Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 26, 2012

America’s Most Important Jewish Event?

Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

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Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

Steinsaltz and Koren seem to be up to something different. He reaches beyond even the basic vocalization of the Hebrew into brief English biographies of the various rabbis through whom the Talmud speaks and color illustrations accompanying the text, to say nothing of a planned iPad app. It is the manifestation of a mentality that is fully conversant in a Jewish tradition it feels uncomplicated reverence toward combined with a self-confident desire to use contemporary tools to make that tradition as accessible as possible for as wide an audience as possible. It creates a feel that gives you all the tradition of ArtScroll without any of the distance.

Orthodox publishing efforts in the United States often don’t get their proper due. Even a casual perusal of the offerings in any Judaica shop or through your smart phone or tablet computer of choice reveal a wealth of offerings in English or with English translation on nearly any Jewish topic imaginable. But they haven’t penetrated beyond those already within that community’s embrace. The new Steinsaltz English edition is therefore probably the best chance yet most American Jews have of accessing the central text of their tradition.

In his companion book The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz notes that all Jewish communities that have lost the study of Talmud have eventually disappeared. His creation of this latest piece of his great corpus testifies both to the depth of his scholarship and the seriousness with which he views his own observation.

Koren has now taken the first step in making the monument of their tradition accessible to all American Jews, regardless of their background or beliefs. If they take it up, the implications will be profound.

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Will Former Black Panther Win in NY?

At Tablet, Zack Beauchamp wonders whether Democrats are overreacting about former Black Panther Charles Barron’s chance of winning the Brooklyn primary race against the more moderate Hakeem Jeffries:

There is real panic among Democratic leaders that Barron might win. As far as I can tell, the fear stems from an endorsement from the seat’s former holder Ed Towns, one New York Times article touting a “Barron surge,” and the simple fear created by the anticipation of a very bad outcome. It’s not clear how much the endorsement matters and the Times article is a bit short on evidence. That’s not me saying that – the Times’ own local blog is a bit perplexed[.]

And as far as endorsements go, Jeffries has Governor Andrew Cuomo, the most high profile local papers, several important unions, a raft of significant Democrats and democratic institutions, and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge photo-op with the President. Also, Jewish voters could be critical given the district’s demographics. Since there’s been virtually no polling done on the race, I think the evidence we have to go on suggests it’s Jeffries’ race to lose.

Beauchamp’s right that by all normal measures, it probably should be Jeffries race to win. But I’m not so sure.

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At Tablet, Zack Beauchamp wonders whether Democrats are overreacting about former Black Panther Charles Barron’s chance of winning the Brooklyn primary race against the more moderate Hakeem Jeffries:

There is real panic among Democratic leaders that Barron might win. As far as I can tell, the fear stems from an endorsement from the seat’s former holder Ed Towns, one New York Times article touting a “Barron surge,” and the simple fear created by the anticipation of a very bad outcome. It’s not clear how much the endorsement matters and the Times article is a bit short on evidence. That’s not me saying that – the Times’ own local blog is a bit perplexed[.]

And as far as endorsements go, Jeffries has Governor Andrew Cuomo, the most high profile local papers, several important unions, a raft of significant Democrats and democratic institutions, and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge photo-op with the President. Also, Jewish voters could be critical given the district’s demographics. Since there’s been virtually no polling done on the race, I think the evidence we have to go on suggests it’s Jeffries’ race to lose.

Beauchamp’s right that by all normal measures, it probably should be Jeffries race to win. But I’m not so sure.

The New York Democratic establishment clearly seems worried about something. Barron and Jeffries have been vying seriously for the seat since Ed Towns announced his retirement in mid-April, but the race received little attention until recently. What prompted the sudden surge of anxiety and last-minute Jeffries endorsements from establishment Democrats? We don’t know the extent of the independent polling that’s been done, or the trends the Jeffries’ campaign was picking up on the ground.

That’s not to say the fear will turn out to be justified. The district is notorious for its low voter turnout, which probably makes difficult to predict voting outcomes. But the New York Times reports signs that turnout was higher than average today in part of the district:

But at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, in a district where Assemblyman Hakeem S. Jeffries and City Councilman Charles Barron are vying to replace Edolphus Towns, who is retiring, the polling coordinator, Selma Jackson, said turnout seemed relatively high.

“We don’t usually have this kind of flow in the morning,” Ms. Jackson said shortly after 9 a.m., three hours after the polls opened. “Normally in this time of morning, if I’ve seen 10, 12 people for a primary, that’s good. We’re way past that.”

That could be good for bad news Jeffries — organization is key, and Barron has a loyal base. We can assume Democrats are helping Jeffries bolster his get out the vote efforts, but was it too little too late?

One last question: If Charles Barron does win, how much will it actually matter? It seems like the Democratic Party and New Yorkers would be the hardest hit, since they’d be associated with his embarrassing antics on a national stage (unless a Republican somehow ends up beating him in the general election). To most people, Barron would probably be another running joke like Cynthia McKinney. That is to say he would be considered reprehensible and deranged but too toxic to be taken seriously.

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Left Finds New Way to Demonize Settlers

One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.

But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:

I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.

This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.

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One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.

But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:

I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.

This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.

There are two important problems with what Yoffie says here, though they are not the main problem with his article. The first is that the American Jewish drift away from Israel is a widely debunked myth. Second, a fading interest in speakers from Israel is not at all representative of American Jews’ connection to Israel.

But the biggest problem with the article is Yoffie’s stated reason for the mythical Jewish detachment from Israel that isn’t happening:

The settlement enterprise, long the central issue of Israel’s internal politics, has become the constant, harping theme of political discussion about the Jewish State, causing concern, dismay, and confusion among even the most committed American Jews.

While some Jewish leaders (full disclosure: I have done this myself) attribute the focus on settlement to unfriendly press coverage in America, in reality the opposite is true. Many American Jews read Israel’s daily press, now widely available in English, and see that the obsession with settlement comes from the Israeli side and not the American side.

Yoffie also calls the settlement movement the “NRA of Israel.” I’m not sure if he’s trying to insult gun owners or Israelis–or both.

