreds of wealthy guests to the latest of the secret fundraising and strategy seminars he and his brother host twice a year. The 2012 elections, he warned, will be “the Mother of All Wars.”

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Mother Jones published its “Secret Koch Brothers Retreat Tape!” this morning, as part of its important investigative series into the Koch Brothers summer fundraising event. So far, the biggest scandal is that Charles Koch may have referred to Obama as “Saddam Hussein”:

“We have Saddam Hussein,” declared billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, apparently referring to President Barack Obama as he welcomed hundreds of wealthy guests to the latest of the secret fundraising and strategy seminars he and his brother host twice a year. The 2012 elections, he warned, will be “the Mother of All Wars.”

Liberal blogs predictably flipped out over this, despite yawning through the whole Joe Biden “terrorist” controversy. But Mother Jones seems to have misinterpreted the statement. Koch actually appears to be quoting Saddam Hussein, and Obama isn’t referenced at all, Ben Smith reports:

The word “as” isn’t in the transcript, but as I hear the (ambiguous) line, Koch is quoting Saddam here, not comparing Obama to him. In that version, the quote reads:

“We have, as Saddam Hussein [said] this is the Mother of All Wars,” Koch is quoting Saddam, rather than making a comparison between him and Obama.

Audio recordings are notorious for yielding whatever interpretation the listener expects to hear; an attendee who heard the line as a quote, not a comparison, pointed me to the transcript and the audio.

A spokesperson for Koch Industries also gave a similar explanation to Smith:

To be clear, Mr. Koch was not referring to President Obama in his remarks. The “Mother of All Wars” is a common phrase, frequently attributed to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the first Gulf War. Amid record U.S. unemployment, continued economic decline, and loss of liberty, the U.S. has been plunged into its own “Mother of All Wars.” Our nation’s future will be determined in the coming months by the choices Americans make to address the serious economic issues facing our country.

So the audio, Koch’s spokesperson, and the context of the speech all contradict the Mother Jones interpretation. A correction is probably warranted in this case, especially since other outlets are still picking up the original report. The left usually acts like the Kochs are the biggest threat facing our country, so it’s  interesting this over-hyped scandal was the worst dirt Mother Jones could find at the event.

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President Should Rebuke Hoffa

If you want to know why Jake Tapper is an exceptional (and exceptionally independent-minded) White House reporter, watch him press White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on whether President Obama is willing to rebuke the use of inflammatory and wholly inappropriate rhetoric by Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. (The president will not.)

It’s another embarrassing moment for Carney (there are a fair number of those these days) and highlights how meaningless and deeply cynical the Obama administration’s calls to civility really are. The president has tremendous influence with his allies; if he genuinely cared about the quality of public discourse in America, why wouldn’t he rebuke Hoffa? It would be the right thing to do and lend greater credibility to his civility sermons — including when he calls out conservatives and Republicans for their inappropriate rhetoric (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do from time to time). But in this case, doing the right thing would probably offend the labor movement — and Obama, it seems, is unwilling to do that at any cost. Even at the cost of upholding the civility he claims to care so much about.

 

 

If you want to know why Jake Tapper is an exceptional (and exceptionally independent-minded) White House reporter, watch him press White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on whether President Obama is willing to rebuke the use of inflammatory and wholly inappropriate rhetoric by Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. (The president will not.)

It’s another embarrassing moment for Carney (there are a fair number of those these days) and highlights how meaningless and deeply cynical the Obama administration’s calls to civility really are. The president has tremendous influence with his allies; if he genuinely cared about the quality of public discourse in America, why wouldn’t he rebuke Hoffa? It would be the right thing to do and lend greater credibility to his civility sermons — including when he calls out conservatives and Republicans for their inappropriate rhetoric (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do from time to time). But in this case, doing the right thing would probably offend the labor movement — and Obama, it seems, is unwilling to do that at any cost. Even at the cost of upholding the civility he claims to care so much about.

 

 

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Pollard and the U.S.-Israel Spy Game

As both Omri and Seth have already pointed out, the page one story in today’s New York Times about the wiretapping of the Israeli embassy in Washington raises a host of questions. In addition to the interesting points the two have made, the story also raises the issue of how and why friendly nations engage in this sort of espionage. Even if we take it for granted, as we must, that all governments and even the closest of friends will spy on each other, many Americans will probably be surprised by the zeal with which the FBI has sought to keep tabs on a cherished ally. But any discussion must inevitably turn to the case of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel.

Pollard sympathizers will note, not without some justice, the bugging of the Israeli embassy is a sign of hypocrisy on the part of a U.S. intelligence establishment that continues to block Pollard’s release even though he has already served more than 25 years in prison. But if we want to know why so many in the security apparatus still cling to the notion Israel and its supporters in this country are worthy of suspicion, we must come to grips with the terrible damage Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to both American Jews working in Washington as well as to the alliance between the two nations.

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As both Omri and Seth have already pointed out, the page one story in today’s New York Times about the wiretapping of the Israeli embassy in Washington raises a host of questions. In addition to the interesting points the two have made, the story also raises the issue of how and why friendly nations engage in this sort of espionage. Even if we take it for granted, as we must, that all governments and even the closest of friends will spy on each other, many Americans will probably be surprised by the zeal with which the FBI has sought to keep tabs on a cherished ally. But any discussion must inevitably turn to the case of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel.

Pollard sympathizers will note, not without some justice, the bugging of the Israeli embassy is a sign of hypocrisy on the part of a U.S. intelligence establishment that continues to block Pollard’s release even though he has already served more than 25 years in prison. But if we want to know why so many in the security apparatus still cling to the notion Israel and its supporters in this country are worthy of suspicion, we must come to grips with the terrible damage Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to both American Jews working in Washington as well as to the alliance between the two nations.

As I wrote in the March issue of COMMENTARY, there is a case to be made for mercy for Pollard simply because no other spy for a U.S. ally has ever received a life sentence or anything close to it. Because he has already served so much time in jail, there is no question of him getting off easy, especially because those who have betrayed the United States while working for other allies or even rivals like post-Soviet Russia have been treated more generously.

The problem for advocates for clemency for the spy is–there is another side to this. Though the United States has almost certainly been spying on Israel since the nation’s birth, the impetus for the embassy wiretapping as well as the outrageous and ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of two AIPAC officials in recent years stems in no small part from the belief of some in the U.S. intelligence world Pollard was the tip of the iceberg when it came to Israeli espionage. The idea  there is a second Pollard somewhere inside the government is a white whale security agents have been chasing, even though the existence of such a person is utterly improbable.

Rather than the FBI being embarrassed by the hypocrisy of demanding Pollard die in prison while at the same time going all out to spy on Israel, the security establishment seems to be undaunted in its commitment to treating the Jewish state and its friends in Washington as potential suspects. This distrust of Israel and the pro-Israel community may be rooted in a nasty mix of traditional anti-Semitism and the sort of anti-Zionism popularized by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby. But the strength of this virus can be traced in part to the backlash Pollard’s crime helped create.

It is for this reason it is doubtful the embassy wiretapping will lend much impetus to the forlorn efforts to free Pollard. His unfortunate example will continue to be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth there is a contradiction between American patriotism and concern for the safety of Israel. Both of those involved in the embassy case reported by the Times — convicted leaker Shamai Leibowitz and blogger Richard Silverstein — were vicious critics of Israel whose goal was to delegitimize advocacy for the Jewish state. Far from helping the cause of Pollard, their activities and those of the U.S. government merely illustrate once again the damage the spy did to Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance has long outlived the usefulness of any information he may have passed along.

