Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 16, 2012

Days of Reflection and Rededication

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

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Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

For those in both parties who have sought to demonize their political opponents, the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that attempts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale or even questioning the wisdom of democracy itself — that is to say, questioning the right of the voters to override the dictates of the politicians and the intellectuals — has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting but should do so without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate. It also requires us to not try to evade the necessity to confront problems or threats. In the coming 12 months, one very specific threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, it is vital that Americans not let the voices of isolationism or hatred cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters have the last word on this subject.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back on Wednesday after the conclusion of the holiday.

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Liberal Smear: Romney’s War for the Jews

After all these years of endlessly repeating the same tired tropes on the New York Times op-ed page, taking Maureen Dowd’s columns seriously requires a suspension of disbelief that is normally only needed to watch science fiction. But though the Queen of Snark lacks the credibility to discuss virtually any issue in an intelligent manner, she does have a knack for picking up on whatever hateful viruses are circulating through the circulatory system of our body politic. Worried about prejudice against Mormons? Dowd was the first to provide mainstream media space to that brand of hate during the current presidential campaign. Concerned about the way some on the left are hoping to utilize the debate about Iran to delegitimize support for Israel? Dowd again is the one to ensure this nasty piece of business gets another airing by arguing that Romney wants to fight wars for the sake of the Jews.

In her column in today’s Times Sunday Review, Dowd picks up on the same theme explored on the paper’s website on Thursday that I discussed earlier today. While it can be argued that she can always be relied upon to seize upon any point, no matter how trivial, to heap scorn on any Republican (her brief stint as a bipartisan basher of Bill Clinton during l’affaire Lewinsky may have earned her a Pulitzer but since then she has stuck to snarking conservatives), her attack on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy stance is particularly creepy. Unlike the rest of the Obama cheerleading squad that occupies the Times opinion pages, she is not content to just bash him for attacking Obama’s apologies, weak leadership and disdain for Israel. Dowd sees him and running mate Paul Ryan as the cat’s-paws of a shadowy group of “powerful” Jewish “neocons” who are out to seize the country in his name and enforce, “a duty to invade and bomb Israel’s neighbors,” on Americans. In a perfect illustration of how hate for Israel shows where the left and right meet, Dowd channeled Pat Buchanan in arguing that Romney/Ryan are the “puppets” of neoconservative conspirators who want Americans to die for Israel.

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After all these years of endlessly repeating the same tired tropes on the New York Times op-ed page, taking Maureen Dowd’s columns seriously requires a suspension of disbelief that is normally only needed to watch science fiction. But though the Queen of Snark lacks the credibility to discuss virtually any issue in an intelligent manner, she does have a knack for picking up on whatever hateful viruses are circulating through the circulatory system of our body politic. Worried about prejudice against Mormons? Dowd was the first to provide mainstream media space to that brand of hate during the current presidential campaign. Concerned about the way some on the left are hoping to utilize the debate about Iran to delegitimize support for Israel? Dowd again is the one to ensure this nasty piece of business gets another airing by arguing that Romney wants to fight wars for the sake of the Jews.

In her column in today’s Times Sunday Review, Dowd picks up on the same theme explored on the paper’s website on Thursday that I discussed earlier today. While it can be argued that she can always be relied upon to seize upon any point, no matter how trivial, to heap scorn on any Republican (her brief stint as a bipartisan basher of Bill Clinton during l’affaire Lewinsky may have earned her a Pulitzer but since then she has stuck to snarking conservatives), her attack on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy stance is particularly creepy. Unlike the rest of the Obama cheerleading squad that occupies the Times opinion pages, she is not content to just bash him for attacking Obama’s apologies, weak leadership and disdain for Israel. Dowd sees him and running mate Paul Ryan as the cat’s-paws of a shadowy group of “powerful” Jewish “neocons” who are out to seize the country in his name and enforce, “a duty to invade and bomb Israel’s neighbors,” on Americans. In a perfect illustration of how hate for Israel shows where the left and right meet, Dowd channeled Pat Buchanan in arguing that Romney/Ryan are the “puppets” of neoconservative conspirators who want Americans to die for Israel.

Dowd doubled down on Eric Lewis’ point that it is “outrageous” for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to demand that the president state some red lines about Iran. But all Netanyahu is doing is asking the president to show us that he has some intention of doing something about Iran other than talking about the threat. The pushback from the pro-Obama camp against the suggestion that the administration stop pretending that failed diplomacy and unenforced sanctions will persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear ambition reinforces the suspicion that once he is re-elected, the president will have the “flexibility” to choose to “contain” rather than stop Iran. That is a position that would endanger both the U.S. and Israel.

Dowd’s biggest target is Dan Senor, an author and former Bush administration staffer who is one of Romney and Ryan’s top advisors. But neither Senor nor Romney nor any American supporter of Israel needs to apologize to the likes of Dowd for their belief that the U.S. should keep its word to stop Iran. Though those who write about “neocons slithering” are clearly intending to stoke prejudice, even Obama has paid lip service to the fact that a nuclear Iran is a deadly threat to the entire Middle East as well as to the interests of the United States. Though Romney is not always the most consistent or coherent of thinkers about foreign policy, he does seem to understand this dilemma a lot better than Obama and his hateful press hit squad.

President Obama came into office determined to try to distance the United States from Israel and to appease the Muslim world. He accomplished the former but failed miserably with the latter as the spectacle of besieged U.S. embassies in the Middle East this week has shown. Throughout the last year, Obama’s critics have noted that he seemed more interested in stopping Israel from defending itself than in halting Iran’s nuclear program. Now his supporters seek to suppress any pressure for action on Iran by branding it the work of neocon conspirators.