Additionally, the settlement-related news today is positive–Israel’s government evacuated a settlement and moved the village’s inhabitants without incident. Even the New York Times was forced to admit, through gritted teeth no doubt, that this was “the first peaceful evacuation of a Jewish settlement from the occupied territories in memory.” (Related question: Whose memory? The reporter’s? Is it now journalistically acceptable to say that you can’t remember the last time something happened and didn’t have any interest in trying to find out?)

But that good news was in the American press, which Yoffie says is no longer influencing Americans. We must look to the Israeli press, then, to see what could be causing American Jews to stop being interested in listening to presentations by Israeli convention speakers. And sure enough, there was some bad news about violent Israelis. From Haaretz:

On Saturday, Israel’s social protest turned violent as thousands of Israelis clashed with police, blocked roads, and smashed bank windows.

“What we saw was not a popular protest but a planned web of events including law infractions and violence,” [Police Commissioner Yohanan] Danino said.

So Israel’s leftist protesters are violent rioters? That is troubling indeed. Perhaps Yoffie will address that in a future column. In the meantime, Israeli leftists should learn how to comport themselves within the bounds of respectability–like the Ulpana settlers. American Jews are watching, you know.

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Re: Should U.S. Give Morsi a Chance?

I must respectfully disagree with Max’s wait-and-watch take on an Egypt ruled by Mohammed Morsi. One certainly wants to see a democratic Egypt. And it is not exactly indefensible that Washington expressed hopes the Egyptian military would honor the recent election results. There remains, after all, no viable long-term game plan that relies on dictatorship to keep fanaticism under wraps. But urging countries to respect election results must be accompanied by a clear-eyed vigilance about what those results may portend. Just as a military dictatorship does not a free society make, a theocracy—even a publicly “softer” one that might (might) have incorporated notions of democracy into its ruling framework—is also not the stuff of freedom and tolerance. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very, very far from it.

There is too much evidence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist brutality, militant anti-Americanism, and seething anti-Semitism—both historically and currently—to wipe the slate clean and wait for the ennobling transformation that comes with governing responsibility. The lesson that votes do not constitute democracies has been learned in places such as Algeria in the early 1990s and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. In both cases, the ballot box served as a pathway to Islamist nightmare. Surely, hoping for the best future does not mean dismissing the past.

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I must respectfully disagree with Max’s wait-and-watch take on an Egypt ruled by Mohammed Morsi. One certainly wants to see a democratic Egypt. And it is not exactly indefensible that Washington expressed hopes the Egyptian military would honor the recent election results. There remains, after all, no viable long-term game plan that relies on dictatorship to keep fanaticism under wraps. But urging countries to respect election results must be accompanied by a clear-eyed vigilance about what those results may portend. Just as a military dictatorship does not a free society make, a theocracy—even a publicly “softer” one that might (might) have incorporated notions of democracy into its ruling framework—is also not the stuff of freedom and tolerance. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very, very far from it.

There is too much evidence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist brutality, militant anti-Americanism, and seething anti-Semitism—both historically and currently—to wipe the slate clean and wait for the ennobling transformation that comes with governing responsibility. The lesson that votes do not constitute democracies has been learned in places such as Algeria in the early 1990s and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. In both cases, the ballot box served as a pathway to Islamist nightmare. Surely, hoping for the best future does not mean dismissing the past.

Western policymakers have too often committed the cynical mistake of empowering anti-democratic leaders to clamp down on terrorists. Such thinking was one of the many reasons the Oslo Accords were doomed to failure. What Natan Sharansky has labeled “fear societies” will always seek outside enemies on whom to blame their lot. Therein lies the genesis of the current Egyptian debacle. But many of us who continue to believe in the virtues of a foreign policy characterized by a freedom agenda are flirting with a mirror-image mistake, a misplaced optimism about democracy in the wake of toppled dictators.

What’s happening now in Egypt is likely to turn very bad indeed. We do no favors for ourselves, Israelis, or heartbroken Egyptian liberals by giving people like Morsi the benefit of the doubt. Max’s assertion that Morsi may be obligated to honor the Camp David Accords could very well be correct. And what’s more, Egypt may have the good sense not to risk Israeli retaliation. But both of these suppositions point toward an opportunity for American action, not observation. If our $1.2 billion in annual aid to Egypt is not what’s keeping the Accords standing, we’d do well to consider making that aid contingent upon compliance with human rights benchmarks and the protection of what few, weak democratic institutions may now be in place in Egypt. Or–and this must be considered–those suppositions are wrong. And in that case, one cannot overstate the potential hazards of the new Egypt.

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Obama’s Summer of Discontent Continues

According to the political analyst Charles Cook:

We are past the point where Obama can win a referendum election, regardless of whether it is on him or the economy. The success of his campaign is contingent upon two things. First, when focusing on the narrow sliver of undecided voters, between 6 and 8 percent of the electorate, the Obama team must make its candidate the lesser of two evils. It has to make the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency so unpalatable that about half of those undecided voters will begrudgingly vote for reelection. Polling focusing on the undecided voters reveals they are a deeply pessimistic and angry segment of the electorate and don’t particularly like either candidate (fitting, because they don’t tend to like politicians). But they show signs of being more conservative than not. One unpublished analysis gives Republicans a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test among those undecided about the presidential race. Close analysis of the numbers shows that Obama might have an edge with between a third and a quarter of the currently undecided bloc. That’s cutting things awfully close. [emphasis added]

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According to the political analyst Charles Cook:

We are past the point where Obama can win a referendum election, regardless of whether it is on him or the economy. The success of his campaign is contingent upon two things. First, when focusing on the narrow sliver of undecided voters, between 6 and 8 percent of the electorate, the Obama team must make its candidate the lesser of two evils. It has to make the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency so unpalatable that about half of those undecided voters will begrudgingly vote for reelection. Polling focusing on the undecided voters reveals they are a deeply pessimistic and angry segment of the electorate and don’t particularly like either candidate (fitting, because they don’t tend to like politicians). But they show signs of being more conservative than not. One unpublished analysis gives Republicans a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test among those undecided about the presidential race. Close analysis of the numbers shows that Obama might have an edge with between a third and a quarter of the currently undecided bloc. That’s cutting things awfully close. [emphasis added]

In addition, the Gallup organization released a new survey that shows the Economic Confidence Index was -26 for the week ending June 24. Americans’ confidence has now receded for four straight weeks and is at the lowest point since late January.

