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Posts For: June 10, 2012

Is Wagner Worse Than the Nakba?

It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

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It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

Many denounced the decision to allow an event devoted to trashing the existence of the State of Israel (and, by extension to the existence of both the university and the city in which it is located) as treason. But TAU defended its approval for a gathering where activists read Yizkor (the prayer of mourning) to denote Israel’s founding as an expression of the country’s democratic values. The result was a travesty that speaks to the sickness at the heart of the country’s intellectual elites. By the standards of America’s free speech practices that are defended by the First Amendment, such a demonstration would not be noteworthy. But in Israel, holding such a demonstration at a state-funded institution was a big deal and rightly shocked many citizens. Nevertheless, so long as it was just talk, opposition to Zionism and sympathy with Israel’s enemies can be defended by democratic values even if cannot be justified morally.

But apparently, when it comes to the mere playing of compositions that are more than 130-years-old and are part of the standard classic repertoire wherever music is played around the world, TAU has more stringent standards. For the school, the sound of those denouncing the existence of the country that gave it life is more melodious than Wagner’s tunes.

It bears repeating that the arguments for Israel’s Wagner ban are based in emotion and do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. I’ll reiterate some of what I wrote here last year about this touchy subject:

The question of whether or not it is appropriate to perform Wagner’s music is a complex one. There is no doubt he was an anti-Semite. His essays about the supposed role Jews had in undermining higher art and music are utterly despicable. They are even worse when you consider that far more people were exposed to them in print than probably heard live performances of Wagner’s music during his lifetime. To say he inspired a subsequent generation of Germans (the composer died in 1883) to think ill of Jews is probably an understatement. But that is not quite the same thing as saying he was a Nazi. The same cannot be said for his widow, children and grandchildren, some of whom allowed Hitler and his followers to hijack the Bayreuth Festival and turn it into a prop of the Nazi regime.

Yet to assert, as some do, that Wagner’s operas are anti-Semitic is simply not true.

While Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds are today read only by scholars, his life-affirming music dramas continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world who know little or nothing of his politics. Those who seek to project the composer’s racial and political opinions onto the broad canvas of his myth-based theater works are inevitably reduced to strained analogies and symbolism that never holds up to scrutiny. Attempts to classify any music as intrinsically good or evil always fail.

It is understandable that those who lived in Germany during the 1930s might think there was something about Wagner’s compositions that inspired mass murder. But the power of music is ethically neutral. As evidence, I would note that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was himself a great supporter of Wagner’s music. Herzl confided to his diary during the period when he was planning to write The Jewish State, “Only on those nights when no Wagner was performed [at the Paris Opera] did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea.” He later insisted that music from Wagner’s “Tannhauser” be played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

No one should be forced to listen to music that conjures up terrible associations with the Shoah for them, and it is likely the informal ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel itself will continue for a while. But this is not a restriction that can last. … Wagner is not the only great artist who can be credibly labeled an anti-Semite. So long as the work itself is not something that promotes hatred (as can be said of a play such as The Merchant of Venice even though we do not ban Shakespeare), those who love music must separate the man from his art.

The planned concert and discussions that were part of the event would have explored some of these ideas as well as the love of Wagner’s music on the part of Herzl and the anti-fascist conductor Arturo Toscanini who presided over the founding of the Israel Philharmonic.

The concert would have done no harm to anyone in Israel, and those who would have been offended by Wagner need not have attended. Its suppression will achieve nothing other than to satisfy a rule that honors neither the Holocaust nor Israel’s culture.

Can the same cannot be said for the Nakba event? It was part of a concerted campaign for whose adherentsthe goal is nothing less than the end of the State of Israel. One has to wonder about the sanity of a university or a country that would move heaven and earth to ban music but would allow the enemies of their existence free rein to advocate their destruction.

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Will the Scooter Libby Rules Apply to the Obama Administration?