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Pelosi Gives “Stimulus Plan” Name Change

The 2009 Recovery Act was such a flop, apparently even the term “stimulus” has become politically toxic. That would typically signal it’s time to look at alternative ideas for restarting the economy. But not for Nancy Pelosi, who thinks the stimulus just needs a name change:

Democrats are now being careful to frame their job-creation agenda in language excluding references to any stimulus, even though their favored policies for ending the deepest recession since the Great Depression are largely the same. …

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The 2009 Recovery Act was such a flop, apparently even the term “stimulus” has become politically toxic. That would typically signal it’s time to look at alternative ideas for restarting the economy. But not for Nancy Pelosi, who thinks the stimulus just needs a name change:

Democrats are now being careful to frame their job-creation agenda in language excluding references to any stimulus, even though their favored policies for ending the deepest recession since the Great Depression are largely the same. …

Recognizing the unpopularity of the 2009 package, however, Democratic leaders have revised their message with less loaded language – “job creation” instead of “stimulus” and “Make it in America” in lieu of “Recovery Act” – in hopes of tackling the jobs crisis.

That’s a sharp shift from last year’s messaging strategy, when Pelosi issued hundreds of press releases touting the benefits of the 2009 stimulus bill in hopes of making believers of skeptical voters.

Rebranding old plans is probably one of the left’s favorite pastimes. Apparently, the only reason their ideas are unpopular is because they haven’t come up with a suitable name or marketing strategy yet. Liberals convinced themselves the president’s health care reform plan wasn’t the problem, it was the buzzword “ObamaCare.” And they’re sure the public will be wildly in favor of tax hikes, as long as the term is changed to “revenue increases.”

But renaming the stimulus isn’t going to fool anybody. The public is concerned with the towering federal debt, the fact the previous stimulus failed to produce jobs and excessive government spending. Calling the plan “job creation” instead of “stimulus” won’t hide its price tag – and that’s the part Americans will be focused on.

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“The Pawnbroker” at Fifty

Fifty years ago this week Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was published. While it is customarily described as one of the first American novels to examine the moral and spiritual consequences of the Holocaust, the truth is that Wallant’s novel has been superseded by later fictional accounts that perform the examination with a keener insight derived from deeper historical knowledge. The Pawnbroker is not really a Holocaust novel at all. It is something different. And at least when it comes to the American novel, something better. The Pawnbroker is one of the last examples of a genre that has largely disappeared from American shores — the meaning-making novel, the novel with something to say, the novel with an overt and unembarrassed message.

In a short review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review — the only notice the paper took of the novel — staff writer Morris Gilbert praised Wallant for his “great insight into the wretched world he describes.” But there are really two worlds in The Pawnbroker, and both of them are wretched. Sol Nazerman manages a pawnshop in Harlem, practicing “the ancient, despised profession” of Jewish moneylender. At the age of forty-five, he has neither friends nor heart (“Haven’t you got a heart?” a customer whines, bargaining for more money. “No,” Sol answers. “No heart”). But he is also a scholar and an intellectual, a former professor at the University of Cracow, whose family was murdered by the German Nazis before his eyes. Imprisoned at an unnamed death camp, he was impressed into the Sonderkommandos, although Wallant does not appear to know the term, and is tormented by what becomes of him in the constant presence of death:

The smell of burning flesh entered him, and it was as though he ate the most forbidden food. A great and eternal sickness began in him. The smoke of their bodies was blowing north when this hideous hunger hit him. He lusted for rich meats and heavy pastries, had an insane yearning for wine and coffee. He dug his clawlike fingernails into his thighs to punish himself for not praying to that fleeting, greasy smoke. But all he felt was this great desire for food. And then his lust turned to a hunger of the loins, and he wondered at the monster he was.

Unlike William Styron, who boasted in Sophie’s Choice that he had thoroughly studied the “historical account,” reading books by Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Olga Lengyel, Eugen Kogon, and Bruno Bettelheim before starting his own, Wallant relies only upon his own imagination, aided by conversations with a Holocaust survivor whom he knew personally, to recreate the experiences of a Polish Jew in the camps. Although historical ignorance (or half-learning, in the case of Styron) is a defect in most novelists, it is unexpectedly an advantage for Wallant. He is not trying to fill in the emotional blanks of the historical record. He is trying, quite explicitly, to write a symbolic account.

Nobody could get away with it today. Wallant was writing at a time, though, when historical ignorance of the Holocaust was widespread and unavoidable, except among a few scholars. Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), the only English-language history to date, had been issued by a small publishing house in a small print run (the New York Times did not get around to reviewing it). Raul Hilberg’s comprehensive 700-page Destruction of the European Jews was not published until two months after Wallant’s novel appeared.

Wallant also wrote long before the psychologists’ term of art post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was coined. Nor was the Holocaust, for him, an “incurable wound,” as Edmund Wilson spoke of it in The Wound and the Bow (1941) — a special variety of “morbid psychology,” with the literary treatment, as in Sophocles, “clinical” and “up-to-date in the physical science of his time.” For Wallant, the Holocaust was a mythic, nearly religious event, a sort of reverse Sinai. The Jews at Sinai were terrified by the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; they begged Moses to mediate between God and them, lest they die. The title character of Wallant’s novel has passed through a similar experience: “His memory was screened off, his hopes had long ago been amputated.” Because he had approached too closely to the infinite evil that is the reverse image of God, he had been

cauterized of all abstract things. Reality consisted of the world within one’s sight and smell and hearing. He commemorated nothing; it was the secret of his survival.

His very name is symbolic. Sol Nazerman is a nazir man, a post-Holocaust Nazirite who avoids the intoxicants of modern life, not because he is consecrated to God, but because his experience at the limits of experience has separated him from the mass of men. His pawnshop is a front for a gangster’s money-laundering operation, but Nazerman does not care where his own money comes from. He lives in a large house in Mount Vernon with his sister’s family, who depend upon him for financial support. He is contemptuous of them, and barely less so toward his mistress and her father, who also survived the Holocaust. “How did he get like that?” asks a doctor who comes to treat him. “Some bad accident or what?” “A very bad accident,” Nazerman replies. “Of birth. He was in the camps.”

Nazerman feels neither grief for his wife and children who died in the camps nor pity for the blacks of Harlem who frequent his store, asking for small loans on badly used objects. He is, by his own admission, barely human. He is “like a creature embedded in a plastic block.” Although he is not suicidal, he is not eager to prolong life either: “enough of this,” he says, “too much of this.”

The novel moves relentlessly toward the event that finally shatters Nazerman’s block of plastic. Jesus Ortiz, his black Puerto Rican clerk, who planned to rob him, is shot dead while trying to shield Nazerman from another robber’s bullet:

All his anesthetic numbness left him. He became terrified of the touch of air on the raw wounds. What was this great, agonizing sensitivity and what was it for? Good God, what was all this? Love? Could this be love? . . . Oh no, not love! For whom? All these dark, dirty creatures? They turn my stomach, they sicken me. Oh, this din, this pain and thrashing.

To put it as bluntly as possible, Nazerman is saved by Jesus and is reborn — into conscience, human feeling, responsibility. He phones his nephew Morton, an aimless art student whom Nazerman had scorned, to come take Jesus’s place and learn “the ancient, despised profession.”

The ending is far too neatly symbolic, especially to fifty-years-wiser ears. But that is also part of The Pawnbroker’s distinction and charm. Compared to the ease of flow in many recent novels, whose writers studied in creative writing workshops to polish a verbal surface to a high gloss, Wallant’s novel is stiff and awkward and amateurishly bold. In the second decade of the 21st century, no American novelist would give his characters names like Nazerman and Jesus. A minor character would never look upon the hero and say, “That man suffer!” Religious symbolism is now taboo, direct statement shameful. But as a consequence, you will never again have the experience of reading a novel that is heavily laden with significance, not unless you are willing to read a novel that is at least fifty years old.