These findings aren’t surprising, but they are, for the president, alarming.

The closer we’re getting to the election, the worse the news is for the president. It isn’t the situation he wants, but it’s one he has increasingly little control over.

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Fast & Furious Doesn’t Hurt the GOP

The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza writes today that the attempt by House Republicans to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress for stonewalling the investigation into the Fast and Furious scandal is a political loser. According to Cilizza, Congress is so unpopular that any attention given to the House GOP caucus is bad for Mitt Romney’s chances in November. He also thinks any moment taken away from a discussion of President Obama’s handling of the economy is a lost opportunity for the challenger. Though he concedes that being dragged into the mud with John Boehner and company doesn’t help the president, Cilizza is still wrong to think the Republicans’ decision to push hard on this issue is a mistake.

While the Republicans do have to concentrate on the economy, if there is anything we should have learned from the political collapse of the George W. Bush presidency is that fresh problems merely compound an administration’s troubles; they don’t provide an escape hatch. Just as Hurricane Katrina didn’t stop Americans from worrying about the Iraq War, Fast and Furious won’t stop them from being upset about the parlous state of the nation’s finances and job losses. The specter of scandal and the Nixon-like invocation of “executive privilege” merely contribute to the impression that the Obama presidency is tiptoeing along on a precipice and can start slipping down the mountain at any time.

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The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza writes today that the attempt by House Republicans to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress for stonewalling the investigation into the Fast and Furious scandal is a political loser. According to Cilizza, Congress is so unpopular that any attention given to the House GOP caucus is bad for Mitt Romney’s chances in November. He also thinks any moment taken away from a discussion of President Obama’s handling of the economy is a lost opportunity for the challenger. Though he concedes that being dragged into the mud with John Boehner and company doesn’t help the president, Cilizza is still wrong to think the Republicans’ decision to push hard on this issue is a mistake.

While the Republicans do have to concentrate on the economy, if there is anything we should have learned from the political collapse of the George W. Bush presidency is that fresh problems merely compound an administration’s troubles; they don’t provide an escape hatch. Just as Hurricane Katrina didn’t stop Americans from worrying about the Iraq War, Fast and Furious won’t stop them from being upset about the parlous state of the nation’s finances and job losses. The specter of scandal and the Nixon-like invocation of “executive privilege” merely contribute to the impression that the Obama presidency is tiptoeing along on a precipice and can start slipping down the mountain at any time.

Cillizza is right when he notes that Congress and, in particular, the House Republicans, are widely disliked. But the contempt most Americans have for our political class doesn’t mean they don’t think Congress shouldn’t investigate genuine scandals. To the extent that people understand that lives were lost because of a Justice Department blunder and that the administration has been trying to fight a desperate delaying action to avoid dealing with the consequences of their folly, they support a vigorous examination of what has happened.

Nor should the administration take any comfort from legal arguments claiming such privilege is justified. As Politico’s Josh Gerstein writes today, the administration may have a court precedent to cite justifying their decision. But even if they are right about that — and most legal observers think they are mistaken — this is still a colossal miscalculation on the part of the president and his advisers. So far, the mainstream press has refused to treat Fast and Furious as a second Watergate even though the implications of the scandal may be far greater. Some liberals may even buy into the preposterous argument that the investigation of Holder is a racist plot to punish him for opposing a fictitious Republican plot to suppress the minority vote.

But the administration’s foolish decision to invoke executive privilege to stop Congress from investigating is an unforced error that could haunt the president even if he wins re-election this fall. Even for those who haven’t followed the scandal closely — a group that includes most Americans — it contributes to the idea the president is a poor leader and things are out of control in Washington. The privilege claim handed Romney and the GOP a club to beat him for no reason other than to spare Holder some humiliation. President Obama will spend the next four months, if not the next four years, regretting it.

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Warren’s Troubles Extend Beyond Cherokee Problem

Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have been locked in a dead-heat for months, despite the national attention on Warren’s Cherokee heritage controversy. But that doesn’t mean Warren is in the clear. Even if the Cherokee issue fades, Public Policy Polling found deeper problems for her in its latest poll today:

 The ever close Massachusetts Senate race has drawn closer in the last three months. Elizabeth Warren remains at 46 percent, but incumbent Republican Scott Brown has drawn up five points to tie Warren because of resurgent support from independent voters.

In fact, Brown has doubled his margin with independents. He led by 12 points with them the last time PPP polled the state in March, and he is up 24 now. The candidates’ shares of the respective two-party vote remain essentially unchanged, with Brown still drawing nearly 20 percent of Warren’s party and Warren pulling less than 10 percent of Brown’s. The problem for Warren is that 13 percent of current Obama voters and 18 percent of those who say they voted for him in 2008 are with Brown right now.

 

Brown’s support has doubled with independents since March, and while PPP didn’t ask about Warren’s ancestry issue, it’s hard to imagine that hasn’t played at least a minor role. But again, the problem goes deeper than that when you dig into the full polling data. Just 34 percent of voters say Brown is “too conservative,” compared to 42 percent who say Warren is “too liberal.” That’s remarkable for a state as deep-blue as Massachusetts.

Brown and Warren both have similarly high favorable ratings, but Brown’s job performance is at the 51 percent mark. Nearly half of respondents said he was an “independent vote for Massachusetts” compared to 39 percent who said he spoke primarily for the Republican Party. The bottom line is, voters are more likely to view Brown favorably and see him as more in-tune with their own opinions than Warren. This contradicts the entire premise of running Warren — the idea was that a Republican was only able to win in the liberal state because voters didn’t have an exciting, competent, likable choice in the Democratic Party. But even though respondents view Warren favorably — her Cherokee problem apparently didn’t hurt her too much in that regard — they are less likely to agree with her politically. And that’s a huge concern for any Massachusetts Democrat.

Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have been locked in a dead-heat for months, despite the national attention on Warren’s Cherokee heritage controversy. But that doesn’t mean Warren is in the clear. Even if the Cherokee issue fades, Public Policy Polling found deeper problems for her in its latest poll today:

 The ever close Massachusetts Senate race has drawn closer in the last three months. Elizabeth Warren remains at 46 percent, but incumbent Republican Scott Brown has drawn up five points to tie Warren because of resurgent support from independent voters.

In fact, Brown has doubled his margin with independents. He led by 12 points with them the last time PPP polled the state in March, and he is up 24 now. The candidates’ shares of the respective two-party vote remain essentially unchanged, with Brown still drawing nearly 20 percent of Warren’s party and Warren pulling less than 10 percent of Brown’s. The problem for Warren is that 13 percent of current Obama voters and 18 percent of those who say they voted for him in 2008 are with Brown right now.

 

Brown’s support has doubled with independents since March, and while PPP didn’t ask about Warren’s ancestry issue, it’s hard to imagine that hasn’t played at least a minor role. But again, the problem goes deeper than that when you dig into the full polling data. Just 34 percent of voters say Brown is “too conservative,” compared to 42 percent who say Warren is “too liberal.” That’s remarkable for a state as deep-blue as Massachusetts.

Brown and Warren both have similarly high favorable ratings, but Brown’s job performance is at the 51 percent mark. Nearly half of respondents said he was an “independent vote for Massachusetts” compared to 39 percent who said he spoke primarily for the Republican Party. The bottom line is, voters are more likely to view Brown favorably and see him as more in-tune with their own opinions than Warren. This contradicts the entire premise of running Warren — the idea was that a Republican was only able to win in the liberal state because voters didn’t have an exciting, competent, likable choice in the Democratic Party. But even though respondents view Warren favorably — her Cherokee problem apparently didn’t hurt her too much in that regard — they are less likely to agree with her politically. And that’s a huge concern for any Massachusetts Democrat.

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Bris Ban Raises Specter of German Hate

In a ruling that will affect Muslims as much as Jews, a district court in Cologne, Germany, has ruled that circumcision is illegal. The case, which stemmed from a botched circumcision of a Muslim child, is just the latest instance in which the religious practice has been attacked. But though the legal implications of the ruling are not yet entirely clear as it may violate the European Union’s Convention on Human Rights, it raises the possibility that a ritual integral to Jewish identity as well as required by Muslim religious law will be banned.

For the growing Jewish community, the court may have created a serious logistical problem, as this may deter doctors or other persons from performing circumcisions because of a fear of prosecution or lawsuits. But just as important is the symbolism of the ban coming from a country where open expressions of anti-Semitism were driven underground by the reaction to the Nazi era. If a judge can attack Judaism as well as Islam head on in this manner without fear of the consequences, then perhaps a tipping point may have been reached in German society that may have serious consequences for the long-term viability of Jewish life in the country and Western Europe.

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In a ruling that will affect Muslims as much as Jews, a district court in Cologne, Germany, has ruled that circumcision is illegal. The case, which stemmed from a botched circumcision of a Muslim child, is just the latest instance in which the religious practice has been attacked. But though the legal implications of the ruling are not yet entirely clear as it may violate the European Union’s Convention on Human Rights, it raises the possibility that a ritual integral to Jewish identity as well as required by Muslim religious law will be banned.

For the growing Jewish community, the court may have created a serious logistical problem, as this may deter doctors or other persons from performing circumcisions because of a fear of prosecution or lawsuits. But just as important is the symbolism of the ban coming from a country where open expressions of anti-Semitism were driven underground by the reaction to the Nazi era. If a judge can attack Judaism as well as Islam head on in this manner without fear of the consequences, then perhaps a tipping point may have been reached in German society that may have serious consequences for the long-term viability of Jewish life in the country and Western Europe.

The ruling baldly claimed circumcision inflicted “damage” on children and could not be protected by freedom of religion, though there is no rational reason for anyone to believe this is the case. Mistakes in circumcisions are rare and probably less likely to occur than errors in routine medical procedures. But the court went even further in asserting the assumption that parents don’t have the right to choose a faith for their child. That might be interpreted as an attack on all religions. But it must be considered particularly threatening to members of minority faiths, particularly Jews who remember well that in past centuries the majority sometimes tried to take Jewish children away from their parents by claiming it was in their interests not to be inculcated in Judaism.

While some on the left, including one German professor quoted in Ha’aretz, may think this is a blow struck for the freedom of children, it is really an attempt to further marginalize both Judaism and Islam.

An attempt was made last year to place a referendum banning circumcision on the ballot in San Francisco. But the sponsors’ use of an openly anti-Semitic Web comic book drew so much attention that critics were able to quash the effort. Though support for such measures may exist on the margins in the United States, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe may have allowed this cause to drift into the mainstream. Along with other attempts to ban kosher slaughter elsewhere in Europe, the German bris ban calls into question the safety of Jews in a Western Europe where Jew-hatred often mixed with anti-Zionism has emerged from the shadows.

Though it is to be hoped this ruling will soon be overturned by joint legal efforts by Jews and Muslims, no matter what the outcome of the litigation, it must send a chill through a growing German Jewish community that has come to think of itself as immune to the dangers presented by the country’s past. They may be learning that in spite of the country’s advances, anti-Semitism never goes completely out of fashion in Germany.

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Should U.S. Give Morsi a Chance?

I’m with the always-sagacious Fouad Ajami: He argues in the Wall Street Journal that the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, ought to be given a chance to show what he can do. Perhaps he will turn out to be as bad as numerous critics suspect, but it’s also possible that he could turn out to be better than expected. If he concentrates on instituting free-market reforms to get Egypt’s sclerotic economy moving rather than concentrating on issuing decrees to ban such “immoral” behavior as drinking and wearing bikinis, he might well win over even secular Egyptians.

