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Posts For: December 14, 2011

Thomas Friedman and the New Anti-Semitism-Part Two

As I wrote earlier, the latest column from the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is more than just his usual rant about Republicans or his particular bête noire: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By alleging that the support of American politicians, from the Republican presidential candidates to the bipartisan coalition in Congress, has been “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby,” he has slid down the slippery slope from legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the arguments of the state’s friends to a position indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic smears of Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

But Friedman doesn’t stop there. He goes on to enumerate various Israeli sins that should, he thinks, cause American Jews and our leaders to distance themselves from the Jewish state. While Israel, like the United States and any other place on earth is not utopia, neither is its democracy or its basic decency in question. To make such an assertion is not, as Friedman would have it, an expression of friendly concern, but a blow intended to delegitimize both the country and those who are devoted to its survival.

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As I wrote earlier, the latest column from the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is more than just his usual rant about Republicans or his particular bête noire: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By alleging that the support of American politicians, from the Republican presidential candidates to the bipartisan coalition in Congress, has been “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby,” he has slid down the slippery slope from legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the arguments of the state’s friends to a position indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic smears of Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

But Friedman doesn’t stop there. He goes on to enumerate various Israeli sins that should, he thinks, cause American Jews and our leaders to distance themselves from the Jewish state. While Israel, like the United States and any other place on earth is not utopia, neither is its democracy or its basic decency in question. To make such an assertion is not, as Friedman would have it, an expression of friendly concern, but a blow intended to delegitimize both the country and those who are devoted to its survival.

Some of the items he lists are troubling. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s closeness with the Putin regime in Russia is a mistake. But can a small nation that is under siege be blamed if one of its leaders sees the value in maintaining relations with a powerful nation? I think Lieberman is making a terrible mistake, but many Americans, Friedman included, have at times criticized similar opinions or decisions made by our own secretaries of state. Disagreeing with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton isn’t considered a good reason to abandon support for America’s continued existence and security, so why should it be so for Israel?

The violent actions of a tiny band of extremist settlers are also unsettling. But it’s a stretch to say such activities are representative of the Jewish communities in the territories, let alone that of the entire country. It is especially galling to read such copy in a newspaper that did its best to downplay the widespread violence and extremism on display at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations so as to burnish the image of a movement with which the Times clearly sympathized.

Even less credible are Friedman’s citing of ultra-Orthodox attempts to segregate buses in their neighborhoods by gender and the Knesset’s consideration of bills that make it harder for foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to pursue propaganda campaigns that support Israel’s enemies.

The fight over the buses is ongoing, but it is a struggle conducted by competing groups in a democratic society. Though Americans — and most Israelis — have little sympathy for the ultra-Orthodox, let’s understand that any effort to portray an overwhelmingly secular Israeli culture as one that is dominated by the Haredim bears little resemblance to reality. It also bears pointing out that no one at the Times would think of demanding that the Muslim countries that surround Israel abandon the religious customs those states impose on their citizens without, as is the case in Israel, going to the courts or the ballot boxes.

The attempt to skew the debate over the legislation about the NGOs or even efforts to reform a court system (whose power far exceeds that of the United States) as anti-democratic is equally off the mark. The lively debates on these issues that represent efforts to impose some accountability on foreign bodies as well as on an out-of-control judiciary is a sign of a healthy democracy. Those Israelis and Americans who have attempted to argue the contrary are merely engaging in partisan bickering that has little to do with the truth about the Jewish state.

Israel is an imperfect society, but the idea that its imperfections should cause American Jews or Americans in general to back away from it are without substance. More than that, it reflects an urge to judge it by a double standard that would not be applied to our own country or any other. Treating the one Jewish state in this manner is indistinguishable from any other variety of the prejudice that we rightly term anti-Semitic.

It is one thing for open Israel and Jew-haters to speak in this manner. For a writer such as Friedman–who regularly trumpets both his Jewish identity and his wish to be considered a friend of the Jewish state–to use such arguments is evidence of the depths to which opponents of both Israel’s government and its supporters will sink in order to undermine the alliance.

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Thomas Friedman and the New Anti-Semitism-Part One

Though the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman invariably characterizes himself as a friend of Israel, his most recent column illustrates the slippery slope along which critics of the Jewish state invariably slide as they attempt to shout down those with whom they disagree.

In an effort to simultaneously bash Republican supporters of Israel as well as the Israeli government, his frustration with Israel’s enduring popularity has led him to engage in smears more typically associated with fringe intellectuals such as Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. It’s not just that Friedman disdains Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s belief in the U.S.-Israel alliance, but that in order to justify his contempt, he finds himself having to paint Israel as being intrinsically unworthy of any support.

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Though the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman invariably characterizes himself as a friend of Israel, his most recent column illustrates the slippery slope along which critics of the Jewish state invariably slide as they attempt to shout down those with whom they disagree.

In an effort to simultaneously bash Republican supporters of Israel as well as the Israeli government, his frustration with Israel’s enduring popularity has led him to engage in smears more typically associated with fringe intellectuals such as Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. It’s not just that Friedman disdains Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s belief in the U.S.-Israel alliance, but that in order to justify his contempt, he finds himself having to paint Israel as being intrinsically unworthy of any support.

First, Friedman is wrong that Newt Gingrich’s line about the Palestinians being an “invented people” means Israel wants to rule the West Bank indefinitely. Rather, the injection of some truth about the history of the conflict ought to highlight a fact that journalists like Friedman have done so much to ignore: the inextricable link between Palestinian nationalism and a belief in the destruction of Israel. The point that Gingrich and many others have tried to make is that unless and until the Palestinians reinvent their identity and political culture in such a fashion as to drop their desire to extinguish the Jewish state, peace is not possible.