Fifty years ago this week Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was published. While it is customarily described as one of the first American novels to examine the moral and spiritual consequences of the Holocaust, the truth is that Wallant’s novel has been superseded by later fictional accounts that perform the examination with a keener insight derived from deeper historical knowledge. The Pawnbroker is not really a Holocaust novel at all. It is something different. And at least when it comes to the American novel, something better. The Pawnbroker is one of the last examples of a genre that has largely disappeared from American shores — the meaning-making novel, the novel with something to say, the novel with an overt and unembarrassed message.

In a short review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review — the only notice the paper took of the novel — staff writer Morris Gilbert praised Wallant for his “great insight into the wretched world he describes.” But there are really two worlds in The Pawnbroker, and both of them are wretched. Sol Nazerman manages a pawnshop in Harlem, practicing “the ancient, despised profession” of Jewish moneylender. At the age of forty-five, he has neither friends nor heart (“Haven’t you got a heart?” a customer whines, bargaining for more money. “No,” Sol answers. “No heart”). But he is also a scholar and an intellectual, a former professor at the University of Cracow, whose family was murdered by the German Nazis before his eyes. Imprisoned at an unnamed death camp, he was impressed into the Sonderkommandos, although Wallant does not appear to know the term, and is tormented by what becomes of him in the constant presence of death:

The smell of burning flesh entered him, and it was as though he ate the most forbidden food. A great and eternal sickness began in him. The smoke of their bodies was blowing north when this hideous hunger hit him. He lusted for rich meats and heavy pastries, had an insane yearning for wine and coffee. He dug his clawlike fingernails into his thighs to punish himself for not praying to that fleeting, greasy smoke. But all he felt was this great desire for food. And then his lust turned to a hunger of the loins, and he wondered at the monster he was.

Unlike William Styron, who boasted in Sophie’s Choice that he had thoroughly studied the “historical account,” reading books by Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Olga Lengyel, Eugen Kogon, and Bruno Bettelheim before starting his own, Wallant relies only upon his own imagination, aided by conversations with a Holocaust survivor whom he knew personally, to recreate the experiences of a Polish Jew in the camps. Although historical ignorance (or half-learning, in the case of Styron) is a defect in most novelists, it is unexpectedly an advantage for Wallant. He is not trying to fill in the emotional blanks of the historical record. He is trying, quite explicitly, to write a symbolic account.

Nobody could get away with it today. Wallant was writing at a time, though, when historical ignorance of the Holocaust was widespread and unavoidable, except among a few scholars. Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), the only English-language history to date, had been issued by a small publishing house in a small print run (the New York Times did not get around to reviewing it). Raul Hilberg’s comprehensive 700-page Destruction of the European Jews was not published until two months after Wallant’s novel appeared.

Wallant also wrote long before the psychologists’ term of art post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was coined. Nor was the Holocaust, for him, an “incurable wound,” as Edmund Wilson spoke of it in The Wound and the Bow (1941) — a special variety of “morbid psychology,” with the literary treatment, as in Sophocles, “clinical” and “up-to-date in the physical science of his time.” For Wallant, the Holocaust was a mythic, nearly religious event, a sort of reverse Sinai. The Jews at Sinai were terrified by the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; they begged Moses to mediate between God and them, lest they die. The title character of Wallant’s novel has passed through a similar experience: “His memory was screened off, his hopes had long ago been amputated.” Because he had approached too closely to the infinite evil that is the reverse image of God, he had been

cauterized of all abstract things. Reality consisted of the world within one’s sight and smell and hearing. He commemorated nothing; it was the secret of his survival.

His very name is symbolic. Sol Nazerman is a nazir man, a post-Holocaust Nazirite who avoids the intoxicants of modern life, not because he is consecrated to God, but because his experience at the limits of experience has separated him from the mass of men. His pawnshop is a front for a gangster’s money-laundering operation, but Nazerman does not care where his own money comes from. He lives in a large house in Mount Vernon with his sister’s family, who depend upon him for financial support. He is contemptuous of them, and barely less so toward his mistress and her father, who also survived the Holocaust. “How did he get like that?” asks a doctor who comes to treat him. “Some bad accident or what?” “A very bad accident,” Nazerman replies. “Of birth. He was in the camps.”

Nazerman feels neither grief for his wife and children who died in the camps nor pity for the blacks of Harlem who frequent his store, asking for small loans on badly used objects. He is, by his own admission, barely human. He is “like a creature embedded in a plastic block.” Although he is not suicidal, he is not eager to prolong life either: “enough of this,” he says, “too much of this.”

The novel moves relentlessly toward the event that finally shatters Nazerman’s block of plastic. Jesus Ortiz, his black Puerto Rican clerk, who planned to rob him, is shot dead while trying to shield Nazerman from another robber’s bullet:

All his anesthetic numbness left him. He became terrified of the touch of air on the raw wounds. What was this great, agonizing sensitivity and what was it for? Good God, what was all this? Love? Could this be love? . . . Oh no, not love! For whom? All these dark, dirty creatures? They turn my stomach, they sicken me. Oh, this din, this pain and thrashing.

To put it as bluntly as possible, Nazerman is saved by Jesus and is reborn — into conscience, human feeling, responsibility. He phones his nephew Morton, an aimless art student whom Nazerman had scorned, to come take Jesus’s place and learn “the ancient, despised profession.”

The ending is far too neatly symbolic, especially to fifty-years-wiser ears. But that is also part of The Pawnbroker’s distinction and charm. Compared to the ease of flow in many recent novels, whose writers studied in creative writing workshops to polish a verbal surface to a high gloss, Wallant’s novel is stiff and awkward and amateurishly bold. In the second decade of the 21st century, no American novelist would give his characters names like Nazerman and Jesus. A minor character would never look upon the hero and say, “That man suffer!” Religious symbolism is now taboo, direct statement shameful. But as a consequence, you will never again have the experience of reading a novel that is heavily laden with significance, not unless you are willing to read a novel that is at least fifty years old.

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Obama is no Reagan or Clinton

For many months it was said by the president’s political team and his supporters that while his ratings were problematic, they drew comfort from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom also faced low ratings in their first terms. In response, many of us patiently pointed out the difference was those low ratings occurred early in the first terms of Reagan and Clinton; that the economy was getting stronger, not weaker, by the summer of their third year; and that the economy (and Obama’s fortunes) were going in exactly the opposite direction from Reagan and Clinton.

Now comes this story  in the Washington Post, which reports on a new poll (which Alana wrote about), showing Obama at a record low for his presidency (43 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s job performance in that poll while 53 percent said they disapprove of Obama, with a staggeringly high 77 percent of Americans saying they believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest percents since Obama took office). And according to Jon Cohen and Dan Balz, “By this time in their presidencies, approval ratings for both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton— who also suffered serious midterm setbacks during their first term — had settled safely above the 50 percent mark. Both then stayed in positive territory throughout their reelection campaigns.”

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For many months it was said by the president’s political team and his supporters that while his ratings were problematic, they drew comfort from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom also faced low ratings in their first terms. In response, many of us patiently pointed out the difference was those low ratings occurred early in the first terms of Reagan and Clinton; that the economy was getting stronger, not weaker, by the summer of their third year; and that the economy (and Obama’s fortunes) were going in exactly the opposite direction from Reagan and Clinton.