It is doubtful that the worst fears of his American and Israeli critics will come true, at least not in the short term–given how much power the army has kept for itself, Morsi would not be able to abrogate the Camp David Accords even if he wanted to. It may well be the case that he will provide more aid to Hamas and adopt a more belligerent tone toward Israel, but remember that even under the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian state pumped out a steady diet of disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda and looked the other way at massive smuggling into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

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I’m with the always-sagacious Fouad Ajami: He argues in the Wall Street Journal that the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, ought to be given a chance to show what he can do. Perhaps he will turn out to be as bad as numerous critics suspect, but it’s also possible that he could turn out to be better than expected. If he concentrates on instituting free-market reforms to get Egypt’s sclerotic economy moving rather than concentrating on issuing decrees to ban such “immoral” behavior as drinking and wearing bikinis, he might well win over even secular Egyptians.

It is doubtful that the worst fears of his American and Israeli critics will come true, at least not in the short term–given how much power the army has kept for itself, Morsi would not be able to abrogate the Camp David Accords even if he wanted to. It may well be the case that he will provide more aid to Hamas and adopt a more belligerent tone toward Israel, but remember that even under the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian state pumped out a steady diet of disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda and looked the other way at massive smuggling into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Ajami suggests the Brotherhood’s model is not Iran but rather Turkey, which is showing how Islamist rule can be combined with free markets and a a form of democracy (however flawed, limited, and imperfect). This may not give much comfort to Israelis who have come to loathe Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has effectively ended his country’s close relationship with Israel and has become a steady source of anti-Israel vituperation.

But for all of his flaws, Erdogan is not building nuclear weapons and he is not sponsoring Hezbollah, as Iran is doing. (One can argue he is indirectly benefitting Hamas by sponsoring a Gaza aid flotilla and denouncing the Israeli “blockade” of Gaza–but he is not, as far as I know, providing Hamas with weapons as Iran has done.) His Turkey is a nuisance for Israel; it is not a mortal threat like the Islamic Republic of Iran. That may be the best we can hope for, at least in the immediate future, from Egypt.

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Why Putin Accepted Israel Invitation

Earlier this month, after the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s planned trip to Israel, Jonathan wrote that the visit made a point about Israel’s legitimacy among the nations of the world. It may be surprising—or at the very least ironic—that an authoritarian leader struggling with his own crisis of legitimacy back home could confer any legitimacy on a free, democratic country like Israel. But it was true, and confirmed this week when Putin finally made that trip. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Labor MKs expressed outrage on Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make time during his short visit to Israel to meet with their party chairwoman, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich….

“It is outrageous that he did not meet with her,” a Labor MK said. “It presents a message that there is a lack of legitimacy for her job if leaders ignore her when they come here. It harms Israeli democracy.”

I don’t think many would agree that it harms Israeli democracy—nor could Putin possibly care less about anyone’s democracy. But the legitimacy argument is one that has followed, taunted, tempted, and usually disappointed Israel throughout her modern existence as a state. There is a reason it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations—whether or not the Palestinians will recognize Israel, and whether the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel. Those Arab states are generally no better than Putin when it comes to their support for rogue regimes and terrorist groups (and in some cases are actual rogue regimes themselves).

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Earlier this month, after the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s planned trip to Israel, Jonathan wrote that the visit made a point about Israel’s legitimacy among the nations of the world. It may be surprising—or at the very least ironic—that an authoritarian leader struggling with his own crisis of legitimacy back home could confer any legitimacy on a free, democratic country like Israel. But it was true, and confirmed this week when Putin finally made that trip. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Labor MKs expressed outrage on Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make time during his short visit to Israel to meet with their party chairwoman, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich….

“It is outrageous that he did not meet with her,” a Labor MK said. “It presents a message that there is a lack of legitimacy for her job if leaders ignore her when they come here. It harms Israeli democracy.”

I don’t think many would agree that it harms Israeli democracy—nor could Putin possibly care less about anyone’s democracy. But the legitimacy argument is one that has followed, taunted, tempted, and usually disappointed Israel throughout her modern existence as a state. There is a reason it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations—whether or not the Palestinians will recognize Israel, and whether the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel. Those Arab states are generally no better than Putin when it comes to their support for rogue regimes and terrorist groups (and in some cases are actual rogue regimes themselves).

But removing Israel’s isolation on the world stage is an essential goal both for Israel and for the international community, which quite often asks Israel to do its dirty work, like taking care of budding nuclear reactors, or to accept Jewish, Arab, and African refugees that others won’t.

Jonathan also discussed the call in some quarters for Israel to rescind its invitation to Putin. Jonathan disagreed, and had the better of the argument. There is no doubt that this isn’t the most comfortable photo-op as Syria descends deeper into civil war next door. But these same voices did not call for the United States to rescind its invitations to Putin, though Putin declined to accept those invitations. (Putin had no interest in attending a NATO summit at which the Obama administration was planning to advocate for Russia’s interests anyway, by ensuring no progress was even hinted at with regard to NATO enlargement. And why would Putin attend a G-8 conference at which nothing would be asked of him?)

Additionally, Putin has been in power now for a dozen years, and he has been a corrupt, repressive thug for exactly that amount of time. Asking the international community to shun him because liberal journalists see the Russian protests as some kind of adjunct to the Arab Spring or Occupy protests (though significantly less violent than Occupy) is a bit inconsistent if those same calls hadn’t been made as Putin’s critics turned up dead or in Siberian prisons during his time in power. Those upset–and rightly so–about Russia’s unwillingness to help the Syrian opposition were far too quiet as the documented ethnic cleansing of Georgians was carried out by pro-Russian militias in 2008.

They are not simply holding Israel to a higher standard than the United States; they are holding Israel to a higher standard than they believe they should be held to. Nonetheless, their sudden interest in Putin’s behavior is surely welcome, and this is a line Israel must tread carefully.

But Israel has something to offer here. American diplomacy with Russia has been, at best, ineffective. And its diplomacy with Eastern European states–a critical hinge connecting Russia and the West–has been an abysmal, irresponsible, spectacular failure. While the Obama administration was busy eroding our relationship with Poland, for example, Israel’s foreign ministry was signing mutual cooperation agreements with their Polish allies. Other Eastern and Central European states have built similar relationships with Israel. (The Czech ambassador to the United Nations once insisted to me, on the record, that Israel belongs in NATO and that his fellow countrymen felt the same way.)