Second, let’s address one of the primary slanders at the heart of his piece: that the standing ovations Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received last spring were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Rather, they were the result of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans–Jew and non-Jew alike–think of Israel as a friend and ally. They, and their representatives in Congress, believe the Jewish state’s security is, contrary to Friedman’s formulation, a vital U.S. interest in the Middle East. It is true, as Friedman says, the applause may not have been a personal endorsement for Netanyahu, but that’s because it was also a stiff rebuke to President Obama’s attempt to ambush the Israeli prior to his visit with his speech about the 1967 lines, whose purpose was to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians.

The notion that the only reason politicians support Israel is because of Jewish money is a central myth of a new form of anti-Semitism which masquerades as a defense of American foreign policy against the depredations of a venal Israel lobby. This canard not only feeds off of the traditional themes of Jew-hatred, it also requires Friedman to ignore the deep roots of American backing for Zionism in our history and culture.

Friedman goes on to embarrass himself by contrasting the reception Netanyahu received on Capitol Hill to the one he might get at a center of leftist academia such as the University of Wisconsin. There’s little doubt he would not be cheered there. But the same would be true of most American politicians or thinkers who deviated from leftist Orthodoxy. The notion that liberal campuses are more representative of opinion about Israel than Congress is laughable. It is the sort of whopper one has come to expect from the liberal chorus on the Times op-ed page and shows Netanyahu may have a better feel for what Americans think than Friedman.

My next post will have more about Friedman’s manipulation of the facts about Israel.

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Paul Ryan Slams Gingrich on Leadership

It’s been months since Newt Gingrich’s “right-wing social engineering” controversy died down, but he’s back to clashing with Rep. Paul Ryan once again. The trouble started when Gingrich made the following comments on Coffee & Markets last week, while discussing Medicare reform:

If there’s a program that is very, very unpopular, should Republicans impose it? And my answer’s no. Reagan ran to be a popular president, not to maximize suicide. I think conservatives have got to understand, you govern over the long run by having the American people think you’re doing a good job and think you’re doing what they want. Now the question is, how do you have creative leadership that achieves the right values in a popular way?

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It’s been months since Newt Gingrich’s “right-wing social engineering” controversy died down, but he’s back to clashing with Rep. Paul Ryan once again. The trouble started when Gingrich made the following comments on Coffee & Markets last week, while discussing Medicare reform:

If there’s a program that is very, very unpopular, should Republicans impose it? And my answer’s no. Reagan ran to be a popular president, not to maximize suicide. I think conservatives have got to understand, you govern over the long run by having the American people think you’re doing a good job and think you’re doing what they want. Now the question is, how do you have creative leadership that achieves the right values in a popular way?

In an interview with NRO’s Bob Costa today, Ryan responded with a scathing attack on Gingrich’s leadership:

“This is not the 1990s,” Ryan says. “The ‘Mediscare’ is not working and we should not back down from this fight. …

“Leaders don’t follow the polls, leaders change the polls,” Ryan says.…

Ryan adds that he is still undecided about whether he will endorse a candidate. But his message to Gingrich and the rest of the field is clear. “Leaders need to go out and change things, speaking to people as adults,” he says. “We should not shy away from this fight, even though we know the Democrats will demagogue us.”

Few would dispute Gingrich’s general point that it’s wrong to impose policies the vast majority of the public opposes. But if the reason they’re unpopular is because of baseless liberal scare tactics, then politicians can’t shy away from making the case. Instead of doing that, Gingrich is basically ceding the game to the other team. It shows that, in Gingrich’s mind, holding onto power trumps real reform. And it also reveals a condescending attitude toward the general public.

Ryan’s criticism of Gingrich will likely draw blood, especially if this Evolving Strategies study is any indication. According to the poll, Gingrich is extremely susceptible to negative attacks on his conservative credentials:

Gingrich’s support is “decimated” when voters are exposed to just one negative ad, said polling firm Evolving Strategies.

“The percentage of respondents picking Gingrich as their first choice in the primary falls more than 15 points, from 42 to 26 percent,” they said.

In Romney’s case, negative and positive ads shown to voters seem to move the needle very little. The pollsters say that voter’s views of Romney are “priced in,” thus negative ads don’t sting as much for him as they do Gingrich, the newest Republican to challenge Romney for the nomination.

Gingrich recently pledged to avoid using negative attacks on his opponents, which means he’s pretty much locked into that promise. But if Gingrich hoped that would force Romney to also denounce negative advertising, he was sadly mistaken. Romney released yet another brutal ad against the former Speaker today, and this one features a quote at the end from Paul Ryan. It shouldn’t be long before Ryan’s latest comments about Gingrich’s leadership pop up in another attack video.

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Egypt’s Spiteful Boycott of Israel

Egypt’s interim prime minister literally broke into tears over the weekend trying to convey just how bad the country’s economy has gotten. Not a small part of that economic crisis is grounded in Egypt’s spiteful economic campaign against Israel, which has seen Cairo sever most of its industrial and agriculture ties with Jerusalem:

[Israeli] officials, sounding cool, noted that there were precious few relations left to break, since Egypt had long been severing ties to punish Israel for refusing to yield to the Palestinians in the peace process. Egyptian-Israeli agricultural schemes long ago ground to a halt. Factories with Israeli links that had profited from tariff-free exports to the United States have shut. Since Egypt’s revolution began in January, Israeli tourists have virtually stopped coming. This year Egyptian militants have blown up a pipeline pumping Egyptian gas to Israel nine times.

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Egypt’s interim prime minister literally broke into tears over the weekend trying to convey just how bad the country’s economy has gotten. Not a small part of that economic crisis is grounded in Egypt’s spiteful economic campaign against Israel, which has seen Cairo sever most of its industrial and agriculture ties with Jerusalem:

[Israeli] officials, sounding cool, noted that there were precious few relations left to break, since Egypt had long been severing ties to punish Israel for refusing to yield to the Palestinians in the peace process. Egyptian-Israeli agricultural schemes long ago ground to a halt. Factories with Israeli links that had profited from tariff-free exports to the United States have shut. Since Egypt’s revolution began in January, Israeli tourists have virtually stopped coming. This year Egyptian militants have blown up a pipeline pumping Egyptian gas to Israel nine times.