Now comes this story  in the Washington Post, which reports on a new poll (which Alana wrote about), showing Obama at a record low for his presidency (43 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s job performance in that poll while 53 percent said they disapprove of Obama, with a staggeringly high 77 percent of Americans saying they believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest percents since Obama took office). And according to Jon Cohen and Dan Balz, “By this time in their presidencies, approval ratings for both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton— who also suffered serious midterm setbacks during their first term — had settled safely above the 50 percent mark. Both then stayed in positive territory throughout their reelection campaigns.”

I met Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. I worked for Ronald Reagan (but not Bill Clinton). And Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. He may not even be Jimmy Carter.

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Gates Slap at Israel Says More About Administration Than Netanyahu

Robert Gates’ tenure as Secretary of Defense will be remembered chiefly for his successful supervision of the surge in Iraq. Yet, as Max Boot pointed out in his valuable article in the September issue of COMMENTARY, some of his farewell comments about our allies and the future of defense policy contained more hyperbole than wisdom. Jeffrey Goldberg added to our understanding of Gates’ flaws in a column in Bloomberg yesterday in which he blasted Israel as an “ungrateful ally.”

Goldberg leads his piece by describing the anger Gates and other administration officials felt when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office about the existential challenges facing his country. But what the author leaves out is this act of impudence took place just days after the president chose to ambush the Israeli by timing a speech aimed at tilting the diplomatic playing field against the Jewish state on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. Far from being the patient, faithful ally who had gone the extra mile for Israel, the Obama administration had once again picked an unnecessary fight. Gates’ resentment of Israel says far more about the self-defeating attitude of this administration that has actually harmed the cause of peace rather than helping it.

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Robert Gates’ tenure as Secretary of Defense will be remembered chiefly for his successful supervision of the surge in Iraq. Yet, as Max Boot pointed out in his valuable article in the September issue of COMMENTARY, some of his farewell comments about our allies and the future of defense policy contained more hyperbole than wisdom. Jeffrey Goldberg added to our understanding of Gates’ flaws in a column in Bloomberg yesterday in which he blasted Israel as an “ungrateful ally.”

Goldberg leads his piece by describing the anger Gates and other administration officials felt when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office about the existential challenges facing his country. But what the author leaves out is this act of impudence took place just days after the president chose to ambush the Israeli by timing a speech aimed at tilting the diplomatic playing field against the Jewish state on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. Far from being the patient, faithful ally who had gone the extra mile for Israel, the Obama administration had once again picked an unnecessary fight. Gates’ resentment of Israel says far more about the self-defeating attitude of this administration that has actually harmed the cause of peace rather than helping it.

As I wrote in my own article on U.S.-Israeli relations in the July/August issue, it would be a misreading of the facts to claim, as some of Obama’s critics do, that his attitude toward Israel has been unremittingly hostile. The strategic alliance between the two countries transcends party and even policy differences. On Gates’ watch at the Pentagon, the level of security cooperation between Israel and the United States was increased and he, and to a lesser extent his boss, deserves credit for this. But this is more of a testimony to the value of that alliance than a sign of Obama’s dedication to Israel. The permanence and strength of this relationship is the work of several administrations. For any president to have sought to curtail or end it — even a far-from-friendly chief executive such as Obama — would have required the expenditure of scarce political capital that would have been derailed by Congress anyway.

Gates’ rage at Netanyahu’s chutzpah in lecturing Obama or over the supposed “insult” to Vice President Biden because of a housing start in an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem in 2010 was merely pique at Netanyahu’s unwillingness to sacrifice his country’s rights and security to suit the whims of an often hostile administration. Though Obama and Gates did not sink the alliance, they seem to believe they were within their rights in trying to undermine the Israeli government and were shocked when Netanyahu refused to roll over for them.

Goldberg fails to mention the strong pushback against Obama’s Middle East policy speech from both parties as well as the rapturous welcome Netanyahu received from a joint meeting of Congress after his impudent public lecture of Obama testified to the fact it was the Israeli, and not the president, who had gotten the better of the exchange. This was not so much a tribute to Netanyahu, who isn’t personally well liked by anyone in Washington, as it was a rebuke to Gates’ boss Obama.

This is supposedly more relevant today, because we are told Obama is about to go to the mat for Israel by vetoing a Palestinian independence resolution at the United Nations. But it needs to be pointed out that doing so is as much a defense of American foreign policy interests as it is of Israel’s. Vetoing the resolution isn’t a gift to Netanyahu. It’s a necessary riposte to a Palestinian effort to evade peace negotiations and to undermine American influence in the Middle East.

Goldberg closes his piece by insinuating Netanyahu’s poor relations with Obama are hurting him at home. But that is an absurd conclusion. Obama is the least liked American president in Israel in a generation, and every fight he has picked with Netanyahu has only strengthened the latter domestically.

Perhaps a more obsequious Israeli leader might have curried more favor with Gates as well as Obama. But Netanyahu’s prime responsibility is the defense of his own country’s interests–not pleasing an American administration that has demonstrated mixed feelings about the alliance with the Jewish state.

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Silence as Ukraine Erases Jewish Heritage

Tom Gross, perhaps the sharpest commentator on Israel, anti-Semitism, and Jewish heritage, had a wonderful piece in, of all places, London’s The Guardian last Friday. Reporting from Lviv, in the Ukraine, he described how Ukrainian authorities are destroying parts of the Golden Rose synagogue complex, one of the last remnants of the city’s Jewish community. Ukraine, after all, needs parking facilities and hotels ahead of its hosting the European football championships.

Ukraine’s own laws are designed to preserve such historic sites. The Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones at fault. Where is the UN cultural organization, UNESCO? The synagogue ruins were designated part of a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998. And where is the European football body, UEFA? The Ukrainians are planning to build a hotel on the site to host next year’s European football championships, the world’s third most-watched sporting event, which they are co-hosting with Poland. So much for UEFA’s much-hyped campaign to “kick racism out of football.”

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Tom Gross, perhaps the sharpest commentator on Israel, anti-Semitism, and Jewish heritage, had a wonderful piece in, of all places, London’s The Guardian last Friday. Reporting from Lviv, in the Ukraine, he described how Ukrainian authorities are destroying parts of the Golden Rose synagogue complex, one of the last remnants of the city’s Jewish community. Ukraine, after all, needs parking facilities and hotels ahead of its hosting the European football championships.

Ukraine’s own laws are designed to preserve such historic sites. The Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones at fault. Where is the UN cultural organization, UNESCO? The synagogue ruins were designated part of a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998. And where is the European football body, UEFA? The Ukrainians are planning to build a hotel on the site to host next year’s European football championships, the world’s third most-watched sporting event, which they are co-hosting with Poland. So much for UEFA’s much-hyped campaign to “kick racism out of football.”

Tom is right. The silence of the international community is deafening. And once again, UN credibility is on the line. If Jewish heritage can be erased with impunity in the Ukraine to make way for a hotel, what kind of message does that send to the Palestinians who might be tempted to erase all vestiges of Jewish presence in lands they control?

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Why Would the FBI Hire Marwan Barghouti’s Lawyer?

The New York Times delves into the details of the recent case of an Israeli-American of dual citizenship, Shamai Leibowitz, who was hired by the FBI to listen in on the Israeli embassy. Leibowitz, once a controversial pro-Palestinian lawyer in Israel before moving to the U.S., then leaked secret information on Israel to a vicious left-wing critic of the Jewish state. While there is nothing particularly surprising about the agent’s assignment–as Omri wrote this morning, the U.S. routinely monitors the communications of foreign embassies–the report leaves me with several questions, such as: Why on earth was a lawyer who represented Marwan Barghouti and compared him to Moses hired by the FBI to monitor Israeli communication?