The arrogance of power is such that it may never have occurred to the senior government figures who recently leaked classified information about drone strikes and cyber warfare to the press that there would be any consequences for their actions. The all-too cozy relationship between the Obama administration and mainstream outlets like the New York Times instilled in them the notion that they could plant with impunity any story in the media to boost the president’s reputation. But the anger generated among the public and on both sides of the aisle in Congress by the constant stream of confidential information from the White House and the Pentagon to the front page of the Times has set in motion a series of events that may have consequences that will be felt long after the stories have run. Indeed, even if the president is re-elected, it may be that the effort to puff up his shaky reputation could sink a second term in scandal and prosecutions.

Of course, just how difficult things will get for some of the chatty members of the administration depends a great deal on the special prosecutors picked by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the leaks after a storm of criticism on the issue forced his hand. As the Times points out today in a story buried on page 20 of their Sunday edition (in contrast to the front page placement of the pieces generated by the leaks in question), prosecuting someone for disclosing classified information can be tricky. But if the two U.S. Attorneys chosen to work on this case are determined to nail someone for this crime, then the odds are some senior administration figures will be going down, even if they are not the ones doing the leaking. The question is whether the Scooter Libby rules will apply.

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The arrogance of power is such that it may never have occurred to the senior government figures who recently leaked classified information about drone strikes and cyber warfare to the press that there would be any consequences for their actions. The all-too cozy relationship between the Obama administration and mainstream outlets like the New York Times instilled in them the notion that they could plant with impunity any story in the media to boost the president’s reputation. But the anger generated among the public and on both sides of the aisle in Congress by the constant stream of confidential information from the White House and the Pentagon to the front page of the Times has set in motion a series of events that may have consequences that will be felt long after the stories have run. Indeed, even if the president is re-elected, it may be that the effort to puff up his shaky reputation could sink a second term in scandal and prosecutions.

Of course, just how difficult things will get for some of the chatty members of the administration depends a great deal on the special prosecutors picked by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the leaks after a storm of criticism on the issue forced his hand. As the Times points out today in a story buried on page 20 of their Sunday edition (in contrast to the front page placement of the pieces generated by the leaks in question), prosecuting someone for disclosing classified information can be tricky. But if the two U.S. Attorneys chosen to work on this case are determined to nail someone for this crime, then the odds are some senior administration figures will be going down, even if they are not the ones doing the leaking. The question is whether the Scooter Libby rules will apply.

It should be recalled that a few years ago Democrats and liberals were crying bloody murder about the leak of Valerie Plame’s status as a CIA operative by those in the Bush administration who were angry about the lies told by her husband, a former ambassador. The appearance of Plame’s name in a column written by the late Robert Novak set off a federal investigation led by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who was given the full powers of the attorney general, allowing him not only to subpoena and then jail reporters who refused to divulge their sources but to ultimately decide to charge someone who actually did not commit the crime that launched the probe. Richard Armitage of the State Department was the one who dropped Plame’s name to Novak. But rather than fight an uphill battle to jail Armitage, Fitzgerald chose to crucify I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, because his account of a conversation with Tim Russert differed from the recollection of the then host of “Meet the Press.”

The Libby prosecution was a political witch-hunt that did nothing to enhance security or prevent leaks, but it did provide liberals with a great deal of schadenfreude while allowing left-wing Bush administration critics to pose as defenders of national security.

That’s why the possibility that the Libby rules will be applied to some current denizens of the White House may well have some on the right salivating at the prospect of revenge. But conservatives who were rightly opposed to what happened to Scooter Libby should not be hoping for a repeat of the same unfair treatment he suffered.

Instead, what is needed now is what did not happen with the Plame investigation: a probe that will quickly ferret out the truth about the leaks and expose it to the light of day. It should be pointed out that while the motive for both the Plame story and the Obama defense leaks was politics, the two are really not comparable in terms of seriousness.

It was illegal to name a CIA officer in the manner that Plame’s identity was outed. but she was working at a desk in Langley, Virginia, not working undercover in enemy territory. By contrast, the leaks about drone attacks and especially cyber warfare research and decision-making go to the heart of America’s national security. Fitzgerald knew he could never send Armitage to jail for mentioning Plame, but that might be more of a possibility with the Obama administration leakers.