Despite facing an economic downturn of generational proportions, the Egyptian government even banned palm frond exports ahead of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot this year. The fronds are ceremonially necessary during the holiday, and Israel used to import 700,000 per year from Egypt. Not in 2011.

Just in case there are any agricultural ties left, by the by, Minister of Agriculture Mohamed Reda Ismail wants you to know he’ll be eliminating them. During a recent public discussion on the potential harms of pesticides, he took a detour to assure Egyptians that “if I knew [of any] Israeli experts working in the agricultural field in Egypt, I will fire them immediately” (Arabic; Google Translate).

Israel is of course a global leader in agricultural innovation but – again – the Egyptian government has its priorities. Petulant anti-Israel campaigning first. Feeding Egyptians second.

The last Egyptian minister of Agriculture scapegoated Israel for the E. Coli-infected Egyptian farm exports that killed 48 Germans and a Swede. The current one is willing to give up on growing more food so he can indulge in Israel-bashing. And the next one is likely to be an out-and-out Islamist.

I’m beginning to worry that things in Egypt aren’t getting better.

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Brzezinski’s Bizarro World

In today’s Wall Street Journal, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski unspools a crystalline specimen of logical contradiction. Writing about America’s China policy and U.S. grand strategy in general, Brzezinski first admonishes:

“To have the credibility and the capacity to act effectively in both the western and eastern parts of Eurasia, the U.S. must show the world that it has the will to reform itself at home. Americans must place greater emphasis on the more subtle dimensions of national power, such as innovation and education.”

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In today’s Wall Street Journal, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski unspools a crystalline specimen of logical contradiction. Writing about America’s China policy and U.S. grand strategy in general, Brzezinski first admonishes:

“To have the credibility and the capacity to act effectively in both the western and eastern parts of Eurasia, the U.S. must show the world that it has the will to reform itself at home. Americans must place greater emphasis on the more subtle dimensions of national power, such as innovation and education.”

So when American kids do better in school, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan will be more cooperative. Until then, they’re going to cause trouble. Good to know. Let’s move on.

Later in the piece, Brzezinski recommends the U.S. form a “deepening geopolitical community of interest” with Russia (and Turkey) even though Russia has not experienced a “comprehensive law-based democratic transformation compatible with both EU and NATO standards” and even without Turkey making it into the EU. At the same time, we should be “accommodating China’s rising global status” and “should respect China’s special historic and geopolitical role.”

To recap: The United States, backward and declining country that it is, must make domestic improvements before it has “credibility” with Russia and Turkey. Yet, America must not let its own nit-picking judgments about the domestic affairs of those two beacons of light—and a magnificent China—deter us from affording them the respect and courtesy of equals.

In a final paradox, this is called foreign-policy “realism”: the doctrine according to which the domestic policies of autocracies are irrelevant to Washington, but the Internet bandwidth and homework loads of Americans are crucially important to the foreign policy pliability of Communists and Islamists.

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Obama: Please Give My Drone Back

I am agnostic on whether President Obama should have launched a military mission to recover or destroy an RQ-170 Stealth drone that went down in Iran. Much depends on the tactical intelligence picture which no outsider can judge accurately: How far away from substantial Iranian military forces did the drone crash? What were the odds of getting an extraction mission in and out undetected? Could an airstrike be launched without convincing the Iranians that a major war was breaking out? Etc. I don’t know the right answer to those questions, so I will withhold judgment.

I am pretty sure, however, that the president’s request the Iranians return the drone was dopey and humiliating. Especially because there was no “or else” appended to the demand.

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I am agnostic on whether President Obama should have launched a military mission to recover or destroy an RQ-170 Stealth drone that went down in Iran. Much depends on the tactical intelligence picture which no outsider can judge accurately: How far away from substantial Iranian military forces did the drone crash? What were the odds of getting an extraction mission in and out undetected? Could an airstrike be launched without convincing the Iranians that a major war was breaking out? Etc. I don’t know the right answer to those questions, so I will withhold judgment.

I am pretty sure, however, that the president’s request the Iranians return the drone was dopey and humiliating. Especially because there was no “or else” appended to the demand.

Predictably, the Iranians are making propaganda fodder out of the president’s request.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman is demanding the U.S. apologize for violating Iranian airspace while the semi-official Fars News Agency has a headline crowing: “Obama Begs Iran to Give Him Back His Toy Plane.”

Who, I wonder, at the NSC and/or the State Department and Department of Defense thought it was a good idea to come crawling on our knees to the Iranians for the return of our spy drone? This is a relatively minor misstep, but it is sadly emblematic of our confused approach toward the Islamic republic.

 

 

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The “Do-Nothing” Senate?

All of President Obama’s denunciations of the “do-nothing Congress” and fiery appeals for lawmakers to “pass this jobs bill now” may be blowing up in his face. Yesterday, the House approved one of the key pieces of Obama’s jobs bill, but also inserted a provision that would greenlight the Keystone XL pipeline construction. Now it’s the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama (who vowed to veto the legislation if its passed) standing in the way of the jobs bill:

Defiant Republicans pushed legislation through the House Tuesday night that would keep alive Social Security payroll tax cuts for some 160 million Americans at President Barack Obama’s request — but also would require construction of a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that has sparked a White House veto threat.