“According to some lawyers, he should be called a terrorist, but according to Exodus, he is a freedom fighter,” Leibowitz said during Barghouti’s trial in 2002. Barghouti had been charged–and he would be convicted–of murdering two dozen Israelis in a terrorist attack. Barghouti has always been a hero to Palestinians and to far-left activists like Leibowitz and the blogger he leaked to, Richard Silverstein. Obviously, the U.S. has no desire to see the information they glean from monitoring embassy activities leaked to journalists (hence why Leibowitz is being put behind bars). But that makes the decision to hire Leibowitz in the first place quite puzzling, and raises other questions.

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The New York Times delves into the details of the recent case of an Israeli-American of dual citizenship, Shamai Leibowitz, who was hired by the FBI to listen in on the Israeli embassy. Leibowitz, once a controversial pro-Palestinian lawyer in Israel before moving to the U.S., then leaked secret information on Israel to a vicious left-wing critic of the Jewish state. While there is nothing particularly surprising about the agent’s assignment–as Omri wrote this morning, the U.S. routinely monitors the communications of foreign embassies–the report leaves me with several questions, such as: Why on earth was a lawyer who represented Marwan Barghouti and compared him to Moses hired by the FBI to monitor Israeli communication?

“According to some lawyers, he should be called a terrorist, but according to Exodus, he is a freedom fighter,” Leibowitz said during Barghouti’s trial in 2002. Barghouti had been charged–and he would be convicted–of murdering two dozen Israelis in a terrorist attack. Barghouti has always been a hero to Palestinians and to far-left activists like Leibowitz and the blogger he leaked to, Richard Silverstein. Obviously, the U.S. has no desire to see the information they glean from monitoring embassy activities leaked to journalists (hence why Leibowitz is being put behind bars). But that makes the decision to hire Leibowitz in the first place quite puzzling, and raises other questions.

First among those questions is: Wouldn’t Leibowitz’s very public defense of a famous terrorist turn up in any basic background check? As Barghouti’s lawyer, Leibowitz is already in a fairly gray area of American law. As Shayana Kadidal, of the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights, has pointed out, American Supreme Court justices are still figuring out for themselves just how much representation someone can give a known terrorist without running afoul of the law. (Elena Kagan, the latest liberal member to join the court, says you cannot, for example, teach a terrorist how to file an amicus brief.)

Though it is doubtful Leibowitz violated any laws in representing Barghouti, the latter was a leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, a group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department about a decade ago. Does Leibowitz’s support for Barghouti not at least disqualify him from a job with the FBI in which he would have access to highly classified intelligence? Further, could the FBI be sure it could trust Leibowitz’s translations, which is his primary job?

Hiring Leibowitz was clearly a mistake from the beginning, and the mess he made was probably inevitable. We should be glad he didn’t do more damage to U.S. intelligence or the relationship between the two countries before he was caught.

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Where Are Those Urgent Trade Deals?

Since July, Obama has been berating Congress to pass a group of free trade deals, insisting this is one piece of job-promoting legislation that can be initiated “right now.”

But despite Obama’s supposed urgency, the White House still hasn’t sent the agreements to the Hill for a vote. Now that Congress is back in session, Sen. Mitch McConnell wonders why Obama’s continuing to hold up the deals:

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Since July, Obama has been berating Congress to pass a group of free trade deals, insisting this is one piece of job-promoting legislation that can be initiated “right now.”

But despite Obama’s supposed urgency, the White House still hasn’t sent the agreements to the Hill for a vote. Now that Congress is back in session, Sen. Mitch McConnell wonders why Obama’s continuing to hold up the deals:

What’s the real holdup? For three years, the administration has delayed finalizing these deals because unions have been extracting concessions in exchange for their support. Early on, they demanded further concessions and political reforms from our trading partners, all of which have been satisfied. Now, they’re demanding taxpayer funds for worker training programs that many believe are not only duplicative and costly but may not even be effective. Still, I and others have told the president we are prepared to allow this program to move ahead for a vote as a sign of good faith and to move the trade deals forward.

The deals will make it to Congress eventually, but the delay suggests Obama is more consumed with politics than addressing the economic situation. He’s spent the month of August lecturing lawmakers to pass the agreements – likely because it fits in well with his “do-nothing Congress” campaign strategy – but they can’t be implemented until Obama actually submits them.

Even though Republicans have agreed to concessions to placate unions, labor groups still oppose the deals. If McConnell is right, and the hold up is really about the president trying to negotiate an even better deal for the labor unions, then that tells you exactly where his mind is. If Obama ends up pushing for further pro-union concessions, it will only add to the perception he’s more interested in appeasing his base than on passing the same agreements he says will create jobs.

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The End of Land for Peace?

The deteriorating Egyptian-Israeli relationship has produced an interesting side effect: For the first time in 30 years, Israelis are seriously questioning the
wisdom of “land for peace.” Even veteran land-for-peace advocates like former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Makovsky now acknowledge war with Egypt is no longer unthinkable. Recognition is growing that Egypt’s nonstop demands to boost its forces in Sinai threaten the Israeli-Egyptian treaty’s main achievement: the demilitarization of Sinai, which ensured Egypt could never attack Israel by surprise.

Hence Elliot Jager, another erstwhile land-for-peace advocate (and former senior Jerusalem Post editor), warned in Jewish Ideas Daily today that “If the treaty with Egypt must be gutted in order to save it, something may be terribly wrong with the underlying land-for-peace approach.” Guy Bechor, a regular columnist for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, bluntly declared the land-for-peace formula “dead” last week. Even Akiva Eldar of Haaretz, a diehard leftist who still wants an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, admitted despairingly after last month’s cross-border terror attacks from Sinai that “When the border between Israel and Egypt is open to murderers, it’s harder to condemn Israel’s leaders for refusing to utter the words ‘negotiation on the basis of the ’67 borders.’”

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The deteriorating Egyptian-Israeli relationship has produced an interesting side effect: For the first time in 30 years, Israelis are seriously questioning the
wisdom of “land for peace.” Even veteran land-for-peace advocates like former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Makovsky now acknowledge war with Egypt is no longer unthinkable. Recognition is growing that Egypt’s nonstop demands to boost its forces in Sinai threaten the Israeli-Egyptian treaty’s main achievement: the demilitarization of Sinai, which ensured Egypt could never attack Israel by surprise.

Hence Elliot Jager, another erstwhile land-for-peace advocate (and former senior Jerusalem Post editor), warned in Jewish Ideas Daily today that “If the treaty with Egypt must be gutted in order to save it, something may be terribly wrong with the underlying land-for-peace approach.” Guy Bechor, a regular columnist for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, bluntly declared the land-for-peace formula “dead” last week. Even Akiva Eldar of Haaretz, a diehard leftist who still wants an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, admitted despairingly after last month’s cross-border terror attacks from Sinai that “When the border between Israel and Egypt is open to murderers, it’s harder to condemn Israel’s leaders for refusing to utter the words ‘negotiation on the basis of the ’67 borders.’”

As Bechor noted, the land-for-peace approach has several inherent problems. First, it encourages the Arabs to view peace as a concession Israel must pay for rather than something of value to them. Second, it trades an easily-reversed asset (peace) for an almost irreversible one (land), which undermines deterrence: The Arabs can abrogate their side of the bargain without fear of losing the quid pro quo they received. I’d also add a third: It encourages war by making aggression cost-free. After all, the land in question was captured in a defensive war against three Arab states in 1967; agreeing to return every last inch – as Israel did in Sinai and Gaza and is now expected to do in the West Bank – thus sends the message Arabs risk no permanent territorial losses by attacking Israel.