Yet the main outcome here to be desired is not so much the jailing of Obama’s deputies or the prosecution of journalists but the exposure of what they did. The real scandal here isn’t the possible violation of the 1917 Espionage Act, a law rarely enforced. It is that the president’s aides thought nothing of uncovering America’s secrets in order to let their friends in the press portray the president as a tough guy.

The administration will do everything in its power to ensure the truth doesn’t come out before November. But if Holder has appointed unscrupulous prosecutors in the Fitzgerald mold and they wind up spending the next four years fending off arbitrary prosecutions that will drag the administration’s name in the mud, they may wind up wishing the truth had come out in a timely manner.

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45 Years Later, No Closer to the Truth

The Six-Day War ended 45 years ago today. In his comprehensive history, Michael Oren noted the war was one of the shortest in recorded history, but that in that brief period Israeli fatalities were the equivalent, in per capita terms, of 80,000 Americans.

Two days after the war ended, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol summarized what had led to it: on May 15, Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal; by May 18 they were deployed on Israel’s border; Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces and on May 23 closed the Strait of Tiran to shipping both to and from Israel; on May 30, Egypt signed a military agreement with Jordan and another one with Iraq on June 4; together with the one already in place with Syria, the encirclement of Israel was complete, and secret orders had been issued to prepare for the attack on Israel. Then Eshkol addressed the Arabs directly:

“To the Arab peoples I want to say: we did not take up arms in any joyful spirit. We acted because we had no alternative if we wanted to defend our lives and our rights. Just as you have a right to your countries, so we have a right to ours. The roots of the Jewish people in this country go back to primeval days. Throughout the generations, Israel in dispersion maintained its spiritual and material links ….

“There is no parallel in the annuals of the nations to this unique bond between our people and its Land. Perhaps the fact that we have successfully survived the three wars that have been forced upon us will finally convince those who refuse to recognize this fundamental truth …”

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The Six-Day War ended 45 years ago today. In his comprehensive history, Michael Oren noted the war was one of the shortest in recorded history, but that in that brief period Israeli fatalities were the equivalent, in per capita terms, of 80,000 Americans.

Two days after the war ended, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol summarized what had led to it: on May 15, Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal; by May 18 they were deployed on Israel’s border; Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces and on May 23 closed the Strait of Tiran to shipping both to and from Israel; on May 30, Egypt signed a military agreement with Jordan and another one with Iraq on June 4; together with the one already in place with Syria, the encirclement of Israel was complete, and secret orders had been issued to prepare for the attack on Israel. Then Eshkol addressed the Arabs directly:

“To the Arab peoples I want to say: we did not take up arms in any joyful spirit. We acted because we had no alternative if we wanted to defend our lives and our rights. Just as you have a right to your countries, so we have a right to ours. The roots of the Jewish people in this country go back to primeval days. Throughout the generations, Israel in dispersion maintained its spiritual and material links ….

“There is no parallel in the annuals of the nations to this unique bond between our people and its Land. Perhaps the fact that we have successfully survived the three wars that have been forced upon us will finally convince those who refuse to recognize this fundamental truth …”

Oren notes that the most popular song in Israel, after “Jerusalem of Gold,” was “The Song of Peace,” whose lyrics were a message from those who had died in the war:

No one can bring us back

From the dark depths of our grave

Here the thrill of victory means nothing

Nor do songs of praise

Therefore, sing a song for peace

Do not merely whisper a prayer

In 1978, Israel traded the entire Sinai for peace; Egypt has recently demonstrated that withdrawals from land are permanent but promises of peace are not. In 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians a state on substantially all the West Bank and Gaza; they declined in favor of a barbaric war on Israeli civilians. In 2001, after Israel accepted the Clinton Parameters, the Palestinians rejected them. In 2005, Israel removed every settler and soldier from Gaza, and got a rocket war in return. In 2008, Israel offered a state again, and got no response at all.