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All of President Obama’s denunciations of the “do-nothing Congress” and fiery appeals for lawmakers to “pass this jobs bill now” may be blowing up in his face. Yesterday, the House approved one of the key pieces of Obama’s jobs bill, but also inserted a provision that would greenlight the Keystone XL pipeline construction. Now it’s the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama (who vowed to veto the legislation if its passed) standing in the way of the jobs bill:

Defiant Republicans pushed legislation through the House Tuesday night that would keep alive Social Security payroll tax cuts for some 160 million Americans at President Barack Obama’s request — but also would require construction of a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that has sparked a White House veto threat.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already warned Republicans that the bill has no shot in the Senate. It passed on a party-line vote in the House, with only 10 Democratic members supporting it after it had already cleared the bar.

Sure, the move is purely political. But so was Obama’s choice to delay a decision on the Keystone XL until after the election. Plus, the payroll tax cut continuation bill may not have received as much Republican support as it did if it hadn’t included the Keystone provision:

Highlighting the confrontation with Obama over the Keystone pipeline, [House Speaker John] Boehner has been able to win over conservatives who were initially opposed to the president’s push to extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits. In addition to the Keystone provision, Republicans included measures delaying environmental regulations, limiting the duration of jobless benefits and restricting benefits for illegal immigrants, among other sweeteners. They proposed to offset the cost of the bill in part by extending a federal-worker pay freeze and reducing certain Medicare benefits for the wealthy.

Senate Republicans blocked a quick vote on the legislation today, arguing that Reid and Boehner should work out the differences. Senate Republicans are trying to pressure Democrats to focus on passing a spending bill to keep the government running, but Democrats are reportedly withholding their support until the payroll tax cut continuation goes through.

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Tom Friedman’s 14-Year-Old Losing Streak

Yesterday’s New York Times diatribe by Thomas Friedman is being blasted for declaring that the United States Congress is “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman contrasted the strong support that Israel receives from the American political establishment with what he insisted is declining support from American Jewry, the latter being the result of Israeli domestic and foreign policy.

And while it’s important to underline the deep unseemliness of Friedman’s implicit dual loyalty canard – a smear that has become distressingly commonplace in left-wing anti-Israel discourse – let’s also take some time to appreciate the near-comical fidelity with which he toes the “Jews are abandoning Israel” line. Here is Friedman yesterday:

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Yesterday’s New York Times diatribe by Thomas Friedman is being blasted for declaring that the United States Congress is “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman contrasted the strong support that Israel receives from the American political establishment with what he insisted is declining support from American Jewry, the latter being the result of Israeli domestic and foreign policy.

And while it’s important to underline the deep unseemliness of Friedman’s implicit dual loyalty canard – a smear that has become distressingly commonplace in left-wing anti-Israel discourse – let’s also take some time to appreciate the near-comical fidelity with which he toes the “Jews are abandoning Israel” line. Here is Friedman yesterday:

I’d never claim to speak for American Jews, but I’m certain there are many out there like me, who strongly believe in the right of the Jewish people to a state, who understand that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood yet remains a democracy, but who are deeply worried about where Israel is going today. My guess is we’re the minority when it comes to secular American Jews. We still care. Many other Jews are just drifting away.

Here is Friedman on October 09, 1997. I’ve ellipsed out the names of President Clinton, Palestinian President Arafat, and then-Conference of Presidents Chairman Melvin Salberg, the effect being to make Friedman’s 14-year-old passage literally identical to what anti-Israel partisans are writing today:

I cannot recall a time of greater disquiet among mainstream American Jews over the drift of events in Israel. It’s for the same reason many Israelis are distressed — the dashed hopes of the Oslo peace process, combined with the rising tension between religious and non-religious Jews, all happening under an Israeli leadership that has more in common with Larry, Moe and Curly than with David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. Both in Israel and in the U.S. there is a deepening concern that Israel today is led by people who have no clear vision and no courage to stand up to the religious and political extremists bent on driving Israel over a cliff… The White House knows there’s a new mood out there among American Jews… [the] chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told [the] President Monday that American Jews want the President to press both [the Palestinian President] and Benjamin Netanyahu to do what’s needed to restore the peace process, and then let the two of them negotiate a settlement.

There’s a much longer post to be written about the Alienation Thesis, the two-pronged claim that American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel and that the estrangement is driven by Israeli policies. Matthew Ackerman debunked the latter, causal claim a few months ago, and Jonathan Tobin did the same for the former, empirical claim over the summer. But it keeps getting unblinkingly repeated in articles like Friedman’s, and it was a critical pivot in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent dust-up with Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The thesis wasn’t true 14 years ago and it isn’t true now, but– again–it’s obviously going to take more data to put the claim to bed.

In the meantime, there’s a legitimate debate about the source of Friedman’s deepening venom toward Israel’s American supporters. One theory holds that it’s driven by sheer frustration: “Why won’t American Jews do what I said they were going to do?” The other theory suggests it’s a kind of paranoid rationalization: “American Jews did do what I said they were going to do, but the lobby is obfuscating the evidence by controlling Congress.” Clearly there are arguments to be made on both sides.

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Paul Could Burst the Gingrich Bubble

The exchange of barbs between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the last few days has understandably garnered most of the attention in the Republican presidential race. It’s not clear whether or not Romney’s attacks on Gingrich are going to hurt the former Speaker. Nor do we know yet whether Gingrich’s ill-conceived blast at Romney’s business career in which he seemed to take a shot at capitalism as much as at Bain Capital will damage either of them. But perhaps instead of worrying so much about Romney, Gingrich needs to pay more attention to the real threat to his presidential ambitions: Ron Paul.

That is not to say the libertarian is in any danger of becoming the Republican nominee. He’s not. Paul represents a marginal extremist faction and has no chance outside of a caucus state like Iowa, where he might win a tiny plurality in a multi-candidate race. But the danger to Gingrich is that a victory by Paul, who is now placing second in most polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, would put an end to the Speaker’s surge and give the faltering Romney new hope.