All these evils are obviously compounded when territory is given to people who loathe Israel (as both Egyptians and Palestinians do). Many Westerners seem to think this hostility would disappear if Israel would just “end the occupation.” Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, for instance, asserted in the New York Times last month Egypt’s current hostility stems from “deep popular resentment over the plight of Palestinians,” thus implying it would vanish were this plight alleviated.

There’s only one problem with this theory: As a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes poll found, fully 80 percent of Egyptians think “Palestinians’ rights cannot be taken care of if Israel exists.” In short, their problem isn’t Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank, it’s Israel’s very existence. And 77 percent of Palestinians say the same.

It’s too late to reverse the withdrawal from Sinai, but it’s not too late to avoid repeating the same mistake in the West Bank. Thus, if Egypt’s new hostility awakens Israel to this danger in time, it will prove to have a silver lining.

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Turkey Wants Egypt to Violate Peace Treaty With Israel

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s radical and thuggish prime minister, is again showing his true colors: While sycophantic American diplomats still talk about Turkey as a responsible regional state and even talk of a Turkish model for Arab states which have shaken off their dictators, Erdoğan is quietly encouraging Egypt to violate its peace agreement with Israel.

Erdoğan is soon to travel to Egypt to reprise his imagined role as the neo-Ottoman sultan. After years of bashing Israel and embracing not only the Palestinian cause, but that of Hamas as well, he wants to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s radical and thuggish prime minister, is again showing his true colors: While sycophantic American diplomats still talk about Turkey as a responsible regional state and even talk of a Turkish model for Arab states which have shaken off their dictators, Erdoğan is quietly encouraging Egypt to violate its peace agreement with Israel.

Erdoğan is soon to travel to Egypt to reprise his imagined role as the neo-Ottoman sultan. After years of bashing Israel and embracing not only the Palestinian cause, but that of Hamas as well, he wants to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Turkey’s diplomatic corps, however, is one of the last vestiges of the Turkish civil service which is not directly controlled by Erdoğan. In time-honored fashion, they are leaking like sieves, to undercut the visit. “Erdoğan’s entry to Gaza through the Rafah border crossing would put Egypt in a delicate position, since that would mean violating existing agreements between Israel and Egypt,” said one diplomat.

The question now is whether Erdoğan’s desire to score populist points is greater than Turkey’s respect for Middle East peace and the increasingly shattered legacy of the Camp David Accords.

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Will Turkey Clash With Israel in the Med?

In the wake of the leak of the United Nations report which largely exculpated Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident and confirmed the legality of the blockade against Hamas-controlled territory, the Turkish government has become increasingly bellicose. The Turkish press is reporting the Turkish Navy (largely supplied by the United States) will increase its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. “A more aggressive strategy will be pursued. Israel will no longer be able to exercise its bullying practices freely,” one Turkish diplomat explained. Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States who once quipped about “the final solution,” joined the chorus, posting a fairly threatening tweet as well.

It’s no secret Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political party was behind the ill-fated flotilla, but recent statements suggest the prime minister may now be considering escorting a new flotilla to block the Gaza blockade. The irony that Gazans have greater health and welfare than Turks is an irony that escapes Erdoğan. Turkish bluster is not limited to anti-Israel sentiment. Turkey’s ruling party recognizes that bluster translates into popularity among the fiercely nationalistic Turks. Discussing a dispute with Cyprus over oil drilling, Egemen Bağis, Turkey’s minister for European Union accession (who I last wrote about here), threatened to use the Turkish Navy against Greek Cypriots. “That’s what a navy is for,” he told a Turkish Islamist newspaper last Friday. No wonder Turkey has been so ham-handed in its drive for European Union membership.

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In the wake of the leak of the United Nations report which largely exculpated Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident and confirmed the legality of the blockade against Hamas-controlled territory, the Turkish government has become increasingly bellicose. The Turkish press is reporting the Turkish Navy (largely supplied by the United States) will increase its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. “A more aggressive strategy will be pursued. Israel will no longer be able to exercise its bullying practices freely,” one Turkish diplomat explained. Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States who once quipped about “the final solution,” joined the chorus, posting a fairly threatening tweet as well.

It’s no secret Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political party was behind the ill-fated flotilla, but recent statements suggest the prime minister may now be considering escorting a new flotilla to block the Gaza blockade. The irony that Gazans have greater health and welfare than Turks is an irony that escapes Erdoğan. Turkish bluster is not limited to anti-Israel sentiment. Turkey’s ruling party recognizes that bluster translates into popularity among the fiercely nationalistic Turks. Discussing a dispute with Cyprus over oil drilling, Egemen Bağis, Turkey’s minister for European Union accession (who I last wrote about here), threatened to use the Turkish Navy against Greek Cypriots. “That’s what a navy is for,” he told a Turkish Islamist newspaper last Friday. No wonder Turkey has been so ham-handed in its drive for European Union membership.

The question for American policymakers now is how to balance Turkey’s appetite for weaponry against the increasing likelihood Turkey will use such weapons for offense rather than defense. When it comes to arms sales to Arab countries, the United States guarantees how to balance their legitimate defense needs (against Iran, for example), with Israel’s need to maintain a qualitative military edge. While Turkey is a member of NATO, not every NATO member is entitled to an unlimited arsenal. It may be time for the Congress and the Pentagon to consider Turkey in the same category as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

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Pollsters Agree: Obama’s in Bad Shape

Three new polls are out today, but for President Obama they all say pretty much the same thing: he’s hit a low in his presidency during the same week that he’s set to address the nation’s jobs problem in a speech to a joint session of Congress.

All three polls showed a sharp drop in his job approval ratings. Washington Post-ABC News has Obama at 43 percent, Politico at 45 percent and the Wall Street Journal-NBC at 44 percent.

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Three new polls are out today, but for President Obama they all say pretty much the same thing: he’s hit a low in his presidency during the same week that he’s set to address the nation’s jobs problem in a speech to a joint session of Congress.

All three polls showed a sharp drop in his job approval ratings. Washington Post-ABC News has Obama at 43 percent, Politico at 45 percent and the Wall Street Journal-NBC at 44 percent.

Public pessimism abou the direction of the country and the economy is also at the highest yet, according to the Washington Post-ABC News study:

Public pessimism about the direction of the country has jumped to its highest level in nearly three years, erasing the sense of hope that followed President Obama’s inauguration and pushing his approval ratings to a record low, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

More than 60 percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the economy and, what has become issue No. 1, the stagnant jobs situation. Just 43 percent now approve of the job he is doing overall, a new career low; 53 percent disapprove, a new high.

Meanwhile, only 20 percent of voters believe the country is heading in the right direction, reports Politico:

Capturing a rapid erosion of confidence through the summer months, the poll found 72 percent of voters believe the country is either strongly or somewhat headed in the wrong direction, a jump of 12 percentage points since May. Only 20 percent of voters say the country is going in the right direction, a 12-point drop in the same period.

And the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found the majority of respondents believe the president is facing a long-term setback, which he’s not likely to bounce back from:

When Barack Obama unveils his jobs and economic plan to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, he’ll do so at the lowest point of his presidency, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. …

Perhaps most ominously for Obama, a majority of poll takers — 54 percent — think he’s facing a longer-term setback from which he’s unlikely to recover. Back in January, just 39 percent agreed with that assessment.