The three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state were three more than Egypt or Jordan offered during their illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. Currently, the Palestinians refuse to negotiate a fourth offer, without pre-negotiation concessions by Israel on the issues to be negotiated. They reject “two states for two peoples,” insist they will “never” recognize a Jewish state, demand a “right of return” to reverse history, and insist on borders repositioning the parties to the same lines that led to the war 45 years ago.

Forty-five years later, they are no closer to recognizing the “fundamental truth” that Eshkol identified as the basic requirement for peace.

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Conservatism Must Avoid Conformity

As his interview earlier this week with Charlie Rose demonstrated, Governor Jeb Bush is fluent and in command of the issues, which is not surprising to anyone who knows him. There’s an active intelligence and engagement with public policy matters that makes him allergic to talking points.

But there are several others elements in the interview that I want to focus on, including Bush’s style. I don’t mean that in the shallow sense of the word. Rather, what I have in mind is a particular temperament and disposition in approaching politics and the wider world.

For one thing, there’s an admirable candor and genuineness in Bush, including his love and admiration for his brother and father and his principled and bountiful attitude on immigration. He also possesses a generosity of spirit, including his praise for President Obama on several national security issues. That’s not to say Bush didn’t articulate a powerful and effective case against the president or on behalf of conservatism. He did. Indeed, the fact that the former Florida governor wasn’t robotically critical of the president makes his criticisms more, not less, effective. And Bush is clearly a man without rancor, proving that principled individuals don’t have to be angry ones.

Beyond all that, though, Bush spoke about the importance of a “divergence of thought” and the dangers of orthodoxy when it comes to American political parties. He’s a man who clearly enjoys intellectual give-and-take; he talked about the good that emerges from “flourishing policy discussions.” Here Governor Bush is onto something important, which is that conservatism needs to avoid the mindset that demands conformity to the point of stifling silliness.

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As his interview earlier this week with Charlie Rose demonstrated, Governor Jeb Bush is fluent and in command of the issues, which is not surprising to anyone who knows him. There’s an active intelligence and engagement with public policy matters that makes him allergic to talking points.

But there are several others elements in the interview that I want to focus on, including Bush’s style. I don’t mean that in the shallow sense of the word. Rather, what I have in mind is a particular temperament and disposition in approaching politics and the wider world.

For one thing, there’s an admirable candor and genuineness in Bush, including his love and admiration for his brother and father and his principled and bountiful attitude on immigration. He also possesses a generosity of spirit, including his praise for President Obama on several national security issues. That’s not to say Bush didn’t articulate a powerful and effective case against the president or on behalf of conservatism. He did. Indeed, the fact that the former Florida governor wasn’t robotically critical of the president makes his criticisms more, not less, effective. And Bush is clearly a man without rancor, proving that principled individuals don’t have to be angry ones.

Beyond all that, though, Bush spoke about the importance of a “divergence of thought” and the dangers of orthodoxy when it comes to American political parties. He’s a man who clearly enjoys intellectual give-and-take; he talked about the good that emerges from “flourishing policy discussions.” Here Governor Bush is onto something important, which is that conservatism needs to avoid the mindset that demands conformity to the point of stifling silliness.

For example, in his interview with Rose, Bush reiterated that he would of course accept a hypothetical debt deal that included $10 in real spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. This brought to mind one of the low points of the GOP primary, in which all eight candidates indicated they’d walk away from such a deal. We all understand why; if any of the candidates had said they would accept the deal, they would have been accused of being a RINO, moderate, weak, unprincipled and unconservative.

I argued at the time that lower taxes are a very good idea, but it is not a talisman. And if we have reached a point where Republicans running for president cannot envision (or at least admit to) any scenario in which they would raise taxes, even if as a result they could substantially roll back the modern welfare state, then it’s time to consider loosening the philosophical straitjacket they are in.