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The exchange of barbs between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the last few days has understandably garnered most of the attention in the Republican presidential race. It’s not clear whether or not Romney’s attacks on Gingrich are going to hurt the former Speaker. Nor do we know yet whether Gingrich’s ill-conceived blast at Romney’s business career in which he seemed to take a shot at capitalism as much as at Bain Capital will damage either of them. But perhaps instead of worrying so much about Romney, Gingrich needs to pay more attention to the real threat to his presidential ambitions: Ron Paul.

That is not to say the libertarian is in any danger of becoming the Republican nominee. He’s not. Paul represents a marginal extremist faction and has no chance outside of a caucus state like Iowa, where he might win a tiny plurality in a multi-candidate race. But the danger to Gingrich is that a victory by Paul, who is now placing second in most polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, would put an end to the Speaker’s surge and give the faltering Romney new hope.

It’s difficult to assess the accuracy of these polls, but there is little question that if no candidate can manage to get more than a quarter of the vote, then Paul has a reasonable chance to finish first. The New York Times political statistical guru Nate Silver believes there is a 28.2 percent probability of a Paul win in Iowa against 49.6 percent for Gingrich and 10.6 percent for Romney to win. While I still think Silver’s grasp of baseball stats is stronger than his predictive powers for politics, he may be right about Paul.

But the consequences of Paul squeaking out a plurality in Iowa will be greater for Gingrich than the Texas congressman. While a Paul win will spark increased interest and fundraising for his candidacy, there is a hard ceiling to his potential support. No matter what happens in Iowa, the overwhelming majority of Republicans will continue to view him as far out of the mainstream. His will always be more of a symbolic candidacy than anything else.

But right now a victory in Iowa is as essential to Gingrich’s path to the nomination as a Romney win in New Hampshire. If he were to fall to second place after leading in the polls, it would be a severe blow to his chances. It would be seen as proof that his bubble had burst. Given Gingrich’s obvious weaknesses and the justified fear among many Republicans that he cannot win a general election race against President Obama, any halt in his momentum could permanently derail his presidential hopes. It would also give heart to Romney and his supporters who could then attempt to claim back the title of frontrunner heading into the next primaries.

Like the rest of the field, Gingrich has largely ignored Paul. Attacking him has seemed to serve little purpose, as he seemed to be drawing from a limited pool of admirers. But as Paul’s support edges towards the 20 percent mark or higher, it’s obvious that he’s picking up some voters who would be more comfortable supporting one of the conservatives but are confused about who is viable. What Gingrich needs to point out is that though Paul’s anti-establishment persona may appeal to Tea Partiers, his extremist approach to both domestic and foreign issues is antithetical to the worldview of most conservatives.

Gingrich may say he’s going to stay positive (outside of the occasional barb aimed at Romney), but if he fails to define Paul as an extremist and lets him continue to fly under the radar while the rest of the field concentrates their fire on Gingrich and Romney, he could wind up losing Iowa. And that could be fatal to Gingrich.

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Anti-Christian Bigotry is Still Bigotry

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman’s article on Tim Tebow is making the rounds today–and not in a good way. The disturbing article, a vicious diatribe against American Christians, has offended not only its Christian targets but also American Jews who have worked hard to produce the gains in Jewish-Christian relations that such attacks threaten to undermine. Here is the most offensive paragraph (which the editors, since this post went up, finally deleted, though the rest of the offensive column remains):

If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.  While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.

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Rabbi Joshua Hammerman’s article on Tim Tebow is making the rounds today–and not in a good way. The disturbing article, a vicious diatribe against American Christians, has offended not only its Christian targets but also American Jews who have worked hard to produce the gains in Jewish-Christian relations that such attacks threaten to undermine. Here is the most offensive paragraph (which the editors, since this post went up, finally deleted, though the rest of the offensive column remains):

If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.  While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.

Hammerman, a member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet, says he is rooting against Tebow as a New England Patriots fan and as a concerned citizen. He gives the impression he believes that fervently hoping for the public failure of an athlete is appropriate if that athlete is overtly Christian. (While there is nothing wrong with being a Patriots fan, Hammerman does call head coach Bill Belichick a “moral exemplar,” which is a bit much considering Belichick was caught cheating to win games and carried on an affair with a married woman, resulting in the couple’s divorce just after his own. One wonders about Hammerman’s moral judgment.)

But more importantly, Hammerman surely knows that what he writes here is plainspoken bigotry, an affront to a nation of civilized people, insulting to Christians for all the obvious reasons, and is a chillul Hashem as well–a blight on Judaism’s reputation and one of Judaism’s most serious sins.

Additionally, since random American citizens don’t “banish” immigrants, Hammerman is obviously talking about presidential candidates as well. In this, he is introducing a religious test for office by warning that a devoutly Christian president is more likely to do terrible things. (By the way, someone should tell Hammerman that our current, Democratic president’s penchant for “banishing immigrants” has far outpaced all those who came before him.)

One question remains: do the newspaper that published this shameful piece (The Jewish Week), his synagogue in Connecticut, and J Street think this is appropriate behavior from the esteemed Rabbi Hammerman?

At a synagogue I attended last week, the sermon centered on Tebow as well–only this one extolled Tebow’s courage, his pride in his faith, and his sense of personal security. Let’s hope that sermon was more representative of American Judaism’s response to Tebow than Hammerman’s disgraceful rant.

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Gingrich Sends Message: Elections Aren’t a Referendum on Theology

According to press reports, the new political director for Newt Gingrich’s Iowa campaign “agreed to step away” from the job after it came to light he had said some evangelicals believe God would reject Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism.

Craig Bergman during a focus group last Wednesday with the Iowa Republican and McClatchy newspapers said he thought Romney’s religion eventually would cost him votes. “A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon,” Bergman said during the focus group, according to the Iowa Republican. “There’s [sic] a thousand pastors ready to do that.”

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According to press reports, the new political director for Newt Gingrich’s Iowa campaign “agreed to step away” from the job after it came to light he had said some evangelicals believe God would reject Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism.