Leading a country with a sizable Eastern European/Russian population and a Moldovan foreign minister, the Israeli government has a much better understanding of the region than the current American administration (which couldn’t even get the translation of one, single Russian word correct). And with more at stake in both Syria and Iran than Washington, Jerusalem is indispensable to those outside the region trying to make sense of it.

So what does Putin get out of all this? A boost in the one thing he wants more than anything else: prestige. Ironically, Yachimovich’s complaint that Putin snubbed her and the Labor party provided more of this than Putin might otherwise have expected.

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Issa Confronts WH About F&F Involvement

Via the Daily Caller, House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa sent a letter to the White House this morning directly challenging its use of executive privilege to obstruct the Fast and Furious investigation. Issa asserted what others have been saying for days now: the executive order suggests that the White House was either involved in some aspect of the Fast and Furious debacle, or the order was unwarranted.

“[Y]our privilege assertion means one of two things,” Issa wrote to the president in a letter dated June 25. “Either you or your most senior advisors were involved in managing Operation Fast & Furious and the fallout from it, including the false February 4, 2011 letter provided by the attorney general to the committee, or, you are asserting a presidential power that you know to be unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation.”

Issa said Obama’s assertion of executive privilege “raised the question” about the veracity of how the “White House has steadfastly maintained that it has not had any role in advising the department with respect to the congressional investigation.”

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Via the Daily Caller, House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa sent a letter to the White House this morning directly challenging its use of executive privilege to obstruct the Fast and Furious investigation. Issa asserted what others have been saying for days now: the executive order suggests that the White House was either involved in some aspect of the Fast and Furious debacle, or the order was unwarranted.

“[Y]our privilege assertion means one of two things,” Issa wrote to the president in a letter dated June 25. “Either you or your most senior advisors were involved in managing Operation Fast & Furious and the fallout from it, including the false February 4, 2011 letter provided by the attorney general to the committee, or, you are asserting a presidential power that you know to be unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation.”

Issa said Obama’s assertion of executive privilege “raised the question” about the veracity of how the “White House has steadfastly maintained that it has not had any role in advising the department with respect to the congressional investigation.”

This makes it clear that the Eric Holder contempt vote scheduled for Thursday isn’t going to be the end of the story, at least not if Issa can help it. Obama’s assertion of executive privilege can be overturned — under certain circumstances — by Congress or the Supreme Court, and Issa seems to be making a preliminary case for that in this letter.

Issa also gave details on the 11th hour “deal” Holder offered him before the committee contempt vote last week:

“He indicated a willingness to produce the ‘fair compilation’ of post-February 4 documents,” Issa wrote to the president. “He told me that he would provide the ‘fair compilation’ of documents on three conditions: (1) that I permanently cancel the contempt vote; (2) that I agree the department was in full compliance with the committee’s subpoenas, and; (3) that I accept the ‘fair compilation,’ sight unseen.”

That deal is a joke — a permanent cancellation of the contempt vote and an agreement that the Department of Justice cooperated fully in exchange for a stack of documents of Holder’s choosing, “sight unseen”? Issa obviously would never accept such an agreement, and Holder had to have known that. Was Holder was trying to give himself some cover by offering a deal that would likely get rejected, so that he could claim Issa was the one who was unreasonable? Either that, or Holder was actually desperate enough to think Issa might go along with it.

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Tide Starting to Turn in Va and Ohio

In an election that all polls show to be a tossup, the focus on the battleground states that will decide the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is growing more intense. But two recent polls from Ohio and Virginia reveal the tide may be turning against the president in both states that he won in 2008 and remain crucial to his hopes for re-election.

The latest poll from the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling firm shows that Obama’s lead in Ohio has shrunk to only three percent. This is the lowest margin Obama has had there all year. Just as disturbing for Democrats is a We Ask America poll from Virginia that shows Romney taking a lead there for the first time. Both surveys reflect a trend that shows these states starting to drift away from Obama and the Democrats. These results reflect the president’s poor personal approval ratings and the failing economy. But as PPP points out, they also reflect Obama’s weakness with a key demographic group often ignored in voter analysis.

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In an election that all polls show to be a tossup, the focus on the battleground states that will decide the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is growing more intense. But two recent polls from Ohio and Virginia reveal the tide may be turning against the president in both states that he won in 2008 and remain crucial to his hopes for re-election.

The latest poll from the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling firm shows that Obama’s lead in Ohio has shrunk to only three percent. This is the lowest margin Obama has had there all year. Just as disturbing for Democrats is a We Ask America poll from Virginia that shows Romney taking a lead there for the first time. Both surveys reflect a trend that shows these states starting to drift away from Obama and the Democrats. These results reflect the president’s poor personal approval ratings and the failing economy. But as PPP points out, they also reflect Obama’s weakness with a key demographic group often ignored in voter analysis.

Both the president’s move to halt the deportation of some illegal immigrants and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s controversial law targeting undocumented aliens have put the Hispanic vote in the limelight in the last week and emphasized the president’s clear advantage with that group. But generally ignored is a factor that is key to understanding the president’s drop in Ohio: white voters. As the pollster’s analysis notes, Obama and Romney were more or less tied among whites earlier in the year. But now Romney has a 49-42 advantage.

Even more worrisome for Democrats is the fact that Obama is losing white Democrats. Where earlier in the year he had an 89-6 percent edge, that is now down to 78-16 percent.

If this continues, it won’t matter how large the president’s advantage among Hispanics turns out to be. Obama must reverse this trend if he is to be re-elected.

While Ohio is obviously still winnable for Obama, his deficit in Virginia may show that his chances of keeping the Old Dominion in his column this year are diminishing. Changing demographics played an important role in the president’s ability to win a state in 2008 that had been reliably Republican for decades. And up until now, Virginia’s more diverse and suburban population was thought to be sufficient to allow Obama to win there even as he lost other states such as North Carolina and Indiana that he was able to snatch from the GOP four years ago.

But here again, a bad economy and Obama’s inability to hold onto white voters he won the last time around may be tipping the state toward Romney. The fact that the same We Ask America poll shows George Allen starting to take a substantial lead over Democrat Tim Kaine in the Senate race there is another indication that Virginia may be a lost cause for the Democrats.