The bottom line here is the same despicable “Israel Lobby” smear that seeks to silence friends of Israel through the use of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes. Dowd’s column marks yet another step down into the pit of hate-mongering that has become all too common at the Times. This is a tipping point that should alarm even the most stalwart liberal Jewish supporters of the president.

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Critique of Romney is “Israel Lobby” Rerun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to cajole or shame the United States into adopting a more realistic strategy on Iran have earned him some poor reviews in the American press. The very idea that an Israeli leader should publicly seek to influence U.S. policy strikes some people as shocking. That he would do so in the midst of an election campaign has opened him up to criticism that he is seeking to influence the choice of the voters. The election tampering charge isn’t very plausible. Netanyahu knows America well enough to understand that any perceived intervention on his part would be a disaster and wouldn’t help Mitt Romney beat Obama. If anything, as Jeffrey Goldberg, a supporter of the president and critic of the prime minister, wrote on Friday in the Atlantic, Netanyahu seems sure Obama will beat Romney so he isn’t trying to change anyone’s vote so much as attempting to pressure the president into a policy shift.

But this argument isn’t so much about what will happen in November, as it is a not-so-subtle effort to silence a reasonable critique of American foreign policy by both Israelis and their American supporters. In doing so, some on the left are seeking not so much to bolster President Obama as they are to delegitimize the notion that the United States ought to be listening to Israel’s warnings about Iran in a manner highly reminiscent of the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to cajole or shame the United States into adopting a more realistic strategy on Iran have earned him some poor reviews in the American press. The very idea that an Israeli leader should publicly seek to influence U.S. policy strikes some people as shocking. That he would do so in the midst of an election campaign has opened him up to criticism that he is seeking to influence the choice of the voters. The election tampering charge isn’t very plausible. Netanyahu knows America well enough to understand that any perceived intervention on his part would be a disaster and wouldn’t help Mitt Romney beat Obama. If anything, as Jeffrey Goldberg, a supporter of the president and critic of the prime minister, wrote on Friday in the Atlantic, Netanyahu seems sure Obama will beat Romney so he isn’t trying to change anyone’s vote so much as attempting to pressure the president into a policy shift.

But this argument isn’t so much about what will happen in November, as it is a not-so-subtle effort to silence a reasonable critique of American foreign policy by both Israelis and their American supporters. In doing so, some on the left are seeking not so much to bolster President Obama as they are to delegitimize the notion that the United States ought to be listening to Israel’s warnings about Iran in a manner highly reminiscent of the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories.

That was the point of Eric Lewis’ opinion piece published in the New York Times this past week that accused Romney of “outsourcing” decision making about making war to the Israelis. Lewis did not merely assert an absolute right of veto on the part of the United States over Israeli measures of self-defense against the Iranian nuclear threat. He also disparaged Romney’s criticism of Obama’s disdain for Israeli views as marking him as being somehow in thrall to Netanyahu or pro-Israel Americans. From this point of view, it isn’t just that Israel should shut up about a U.S. policy that seems guaranteed to result in a nuclear Iran. It’s that Americans who share Netanyahu’s belief that Obama’s continued reliance on failed diplomacy and ineffective sanctions are, in effect, manipulating U.S. policy to suit Israeli rather than American interests.

The conceit of The Israel Lobby by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer was an attempt to label the vast bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in this country as a conspiracy. It traded on traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews manipulating the great powers from behind the scenes and ignored the basic fact that Americans back the Jewish state not because of any lobby but because they are deeply sympathetic to the country and believe its battle against deadly enemies is one in which the United States must take a side.

By pointing out Obama’s mistakes, such as the years wasted on engagement with Tehran, the delay in enforcing sanctions as well as the president’s seeming to have a greater interest in restraining Israel than in pressuring Iran, Romney isn’t undermining U.S. sovereignty. Nor is his willingness to allow Israel the right to defend itself a case of the tail wagging the dog.

In doing so, Romney is merely reasserting a traditional American position. Israel has, after all, often ignored American requests to adopt a passive stance toward its enemies. Rather than waiting for Arab armies to attack in June 1967, Israel struck first and prevented a catastrophe. The Israelis didn’t get American permission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 nor did it do so in 2007 when it took out Bashar Assad’s nuclear project. Though some American leaders didn’t understand it at the time, those decisions enhanced rather than diminished America’s security. While Iran is a much bigger and more dangerous target, does any serious person really expect Israel to stand by and merely wait passively for the ayatollahs to reach their nuclear goal while President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to pretend that diplomacy has a chance?

The U.S.-Israel alliance is strong enough to withstand such disagreements. But that is because most Americans understand that contrary to Lewis’s formulation or the assumptions of Walt and Mearsheimer, Israel is itself a sovereign power and not an American protectorate solely dependent for its life on the whims of an indifferent president.

Iran is just as much of a threat to the U.S. as it is to Israel. Americans who respect Israel’s right of self-defense, as well who think that our president ought not to be snubbing our sole democratic Middle East ally the way Obama has done, are not doing Netanyahu’s bidding so much as they are standing up for a more rational U.S. foreign policy.

President Obama came into office proclaiming that the closeness with Israel that hallmarked the Bush administration’s attitudes in the Middle East was a mistake. He has carried out his promise to create more distance between the two countries on a host of issues and the result has been the utter collapse of the peace process and no progress toward stopping Iran. The current breach with Israel is a result of the breakdown in trust that Obama has caused. Romney is right to assert that we need to return to greater cooperation with Israel and restore that trust. Pointing this out doesn’t show his weakness but common sense that the president clearly lacks.

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