Craig Bergman during a focus group last Wednesday with the Iowa Republican and McClatchy newspapers said he thought Romney’s religion eventually would cost him votes. “A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon,” Bergman said during the focus group, according to the Iowa Republican. “There’s [sic] a thousand pastors ready to do that.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, the Gingrich campaign said Bergman had “agreed to step away from his role with Newt 2012.”

“He made a comment to a focus group prior to becoming an employee that is inconsistent with Newt 2012’s pledge to run a positive and solutions-orientated
campaign,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said in the statement.

Good for the Gingrich campaign. Even if Bergman was merely being descriptive in terms of what evangelicals believe, Gingrich is sending an important message: Whatever individual Christians believe about Mormonism, turning an election into a referendum on the theology of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young is not a wise idea. That task belongs to pastors and theologians, not politicians and presidential candidates.

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Gingrich Faces Problems in Iowa

These are the perils of trying to build an organization in Iowa just weeks before the caucuses: Newt Gingrich’s brand new Iowa political director just got booted from the campaign after referring to Mormonism as a “cult”:

Craig Bergman during a focus group on Wednesday with the Iowa Republican and McClatchy newspapers said he thinks Romney’s religion will eventually cost him votes.

“A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon,” Bergman said during the focus group, according to the Iowa Republican. “There’s [sic] a thousand pastors ready to do that.”

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These are the perils of trying to build an organization in Iowa just weeks before the caucuses: Newt Gingrich’s brand new Iowa political director just got booted from the campaign after referring to Mormonism as a “cult”:

Craig Bergman during a focus group on Wednesday with the Iowa Republican and McClatchy newspapers said he thinks Romney’s religion will eventually cost him votes.

“A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon,” Bergman said during the focus group, according to the Iowa Republican. “There’s [sic] a thousand pastors ready to do that.”

Bergman made the comments about Mormonism last week, the day before Gingrich hired him. Which raises the question: assuming he was in talks with the Gingrich campaign about the political director position, why would he say something so controversial at an on-the-record event?

The episode highlights the real obstacles Gingrich faces in Iowa. While he still leads the field in recent polls, he only began putting together an organization in the state in the past several weeks. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have been working on theirs for years. Earlier this month, the L.A. Times reported on the state of Gingrich’s Iowa operation, which had been left in shambles after his entire state staff quit en masse in June:

With voting in the Republican presidential contest only a month away, Newt Gingrich’s campaign was surging this week. But in his office in suburban Des Moines, something was missing.

There were no workers, no phones. As of Thursday, when Gingrich spoke at a nearby hotel, the office lights had not been turned on.

The disconnect was a telling example of the challenges he faces in turning his recently revived yet still disorganized candidacy into one capable of corralling the nomination. He’s scrambling to hire staff, open campaign offices and reach out to undecided voters — against a rival, Mitt Romney, who has had five years to build a nationwide organization.

Though Gingrich has staffed up in Iowa by now, the quick hiring and resignation of his political director shows how much of a last-minute scramble this is for his campaign. Meanwhile, the attacks from other candidates are starting to eat into Gingrich’s support in the polls – he’s dropped five points in the past week, and now leads Ron Paul by just one point, according to today’s Public Policy Polling survey. Without a strong operation, Iowa may turn out to be a big upset for Gingrich.

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Obama Punts on Egyptian Islamists

Today marks the beginning of the second round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. You’ll recall how the first round, which occurred in relatively liberal urban centers, saw the youth vote “decimated” in an Islamist landslide. You’ll also recall how this wasn’t supposed to happen, and how during the Arab Spring Western foreign policy analysts generated an endless array of excuses as to why.

And yet the people who are winning are the same people who are holding rallies, in the full glare of an international spotlight, vowing to kill all the Jews. After they’re done eliminating Middle East Jewry – or, alternatively, in parallel – they also intend to force women out of public life and to transform the Library of Alexandria into a mosque. The final campaign is proof that their hatred of Jews and women aside, Egypt’s Islamists have a poignant appreciation for metaphor.

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Today marks the beginning of the second round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. You’ll recall how the first round, which occurred in relatively liberal urban centers, saw the youth vote “decimated” in an Islamist landslide. You’ll also recall how this wasn’t supposed to happen, and how during the Arab Spring Western foreign policy analysts generated an endless array of excuses as to why.

And yet the people who are winning are the same people who are holding rallies, in the full glare of an international spotlight, vowing to kill all the Jews. After they’re done eliminating Middle East Jewry – or, alternatively, in parallel – they also intend to force women out of public life and to transform the Library of Alexandria into a mosque. The final campaign is proof that their hatred of Jews and women aside, Egypt’s Islamists have a poignant appreciation for metaphor.

Radical parties will do even better in the current round of voting, which occurs in mostly rural areas where their ideology disproportionately resonates and where they are disproportionately well-organized.

And now here’s your link to a recent Associated Press article on how the Obama administration pushed for “timely elections” despite knowing that “they risked leaving the U.S. with less influence and fewer friends in the Middle East.” The story is in line with administration statements acknowledging/ignoring the same risk calculus in November. It’s an crystallization of the overall sanguine attitude with which the administration has greeted the Islamist takeover of Egypt, an approach that even included providing election training to Islamist parties.

Just so everyone’s on the same explicit page: it’s not a matter of the Obama administration mistakenly concluding – perhaps via some kind of pseudo-sophisticated reasoning about projecting neutrality – that their policies will promote American leadership and influence. They’ve admitted that the exact opposite will happen. Apparently promoting U.S. interests isn’t the number one priority of the U.S. government any more.

On the plus side, the New York Times basically assured everyone last month that getting rid of the military will solve Egypt’s political dysfunction. So, no worries.