Despite bad national tracking and approval poll numbers, the president’s strength in swing states had been thought to be enough to keep him the favorite in November. But if the tide is turning for Romney in Ohio and Virginia, then that conventional wisdom may no longer apply. If so, the election just got a lot more winnable for Romney.

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Obama’s Ineffective Reelection Argument

In his remarks in New Hampshire yesterday, President Obama said this:

There are too many people out there who are struggling, too many folks out of work, too many homes that are still under water. Of course, we need to do better. The debate is not whether, it is how. How do we grow the economy faster? How do we create we create more jobs? How do we pay down our debt? How do we reclaim that central American promise that no matter who you are, you can make it here if you try?

Obama has framed the election in exactly the right way. The problem for the president is that in answering his questions—how do we grow the economy faster, create more jobs, pay down our debt, and reclaim the central promise of America—you could do worse than to say, “Do the opposite of what Obama has done.”

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In his remarks in New Hampshire yesterday, President Obama said this:

There are too many people out there who are struggling, too many folks out of work, too many homes that are still under water. Of course, we need to do better. The debate is not whether, it is how. How do we grow the economy faster? How do we create we create more jobs? How do we pay down our debt? How do we reclaim that central American promise that no matter who you are, you can make it here if you try?

Obama has framed the election in exactly the right way. The problem for the president is that in answering his questions—how do we grow the economy faster, create more jobs, pay down our debt, and reclaim the central promise of America—you could do worse than to say, “Do the opposite of what Obama has done.”

There is something slightly astonishing in Obama—given his staggering record of economic incompetence —pretending he has answers to economic growth, job creation, and cutting the debt. He’s had nearly an entire term as president to show that he has solutions to the challenges facing America; instead, he’s produced the weakest economic recovery on record and failed to meet virtually every goal he set for himself.

The president is making two arguments for his re-election. The first is that after nearly four years of his stewardship, too many people are struggling, too many folks are out of work, too many homes are still under water, and we need to do better; the second is that the same ideas that contributed to our misery in Obama’s first term will lift us out of our misery in his second term.

Good luck with that.

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Obama and the Worst Impulses in Politics

“You know, it’s fashionable right now for people to be cynical,” President Obama said during a campaign speech the other day.

We go in cycles like this and right now a lot of people are saying “Oh, America is doing terribly” and “What are we going to do?” Let me tell you something. There is no problem out there, no challenge we face that we do not have the capacity to solve. We are Americans and we are tougher than whatever tough times bring us. What is lacking right now is our politics, what’s lacking right now is that some of the worst impulses in our politics have been rewarded.

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“You know, it’s fashionable right now for people to be cynical,” President Obama said during a campaign speech the other day.

We go in cycles like this and right now a lot of people are saying “Oh, America is doing terribly” and “What are we going to do?” Let me tell you something. There is no problem out there, no challenge we face that we do not have the capacity to solve. We are Americans and we are tougher than whatever tough times bring us. What is lacking right now is our politics, what’s lacking right now is that some of the worst impulses in our politics have been rewarded.

The president is on to something. There is something lacking in our politics right now. We have, for example, too many people in high public office who promised hope and change and gave us slash and burn. Who mock and demonize their opposition. Who disfigure the truth in order to win reelection. Who are constantly promoting divisions and creating distractions. And who practice a level of lawlessness in their governing approach.

These cynics were rewarded in 2008. My guess is they’ll be held accountable in 2012. If they are, some of the worst impulses in our politics will be punished, and that would be all to the good.

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Dems Play Race Card on Holder Vote

I wrote about Rep. Nancy Pelosi putting out the feelers on this ludicrous argument last week, and now it sounds like Democrats are actually going ahead with it. True, the idea that the Eric Holder contempt vote is connected to his efforts to fight “minority voter suppression” is deranged, not just because it makes no sense from a timeline perspective but also because it would require you to willfully ignore his repeated attempts to hinder the congressional investigation of “Fast and Furious.” Unless you want to try to argue that Republicans somehow forced him to be uncooperative with an investigating committee.

This Democratic pushback campaign is being led by none other than MSNBC “News Anchor” Rev. Al Sharpton, reports The Hill:

At the front of the push is a group of seven national civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton…scheduled to hold a press conference Tuesday about the effect that placing Holder in contempt of Congress would have on his ability to protect the rights of black and Hispanic voters, homeowners and immigrants.

“I’m not saying that this is because Holder is black, and I’m not calling [Republicans] racists. I’m saying what they’re doing has a racial effect, and that’s what we’re going to talk about [on Tuesday],” said Sharpton in a phone interview.

“The question one would have to raise is: If he is held in contempt, under that cloud, how does he fight for voter rights? This compromises the Justice Department from being able to do a lot of fighting.”

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I wrote about Rep. Nancy Pelosi putting out the feelers on this ludicrous argument last week, and now it sounds like Democrats are actually going ahead with it. True, the idea that the Eric Holder contempt vote is connected to his efforts to fight “minority voter suppression” is deranged, not just because it makes no sense from a timeline perspective but also because it would require you to willfully ignore his repeated attempts to hinder the congressional investigation of “Fast and Furious.” Unless you want to try to argue that Republicans somehow forced him to be uncooperative with an investigating committee.

This Democratic pushback campaign is being led by none other than MSNBC “News Anchor” Rev. Al Sharpton, reports The Hill:

At the front of the push is a group of seven national civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton…scheduled to hold a press conference Tuesday about the effect that placing Holder in contempt of Congress would have on his ability to protect the rights of black and Hispanic voters, homeowners and immigrants.

“I’m not saying that this is because Holder is black, and I’m not calling [Republicans] racists. I’m saying what they’re doing has a racial effect, and that’s what we’re going to talk about [on Tuesday],” said Sharpton in a phone interview.

“The question one would have to raise is: If he is held in contempt, under that cloud, how does he fight for voter rights? This compromises the Justice Department from being able to do a lot of fighting.”

Do news anchors often hold press conferences to attack members of a political party? Congratulations MSNBC, your news channel is officially a laughing stock.