A philosophical movement and political party are better when they are drawn more to vigorous and spirited debates rather than excommunication. That is, I think, what Jeb Bush was saying; and he was right to say it.

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The Real Key to Victory in Wisconsin

Buried deep in a Politico article about the general gloom hanging over the left-wing Netroots convention was an import nugget of information that shed some light on this past week’s conservative victory in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. Though it is and will remain a liberal article of faith that Scott Walker defeated the attempt by the unions and their Democratic allies to force his recall only by dint of an advantage in campaign fundraising, the main factor was something else: voter mobilization.

As Charles Mahtesian noted:

The left’s strength has always been in mobilizing voters. But the GOP managed to do that in Wisconsin. Leaders and activists frequently expressed the idea that, in the short term at least – that is, before the larger campaign finance issues that suddenly loom very large on the progressive agenda can be addressed – the movement must double-down on the organizing that it does best.

But the problem here is that the left’s problem in Wisconsin was not that it failed to bring out its voters. The unions and the Democrats did their best and contributed to a massive turnout that was extraordinary for a mid-June vote even if the whole country was focused on the state. It was that conservatives did even better, turning out an army of conservatives and centrists who have bought into Walker’s powerful logic about the necessity of clipping the unions’ wings so as to enable budget and entitlement reform. Though the Netroots crowd is looking inward to figure out why they lost Wisconsin, the real answer is one they and much of the mainstream media continues to ignore: the Tea Party revolution is not only not dead but is still going strong.

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Buried deep in a Politico article about the general gloom hanging over the left-wing Netroots convention was an import nugget of information that shed some light on this past week’s conservative victory in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. Though it is and will remain a liberal article of faith that Scott Walker defeated the attempt by the unions and their Democratic allies to force his recall only by dint of an advantage in campaign fundraising, the main factor was something else: voter mobilization.

As Charles Mahtesian noted:

The left’s strength has always been in mobilizing voters. But the GOP managed to do that in Wisconsin. Leaders and activists frequently expressed the idea that, in the short term at least – that is, before the larger campaign finance issues that suddenly loom very large on the progressive agenda can be addressed – the movement must double-down on the organizing that it does best.

But the problem here is that the left’s problem in Wisconsin was not that it failed to bring out its voters. The unions and the Democrats did their best and contributed to a massive turnout that was extraordinary for a mid-June vote even if the whole country was focused on the state. It was that conservatives did even better, turning out an army of conservatives and centrists who have bought into Walker’s powerful logic about the necessity of clipping the unions’ wings so as to enable budget and entitlement reform. Though the Netroots crowd is looking inward to figure out why they lost Wisconsin, the real answer is one they and much of the mainstream media continues to ignore: the Tea Party revolution is not only not dead but is still going strong.

It ought to be obvious, but with so much discussion about Wisconsin centering on the squabbles on the left and conservative fundraising, it seems many of the chattering classes are intent on ignoring the fact that the taxpayer anger that put people like Scott Walker in office in the first place has not disappeared. It can be argued that Walker’s majority last week required many centrists and perhaps even some supporters of President Obama who rightly thought the whole recall was appropriate. But it is also true that his win was in no small part the function of a fervent conservative base that turned out in numbers that may well have eclipsed the efforts of unionists.

The effort to probe the meaning of the Wisconsin recall for the presidential election has foundered on partisan spin, but perhaps the most consequential factor of that race for November may rest in the proof of the right’s ability to turn out in force when there is sufficient motivation. The assumption in much of the liberal media that the Tea Party phenomenon was merely a passing phase in our political drama was based on turnout in Republican primaries where conservatives had no clear choice. But the presidential election–in which they will have the opportunity to defeat President Obama–will give Tea Partiers and conservatives all the passion they need to mobilize.

This will be but one of a number of factors in determining the outcome of the election. but it would be foolish for either side to ignore it.  Whereas in 2008, it was the left that was able to produce a dramatic turnout for their messianic presidential candidate, this year it will be, as it was in 2010 and in Wisconsin on Tuesday, the right that will have most fervor.

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