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“See No Evil” Attitude Toward Iraq

There is a sharp counterpoint to the happy talk between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Malaki at the White House. It comes from Deputy Prime Minister Salah al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who was part of the Iraqiya party which won more votes than al-Maliki’s Dawa party in the last election. In an interview with CNN, he warns that al-Maliki is becoming a new “dictator”:

“The political process is going in a very wrong direction, going toward a dictatorship,” he said. “People are not going to accept that, and most likely they are going to ask for the division of the country. And this is going to be a disaster. Dividing the country isn’t going to be smooth, because dividing the country is going to be a war before that and a war after that”….

He said U.S. officials, who brokered the power-sharing deal, either “don’t know anything in Iraq and they don’t know what is happening in Iraq, or because they don’t want to admit the reality in Iraq, the failure in Iraq, the failure of this political process that they set in Iraq.”

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There is a sharp counterpoint to the happy talk between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Malaki at the White House. It comes from Deputy Prime Minister Salah al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who was part of the Iraqiya party which won more votes than al-Maliki’s Dawa party in the last election. In an interview with CNN, he warns that al-Maliki is becoming a new “dictator”:

“The political process is going in a very wrong direction, going toward a dictatorship,” he said. “People are not going to accept that, and most likely they are going to ask for the division of the country. And this is going to be a disaster. Dividing the country isn’t going to be smooth, because dividing the country is going to be a war before that and a war after that”….

He said U.S. officials, who brokered the power-sharing deal, either “don’t know anything in Iraq and they don’t know what is happening in Iraq, or because they don’t want to admit the reality in Iraq, the failure in Iraq, the failure of this political process that they set in Iraq.”

Perhaps Mutlaq is being hyperbolic; but his words carry weight because of his considerable influence and standing in Iraqi politics. And they reflect the views of other Sunni leaders. Whether they are over-reacting or not doesn’t matter: Their words can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Sunnis decide to once again take up arms against the government. They also serve as a harsh indictment of the Obama administration, which is taking a “see no evil” attitude toward this strategically important country.

 

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Sununu? What is Romney Thinking?

I tend to think that the role endorsements and surrogates play in a campaign is overstated. But both Marc Thiessen and Tony Blankley raise a good question: What on earth is the Romney campaign thinking in using former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu as its lead attacker against Newt Gingrich? After all, Sununu – who was chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush — played a key role in convincing Bush to break his “no new taxes” pledge and, even more  significantly, championed David Souter for the Supreme Court. For many conservatives, these are discrediting acts. And Gingrich, to his credit, warned the Bush 41 administration about the damage Bush’s tax reversal would cause.

Blankley quotes Marlin Fitzwater, who was the presidential press secretary at the time and no fan of Gingrich’s, as saying, “As it turned out, one of the few people on the Republican team who understood this trap (the Democrats demanded Bush raise taxes as the political price to reduce the deficit) was Newt Gingrich. … Newt had … recommended a different course of action: Abandon the budget negotiations (with the Democrats), keep the tax pledge, insist that Congress cut spending, and make a political fight out of it. It’s clear now that we should have followed his advice.”

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I tend to think that the role endorsements and surrogates play in a campaign is overstated. But both Marc Thiessen and Tony Blankley raise a good question: What on earth is the Romney campaign thinking in using former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu as its lead attacker against Newt Gingrich? After all, Sununu – who was chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush — played a key role in convincing Bush to break his “no new taxes” pledge and, even more  significantly, championed David Souter for the Supreme Court. For many conservatives, these are discrediting acts. And Gingrich, to his credit, warned the Bush 41 administration about the damage Bush’s tax reversal would cause.

Blankley quotes Marlin Fitzwater, who was the presidential press secretary at the time and no fan of Gingrich’s, as saying, “As it turned out, one of the few people on the Republican team who understood this trap (the Democrats demanded Bush raise taxes as the political price to reduce the deficit) was Newt Gingrich. … Newt had … recommended a different course of action: Abandon the budget negotiations (with the Democrats), keep the tax pledge, insist that Congress cut spending, and make a political fight out of it. It’s clear now that we should have followed his advice.”

Newt Gingrich is coming under a lot of fire these days (I have registered my own concerns several times). But he also has some impressive achievements to his credit, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Both Gingrich and Romney are flawed; Republican voters will have to sort through their strengths and weaknesses, their flip flops and temperaments, their public and private characters, their core beliefs and debating skills, and their electability and contributions to conservatism over the years. My own view is that Gingrich possesses both more obvious strengths and more obvious weaknesses than Romney. But whatever the case, there are appropriate and inappropriate lines of attack, even in a primary race. And for John Sununu to go after Gingrich for his “$500,000 outstanding bill at Tiffany’s” is, I think, silly and unfair.

Sununu was the target of intemperate attacks when he was President Bush’s chief of staff; he should bear that in mind as the campaign heats up.

 

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Romney in ‘02: “My Views Are Progressive”

Mitt Romney critics are jumping on this unearthed 2002 campaign footage as proof of…what? That Romney harbors liberal views (beyond the ones we already know about)? That he panders to voters (beyond the examples we already have)?

I’m not sure this video is really as explosive as some think it is, but take a look for yourself:

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Mitt Romney critics are jumping on this unearthed 2002 campaign footage as proof of…what? That Romney harbors liberal views (beyond the ones we already know about)? That he panders to voters (beyond the examples we already have)?

I’m not sure this video is really as explosive as some think it is, but take a look for yourself:

Here’s the requisite attack from the Perry campaign, and the Romney camp’s sort-of defense. As Dave Weigel points out, “in 2002, ‘progressive’ was years away from being twisted and redefined by Glenn Beck into a synonym for ‘communist follower of Woodrow Wilson.’”

That’s true. The whole “rebranding” of term progressive really caught fire in 2007, after Hillary Clinton publicly declined to define herself as a “liberal,” instead choosing the term “modern progressive.” Even then, there was a lot of confusion among the public about what “progressive” actually meant.