Indeed, that 54 percent is virtually identical to George W. Bush’s score on the same question in the Nov. 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which was released just months after Bush’s widely criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s important to remember Obama’s personal popularity still remains high, and there’s certainly still time for his job approval ratings to recover. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton survived periods of low polling and went on to win second terms. But by mid-Fall before their reelection, their approval numbers had risen (and remained) above 50 percent. Whether Obama is able to rebound before that point will probably depend on how his upcoming jobs plan is received by the public.

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Rollins Slinks Away From Bachmann’s Sinking Ship

In her five years in Congress, Michele Bachmann has earned a reputation for high staff turnover. That this pattern is repeating itself in her presidential campaign can’t be considered unexpected, but the loss of two senior aides during the weekend was bad timing to say the least. Coming as it does in the wake of a decline in her standing in the polls that knocked her out of the first tier of GOP candidates, the defection of campaign manager Ed Rollins and his deputy is yet another blow to an already faltering candidacy overshadowed by Rick Perry’s entry in the race.

Given Rollins’ own well-earned reputation as a loose cannon whose propensity for loose lips was often more of a political liability than anything his candidates said, the blame for this resignation probably should not be placed on Bachmann. Having jumped onto Bachmann’s bandwagon just as she was gaining momentum back in the spring, he’s jumping off after her first real setback. This leaves Bachmann scrambling for organizational coherence just at the moment when she seems to be slipping out of contention.

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In her five years in Congress, Michele Bachmann has earned a reputation for high staff turnover. That this pattern is repeating itself in her presidential campaign can’t be considered unexpected, but the loss of two senior aides during the weekend was bad timing to say the least. Coming as it does in the wake of a decline in her standing in the polls that knocked her out of the first tier of GOP candidates, the defection of campaign manager Ed Rollins and his deputy is yet another blow to an already faltering candidacy overshadowed by Rick Perry’s entry in the race.

Given Rollins’ own well-earned reputation as a loose cannon whose propensity for loose lips was often more of a political liability than anything his candidates said, the blame for this resignation probably should not be placed on Bachmann. Having jumped onto Bachmann’s bandwagon just as she was gaining momentum back in the spring, he’s jumping off after her first real setback. This leaves Bachmann scrambling for organizational coherence just at the moment when she seems to be slipping out of contention.

At this time, it doesn’t seem likely any campaign manager could put Bachmann back into the mix with Perry and Mitt Romney. With Perry having effectively stolen Bachmann’s Tea Party constituency out from under her just as she was triumphing in the Iowa Straw Poll, it’s not clear that even a stellar debate performance in California this week or the other upcoming gatherings of GOP candidates will enable her to recapture the magic that made her a star in the early summer.

Bachmann hired Rollins in order to give her campaign some high profile credibility. And there’s no doubt his expertise helped her in Iowa. But Rollins turned out to be unable or unwilling to stick with her for the long haul. The moral of the story is: sometimes a big name in political campaigns is more trouble than it’s worth.

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Wikileaks Bombshell: New Israel Fund Official Endorses End of Jewish State

Two Wikileaks cables from 2010 confirm with stunning accuracy the critique of Israel’s foreign-funded NGO movement that many have been making for years — and they do so from the mouths of the NGO leaders themselves. The cables summarize meetings between U.S. officials and leaders of the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, called ACRI, a flagship NIF project.

In one cable, we learn that leaders of these groups have been telling U.S. officials the Israeli legal system is incapable of investigating claims against the Israeli government and military. In fact, Israel’s judiciary, both civil and military, is among the world’s most independent, and the former president of Israel’s High Court was cited by President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, as a significant role model. Yet advancing claims of judicial indifference to war crimes has become a central ambition of the NGOs, because establishing Israel’s supposed inability to investigate itself would open the door to international prosecutions where verdicts against Israel are foreordained. The credible prospect of such prosecutions would paralyze the IDF — which is exactly the point:

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Two Wikileaks cables from 2010 confirm with stunning accuracy the critique of Israel’s foreign-funded NGO movement that many have been making for years — and they do so from the mouths of the NGO leaders themselves. The cables summarize meetings between U.S. officials and leaders of the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, called ACRI, a flagship NIF project.

In one cable, we learn that leaders of these groups have been telling U.S. officials the Israeli legal system is incapable of investigating claims against the Israeli government and military. In fact, Israel’s judiciary, both civil and military, is among the world’s most independent, and the former president of Israel’s High Court was cited by President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, as a significant role model. Yet advancing claims of judicial indifference to war crimes has become a central ambition of the NGOs, because establishing Israel’s supposed inability to investigate itself would open the door to international prosecutions where verdicts against Israel are foreordained. The credible prospect of such prosecutions would paralyze the IDF — which is exactly the point:

Limor Yehuda of ACRI argued that military police investigations could not resolve the main issues of how Israel conducted the military operation [Operation Cast Lead], including its targeting and policy decisions…she believed only international pressure could influence the GOI [Government of Israel] to create an independent investigation that could hold senior leadership accountable for alleged violations.

And here is Jessica Montell, the head of B’Tselem:

She wanted the highest level decision-makers held accountable for the decisions they made on how to prosecute the conflict, including Military Advocate General (MAG) Mandelblit…Her aim, she said, was to make Israel weigh world opinion and consider whether it could “afford another operation like this.”

What Montell means by that last sentence is frighteningly clear: she wants to create the conditions in which “world opinion” can prevent the IDF from defending Israelis from attack.

Then there is a cable about a draft Knesset bill (since extensively modified) that seeks greater transparency for foreign-funded NGOs:

B’Tselem Director Jessica Montell…estimated her 9 million NIS ($2.4 million) budget is 95 percent funded from abroad, mostly from European countries.

Here Montell is giving credence to what B’Tselem’s critics, such as NGO Monitor, have been saying for years: that the group is essentially an arm of European foreign policy, more interested in condemning Israel than in promoting human rights.

And then there’s the bombshell:

New Israel Fund (NIF) Associate Director in Israel Hedva Radovanitz, who manages grants to 350 NGOs totaling about 18 million dollars per year, [said] that the campaign against the NGOs was due to the “disappearance of the political left wing” in Israel and the lack of domestic constituency for the NGOs. She noted that when she headed ACRI’s Tel Aviv office, ACRI had 5,000 members, while today it has less than 800, and it was only able to muster about 5,000 people to its December human rights march by relying on the active staff of the 120 NGOs that participated.

She commented that she believed that in 100 years Israel would be majority Arab and that the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be the tragedy that Israelis fear since it would become more democratic. [Emphasis added]

The reasoning behind NIF’s multi-million dollar donations to Arab groups such as Adalah and Mada al-Carmel that seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish State suddenly becomes clear: In the words of a high-ranking NIF official, the group believes Zionism itself — that is, Jewish national self-determination — is anti-democratic and should eventually yield to an Arab state where Jews will once again live as a minority. It seems the “New Israel” envisioned by NIF will not be a Jewish state. Has NIF made this clear to its American Jewish donors?

During the past decade, as the New Israel Fund and European governments have funded and fueled the delegitimization war on Israel, critics have argued the NGOs they support have no real constituency in Israel; that they represent foreign interests; that they are funded — all told, the sum is around $100 million per year — almost entirely by foreign foundations and European governments seeking to impose their agendas; that they seek to overturn the democratic choices of the Israeli people; that they foment external pressure and “lawfare” to prevent Israel from protecting herself from threats; and that the groups’ activism is motivated not by the claimed values of human rights and international law, but by varying degrees of anti-Zionism and solidarity with Arab interests and leftist anti-Israel activism.

At every turn, the NGOs have angrily denied these charges and smeared those who made them as being (take your pick) anti-peace, anti-human rights, anti-democracy, or extremist right-wingers attempting to silence dissent.