As for the argument about voter suppression, I highly doubt this will be effective. Democrats can’t defend Holder on the merits so they’re trying to change the subject — and people will see through that quickly.

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Obama’s Food Stamp Presidency

Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

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Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

Liberals portrayed the food stamps controversy as a diversion from more important economic issues on Gingrich’s part last winter as well as a racist “dog whistle” argument in which he was accused of trying to link President Obama to African-American poverty. But the expansion of entitlements in the last four years is no illusion.

Obama’s defenders can rightly point to the fact that the Bush administration also used advertisements to recruit more food stamps recipients. They can also note that some of the increase is due to the rise in need as the result of the economic downturn from which the country has yet to recover. But the huge increase in spending on food stamps is just part of the expansion of government spending on entitlements under this administration. Moreover, at a time when the debt is spiraling out of control as a result of entitlement spending, the spectacle of the government trying to entice more citizens to get on the dole is appalling.

While Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to sit in the White House before Obama, is remembered for signing a welfare reform act (passed by a Republican Congress over his objections) that began a historic shift away from welfare dependency, President Obama deserves the opprobrium that should attach to his efforts to reverse that trend. When the stimulus boondoggle was passed few noticed that it contained language that would allow more people to get on food stamps, especially childless and healthy unemployed adults as well as increasing the amount given away.

The Democrats have fiercely resisted Republican efforts to change the way food stamps are funded. The GOP wants to emulate the welfare reform act and send the program to the states as a block grant that would make it more accountable on the local level and decrease the power of the federal government as well as spending.

But however the money is allocated, there is no question that food stamps have become a symbol not of GOP racism but the Obama administration’s push for more dependency. Though Republicans are accused of being heartless, the result of this thralldom to the welfare state hurts the poor as well as the country.

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Juveniles, Justices, and ObamaCare

As we continue to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, we might profitably spend some of our time reading Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful dissent yesterday in Miller v. Alabama. The issue in Miller is unrelated to ObamaCare, but the dissent illustrates three points that may be relevant to the decision coming on Thursday.

In Miller, the Court ruled 5-4 that statutes mandating life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile murderers were “cruel and unusual” punishment. Justice Kagan’s majority opinion stressed “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” — to which the chief justice responded that the majority had not characterized, and could not plausibly characterize, the punishment as “unusual” (the standard set forth in the Constitution), as more than 2,000 prisoners are serving such mandatory sentences and “the Federal Government and most States impose” them under recently-enacted laws. He wrote:

“Mercy toward the guilty can be a form of decency, and a maturing society may abandon harsh punishments that it comes to view as unnecessary or unjust. But decency is not the same as leniency. A decent society protects the innocent from violence. A mature society may determine that this requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency. As judges we have no basis for deciding that progress toward greater decency can move only in the direction of easing sanctions on the guilty.”

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As we continue to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, we might profitably spend some of our time reading Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful dissent yesterday in Miller v. Alabama. The issue in Miller is unrelated to ObamaCare, but the dissent illustrates three points that may be relevant to the decision coming on Thursday.

In Miller, the Court ruled 5-4 that statutes mandating life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile murderers were “cruel and unusual” punishment. Justice Kagan’s majority opinion stressed “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” — to which the chief justice responded that the majority had not characterized, and could not plausibly characterize, the punishment as “unusual” (the standard set forth in the Constitution), as more than 2,000 prisoners are serving such mandatory sentences and “the Federal Government and most States impose” them under recently-enacted laws. He wrote:

“Mercy toward the guilty can be a form of decency, and a maturing society may abandon harsh punishments that it comes to view as unnecessary or unjust. But decency is not the same as leniency. A decent society protects the innocent from violence. A mature society may determine that this requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency. As judges we have no basis for deciding that progress toward greater decency can move only in the direction of easing sanctions on the guilty.”

The chief justice acknowledged the cases cited by the majority stood for the proposition that teenagers are less mature, less responsible, and less fixed in their ways than adults — “not that a Supreme Court case was needed to establish that” — but such cases did not mean that legislators –“who also know that teenagers are different from adults” — may not require life without parole for juveniles “who commit the worst types of murder.” His opinion, joined by the three other dissenting justices, ended with an eloquent statement of what he thought was the proper role of the Court:

“It is a great tragedy when a juvenile commits murder — most of all for the innocent victims. But also for the murderer, whose life has gone so wrong so early. And for society as well, which has lost one or more of its members to deliberate violence, and must harshly punish another. In recent years, our society has moved toward requiring that the murderer, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Members of this Court may disagree with that choice. … But that is not our decision to make.”

Here are the three points relevant to ObamaCare:

First, in speaking about ObamaCare, President Obama suggested it would be “an unprecedented, extraordinary step” for the Court to “somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.” Because that is what the Court did three times yesterday (in Miller, in the Arizona immigration case, and in the Montana campaign finance case), hopefully the president will not demagogue the Court if it “somehow” does it again on Thursday.

Second, President Obama presumably considers Miller a milestone in the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, even though it was only a 5-4 decision, effectively decided by a single justice. Should the Court strike down ObamaCare on Thursday by a 5-4 vote (possibly by the fifth vote of that same justice), hopefully the president will accord the decision the same respect he gives the 5-4 Miller decision.

Third, in 2005 Senator Obama voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts solely because he disagreed with Roberts’ political philosophy (he conceded Roberts was otherwise eminently qualified). Obama asserted that hard cases, including those under the Commerce Clause, should be decided by the justice’s “core concerns” and “values,” rather than legal precedent and “rules of construction and interpretation.”  With five Republican appointees on the Court, President Obama has to hope that Thursday the justices do not simply apply his standard and enact their own personal values — as the majority arguably did yesterday in Miller.

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Fiction and the Figures of Anti-Semitism: A Rejoinder on The Prague Cemetery

Omri,

Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.

You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.

Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.

May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:

The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.

In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:

If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.

The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.

The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”

And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”

Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.

No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.

And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.

What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.

Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.

Sincerely,

David

Omri,

Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.

You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.

Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.

May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:

The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.

In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:

If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.

The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.

The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”

And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”

Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.

No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.

And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.

What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.

Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.

Sincerely,

David

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