Because the Romney video was shot in 2002, he may just be saying his views are progressive as in “forward-looking,” “enlightened” or some other similar definition of the word. Either way, the Romney in that video was right – he said he was “not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate,” and he followed through on that promise once elected. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is for Republican voters to decide.

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Abandoning Realism to Preserve It

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

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The Truth About Palestinian Immigration

Writing in Israel Hayom yesterday, Yoram Ettinger supported Newt Gingrich’s statement that Palestinians are an “invented” people by offering statistics to show that far from having lived in the Holy Land for millennia, most Palestinians descend from immigrants who came from throughout the Muslim world between 1845 and 1947. Simon Sebag Montefiore provides similar data in his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography, as a New York Times reviewer noted: From 1919-38, for instance, 343,000 Jews and 419,000 Arabs immigrated to the area, meaning Arab Johnny-come-latelies significantly outnumbered the Jewish ones.

One might ask why this should matter: Regardless of when either Jews or Palestinians arrived, millions of both live east of the Jordan River today, and that’s the reality policymakers must deal with. But in truth, it matters greatly – because Western support for Palestinian negotiating positions stems largely from the widespread view that Palestinians are an indigenous people whose land was stolen by Western (Jewish) interlopers.

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Writing in Israel Hayom yesterday, Yoram Ettinger supported Newt Gingrich’s statement that Palestinians are an “invented” people by offering statistics to show that far from having lived in the Holy Land for millennia, most Palestinians descend from immigrants who came from throughout the Muslim world between 1845 and 1947. Simon Sebag Montefiore provides similar data in his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography, as a New York Times reviewer noted: From 1919-38, for instance, 343,000 Jews and 419,000 Arabs immigrated to the area, meaning Arab Johnny-come-latelies significantly outnumbered the Jewish ones.

One might ask why this should matter: Regardless of when either Jews or Palestinians arrived, millions of both live east of the Jordan River today, and that’s the reality policymakers must deal with. But in truth, it matters greatly – because Western support for Palestinian negotiating positions stems largely from the widespread view that Palestinians are an indigenous people whose land was stolen by Western (Jewish) interlopers.

Current demographic realities would probably suffice to convince most Westerners that a Palestinian state should exist. But the same can’t be said of Western insistence that its border must be the 1967 lines, with adjustments possible only via one-to-one territorial swaps and only if the Palestinians consent. Indeed, just 44 years ago, UN Resolution 242 was carefully crafted to reflect a Western consensus that the 1967 lines shouldn’t be the permanent border. So what changed?

The answer lies in the phrase routinely used to describe the West Bank and Gaza today, but which almost nobody used back in 1967, when Israel captured these areas from Jordan and Egypt, respectively: “occupied Palestinian territory.” This phrase implies that the land belongs to the Palestinians and always has. And if so, why shouldn’t Israel be required to give back every last inch?

But if the land hasn’t belonged to the Palestinians “from time immemorial” – if instead, both Palestinians and Jews comprise small indigenous populations augmented by massive immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the West Bank and Gaza becoming fully Judenrein only after Jordan and Egypt occupied them in 1948 – then there’s no inherent reason why the border must necessarily be in one place rather than another. To create two states, a border must be drawn somewhere, but that “somewhere” should depend only on the parties’ current needs – just as the drafters of Resolution 242 envisioned. Indeed, that resolution explicitly called for “secure” boundaries precisely because the 1967 lines were “notably insecure,” to quote then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, and Western statesmen believed the permanent border must be relocated to make it defensible.

Moreover, if Palestinians aren’t the land’s indigenous owners, it becomes possible to implement another important principle: that 64 years of refusing repeated Jewish offers of statehood should entail a territorial price. For if decades of making war rather than peace doesn’t entail a territorial price, that encourages aggressors to keep trying to gain the whole loaf through military action, secure in the knowledge that half a loaf will always still be available if they ever decide otherwise.

On immigration, as in so many other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it turns out that history matters, and by ignoring it, Israel and its supporters have badly undermined their own cause. Reversing direction at this late date won’t be easy. But if the conflict is ever to be resolved, correcting the historical record is vital.

 

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Harry Potter and the Rabbi

In the Introduction to Listening to God (Toby Press, 500 pages), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin starts off by quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, a notoriously severe Hasidic thinker, then the Bible, followed by another Hasidic tzaddik and the great biblical commentators Rashi and Nahmanides. After this roster of unsurprising Jewish sources comes an entirely unanticipated reference:

I agree with Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore that it is the decisions we make, rather than the intellectual gifts with which we are endowed, that are ultimately the measure of the human being and the life that one lives.

Riskin is a name to conjure with in Modern Orthodoxy. Founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, he is famous for his outreach to lapsed Jews, winning back many souls for religious Judaism. Listening to God is a collection of inspirational stories very much in the ethos of outreach and “return.” The tone is consistently one of spiritual uplift. Whether Harry Potter belongs in the same category is a question that can only be answered by readers more knowledgeable than I about the books. The “elective affinity,” though, suggests something deeper than cultural fashion and influence.

In the Introduction to Listening to God (Toby Press, 500 pages), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin starts off by quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, a notoriously severe Hasidic thinker, then the Bible, followed by another Hasidic tzaddik and the great biblical commentators Rashi and Nahmanides. After this roster of unsurprising Jewish sources comes an entirely unanticipated reference:

I agree with Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore that it is the decisions we make, rather than the intellectual gifts with which we are endowed, that are ultimately the measure of the human being and the life that one lives.

Riskin is a name to conjure with in Modern Orthodoxy. Founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, he is famous for his outreach to lapsed Jews, winning back many souls for religious Judaism. Listening to God is a collection of inspirational stories very much in the ethos of outreach and “return.” The tone is consistently one of spiritual uplift. Whether Harry Potter belongs in the same category is a question that can only be answered by readers more knowledgeable than I about the books. The “elective affinity,” though, suggests something deeper than cultural fashion and influence.

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