It is a remarkable moment in this battle to see the NGOs admit in private the same things they slander their critics for saying about them in public.

These revelations should encourage the Israeli government to finally make European funding of anti-Israel NGOs a major point of contention in bilateral relations, and they should encourage greater scrutiny of the New Israel Fund, a philanthropic giant that not only dispenses millions of dollars a year to anti-Israel groups, but creates and helps run the groups through its Shatil organization.

The pro-Israel community can expose the destructive ambitions of NIF and its European collaborators for an eternity. But ultimately, the ability of foreigners to wage a political war on Israel from within Israel’s borders will only be stopped when Israelis and their elected representatives recognize the seriousness of the problem and enact legislation to address it. America passed just such a law in 1938. It’s high time Israel followed suit.

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The President’s Hypocrisy and Cynicism When it Comes to Civility

At a Labor Day rally yesterday, speaking before President Obama, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa repeatedly invoked the metaphor of war, saying the Republicans and the Tea Party has declared war on workers and “there’s only going to be one winner…We’re going to win that war.” And speaking about the Tea Party, Hoffa said, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches out.”

In response, the president delivered powerful and moving remarks, saying, “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” The president, in a show of impressive political courage, rebuked his ally in the labor movement, saying, “Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.” The president then added this: “We can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and … our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.”

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At a Labor Day rally yesterday, speaking before President Obama, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa repeatedly invoked the metaphor of war, saying the Republicans and the Tea Party has declared war on workers and “there’s only going to be one winner…We’re going to win that war.” And speaking about the Tea Party, Hoffa said, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches out.”

In response, the president delivered powerful and moving remarks, saying, “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” The president, in a show of impressive political courage, rebuked his ally in the labor movement, saying, “Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.” The president then added this: “We can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and … our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.”

My apologies; I just made a sloppy mistake. President Obama didn’t say those words in response to Hoffa. Those were the words he spoke earlier this year at the memorial service for those who were killed and wounded by a madman in Tucson. And recall the context. As Jonathan noted earlier, the media, led by the New York Times, was breathlessly and recklessly promoting the story conservatives were responsible for creating a climate of rhetorical hate that created the conditions for the massacre. It didn’t matter the narrative they were advancing had nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

It turns out that the only thing Obama had to say about Hoffa yesterday was that he was “proud” of him. And I’m sure he was. What Hoffa said, of course, is fully in the spirit of the Chicago Way. (According to ABC News, the White House has so far declined to comment on Hoffa’s rhetoric.)

It’s an old story by now: the president speaks out in favor of civility in public discourse when it advances his aims and ambitions. But he’s quite comfortable with violent rhetoric when it serves his political interests and when it’s used by his political allies. There are many ways to describe the character and integrity of a man who follows such an approach — and none of them are terribly impressive or particularly honorable.

 

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New York Times Not Even Bothering to Source Their Anti-Israel Partisans

Last night, the New York Times posted an article purporting to detail how the FBI spies on Israeli officials and on American supporters of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The piece is important, though not for anything having to do with the actual story. The revelation the U.S. government has the Israeli embassy wired isn’t exactly news. Ha’aretz had a better sourced piece with more specifics on the topic last year, and here are a couple of videos of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds talking about spying on AIPAC. At the end of the article, even author Scott Shane described the practice as “taken for granted.”

What’s significant about the article isn’t the scoop, such as it was. What’s striking is that, at least on Israel-related issues, there no longer seem to be any standards as to who counts as a legitimate source for the Paper of Record.

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Last night, the New York Times posted an article purporting to detail how the FBI spies on Israeli officials and on American supporters of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The piece is important, though not for anything having to do with the actual story. The revelation the U.S. government has the Israeli embassy wired isn’t exactly news. Ha’aretz had a better sourced piece with more specifics on the topic last year, and here are a couple of videos of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds talking about spying on AIPAC. At the end of the article, even author Scott Shane described the practice as “taken for granted.”

What’s significant about the article isn’t the scoop, such as it was. What’s striking is that, at least on Israel-related issues, there no longer seem to be any standards as to who counts as a legitimate source for the Paper of Record.

The source for this spying story was blogger Richard Silverstein. His tale involved him receiving classified documents from FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz and then subsequently burning them in his Seattle backyard. Leibowitz was tried for leaking the papers and pleaded guilty, but many surrounding details – including the documents’ content and recipient – remained unknown. The Times story ostensibly cleared the fog by identifying Silverstein as the recipient and letting him describe how the transcripts were wiretaps of Israeli officials.

No doubt the FBI – which once indicted two AIPAC workers for hearing stuff – will be explaining why Silverstein is not currently on trial for obstruction of justice. While everyone’s waiting on that, maybe the Times can explain how functionally single-sourced stories from agenda-driven partisans now qualify as publishable.

Silverstein is an anti-Israel blogger who modestly calls himself the Israeli Julian Assange (Hebrew) and has been accused with some regularity of making up his leaks and intelligence. His blog has years of posts insisting the Israelis are fueling up their jets right now to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, yet there remain Iran’s nuclear facilities, pointedly unbombed.

The bad predictions can be written off as cloak-and-dagger Walter Mitty fantasizing. What can’t be easily dismissed is Silverstein’s admitted antipathy for the Jewish State, a topic that moves him to “sputter[ing] with rage and indignation.” CiF Watch has a fairly comprehensive rundown of that line and some of his other greatest hits. He has declared that listening to news from the Middle East made him feel “like killing [an] Israeli soldier.” He has explained away the Mumbai Chabad House murders as designed “to avenge the suffering of the Palestinians.” He has even gone so far as to deny he can find any “humanity and decency among Israelis.”

Silverstein’s feelings toward Israel’s friends and supporters in the United States are exactly as Walt-and-Mearsheimer-esque as you’d expect: “Likudist advocacy groups and thinktanks,” “proof of scripting and amplification of the Israeli government’s agenda,” “the lobby went into overdrive,” etc. So when he comes to you with unprovable yarns of lobbyists collaborating with congressmen collaborating with Israeli officials, you shouldn’t run the story without sourcing him fully.

Yet the Times did exactly that, offering that while “Mr. Silverstein’s account could not be fully corroborated,” his story “fit the publicly known facts about the case.” Of course it did. It wouldn’t be very useful to invent a story that didn’t fit publicly known facts. Maybe he’s telling the whole truth. Maybe he’s coloring the facts. But not contradicting what everyone already knows is a useless metric. Almost by definition, it simply isn’t a confirmation of anything.

This isn’t an issue of abstract journalism ethics. The Times has not failed just once to adequately source anti-Israel partisans. In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla the paper relied on Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, to convey “passengers were peaceful” propaganda that is now known to be false. The Electronic Intifada has become per the Times a legitimate source that “analyzes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And now there’s this Silverstein thing. It’s almost like they’re not very concerned about the possibility an anti-Israel agenda might seep into their reporting.

We’re entering a month that’s going to be insane even by the unhinged standards of Middle East politics and journalism. Gaza Palestinians are trying to start a war between Egypt and Israel by slaughtering Israeli civilians. West Bank Palestinians seem intent on abrogating the Oslo Accords by seeking a unilateral declaration of statehood. Erdogan is threatening to fulfill his neo-Ottoman fantasies by sailing into Gaza under a Turkish flag of victory. Iran is dispatching its own naval assets into the general area, which will stabilize things not at all, while its proxies in Syria and Lebanon find themselves increasingly isolated. In the center of everything are a bunch of very nervous and well-armed Israelis.

With all the inevitable confusion, it’s important major media outlets not channel the feverish delusions of wide-eyed career Israel haters.

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